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Love In The Time Of E-mail
Calling a girl shouldn't be easy. It should be one of the hard things in life, like breaking up with her. Or giving an earnest student a bad grade, or defeating your father in tennis for the first time.
It should make you nervous and shake the ground a little, and make you just a little more chary of unearned confidence. Calling a girl you like should make your palms sweat and your heart race, and to those suitors out there so sure of their own desirability and abilities that they can place the phone call without any tremors of mortality, I can only say to them: I am sorry. I am sorry for you.
You are missing one of the exciting things. I imagine your impoverished life: You never dial and hang up after the first ring. Your voice never quakes, and you never stammer. You execute your mission smoothly and surgically, and you probably move from call to date to flowers to sexual conquest just as methodically. There is no rough and tumble. You don't call your friends who have friends who know her, trying to wring from them the slightest bits of third-hand gossip about what she is thinking. You don't agonize, in writing a short note to slip under her door, about the signature: "Yours, Mark"? "Fondly, Mark"? "With love, Mark"? "Love, Mark"?
When you left junior high, you really left it behind. You cannot possibly understand the rest of us.
When I was twenty-four years old, I fell in love. I had fallen in love before, once at seventeen and once at twenty, but this was the first time that the feeling carried the full weight of possibility: I could actually spend my life with this girl. The other girlfriends and I, we had played with such talk, whispered in each other's ears at the movie theater about whether, someday, our children would resemble those on the screen. But that game had always been just make-believe. Maybe in some part of the country, or on some rung of the class ladder, people got married fresh from high school, or engaged (or pinned) while still in the midst of college; but that couldn't be our lot. When I began to muse, on my first date with Jane, that I did not have to ever again be without her, my breath was caught in my throat by the newfound gravity of the emotion.
That was what I thought on our first date, during the few moments that my mind wandered. Mostly I listened rapt to all that she had to say, and marveled at how much she and I had in common. We had both been denied sugar cereals as children and both loved the music of Lucinda Williams and the journalism of Malcolm Gladwell. I promised that I could get us invitations to his book party. We fought to see who could express greater interest in the other. She kept asking me questions about myself, all the while I was trying to ask her about herself. The restaurant finally turned us out onto Columbus Avenue, and I walked her home. Inside the front door of her apartment building, too scared to kiss her goodnight, I shyly backed away. I promised to call.
Looking backward toward junior high, and then high school, I remember that calling a girl never was easy. For me, and for the rest of us, the difficulty began before the call. Just promising myself that I would call made me nervous. I stared at the phone and found lame reasons that I could not call just yet. "I think Mom is expecting a call from someone in her book club - maybe I shouldn't call just now." "I have a lot of homework tonight, and what if this call goes well and turns into an hour or so - then I'll be tired and fall asleep and not get to my homework." And the search for mundane reasons not to call continued for minutes, then creeping, sinister, up on an hour. And I almost always gave in to that cowardice. But something saved me once, and it was the knowledge, staring coldly at me from a corner of my mind, that the only thing worse than the humiliation of rejection was the shame of not calling at all. Better to be embarrassed and crestfallen than to be weak, self-loathing, and small.
The phone was on a long cord, which I snaked obviously out of my parents' bedroom, through the upstairs hall, and into the bathroom. If my family saw me call, I would get teased, as if there were something funny about wanting a girlfriend.
I remember the phone number. It is one of those details that still mean something. Her beat-up Volvo was peach-colored and of the old, boxy variety that is now gone. Her hair was blond and tied back in a scrunchie, an elastic, flowered cinch that kept it from her eyes, save a few strands. She was five-foot-eight, which I learned after she finally said yes, we could be a couple, and then for the next year we fought silly fights over who was taller. Those are the things that remain almost ten years later: her car, her hair, her height, her phone number.
Once I had the phone in the bathroom, the place for private things, I stared at it. I did not stare at it as I might today, wondering if the line was free. Today, it would be, Is someone using the fax? Is my sister on AOL? But back then, I knew that the phone was all mine. I was sure that I would make the call, and that I would make it soon, but first I would try out, again, the reasons not to, before using that premonition of shame to remind myself that I had no choice. If I did not call, I would have no right to face myself in a mirror. I would go through the next weeks, on the classroom and the stage and the playing fields, bent at the knees, feeling small.
