The Thousand-Yard Stare
by Natalie Robin
As quite a few people know by now, for the past few years I was in regular communication through text and e-mail with someone I thought was a young man originally from Santa Cruz. The reason I knew of him at all was because he had met my friend through MySpace in 2004. Since meeting someone from the internet to this day isn’t the safest thing in the world, she gave me his screen name to talk with him, just to protect herself and rule out any weird behavioral quirks or inconsistencies that might suggest they shouldn’t meet up. He seemed funny and engaging. I didn’t see any reason why they couldn’t meet so I didn’t tell her otherwise. The first attempt in their meeting, I drove her the two hour trip to Santa Cruz. We spent the day there, waiting for hours in the spot agreed on by him and my friend. He said he was coming, but after multiple excuses as to why he still wasn’t there after she had waited hours, he never did show up.
She never went back to Santa Cruz, but for a time her intrigue held over the prospect of meeting him. He continued to be evasive about it, but one night he unexpectedly showed up with three friends at a playground near where she lived. At the time I was living only five miles away, so she called me once they were there, and I drove to her side of the town we lived in. I got a positive sighting of him and the rest of the faces, the other three unfamiliar to me. She told me that when they got there, they had shot her with Nerf guns from the car, circled around, and finally stopped to get out and meet her. The meeting was extremely brief as they averted any serious conversation by jumping around the playground equipment and left after ten minutes with a pithy, insincere goodbye. My friend never saw any of them again.
Since I had his instant messenger name, he and I still kept in touch a bit after that. Most of the conversations at first were resentful for what he had done to my friend, but over time the tensions eased and we just were a couple of people who spoke online every few months or so. He sent me a few letters during this time, once trading me opera tickets for a 1943 steel penny because he said he was a WWII buff. While my gift got to him, and a couple of my letters, most were returned to me; sender. His existence was still a mystery, but I had seen him that one brief time with my friend so I never had any reason to believe he wasn’t who he said. My logical assumption of it all was just that he had hesitancy over admitting to knowing, never mind actually liking someone from the internet.
Flash forward to five years later. We talk online during one of our quarterly conversations and he tells me he’d be moving to NYC. With my being from the east coast originally, we exchanged numbers in the event I’d ever be visiting. While it was meant to be a casual exchange as the rest of conversations were, now that we had each others numbers, our internet relationship moved to texting which allowed us more frequent communication, and we took full advantage of it.
We started texting every day and over time, our correspondence became more romantic in nature, gushing about crushes on one another and wishes that we weren’t suddenly separated by the length of our continent. There was much talk of my visiting him, but I had just gotten into UC Berkeley, and I knew that soon I would be bound to my studies and have no time to visit. We decided I should fly to NYC that summer before my classes began to find out if this was just a senseless exchange or there was actually something worth pursuing between us.
He was excited for me to go, talking about all the plans and places he would take me, but when I got to NYC that August, it proved to be the same situation as years earlier with my friend. He didn’t show up where he said he’d be. He made excuses why he couldn’t come meet me. He finally suggested I visit him at work and as nervous as that idea made me, I agreed. When that day came, I rode the subway to his work and texted when I was nearby. He responded saying that he was riding his bike around his store and to come in when I got there. Sure enough, when I made that feels-like-forever walk up Mulberry Street, I saw him on his bike facing the entrance of the store about to ride in. He took off into the store without seeing me, so when I got there I walked inside where he and his co-workers, huddled at the far end of the store all turned to look at me. He rested his bike against the wall and walked over.
I answered yes and he proceeded to ask me vague questions about my stay and how I was enjoying New York. I was amicable, but questioned him as to why he’d greet me with something so strange as “Natalie, right?” I didn’t understand the suggested distance in his greeting. What did he mean by “right”?
“I don’t know. The internet is weird,” he said.
We had been speaking every day since late March and it was now August, he had seen multiple pictures of me, we had many conversations about his enthusiasm for my visiting, his growing feelings for me and mine in return. The internet IS weird, but I also flew all the way to New York and thought I should at least get a little more than “right?” I played along for the next few minutes to move the conversation forward, and eventually asked what he was doing later to which he responded this time,
“ I have some friends in town, but if you’re here until Tuesday I’ll give you a call.”
I left feeling somewhat duped and puzzled. I tried to see him the rest of the time I was there, and again he never showed up.
