Catfishing

“Whoever this is…take me off your email list.”

I had been writing back and forth with my closest childhood friends, eagerly discussing our upcoming Christmas break. When suddenly, thirty-five messages in, a man named Jordan Mays sent me this terse reply.

I sat back and stared at his glowing demand on my computer screen. Who was this person and why was he contacting me? A small part of me began to wonder: was this a prank? I wouldn’t put it past my friend Ellie to open a new email account, pose as a strange man, and attempt to freak me out with an aggressive reply. But no…that would require too much work and it was hard enough getting Ellie to reply to an email nowadays.

So this was probably real. A strange man sending me a strange email in the middle of a bunch of messages containing personal details about my and my friends’ lives. Looking back, I noticed Jordan Mays’ email address was listed on each of the succeeding messages we had sent back and forth. All of which begged the question: how had my friends and I not noticed him before?

I promptly forwarded Jordan’s email to my friend Genevieve, who was also on the chain. Gen quickly replied:

LOL

I AM CACKLING

He’s a “musician” and he’s our age. LOOK AT THE PICTURE! LOLOLOL!

She was right. Jordan was a member of Google Plus; his blurry profile picture was of a young man holding a microphone and possibly…singing in a bar? Gen further commented:

OMG I am literally in tears laughing so hard.

CAN YOU IMAGINE NOT KNOWING US AND GETTTING ALL THOSE EMAILS?!?!?

THIS IS INCREDIBLE!

It was certainly something. Gen made a quick search through her inbox and found proof we had been unknowingly emailing Jordan for a year. I resolved to get to the bottom of this potentially threatening, though much more probably, misunderstood situation. Little did I know, finding answers would require hours of rummaging through years worth of emails in search of one elusive and very misplaced “0.”

It all began when we left home for college. Having grown up together, Ellie, Genevieve, Liz, Meredith, and I were separated for the first time in our young lives. Scattered around the country, one of us in each time zone and occasionally even overseas, we quickly learned how unpleasant life was without the company of each other. We grew up and graduated, got jobs, lost jobs, made other friends, and basically lived our lives. But the fact remained that we missed each other and were incapable of finding sufficient replacements in our respective cities. There really were no other people in the world who could know us quite as well. Or at the very least, pick up so easily on twenty-plus years of inside jokes.

And so to combat this homesickness, we began a regular communiqué through Facebook messages. At the time, Facebook was exclusively the province of university and high school students. It perfectly afforded us the privacy that fed our deranged and deluded storytelling. For let there be no mistaking, these were no ordinary emails. Feeling no compulsion to conceal the sad truths of our daily lives, we described in breathtaking detail the glories of our coming-of-age, an epistolary recording of our naïve blunderings through life. Oprah had her book club, the Sisterhood had their magical pair of pants, and we…we had printable documentation of our dumbest exploits to keep us company until suitable companionship could be found.

But far be it from me, one single member of this tribe, to suggest the inanity of these messages. Herewith is a sampling from late 2007, when my friends and I were in college and, as usual, entirely out of our depths.

Meredith

Is it sad that the highlight of my week was watching some girl fall on her way to class? She was wearing some big-ass heels though and I’m just like honey, no. This is what you get for wearing those shoes. I saw her from a distance and her books and papers flew eeeverywhere and she had to chase some down. Then when I finally got up to her and she had all of her crap back in her hands, she starts walking again and she drops her cellphone, which breaks into pieces. At this point she just starts crying and I’m right next to her. Mmm, awkward. What could I say to make this less awkward? I picked up the pieces of her cellphone, gave her a pat on the back, and said, “Momma said there’d be days like this.” That was my good deed for the week. I’m set to go to heaven in case something tragic happens.

Okay, something that’s reeeally been annoying me lately: all the crazy people who like to stand outside my window and talk extremely loud at 4 in the morning. OH…MY…GOD! I’m going crazy! This is the third night in a row that it’s happened. Let’s see, last night it was a couple having what I’m sure was a terribly important fight. Important enough to wake my ass up at 4 am. The girl was all, “OMG, OMG I hate you!” And the guy screams back, “It’s not that big of a deal!” Apparently it is because she says, “YOU SLEPT WITH YOUR EX-GF IN YOUR BED LAST NIGHT!” But he was all like, “She was drunk! I was just taking care of her! Nothing happened!!” Mmm, hate to tell you buddy, but that elicits an “I HATE YOU!” It went on for half an hour and I almost opened my window and screamed “SHUT THE FUCK UP” but I restrained myself. I didn’t wanna cancel out my good deed of picking up the bitch’s cellphone. Also, I didn’t have the strength to open my window.

