My eyes scanned the crowd in the arrivals area of Terminal 5 at Los Angeles International Airport. Then I saw her face, framed by a curtain of espresso-colored hair, peeking out from behind a cement pillar.
We had never met before face to face, but I knew Stacy and everything about her. Her arms reached out to wrap around me, and she squeezed hard. Her hug held the intoxicating scent of jasmine, reminding me of stolen summer nights capturing fireflies. This hug, forged in two years of whispered messages and stolen phone calls, felt like a homecoming to a place I had only dreamed of.
Two years prior, on Jan. 17, 1994, the Northridge earthquake shook her parents' Porter Ranch home violently, waking her and her family from their slumber. In the aftermath of the quake, as the San Fernando Valley itself was adrift, there was no school at Granada Hills High School, no movies and no trips to Bullock's at the Northridge Fashion Center. Instead, she sought solace from boredom by dialing into America Online and joining one of the many chat rooms, searching for something to cure the monotony.
Meanwhile, a world away in Connecticut, a blizzard had painted the landscape white across New England, dumping feet of snow and ice. Schools were closed for a few days, and I also dialed into AOL in search of an answer to teenage boredom. Hiding behind a computer screen, hoping to share a flirtatious moment with a girl, I joined a teen chat room. Almost immediately, I saw her screen name, Stacyface. She was very witty and had razor-sharp quips, parrying every attempt at connection with playful defiance. A ritual of teenage hieroglyphics unfolded, etched in the flickering glow of the screen.
Pun1sher: 14/m/CT u?
The awkwardness that only AOL instant messages could spawn stretched for an eternity. Then inspiration struck. What better way to prove our existence than to share our voices? My heart was thundering like a war drum as I dialed.
"Hello?" she said, the air thick with nervous static.
"Hi," I said. My voice was a mere squeak trapped in the vastness of the phone line. My pubescent nerves did a pirouette in my stomach as we hung up, retreating to the haven of instant messages. Our hearts were fluttering like trapped butterflies.
For months, we found each other on AOL and instant messaged each other daily. AOL became our confession booth, the dial-up hum connecting two souls across a continent. We called each other nightly, discussing the trials and tribulations of our teenage lives. We sent letters in the mail and via email and exchanged birthday and Valentine's Day gifts. We called each other so often that we lived in fear of our parents when the phone bill arrived monthly.
After a year of our digital friendship, I sat 3,000 miles away in my bedroom, but one night, I said to her: "I love you." Almost without processing, she quickly replied, "As a friend, right?" Without wanting to rock our relationship at all, I said, "Yes." In hindsight, we were in love with each other, but only one of us was willing to admit it. A year into this digital long-distance relationship, we told our parents it was time for us to meet. They decided that if, in another year, we were still friends, I would fly to Los Angeles and we would meet.
Back at LAX, Stacy hugged me tightly as her mom, Cheryl, came over to greet me. One of the strangest and most awkward experiences you can ever imagine is knowing someone so intimately from talking on the phone for hundreds of hours but never having met them in person. Her family graciously allowed me to stay with them for a week and they showed this small-town New Englander all that Los Angeles had to offer.
I was enthralled and fell in love with Los Angeles: dinner in Beverly Hills with a tour of Rodeo Drive, tickets for "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," a Dodger game, shopping at a lot of the stores on Ventura Boulevard, a day spent at Universal Studios Hollywood, a day spent at Disneyland, shopping at Third Street Promenade, and driving up Pacific Coast Highway with a tour of Malibu and hitting Froggy's in Topanga on the way home. Seeing L.A. this way made me fall just as hard for the city as I did for Stacy. We shared our first kiss before I left to go back to Connecticut. Perhaps it was that kiss that sealed our fate.
Another year passed, and the time spent on the phone melted into a kaleidoscope of shared jokes, whispered vulnerabilities and a slow-burning ache that was blooming into something undeniable. As a senior in high school, the path on where I would end up for college was constantly on my mind. I wanted to work in the entertainment industry. L.A. was a likely candidate, but so was New York. One day, three years after we started talking, Stacy laid it out clearly for me: "I think that if you don't go to school in California, there really is no point for us to continue to have a relationship." Wow, the old ultimatum.
I started as a freshman in the cinema and television arts program at California State University, Northridge, joining Stacy at the school in August of that year. I told my friends and family that CSUN had an excellent TV program, which was the primary reason I was there. But the reality was that I loved Stacy, and she loved me; there was no place I would rather be than with her.
The author is the director of rights and clearances at "Access Hollywood" and E! News. He has been married to Stacy for 17 years and has two children. They reside in Porter Ranch. He's on Instagram: @orourkesean
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.