daily preciousness

Friday, June 26, 2009

call me Ishmael

"You are an idiot," I typed. "Oscar Wilde was put on trial -- that's obviously what the song 'DJ Culture' is all about!"

It was spring of 1993. I was debating Ish, a guy I just met online, on a computer bulletin board, an early electronic discussion group.

We were parsing out the lyrics of the Pet Shop Boys, the pop group from the 1980s who sang about "West End Girls" back in the day. When Ish and I scrutinized their music lyrics, it was the early days of bits and bytes. The internet was just a bunch of boxy beige boxes with glowing green screens and text-only communication. This was the place where I met my first virtual friend, Ish, the great debater, who wrote, "I don't know about no 'Oscar Wilde,' but I do know it's a great song because it sticks in my head and stays in my heart."

Ish and I didn't always agree on the intricacies of the music canon, but we did have one thing in common: a deep, abiding appreciation for Pet Shop lyrics and music. Their music spoke to us. Plus, we were simply thrilled to have a virtual community of friends to discuss our favorite artists.

The latest buzz on the bulletin board was that the duo would be appearing where Ish lived, in Mexico City, for a huge concert! On the spur of the moment, I'd bought a ticket. Not just to the concert, but to Mexico! I decided to go see it, and maybe even upgrade my first virtual friend into a real friend.

Believe me, I wouldn't normally do this kind of thing. In the early 90s, people rarely drove across town to meet a virtual companion, let alone to another country. I wouldn't normally do this kind of thing. As for me, I'd never traveled very far from home by myself. Certainly not to another country. Keep in mind: there was absolutely no safety net. There were no cell phones back then and long distance calls were expensive. On top of that, my Spanish really sucked. But I wanted to go, despite the fact that I didn't really know much about Ish.

Here is what I did know: he was a university student and we had great chemistry online, but we hadn't even swapped pics. I guess it was weird, but, I wasn't nervous... at least not until I was on the plane.

At 35,000 feet, I began to feel anxious. When a stewardess with a thick accent asked, "Do hugh wan peenas?" I bolted upright in my seat. A thought struck me, like a bat to a piñata: "What the hell am I doing, jetting off to another country? What if we don't get along? What if our debates turn into arguments?! What if he's a psycho killer?!?"

"No, no -- It's ISH -- everything will be OK," I thought. Sitting there, consoling myself, munching on a little bag of roasted penas. Still, I had a knot in my stomach, even hours later, in the airport terminal of Mexico City.

There I stood, surveying the crowd. In this mass of humanity, thick with foreign smells, I tried to pick out Ish. Was he the weird soccer jersey guy, knee-dribbling a half-inflated ball? Hope not. Was he the creepy mustache guy in cut-offs? Dios Mio, I hope not! Was he the good-looking college type, holding a sign with my name? It was Ish!

"Call me Ishmael," he said, quoting the first line of his favorite book. "So, how is it, your trip from New Orleans, Mississippi?" His geography wasn't so great, but our conversation flowed quickly.

Before I knew it, I'd hopped into his dirty orange Datsun hatchback and we were careening through suburbia, outside of Mexico City. "Jeffrey, now I show you 'Mexico Mágico' -- I show you my favorite things." His voice cracked a bit when he said the word "favorite." It was endearing, as if his favorite things got him choked up. At the same moment that it was endearing, it was terrifying, because he turned and faced me in the passenger seat, taking his hazel eyes off the road for a good 5 seconds. And, over the next few days, he showed me his Mexico Mágico.

He showed me the flying men, los voladores, four guys hanging upside down, spinning from a pole high above our heads. We raced into the countryside for a rave party, hidden deep within a cave near the pyramids of Teotehuacan. We partied for eight hours. Then, we stepped out into the sunlight, where we witnessed a glorious sunrise over the pyramids. Napping in the front seats of the car, his head fell on my shoulder. I drifted off to sleep, inhaling his spicy, salty scent.

Zooming into town, we skidded into a parking space at el Auditorio Nacional. We walked in, just in time for the actual concert. There we stood, side by side, cigarette lighters swaying to the slow songs. We threw our hands up, hopped and gyrated to "It's a Sin." I nudged Ish playfully, pointing to the dancers acting out Oscar Wilde's trial ("See? I was right," I teased him, feeling validated.)

A few days later, while hotfooting it to the airport, Ish was quiet, glum. "Introspective?" I asked. He told me that he'd had a great time during my visit and he was going to miss me. "Don't worry," I reassured him. "Why don't you visit me and I'll show you around New Orleans?"

"Yes -- this summer, we make Mississippi Mágico!" Yes, I would like that, I told my new, real, friend, not bothering to correct his geography. After the trip, we swapped e-mails for months, thrilled that our friendship was budding.

Then it all stopped. No e-mail, no online forum postings. Nothing! Ish had vanished.

"What does this mean?" I wondered. What happened to my new friend?

Then a single e-mail, with the subject line "sad news." I sat there, staring at the glowing green screen, reading an e-mail that changed everything.

I remember it in flashes, A car accident. Instantaneous. Just thought you should know," his sister wrote. It was the worst e-mail ever.

I pictured that beat-up orange Datson, always in motion, suddenly still. I recalled Mexico, his "Mexico Mágico" that he showed me, the pyramids and the concert.

At that moment, I felt like I was hanging upside down and spinning. I'd lost a wonderful person, somebody who could've grown into a great friend.

But after more than a decade, I can look back, reflect and be truly thankful for knowing Ish. I guess that's why, even today, I sometimes just smile quietly to myself when people question online relationships, but I know that they can be kind of like great Pet Shop Boys songs that sticks in your head and stays in your heart.

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