My First Boyfriend’s Name Was Boyfriend: An AIM Romance

We met in a chat room. By we, I mean the three of us. Maura and I, huddled conspiratorially around her parents’ computer, clogging up the phone line. And Beau, presumably at his own family computer, if he was indeed the eighth grade boy he claimed to be, and not some middle-aged creep.

But Maura and I knew Beau was the real deal. You could see it in his unabashed use of exclamation points, the way he talked — er, typed — about all the sports he played. He was in our grade and attended a nearby school. Maura and I were instantly smitten. And we both brazenly started up private conversations with Beau over AIM, knowing our fragile middle school friendship hung in the balance.

It was during this period that I mastered the art of the Away Message, the predecessor to the subtweet. When I wanted to be mysterious, I’d go with something subtle yet alluring like, “sigh.” Sometimes I’d show my artistic side with some Savage Garden or Third Eye Blind lyrics. And when I was feeling really daring and maybe a little sexy, I’d type, “showering brb.”

Chatting with Beau on AIM as ashmay44 was so much better than trying to talk to the boys at my middle school. I was new, having moved from Laguna Beach, California to Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania in the middle of seventh grade. The boys weren’t really that different, but the girls were another species entirely. They were super into Broadway plays, and knew all the lyrics to Rent. They wore chunky high-heeled Dr. Martens, fitted bell-bottom jeans, and shirts bedazzled with brand names like GAP or GUESS. After elementary school, I had attended a private Catholic school where I wore the same white polo shirt and plaid skirt every day, pulled from a closet worthy of Mr. Rogers. My sense of fashion had frozen in the fifth grade with board shorts and Billabong shirts, and I scrambled to catch up, demanding trips to the nearby King of Prussia Mall to build a more sophisticated East Coast wardrobe at Limited Too.

But even with my bell-bottom jeans, I was painfully awkard. I was good at school and good at sports, but terrible at being a 14-year-old girl. My friendships at St. Catherine’s in Laguna Beach had been stunningly without drama, and so I wasn’t trained in the arts of gossip and betrayal. And it didn’t help that every girl at Welsh Valley Middle School was getting boobs except for me (technically, I’m still waiting). I had no clue how to compete with my curvy, conniving peers for the attention of our male classmates, so I didn’t even try.

But Beau had no idea what I looked like! All he had were my words, and writing has always been more natural for me than speaking. Then one day on AIM, he dropped a bomb.

“Maura!” I screamed into the phone. “Beau’s school is coming to the amusement park!”

It was our big eighth grade trip, and it appeared that all surrounding schools were converging on the same amusement park on the same day. And just like that, Maura and I were taking our friendship with Beau offline.

This was a year before I got my first cell phone, so I have no idea how we all found each other in that sea of teens. But the timing was magical. It was a hot day and Maura and I had just cooled down on a ride that involved getting majorly splashed. I had recently determined after much mirror-based research that my face was prettier when wet (yes, that’s weird, and no, I guess I wasn’t wearing mascara back then). And so it was with a perfectly damp face that I looked up when Beau called our names.

Beau was tall, lanky and freckled. I decided right away that he was good looking, and would be downright handsome if he stopped parting his hair in the middle. After what must have been a very awkward and perhaps cruel exchange (sorry, Maura), Beau asked me (me!!) to go on one of the rides with him. We sat facing each other in a contraption that rotated in the air. At one point, some of his spit fell on my face. Afterwards we held hands all the way back to our respective school buses in the parking lot, and it was official. I had a boyfriend.

But the honeymoon was short-lived. Maura, my closest friend, would barely look at me. Beau insisted on moving our conversations from the safe haven of AIM to the eavesdropping-prone home phone, which has never been my jam. And then, a week or so into our relationship, he took things even further and asked me to go see a movie with him.

“Dad, can I get a ride to the movie theater tomorrow night?”

“Who are you meeting?”

“Just a friend, Beau.”

“Your…boyfriend?” My dad chuckled.

“What?!” I turned red, horrified. “What are you talking about?”

“Beau is a nickname for boyfriend, silly,” explained my highly amused dad.

“Nevermind!”

I ran up to my room, and broke up with Beau over AIM that evening. Things were moving too fast, I said. Maybe we should just be friends. In truth, I was overwhelmed by the logistics of having an offline boyfriend. Why couldn’t we have kept things simple, sending clever messages back and forth on AIM, with an annual amusement park rendezvous?

The next morning in front of our lockers, I told Maura that Beau and I had broken up. Our friendship was more important. And things went back to normal, with Maura and I huddled around her parents’ computer, impatiently awaiting that dial-up modem, the soundtrack of our friendship.