My ground rules were simple - I would talk to anyone whose face, not their crotch, appeared in the frame. With my heart rate raised, I moseyed on over to Chatroulette.com and hit "Start."
I'm pretty certain what greeted me first, as expected, was a dick.
Undeterred, I kept hitting "next" hoping I would land on someone's mug and could chat them "hello" before they hit "next" themselves. After maybe 10 or 15 minutes, I was able to nail someone down, beginning a series of pleasant and simple conversations with new online pen pals.
A few weeks passed and I revisited the site several times with mixed results, but the entertainment factor had not yet worn off. I told many of my friends what I was up to, who understandably, thought I was creepy. I ignored their well-intentioned doubt of my actions - after all, I was committed to my "face only" rule.
One evening, after my bravura brought me to Manroulette.com, a gay permutation, up popped on my screen a very handsome, Mediterranean-colored brunette fellow. I was struck by his good looks from the start, excited that I managed to start a conversation with him. After the usual introductory questions, we spent some time chatting candidly about who we are and what we do with our lives. Something about distance between yourself and your cyber friend makes it feel safe to share your story.
His name was Andy. He lived in a neighboring city and had just finished up his college degree. I couldn't ignore how hot he was. I was so very intrigued. God was playing a trick on me - a hot boy, a truly handsome man who keeps conversation but was states away. After hours of chatter and assembling each other's 411, we hit the cliff. Either we do something from here, or we move on from our pleasant encounter, happy to have had that moment. I, luckily, was not the one to make that decision.
After a moment of stillness, Andy proposed something along the lines of "So, do you want to see my dick?" Surprised, and now even more charmed, I decided it was best to abandon my ground rules and have a little fun for once. We proceeded from there in a fashion I'm sure you can imagine.
I was in bliss.
Before logging off, we exchanged Facebook pages and phone numbers, promising to e-chat again - maybe even meet up next time one of us was in the other's respective city.
First thing the following morning, I perused his Facebook photos. He was still hot and I still interested. I could tell this is a boy I would get along with. His cute, casual style. His aviators and v-necks. His pictures picnicking, traveling to different cities, dancing on rooftops. His sort-of shy, endearingly genuine smile. A typical 20-something urban hot stuff.
More importantly, the same guy and girl kept reappearing in his photos, both attractive and current-looking like Andy. They reminded me so much of the same few friends that kept recurring in my photos. Best friends. Friends you go everywhere with. This was a good guy I stumbled upon. I felt like I knew him.
Over the course of several months, we kept chatting on Facebook - the occasional like or comment on a status or picture, texted a bit. We developed a basic friendship despite being geographically distant. I pictured the night we would finally get to share a date over drinks. I hoped Andy wanted that too. I knew it was possible, both of us having friends in each other's cities we wanted to visit.
Shortly thereafter, I indeed found myself in his city. I really wanted to find some time to slip away from my comrades and see Andy in the flesh for the first time. We exchanged some texts, but ultimately our plans were thwarted, as his parents were staying the weekend. I was disappointed, but let it go, considering I had not given him fair warning of my visit. He assured me he had plans to come down to my city in just a few weeks time, and I promised to show him all the hot spots.
Following my return, the next few weeks blended together. One weekend, with a few days off to spare, I wasted no time catching up on all my favorite websites and perusing Facebook pages. Late that Sunday, as I thought of all the unfinished business I had managed to tie up, it dawned on me. Andy. What ever happened to him? By now he would have visited. Where was I? Did he not want to see me?
I immediately pulled up his Facebook page. On the surface it looked just as it always had. His pictures hadn't changed. There he was, in his blue hoodie and sunglasses. I started to look for clues to his whereabouts - some signs, or lack thereof, that he had just came to town. Right at the top of his page I received the biggest clues. "Miss you," "Love you," "Thinking about you," was the typical language used in recent postings.
I felt panicked. His Facebook lacked definitive details as to what these sentiments were about. Needing to rule out something exceptional, I googled his full name. Many links appeared, one even from a major publication.
Andy had been killed.
A tremor hit my body, my eyes tunneled on the web article in front of me. I ferociously dug through several articles, trying to absorb all I could handle, to get the full picture.
Just a week or so prior, Andy had been traveling home late-night when he was struck by a drunk driver, sending him through the air.
It was a hit-and-run.
I sat still in my bed for a few minutes, my web browser displaying to me all the facts that now weighed heavily in my stomach. The excitement, the contemplating, the imagining of this boy was over. This was the truth and I somehow had to digest it.
Those few minutes were some of the loneliest of my life. I had created this relationship with Andy by myself. No one else in my life knew about him. I had assembled a series of facts and wishes, whether they be true or not, that I now had to forget.
I spent the next several months obsessed with the details of Andy's life. I reveled in anecdotes about Andy's college years shared by his friends. I scanned family photos that appeared in his new Facebook group. I came to know these figures, the people that surrounded and shaped Andy's life, if only on the surface. I was an outsider looking in, assembling the puzzle of Andy's life in my mind.
At the core of those passing months, I felt burdened by disgust with myself. I do not deserve to know Andy; I am not entitled to know so much about this kid, I thought to myself. Why should I have the privilege to learn about his family, see old forgotten photos, read personal stories shared by his closest allies? Had Andy still been alive, would we have even met? But here I was, amongst the reminiscers who had legitimate, substantial relationships with this person.
A few months following his accident, I left a simple message of condolence on Andy's Facebook page. As good as it felt to get any bit of thought of Andy out of my overloaded brain, the fear of consequences for my action took hold. What if Andy's parents saw my message? Would they click over to my Facebook and question who I was? "Why don't we share any mutual friends? Who is this kid and how dare he invade on our space! Stay away from our family, you don't know anything about Andy!"
It's very possible my connection to Andy meant nothing. Maybe I am frivolous, as important to Andy's story as any person that passes him on the street. But I can't help but think this experience was meant to have an effect - that my chance involvement with Andy was a catalyst for new knowledge.
Everybody has a story. But whose will you hear?
I used to look at those around me that I brush with briefly as mere figures. I've always been privy to the details of the makeup of my family, my closest friends. But everyone else - inconsequential. Unless they seemed of particular interest, the surface details were all I needed to know if I should stop or go.
But now I've come to know I was leaving much on the table. Your coffee guy, the woman who runs your laundromat, even the guy revealing himself on Chatroulette - they all have a story. Each have a series of facts and events contained in their composition that brought them to their current place in time. They are housed within themselves sometimes to be seen, but often not. Even the most mundane, perceivably underachieving person is a fortress of a million small details.
There are those whose details seem most obvious - those you've spent enough time with over the years and shared in enough both uplifting and tragic experiences to have decoded the lines of their pages. But in comparison to this small circle of people you know and love, an infinitely vaster circle surrounds you that you may not ever join.
Andy was supposed to be in that larger, vaster circle.
A story was shared with me that if it weren't for death, I would have likely never known. I take happiness and gratitude that I came to know Andy's story even in this terrible way, for I am better for it. I also take sadness with the knowledge that there are millions of others whose stories I will never realize.
At every anniversary of Andy's death, my thoughts turn to him once again. I send love to his family and his friends, especially those that seem to so closely mirror my own. I think of you Andy, and I thank you.
I feel so honored to have known you in even this smallest of way.