During the winter of 2007, something terrible happened to me that I couldn’t easily explain. Since there was no word for it at the time, I was allowed to feel original in my suffering. And I did. I felt special, the victim of some unclassifiable offense. But when offenses begin to occur regularly, they are named, and when recurring offenses are named, they are no longer special. They eventually named the thing that happened to me after a fish. I got catfished, there it is.
“Catfished” comes from the 2010 documentary film Catfish, in which a man named Nev Schulman forms a relationship with a person he meets online — a chaste young woman named Megan. They proceed to correspond via Facebook for a few months before Nev decides it’s time to visit her. However, when he does, he discovers that she is not at all the person she’d advertised herself to be. She is not a blond virgin named Megan. She is a middle-aged woman named Angela, with a husband, Vince. Angela had spun an intricate web of lies and Nev walked right in, naïve and maybe a little delusional. Near the conclusion of the film, Vince tells Nev a little anecdote about his wife’s duplicitous behavior:
They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China. They’d keep them in vats in the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn’t have somebody nipping at our fin.
I am infatuated with paths, how one idea or one thought leads to another. It doesn’t take long to understand that attempting to retrace each and every step would inevitably lead to madness, a treacherous descent down the seedy side-streets of memory lane. But the internet has made tracing the paths of history far less maddening, especially social networking sites and their archives of accumulated PMs. If I could log into my old Myspace account I would be able to read the messages that led me to the catfish, but I cannot. I’m locked out. I must instead retrace the hard way, through adulterated memory, my fallible search engine.
In elementary school I had been the first of my friends to have unsupervised access to the internet, and because of this, my classmates — kids I rarely associated with — began inviting themselves over to my house for slumber parties. I told myself they weren’t using me for my internet, that it was my quirkiness and charm they found desirable. I told myself a lot of things that probably weren’t true.
Still in its nascent stages, the internet stretched out before us like that of a new world half-explored. The moguls of online real estate meanwhile licked their lips as the opportunity we represented spewed like oil geysers from fecund, unclaimed earth. With the founding of the Americas as a reference point, we now know that new territory means new forms of exploitation and manipulation. In Doe v. America Online, for instance, the mother of an eleven-year-old boy, Doe, attempted to sue AOL after a man named Richard Lee Russell filmed himself performing sexual acts with Doe and two other minors, and subsequently marketed the videos via AOL chat-rooms. AOL would remain immune to the charges, protected by section 203 of the Communications Decency Act, which states: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
In other words, the internet doesn’t hurt people; people hurt people.
WebCrawler was our predominant search engine. I remember how the logo made me uncomfortable when I was a child. It was a cartoon spider with a creepy swath of web coming out from behind him, and for whatever reason he was riding a rocket or a missile or something. Step into my web, he seemed to say. I won’t hurt you. I would say I walked in willingly, but what is “willingly” when you’re nine?
Later, we used Netscape Navigator. The implications were there all along. Someone was doing the catching and someone else was getting caught. Fly is to web as fish is to net.
When we were kids, my brother and I visited our grandparents in Corpus Christi during the summer months. We’d fish the Gulf of Mexico — off Bob Hall Pier, off Red Dock pier, and sometimes we fished off abandoned railroad tracks that stretched a half-mile across Oso bay. We named them the Tracks. By the time we began fishing here, the rails were already rusted turds, the ties nothing but splintered loaves hovering a few feet above the putrid gulf. Even with unlimited, unsupervised access to the internet, I am still unable to find what railway operated along these tracks. At the time, my brother and I were the trains, the tracks our path.
The 2016 Merriam-Webster Dictionary doesn’t include the newfangled definition of catfish. It holds true to the literal meaning: n : any of an order of chiefly freshwater stout-bodied fishes with slender tactile processes around the mouth. I am well-acquainted, too, with the actual whiskered fish, more specifically the species known as hardhead catfish — the bane of so many saltwater anglers.
Hardheads are widely known by fisherman as the garbage of the sea, trash fish. They are foul-tasting creatures, no matter how elegantly prepared. They’re also known to swallow the hook, meaning if you want your tackle back, you have to shove a pair of needle-nose pliers down their throat and pull. This proves dangerous and difficult because hardheads are weaponized with a nail-hard barbed spine that pricks up from the backbone whenever they’re threatened or tantalized. Aside from being extremely sharp, the dorsal fin is covered in sleek, poisonous slime. If you are unlucky enough to come in contact with such a fin, you will notice not only the piercing pain of a sharp object, but an excruciating stinging sensation that blooms and spreads through the wound. The safest and most effective method for removing them from our lines was to leave them hooked and slam them down on the concrete until they stopped moving. We wouldn’t know if they were dead or just knocked out until we nudged them back in the water. They’d either wake up and limp-swim away, or just float on the surface, undulating and dead.