Poised over the beige phone with the rotary dial - the rotary dial is, like the boxy Volvo, now gone - sitting on the floor of my bathroom in my evening sweatpants, I required one more thought before I could call. To win this mental game with myself, I had to know that, if I decided after the phone began ringing that I could not go through with it, then I could hang up. I needed that out, that knowledge that in dialing the number I was not throwing myself off a cliff. Not that I would hang up, not that I did. But I needed to know before calling that my actions were reversible. In part, I was playing a role in the drama that I had seen so many times before on television: the teenage hero of the romantic comedy, shy and bumbling but with a charm that would prevail in the end, sitting in his bathroom, with his parents' phone, calling, and then on hearing the ring slamming the mouthpiece into the receiver, too scared to wait for an answer. Or sometimes he did get the answer, the friendly "Hello?" on the other end, and then he hung up; in the audience, we bit our nails and hoped he would call again. It was comforting to situate myself in this American myth of the lonely boy hoping he will have the courage not to hang up.
I did call, and she answered in her soft voice that arced up at the end. She said "Hello?" I did not hang up. Instead, I took a deep breath and said everything that was on my mind. I gave myself permission to let out all the secret thoughts that had accrued like old sweaters in the attic. "The thing is," I said, "I really like you. And not just in the friend way, but really like you. I have wanted to tell you that for a long time, and then I decided the way to do it was just to ask you out, but we have always gone out so much just as friends, that when we did go out, you didn't get it, you know? How do you ask someone out on a date who you've always gone on dates with? When I asked you to a movie, how were you supposed to know I wasn't just asking you to a movie? So I guess I just have to tell you. So I am telling you." I carried on that way for about five minutes, pausing for occasional seconds to see if she had anything to say, which she didn't. She didn't seem to be breathing, and she didn't speak. In her silence, she might have been watching as I tied myself a noose. But at least I had not hung up.
You, the confident one, the nemesis of us normal children all, you who never hung up, cannot know how exhilarating was this dance. You cannot imagine how barren my childhood would have been if I'd never known that chattering nervousness. For me, traveling this road to the end - deciding to dial, dialing, not hanging up, hearing the phone answered, still not hanging up - led someplace.
The drama is gone. You couldn't safely hang up now even if you wanted to. Technology has changed everything. Caller ID and *69 have dismantled the promise of anonymity. Now, to dial is to place your name on some ledger for all the girls to read. You either call or you don't. It is that simple. It is the Information Age, in which we have more things, less privacy, and very tired eyes.
There are new, evolving rules for suitors, courters, and lovers. Romancing a girl has always been an Olympiad of a sort, with different events and different scores in each event, the pursuer always being judged by the pursued, her friends, her parents, her ex-boyfriend (if she has remained friends with him) and so forth. The events have traditionally included phone technique (have you called frequently enough, but not too frequently?), spontaneous romantic gestures (flowers, notes left in surprising places), and, most important, the interviews - with friends, then, for the final round, with parents.
These events have been around for my whole dating life and several generations before. And still, no matter how clear the rules, I blunder. There was the notorious time I bungled the friend interview, mocking a cappella singing without realizing that all of Sara's closest friendships began in her women's singing group. On a scale of 10, a 4. With Lila, I began with a high score in the phone category, placing calls twice weekly, leaving humorously self-deprecating messages on the answering machine - answering machine technique falls well outside the scope of this essay - when she was not home, but soon plummeted in her estimation when she sensed that I was deliberately calling at times when she would not be home. Was I preferring her answering machine to her? Final score: 6, not enough to move on to the next round.
Sometimes you don't stand a chance. An anti-Semitic parent is like an old East German judge, prejudiced, sclerotic, and corrupt: if you get a 5, count yourself lucky. But perhaps they are easy marks for bribery, Mother's Day flowers or a bottle of wine brought to dinner. It's a tricky business.