Genevieve

Last night was Halloween celebrations at Georgetown. I was Cruella Di Vil, and my good friend was my Dalmatian. I hope y’all can see the pictures tagged of me on FB, otherwise I’ll post some! It was fabulous. Alas, I started drinking at 7:30 and wound up passed out in the bathtub around 10:30 when everyone was cleared out. I looked like a high-class call girl who had seen better days. When I woke at around 5:30 am, still in said tub, I REALLY looked like a high class call girl who had seen better days…torn slip, fake eyelashes half off my eyes, liquid liner running down my face, and a whopping huge headache to accompany my disastrous physical state.

I searched the house rampantly for my keys, phone, and dignity and got the hell out of dodge, walking home clad in a mink coat and leopard satin sheath dress. Let me just say, when I walked into the building, the security guard was NOT amused. He said, and I quote, “Ma’am, do I need to call someone? The police? A cab? Do you even GO to Georgetown?” I gave him a withering stare and continued my walk of shame to my room, where I passed out (again). Sigh. I swear, Halloween is cursed for me. I was supposed to go out with some sexy men, but instead I wound up in a bathtub. Again. I sigh. Such is my life.

Outwardly, we appeared to the world as the intelligent, capable young women we often were. But in our posts, we confessed the real and gritty truth, the great tragedies of our young existences. And as the years passed, the chain of messages grew.

In time, Facebook proved more burden than benefactor as the conduit for our discussions. Some of us hated the ever-changing format of the site and its privacy laws. Others found Facebook too addicting; it encouraged late-night stalking binges, fueling a toxic desire to learn who was doing what, at the risk that comparison might provoke a mind-numbing depression and self-doubt malaise. Still others were knee deep managing a constant barrage of likes and pokes from their middle-aged family members, many of whom were new to the site and ever eager to plumb the depths of our profile pages (“How do you have so many friends? LOL!”). A venue change was in order and we all agreed regular email was our best option.

The trick, however, was which email to use. Work, personal, grad school (for those of us who had them)… We never bothered to nail down a specific address for each specific person. And so, our contact lists grew. When sending out a group email, we often used the first account that appeared under our friend’s name.

By the spring of 2012, this was revealed to be a problem.

Ellie

Okay, guys. I’m here at work. It’s 3:05 in the afternoon and I have just completed my annual AML training for the year of 2012.

What is AML, you ask? Anti-money laundering. Or: acts meant to conceal or disguise the origins of, or otherwise legitimize, illegally-gotten funds, i.e. drug money, terrorist funding, embezzled money, etc. etc…

Because I work in the financial industry, we are under some pretty tight state and federal controls. Meaning they are all up in our shit, all of the time, and EVERYTHING that goes through my work email is subject to scrutiny by my company, by the government, and by opposing counsel if anyone ever tries to prosecute my ass.

So, uh…waaayy back when I first started here and Genevieve and I used to email each other phrases such as “business end of a riding crop” and “bend it the hell over,” not only did Eli our IT guy review those emails, but federal regulations require that those very same emails be stored on our servers for at least six years.

Here at my job, we make it ten years. We’re very law-abiding.

My emails are saved in case the “regulators” ever want to review them. Which they have. Some years they just ask for six months of emails from ten random employees. I have just been informed that in other years, they have asked for (and been provided with) a complete years’ worth of emails from EVERY employee.

Including yours truly.

Luckily, my behavior and my emails have never verged on criminal. Just…criminally inappropriate sometimes. Whoops.

So I am writing this email in order to ask all of you…if you have my work email anywhere in your contacts, PLEASE delete it. Right now. Forget it ever existed. If you could take a minute to help me avoid any potential future embarrassments, I would greatly appreciate it.

Essentially, dear friends of mine…

My work email IS NOT and HAS NEVER BEEN private. Something which always should have occurred to me, in retrospect. And it did — sort of — but as a law-abiding employee I never gave it much consideration until now. As they say, hindsight is 50/50.

