In early 1987, I was twenty-eight years old. For the previous seven years, I'd been a teller in Kelowna at a branch of the financial institution I used to work for, but I was able to relieve on many of the other positions because of my past training. When an opportunity came up to relieve for the administration officer at another branch in the area--while she underwent cancer treatment--I was asked if I was interested. Interested? Are you kidding? I jumped at it. Thanks to that turn of good fortune, over the next twenty years, I'd hold one management position or another in a variety of locations, both in the branch system and at back office operations.
In my new position, I discovered a rudimentary email application on our computer system. This was before Microsoft Outlook or Entourage--some time before our lives were transformed by the email we've become addicted to. At that time, emails were not sent to specific people; rather, they were sent to locations. I discovered that if I input transit numbers of branch locations, along with a brief message, I could send a blind email out into the world. And someone might even receive it and respond to it. I was excited all to hell. Don't ask me why. I could have picked up the phone and talked to anyone at any branch, but communicating through email seemed so twenty-first century.
So I dispatched a series of emails to regional office branches across Canada--in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg, and Toronto--the ones I was most familiar with. I thought if I were to receive a response, it would likely be from someone at a larger branch, where they might be aware of the email system available to us. Did I have any inkling that someone in our tech world would discover what I was doing, and that I could get in trouble as a result? I thought about that briefly, but my initial message was innocuous enough. All I said was who I was, what position I held, where I worked, and that I'd be interested in hearing back from them, just to see where my responses came from. The idea of carrying on a communication, brief as it might be, with a colleague elsewhere in Canada was what propelled me forward.
Then I waited. But I didn't wait long. The very same day, I received an email back. I was so excited, my heart raced. Who knew someone would receive my email and be interested enough to respond back. I felt as though I was doing something illicit, that I could get caught and reprimanded or even dismissed for using work email for personal purposes. But, of course, that was ridiculous. It was all good clean fun, right?
The email I received was from a fellow who worked at the main branch in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a place I'd never been to (and, frankly, didn't want to visit because of it's reputation of having long, harsh, cold winters on the Canadian prairies). His name was Brian, he worked in an investment department with instruments like term deposits, guaranteed investment certificates, banker's acceptances, and t-bills, canceling and booking them for customers. That first email was brief, but it was something. It opened the door to further emails, leaving me the chance to get to know someone working for the same company in a different part of the country. (As a matter of interest, Brian was the only person who responded back to my initial email.)
Over the next several weeks, Brian and I sent emails to each other, every now and then, as time in our busy schedules allowed. He told me what it was like to live in Winnipeg, to work in a large branch (where positions were highly specialized), and what he liked to do on his time off. I told him about Kelowna, a small city in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley; what it was like to work in a small branch (where the employees knew how to do almost everything); and what I did outside of work (not telling him about volunteering to DJ every second Saturday night at the local gay club). Brian and I were both around the same age.
Before long, our emails to each other became more frequent. I really liked Brian--he was warm, personable, and forthcoming. Over time, I began to consider him a friend, even though we'd never met in person. I couldn't wait to get to work every morning so I could send Brian that first email of the day during my coffee break, just before we opened the doors of the branch to the public. After that, it was a little harder to send emails because there was only one computer on my side of the counter, and the receptionist, the discount clerk, and even the branch manager needed to use it to complete their daily work or to assist customers at the counter. Plus, I didn't want anyone to know what I was doing. It wouldn't set a good example for the administration officer to send personal emails on bank time.
At some point, I suggested to Brian that we should send pictures of ourselves to each other. I wanted to see what this young man I'd become close friends with looked like. He didn't seem to want to send me a picture but finally gave in, sending along with it a long letter on colorful paper in the most beautiful handwriting I'd ever seen along. I was thrilled when I saw his picture. I could tell he'd stood in front of a mirrored closet door and taken the picture himself (this was before digital cameras, the ubiquitous habit some people have of taking nonstop self-portraits, and the ability to attach photographs to emails). His hair was blond, it was styled in a mullet (which was fashionable at the time), and he wore, if I recall correctly, what looked like a pair of striped overalls. I thought he was attractive, but I also saw something else in the photograph that made my heart jump.
