I never got lucky in high school. Well, unless you count that one day, just before graduation, when Liz Suarez — arguably the hottest girl at Santa Ana High — sat on my lap at lunch, wrapped her arm around me and said, with her mouth a mere centimeter from my ear, “You’re cute Stephen Newman.”
Ha ha. Yeah, sure I am. I’m not gonna fall for this one. I’d been picked on my whole life, there is absolutely no way this beautiful girl actually was interested in me. So my body stiffened. I was probably more tense than most men are during their first digital prostate exam. My muscles clenched, I gritted my teeth, I pressed my lips together tightly, and in my brain I thought “please get down, get off my lap, this is awkward, what would people think if they saw Liz on top of me? What would my parents think if they knew I was doing such a filthy thing?” Mistaking my fear for rudeness, the Mexican cheerleader got down and never flirted with me again.
I reacted similarly to LaTasha, the one black girl at our school. She bought me a black sweater, as a Christmas gift, wrapped it, brought it to school, and handed it to me. “Merry Christmas, Stephen,” she said, smiling. No, no no! She couldn’t actually like me, right? I bet her parents probably made her buy that sweater for me because they felt sorry for me, because I was so pathetic. “Just be nice to Stephen, LaTasha, I’m sure he has no other friends. This is a pretty sweater, why don’t you give this to him?” “Fine, Mom!” I never even wore the sweater. I was worried about dandruff. I preferred light clothing. I was an idiot.
And then Diep Chu, the nerdy Asian girl. She and I were members of our school’s “Academic Decathlon” freshman year. We would get to school an hour early to compete in a Jeopoardy-style quiz show. Diep used to buy frozen pizzas, bake them at home, then bring them to me at school and ask if I would eat with her in the library. I did a few times, but I was a scared 14-year-old kid, and she was probably looking for a strong, confident man. She eventually stopped baking me pizzas.
It wasn’t until age 19, in early 1994, when the internet helped me conquer my shyness and my fears. That was the year I met Sharon. I learned that women would talk to me, online, and wouldn’t even know that I was (or thought of myself to be) a fat, shy, insecure loser. Online, I could be strong, successful, funny, and confident.
Sharon and I met in a chat room (back then, chat rooms were called “channels”) on an ancient chat program called IRC (Internet Relay Chat). My screenname (back then it was called a “nick”) was Poorman (named after my favorite DJ at the time, and the original host of radio’s Loveline, on KROQ FM in Los Angeles). Her nick was “Sherry-“. Sherry without a dash at the end was already taken. That’s how you know you’re in the internet’s infancy. She wasn’t SherryVA2893160926. She was simply Sherry-. The good old days.
After a few weeks of chatting, Sherry- and I decided to exchange photos. Back then, it was nearly impossible to just email a photo. Remember, nobody had a cellphone, and nobody had a digital camera, so to send a photo, you’d have to scan an actual photo print. To do that, you’d need to own a scanner. Now, to get the scanner software to be compatible with your computer…that was another challenge. And then, even if you were able to email the photo (as a GIF, perhaps) the other person would need to download a “viewer” which allowed photos to be viewed on the computer. Only certain viewers worked with certain picture files. It was a disaster.
We traded photos via snail mail. And when I received her reply in a letter, a week later, (“Wow! You look great!), I felt like I had won the lottery. Here’s a woman who has SEEN me, and who STILL wants me. It was hard to fathom. For the first time, I felt wanted by someone of the opposite sex. For the first time, I felt desirable, valuable, needed, attractive, special, maybe even sexy. I almost forgot to mention, Sharon sent me two pictures of her in her dorm room (she attended George Mason University in Virginia). She was absolutely beautiful. My dream girl, personified.
I don’t know how I managed a 4.0 GPA that year, spending every free moment locked in my bedroom, chatting online or on the phone with Sharon. I couldn’t wait until summer. In August, I’d be flying out to Virginia and spending a week with her. A real-life meeting, decades before IRL became a thing.
My parents were uneasy. (“Where does she live? Virginia?! You met her WHERE? I saw on TV that there are a lot of weird people on that internet thing. You should really be careful. You two are just friends, right?”).
When people found out that Sharon was Persian (back then she called herself Iranian, even though she was actually born in the United States), they began to really caution me against visiting her. “Whatever you do, don’t stick your pecker in her,” one friend said. “Those Iranian parents’ll cut your hands off, and your balls off, if they catch you touching their daughter. I’m not joking.” In a separate conversation, a family member echoed those same sentiments. Yet somehow, even the thought of losing my testicles and my hands wasn’t enough of a deterrent to keep me off of that airplane.
The love of my life was going to pick me up at the airport, and take me to a fancy Hyatt hotel, which (thanks to my mom’s credit card) I had booked for an entire week. When I walked off the tarmac, I saw her immediately, dressed in a sexy hippie outfit. A somewhat see-through blouse, a flowery skirt. She looked like the 1960s. I couldn’t stop staring at her, until I noticed a much older man standing next to her. Her dad. Of course he came with her to the airport.