And now, with new events with rules as yet un-codified, the whole competition has become bewildering. E-mail is to courting what the forward pass was to professional football - the world turned upside down. College students now check their e-mail at least five times a day, and the same goes for graduate students. Some of us just leave our e-mail screen on all the time and look up whenever we hear the cheery beep of an incoming message. It's like interest compounded not quarterly, nor even daily, but instantaneously. This means that one starts to worry after several hours' lag between messages; if you don't get an e-mail back within two days, the relationship is certainly over, perhaps before it began. Now there is the page, the call on the cellphone. It used to be: Call at the end of the day. Now it is: Do you remember to call at 4:45, just about the time she is getting out of that stressful exam? Have you yet posted a picture of her on your home page? If your résumé is online, does it still describe you as single? Have you forgotten to change it, or decided not to?
At The Hartford Courant, where, in September 2000, I began work as the religion writer, a coworker, Ella, told me that my car, a 1991 Subaru Legacy station wagon, lent me a mysterious air. "All the other guys I know drive Lexuses," she said. The car isn't really mysterious: It's a piece of junk. At the time of the Subaru's demise that October - when I ran a red light at the intersection of Asylum Avenue and Trout Brook Drive on my way back to the office after interviewing the Lubavitcher rebbe of West Hartford and smashed the car into a West Hartford police cruiser - the car had no hubcaps, one working windshield wiper, and 205,000 miles on its odometer. The rear defroster had melted some of the letters of a prep school window sticker onto the thin heat lines running horizontally across the pane.
The car was not elegant, and certainly not very functional; I kept it only because it had been with my family since 1991, which meant that it was the car in which I had driven around that first girlfriend, the one who got the crazed phone call from me in my bathroom. I drove her all around New England in that car, from Tanglewood to Newport to a secluded spot by the Wethersfield ferry boat, a boat that, like the Subaru, served no functional purpose anymore - not since Interstate 91 and its network of bridges had made the Connecticut River unnecessary to reckon with - except as a scenic thing to do with your loved one, not that she and I ever took the boat, for we only went to the secluded spot near the launch at night, long after the boat's hours of operation were over. At the time of the car's decommissioning, its Kelley Blue Book value was seven hundred fifty dollars. Yet for Ella, my co-worker, my owning such a car was mysterious.
Ella sensed, rightly, that there was a story behind that car, a story or a sentiment, a trip to Newport or the Wethersfield ferry launch. The deeper point is that things, like people, have their distinctive charisms, almost mystical abilities to charm. The difference between the Subaru wagon without hubcaps and the Lexus is more than one of make, model, cost, and functionality, just as the word grey is not the word gray, though they mean the same thing. The difference is not connotation - that the Subaru lacks the panache of the Lexus - that grey is English and so more refined or antique than gray. It's not that. It's that they somehow give off different airs, each one mysterious in its etiology and utterly indescribable. Each has its own mystery. In the past ten years, courting has shifted, with e-mail, cellphones, and so forth. From Subaru to Lexus, maybe, or from grey to gray. How to describe it? The best definition of the change may be experiential. I am only twenty-seven years old, and I feel worrisomely behind the times. I don't know how soon to reply to my e-mails, or how intimately. When there are no messages waiting for me, I wonder what mistake I have made and if it can be rectified. I am unsure if the cellphone functions as the land-line does: Can intimate conversations be had with traffic noise in the background, or with sirens singing in the night?
In a couple of years, I will be able to bring these questions to my thirteen-year-old sister, Rachel. Rachel is a tad strange, but in the best sense, preternaturally empathic and so sensitive that the wrong words could singe her. And so she is a friend magnet. She has more friends than I ever did. She has taken charge of the popular clique by being the kindest child in school rather than the cruelest.
That's enough to make friends. To keep them, she must stay in touch, and to stay in touch she relies on America Online. The school bus drops her off in front of the Friendly's restaurant on Sumner Avenue, and she walks home, kicks off her shoes in the front hallway, and bounds up two flights of stairs, taking the steps two at a time, to my father's home office. She logs onto AOL, expertly keying her user ID and password. She is still a little miffed that my parents put her on the children's plan, which means that she cannot view most web sites, anything with remotely adult content. Until she is promoted to the teen plan, and then someday set free on the unlimited plan, she must content herself with fan pages geared to the young followers of 'N Sync, the Backstreet Boys, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears. I and her two other older brothers have, through our endless, merciless ridiculing of any pre-teen cliché that she might want to embody, tried to inoculate her against boy bands and teen idols. If we had our druthers, she would keep up with no fads, use no slang, and probably have no fun. I guess we have not done our job well enough, because she does have all these friends, probably even more than she wants. They all communicate via e-mail. Her e-mail life does not resemble her older brothers': We send messages and check several hours later to see if we have received replies. She just logs on, checks her "buddy list" to see which of her peeps are logged on, and then instant-messages the lucky girls and begins chatting in "real time," as they say - using the AOL split screen both to write messages and read the replies, simultaneously, often with several girls at once. It seems that AOL has done the impossible: torn middle school socialites away from the telephone.