One thing leads to another, as it must. Back in Kansas, my mother and stepfather divorced, and I found myself without a computer. For the next ten years my mother continued to tell me that we couldn’t afford a computer. “And we definitely don’t need an internet,” she said. My mother is one of the few people I have ever known to disregard the internet entirely, not once attempting to learn its ways. The simplicity of her life — the fact that she somehow managed to retire from not having a job and is capable of living happily off of a monthly five-hundred dollar government-issued check and couldn’t tell you what Netflix is if you held a gun to her head — is annoying to me because I am envious.
“It’s not an internet, mom,” I told her then. “The internet is not a thing.”
“Okay, smart guy,” she said, snubbing out her Misty Slim in the plastic ashtray. “Tell me what exactly an internet is then.”
I didn’t know how to answer that. I stomped down the hall and slammed the door to my room and cranked up some Christian metal on my little football-sized stereo and probably cried, I don’t know.
And then, during the summer of my junior year, some rich lady my mother cleaned house for gave her an old HP desktop computer with a monitor the weight of a small moon and my mother gave it to me for my birthday. I used a quarter of my Dollar Tree paycheck to cover the cost of slug-speed dial-up and suddenly I had an internet again.
I instantly began abusing Myspace. It was new to me then, a sacred novelty. I lived in Ottawa, Kansas, not so much a place as it is something that happens to you, like getting hit by a car or having your wallet stolen. I had older friends who’d stuck around after graduating high school and they complained often of the long hours at the Monoflo International plastic factory or the inhumane working conditions of the American Eagle Distribution Center, where my mother had also worked a stint. Something called armpit sex went viral among the middle-school kids, and the girls developed inflamed rashes in the crevices of their armpits. Kids my age, my skateboarder friends, got serious about amphetamines or bow hunting or sometimes I think both, and steadily we grew apart. Girls from school offered a healthy dose of distraction, but soon failed to compete with AOL Instant Messenger and Myspace. There was a world beyond the parochial confines of Ottawa, and I made contact with the girls of that world.
I used an array of bait, ranging from frozen squid, to shrimp, to cut-bait: the slaughtered bits of small bait fish, like piggy-perch and whiting, which were dismembered on site, usually with a dull pocket knife. Vivid are my memories of cutting the hearts out of fish and letting these organs beat on my fingertip, the pulse slowing with each passing second, until the heart finally turned still and crusty in the heat. My grandfather, who taught my older brother and me the tenets of fishing, didn’t condone the senseless dismemberment of fish, but he didn’t really advise against it either. If we caught a stingray, he’d unsheathe his svelte fillet knife, the blade reflecting a lightning flash of summer sun, and slice off the fish’s barbed tail — the stinger — and kick the fish, the edges of its flat body rising and falling like the brim of a floppy sunhat in a mild breeze, back into the water. This was his idea of protecting not only us, but swimmers and surfers and anyone else who might come in contact with a stingray. If we caught a bonnet-nose shark, he’d whip out that knife again and slice through the peduncle, severing the tail of that too. Then, he’d hook the shark by the gills to a rusty stringer and let the thing dangle just beneath the surface of the water to let it “bleed out,” because, apparently, blood taints the taste of shark meat. Never, during these outings, did he teach us anything about the ethics of killing fish. He did not raise us to catch and release.
Before the catfish came the real predators.
It was the summer of my eighteenth year and I wasn’t good at anything other than skateboarding and watching movies, so I started calling movies films and enrolled in film school in Denver. All I had to do was find somewhere to live, someone to live with. Naturally, I had to use the internet to find a roommate. How anybody found roommates before the internet is beyond me. Even with the internet I had some hang-ups. The first guy to message me on roommatefinder.com, a man named Stuart, eventually told me his friends would “rape my ass” if I moved in with him, and the guy after that, whom I was scheduled to move in with at the end of the week, turned out to be a killer pedophile. We’d even talked on the phone a few times, discussing my living arrangements, before I decided to Google his name.