I wanted answers after this, so as stupid as it may sound; we continued to talk after I left the east coast, against the advice of my friends and family. I couldn’t let go of the bewilderment of the whole thing and wanting to know why he treated me one way in text and another in person. A couple weeks after I had left he gave me an explanation one night on Gchat:
August 30, 2010
Him: Youre pretty
11:26 PM ugh
were you scared i might not be real, at least?
cause i definitely thought you might not be
i wasnt even sure you’d actually be in that chrome store if i went inside
Him: yeah… a little scared and a little frustrated that it stretched out so far
I didnt even think you were coming
which was why I was like… natalie right?
Me: im so brave
Him: hah.. you are.
Him: why did you leave that day
Me: because you were acting funny
Him: i thought you were pissed
Me: i was..not
11:32 PM i mean..i was just like
i dont know..my mind was in a weird place
Him: well, that was supposed to be our night
Me: i was like..ok..crushed. leaving
Him: ok, I thought you just didnt like me, so you left
I didnt know it was ME.
despite, that I couldnt think of anything to say
Me: i didnt like you for a little bit
Him: I didnt think you were coming, is all. so I was surprised and stoked and scared and stoked and then frustrated
Me: well. you werent going to come to me (and never did)
one of us had to be a man
Him: okay, I’ll let you have the glory this one time
Over the next few months we kept in contact as he wrote me endless letters and apologies for his behavior that day in NYC, sent me birthday gifts, continued texting me every day. The following summer after that brief meeting at his work, he built me a bike and had it shipped to me from his work in New York. He made many promises to fix things, to come to San Francisco and make it right. We claimed fidelity for one another. My distrust of him we chalked up to distance. It wasn’t until a year after seeing him at his work that I became more suspect of what his behaviors were all about.
The first thing that happened was that I started noticing him in photos with a girl. I started noticing him very “friendly” in photos with a girl. He denied any relationship, which at first I believed because he spent day in and out texting me. The second thing that happened was that I started becoming friends with a friend of his from San Francisco. Girl X. I had seen her around and knew they were friends. Her and I had strange coincidences from our history that are better saved for when I write this in longer form. When we met, she claimed she knew about him “dating a girl named Natalie from San Francisco”, and was curious about who I was. I started hanging out with Girl X on a somewhat regular basis, telling her my fears about the girl I thought he was seeing, about how I cared for him but that I didn’t know how to do the distance and the guessing anymore. She always reassured me, “you guys need to see each other…it’s the distance…he’s not dating that girl…she’s gross.” Since Girl X and her boyfriend knew him for a long time, she gave me insights on his personality for things that I didn’t understand, and for a time I felt more understanding of him in knowing her.
It wasn’t until a couple months later that I noticed she might not be as sincere as I thought. We met up after she had gone to NYC to visit, and she told me all about how she stayed with him, how they had many conversations about me, and that he said he loved me. I may have believed this, until the girl I had been skeptical about him dating posted a picture on Facebook with Girl X in it, looking completely satisfied and happy to be there. I confronted her, asking her what kind of joke she and this guy were playing on me, to which she claimed they only went there for a few minutes to pick up some things and left. I didn’t trust the fact that she failed to mention entirely this girl I had been brooding about. I have to admit that my honest intentions turned to incredulity, but I forgave it in hopes that our friendship would exceed the infraction of trust.
So far, this story has proven me mostly foolish for continuing to talk to this man and Girl X, but at this point I was in too deep and wanted answers which I thought I could find in the fact that he was to be visiting that October. I thought that maybe since they knew each other, I would be able to see him in a mutual setting and any hesitations would be eased. When he arrived in SF that October, the simplest thing would have been for him to come to my house, which he agreed to do but never followed through with (again). He and Girl X, however, said they would be going to a coffee shop nearby my apartment in the following days and asked me to meet them.
When that day came, after an unusually awkward hello between us all, Girl X left to talk to someone in the cafe and I was left alone with this man I thought I had been corresponding with for years. I asked how he was doing and what he had been up to earlier that morning. He told me he had just had breakfast with his mom and his girlfriend. Of course I didn’t hear the rest of his words after that as -girlfriend, girlfriend, girlfriend, girlfriend- echoed in my head. I think I responded something like “that’s cool” to hide my anxiety and at that point others had gathered so I was able to walk out of the café as fast as I could towards home. I simultaneously started receiving texts from both him and Girl X asking where I was and to come back, but they were about ready to leave by the time I got the courage to do that.
He tried to tell me while he was still in town that he meant a GIRL -SPACE- FRIEND and not a cohesive “girlfriend”. I didn’t believe him, but I met them once again a few nights later at a bar to try and get clarification on what started becoming a really bizarre situation. When I got there, he wouldn’t even look at me. He was hardly answering my few questions when the phone in his hand started to ring and it was the girl I had suspected him dating in NYC. He took the call outside, but again my discomfort crept in and I tried to leave. Girl X coaxed me to confront him on it and so when his call was done, I asked him to talk to me outside, which he was hesitant but did. I asked him if he had any intention to date me and he said no. My follow up question was then why was he telling me he wanted to be my boyfriend for the past two years?
