On Top of It #6 by Lisa Martens
Trolls, Predators, Confessions
My Aunt Patricia introduced me to the fine art of trolling chat rooms when I was ten. My parents had just gotten Internet (dial-up, of course) in our grey, two-bedroom Dallas apartment. I don’t remember too much about the apartment: The walls were stained with tobacco as a result of my father’s chain smoking, my seizure pills were kept in the kitchen along with the spices, and a tornado once threw an air conditioner into our balcony. My parents slept on a futon in the living room, I had one bedroom, and the computer occupied the guest room.
Patricia had come to visit us for Christmas—She was eighteen, and I was ten. She was the youngest of my aunts, and the only one of my aunts who looked like me, and so of course I wanted to be just like her. I wanted to be thin enough to look good with short hair, wear baggy jeans, and listen to grunge music.
I had pneumonia again that year. Every November, my parents would pull out the dehumidifier, use old antibiotics until they had to take me to the doctor to get new ones, and then eventually take me to the free clinic because we didn’t have insurance. It was also the same place I went to get my blood drawn every three months to make sure my seizure pills were not damaging my immune system or liver.
I had my antibiotics and my inhaler, and since Patricia didn’t have a car and my parents had to work, we spent most of our time either renting tapes from Blockbuster or making up fake identities and chatting with people online. I thought it was hilarious. Men believed absolutely anything we said.
And, usually, they directed the conversation towards sex. I knew as much about sex as I knew about the Internet. As a chronically sick ten-year-old, the only contact I had ever had with a man was during one of my many doctor visits: When they had to determine how much fluid was in my lungs, when they had to put wires on my head to monitor my brain activity, when they had to take blood out of my arms, when they had to give my parents the disappointing news that yes, my brain was still all over the place.
My interest in the Internet dipped for a couple of years. My seizures went away, I had coughs but not as frequently, and, most importantly, my parents bought a house in Plano. A real house—I had neighbors, I could walk to school and to the park, and I didn’t need a ride to see most of my friends. The Internet was that thing where a music video took three hours to load. It was that thing that tied up the phone line and prevented my friends from reaching me. I was not convinced that the Internet was the future.
Then, when I was twelve, we got high-speed Internet.
My friends and I liked to troll Internet chat rooms in the same way we liked to watch “When Animals Attack.” We weren’t going to meet any of these men or have sex with them, but something about it was so appealing, so funny. If you told them anything about yourself, they acted sympathetic for two seconds before redirecting the conversation. You could find a man online who would tell you he loved you after less than a day of IMs. And then, just as quickly, we would block him and walk to Liberty Park, or grab ice cream and go for a swim at the rec center.
The men never had anything in common, not really— They wrote with bright fonts on black backgrounds. They usually had Madonna/Whore complexes and were looking for virgins. But they were all ages, all backgrounds. Some were married with kids and tried to make us feel bad for them:
“Since the baby was born, my wife just doesn’t put out anymore.”
“I love my wife, but she’s always traveling, and I get so lonely. I just want a lady I can love and spoil.”
“My wife and I had an arranged marriage, but we are not in love.”
Some proclaimed that all females were bitches, and dared us to prove them wrong:
“I never met a girl like you. Most girls are so judgmental. But you’re different. I can tell.”
“I wonder . . . are you just like all the others?”
“Most women are bitches or sluts these days. I just want a nice girl.”
My friends and I would usually bend the truth, and we had a few set personas so we didn’t get our lies mixed up. For example, I’m Lisa Marie, but I would usually say my name was Maria. I would say I lived in Dallas, not Plano—another half-truth, because I had lived in Dallas during my epilepsy heyday.
“Do you like older men?”
This was a common question posed to me in AOL chats when I was twelve. It was a bizarre question to me—not for its inappropriateness, which is glaring to me now, but because the only “older” men I knew were my teachers and my father. I did like them, so an honest answer would be something like “Yes, I like my social studies teacher. He lets me wash the blackboard after class, which I find fun for some reason.”
“So what do you like to do?”
Another question that, if taken literally, would disappoint the twenty-nine or forty or sixty-three year old man on the Internet.
“On the weekends, my friends and I like to walk around Stonebriar Mall twice, look at the massage chairs by the skating rink but not use them, then go to that cake store that can make a cookie in the shape of anything. We end the day by maybe buying a shirt or a pair of jeans and meeting our parents in the parking lot. The only reason I’m not there now is because my dad had to work this weekend and my mom has anxiety attacks when she drives.”
“I’m old enough to be your father.”
This brilliant comment, popular among men thirty-five and older, will always have a special place in my heart. My father was eighteen when I was born, meaning he was thirty when I was twelve. Most of the men soliciting me for sex actually were older than my father. They didn’t like to hear it, though. For some reason, being old enough to be my father was sexy, but actually being older than my father was creepy.
Why did we do it? Part of it was boredom, the Texas heat, the lack of a driver’s license, and the sense of immortality only suburban preteens can feel. We didn’t believe any of these men would materialize or hurt us.
The other part was fascination: public schools gave us very little sexual education. My sex ed consisted of photos of STDs followed by a message of DON’T DO IT. One speaker had a Barbie and a Ken Doll. The Ken was covered in velcro, and the speaker stuck the two together. When she pulled them apart, the Barbie doll became mangled from the velcro on Ken. “That’s why women shouldn’t have multiple sexual partners,” she explained. No one answered our questions about condoms, virginity, or pregnancy.
Online, these men were willing to talk to us like we were adults who would potentially have sex with them. They may have been society’s rejects, but we were excited at the idea that someone would answer our questions without referencing what was “right” and what was “wrong.”
One day, after walking home from school, I noticed my neighbor had made it home before I had. I had walked fast, so I was confused. I asked her about it when I went out to get the mail.
“Oh, I sucked this guy’s dick for a ride home,” she said casually. “I met him online.” This was bizarre to me, not because we were in middle school, but because our school was less than a mile away. My neighbor continued to get home before I did.
I discovered Kazaa, started downloading my favorite songs for free, and making my own CDs. (iPods weren’t a thing yet.) I gradually stopped talking to men online. The hangers-on complained that I had changed too much, so I blocked them.
It didn’t matter: North Park Mall had opened by then, so my friends and I had somewhere else to buy cookies in the shape of anything.
Lisa Martens (Episode 22) currently lives in Harlem. In her past 10 years in New York, she has lived in a garage on Long Island, a living room in Hell’s Kitchen, the architecture building of CCNY, and on the couch of a startup. She grew up in New York, Costa Rica and Texas, and she’s still not sure which of these is home. She completed her MFA in Creative Writing from CCNY. Her thesis, What Grows in Heavy Rain, is available on Amazon. Check out her website here. Follow her on Instagram here.