The Evany Thomas Column

Installment 5: Learning to Talk Again, or: Flesh for Fantasy--From Re: Re: to Real (h2so4 16)

You're curled up in bed, one eye in the crook of your arm, the other reading in the bright spotlight of the bedside lamp. When the ache of holding one position sets in, you turn, and in that moment, as the pupil of the elbow-shielded eye scrambles to shrink to match the other, light-contracted eye, the world is this alien thing, all flat and sepia like a regular movie seen through 3-D glasses.

The sensation of taking an Internet relationship into the real, tangible world is kind of like that. Someone—a colleague, a friend of a friend, a virtual random—sends you an email. You type back, the "re: re:" cycle begins, and slowly a relationship builds. Then one day, if planets and schedules and reduced air fares align, you meet this person face to face. And those first few minutes, as you sit there nodding encouragingly at each other with the raised-eyebrow, parted-teeth smiles of the lobotomized, are every bit as peculiar as bed-blindness—stranger, even, what with all the cocktails that tend to lubricate such events.

Part of it, of course, is the "skinny DJ, fat voice" phenomenon, the awkward shift between the reality of someone and what you'd imagined it would be. You get a little of it when you see a favorite writer for the first time. Even with the preparation of dust jacket photos, they never seem to fit into the space you set aside for them in your mind. Often their voices throw you even more than their appearances. David Sedaris' small-chinned sound was surprising at first yet soon grew to make all kinds of sense, but Charles Bukowski just never had any business sounding like that.

But the bends that come when an electronic correspondence culminates in a flesh meeting go beyond the struggle of "expectations management." You also have to clear the body language barrier.

The way most people learn a language is by starting simple. Maria come un tamale. ¡Sí, yes, Maria eats a tamale! You take similar baby steps as you learn how to read people's faces, watching them as you exchange basic pleasantries: what college did you go to, is the soup good today, are there any band-aids left in the first aid kit? It's on this safe ground that you become familiar with which dimple appears when it's time to indicate sarcasm, what section of the brow furrows in response to frustration. But what happens when you happen to know, thanks to an exchange of soul-baring e-confessions, that no, Maria does not eat a tamale, because Maria is trying to lose five pounds with hopes of luring back her errant boyfriend, the one with the crippling phobia of commitment, lactose intolerance, and a crooked penis?

Discussing the most intimate details of a person's life is possibly the worst time to try and learn the ABCs of a their facial tics; it's like one of those nightmares where you find yourself taking a final for a class that you forgot to attend all semester. The stakes are just too high—a misunderstanding over the weather is so much easier to ride out than a mix-up over complete emotional landmines like, "should I go back into therapy?" or "does this make me look fat?"

What can you do with this wildly unbalanced mix of total intimacy combined with the mannerisms of an utter stranger, something that's simultaneously dilated and contracted? I can tell you what I do: Make a panicky retreat to known territory and loudly fire off a battery of safe, "101" questions that I already know the answers to. The result, of course, is either that the person is hurt that I obviously didn't take the time to read their emails carefully, or I'm written off as very, very blonde. Either way, the night stretches into infinity.

With luck, or enough drinks to forgive each other's bumblings, we somehow find our way through to the end of the night, and if the bond established through email is strong enough, it's a trial by fire that can lead to long friendship. But sometimes the chemistry is wrong and misunderstandings snowball and the end of the meeting comes as such a relief that I simply can't imagine ever finding the strength to risk another meeting.

You could argue that all it takes is a little practice. I know a woman who is in love with a man who doesn't own a phone. When he went out of town recently, he called her from the road and, much to her disappointment, the conversation was strange, disjointed. At first she worried that something was wrong, that maybe things had changed between them. Then she realized that it was just that they'd had virtually no experience on the phone. And really, how hard a skill is that to learn, especially if two people's hearts are in the right place? But that's the thing, your heart has to be in the right place first, and it's a rare e-pistolary relationship that can win your heart's enthusiasm without the momentum of a successful face-to-face meeting.

So while the potential rewards of email-to-real relationships are great—some of my most favorite people came into my life this way—the process is so harrowing that it's difficult to muster the energy and steely self-confidence that it takes to face it on anything but the rarest of occasions.

Of course the answer could always lie with the right technology. Teleportec, a company currently on a mission "to establish the global standard for face to face distance communication," may have found the answer with its "teleporters," which transport life-sized, 3-D images over the Internet. Yet while this could prove the perfect device for crash body language courses or dry-run simulations, there's still a matter of chemistry.

And what's chemistry, really, other than pheromones? Sometimes people just don't smell "right." But then maybe that, too, can be solved with repetition. If you assigned each email correspondent a distinct smell—garlic, tuna, Play-Doh—and made sure their special smell was fuming nearby as you read and answered their email, or gazed upon their 3-D projection, then maybe, just maybe, when it came to the Big Day, the day of your first real meeting, all you would need was an appropriately scented hanky on hand. One whiff and, yay, everything—the facial expressions, the intimate details, the chemistry—would fall together into a concert of familiarity. Maybe!

Then again, surely some people are best left isolated to the mediums that allow them to shine. Or maybe you have enough friends already? •

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