Three's A'loud

Internet dating in the nineties - How did it end?

In my standard eight year (that would be grade 10 for the millennials) my parents bought “The internet” for Christmas. In our minds the internet was just a compilation of every Huisgenoot/You Magazine school project insert that was ever published. Now I wouldn’t have to page through a flip file with magazine pages meticulously collected by my mom and grandma over the past 20 years. I could just type the subject I was looking for into a search bar and voila! The world at my fingertips. Full marks for every school research project from here on out. (Pft, if only it was that easy.)

When my holiday plans with a friend fell through my mom let us set-up “The Internet” a few weeks before Christmas and as you can guess I spent very little time researching the life cycle of the butterfly or any other subject that was fast putting the Encyclopaedia Britannica out of business. Instead I found a chat-room and spent the next two weeks chatting to the rider of the North, Strider at Bree and heir of Isildur.

Like all good things the summer ended and I emerged into the bright January sunshine of 1999, a new school-year and no internet connection at my boarding-school. I was in the senior grades at school now with the best group of friends in the world. Amazing times. But on my hotmail address the conversation with Araghorn continued. Twice a week I would walk the 5km into Hatfield and send long emails to a boy that was studying at the University 500 meters from where I was sitting. Then I would print out his email(s) to me and take it back to boarding school to read with a silly grin during study hour. There were no flashdisks and anyway I had no computer to read a USB so I printed every letter he sent me. By this time I knew his real name but there was no Facebook to find out more about him and no Google (that I knew of) to stalk him online. It was a strange time in-between the real world and the virtual world that is now completely lost to history.

You would think this is the part of the story where things turn dodgy? On the contrary: our conversations were so completely above board I could have shown each and every one of them to my mom (Although she probably wouldn’t get half of the movie and pop-culture references that saturated our conversations). He was the most grown-up person I had ever met. The boys my age were just talking about rugby and drinking and girls but we had conversations about literature, movies and music. He told me about his friends and his family and I told him about mine. On a Monday we shared stories of what we did on the weekends. He went out with his university friends to Hatfield Square and I sneaked out of boarding school with a couple of my friends and at some point we were probably on the same dance-floor in the same nightclub. And every walk through Hatfield and every evening out in Hatfield square became a game of “Imagine that is him.” But I didn’t really want to meet. Here was this perfect guy and I was a very average schoolgirl. At one point he even told me about this girl he went out with a few times and I was resigned to the fact that he would marry her and I would grow old sad and lonely. But they didn’t move past two dates and our online-relationship continued. We spoke so much that twenty years later I still have expressions and sayings that I heard from him first and are a part of my normal day-to-day vocabulary.

At this point I am not 100% sure of the timeline. I have lost access to Psycho Susan’s hotmail address and I destroyed all the print outs years ago. Funny enough, not because there was anything private in them, but because they were so deeply personal and made me feel really vulnerable. For a little over a year Araghorn and Psycho Susan spoke 2-5 times a week. But in the real world I had met another boy. He was cute and funny and really liked me. A really good guy. Once or twice he even waited for me in a local coffee-shop while I was sending a quick email to “my cousin.” But I knew it couldn’t continue like this. So I started pressuring Araghorn to meet. He told me how he would drive past my school on his way home every afternoon and imagine one of those beautiful girls was me. In my mind I was the chubby girl hiding out of sight somewhere. But I couldn’t keep on wondering for the rest of my life so we had to meet.

And then we did.

I don’t really want to tell you about the date itself because it’s so embarrassing. He was an absolute gentleman. My skirt was way too short to be considered proper. He was as funny in real life as he was in writing. I was so nervous I finished a bottle of Graca Dry White and proceeded to not add one pun or funny reference to the conversation. He gave me the best bear-hug when he dropped me off with no funny business and I almost fell over, compliments of the talking-eating-laughing-sharing wine. He went home and I woke up the next morning with a thundering headache.

Susan at 18

I sent him an email that Monday apologising for the horrible date. He objected, saying it was great and he had a wonderful time. I had coffee with my other almost-boyfriend the next day and contributed very little to that conversation as well. I couldn’t figure it out. It almost broke my head. I was a stupid 17-year old little girl and I couldn’t get past my own bruised ego for being such a spaz on our date. I don’t even deserve a defence, but in my defence I had very little real life experience with boyfriends before.

Here is a list of my boyfriends until then:

  1. When I was 5 years old: Christo in my preschool. I loved him. The principal made us get married for the school concert. He gagged when he had to kiss me. Until this day I am convinced that his parents moved away a couple of years later because I was harassing him so and telling everyone he was my husband.
  2. When I was 9: Divan. He wrote me a note on a page torn from his math homework, asking me if I would be his girlfriend. I had to mark the block YES or mark the block NO. I marked YES. We never spoke to each other again. We never broke up either. Does that mean he is technically still my boyfriend or do these things expire at some point?
  3. When I was 12: Christiaan. He told everyone I was his girlfriend for two weeks. Then I obliged for one day. Then I thought this was not really how it should work and ended it a day later.
  4. When I was 13: Chris. He was the first boy since Christo that I really liked. He invited me to an ice skating show and we went with his parents. When they took me home he walked me to the door and leaned a little closer. I got so scared and embarrassed that I bumped my head on the door while literally running away.

Santjie, 9 years old

Pft, I need to write an ode to my husband, because looking at this list it’s a bloody miracle that I ever got married to such a freakin’ amazing man.

But back to 17-year-old me. Ugh, that girl was really not great at this stuff. I eventually plucked up the courage to invite my real-life almost-boyfriend to my matric farewell. I wasn’t even close to brave enough to ask Araghorn. I was just so immensely thankful to just have someone I really liked to go with me that I couldn’t risk it all on someone that was clearly way out of my league and would realise any moment what an idiot I am. We still wrote each other but I think he thought it was about him and I was too proud to correct him. So our letters fizzled out. The unmentionable subject of a follow-up date left a massive gaping hole in our conversations. He got “really busy with his studies” and I got really busy writing my matric exams. I kept on seeing my first real boyfriend for more than a year and have to admit that I messed up pretty badly there as well but that is a whole different confession. A few months after that I met another boy that became my best friend and confidant and still laugh at my lame jokes 19 years later.

My eldest is 10 years old this year. And last week a boy at our church came over and asked for her telephone number. As they discover the strange new world of virtual conversation and real-life relationships I hope she does better than I did. I hope she takes her time getting to know this boy and all the others who might come after him. I hope she is kind and loyal in her relationships. But more than any of that I pray that she will have more confidence in her own worth than I did. That she will see how special and wonderful she is and that any boy on the planet would be flippin’ lucky to call himself her boyfriend. I pray that she will be just as lucky as I was to eventually meet the perfect boy who will stand by her no matter what.

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