On Eating CatfishS

I never want a boyfriend until I meet him; Charles* got me effortlessly. He enlivened me. I felt free to say whatever as we swapped pop-cultural obsessions, revealing ourselves in the process. Or at least, that was the idea. I told him I was nasty like the dirt under SWV singer Coko's fingernails. I meant it.

We got coked up on flattery and communicated in the breathless fervor of Julianne Moore and Heather Graham in their bedroom scene in Boogie Nights. We bonded over recent breakups. We focused on similarities, and I pretended that our differences were superficial. (He prefers classy, full-voiced Mariah; I prefer the trashier, imperfect person she has become. He works in fashion, which might as well be football to me; he hates horror movies, but I watch them all the time.) He told me he looked up our love signs: "The stars say we are getting married." I briefly suspended my disbelief in astrology.

And on it went. Three-hundred-fourteen iPhone screens' worth of exchanges and close to a dozen Skype and phone conversations. But it was all a lie. I knew it and I did it anyway. If Charles bore any blame, my investment in our fate in the first place far outweighed it. If I was misled, I was misled willingly. With a country separating us, I wove narrative scraps into a reality, believing we were closer than we were. My behavior was an example of amplified living, an extreme case of business as usual. The self is unknowable, the other is awesome and inconceivable. Relationships are faith-based endeavors, and when they work out it feels like an act of God. Modern existence depends on taking outside cues and arranging them so that they make sense in our own heads. Without this imperfect process, we'd wander around in chaos.

During most of our active association, Charles and I weren't in the same place. We met at a party. He almost immediately went away for weeks on a business trip/vacation and all I had in his place were words. We texted about wanting to be together immediately, lamented that we had to wait endlessly and affirmed frequently that we were on the #samepage. By encouraging me generally, he encouraged me specifically to invest and believe that we were embarking on something truly special. We liked each other, and in the absence of the normal implicit signals you might give a new potentially special someone, we had no other choice but to commit it to writing.

I didn't suspend my life for Charles, but I fantasized about doing so when he was back. I was convinced that he was my ideal, that he'd look great as my future, that we'd make beautiful babies by combining our sperm and shaking up a test tube. Yahtzee! I had won this round. Charles was, I decided, perfect for me.

Charles was not perfect for me. I knew that as soon as I finally kissed him hello with my tongue all those weeks after we had met. (I had been out of town immediately before his return, too, and rushed directly to his place from the train station.) The barest of intimate acts undid weeks' worth of words and a metastasizing fantasy that couldn't be tethered to reality. But whatever, he was hot, a 10. I was willing to pretend, play along for as long as he'd have me. I was ready to laminate a new polyurethane fantasy over the last one, like our perfect future was as changeable as a subway poster.

I think Manti Te'o knew more about the hoax supposedly pulled on him than he let on, but the narrative of being duped that he's selling is so human and indicative of the way things are that I almost wish I believed him more. We are surrounded by narratives of fraudulent narratives: Catfish: The TV Show, The Imposter, news coverage Beyoncé's lip-synching, the professional-wrestling truths of reality TV. No one is innocent: not the liar, the lied to, or the spectator who creates a market for the perpetuation of lies in the first place.

We're narrative addicts, and we have been for a while. Ben Yagoda's 2009 book Memoir: A History details the makings of a centuries-old medium and its inherent shortcomings, how all truths come with lies or just are lies. It's incredibly insightful and a maddening argument against investing too much stock in anything that people say, be it publicly or generally:

Beneath the account of every incident, episode, or character is an interpretation of one's life. Beneath that is the implied need to justify the whole enterprise of putting that life on paper, to show that in some way it makes a good story. The result is all kinds of internal suggestion. Even assuming such a thing as accurate memory existed, how could it fail to give in to such temptations?

Yagoda also warns against believing in quote-heavy writing that comes from the author's mind (the argument is that one couldn't precisely reconstruct a conversation he or she had earlier in the day, much less years ago) and, most mind-blowingly, cites evidence revealing how little we could possibly know regarding fact and fiction:

A recent review of more than one hundred psychological studies found that when subjects are presented with examples of lying and truth-telling, they could identify the liars only 54 percent of the time—nearly the results you would get by flipping a coin. That credulousness is on the whole a good thing, probably, but it leaves us vulnerable.

I wasn't duped by Charles, per se. I don't think that he went out of his way to misrepresent himself. I don't know if he was particularly cognizant of how many layers our relationship occupied in my head as a result of our text-based foundation. I felt like his faith-based enthusiasm matched mine. Yet nothing of our interaction predicted the way things would pan out. The circumstance was louder than our voices in unison.

After we kissed, we fooled around and made each other cum. We had a meal. We fooled around and came again. He went to sleep, I watched TV, we said we'd meet up and we never did again. When I said goodbye that evening, it was the last time I saw him.

We texted sporadically for the next few days. I went to Fire Island that weekend, swept myself up in something else and moved on, but the narrative wasn't sitting right with me. After a few more days without any communication, I decided to continue the useless human folly of uncovering the truth. Knowing he'd soon be leaving town for yet another vacation, I wrote Charles this email:

I'm hoping to grab you here before you leave town just for the sake of closure. That's a dramatic word, I know. Really, I don't want to give the impression that I'm stressing/sweating you or the situation. I am, though, really curious about what happened between us — it's a very strange situation to go from texting everyday from afar to falling out of that and being virtually out of touch when we are in close proximity.

Anyway, I hope this doesn't weird you out, because I know it's a potentially awkward question. I'm just puzzled about our arc and would love clarification.

His response:

You are not crazy/this is not creepy/i am glad you wrote and yes we should totally talk. You are awesome ;)

When are you free? I am about to be busy for the rest of the night. Tomorrow?

I told him I had time the next day, but I didn't hear back until I was already on my way out for the night. When Charles returned from his trip, we tried again with similar scheduling conflicts. Then, on the eve of yet another trip of his, we decided we'd Skype when he checked into his hotel room. "Just like old times," I texted him. I don't think he got that I was just being stupid for effect.

That never happened, either. We never had another discussion and after we didn't Skype, we never communicated again. It bothered me until I realized that it didn't. Not every narrative is worthy of closure, especially one that spontaneously materializes and combusts on sheer will.

There is no big reveal. Charles wasn't married, my creepy neighbor, a man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man. The facts he told me about his job, his whereabouts, his interests, they checked out. The way he said that he felt about me, and more importantly us, didn't, but that only mattered because I wanted it to. If I was catfished, it was by my own hook. I ended up dining alone.

*Not his real name.

Image by Jim Cooke.