My name is Alan. And I was catfished.
Room, in unison: Hi, Alan.
It’s taken me a long time to admit that. Every aspect of the situation is paralyzingly embarrassing, as you can imagine—even the term we now use to describe it. (Thanks, Nev!) But it happened, it happened to me, and it cut like a burn.
When it began, I was living in a hole of self-pity, depression, and a sharp, perpetual loneliness. I was under the belief that finding a romantic partner would ease some, if not all, of these woes. I was also under the impression that absurd amounts of alcohol would smooth my days and calm my rattling brain. But we know how that goes.
I spent endless hours toying with the various forms of representation the anonymous internet would allow since age 11, when my parents bought a Gateway and a dial-up AOL account. I’d pretend to be other people in chatrooms, which would escalate to IM conversations. From there I became active on several forums—mostly for music and Lord of the Rings, but it was the sub-forums that were made for non-canon conversation I found myself returning to night after night, talking to strangers, and enjoying it. As an early adopter of Tumblr, on top of my forum history, I had dozens of “online friends.” And I met many of them IRL. For the most part, everyone was exactly who they said they were. The ones who weren’t were so obvious that is was comical—few pictures, vague identities, near-spam-bot like language.
In an attempt to thwart said crippling loneliness, I was actively online-dating. OKCupid was my preferred channel and since it was localized, and its goal was to inevitably connect in person, it seemed like a poor outlet for fakery. I had already had substantial, non-physical, e-relationships with people (one of which lived as far away as Australia) who turned out to be very real. So when a girl with dozens of pictures, similar interests, a California area code, and an apartment on the west side of L.A. started messaging me, I didn’t bat an eye.
I’d been on dates with women who shared mere fractions of the information she had shared so this seemed to be a better situation, a more open situation. It was early December and just over a year since Catfish was released (a film I have still not seen). Her username was “hkouser” and her “real” name was Holly. She wanted to speak on the phone before meeting. This had happened before. Some people have difficulty understanding or communicating the right tone online, and this would be her first date from the internet. We spoke for 30 minutes. It was a pleasant and easy flowing conversation—exciting, even. She suggested we get brunch for our first date the following weekend at Alcove in Los Feliz.
And thus it began: an hour before we were supposed to meet she informed me she had to urgently make a trip up to Santa Barbara. You see, she was a grad student at UCLA but an associate professor at UC Santa Barbara and split her time between the two campuses—enough so that she had an apartment in both cities. She had mentioned her family was wealthy and her area code was SB so this all checked out. She apologized profusely, something about her boss needing her assistance on a project she had thought was the next weekend. I was disappointed, but I’d been cancelled on before.
She called again several days later. I tried to make plans but unfortunately she was on her way to Chicago to visit family over the holidays. Made sense. Just bad timing, I thought. Just more loneliness through the winter season.
But at this point it seemed that we knew each other fairly well. And since it was apparently quite boring and taxing to visit her family, she called often over the break. I took this time to imbibe unholy amounts of whiskey and Google her. I found Youtube videos, a Tumblr—it was all there, save for a Facebook account she had already told me she recently deleted. I looked forward to her late evening calls. I was blacking out nearly each night but still managed to hold up my end on long, substantial conversations—we discussed our aspirations, our warped families, our past relationships, X-Files deep cuts, our shared obsession with GOOP, how her grandfather had invented the egg McMuffin and that entitled her to a McDonal’d Gold Card (this should have been the tip-off, no one gets free McD’s for life!).
When she returned, at the beginning of her next semester, she was very busy! Oh so busy! Our maiden meeting was postponed and postponed. We still talked on the phone, texted each other pictures, talked on iChat, but I was becoming increasingly angry and very hurt. After so many rainchecks, I thought maybe she had a boyfriend, or, maybe something was wrong with me physically? I was a highly active blogger with an embarrassing amount of selfies available on the internet; she had a much firmer grasp on what I brought to the table. Maybe I wasn’t enough. She lived less than 10 miles away and yet it seemed impossible to meet.
Our calls became vile. I was livid. She was so sorry that she’d cry for hours. She’d say she thought she loved me and I’d demand proof. She’d cite personal failings, mental issues, her fears and past pains, and I’d feel guilty for pressing her.
Little did I know, the real Holly had just been struck by a car while crossing PCH and died.
I told my friends about her many times. “I think she’s coming back to LA next weekend.” They wanted to meet her. They saw the look of embarrassment on my face each time she failed to meet us at some group event that she’d promised to attend. I couldn’t fathom why she didn’t want to see me. I could only imagine I was flawed in some unknown way. Oh, the insecurity! But this is the cycle that one goes through while being ‘fished. Doubting the existence of this person drove me insane. I felt my trust in other humans was important and it was being challenged, and I even began to question my trust in my own conclusions, my own ideas.
We stopped talking. In fact, I told her to never “fucking call me again” and shouted some other drunken, mean words. Months later, someone contacted me asking about the legitimacy of “hkouser”’s existence. He, too, was being duped. And now I had become part of her lies. She told him she had an ex named Alan and that they’d just gotten dinner together the other night. I was now her excuse.
He did some of his own digging and found an article in The OC Register about a young woman, first name Holly, who’d been killed near Seal Beach trying to cross the highway. And the picture they used was of “hkouser.” I wanted to puke. I wanted to puke up all the nice things and the airy anecdotes and the compliments and the butterflies I once had, now dead and deteriorated like wet wilted flowers, onto the floor in front of me, and take stock of my gruesome insides, my shame-coated hopes, wishes, all of the idiotic efforts I’d made.
Her OKCupid account was still active. And she’d still call, usually when she’d been drinking. It was all starting to make sense. A group of my friends started obsessing over the Catfish television series. I couldn’t bring myself to watch any of it. I knew, deep down, that I was just the same. But my years of internet use, my open wounds and loneliness, the things I shared with her, brought such a shame over me that I couldn’t admit it had really happened. I pushed her from my mind viciously.
A year later, another person contacted me. She was still at it, with minor variations in her story, with plenty of candid pictures of “Holly” to back it up. I commiserated with him. I shared my story, in more detail than the last time I was contacted about her, and it felt better. The shame-mole still burrows deep in me, resurfacing every now and then to remind me of plans made or sexts sent, but it doesn’t hurt me so much as it embarrasses me. How could I have been so stupid? I wanted companionship, above all. I wanted to be wanted and I wanted love, or a pathway toward it. And for that I will never laugh at the expense of the catfished, no matter how apparent the warning signs may have been. The search for romance and the destruction of one’s loneliness is, in my eyes, still a brave and worthwhile quest.
But I still can’t stomach the show much.
Photo via theophilusphotography/flickr.