The picture I sent Brian was one a female friend of mine had taken when we'd gone to Father Pandosy Mission, a famous landmark in Kelowna, in early autumn. The setting was rustic, the leaves were turning color, and the sun was bright but hazy, allowing all the tones to look rich and deep. I'd brought several changes of clothing, from a thick grey sweater with a high collar, to an orangey leather jacket, to light tan leather boots. Unlike most of the people who took my picture to that point, Rena made me feel comfortable. As a result, some of the pictures she took were among the best I had of me. Of them, I chose the one I liked the most to send to Brian. In the email Brian sent to me after he'd received the picture, he told me he thought I looked like a male model. I didn't see it--I was still the gay kid I'd tried in vain to run away from most of my life--but his comment got me thinking for perhaps the first time that I might not just look gay, I might actually be attractive to other people.
As Brian and I had gotten to know each other over the weeks and months, I'd discovered him to be open and honest. I came to trust him, in the same way I'd learn to trust someone I made friends with in person. I don't know how it came out--perhaps from our emails that had gotten increasingly personal, or from the pictures we'd sent each other--but we discovered each other was gay.
This realization took our emails, over the busy computer system at work, I remind you, to a whole other level. I believe Brian was seeing someone on and off at the time (but it wasn't going well), while I was single, with no prospects for companionship or intimacy. In other words, we were both available and open to relationships. We clearly found each other attractive and were heavily invested in our friendship. It's amazing what you're prepared to put in an email that you might never tell another soul if you were in close proximity. We even discussed what we liked to do in bed--yes, I wrote some of that stuff out in the open on the computer at work that anyone could have seen as they walked by--although I hadn't had much experience with sex at that point and made up most of what I wrote.
And so our e-affair began. By then, Brian always placed several x's and o's below his large "B" when he signed off his emails, as I had begun to do above my "R." I don't know if I focused more on completing my job then, or if my head and my heart were mostly on my emails to Brian and my emotional connection to him, but what was going on between us was distracting to say the least. The few affairs I'd had with Adrian and Jim, whom I'd met at the club in Kelowna, hadn't lasted more than a few weeks, but what I shared with Brian had gone on for much longer. Obviously, Brian and I hadn't consummated our relationship, but that hadn't stopped us from devoting ourselves to each other as strongly as you could to another person. Never mind that we'd never met. I was alone and lonely, he was alone and lonely, and we were both at the right places in our lives to reach out to the other, as impossible as the circumstances of our relationship were.
In my own way, I think I even came to love Brian. Or perhaps, now that I know what real love is, I was infatuated with him. Or with the idea of having an affair over the email system at work. Or with the attention I was getting from someone whom I'd never met. Whatever the case, I fell hard, as Brian told me he had too, and I lived to go to work in the morning so I could be close to Brian via the email system. By then, our emails to each other were short novels, each pouring out the most personal details of ourselves and our lives, and professing our affection for each other. I think Brian had even started to sign off by writing "Love, B." In a matter of a few months, I'd gotten as close to this young man as I'd ever gotten to anyone I'd met in person, probably closer. To say that our email affair was hot and heavy is an understatement. I was completely gone over this whole experience. What pissed me off was that I could find a relationship over the email system at work, with someone who was thousands of miles away, with no real possibility of getting together in person, yet I couldn't find anyone suitable to have a real relationship with at our tight-knit gay club in Kelowna. How ironic.
Then the letter arrived. Unbeknownst to me, Brian had written me a letter and sent it while we continued to send our emails furiously to one another at work. I was thrilled to receive another letter from him, in his perfect, kindergarten-teacher printing, until I read what he wrote.
He told me that our affair was turning him into a mess. He said he'd never felt about someone the way he felt about me (I understood what he meant). That he didn't know where our relationship could possibly go, since we lived so far away from each other (neither of us had any intention of moving). And that he had to put an end to our affair. He wrote that it was almost impossible for him to do what he was doing, but it was best for both of us, before we became even more involved. He said not to bother writing any more emails to him at work because he would delete them before reading them. He said not to phone him at work or at home--we'd talked over the phone from home once or twice--because he wouldn't answer the phone. He said our relationship had to stop before it got totally out of hand (as far as I was concerned, it already had).