According to Denver’s Westword Magazine, Joseph J. Verbrugge Jr., an anesthesiologist, had fallen asleep after putting under an eight-year-old boy in preparation for a routine ear operation. The boy’s temperature reached 107 and his heart gave out. The boy died and Verbrugge was charged with reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, but would later be acquitted.
Later, in March 2000, Verbrugge’s home was raided after a guy living with him informed a deputy that Verbrugge had been harboring child pornography. Investigators uncovered hundreds of incriminating photos from the man’s computers, though there would turn out to be only one single victim in the case, one child photographed over and over again, and that child happened to be Verbrugge’s son. And now he was offering me a room with a keypad lock system.
I told my mother, in the case that Verbrugge called, to tell him that I’d died. That seemed like something he could understand. Here my mother could have rightfully shoved my nose in this mess and said, “See? This is why we don’t need an internet.” But she did not. She told Verbrugge that I was dead. Or maybe she didn’t, I can’t remember. Either way, I was off the hook.
On that computer in the basement, my brother and I would play Wolfenstein 3D for hours. There was nothing 3D about the floppy disk version of Wolfenstein 3D, but we loved it anyway. The objective is to navigate the stone labyrinth of Wolfenstein Castle while mowing down all Nazi henchmen and Nazi dogs that cross your path. As I circumnavigated online predators and pedophiles, I began to understand that Wolfenstein 3D has a strikingly similar premise to the game that is searching for a roommate on the internet. Who would have guessed that while I spent all those hours down there in the burgundy basement I had actually been preparing for my future.
My brother took fishing far more seriously than I did. My main preoccupation, after exhausting the high of brutally mutilating living creatures, was trawling the pier for discarded lures and weights and bobbers and, hopefully, loose change that fell into the seaweed-caked crevices. After one particularly successful hunt, I skipped back to the spot where my brother and grandfather had set up station and found my brother in tears, hysterical. Against the many paternal warnings of my grandfather, my brother made a terrible mistake. While trying to unhook a hardhead, he stomped his LA Gear onto the flopping fish, whose dorsal fin stood erect, and the spine jabbed cleanly through the hard rubber sole of my brother’s mid-tops and into his foot, creating a bloody puncture wound that swelled as the poison slime did its thing. This isn’t something he would live down. These are the moments that accumulate in the family album of memorable mistakes. Moments like these give dimension to youth. I was sure to never let him forget this error.
I eventually found myself tucked into a thick, feather-filled sleeping bag on the hardwood floor of a brick house in Denver. Next to me lay an effeminate sign language interpreter from Minnesota who had passed the Google background check. He began as a profile picture on roommatefinder.com and now we were sharing a house. He liked to ski black diamonds and cook foods I’d never heard of. He chortled in his sleep while I island hopped the various patches of spackling on the ceiling above me where repairs had been made. My past was a blemish that could be fixed with a liberal slathering of thick, white paste. I lived in Denver now, my slate clean, the land rife with opportunity. I appeared unscathed. I got away.
While living in an unfamiliar city among total strangers, I grew increasingly attached to Myspace, where the personal messages allowed me to open up in ways that I could not bring myself to in real time. I found it easier to be honest with others via social networking sites, where the membrane between what was real and what was deceptively sensationalized was thick enough for me to bare my soul to strangers who appeared only partially human. I could say as much or as little as I wanted and feel no obligation to explain myself.
I understood the online persona to be made up of three parts: that which can be seen on the screen, the actual human behind the persona, and the imagination of the viewer, but mostly it was about the imagination, how I chose to perceive these strangers based on the moot amount of information provided in their bios and the heavily-doctored profile pictures. It didn’t matter who these people actually were; I played God, gave them narratives, dreamt up idealistic fantasies about their everyday lives. It was in this way that I began messaging various women online, sharing far more information than I’d ever dare share with people I knew in the tangible world. In turn, many of them gave me the attention and sympathy that I thought I — the real me — deserved. New territories mean new forms of exploitation and manipulation.
A girl messaged me out of the blue. That’s the way it works. There’s no setup, it just happens. By having any sort of online presence, your line is already in the water whether you want to believe it or not. Sometimes it’s a nibble, other times it’s a hard hit. This time it was an innocent picture comment about my eyes or the color of my shirt.
Hardheads are opportunistic feeders, meaning they eat pretty much anything you put in front of them. I once caught a hardhead using a piece of a Slim Jim.
Olivia lived in New York City. Her breasts had clearly had some work done. Vibrant tattoos crept all along her milky-white skin like thorny vines on a white picket fence. If the words “suicide girl” mean anything to you, that’s how she looked. Also, she was sort of dating my friend. He’d never met in her real life, but they’d been messaging back and forth a few months with a certain amount of regularity that classified their relationship status as involved. But soon our messages got more and more personal, and before I knew it, I had stolen my real life friend’s online girlfriend.
She wasn’t even my type. That didn’t matter. The fact that a girl who looked like her, who was obviously the object of however many men’s sexual fantasy, was interested in a regular guy like me, meant that I must be way more appealing than I’d previously imagined. Ego outweighed logic. Logic said, Really? This girl is into you? This Viper-driving sex model? And Ego said, You’re the fucking man, man! This chick likes the color of your eyes or whatever! And I ask you, reader: if you were in my position, which of the two would you rather believe?
More than anything else, we talked about touching. And when I say talked, I mean wrote. Her phone was perpetually broken, so we sent Myspace messages and chatted on AOL. We sent messages about cuddling and spooning and kissing, but we kept it soft. No sexting, no nudes. She knew I was a pseudo-Christian boy and adjusted her behavior accordingly. Okay, there were a few racy photos, one of her jumping on a bed with her friends at what appeared to be an underwear party, another of some seriously deep cleavage. That was fine. But we were saving the heavy stuff for when we finally met, because that day had to come. We simply had to touch.
Hardheads give a respectable fight. In this way they can be frustratingly deceptive. What a drag it was to discover that the deep parabolic bend was caused by a 20" hardhead with a bellyful of plastic bottle caps and sandal foam. The fight is the fun part. Reeling in your line to find a trash fish ruins the delusion. Sometimes it’s better to get a good fight and have the fish get away. This leaves room for the imagination to run wild. Sometimes the fight is all there is.
You know you’ve got it bad when you start Photoshopping pictures in such a way that make it look like you’re hanging out with a person you’ve never met. You know you’ve got it bad when you come up with an acronym to express the love you share for a person you’ve never met: UTE — Until the End. Until the end of what? Life? The inconceivable end of Myspace? I don’t know, but things were clearly getting serious.
During Thanksgiving break, I drove my Volvo to Kansas and showed a friend of mine pictures of my new girlfriend. “Wow,” he said, “She’s a Christian?”
“Something like that,” I lied.
“And you two speak regularly?”
“She doesn’t have a phone. We prefer to keep our affairs online until we meet in person.”
“She doesn’t own a phone, yet she drives a Viper.”
“Online dating is complicated,” I said. “You obviously wouldn’t know the first thing about it. Now may I please use your internet to write her a message?”
I checked my messages and found one from the sign language interpreter instead. You need to be moved out by Thanksgiving. Sorry.
Myspace is not an actual space, not a place that can be physically inhabited. Believe me, I have tried.
Back in Denver I messaged Olivia.
“We need to talk.”
“Okay, my sweet hillbilly boy. Talk away.”
“No. Talk, talk. On the telephone.”
“I’ll see if I can borrow my friend’s cell phone and I’ll call you tomorrow,” she said.
To my surprise, she did. It was the first and only time we’d ever talk on the phone. Our conversation lasted 4 min. and 37 sec. Her voice was mousy and sweet, but most of all it was real, she was real. After I informed her of my housing predicament she said I could move in with her in New York City, and that, to my mind, pretty much settled things.
Our plans got put on hold when Olivia informed me of a mysterious ex-boyfriend who had found out about our little online romance and promised her that he’d kick my ass if I moved in with her. It would take some time for her to sort this out, and in the meantime, I’d have to wait.
The meantime, in my experience, is typically an awful time. I shared a small room in an apartment building with a friend who suffered from honest to god night terrors. They caused him to jolt up from his bed in the middle of the night and he’d rustle me awake, informing me that some sort of slime was dripping on him from the ceiling, or else he’d just scream in my face until I finagled him back to his bed. My loan was on its last leg, and my Volvo had been impounded after I refused to renew my tags and drove it around with my roommate’s old plates, a stupid way to get from point A to point B, no matter how you slice it. There was only one thing left for me to do. I purchased a one-way ticket to LaGuardia and dropped out of school. Although dropped out is a little dramatic; I just stopped going.
Olivia didn’t write back after I told her about the ticket, not right away at least. Two, three, four days passed before she finally responded, and, when she did, she was not thrilled by my decision.
“He’ll kill you.”
“It’s worth it if it means I get to finally meet you,” I said, surprised and terrified to find that I meant this.
“You’re crazy,” she said. “You’re crazy and I love you. Message me when you land.”
The night before I was due to fly to New York City, I received a vague message from a mutual friend of ours — one who’d also never met Olivia in real life. It said, simply: You might want to look at this, and below the words there was a link to a Myspace profile. The profile showed Olivia in photos I’d never seen before. They showed her smoking, though she’d always told me she didn’t smoke. They showed her hanging out with guys who had jagged black bangs and tattoos of switchblades. This girl lived in Canada. This girl was real, whereas the Olivia I thought I knew was not. My Olivia was an imposter, a stranger using someone else’s photos as her own. A catfish. I couldn’t believe it. Everybody else could, and said as much.
She eventually apologized to me under the guise of an arty-looking photographer from Boston with a hastily-made Myspace page. “This is the real me,” she said of the profile photos. “I didn’t think you’d like the way I look. I’m sorry if I hurt you.” What’s funny, or ironic, or maybe just sad, is how this woman was so much more my type than the woman she’d been portraying herself to be in the first place. Although, I have no way of knowing if this supposedly-real version of Olivia was or was not just another pilfered pic from some other stranger’s profile, a catfish within a catfish. It didn’t matter. I would not be fooled again. Not by her, at least.
Years passed. People continued to get catfished all over the world, so much so that MTV turned the trend into Catfish: The TV Series. There are currently 137 episodes of people getting catfished, or thinking that they’re getting catfished. I decided I’d never watch it. I was done. I’d deleted all social media. I snuck up and took a peek into Tinder’s window and ran away screaming.
My brother and I, both adults by this time, found ourselves back at the Tracks in the spring of 2013. We’d spent our three previous days occupying our time with beer drinking — something our grandfather strictly forbade — in abandoned golf courses and nearly-abandoned malls, and decided we’d use fishing as our cover on our last day in town. We’d purchased a twelve-pack of Lone Star with half of the money our grandfather had given us to buy fishing licenses and used the rest on a pound of frozen shrimp from Roy’s Bait Shop.
On the Tracks, I joked about the time he stepped on a hardhead. He could have, but didn’t, mention my own catfish. Instead, we drank and fished, bonding again like the two unsupervised children we had once been. I caught two eels, the only two eels I’ve ever seen. They are terrifying. He caught a 22" redfish. We kept casting and drinking and catching and when we caught the fish it felt as if it were by accident. Fishing had been the afterthought, drinking the fore. We continued on well into the evening, slaphappy about our own luck, and on my final cast, something hit hard. Whatever it was jumped and splashed in the darkness. It could have been anything, a shark, maybe, or another eel. But when I reeled in my line, there it was: a massive hardhead whipping its muscular body in what I perceived to be anger. The catfish had deceived me, yes, but I was going to make it pay. In my drunken, vulnerable state, I forgot rule number one, forgot about the poison dorsal that had inauspiciously stiffened on the fish’s back.
The spike went easily through the waffle-grip of my shoe and stopped halfway through my foot. I screamed something about needing immediate medical attention and hopped on one leg, a terrible mistake, and slipped through the space between the ties, my upper body flopping no differently than a landed fish. My brother also fell, or sort of keeled over fetally, and wheezed. He laughed like a maniac because he deserved to laugh like a maniac. I got what I deserved.
I managed to pull the fin out of my foot and get my shoe off, which was, by that time, soggy with blood. My brother poured Lone Star on the wound, why, I don’t know. Seemed appropriate at the time. We collected our tackle and got in the truck, me at the wheel. Despite my injury, I felt in control, like I’d experienced this before and knew exactly what to do.
We managed to fool our grandparents into believing that the reason I went directly to the bathroom and remained in there, cleaning the hole in my foot for thirty minutes immediately after arriving at their house was because I had uncontrollable diarrhea. This worked for a few days, but eventually I came clean, as we all do.
I sat down in the living room, slipped off my sock, and showed my grandfather the wound. “I really caught the big one,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, laughing. “Or maybe this time it caught you.”