Signing on for a Web romance Internet: Rather than go looking for love in all the wrong chat rooms, just find yourself a friend.

December 22, 1998|By Jo Bremer | Jo Bremer,SUN STAFF

The new film "You've Got Mail" suggests you can find the love of your life in an online chat room. But, in reality, you probably won't find a Meg Ryan or a Tom Hanks waiting there. And if you're not careful, you could find yourself in trouble.

Enter a chat room with friendship as your objective, though, and you just might be pleasantly surprised. I've made many good friends this way -- one of whom has changed my life.

I've been a member of America Online almost since the beginning. When I joined in the fall of 1993, the service was in its infancy; the 200,000 or so members were largely computer-oriented. We were pioneers in this new form of communication.

Most of these pioneers, it turned out, were men. As a woman in this small community, I was sought after. It was intoxicating. I could enter a chat room of 23 people and immediately become the center of attention. Because I was gregarious -- and a quick and fast-witted typist -- it seemed all the men wanted to talk to me.

Despite my attempts to tell them otherwise, they all assumed I was cover-girl gorgeous.

"I'm thoroughly average," I'd tell them.

"Not you!" they'd say.

"Yes," I'd say. "If you passed me on the street, you wouldn't notice me."

"You're just being modest. (pause) I like that about you."

With all the male attention, I inevitably made mistakes. One night, my brother and I were in a chat room with 21 strangers.

"Hey, Jo," he said, "how's your job at The Sun going?"

I told him about something I was working on. But behind the scenes, men in the chat room were sending my brother private messages, asking what I was really like. As we flirted in the chat room, he told those who asked that I loved roses.

Later that week, flowers arrived at work. Even though I'd been careful never to reveal my last name on AOL, someone in the chat room had called The Sun and conned a co-worker into giving out my last name. With that, he could get my home phone number. Using a reverse directory, he knew where I lived. He called me and told me he planned to visit.

Although he backed off when I told him I wasn't interested, I learned a valuable lesson. Online, you never know who is watching what you are saying. I deleted the online "profile" AOL offers users, deciding to stop giving access to my real first name, my city and my occupation.

Mystery man

Now I was savvy. No one would find out more about me than I was willing to tell. I couldn't be fooled by cyber-fakers, the guys who neglected to tell you that they were a) married; b) unemployed; c) stalkers; or d) ugly as homemade sin.

But just when I was sure I was too smart to be burned again, a match struck tinder.

John was a charmer. He had a great sense of humor and showed concern and compassion for people. We began e-mailing, and he told me he was caring for a friend who was dying of AIDS.

He also told me about psychotic women online who had become fixated on him. He told me that I was different, that I was the one woman he wanted to talk with. I was elated, because I wanted to know more about him.

Soon, he was sending me a half-dozen e-mails a day. They didn't start out as love letters, but that's what they turned into after a short while. I was honored that he wanted to share his innermost feelings with me. I felt loved.

He called and talked for hours, and our bond grew. Naturally, I wanted to meet John; I needed to find out if the feelings I was beginning to have could survive in real life. But there was always a reason why we couldn't meet: his job put him on call on many weekends; he had work to do around the house; his friend with AIDS couldn't be left with anyone else.

Finally, after about five months, I told him I couldn't proceed further with our friendship without meeting him in person.

We broke off contact for four months. Then he started sending me messages again, saying how sorry he was and that he was ready to be completely forthcoming -- if only I would take him back.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

He admitted he had misled me. When we'd begun e-mailing, he'd been married, he said; now he was divorced. He'd also neglected to tell me he had a daughter. And in the four months since we'd stopped talking, he said, he had been dating someone. But now he would break things off with her.

Maybe this is how it works, I thought. Maybe now that he's come clean, we can really get to know each another and see if this relationship can work.

We agreed that it was time to meet. He just had to see this other woman once more to officially break things off. "Don't worry," he said. "I love you. You are the one I want to spend the rest of my life with."

Two days later, he was engaged to the other woman. I found out when a mutual friend sent out a group e-mail announcement of congratulations. "You misunderstood," John told me when I confronted him. "Nothing online is real."

Talk about a blast of cold air.

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