Finished. Done. This English paper was due tomorrow, and I was expecting it to take all night to finish, because earlier in the week I just could not get myself motivated to write it. But I was finished now, and it was not even eight o’clock yet. I had a few good hours left before bedtime, and I planned on spending them not studying or doing homework.
I scrolled back up to the top of the document I had been typing in Microsoft Word, making sure my name was on the top of the paper. Gregory Dennison. English 101 – Dr. Paris. February 29, 1996. I always felt some odd fascination with writing the date February 29. I only got to write it once every four years, after all.
After my English paper finished printing, I connected to the Internet, listening to the familiar beeps and whistles and clicks as my computer dialed the number to connect. I hoped that those sounds would bring me a cute girl to talk to and flirt with on Internet Relay Chat. I went to my usual channel and looked at the list of names; no one I recognized was on there. There was someone in the room named “floridachick”; I assumed she was a girl, since she had “chick” in her name. I sent Floridachick a message, and she never replied. I said hi in the main chat, and a few other people greeted me back. Someone named Psychogirl, typed “hi how r u?”
“Psychogirl, good, how are you?” I typed back. As the messages scrolled past, I saw Psychogirl tell me that she was “not so good.” I switched to private messages to continue the conversation with Psychogirl.
gjd76: what’s wrong?
psychogirl: my mom and i got into a fight and i ran away
gjd76: oh wow. so where are you now? are you safe?
psychogirl: ya im at my dads
gjd76: what’s your asl?
Nowadays, with it being such a big deal to protect children from sexual predators on the Internet, it makes me uneasy to remember that sometimes I used to talk to and flirt with underage girls when I was in my late teens and early 20s. Granted, I was not that much older than Psychogirl, but by today’s standards a 19-year-old boy talking to a 15-year-old girl seemed inappropriate. None of that crossed my mind in 1996. I do not know if that was because it was not a big deal in 1996, or if online chat and messages were still far enough out of the mainstream that the general public did not realize that the problem existed. Or maybe I was just sheltered. Probably some combination of all of those. I replied to Psychogirl, telling her where I was from, and that I was a 19-year-old male.
psychogirl: whats ur name?
gjd76: greg. what about you?
gjd76: hi stephanie, nice to meet you :)
psychogirl: u too
gjd76: i haven’t seen you in this chat before
psychogirl: i dont get on much. my mom doesnt have internet. i come on here sometimes when im at my dads but that isnt very often
gjd76: i see. what do you look like?
psychogirl: 5ft5, 130lbs, dyed black hair, kind of pale, green eyes. u?
gjd76: 6’4, dark brown hair, brown eyes, about 220lbs
psychogirl: oh ur tall, i like tall guys ;)
gjd76: aww thanks :) do you have a boyfriend?
psychogirl: no. i was with this guy for a while but we broke up. he said he didnt think we were right 4 each other but i think he was cheatin on me
gjd76: wow, i’m sorry. sounds like it was his loss
psychogirl: aww. what about u? gf?
gjd76: i don’t have a girlfriend
psychogirl: y not?
gjd76: i liked this girl last year but she was a lesbian and i never knew it
psychogirl: wow that sounds awkward
gjd76: it was kinda
psychogirl: what do u do? like do u have a job or r u in school
gjd76: i’m a math major at the university here, and i tutor math too
psychogirl: u can be my tutor, i failed math last semester. what university?
psychogirl: i havent heard of that. what’s that by?
gjd76: just outside capital city. it isn’t very well known outside of the state
Maybe I was biased, but Jeromeville was a world class university, consistently one of the top-rated public universities in the United States. It was unfortunate that it was not more well known; I suspected that this was because of sports. The Jeromeville Colts were not a Division I athletic program, and football and basketball seem to be where the general public outside of academia hears about colleges and universities.
psychogirl: oic. have u ever been to oklahoma?
gjd76: i haven’t
psychogirl: ur not missin much. i cant wait 2 get out on my own
gjd76: haha. i know the feeling, that’s why i moved here as a freshman
psychogirl: my grades arent good enough to go away to college
gjd76: that’s a bummer… are there any classes in school that are your favorites?
