Ryan and I kept chatting as the days counted down, but the tone of our chats changed a bit. We were weirdly snippy with each other, and he seemed more distant. I found myself suspicious of him being with other girls when he wasn’t in front of his computer, which was most of the hours of the day.

LaceWednesday I cannot wait until we’re finally together.
MustardGas Uhhuh.
LaceWednesday I’m gonna wrap my arms around you so hard!
MustardGas Sure.

I told myself it was just nerves, but I was terrified of what would happen between this 19-year-old grown man and me, given that I’d basically promised him my entire body and soul.

I tried to daydream about the magical moment when we’d see each other for the first time and fall into each other’s arms, finally complete, but it was oddly (or understandably) hard to do. Soon, I didn’t have to fantasize—it was time to go and meet him in a hotel room near the local mall.

Now, let me pause here. We made plans to meet in a hotel room. It was 1996, and I was (I thought) a street-smart 16-year-old who agreed to meet a stranger at a hotel with no hesitation whatsoever. Even better, I told no one, not even a friend, where I was actually meeting him. I told my parents that I was meeting a pen pal at the mall, which must have sounded harmless to them. This would all add an extra layer of intrigue for the 20/20 reporters when they came to interview my parents about my disappearance. Again: Kids! Don’t do this!

When D-Day arrived, I drove to the hotel in a nicely steeping panic. I had no idea if I’d end up running away with MustardGas, or deflowered, or dead. I didn’t want any of those things to happen, despite my Nair-ing.

I steeled myself and knocked on the door of his horrid motor inn and he opened it almost immediately. He was taller than I’d imagined, very handsome, and he was conspicuously not beaming at me. In fact he was kinda glaring at me.

My heart hammered, and just as I reached my arms up for a hug, he abruptly turned around and walked back into his room, which held a bed, some chairs, a TV, and a girl who looked to be 19 or 20. She looked older than me, in any case, with expertly applied eye makeup. She looked a lot cooler than me.

“This is my girlfriend, Lisa,” Ryan said woodenly, gesturing in her direction. “And this”—now talking to her and gesturing at me—“is Emily, that girl I know.” Lisa and I nodded at each other. This was not the scenario I’d imagined. I felt an angry, embarrassed flush crawl across my face.

First off all, “that girl I know”??! Second of all, he had a girlfriend?! Third, not only did he have a girlfriend, but he brought her along? And fourth, why was he acting like I had set this entire rendezvous up? I didn’t insist that he meet me at a hotel, but here he was, rolling his eyes and sighing impatiently. These questions slammed through my brain as I stood in that tiny hotel room, my mouth agape.

Years later I realized that he’d probably been in a relationship the entire time, and that he had perhaps been planning on cheating on his girlfriend with me. When she insisted on coming at the last minute, his plans went awry. Maybe she was onto him, or maybe she just wanted to go on a road trip. But back then all I could imagine was that I had disappointed him somehow and brought this misery upon myself.

At that point Ryan essentially shut down and stared at the TV, so I was forced to make small talk with Lisa, his girlfriend.

Me: So you took 134?
Her: Yup.
Me:That’s a good highway.

Lisa seemed unperturbed by this whole interaction, and I couldn’t decide if I respected that or if it just infuriated me more that she didn’t see me as a threat. I was just some kid to her. Some kid that her boyfriend had scheduled to meet in a hotel.

I wondered how long I could keep making small talk without wanting to throw myself out the window. It turned out to be 15 minutes. When it had passed, I gathered up every drop of sarcasm in my being and said, “Well, it has been just awesome finally meeting you, Ryan!” I wanted to cry but refused to do it here. I had used Nair for the first time for this dude and now I hated him.

He crossed the room to open the door for me, then he hugged me like a robot that has been programmed to put its arms around a person. I was shaking with anger, yet still my heart leapt. I hoped for a whispered apology, a secret plan to meet later. But he said nothing. “OK. Awesome,” I hissed, and I got into my car without a backwards glance. I drove for about two blocks before I had to stop to sob and tremble like a woman scorned. My fantasy world had just imploded on me, and reality wasn’t going so hot either.

I went home straight home and tried to make up with my actual boyfriend (he had dumped me), and decided it was time for me to leave the boards. There’s not much more you can do once you realize just how fake your love life actually is. But it wasn’t all bad. The parting gift Ryan gave me (besides teaching me to NEVER MEET ANYONE FROM THE INTERNET IN A HOTEL EVER) was the kick in the ass I needed to start incorporating my online persona into my everyday life, rather than hoping my imaginary Board Boyfriends would be as cool in reality. So the next time I had a boyfriend, I would take a deep breath and ask myself, What would LaceWednesday do? and then flirt it up with the best of them—hand in sweaty hand. ♦

* All the given names and internet handles, and some identifying details, in this story have been changed.