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I was also acutely aware that they were probably making similar mental notes about me at the same time.
I wanted to duck behind my mom like a child and hide.
And true to pubescent boy form, they replied in broken sentences—“soccer,” “math, I guess”—while making nervous eye contact now and then. With the same obstinance I used to win a fight with my mom, I would not allow for a word to pass my lips. Perhaps it was 45 minutes or maybe it was six hours.
I was judging their lackluster looks and Rafa’s shabby car and feared that the kids back home were watching a livestream (if such a thing existed back then) of this mortifying encounter while hurling snack packs at the screen. I did everything I could to forget I existed that day, which left little time to glance at a watch.
My best friend at the time, Leah, and I would go into chatrooms to talk with strangers and take on different, mostly harmless personas. Rafa was the fingers and face and body behind Dragon42145, and if this chat was a game of poker, then his vocabulary and phrasing were his tell.
They gave him away as a kid just like us, taking on a more mature persona and testing the boundaries of the Internet to see what would happen.
After some time, it turned out that I was going on a family vacation to Miami, and I’d finally get to meet Rafa and Dan. I’d been tasked with remembering every single detail about them for our post-meeting debrief phone call.
My mom, a therapist, filled the hopeless silence by posing questions to the boys like what they did for fun and their favorite subjects in school. We somehow managed to pass the time until Rafa’s mom came to retrieve them.I stood on the curb in front with my mom, who insisted she come along, lest I be murdered by some strangers from the Internet. That we’d fooled ourselves into thinking we’d been carrying on a meaningful relationship, as opposed to the truth: that we were two stupid kids who didn’t have any idea what it meant to be in a relationship.I studied them carefully, observing that Rafa had more acne than expected and Dan was more overweight than he appeared in photos.A couple of days into my trip, the boys came to visit our hotel.They pulled up in a small white sedan driven by Rafa’s mom and climbed out of the backseat. I vigilantly avoided eye contact because I knew that if I took even a moment to look directly into Rafa’s eyes, I’d be struck with the harsh realization that the last few months were a waste of time.