The Computer in the Living Room
by Katie Price
My parents seemed so old fashioned. They expected us to play outside or read a book. No cell phones, laptops, or game consoles were allowed for the kids in our household. The family computer held a place of honor in the center of our living room. That big, shiny, glorious computer was easily visible from the kitchen, the table and the couch — places my mother could be found whenever my bothers and I were allowed computer time. The three of us kids would squeeze around the small screen to watch funny videos together, or I would sit on the floor watching the boys play video games.
Mostly, though, computer time was granted to whomever had to use it for homework. I don’t think I personally used our computer for non-academic reasons until ninth grade, and even then it was under the supervision of a parent hovering nearby. Do I resent my parents for their strict control of our media use? I certainly did at the time. Looking back now, however, I think their fears of us stumbling across inappropriate content or wasting valuable study or practice time on the computer were reasonable. I must have shown them I could be trusted, though, because after my brothers left for college, and as I was entering high school, they let me create my first social media profile on Facebook.
It is here that the story of my first romance begins. Johnny had been a character in my life for four years before we started dating in my sophomore year of high school, but we had barely spoken ten words to each other in that time. He had always been that older guy I had a crush on for no particularly good reason. Actually, he was kind of a jerk in his sarcastic, rebellious way, but then that was was probably exactly why I found him so attractive.
Sitting at the family computer one snowy Saturday morning, I nervously ran my fingers over the keyboard as I typed out a very contrived message and finally punched the send button to deliver to Johnny the first of many Facebook messages. My heart raced and I struggled to breathe as I stared at the chatbox, eyes glazing over as I gazed at the glowing screen, afraid to blink for fear the computer would somehow erase the message.
Why was I shaking so uncontrollably? Was the icy air from outdoors sneaking through the window or was I really that nervous about sending my first message to a guy on Facebook? Or was it excitement? The situation I found myself in departed so greatly from the familial relationship I traditionally had with the computer that it was probably a combination of all three.
Of course my mother had to be in on it too; her dislike of computer messaging as a replacement for “real life” conversation compelled her to interject her pre-computer-age wisdom. From across the house she could see whenever I had a chatbox open, and she would immediately interrogate me about the message. Her interest escalated when I answered that it was Johnny, but, fortunately, I could supply the innocent excuse of finding out when our band was practicing.
Annoyed by my mother’s inquisitiveness, I rolled my eyes and tried to focus on the excitement I felt at the success of my brave act, pausing to wipe my sweaty palms on my pajama pants so that the computer mouse didn’t feel so slippery under my anxious hand. This guy who seemed so quiet and attitudinal replied to my message with the friendliness I would expect from a close acquaintance of many years, but never received in person. It was shocking. At least it was shocking for self-conscious, boy-crazy, flirting-inept fifteen-year-old me.
Little did I know that this exchange of Facebook instant messages had begun the digitalization of our relationship. We created alternate personas for ourselves on the internet and it was those personas that lived the relationship. Online we allowed ourselves to comfortably experiment with rebellion and independence from our parents. It was risky and thrilling, but it also felt safe. It would be a romance that blossomed, grew, flourished, stumbled and then died almost entirely through social media.
When I saw Johnny at practice, merely an hour after that first message, we exchanged a knowing glance from across the room but made no other recognition of our conversation. I had often had conversations with friends on the internet that were never referenced in person; it was as though the two worlds were distinct and meant to be kept separate. I had thought this separation was odd at first but as my Facebook addiction grew I learned that not referencing online conversations in person was acceptable behavior with social media.
Several weeks of messaging with Johnny passed by, and the increased heart-rate I experienced when I received a Facebook message alert continued. I started laughing uncontrollably and nearly hyperventilated when I got home from class one day to a message from Johnny asking if I liked him. The computer had become not a tool for completing homework assignments and doing tedious research, but rather my best friend carrying a lover’s messages.
Our relationship was a digital fantasy — funny, romantic, intimate, exciting, but all online. Avoiding my parents’ prying and taking a big risk, I developed a secret nightly routine: I would go to bed, wait long enough for my parents to fall asleep, tip-toe across the house cursing my ballerina’s feet for cracking so much, gently close my parents’ door, and sneak into the living room where I would tap the mouse and illuminate the dark house with the computer’s blue glow. I was rather jumpy on those late nights, constantly whipping my head around when I heard a suspicious noise, or quickly turning off the monitor when I was afraid my parents were checking for the blue light. I even tried typing quietly.
The fear of getting caught was intoxicating, and Johnny and I bonded as we laughed at our rebelliousness. Sitting in the darkness with Facebook illuminating my world, I felt like a normal teenager for the first time in my life. The computer in the living room that had so long been a part of the strict regimen of my life was suddenly granting me freedom. Perhaps I didn’t realize other kids were actually sneaking out, but I was happy with the late night computer rendezvous that took place from within the safety of my home. At two or three in the morning Johnny and I, and my computer, would finally go to sleep.
These clandestine conversations were often the extent of our conversing. When we were actually hanging out together we didn’t have much to say. Though we spent nearly all our time at school together, our conversations often consisted of us talking about how we never had anything to talk about, having already discussed everything possible in our digital messages. It also didn’t help that we rarely saw each other outside of school. It never really bothered me, though, that our lack of drivers’ licenses restricted us from going on actual dates, because we had so much fun talking online. Though we lived within walking distance of each other, we preferred our online time together. After several months of “dating,” my mom would hear me messaging Johnny on the weekend, and ironically she would be the one to encourage us to just get together and talk in person. For some reason the internet had created an unavoidable crutch for us. In using Facebook to overcome our initial shyness, we never overcame that shyness in person. Through the internet, Johnny and I could be different people and it turned out that we couldn’t be those people in real life — not together, at least.
Still, it was a nasty affair when Johnny finally broke up with me. Unable to discuss our feelings face to face, we turned to the more covert alternatives made available by social media. He posted a YouTube video of Blink-182's song “I Miss You.” I responded by changing my profile picture to a photo of me standing triumphantly alone on a mountain. We had acknowledged the immaturity of personal breakups publicly acted out on social media, so we refrained from directly referencing anything about the end of our relationship. But it was obvious to those who knew us.
In the end, the family computer gradually resumed its role as research tool and study facilitator, helping to prepare for AP tests and for writing speeches and papers. It provided music for every occasion and funny videos for brief amusement, but it was never the intimate friend that it once was. The late night glow was now from last minute term papers and college applications, not clandestine romantic conversations.
Sometimes I think that if Johnny and I had limited our relationship to the computer we would have lasted much longer. Our internet personas got along famously. Our words were witty, clever, deep, sincere. It was during our time together in-person that we found little more between us than physical attraction. Perhaps this was a perfectly acceptable transition in my life. A shy, naive girl, unmoored from parental control, beginning to safely navigate the scary, exciting new world of relationships, all through that computer in the living room.