psychogirl: english, i guess i hate english the least
gjd76: i was never good at english. in high school i got a b-minus in 10th grade english, that was the lowest grade i got in all of high school
psychogirl: ur crazy, a b minus was the highest grade i got last semester, u must be smart
gjd76: i don’t know, school was just always easy for me
psychogirl: i wish school was easy for me. im not good at anything
gjd76: that’s not true
psychogirl: im not. im a loser. i only have 1 friend at school
gjd76: well you seem nice to me, all the people who aren’t your friends are missing out
gjd76: so, if i may ask, why did you run away?
psychogirl: my mom hates me, she doesn’t understand me
gjd76: what do you mean?
psychogirl: like i like to wear black and im into really dark stuff and she just doesnt get it. she tells me to just be happy and go make friends but the kids at school dont want to be friends with me. i dont wanna be like the other kids, theyre dumb
gjd76: haha i get that
psychogirl: but yesterday my mom was cleaning and she found an empty bottle of whiskey in my room
gjd76: oh… do you drink a lot?
psychogirl: so now shes yellin at me saying im an alcoholic and an addict and she threatened to send me to rehab. i dont even drink, it was just that 1 time, my friend brought it over when she stayed the night and i didnt even like it that much
gjd76: i see
psychogirl: and i was crying and crying all day yesterday and she still came in just to yell at me. so i packed a bag and got on a bus and went to my dads house but i still cried a lot
gjd76: you live with your mom? any siblings?
psychogirl: i have a little sister. and moms bf is over all the time, he doesnt like kids
gjd76: that’s too bad :(
psychogirl: my dad wants custody of us, but my mom doesnt trust him because he hit her once
psychogirl: he never hit me or my sis but i dunno if i wanna live with him. i dont really wanna live with mom either. i feel so alone. sometimes i wish i was dead
gjd76: please don’t say that
psychogirl: but whats the point, mom doesnt care about me, dad only wants custody because he hates mom, and kids at school dont like me
It hurt to read what Psychogirl was writing. I had felt alone before. I had been through times when I felt like no one was there for me. And I certainly knew how it felt for my parents to not understand me. I always felt like they spent a lot more time and money on my brother Mark’s hobbies and recreation than they did mine. That was probably because Mark was into things that my parents understood and enjoyed, like basketball and baseball, and I was into things that they did not understand, like math and computers and video games. But my parents were still together. I had no concept of being stuck in the middle of a contentious custody battle. And I had never been in trouble for hiding alcohol or drugs in my room. I believed Psychogirl that she was not an alcoholic, but I hated to think that all that was going on in her mind might drive her to more risky behavior in the future. I continued typing.
gjd76: i’m your friend. i know we just met, but i would miss you
psychogirl: aww thanks :) ur sweet
gjd76: so are you. the world needs people like you in it
psychogirl: but all i do is go to school and come home and cry, no one wants that
gjd76: it’s hard feeling alone. i’ve been there. i couldn’t find anyone to room with this year, my parents were willing to get me a small studio apartment by myself, but i get lonely. last year i was in a dorm so a lot of my friends were right there in the building, and now i hardly ever see them.
gjd76: i sing at my church, and i started going to a bible study last week through a nondenominational christian club at school. i’ve made a lot of new friends there. i will pray for you.
psychogirl: im not really religious but thanks
gjd76: it’s ok. you’ll be ok.
psychogirl: i just feel like such a loser, no one wants me around and i hate it at home
gjd76: you’re not a loser. you’re a unique personality that some people don’t understand because they are too shallow to appreciate someone who doesn’t follow the crowd. i’d probably be friends with someone like you
gjd76: yes… i’m glad we met tonight… i wish i could give you a big hug and just hold you and tell you everything was going to be ok
psychogirl: and i would hug u back so tight… ur such a great guy… i dont deserve this
gjd76: stop. you’re my friend, i’m here for you
psychogirl: thank u so much… this means a lot 2 me
gjd76: so will you be ok?
psychogirl: i guess. i still dunno what to do, mom is probably still mad at me
gjd76: here’s what i think you should do. it’s late. go to sleep. do you have school tomorrow?
psychogirl: ya but i dunno if im gonna go
gjd76: so in the morning, go back to your mom’s house. and calmly tell her what happened with the empty bottle, that you just tried it once and didn’t like it. tell her you understand why she’s upset, but you wish she would listen to your side of the story. and also listen to her side of the story
psychogirl: i guess
gjd76: maybe your mom will still be upset and yelling. if so, that’s her problem. but if she’s calm, maybe you can make some progress
gjd76: you’re going to be ok. really you are
gjd76: i give you a big hug and little kiss on the cheek
psychogirl: thanks but my cheek has tears streaking down it, you dont wanna kiss it
gjd76: that’s ok. i kiss it anyway. we all have rough days
psychogirl: thank u so much :) ur so nice
gjd76: :) am i ever going to talk to you again?
