A catfish tale, and why they matter…

{I’m giving this song back to you–it has always been true, in unconventional ways: I Knew I Loved You by Savage Garden}

Roughly a million years ago, back in the stone-aged time of the internet being relatively new, I was catfished. This was well before Nev Schulman coined the term, back when no one knew what to call it. I was fairly new to the likes of AOL, chat rooms, and all such things. I was also terrifyingly religious and lived in a constant state of inadequacy and shame. This was the late nineties and these were not such precious times for me.

It began as an argument in a Christian chat room. My husband worked the third shift, had moved us to the middle of nowhere, and had our only car with him in the city. He was also having an affair with a coworker, though I was pretty ignorant of that fact at the time. What I was painfully aware of was that I was lonely.

So lonely.

So there I was, attempting to navigate a chat room culture that I did not understand. On my second visit there I encountered a twenty-one-year-old guy named Blake. Blake’s girlfriend had committed suicide a few months before and their six-month-old daughter became his sole responsibility. The argument (about something so stupid I don’t even remember it) led to him apologizing a few days later. My heart broke for this kid, who was only a year and a half younger than I was. (I should point out that in addition to being lonely I was deeply depressed and wanted to be a mother more than anything in the world, but my body couldn’t allow that.)

Weeks of chatting and direct messaging led to emails, and eventually my very first late-night phone call with a stranger. The three-hour call met such an untapped ache in me, and that conversation will forever live in one of the top ten moments of my life. I had felt invisible and irrelevant for so long, and then for those three hours, I felt seen and heard.

It wasn’t romantic. I was married and I took my marriage very seriously. I knew the church wouldn’t approve of me growing in a platonic friendship with a guy, but I also knew he lived all the way in Iowa. What harm could come of it?

By the time I learned about my husband’s infidelity, and that he wanted to divorce me a pursue a life with her, things were heinous at home. Blake felt like my closest friend so it was in him who I confided in.

The day that I learned of the affair, I called his home and an old man answered. When I asked for Blake the old man very apologetically told me there was no one there by that name. This was when I first felt stupid that I’d been lied to, but as our relationship oddly continued, it didn’t matter that he was lying. When we’d speak, I would beg him to be honest, and over the years the stories changed to seriously ridiculous levels. For a tiny blip, somewhere in there, Blake told me that he was in love with me and I knew how I felt about him ran deep–despite so many lies. I cared about the most consistent person I had in my corner, and let me tell you this guy was not consistent.

For the most part, though, we were friends. Occasionally low moments would take conversations deeper to how we could have a life together and there was no love out there quite like ours. To be honest, it all felt so shameful then. We hadn’t fully gravitated, as a society, to online relationships yet. It felt foreign, a little forbidden, and super embarrassing. There were also levels of intimate conversation (not sexual) and depth that we were able to go–the sort of vulnerable conversations I had never allowed myself to have before. There was an actual connection, even amidst so much deceit, and I wanted the way that connection felt to be what my life one day felt like too.

Despite the lies, and eventually falling out of touch after years of on and off-again friendship, a part of me will always love Blake. When I look back at the VERY damaged and broken girl I was I cannot deny that this relationship led me through so much healing.

The lies… (Just to name a few)

  • witness protection program.
  • his daughter was kidnapped.
  • his daughter died.
  • he was in a debilitating car accident that left him disabled.
  • he was a computer programmer and firewall expert.
  • his father was the editor-in-chief of a major newspaper publication in Chicago.
  • I found him chatting under the name Jamal once, claiming to be dying of cancer. People sent gifts to him and then I busted him when I went into a chat room under a different name and he eventually sent me his phone number. I called him and said, “busted”. He lied about Jamal being his cousin. It was a whole ridiculous thing… But it never mattered really. Maybe it’s selfish but I needed the friendship he gave. I needed his humor, the occasional distraction of him, and the undying belief and support he had in me. I needed those things, and in turn, I told myself that I could love him unconditionally.

So, I would remind him often that I didn’t want lies or details anymore, when we would make time to catch up it would just be us. I was there for him no matter what.

I am a very different person than I was those years ago, and I’m so grateful that the start of that growth was made possible by a pathological liar from Newton Iowa. This has been a mystery I long ago surrendered myself to never solving. How do you find a liar when you have a multitude of details, but no idea which ones are real and which ones aren’t?

It is because of Blake that I became a lover of the documentary, and eventually the series, Catfish. I love it. I love the mental health platform it takes regarding these people who lie, and the deeply empathetic journey into exploring why. So many times it is the same story: Lonely people. Broken people. Rejected people who don’t matter to others like they should. Sometimes this is their own doing, but often it isn’t. These stories remind us to see the people… I like to think that partly because of Blake I became empathetic toward others.

By complete accident, this weekend, information found me that may have solved a large part of the mystery of Blake. There were two people who lived at his address and phone number after his father died in 2003. He always told me it was him and his roommate. I’d heard the roommate’s voice and name spoken in their conversations many times… And then suddenly unsolicited information landed in my lap about a person born on the same day he’s said he was (only a decade earlier) who lived at the same address, who had recently passed away. Her name had appeared on my caller ID for years, to which “Blake” had said she was his cousin. Today I am fairly certain she was Blake. She had lived her whole life with her brother (roommate’s name) and their father until he died. Photos of her came up, confirming other little details, though I could never know for certain now that she’s gone. Her obituary both broke my heart and filled me with an immense sadness I hadn’t expected.

Today I’m grieving the life and death of a friend. I didn’t know her, but also I guess I did. At least in some ways. I’m sad she never told me the truth because I am such a champion of women and a believer in the magic of female friendships. I hope in recent years she was happy and felt so deeply loved.

One of the last phone conversations we’d had is around the time I’d started my memoir. It got quiet and then, almost inaudibly Blake asked if it was about him. I laughed and said that someday I’d write that book, but this one wasn’t it. I long ago suspected I’d never really tell the story at all because it made ME look desperate and a bit pathetic, but now I’m realizing it only makes us both look normal… human…

Sadly, lonely people are normal people.

Rest, my friend. I hope you’re at peace and that you realize how completely grateful I am for you. You sang this song over the phone for me once, as I sat on the front step of a friend’s house. I’m returning it back to you. Knowing you, and essentially loving you, truly changed my life. Thank you.

One thought on “A catfish tale, and why they matter…

  1. Thank you for sharing. I read this so fast because it interested me. Your wisdom astounds me, Mae. Of course it’s human to find a connection. One of the women closest to me had this happen.

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