(There is also a new language, which Rachel commands effortlessly. Thanx to AOL + e-mail, computerz, which used 2 B just 4 work, are now 4 fun 2 :)
I worry, though, that in a rather insidious way the rejection threshold for Rachel's generation has slowly fallen, to the point where any lag at all in reciprocated interest or affection can send them into spasms of self-doubt. I was not popular in junior high school. I knew that. I walked about with a thin shell of defiant armor, trying not to make eye contact with anybody bigger or cooler, which meant anybody at all. I became grateful for small gestures, which tended to come from girls - Margaret Denby's tousling my hair and saying that I would be cute someday, or Hillary Kenyon's tossing her arm around me for no reason at all. It wasn't easy, but at least the occasions for real hurt were scattered. If there were only five parties a semester, that was only five for me to not be invited to. Boys didn't spend much time on the phone, so there was no fear that I was being left out of the after-school phone gossip. Girls had to contend with a more feverish social ecology, but I still imagine that the unpopular ones could, through powerful acts of will, believe that nobody else's phone was ringing.
That saving ignorance would never be possible today. The online culture presses our noses to the glass and makes us watch. Everybody is e-mailing all the time. Rachel's in the show. She's a player. Her in-box is always stocked. She struggles to keep up with all the mail. But, we can guess, one of her classmates, a girl whose name I won't soon know, checks e-mail every afternoon, too. She doesn't have many messages. Maybe she doesn't have any. What she does have is a buddy list, which she uses to keep track of all the popular girls' online habits. So she knows that Rachel and Savannah, Kelly and Kirsten, Nerissa and Carissa, and both Sarahs are all logged on right now, at this very minute. And she can probably guess that they are talking to each other. And she's right.
It is not that the world online has increased our joys or sorrows, for I imagine that there has always been on Earth an infinite store of both, at least so long as people have fallen in love and lovers have been spurned. The Internet has just birthed new ways of acting out these dramas, and helped lay others gently to rest. Jane, the recent girlfriend, and I met on the cusp of this change, marshalling both the phone lines' possibilities, the old and the new, phone and e-mail. The phone offers the possibility of clanging startle, whether unexpected or eagerly anticipated. Walking through one's living room, the bell sounds, and if you are lucky and do not have caller ID, then you have several passionate seconds of anticipation, from the walk to the phone through the hello. You wait to see if the caller is who you want her to be, and experience one of the rare moments when you can take your pulse just by standing still.
E-mail is less a spontaneous charge than a carefully sustained electric current: from the hard-won break in your workday or evening routine when you fire up the software, log on to your service provider, enter your user name and your password - which by this point, more likely than not, is somehow related to your beloved's name - and discover that, yes, you have new mail; to the click that brings you to the tell-tale screen; to the thrumming discovery that one of the new messages is from exactly the right person. The content of e-mail is fraught with the same energy, tensely crafted rather than hastily improvised as on the phone.
In my and Jane's courtship, the e-mails were a nightly ritual that hammered out the false phone steps, sometimes almost literally. She called quite late one night and was afraid that she had awakened me. I assured her that calling late was cool, in that it marked her as a person who had not yet settled into a middle-aged routine of early bedtimes. But, she asked, does that principle hold no matter how late the hour? It may be cool to call at midnight, but what about at three a. m.? Later that night, I sent an e-mail containing a mathematical formula that I had worked out, using subtraction and absolute values, expressing the range of "cool" late hours to call and "uncool," too-late hours to call. (The formula for "cool hours" yielded a range of ten p.m. to two a.m.) The e-mail was brief, but its implicit message was complex: first, "I am charmed, not annoyed, that you called so late"; second, "I'm no fool, you Harvard girl - I remember a little math even if my graduate study is in the wishy-washy field of modern religion"; and third, "I care, care so much that I will spend time crafting stupid formulas just so that I have something mildly clever to send in an e-mail."
