For the past week, most of the gawking nation has been simultaneously captivated and baffled by Manti Te'o and the life and death of his fake girlfriend. How could the Notre Dame linebacker have sustained a 3-year relationship with a woman he never physically met? How could this Heisman Trophy finalist have been so unbelievably gullible, so insanely trusting? How could someone fall in love with a voice, an abstraction, a ghost? And how could that same someone be so invested in resuscitating that charade, long after he learned the truth?
The thing is, I know exactly how. Manti Te'o had his Lennay and I had my Kenny.
It was the summer of 7th grade and I was desperately yearning for a boyfriend. At 5'10, I was heads taller than most of the boys in my school and usually dressed in something from my mother's clothing boutique -- gauchos when gauchos were in, camouflage, when camouflage was in. I stood out from the LL Bean-wearing student population and was ripe for the picking. I didn't know what it felt like to be kissed, let alone what it would feel like to slow dance to "Stairway to Heaven" (all 8 minutes) with a boy.
My two best friends, Kim and Tracie, had pin-up girl bodies, wore underwire bras and carried packs of Kools in their huge hobo purses. We were best friends for reasons I still don't fully understand but for reasons I'm guessing had to do with not fitting in, them with their fully developed bodies and me with my underdeveloped one hidden in camouflage.
Kim and Tracie also had boyfriends, exotic boyfriends who lived two towns over, delinquents, who drank beer and roughhoused in the lake where they all had met. If I think hard, I can faintly picture Kim's boyfriend Joey, who was tall and skinny with a mountain range of pimples on his face. There was always the promise that Joey would bring along a friend for me, a cute friend, assured Kim, someone who would put me on his shoulders for a chicken fight or teach me how to smoke cigarettes. But that never happened, despite the Christmas Eve-like anticipation that always accompanied the drives out, and pretty soon I stopped going to the lake altogether. The only person who was happy about this was my mother, who gladly gave up her carpooling duties.
When summer rolled into the fall of eight grade, a new student named Laurie joined our crew. She was more like Kim and Tracie than me, grown-up looking with feathered brown hair and her own hobo bag full of cigarettes, but she had a goofy sense of humor and was always laughing about something. We sat next to each other in U.S. History class and made fun of our teacher, Mr. O'Brien, for his bad dye-job and terrible array of polyester suits. Did we also talk about boys we liked? Pine together for Larry Cohen, the stud of the eighth grade? If we did, I don't remember.
What I do remember is this: One night my mother announced that I had a phone call. "It's a boy," she said, barely containing her excitement. No boy had ever called me before.
"Uh, hi, how's it going?" said a gravelly, slightly nasal voice on the other end. "This is Kenny."
I went through my meager mental Rolodex. I knew no Kennys.
"I saw you in the Liggett's parking lot after school today."
This place was a big hangout for kids in our town with no driver's licenses. It was an all-purpose holding pen where you could get a slice of pizza at Papa Gino's, peruse the aisles of Liggett's, a local drug store, with row after row of candy and Bonne Bell Lip Smackers, and just see and be seen before our respective parents came to drive us home for dinner.
"How do you know you have the right girl?" I couldn't figure out how I could have been spotted -- and chosen -- out of all the various clumps of girls who gathered there. I certainly never thought of myself as seeking out the spotlight.
Kenny described what I was wearing in the parking lot, the jeans and oatmeal Shetland sweater I still was wearing as I clutched the phone in my kitchen.
"I told my friend I thought you were pretty," he said. "Just my type."
I asked Kenny how he got my phone number and he explained that he was a lacrosse player at the Catholic boys' school in our town. He knew some of the boys who played lacrosse for our school and pointed me out to them. One knew my name and Kenny called information for my parents' phone number. We were listed. It all made perfect sense.
Immediately, I started to imagine what Kenny looked like. I had seen boys from that Catholic school before, all wearing their athletic jackets with the leather sleeves, their hair neatly combed and parted on the side. I pictured a tall boy with brown hair and blue eyes, with maybe, like me, some freckles across his nose.
We began talking nightly. When the phone rang at 7:30, always 7:30, I would race into the kitchen and Kenny would be waiting for me. We talked about school, our friends, our parents. It was the most thrilling part of my day. Every time we spoke I wondered if this would be the time when Kenny would finally ask me out. I had read enough Seventeen magazines to know that boys want to take the lead, so while I patiently waited to be asked out, I contented myself with talking to a boy who thought I was pretty. "You're sweet," Kenny would say more than once.
The next school day, I would update Kim, Tracie and Laurie with the latest Kenny installment. They seemed genuinely happy for me and didn't think it was weird at all that we had never actually met. Without driver's licenses, the phone was our biggest courting tool at that age. And, the truth was, I was too scared to meet Kenny in person. I had zero experience with boys and could be whoever I wanted to be from the comfort and security of my own kitchen. Maybe Kenny felt the same way.
After a few months of phone calls, Kenny asked me to be his girlfriend. Of course I jumped at the chance, pushing aside whatever nagging doubts I had about Kenny in order to tell myself that I finally had a boyfriend. Plus, now that we were actually boyfriend and girlfriend, we would definitely have to go on a date.
Emboldened by my new title, I began to make some demands. "When can we get together?" I'd ask. "E.T. is playing at The Elm, do you want to go?" Whenever I broached the subject of a date, my phone wouldn't ring the next night, as punishment for my pushiness, I suspected.
Then, one day, it was all over.
"Hi Cathy," said Laurie, when I sat down next to her in class. She turned to me and smiled. "How's it going?" I recognized the voice immediately. It belonged to Kenny. I remember feeling like I had gone deaf. Everything turned inward and felt heavy. Laurie gave me a few more lines using Kenny's voice. "Do you want to be my girlfriend?" she said, cracking herself up.
I don't know why she decided to expose her ruse at the beginning of fifth period and I don't know how I managed to sit next to her for the next 40 minutes without bursting into tears. Or punching her. In fact, I don't remember ever talking to her again, ever asking her why she decided to play such a mean trick on someone who was only happy to be her friend.
I'm guessing she just got bored with the game. Maybe she got nervous when I kept asking to meet Kenny, figuring the jig was up and she could no longer string me along. Maybe she was just an awful girl who puffed herself up by knocking me down a few pegs. Maybe I've always been too easy a target.
Who knows what Laurie got out of the fake boyfriend hoax. I can tell you that I played along because it got me what I wanted, however phony and fleeting the prize. I think I can understand Manti's desire to keep his fantasy going. The world was a happier place with Kenny in it. And even though I knew Kenny was just a prank, I still hoped the phone would ring at 7:30.
Thanks to Facebook, I have reunited with my friend Kim, who was always the nicest of the bunch. When the Manti Te'o story broke, I emailed her and asked her if she remembered when Laurie made pretend she was a boy. "I always thought you and Tracie were part of the operation," I wrote. It was the first time I had ever acknowledged any of this happening. After the truth came out, I don't remember ever speaking to any of those girls again.
"How horrible," she wrote back. "I would never have allowed or been part of anything like that."
It's hard to be a 13-year-old girl. Harder, too, to look back, searching for motivations or explanations we may have missed when we were kids. In an interview, Te'o said of hoax's ringleader, "I hope he learns. I hope he understands what he's done. I don't wish an ill thing to somebody. I just hope he learns." He thinks embarrassment is sentence enough for his perpetrator, which, if you ask me, doesn't come close to the burning humiliation of the victim.
I know I've learned a lot about my own complicity and wish fulfillment. What Laurie has learned, all these years later, is anyone's guess.