“Do you have any intention to date me?”
“No,” he replied
“Then why have you been telling me for the past two years that you want to be my boyfriend?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said
“Okay, so you haven’t been texting me for 2 years?”
“No. I don’t even know you. I mean, you came into my work that one time in New York and added me on Facebook.”
“So your number isn’t 831-xxx-xxxx”?”
I walked over to the open window of the bar where Girl X was sitting and ask her to show me his number in her phone. She fumbled for a moment, and then finally showed me her screen with his name and the same number I had been texting.
I turned to him and asked, “Still not your number?”
He shook his head, looking somewhat guilty. I stormed off.
I immediately started receiving texts begging for his forgiveness; admitting that he was a failure and a fuck up and wouldn’t expect anything of me until he came back to San Francisco, this time for good. That December he did move back, and he started staying with Girl X and her boyfriend while he looked for a place. I wasn’t trying very hard to see him after he had totally blindsided me, but I did continue to hang out with Girl X, and one Sunday I rode bikes with her downtown so she could finish up some things at her work. Since it was the weekend, no one was there, and at one point she got up to do something away from her desk so I pulled out my phone and started texting him. As I was sending them, I heard the text tone of an iPhone coming from somewhere. I look down in the direction it was coming from and I saw her bag open a little bit with an older white model of an iPhone lighting up. I leaned down closer and I saw my name popping up on the screen with the texts that I had just been sending to him. She came back just then and I immediately asked her why she had his phone, as she pulled out her own phone, which was not an older, white one, but a new black model. At first she tried to tell me that he took the bag for groceries that day and must have left it in there, but she had already told me earlier she hadn’t seen him all day. Since he was staying with her, it was not entirely out of the question, but seemed unlikely that he would have taken her personal bag to go grocery shopping with.
She had already asked me to come to dinner at her house that night and urged me to still come. We separated so I could stop at home first, and then I rode my bike over to her house later that night. He was there, and he had not an old, white iPhone, but a new black one. I pulled her in the kitchen and asked about it, to which she said he just got it and to go ask him. Obviously I didn’t want to make a fool of myself, which felt like what I was being set up to do, so I sat there quietly eating dinner and watching tv with them. I was tortured by him sitting there ignoring me, getting up off and on and disappearing into the guest room, mentioning the girl’s name from NYC, which finally prompted me to want to leave. I had a brief conversation with Girl X outside, who showed very little empathy for me, and I walked my bike home in tears.
The next few months I noticed that whenever I was around her I wouldn’t get texts from him. I wasn’t sure this was the case before because since I didn’t suspect any foul play, I wasn’t on the lookout for anything suspicious. I started to seriously believe that she either was in on something with him, or that she just was him. It would have explained how she suddenly came into my life, kept enticing me into these uncomfortable situations, kept standing up for him when she did get me in a compromised place, and the very obvious detail that he told me he didn’t know me, speaking around me with no consideration for my feelings. It started to feel as if I had never existed to him at all. The text exchange started becoming a pretty brutal, angry exchange between him and I, or her and I –whoever it was. I clearly felt confused and taken advantage of, and they showed very little remorse or wrongdoing.
I started finding out from multiple parties, both internal and external to my life that the man I thought I had been talking to had a girlfriend in NYC and was living with her; that he moved here, then she moved here to be with him a month after, and that he broke up with her immediately upon collecting his belongings. Girl X continued to stand up for him despite that I tried to tell her how hurt I felt. It seemed no one in his life had ever heard of me except for Girl X, which didn’t make sense having talked for so many years, their telling me all the time how much they shared about me with friends and family.
I stopped being friends with Girl X for my own well-being. She intermittently texted me from her own number expressing sadness over our parting, so though it took me a while, I eventually met her for a drink a few weeks ago. We sat at a bar and she gave her apologies for not being a good friend, but was always very non-linear in conversation when I brought up anything about him. When I asked for direct details, she lingered off topic or called him a liar. Her friend showed up about thirty minutes after we were there, which was unexpected considering I thought she was trying to clear the air with me, but I was cordial and made the best of the situation. Girl X started showing us pictures of her new dog on her phone and things were going well until her friend got up to use the restroom. I was looking around the bar for a few moments before I looked back and noticed that Girl X suddenly had another phone in her hand with the screen entirely cracked and broken, not the intact phone she had just showed us the pictures on.
