Do you ever really know who you're chatting with?
I?m always amazed at how funny life can be. Just about a year ago, a woman I had befriended online passed away. I received an email from her best friend saying that my friend had been in a car accident and had been hospitalized for 10 days, three of them in a coma. The friend went on to say that after her release from the hospital, my friend developed complications that resulted in her re-hospitalization. The email stated that at approximately 3:48 AM, on a Sunday morning in August in Australia, my friend passed away.
Published on LatinoLA: September 9, 2002
It all seemed so sudden, so unexpected. I had just spoken to her?she hadn?t even mentioned an accident. But that was just like her, put my need to get going ahead of her need to say something. Our last ?chat? was a quick ?see you when I get back? from my yearly men?s retreat kind of communication. We had progressed from ?chat? to ?voice chat? in 9 months and I had come to look forward to chatting with my new ?cheeky? online friend.
She made me laugh in the middle of the night and had me listening to Andre Boccelli music. We talked of protecting children, saving the koala bear, and my 5-year-old daughter. She told me of her painful childhood, her struggle with her biological parents, and her palpable loneliness.
After the initial shock of the news of her untimely death, the cop in me began to question the facts. I had continued to receive email from her during her supposed ?hospitalization? for one, and on our last quick chat, she never mentioned a car accident. But then I remembered that I had actually began to try to break away from this long distance online ?friendship,? thinking that getting attached to a voice in Australia was probably not that smart, and probably spoke more about my own loneliness, as I had been separated from my wife for about a year when we began our online friendship. I could tell she sensed my ?distance? in our last few chats.
I felt we were becoming too attached, even though we were both half way around the globe from each other. She had been abused as a child, she said, didn?t trust men, and couldn?t find a man who was interested in more than just sex. In a short time, our conversations had become intimate, honest and revealing. I had exposed my feelings to her in a way I hadn?t with anyone other than my wife. When we chatted online, I would pull up her profile and look at her picture. It ?felt? like I really knew her.
So when I was told she was dead, I refused to believe it. I wrote to her friend and asked numerous questions?I wanted details! Her friend would only assure me my friend had passed and that if I respected our friendship at all, I would just accept her death and stop asking questions. I did. In the days following those emails, I didn?t know how to feel. Was she really my friend? I never met her. Were we really intimate with each other? Should I cry for a person I never met or even saw in person? I didn?t know. I only knew I would never hear that friendly British-born, Irish-raised voice in the night again.
Fast-forward to Saturday night, September 7, 2002, just over one year after my friend?s death. It?s 1:00 AM and I?m conducting a fugitive investigation. As my partners and I search a home for a ?burglar? with a warrant, an oval picture frame on a living room table catches my attention. As I take a closer look at the photo, I freeze in my tracks?. I stare in disbelief. There, sitting on the table in a home in the city of Paramount, is my friend from Australia. She is smiling, as she was when I first saw her photo in her online profile. She wore a white t-shirt, blue denim overall shorts, and a million dollar ?model? smile.
My hands began to shake as I picked up the picture frame and turned it over to open the back. I had to know if she was still alive and had written something to these people, who, I thought, must be related to her somehow. My heart began to beat faster as I removed the oval cardboard that was behind her photo. As I removed the photo from the frame, a feeling of deep relief and sadness swept over me. Relief, in that I now had my answer about her death. She was not "dead." Sadness, in that the photo was on magazine paper, the kind that comes with a newly-purchased picture frame. Those generic great looking people who come with the frame when you buy them at Wal-Mart, Kmart, or Sav-On.
I had been duped.
My partners and I completed our investigation and prepared to leave. I asked the owner of the frame if I could take the picture on his table with me. He just laughed and said, ?Yes, just leave the frame.? I told him that I ?knew? the girl in the photo. The whole way home that night I thought about my friend in Australia. The nine months of ?voice chatting? in the middle of the night (because of the time difference), the many emails, the picture she sent me of her as a little girl, the koala bear she ?saved? in my daughter?s name, and the friendship that came to mean so much to me. I had always wondered about her death?did it really happen the way ?Lisa? (her friend) said it had? Would my friend have lied to me?
I still don?t know whom I talked to for all those months in Australia. I don?t know if her name was real, if she was really a child psychologist, or if she was really in a car accident. I do know the picture she claimed to be hers was not. I suppose I could surmise that the rest of my friends? story was all lies as well. I also know that the pain she carried from her childhood was real, as was her general care for the safety and welfare of children. I know that when I poured my heart out, her kind words, her thoughtful acceptance of who I am, was also real.
And, if being my friend for that time in an anonymous manner helped her get through whatever it was she was going through, then I guess that makes it all OK, because she helped me get through what I was going through as well.
I just want my friend ?Sorcha? to know that I?m not mad.
Gil Contreras is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.