What father would let his 20-year-old daughter meet some “weird” guy from that internet thing, at an airport, without first meeting him and making sure he really was 19 years old, not 58? We exchanged our pleasantries, and then her dad drove home separately.
Fleetwood Mac was blaring on Sharon’s car stereo system. (The girl is gorgeous, AND has great taste in music?!?) She gave me a driving tour of her college campus, and showed me a few other highlights of the area, then helped me check in to my Hyatt in nearby Falls Church. Much to my delight, she had packed a bag, and was bringing it up to my room (our room???).
After 15 minutes of unpacking, buying vending machine sodas, scooping ice, looking out the window and commenting on the view, reading the room service menu, inspecting the bible and phone book, and testing the softness of the bed, she walked up to me as I stood halfway between the bed and the bathroom.
“Um, do you think you’d maybe want to, um….like….try having sex?” she asked.
“I want to. Do you want to?” I surprised myself with courage.
“I want to,” she answered.
We stood there, not moving. My brain had no idea how to progress from this point. “Um,” Sharon said, fidgeting with her hands, “how should we start?”
“Um, I dunno…what do you think we should do?” I was such a ladies man.
“We should probably brush our teeth first?” she suggested. Seemed as good of an idea as any. Somehow, the simple act of brushing teeth with her in the big bathroom mirror eased the tension and got rid of all my nerves…temporarily.
The next morning I was scared out of my mind. Sharon and I just ate breakfast at her favorite diner, and we were en route to her parents’ house (where she also lived) to spend the day with them. She was wearing my t-shirt. Flashbacks of those earlier conversations hit me like a brick. It was even worse than the “you’ll shoot your eye out” from “A Christmas Story.” Instead, it was, “He’ll chop your nuts off, he’ll cut your hands off!!” God I hoped my friends and family weren’t experts in Iranian culture.
Seeing my new girlfriend in my CSU, Chico t-shirt, as we sat in her parents’ living room, was awkward. But even more disconcerting was when Sharon’s dad said, “Steve, my wife and I would like to speak with you privately in the kitchen.” The kitchen. Where the knives are.
It wasn’t just nerves at this point. It was that “I want to run to the bathroom and shit my brains out” feeling. But, like a real man — a man who had now kissed a girl, mind you — I walked into the Iranian kitchen and prepared to meet my fate. Sharon’s mother spoke: “Steve, we just wanted to tell you we really like you and we can tell you make our daughter very happy, so if you’d like to have sex with Sharon, you have our permission and our blessing.”
I’m not sure how I responded. I probably managed to muster an: “Okay, thank you,” or something equally intelligent. I’m sure my face betrayed my emotions. I looked down to count my fingers and thumbs. 10 digits, total. Still.
It’s been almost 25 years, and I still remember EVERYTHING about that amazing week. Sharon took me to Washington DC. Strangely, what I remember most about our nation’s capitol was the museum with all the former first ladies’ wedding dresses. After DC, she took me to a movie theater. Forrest Gump had just been released. Sharon compared our love to that of Forrest and Jenny. I was OK thinking of her as Jenny, but I really didn’t wanna be Forrest.
That week, I met her co-workers at the salon, we went on long walks, we relaxed in a park near her campus, we became regulars at Long John Silvers, and we had a couple picnics. Her parents took us to King’s Dominion, an amusement park in Richmond, where we spent one day together, a big happy family.
Songs on the radio that week, included “Stroke You Up” by Changing Faces, and “Love Is All Around You” by Wet, Wet, Wet. What a name for a band, right? It became an inside joke between Sharon and me (which I’m now turning into a not-so-inside joke). We visited the hotel hottub and pool. We got walked in on once by the maid, who, just as surprised as we were, said “Dios Mio. I’m sorry I no see nothing.”
We said goodbye at the airport, both of us in tears. I was already thinking of transfering to her college. She was thinking of transferring to mine. It was August, and we had agreed I would fly back out and spend Christmas with her. Only four more months!
My semester ended, and I had my suitcase packed for Christmas in Virginia. Sharon was even going to take me to a nearby beach for a couple nights. But at 7 PM the night before my flight was scheduled to take off, Sharon called.
“I’m sorry but I have to cancel our plans. Something came up. I need to be at a church retreat for the week and I couldn’t cancel it.”
“What?! What do you mean? We just talked earlier about how we couldn’t wait for this trip? What do you mean a church thing?!”
“Please, can we not talk about this? I know you’re upset but I just can’t. If you come I won’t be here so I’m saying please don’t come, Steve.”
“Let me talk to your mom. Please can I talk to your mom?!”
“Hi Steve,” her mom said into the receiver, very softly, “I’m so sorry and Sharon is very sorry, too, but she isn’t able to see you for Christmas. We feel very bad.”
I cried instantly. My world was ending. I kicked and punched the wall of my bedroom. Then I cried some more.
I never saw Sharon again. While short-lived, the happiness I experienced with her was life-changing. I never learned what really happened that Christmas. My best guess is that she met someone else. Maybe he’s wearing my t-shirt.
Categories: Stephen Newman