For many years, the place I felt safest was the nameless third space of the internet, the airwaves where you and I alone existed.
After years of bashful elementary interludes and even more awkward preteen ones, we receive access to the greatest gift of our generation’s youth: AOL Instant Messenger. No longer did I have to worry about words not coming out of my mouth quite right. No longer did I have to stress about whether I had remembered to put deodorant on my newly ripening body or if you noticed that one tooth is slightly gummier than the rest.
On AIM, I can give you the best of me without all those things that make me feel lesser than. Without the constraints of others’ expectations or the limitations of our bodies, we explore who we are and who we want to become. No walls contain us, only the quiet gray lines of the text box we pour our hope into.
Boodledoop is the sound of our salvation.
We wait for it to play out from our computer speakers in our separate rooms in our tiny West Virginia town, you in your house and me in mine. Sometimes I spend the night at Lindsey’s and these times are better. At home, the computer is in my parents’ room and we can’t stay up talking all night on AIM, but at Lindsey’s, it’s in the dining room and I can use it as long and as much as I like, every possible minute filled with you.
We carefully compose away messages and status updates in the form of lyrics and quotes that anyone can read but that are designed for one set of eyes only.
In person, we struggle to meet each other’s eyes, though I do catch you trying to look down my shirt in science class once and the horrified deer-in-the-headlights eye contact you threw my way upon getting caught is carved into my memory for life.
In person, we can’t quite figure out how to navigate around the pedestals we have kept each other on for so long.
But the moment the sound of a door opening plays across the speakers and we are reunited over chat, all of that dissipates, and we transform into open books, into our most curious and compassionate selves, our secrets passed over the ether to the other who drinks them all in, an aching, desperate thirst for intimacy quenched.
We are in love at seventeen, as we were in love as children. We have never said it. We don’t know the truth of how the other feels, afraid to reveal something so deeply rooted in ourselves and discover it unechoed in the other. We date everyone else. Sometimes when we date different people, we stop talking to each other, aware on some subconscious level that any time we are in a room together and not touching, we are lying. Sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we interweave those people into our lives, present them like gifts, a new friend to play with: you two have so much in common; you’ll love him; she reminds me of you.
And always, when it ends, we come back to that shared space where we feel most at home even when we are far apart.
As we age, so does the software that sheltered us those precious years. AIM falls away and other mediums sprout up to transport us again to that secret space separate from the world and all its expectations.
In a moment of frankness I usually don’t exhibit, I tell everyone you’re my number one, even my prickly on-again, off-again boyfriend who you are in a band with. Things are often tense between you two and you’ll sometimes get into it, but then get over it in that weird way boys can, punching one moment and playing video games the next.
He will be my first husband after he gets me pregnant when I am eighteen. You will take the pictures at the wedding years later – a last-ditch attempt to make the pairing stick after ages of off-again - and your first wife will be one of my bridesmaids. You’ll get drunker than I had ever seen you, your face red like you’d spent too long in the sun though I’d never seen you burn. “It was the worst day of my life,” you tell me later, your finger tracing the lines of my face, “but I never had to ask you to smile for the camera. You always smiled whenever you looked at me.”
Time passes, and I find myself married, barely. You no longer are. When my union crumbles, it is a surprise to no one. It was in pieces before it ever began.
“For what it’s worth, I loved you,” my first husband says, taking a drag off a cigarette when he is standing at the door to leave. “Find somebody better, man.”
You are waiting in that nameless third space where we both exist in our purest forms and don’t exist at all.
It happens in slow motion; it happens in an avalanche.
You check up on me each morning, on every break, when you get off work, before you fall asleep at night. You change the locks on my house and make me playlists: one for when I want to be sad and one to remind me there are better days yet to come.
I can see you now so clearly, and I can see you seeing me. And I am no longer afraid to be seen. In fact, I want it more than life.
“Who am I going to make out with now?” I whine to you over text one night, opening a door you can walk through if you like.
“I will make out with you any time,” you say with astonishing ease, and carry our secret space out into the light where it can have life breathed into it for the first time.
At first, I’m scared you only love me now when I have loved you always; somehow that seems too much to bear. But it is not the case, and we retrace the steps we have taken together and apart, the dancing we have done throughout the years around the secret pedestals we kept the other on. Not quite so secret, though: our wedding guest book is full of notes from our friends saying, “Everyone knew” – the except you two idiots absent - “FINALLY,” “It’s about goddamn time.”
Always, I thought our shared space was without boundaries, that it was there we were freest. It is only outside of it that I can see how it confined us as it cradled us, how it restricted us even as it was our refuge. We delight in each other’s separate memories of what we believed to be unrequited love. We mourn over the thousands of days we went without walking side by side, the best of us hidden away from the light it could’ve blossomed beneath. You write me poetry and I cut off all your hair. We are beginning anew, born into the tangible versions of ourselves we had once dreamed of in our youth, and the days are slow and sweet; everything drips like honey from our fingers.