So to wrap up this inordinately long email, be a friend. Help me to be more professional in the workplace. (How many of you just laughed?) And most importantly, DELETE THAT SHIT.

Thank you.

By the time I unearthed this email, Gen had already found proof we’d been contacting Jordan Mays for over two years. Somewhere in the switch from Facebook to email, Jordan had entered our fold.

Genevieve and I informed the group of our intruder and very quickly, we became obsessed with finding out who he was. After all, Jordan Mays had incredibly thorough intel on us all. Not to mention, he never once revealed he was accidentally receiving our emails…for years. Now, the tables had turned.

Early findings confirmed that most of Jordan’s friends on Google Plus were from the Midwest, although Liz thought she found a website that confirmed “our” Jordan had been born in…Nevada? On the musicians’ page for a concert venue, we read a Jordan Mays personal bio:

Simply Jordan . . . The Man “What comes from the heart, reaches the heart.” Born in the state of Nevada his musical interest began as a child, he played nearly all the musical instruments but ultimately fell in love with the guitar…Often times Jordan can be observed for hours in sheer ecstasy strumming the strings of his favorite guitar, affectionately known as, “Daddy’s Li’l Girl” a.k.a., “Chocolate Boo.”

Reacting to this news, Genevieve sent us all the following:

But it was still early days. Unable to definitively confirm if “Chocolate Boo” was our guy, we bookmarked his website and carried on.

Continuing the search, it immediately became clear that Facebook was useless. There were simply too many Jordan Mays to find a match: Jordans from Europe and Canada, a “Jordan Mays Badazzz,” and my personal favorite, a Jordan Mays who photoshopped his floating face above the Brooklyn Bridge with the caption, “Dreamin.’”

We quickly learned to rely on the one piece of evidence we knew to be true: Jordan’s Google Plus account. His profile was severely lacking in details, yet with enough digging, we were able to produce clues. “Our” Jordan looked much younger in his profile picture than “Chocolate Boo.” “Our” Jordan was clearly in a bar in Ohio. The sports posters in the background of his picture confirmed as much. “Our” Jordan wasn’t singing, but rapping. We deduced this after noticing most of Jordan’s Google Plus friends were heavily involved in the Ohio rap scene.

Before long, we extrapolated this information to find Jordan’s birth date and Twitter account, his YouTube page, photos of his concerts on Instagram, and dates for his upcoming shows. He even had a self-published album whose cover displayed a crouching Jordan, moodily glaring at the camera in a hoodie and high tops. We joked about flying to Ohio to surprise him at his next show: “Hey Jordan, we’ve never met in person, but…”

The fact of the matter was, whether intentional or not, Jordan Mays had entered our Ya-Ya Sisterhood and after discovering his true identity, some of us grew to regard him with a curious affection. Still, there was the issue of our own personal safety. We found our man, but how much did he really know about us?

I couldn’t help recalling…

Many years earlier, Genevieve had signed Ellie up on a dating site without her permission. She uploaded fake contact information and filled out a fake biography detailing a fake history of likes and dislikes. All of this topped off with an assortment of Ellie’s most ridiculous (real) photos: Ellie juggling fruit, Ellie wrapping her hair around her face like a kerchief, Ellie covering her eye and snarling like a pirate at the camera. After receiving several takers, Gen eventually signed Ellie up for a date with an obese Mexican man at a local Chinese restaurant. It was at this point in the proceedings that Gen felt it incumbent upon herself to announce the rendezvous to Ellie. Quite naturally, Ellie was pissed, freaked out, and refused to go. The date came and went, and we were left to imagine the quiet tragedy of this man, alone with his bowl of Lo Mein. Ever since, Ellie has lived in fear that a lonely, overweight Mexican with a penchant for noodles will hunt her down and seek his revenge.

The question now remained: was Jordan Mays a similar threat?

Individually, we all began to search through our inboxes. Our Christmas group emails were fairly innocuous enough: a rote listing of who was bringing what to the potluck, amid our usual series of oft repeated inside jokes. So apart from the soda and salad I agreed to bring to our dinner, I couldn’t help but wonder what else this man knew about me.

As it turned out, not a lot. In fact, I was just as much a stranger to him as he was to me. Apart from a few group emails, I had only ever emailed Jordan one-on-one once before. Back in 2011, I asked Gen for Ellie’s email address, and promptly sent the following messages to the email Gen gave me:

Me: Gen was g-chatting me about seeing a movie and getting dinner tonight. Can you make it?