Maybe that doesn't sound exciting to you, and maybe it wouldn't make you sad to look back and remember. Then again, maybe you're the person who never got nervous and whose palms, to this day, do not sweat. But the rest of you, you understand.
Is it all equal then? Following my assertion that, unlike food or horsepower or disease, love and lovesickness are not easily increased or decreased by modern science, there may be a tendency to ignore the ways that technology shapes our romantic and social lives. But that would be wrong. For as with art, preferences matter. We can't help falling in love, but we can prefer one story to another. We can even be arrogant enough to call our version of love better. And others will disagree, and as long as they are disagreeing passionately, that's all I'll ask. I want flowers at my wedding, and a yellow cake with chocolate frosting. I want my wife, whoever she may be, to have green eyes, as I once dreamt she would when I was thirteen years old. I want her to kick me under the table when I talk too much. And I want her to prefer the phone to e-mail.
It's an arbitrary choice. Some would prefer to wait, like Emma, for the mail delivered thrice-daily, letters sealed with wax. Others zoom ahead with the times, born on technology's back like a diver on a happy dolphin, eager to see where the wild, splashy ride takes her. One of the best people I know, a kind, brilliant young lawyer who nearly made the Olympics in fencing and once earned tuition money by modeling, met her most recent boyfriend by posting an online message on a singles' bulletin board. "I was moving to Los Angeles," she told me, with a note of defensiveness. "And I didn't know anyone. After I joined the bulletin board, there was e-mail waiting for me when I got home. And soon I met him."
Of all the people to resort to contrived computer-dating schemes, here was my lawyer friend, who once confided in me that she wished she were less beautiful so that just for once she could keep a male friend - they always fall in love with her, you see. But she was new in town, and she found that an online bulletin board was a safe, effective way to audition candidates. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan do the same thing in the movie "You've Got Mail": meet each other via computer, surreptitiously because they are both dating others at the time, and move quickly to an ill-fated date at Cafe Lalo on the Upper West Side, and hijinks ensue, and a mediocre movie is made. But the point is that at the end of the day the characters want people, not pixels. The movie, of course, is a remake of "The Shop Around the Corner," in which the letters are written on real paper, but otherwise the plot is quite similar.
My discomfort with the new modes of courtship may just come from my ineptitude with technology. When I was eighteen, I plucked the e-mail address of an old high school friend from a group e-mail sent out by the alumni office of our high school. I wrote a short note that included some small items of gossip (including the news that our headmaster was retiring), my new phone number, and a gratuitous insult of a longtime faculty member known for his thirst. "They should appoint Mr. Compton the new headmaster," I wrote. "They'd only have to pay him in Stolichnaya." I then entered the "send" command, and the e-mail was delivered to several hundred alumni and thirty teachers, including Mr. Compton.
That's not as bad as what happened to a Yale classmate of mine last year. "Alice" had only recently joined the Yale '96 discussion list, which will forward messages sent to the one master address to the several hundred classmates who have registered for the service. She received a message, sent to the entire list, from her old college roommate, "Sue," someone she hadn't spoken to since graduation and was delighted to hear from. The message was suitably bland, just a little note telling everybody about her peregrinations of the last three years and asking people to drop her a line when they got a chance. Alice, thrilled, hit "reply" and wrote back a long, detailed, lurid message, catching Sue up on all the gossip she had missed: how Alice was no longer dating Jed; how she wished they were still together but that had become impossible the moment Jed had walked in on Alice performing an intimate sex act on Roger, Jed's best friend; and how Jed and Roger had been able to maintain their friendship only by agreeing that neither of them would ever speak to Alice again. Alice sent the message - not privately to Sue, as she had intended, but to the e-mail in-boxes of every Yale classmate on the list. When she realized what she had done, Alice sent another, desperate message begging people not to read the preceding one, a hope pathetic at best since most human beings read their e-mail sequentially, in the order in which it has arrived. Meaning that I and hundreds of my friends were treated to the ghastly spectacle of this incredibly personal e-mail that we weren't supposed to be seeing but couldn't look away from, followed by an e-mail asking us not to read what we had just read. It was like watching a murder and then watching the murderer beg a hanging judge for mercy, all in five minutes.
