Sylvia and I laugh as we study Rudi’s wedding photo on the wall. Four years ago, a family friend told us that the only way our shy, computer-obsessed son would ever find a girl was if she jumped out of his monitor. We laughed then too.
Rudi married Heather two years ago in her home town of Cape Coral, Florida – twenty-one months after they met in an Internet chat room for people who were addicted to Star Trek. So, in a sense, our friend’s prediction came true.
“Soon they’ll be here,” says Sylvia, squeezing my arm. We’re preparing the guest room for their first trip back to Calgary since they married. The clothes closet’s shelves are crammed with spare motherboards, cables of every size, an old scanner, and other remnants from the days when this was the computer room. Until the day he left, Rudi ruled here.
At their wedding, Rudi and Heather were as happy as Trekkies on a tour of the Starship Enterprise. “What a perfect match,” people said that day. “Son, you really lucked out,” I said during my toast.
Anyone who knew Rudi would understand my amazement at what transpired. Simply put, when your twenty-year-old son spends most of his time chumming with his computer in Calgary, you don’t expect him to say “I do” at age twenty-two, in Florida. But then, I wasn’t paying attention. I assumed Rudi was busy all those hours developing his website, playing cyber games and occasionally even doing homework. He was actually chatting online to Heather.
Sylvia pulls over a big cardboard box. “Most of this stuff belongs in the garbage,” she says.
“Shouldn’t we let Rudi decide when he’s here?”
She pitches a dusty surge protector into the box. A thick manual follows with a thud. “He’s done fine without it for two years.”
Unlike me, Sylvia has always been ruthless about clutter. It is amazing that this closet escaped her attention for so long – especially considering the care she has taken in furnishing and decorating the rest of the room.
I clearly remember the night Rudi pointed at the image of a cute, twenty-ish girl with shoulder-length brown hair in the corner of his computer screen. “That’s Heather, my girlfriend,” he said. He explained that they’d met in the Star Trek role-playing game. She was the Captain and he was a bartender. Soon Rudi was serving up private messages.
Being one who considered “Internet relationships” as something weird and potentially dangerous, I said, “You’re kidding, right?”
“We’ve been chatting for six months,” he said, “Every night.”
Rudi and Heather had each mounted a web camera on the top of their respective computer monitors. Every ten seconds their photos updated on both ends. Thus they saw each other’s expressions while they exchanged Vulcan greetings or madly typed messages. Rudi’s increased attention to shaving and combing his hair obviously had nothing to do with emerging maturity.
Sylvia is relentless in emptying the closet’s shelves. How many times had I asked Rudi to do the same? Now, a heaviness fills my chest as I watch his mother execute the deed. The first box is almost full. I glance at the five-drawer maple dresser that occupies the spot where Rudi sat all those years at his Mac, typing, thinking, talking, and laughing. Sylvia kisses me on the cheek.
At Rudi’s age, would I have stayed interested in a girl for so long before meeting her? Maybe. Maybe not. Right from the start, I was exhilarated by Sylvia’s sweet smell, by her firm heart to heart embraces – by physical things that don’t translate over the Net.
“An Internet chat room is like a bar,” said Rudi. “Some people regularly go to a particular bar to meet people or to mingle with regulars. The only difference in a chat room is the lack of physical closeness.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about her before?” I asked Rudi after accepting that Heather really existed. He didn’t respond, focusing instead on typing.
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “It won’t last anyway.”
“Look,” he said, smiling at the screen. “Heather is waving at you.”
Sylvia’s voice buzzes in my ear, like the radio alarm in the morning. “A little help would be appreciated! Carry this into the garage. I’ll continue here.”
“Always do my share,” I say, picking up the box. “What a team, eh?”
“Come back right away. I need you here.”
“How sweet,” I say. “After all these years, you still can’t bear to be apart.”
When Sylvia and I dated thirty years ago, we exchanged letters at least weekly when we were separated for any reason. Neither of us was shy about sharing our feelings. Sylvia saved all my “miss you so much” letters from the two years we spent completing our degrees at different universities.
“Get going,” says Sylvia, not too sternly.
“Aye, aye, sir.”
I carry the stuff into the basement rather than the garage. Maybe some of these cables are still useful. Sylvia doesn’t need to know about my detour.
“Many people meet on the Net,” said Rudi. “Heather and I have lots in common.”
“So it seems,” I said.
Through instantaneous online messaging, people in long distance relationships today learn more about each other faster than my generation ever could. With a high degree of anonymity, participants aren’t afraid to ask questions they might shy away from in face-to-face situations. Still, I worried about the possibility of deception.