Not only did she have two phones again, but a week prior on Christmas I had received a text from “him” with a picture of an identical looking broken phone, saying that the dog he was playing with had just smashed it. It must have been written on my face because she started awkwardly prodding me to tell her what was wrong. I told her that I just thought it was really strange how I got a photo of the same looking broken phone a week ago from the number who was supposedly him; that I didn’t understand why there was always all this two phone business. Whether she took the phone out by accident or not, I didn’t know. I almost felt like she pulled it out to set me up in front of her friend to look bad, knowing I would react negatively. It felt very manipulative and obviously uncomfortable for me. I left not long after.
The person claiming to be this man still contacts me to this day maintaining they are the same person from Santa Cruz/NYC/SF. I have struggled to figure out the truth, and after all this time I finally pieced together some evidence one Saturday a few weeks ago. I had received a text from the number of a cafe in Oakland with a photo of one of the owners, the texter saying they had just met them. My brother’s girlfriend happens to be family friends with the owners of the cafe, and she confirmed that one of the women in the picture was in fact the wife in the husband-wife owner duo. My brother’s girlfriend sent the photo to the owner for me, who confirmed as well that it was from earlier that day, that she had no idea the photo was even being taken and that from the location of where it was taken, it had to be one of three girls she met who were sitting there. She said she didn’t meet the name of the man I thought I had been texting all these years, but she did meet Girl X, who was one of the girls sitting there. Later that day, I saw a picture of Girl X on Instagram in the exact location from where the photo would have been taken in the cafe.
The man in this story adamantly denies knowing me these days to anyone that asks, but Girl X continues to say I was dating him. The few friends of his I have spoken to say that the number wasn’t his. They say that the e-mail I have for him was never his. I have a box full of the letters and the gifts around my room, signed with his intentions and name. I still have the bike. I don’t know which one of them went through all this trouble for me.
Though you hear all these Catfish stories lately, I’ve heard few where the Catfish chooses to be someone who their prey can easily ask about and identify. If Girl X pretended to be this man, she chose someone who I had access to, whose friends I have met and ran into all over San Francisco, who could confirm or deny details about what was happening. Most importantly she chose someone she could easily have access to as well. She even got me in the same room as him at times, and if it was her, I’d assume someone capable of this would just be thrilled to see me flail and hurt at the end of every encounter. My biggest gripe to “him” was always – why do you do things that seem contrary to how you say you feel about me? In the end, I realize maybe it wasn’t him at all, so everything expressed to me in text or e-mail would have been contrary to what the real person was doing in his life.
There are so many strange details I have left out for the sake of brevity and will hopefully write in a much longer version of this; things that are so staggering it’s hard to believe they even happened. While you’d think what happened on Saturday with the photo from the cafe entirely solves the mystery, I’m not sure that it does. Maybe it was one sociopath’s obsession with me or perhaps it was two sad people who teamed up for unbeknownst reasons and decided to run me dry. Maybe it started as one person and ended as another. Maybe it was really just Girl X the whole time for which maybe I should be flattered that she spent so much money maintaining two phones, sending me a bike from NYC despite living in SF, sending me other gifts and texting me every day for nearly three years. Maybe it was the guy and in not wanting to admit to his seeing other women while talking to me, he let it go into Girl X’s hands. Whoever it was, they have no remorse.
I’ve torn through the muscle and whittled down the bone. I have dissected every detail, and I still don’t know exactly what happened to me. The one thing I do know for certain is that Girl X has had the phone that has been texting me on multiple occasions. It is still incomprehensible to me why a girl who has a boyfriend that she has been living with for many years, who knows lots of people, who has had successes in her own life would take the time to manipulate mine. It’s scary to think that the surface details of a human being can be so practiced; so perfected that you’d never be able to tell what secrets they keep. If the man was involved at any point in this story, he did a much better job at covering his tracks. Whatever the case may be, I hurt no less over it. I have asked the man in the story to meet up with me through an email one of his friends confirmed as his. I wanted a chance for closure and also to show him all the ways someone viciously stole his identity as he claims they have, but our meeting has not happened. I can’t expect him or anyone else to understand what I’ve gone through or take to heart my need for closure on this bizarre chapter of my life. Only I know how much I need that.
I’ve never been naive, but I’ve always been sincere, and in this situation my sincerity lent to my naivety. I entered into the correspondence with an open heart and was in too deep by the time I realized something was very wrong. The whole thing was done so elaborately that I never had reason to believe it was anyone other than the man they claimed to be, at least until they started to get messy with their actions. I used to think my strength as a person was a fixed element in me, but I realize now that we are all capable of sinking depending on what we let into our minds and hearts.