psychogirl: i dunno, i dont get on here very often and i can only get on at my dads house
gjd76: i wish we could keep in touch
psychogirl: i know :( id get in so much trouble if i called u, phone calls are expensive
gjd76: do you have email?
psychogirl: no :(
gjd76: if i gave you my address, would you write to me? like in the mail?
I hesitated a little before I typed that last part. One can never tell who is on the other end of an Internet chat, and horror stories about personal information falling into the wrong hands were becoming more and more common as the Internet became more mainstream. But in the last year, I had already given out my address to girls I met on the Internet four times. Two of those were girls who wanted to stay in touch but would not have access to email for a while, and the others were to exchange pictures, since scanners and digital cameras were not yet things that everyone had. No one had broken into my house or stolen my identity yet, and Psychogirl really did not seem like a scammer to me. If she was, she would have offered promises of sex or money, not a story about a distraught teenage girl running away from home. I typed my address in the chat.
psychogirl: thank u so much :) :) :) ill write u for sure
gjd76: good, i look forward to hearing from you :) you’ll be ok, i care about you and so do other people.
psychogirl: so will u! i need to go to bed but i really liked talking 2 u tonight
gjd76: likewise :) take care… i tuck you into bed and kiss you on the forehead and smile
psychogirl: :) good night!
Life continued to move on for me, with classes, Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, and singing in the choir at church. I had two weeks left before winter quarter finals, and all my midterms had wrapped up. I still had physics labs, and I had one more paper for Dr. Paris’ English class due a couple days before finals.
On the following Wednesday, March 6, I got home from a long day of classes and checked the mail on the way from the bus stop to my apartment. Along with advertisements and coupon books, I saw a small envelope in my mailbox that looked like the kind of envelope my grandma would use to send a letter. Upon closer inspection, however, the handwriting was not my grandma’s. I noticed the postmark next: TULSA OK 741 – 2 MAR 1996. Tulsa, Oklahoma? I did not know anyone in Tulsa. Next I looked at the return address in the corner: it was from someone named Stephanie O’Connell, with an address at an apartment in Tulsa. Stephanie O’Connell, Tulsa, Oklahoma, I thought… Psychogirl! That is who this is!
I opened Psychogirl’s letter as soon as I got back to the apartment.
March 1, 1996
Thank you for listening to me and especially for letting me have your address… that meant a lot to me, more than you’ll ever know.
After I got home, my mother talked with me about what she saw and how it made her feel when she saw it, and it went well, I thought – no yelling or screaming from her or from me. So I’m feeling happy about that today.
Daddy still wants to get custody of me and my sister and mom is really scared because of it. I don’t know who I want to live with, honestly I don’t, and my mother doesn’t understand. I feel terrible, and I feel like crying a lot. But you really did make me feel better last night.
Well, I have more things to do today, so I should get started on that now. Bye!
Stephanie wrote her address again at the bottom of the page below her name. To me, that was an invitation to write back and stay in touch. I did just that a few days later, starting my letter between classes on Friday and finishing it over the weekend.
Unfortunately, I never heard from Stephanie again, and I do not know what happened to her. Hopefully things started to get better in her life. Did she stay with her mom, or did her dad get custody of her and her sister? Was there less yelling between her and her mom in the future? Did she stop writing because something bad happened to her, or did life just get in the way? Did she move on to something else like a typical whimsical teenager, or did she get in trouble for writing to me? Was she actually a 55-year-old man named Chuck? If not, she would be around 40 today… was she still into dark stuff and wearing black, or was that a phase she grew out of?
Sometimes people only cross paths for a brief time, but that brief moment can make a huge impact. I hope that I was like that for Stephanie. Maybe she just needed someone to talk to, someone to care for her and tell her that everything would be okay, so that she would make it through the night. Maybe God put me there to rescue her that night, because he was planting a seed for something that would come to her later. I would probably never know, but maybe, just maybe, Stephanie was still out there somewhere, with a memory of the night she made a new friend who helped her see life, and herself, from a new perspective.