Chat histories have become the modern version of a cache of yellowed love letters, a record of relationships that endured or went awry. In Love in the Time of GChat, couples show us the online exchanges that punctuated their time together.
One day in September in 2009, two hitchhikers infiltrated Erica’s University of Wisconsin dorm room. Her roommate (who was a little off-kilter) apparently thought picking up hitchhikers was an altruistic thing to do. Erica, an RA in this dorm, was a good girl at heart but also had a punk rock flavor (she wore polka-dotted dresses and streaked her naturally blond bob with Manic Panic hair dye). While she should have thrown these hitchhiker guys out, she had the hots for one. His name was James. He had brown eyes. He wore black jeans, Converse sneakers, and a cigarette behind his ear. He was cool. She loved when he picked up her guitar and started playing. That night, they ended up kissing. Afterward James went back to his life of hitchhiking and waiting tables in Michigan. While he was quiet in person, James started drunk-dialing Erica from the road most nights. She would stay up waiting on him. She would woo him. They started G-chatting when he had access to public libraries or friends’ computers.
James started visiting Erica a lot over the next year. She was sure he met other girls while he was hitchhiking or crashing with friends, but back in her dorm room it just didn’t matter. James wasn’t asking her to settle down but he was clearly drawn to her as well. After all, she had a life he didn’t. She was organized. She had stuffed animals. She had decorative wall art. She had mementos. She had homework!
While the G-chats and phone calls between James and Erica had a childish quality, they’d actually get emotional over email. The first “I love you” came in an email from James, along with a song by The Bees. On Valentines Day, Erica sent James flowers. Their visits became more frequent.
A week before she left to study abroad in Prague, the two decided to be boyfriend and girlfriend. It was Erica’s idea. By this point James had started visiting every other month. Erica had never felt so magnetically drawn to anyone. But she left, and James stayed back in Michigan taking care of his sick grandmother and disabled uncle. Soon, Erica started seeing one of her neighbors in Prague, Nathan. She didn’t tell James but kept seeing both guys — James on Skype and Nathan in real life every night.
Erica left Prague to come back for college graduation but decided to skip the ceremony altogether and went straight to Michigan to see James. She and James sat in the car in the driveway where she showed him some student films she made during her trip. But one outtake from a terrible love scene they had been laughing at came on the screen. The crew was messing around and someone asked who Erica was. “You know, that girl who’s fucking Nathan!” Erica slammed the laptop shut, shaking. James looked at her, hurt and resentful. “I knew it,” he said.
He told her to go back to New York — where she grew up, and where her parents still lived — but didn’t say anything when she stayed instead. She lived with James and his roommate that summer. Finally she decided it was over once she got a media job in London and left. “I needed to get out of the country,” she said.
James started hooking up with his ex, also named Erica (herein: Old Erica), and told New Erica about it. She was crazy with jealousy, but they couldn’t stay away from each other. They continued talking on the phone about once a week, like they always had. And eventually it was like nothing had happened. It probably didn’t hurt that James eventually broke up with Old Erica.
Eventually, James visited New Erica in New York in November 2010 and the two explored the city, drinking wine, eating in Chinatown, seeing art exhibits. But during the visit, she realized she couldn’t be with him. That was two years ago. It was the last time she saw him. Although relationships like this have a way of opening themselves up again, easily.
This time, they are definitely off for good. New Erica promises.
Design by Chris Ritter.