I was absolutely sick as I read this letter. My heart sunk. I couldn't believe my eyes. How could he do this to us? How could he write such a letter, feeling the way he did, yet continue our intimate emails at work for several days after he sent the letter until I received it. I felt betrayed. He'd continued to profess his love for me, while his heart had already begun to cut me off.
I was hurt beyond words. Having little experience in matters of this nature, in person or otherwise, I was as upset and as heartsick as I'd ever been. My world felt like it had been turned upside down. I was devastated, as though I'd just broken up with the most wonderful man who lived in the same apartment I did.
Honoring Brian's wishes, I stopped sending him emails at work, but I couldn't keep my mind on what I was doing. Every time I thought of him, somewhere in an office in a large branch, performing his daily tasks, I wondered if he was thinking of me, too, if he was as upset as I was by the turn of events. Countless times during the day, I checked the email system to see if maybe, just maybe, he'd broken down and sent me one after all. Always, the inbox was empty. I began to think he'd been really serious about what he wanted us to do, that it had been easier for him than for me to stop all communication, maybe even to put me out of his mind altogether. I didn't understand how that could be possible, but perhaps he hadn't been as close to me as he'd claimed all those months. Perhaps I was the only one who had fallen hard, and he'd done nothing more than feed me a line he thought I wanted to hear. Whatever the case, I felt sick at work. I couldn't focus or concentrate, and I wanted to cry all the time. Several days went by, and I heard nothing from Brian.
Then, one morning, the phone rang on my desk. I picked it up, and I heard Brian's voice at the other end. He said he couldn't stand it anymore, that he had to hear my voice. He said he hadn't been able to keep his mind on his work for days, since he'd known I received his letter. I told him how upset I'd been by what had happened, that I didn't understand how he could just cut everything off like that. He asked me why I hadn't sent him an email, why I hadn't called him. Because he'd asked me not to, I told him. I said that if our relationship had been that difficult for him, I didn't want to make it worse by continuing something he no longer wanted to be a part of. I respected his wishes and would never have contacted him again, regardless of how brokenhearted I was. He appreciated that but said he'd been wrong. He said he didn't know where our relationship could go, but that we should continue it to find out. I was so grateful to hear his voice, to know we were still a couple, albeit one under the strangest of circumstances.
For the next several months, Brian and I continued our affair over the email system at work. I think we were both a little reserved resuming everything at first, but, as soon as we became comfortable with what had happened, things got back to normal between us. Our emails became as frequent as they were, as personal, and as filled with signs of affection as ever.
Before long, the intensity of what we shared began to wane, which I see now was likely to happen sooner or later. While we both still had strong feels for each other, I think we realized that nothing much would ever come of it. We had talked briefly about moving to each other's cities to be together, but I didn't want to live in Winnipeg, even for someone I thought I loved--I think in the back of my mind, I realized I didn't truly know Brian, and that being with him in person might be very different from being with him through emails and the rare letter or phone call. And he didn't want to move to Kelowna. Our lives were in two completely different places, and, thankfully, neither one of us was flighty enough to disrupt them for the possibility of something with a person we'd never met.
When I got a transfer to a branch in the Lower Mainland, nearly four hundred miles away from Kelowna, I knew I'd have limited access to a computer to send emails to Brian. Perhaps that was as good a time as any to wind things down. We would never say we wouldn't be in contact with each other again, but our affair had run its course, and my moving away to a fresh start in the big city was the perfect opportunity to let each other go. It had to be done. I expected to meet new men in Vancouver, and I didn't want to feel like I was tied to Brian in Winnipeg, who would never truly be mine, and couldn't explore the possibilities of having a real relationship with someone I could be with in person. Brian understood. He needed to get on with his life, too.
Over the years, I received the odd email from Brian. Months would go by, even years, and an email from him would appear in my Outlook inbox. I'd always smile when I saw his name, and I'd remember a very special time in my life when I explored with him emotional territory that I'd never navigated before. I'd open the email, he'd ask how things were going and update me on changes in his career and life. And he'd always affix a small x and o below his initial. I knew I'd always have feelings for him too, no matter what else happened in my life.
