It was a 20-minute drive from my childhood home in San Diego to my middle school one town over. Twenty minutes that my mom never failed to capitalize on. It was the time for her proverbial lectures on the dangers of the world. I was her captive audience, and our silver 2006 Honda Odyssey was her pulpit, from which she preached with the fervor of a Southern Baptist.
“Do you know what sexting is?”
“Uh… no,” I said in exasperated annoyance — the unmistakable tone of a teenager.
“It’s when kids send naked photos of themselves over the internet. Don’t ever do that! You’ll get arrested or killed!”
No matter what it was — sex, porn, drugs, the sermon always seemed to end in one of three ways: jail, murder or eternal damnation and hellfire. “God doesn’t want you to masturbate; it’s sinful.”
I would stare glumly out the window and watch the Southern California landscape roll by. The route was always the same, through suburban streets lined by 1970s stucco homes, through expansive tracts of canned Spanish-revival McMansions, past parking lots and fast-food restaurants. On one freeway exit, off another, glimpses of the Pacific Ocean in between. Those 20 minutes seemed to stretch for an eternity. When we pulled up to Earl Warren Middle School, I jumped out of the passenger seat with the speed and conviction of an escaping convict.
My mom was about eight years too early — I was a good, church-going kid in those days. The same cannot be said now. For all the energy my mom poured into those lessons, for all the awkwardness she must have felt, I retained almost none of it. Still, her worst fears never materialized. I’ve managed to stay alive and out of jail. We’ll have to wait and see about hell.
She had two cardinal rules, and they both centered on the internet. Her intentions were good — this was the mid-2000s, and to almost everyone, the internet seemed like a dangerous Wild West populated by pedophiles, sexual perverts and scammers. Myspace was the reigning social media site, so you can imagine the confusion.
Rule No. 1: No porn.
My parents had strict content blocks on the family computers, but combine the internet’s brazenness with the ingenuity of a horny teenager, and things happen.
Rule No. 2: Never meet strangers from the internet. Don’t talk to strangers on the internet.
My 12-year-old-self balked. Why would I ever meet someone from the internet? I failed to consider the obvious — sex.
I remember the first time I broke that second rule. And I don’t mean for coffee, or a walk through the museum, those unfortunate first dates. I mean going to someone’s house, the real possibility of danger, of never returning, of being dragged to some bleak dungeon. My mom’s worst nightmare.
Fittingly, it was in San Diego — I was briefly back from college for summer. My mom was in New York City, and I had unfettered access to a car. I was lying on the couch. The Food Network mumbled in the background while I stared at my phone. I mindlessly scrolled through Instagram, then mindlessly swiped through Tinder. Shawn was 6’3”, blond, 22, muscular, very boy-next-door. I swiped right.
The first message came almost immediately. “Hey.”
“Hey what’s up?” I said — the forced niceties of online dating.
“Just looking for some ass.”
“Oh, you tryna fuck?” I don’t know why I talk like this online. I am just as horrified rereading these messages as you are.
He lived in College Heights, I lived in Encinitas, and if you aren’t familiar with the particular geography of San Diego County, those places are not remotely close to each other. I ran upstairs to brush my teeth, ran back downstairs and drove off in my mom’s Subaru Outback.
“I’ll be there in 35 minutes.”
The 805 freeway is one of my least favorites. It’s a tributary of the 5, and it snakes along San Diego, past generic business parks and hills dotted with dull shrubbery. It is unusually dark at night — you strain to see where it bends and dips. My heart was beating fast, my blood racing through my veins as I sped down the highway. What the fuck am I doing? Meanwhile, my mom’s words repeated in my head. “Never meet strangers from the internet.”
The address led me to a one-story ranch house on a quiet, eclectic street. I paused in the car outside, dimmed the headlights, took a couple of deep breaths before heading to the door. I rung the doorbell. A man answers, 6’3”, blonde, 22 — exactly as promised.
I am aware that this all could have gone differently. There is no guarantee of safety when you go to a new place and meet a new person just to hook up, but we’ve normalized this behavior. Hypothetically, we all should take our own safety with the seriousness of my mom in those early days of the internet. Then again, the internet is no longer a confusing alien landscape; it’s changed, modernized, adapted. I’ve changed along with it, or maybe because of it.
That night was some of the best sex I’ve ever had. So much for mom’s rules.
Josh Perkins writes the Friday column on the absurd realities of modern communication. Contact him at [email protected] .