“How do you know that’s really her?” I asked, observing the young lady’s attractive features and recalling stories about twisted men who masqueraded as women.
“No one could fake it so long with the webcam,” he said. “It’s definitely her.”
“Okay, maybe physically,” I said, “but how do you know she’s been honest with you?”
“I just know.” He started to type again.
“Don’t forget,” I said, “you met her in a role-playing game.” Rudi read something on the screen and chuckled.
Sylvia is standing still when I return upstairs, staring at something red in her hand. “It’s his old yo-yo,” she says. I take the yo-yo from her and spin it downwards. It “sleeps” at the bottom and then snaps back into my palm.
“Oooh,” she says. We both laugh.
At dinner a few months after revealing Heather’s existence, Rudi announced that she would visit him in Calgary after the school year ended. I just about choked. We hadn’t discussed Heather much after that first night, and I didn’t expect the relationship to progress beyond blowing kisses online.
“For how long?” I asked, expecting a week at most. He said, “Eighteen days.”
“Eighteen days?! What if you don’t hit it off?” He could click his mouse to make Heather disappear on his monitor, but that wouldn’t work once she was here.
“Don’t worry, Dad.” He reminded me that they’d talked about everything during their online chats and phone calls. There’d be no surprises.
When Heather arrived, she looked exactly the same in real life as on Rudi’s screen. “Better call your mother, Heather, to let her know you’re okay,” I said, after brief introductions in our family room.
“Thanks,” she said, accepting the portable phone.
To give her some privacy, I initiated a meaningless discussion about the weather with Sylvia and Rudi while Heather dialed a few yards away in the kitchen. Moments later, I overheard her hushed voice say, “They appear normal…” Heather’s mother must have been as relieved as I was by that assessment!
Over the next few days, I was surprised by how much Heather knew about our family – even that Sylvia used to call me “Boopsy!”
We could hardly believe that two people who had never physically met could be so alike, and could practically read each other’s minds. They liked the same science fiction books and movies. Rudi devoured Heather’s seafood and pasta dishes, and she loved his Mexican bean dip. And, of course, they watched Star Trek reruns on TV.
I place the yo-yo back on the closet shelf, and then look at Sylvia.
She nods and grins. “Yes, it can stay.”
During Heather’s first visit, Rudi went days without even sitting at his precious Mac.
“This is like a vegan swearing off vegetables,” I said to Sylvia.
“Love changes priorities,” she responded. “You played hardly any tennis the first year we met.”
When Rudi visited Heather in Florida at Christmas, he didn’t touch a computer for three weeks. He came home shaking, with a bad case of withdrawal – not computer withdrawal, mind you, but from having to say good-bye to Heather at the airport.
“Can Heather stay with us for a few months after I graduate?” asked Rudi one February evening. “I’d work from May to July, and then we could drive down to Cape Coral together.”
“What would you do there?” I asked.
“Write some programs while she finishes school,” he said. “I’d have enough savings to get by.”
“Fine,” I said. They’d obviously done some planning.
Well, entering the United States for a lengthy stay without a job offer wasn’t as easy as Rudi and Heather had anticipated and they were turned back. After considerable deliberation, Rudi applied for a fiancé visa.
“We would have gotten married in a while anyway,” said Rudi.
“May as well do it now,” Heather added.
In all, they spent seven months living in our home while waiting for the decision on their visa application, sharing space with two adults who had a distinctly different view on what constituted tidiness. Together, they survived the stress of both these challenges with ease.
I put my arms around Sylvia’s shoulders and kiss her forehead as I pull her against me, her body a perfect fit with mine. “Now don’t get frisky,” she says. “We still have lots to do.”
Sylvia and I were thrilled by the happiness created by the special chemistry between Heather and Rudi. We appreciated how Heather, by her example, encouraged Rudi to trade some computer time for discussions with us.
“Remember the time that a bunch of us came home from a camping trip without our tent?” said Rudi, one evening while the four of us talked in the family room. “It wasn’t really destroyed by a backing up car…” Heather, who obviously knew the rest of the story, grinned.
During that summer and fall, we heard, for the first time, a number of stories that Rudi had already shared with Heather.
Sylvia and I once laughed at the notion of Rudi’s dream girl jumping out of his computer. We could never have imagined the journey that would begin with a few typed words in an Internet chat room.
“Rudi really lucked out, didn’t he?” I say.
“No more than you did,” she responds. Her smile warms me all over.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem