I remember the first e-mail I received from Jamie; it wasn't exactly poetic. "Hello, you sound interesting," he wrote. Looking back, it's hard to believe what that simple line would lead to.
He'd sent his note via Match.com. At the time, I was nearing 30 and working as a secretary at a big investment bank in New York City—not exactly the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Checking my Match.com inbox was the highlight of my day. So I checked out his profile immediately, but wrote him off just as fast—he lived in the Midwest and, more importantly, hadn't posted a photo. "Sorry, I'm not interested," I replied. He persisted and e-mailed a few snapshots, along with a note. Turns out he was reasonably cute, and really funny.
We started shooting flirty e-mails back and forth. This went on for a couple of weeks until I said, "So, do you want to come to New York for a date?" Suddenly, his e-mails stopped. For two days, I heard nothing. Then he wrote: "Listen, I'm sorry. I really screwed up. I'm not looking for a relationship; I was just trying to have some e-mail fun."
"E-mail fun? E-MAIL FUN??" I wrote. Furious, I deleted every last one of his notes.
A few weeks later, he resurfaced. "Let me explain myself," he began. "Ever since my father died, I've been terrified to get too close to anyone..." The e-mail was long and apologetic, full of searing self-criticism and shamefaced confessions. He said he'd joined Match.com determined to overcome his intimacy fears but hadn't been moved by any of the women he'd met. Then he'd found me—a woman he might want to have a real relationship with. And that had scared him. "Please," he begged, "give me another chance." I hesitated. This guy had already managed to hurt me, in the space of just two weeks. But his e-mail felt emotionally honest, and despite his obvious issues, I liked him. Maybe he deserved another shot. "OK," I said. "We can continue to talk. But no more of this e-mail bullshit. I want to hear your voice."
He called me that night, and was even smarter and funnier on the phone. I'd planned to merely dip my toe in the water, but instead, I cannonballed right in. We spoke for hours about everything, from our damaged childhoods to jobs to exes to first kisses. Within weeks, we were talking every day; that quickly developed into an obsessive six to eight hours a day. In the morning when I arrived at my bank job, I would call him right away. I was chained to my desk from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and our conversations were a welcome respite from my monotonous routine. But it was at night that our talks really picked up steam. I canceled evening plans more than once just so I could go home, change into my pajamas, and curl up in bed with the phone. The mere sound of Jamie's voice made my heart thump wildly.
At this point, I knew I was headed for trouble. "You're spending how many hours talking to this guy?" asked my roommate, Paul, one night over beers. Paul's reaction mirrored that of my friends, sisters, and parents, so I clammed up. How could I possibly explain my fixation? I was working in a dead-end job, watching my friends get married one by one, and kissing my 20s good-bye, having apparently missed the "Saturn Return," that astrologically significant period that occurs between the ages of 28 and 30 and is supposed to be marked by accomplishment, power, and prestige. At some point, I again broached the subject of meeting with Jamie. He said he'd like nothing more than to meet me but admitted he still felt scared. "I'm not that good-looking in person," he laughed. "You might not be attracted to me."
In hindsight, I should have cut and run right then. But I wanted badly to connect with someone, and the truth is, I shared some of his fears. Prior to Jamie, I'd dated a string of emotionally unavailable men, and I was terrified of repeating old patterns; the idea of getting to know someone slowly appealed to me. And the roots of my attraction ran deep. I was raised by a passionate, volatile father who alternated between exploding in anger and begging forgiveness. When he wasn't in one of his moods, he lavished attention on me—standing proudly in the doorway as I practiced piano, praising my artwork, taking me for hair-raising spins on the back of his Yamaha motorcycle. But our true bond lay in our conversations. Late at night, we would sit in his den, talking about art, politics, even sex. Being treated as my father's intellectual and emotional equal was heady stuff, and I'm guessing it was then that I developed a taste for the whispered intimacy of a forbidden nighttime chat.
Over the next few months, my e-mails and calls with Jamie grew increasingly passionate. "When we talk, I never want it to en —I want to totally merge with you," Jamie wrote. "I want to know everything about you, and I want to share everything about me. I like how smart and funny and sexy you are. I like that you're emotional and honest. I like that we're different." And we were different: I was a social butterfly, happiest surrounded by friends at a cocktail party; Jamie was an admitted introvert, with no interest in going out. But he wasn't some creepy pervert living in his mother's basement. He was an executive at a major company. I knew he was who he said he was because there were articles written about him. But just to be sure, a few months into our "relationship," I sent my friend Dana, who lived in the same city as Jamie, on a reconnaissance mission to the opening of one of his stores. She called me later, saying she'd shaken his wedding-ringless hand. "He was cute," she said. "A little surprised to hear that you'd sent me, but otherwise just a nice, normal guy." That night, Jamie and I laughed about my deviousness, and he asked what else I needed him to do to prove he was who he said he was. "Nope," I said, "I'm satisfied."
Then one night, he asked, "What are you wearing?"
"Well, everything is at the Laundromat, so a pair of boxers, my roommate's 'Virginia Is for Lovers' T-shirt, and black socks," I admitted.
"No, no," he said. "Fantasize. You're wearing..."
"Oh, OK. Nothing?" I tried.
Soon, we were having phone sex every night. It was something I'd never done before—at least not to this degree. We shared our deepest, most creative fantasies...one of which involved an 18th-century doctor and the invention of the vibrator (let's just say embarrassment was never an issue). Within six months, we were saying "I love you." I kept meaning to ask when we were going to meet in person, but I also kept putting it off. Partly, I didn't want to pressure him; partly, I didn't want to risk meeting him and not liking him in person; and partly, I felt vulnerable. What if this magic chemistry we had didn't translate in person? I'd be devastated if I had to live without his thoughtful advice, his tender compliments...not to mention the hot virtual sex.
Plus, I was free to date anyone I wanted. But I didn't date anyone else during that period—at least not seriously. The guys I met simply didn't measure up to Jamie. No one "got me" like he did. (I neglected to remind myself that in order for someone to get me, I would have to let him get to know me.)
A year passed, then two...and still, I continued to talk to Jamie every day. I knew it was holding me back, but I didn't care. Even my therapist got uncharacteristically direct and said he didn't like what was happening. So I quit therapy.
One day, I was in a taxi with my good friend Patty when Jamie called. Patty was one of the few people who knew the full extent of our connection. Jamie and I chatted for a minute, then I passed the phone to her. "Say hi to Jamie!" I said. She took the phone and talked to him for five minutes, laughing at his jokes. Afterward, I said to Patty, "Hey, you don't like to go out, either. You two should talk to each other when I'm not around." I'd handed her the phone on impulse, but on some level, I did want her to get to know Jamie—he was my quasi-boyfriend, after all.
A few weeks later, I noticed that Jamie's number was often busy. Then one evening, Patty casually mentioned she'd spoken to him the night before. "Is that the first time you've talked?" I asked. "Because his number has been busy a lot." She hesitated, and I felt an immediate stab of jealousy. That night, I tested out my sneaking suspicion by directing a fabricated accusation at him: "Patty tells me the two of you have been having phone sex," I said. He sighed and said, "I'm sorry. It just happened. Are you mad?"
The next 10 minutes were a furious blur. What had just happened? The guy I'd told everything to, with whom I'd entrusted my deepest feelings, had tossed me aside for another faceless romance — with one of my best friends, no less. I was so livid I could hardly see straight. But in the midst of my anger and confusion came clarity: My relationship with Jamie wasn't real; it never had been. After that, I cut him off entirely and distanced myself from Patty.
After several months of silence, Patty called and said she needed to talk. "Jamie and I have been seeing each other in real life," she said. "We've been together for about three months. It's serious." I was devastated. Jamie had never been willing to meet me. The one thing that had helped me get over him was the notion that he couldn't have a real physical relationship with anyone. I felt duped. I hired a new therapist, trying to get to the root of the whole twisted experience. I tried to forget either of them existed.
Nearly a year later, I heard from friends that they'd broken up. Craving closure, I e-mailed Patty. "Jamie is one sick guy," she said when she called back, adding that he would tell her he loved her one minute, then pull away the next. "I hate that all of this happened," she said. "I wish I'd never met him." Over time, I came to forgive Patty for what I saw as a temporary lapse of sanity. After all, I'd experienced one myself. Eventually, I stopped thinking about her role in things altogether—and about Jamie's culpability, too.
All along, I'd thought of myself as having been lured into a half-baked attempt at intimacy because Jamie wasn't willing to meet, when in reality, it was me who was afraid to take the relationship further. I was the one who'd agreed to wait; I was the one who'd bared my soul to a guy who wasn't available; I avoided real-life relationships in favor of a fantasy. I'd chosen Jamie for the very reasons he'd chosen me: We were terrified of intimacy.
Once I understood that, everything changed. I was able to identify unavailable men and avoid them. When I found myself reverting to old behaviors, like flirting with strangers on dating sites, I stopped. Do I continue to feel attracted to the "safety" of men who are unavailable? Yes. I still find talking on the phone alluring, and my most recent relationship, which lasted three years, was long-distance. I think I'll always be evolving in that department. All I can do is fight the urge to live in a fantasy—so a Jamie can never set up camp in my heart again.
This article originally appeared in the print version of Marie Claire.