The whole episode was terrifically exciting, and while nobody was caddish enough to make light of it on the public list, scores of friendships that had lapsed since college were given new life by the spectacle. Everybody alerted his friends to what was going on, suggesting that they add themselves to the list as soon as possible in case there were further acts in the drama. E-mails flew across the country: "Dude, can you believe how stupid this chick is? Did you know her in college?" "No, but I wish I had, especially considering what she was doing to Roger when Jed walked in." "Totally. Where's she been all my lifetime?"
So I will cling to telephone, where my missteps are private, if no less stupid. But I have no interest in enforcing my choices on others. Some people handle e-mail just fine. One Sunday last year, I opened my Times to the "Vows" column, which every week tells the story of how one newly married couple met. The featured bride was a woman I had known in college. My friend Angela - half-Korean, half-Jewish, now a rabbi - had suggested that I meet her roommate Julie, a short brunette from Long Island with a brassy alto voice. To introduce us, Angela had invited me to her apartment to share dinner, then an episode of "Beverly Hills 90210," with her and Julie. Julie had found me boring, and I had been only mildly intrigued, rather sociologically, by her: "She's the kind of girl who probably has her closet organized by color," I told Angela the next day. But no matter, for there she was, five years later, in "Vows," gushing about how she had met her husband in an online Jewish singles' chat room. They had corresponded for weeks, then finally met before a Knicks' game at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 34th Street. "She saw him leaning against a storefront and knew she would marry him one day," Lois Smith Brady writes in The Times.
The tale is happier than any of mine, and now much more famous. The high school girlfriend, the one I called from the privacy of my bathroom, eventually agreed to date me, but not before taking two months to decide if she could ever see me as "more than a friend." We were together until December of my freshman year of college, when, worn down by distance and the realization that she and I probably would never be married, I broke up with her.
We'd been together almost a year, but it had been a difficult fall semester, with her away in Pennsylvania while I was in New Haven. I would lie on my extra-long twin dormitory bed, thinking of her, hearing the crackled leaves twist on the trees lining the New Haven Green. I would play over and over in my head this one scene from the summer after our junior year, before I ever had the nerve to ask her out. She'd been driving a group of us to the Rhode Island shore, and I was seated directly behind her, in the back seat driver's side of the peach Volvo. She had a mix tape in the tape deck, playing on endless loop. "Southern Cross," by Crosby Stills & Nash, came on twice during the drive. Each time, I watched her in her side mirror as she mouthed the words to the song. Her lips moved, barely. After each verse, she'd blow a stray hair away from her face. Every time I thought about breaking up with her, I challenged myself with that memory. That would be the girl I'd be breaking up with. She quietly sung "Southern Cross" in her peach Volvo, not aware that I was watching her in the mirror.
I called her one night during my final exams - for some reason, the date December 18 sticks out in my mind - and said what I had to say. She cried, but I didn't. In order to make such a call, to hurt the person I'd loved more than I'd loved anybody (Isn't it a terrible thing to admit that in the throes of young love, we do love the girlfriend more than we love our parents or siblings? That if we had to make a choice, it would be all too easy to turn our backs on the people who'd raised us?), I had had to justify it. Before calling her, I'd made a mental list of all her flaws, all the reasons that I could do so much better and that she, in fact, was culpable in the whole mess, holding me back and keeping me from realizing my potential as a ladies' man. So that when she broke down in tears, I was numb, tired, and eager to get off the phone.