In the late '90s, I received an email from Brian saying that he and his lover--I believe the older fellow he'd been seeing on and off while we'd conducted our e-affair at work--were coming to Vancouver. He wanted to know if I would be interested in getting together, perhaps for lunch. Would I? I couldn't believe, after a decade, I'd finally have the chance to meet Brian in person. Of course, our affair was long over, and I had a real life partner now. Chris and I had been together for seven years or so at that point. Brian told me to bring Chris along, that he'd love to meet him. Brian asked if I knew of any good restaurants, and I suggested Griffins at the Hotel Vancouver, one of Chris's and my favorites.
And so, late one sunny Sunday morning, Chris and I waited on a thickly upholstered leather bench outside of Griffins. I had no idea what Brian would look like. Despite taking a look at the picture he'd sent me all those years before, I knew people change--I certainly had--and I didn't know if I'd recognize him. The time we were supposed to meet came and went, and I was beginning to think that Brian had thought the better of getting together with a fellow he'd had a torrent affair with over the computers at work all those years ago. After all, both of us had moved on to entirely different chapters of our lives. What was the point of linking up in person after all this time?
Then I saw someone walk toward me. I sort of recognized the face, but I wasn't sure. His skin was tanned, but, as he got closer, I saw his complexion was rough. Deep lines creased the areas around his eyes and mouth. Replacing the mullet was a cut close to the scalp. He approached me and asked if I was Rick. When he identified himself as Brian, we embraced each other firmly, as though we were long, lost friends, and he introduced me to his partner, a fellow who was heavier set with thick grey hair. We entered the restaurant and were seated.
Brunch was great fun. Just as I had discussed with Chris, Brian had told his partner all about us. Ten years after, we could laugh at what we'd been through together, the excitement we'd shared during those mundane days at work, and recall how intense things had gotten between us. We talked about Winnipeg and travel, our careers and Vancouver. Despite the unusual circumstances of our meeting, I felt close to Brian, and I think he felt close to me. Our partners didn't sit on the sidelines; they were as involved in the conversation as we were. Lunch was served, and, as usual, the food was delicious and the service outstanding.
As I sat at the table, watching Brian speak and laugh, I was grateful that I hadn't been rash all those years before, that I hadn't left my job and my province for the fantasy of a relationship with a young man in Winnipeg. I could tell from his face that he'd lived a hard life, that our pasts were quite different, and, despite how compatible we'd seemed at the time, we weren't suited to each other after all. In person, Brian wasn't nearly as attractive as he'd appeared, physically or otherwise. As it turned out, we had different interests, passions, and goals. And it seemed to me, as superficial as this sounds, that the picture he'd sent me wasn't a good representation of him. Perhaps he'd stood too far away from the mirror. Perhaps the mirror had distorted how he looked. Perhaps the picture hadn't captured who the real Brian was inside. Whatever the case, Brian in person didn't feel like the Brian I fell in love with at work. Perhaps the previous ten years hadn't been good ones for him. Perhaps he was aging badly. Perhaps he didn't feel the same about the person in the picture I sent him either. Who knows?
What I do know is that I ended up with just the right person for me. Not only was Chris more physically attractive to me, but also he was reserved, innocent, and patient. I loved his demeanor, while Brian, in person, seemed to be too much like me--excitable, uptight, intense. I knew from having been with Chris for years that I needed someone who was similar to me in all the important ways--values, morals, world view--but different in all the ways that allow two people to be together for the long haul without killing each other. Other gay men might have thought in the e-affair I had with Brian that they had found true love, and that they couldn't let it get away. That it was the one-time, real deal. But something made me hold back. Something prevented me from getting fully drawn into a situation with too many unknowns. Despite the crazy emotions I felt over those intense months, I kept my head and my heart, preserving them for the one young man who would make me sing in every way that's important. To this very day, I remain grateful for my levelheadedness--but, also, for the wonderful experience Brian and I shared together, a once in a lifetime thing.