Jordan: Hey…I’m sorry refresh my memory…who is this?

Me: Uh…it’s me.

Jordan: I know LOL from where tho?

(beat)

Jordan: From where?

I never replied. Shortly thereafter, I emailed Gen to say she had given me the wrong address, and I never heard from Jordan again. That is, until that fateful Christmas email morning.

Suddenly, it was all becoming clear. Genevieve had Ellie’s wrong email address. Somewhere in the transitions from Facebook to Gmail, from Ellie’s work account to her personal email, Gen had gotten terribly, terribly confused. And since we never bothered to update our contacts, the mistake went unnoticed for years. Gen was missing a single digit from Ellie’s email — a “45” instead of a “045” — and it was that forgotten zero that led us all down the path to Mr. Jordan Mays.

Or was he Mr. Ellison Walker? For reasons that still remain unclear, Jordan Mays was listed as “Mr. Ellison Walker” in all of his emails from 2011 and earlier. He had the same name as our friend, Ellison Walker, minus a “Mr.,” and he had the same email, minus a zero. The line between Ya-Ya and “Ya Boy” was remarkably, almost unperceptively, thin.

I reported my findings back to the group. Like myself, most of my friends had little to no contact with Jordan, apart from some ridiculous (albeit harmless) group emails. That is, everyone except Gen, who was only beginning to unravel the tangled web of her outbox. Gen was finding years worth of material she had sent to Jordan, all of it originally meant for Ellie. And as was Gen’s fashion, her emails were insane:

April 2011

I DI-INT SEE YOU STANDING THERE

QUE PASA CHICA

I JUST BAKED SOME LOVELY YEAST BREAD HEYYY OHHHHHHHHHH

May 2011

I need a man who thinks it’s right when it’s so wrong tonight, yeah baby, tonight! Yeah, baby.

Are you bacheloretting? I know it’s not as fun as when we do it together (that’s what she said) but still — it is hilarious.

Additionally, there were the long series of emails in which Gen tried to convince “Ellie” (aka Jordan Mays) that they should watch an indie movie starring Robert Pattinson. Why? Because in the movie, Pattinson says he wants to know what it’s like to have a vagina; he consequently spends the whole movie “tucking” in an attempt to experience what it’s like to be a woman. Gen found this to be hysterical and “must watch programming.” Astonishingly even this email barrage did not convince Jordan Mays to finally “unsubscribe.”

After the dust had settled, I couldn’t help but think it was all karmically ordained. In exchange for jilting Ellie’s Mexican lover at a Chinese restaurant, Gen found her own internet paramour in the form of a Midwestern rapper who was down to watch a “tucking” film.

Best of all, because Gen was almost exclusively contacting Jordan Mays, Ellie was left perpetually out of the loop for years. Gen would start up a group email with the wrong address; we would all respond, make plans, comment on an article she sent, listen to Gen’s tales of dating gone awry…and Ellie was none the wiser. Months later, we’d bring up an anecdote in conversation and Ellie would adamantly enthuse, “I have no idea what you are talking about.” To which Genevieve would reply, “Ellie! I have had enough of your shit.” When Ellie finally found out what all had transpired, all the emails and inside jokes she had missed over the years, she characteristically deadpanned, “I have no words.”

It was at this point in the proceedings I like to think Jordan Mays grew to miss us. Several weeks had passed since he first revealed himself, and for the first time in years, the well of our emails had run dry. One-by-one, we each received a message in our Gmail and as per usual, I was the first: “Jordan Mays added you on Google+. Follow and share with Jordan by adding him to a circle.” Oh but Google, I already have.

These many months later, the irony is not lost on me that in so telling my Jordan Mays story on the internet, I am further revealing facts and personal details about my and my friends’ lives — a twenty-first century Catch-22. But before you go crying “#firstworldproblems” please take note — while this story is one hundred percent true, I have changed nearly all identifying information, including names, dates, and locations because well…Jordan Mays. I can only have room for one internet lurker in my life.

And so, like a bottle thrown into the sea, I send this cautionary tale out on the waves of the Internet in hopes that somebody somewhere may read it and carefully peruse the contents of their contact lists. In the meanwhile, I remain comforted by the fact that Google will alert me as soon as Jordan Mays’ next album drops.