After it was over, my roommate came into the common room and said, "Come on, let's go outside and join the snowball fight. It'll get your mind off things." The first snow of the year had begun falling while I was on the phone, and when I stepped out of Welch Hall onto the Old Campus, freshmen were racing around in the night, trying to pack too-dry snow into usable spheres. The iron lanterns lit the scene with a knowing, roseate cast, as if they were smiling on the millionth enactment of this scene, repeated every year by boys and girls laughing in their down vests and wool mittens. I leapt off the steps and into the fray, falling immediately on my right cheek and at that instant hoping that my spill would leave a bruise, some deserved punishment for the pain I had just foisted on a kind, scared girl who had done nothing to deserve it. Sitting on the flagstones, I began to gather snow and shape it into a ball. I stood up, ready to hurl the snowball at anybody - I think the battle lines were Welch and Bingham halls versus Vanderbilt Hall - when I got beaned in the temple and knocked down. The boy who had pitched the snowball, or, it seemed, the iceball, ran over to ask if I was all right. I recognized him as Adam, the star freshman pitcher from Connecticut with a ninety-five-miles-per-hour fastball who was supposed to be playing varsity baseball that spring. So I had got mine, I figured, and felt a whole lot better about that night and the four years of nights to follow.
With one exception my junior year of college, I did not meet another girl with the power to knock me down that way until Jane, the New Yorker. By that time, e-mail and cellphones had changed everything, or at least I thought they had. Jane and I lasted eleven months, and our breakup, like the first charmed months of our courtship, was conducted in part via e-mail. There were certain things that couldn't be said when we were in the same room, either because we ended up lying on a bed holding each other and crying or because we talked in circles around the issues that were dividing us, hoping that by endlessly dissecting our problems we could cut them down to nothing. E-mail sometimes gets a bad rap, because it lacks inflection; all those flavors of speech that are so hard to describe - poignancy, wistfulness, aspiration - are doubly hard to convey in print. I have puzzled over why this charge is never leveled at paper correspondence: You never hear the complaint that love letters, or breakup letters, are unsubtle. If anything, we usually credit the written word with greater emotional accuracy than speech has. It's thought that, in person, a look, shrug, or ill-conceived comment can be disastrously misinterpreted, but that in writing we have a chance to say what we mean and mean what we say. Why should the same not hold for e-mail? Because e-mail has the mood and tempo of speech, not correspondence. Even when we take our time before responding to e-mail, we wait only a few hours, maybe a day or two, but never the week that often elapses between letters. And the content of e-mail is conversational. There's less "Dear So-and-So," almost no "Very truly yours." If you reply immediately to an e-mail, your reply might be received before either of you has logged off; if the modems are fast and the phone lines uncrowded, two e-friends can trade messages, as if in conversation, without the benefit even of instant messaging. The closest analogue is not the telephone conversation or the letter stamped and mailed, but the walkie-talkie exchange, in which only one person can talk at a time, but the other can respond at once. There is thus neither the equalizing, self-correcting give-and-take of genuine conversation, nor the thoughtful care of paper correspondence. There is only the disorienting buzz of electronic conversation, perfect for transacting business. And that is what a breakup becomes: resolving matters, settling balance sheets, deferring hurt.
It shouldn't be surprising, then, that when we're single, the boys and girls I know turn to The New York Times wedding pages first thing on Sundays, and reap their romantic fill in the most old-fashioned of ways. Even when the sagas we read about are, like the alto Julie's, completely bound up in newer technology and could not have come to pass without the aid of chat rooms, instant messaging and satellite communications, there remains an urge to read the stories as if they were Barbara Cartland novels: printed on paper, told in breathless prose, in all ways reminders of the slowly changing, time-tested trappings of love as we imagine it. There's a tension there, between our preferred method of devouring love stories and the strange facts of the stories as they now play out, on AOL, for people like Julie and her new groom.
The stories multiply, and before long the plots will have the studied confidence of a schoolgirl setting off in the morning. I used e-mail to get into, and out of, a relationship; Julie met her beau in a chat room, then in person at a Knicks' game, and now they are married. She's probably organizing his closets by color, too. It's not the narrative I would choose. But maybe the story line will choose me. The technology is with us, and as I strike these keys, I know that I'll be sending the words over e-mail. I can't imagine how I would do my work or tend my friendships without a computer. So why does it bother me that Julie met her husband in a chat room? I'm really not one to quarrel. I can only acknowledge their good fortune and say that for now certain hopes are built on memories of a boy, one with frayed pajama sleeves, locked in a bathroom, gripping a phone, hearing it ring.