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Real Talk: I Was the Catfish

All right kids, here’s a weird one: the time I catfished some dude. It started as a joke—late at night, hanging out with my roommates, I had the bright idea to hop on Craigslist and go through some of the Los Angeles Man-Seeking-Woman posts. (A word to the wise, never visit the Man-Seeking-Woman section unless you want to lose whatever faith in humanity you have left.) Most were identical—invitations for hookups, guys saying their girlfriends were out of town—but one caught my eye: Steven, 27, architect, just looking for some good conversation. He’d put up a photo and looked normal enough, a clean-shaven man grinning ear to ear, holding a book and one of those fancy artisanal lattes. But something about his face looked vulnerable. My friends and I were feeling sadistic and we pounced.

Huddled around my laptop, we invented Karen, 24, recent college grad, art historian. Karen was tired of dating jerks and just wanted to meet a nice guy. We told Steven exactly what he wanted to hear: “Not sure why I’m even on Craigslist this late but your post caught my eye.” “You’re pretty cute lol.” That kind of thing. We even sent Steven some pictures of an Instagram model we found for good measure. He ate it all up. Our back-and-forth went on for a solid hour or two, with Steven probably sitting alone in his apartment, getting his hopes up, and my friends and me sneering and laughing at this pathetic young architect and his shy attempts at flirting.

Eventually we lost interest and wandered off to our beds. It was nothing out of the ordinary—just another night of us trolling on the internet, this time through new means. But here’s where it gets weird: the next day I emailed him again. I wasn’t even sure why I did it. Maybe I secretly sympathized with Steven and his late night loneliness, maybe I was bored in class, but I kept the conversation going, and the longer we talked, the more invested I got. Steven’s favorite food was meatloaf but he’d recently become a vegetarian. He’d graduated from NYU with a degree in architecture, and though now he was working for a big firm in downtown LA, he didn’t want to give up on his dream of designing greenhouses. Steven had been engaged, but three months before she’d cheated on him with his roommate, and so he’d immediately lost his only two friends on the West Coast. He was a real, breathing human, with thoughts and regrets and desires, and despite the fact that he was talking to a fictional woman, our conversation was more interesting and emotionally honest than anything else I had going on.

We talked and talked. As a fiction writer, I got a kick out of coming up with Karen’s story (she liked sushi and espresso, but never together, she’d grown up in the Bay Area but had spent the last year studying Impressionism in Paris), but I pushed the convo to hear more about Steven and what his life was like. Every time he proposed that we meet up, I said I’d love to but that I was swamped—Karen lived a busy life, bussing tables downtown, doing an internship at LACMA. I’d wake up, roll over and grab my phone, and text him stuff like, “Just had another dream about you. Hope you have a good day!” (Things were getting serious now, we’d swapped numbers.) He’d respond with something sweet and the talk would go on from there.

This is the part that you may not believe. Heck, if it didn’t happen to me then I wouldn’t either, but here goes. On a Friday night, a couple weeks after my roommates and I had first trolled Steven, we went to a bar downtown to celebrate my buddy getting a new job. It was a dark, smoky spot, the speakers pumping out lame pop music with an occasional hip-hop song mixed in, and as we sat there in the corner talking about sports or girls or whatever, I saw him—architect Steven, sitting with a few dudes at a table, just twenty feet away. All of our conversations flooded my mind, all the observations and confessions and inside jokes, and without thinking, I yelled, “Steven!”, waving wildly.

Steven turned around and gave me a weird look. My friends turned and gave me weird looks. It seemed like everyone in the bar was staring and then it hit me: Steven had no idea who I was. I wasn’t Karen, I was Kurt, just another 21-year-old college senior hanging out with his friends. I hid my face in my jacket and eventually Steven and his friends left.

I ghosted Steven after that. I felt bad, and he sent four or five texts before he gave up, but I just couldn’t do it anymore. What were the chances that, in a town of three million plus people, I would run into him? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why I did what I did, why I emailed him the day after my friends’ and my joke was over, why I kept talking to him. The best explanation I can come up with is that I was single and lonely, faking my way through my last couple semesters of college, and even if Karen wasn’t real, the jokes and well wishes Steven sent her were. It felt good to mean something to someone, and I hope that whatever happiness Steven had in that week outweighed the disappointment he felt when Karen disappeared.

I remembered all this because lately I keep seeing people get catfished in TV shows and movies, and the culprit is always some mean guy with pit stains and a stable diet of pizza rolls and Mountain Dew in his mom’s basement. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes a little loneliness goes a long way. I hope Steven found his Karen. To this day sometimes I scroll past his number in my phone and consider shooting him a text.

Have you ever catfished anyone?