HE MET HER in February, in cyberspace, where a person can float in from nowhere on a string of words, faceless and possibly perfect.
The first poem she sent him started this way: I am iambic (more or less).It was more literate than most of the e-mail Stephen Games received online, even on the chatboard called "highly intelligent singles."
I am iambic (more or less)
Iambic meter pleases me.
A foot of two syllables in which the stress
Is on the last - as it should be.
So now - what's next? You needn't guess.
For my next trick, I'll synecdoche.
She knew her poetry terms, that was for sure. She knew that scan was something you could do with poems as well as computers. She liked a good rhyming scheme. She could compose a villanelle.
He knew that she was 26 and lived in Salt Lake City, or at least that's what the stanzas implied. Her name was Lycida.
Stephen Games wrote to the Deseret News in May. By then Lycida had mysteriously disappeared from the information highway. "Modern technology, old story," Games wrote from his office in Los Angeles. "Boy meets girl, boy loses girl - boy keeps art."
He wondered if the Deseret News could help him find her.
Games included copies of the poems that he and Lycida had exchanged. They were learned, structured poems with echoes of James Merrill and allusions to offbeat novelist Christine Brooke-Rose.
Lycida's second poem to him gently chastised him for responding to her first poem with an off-hand "No time to write just now." So the next time he wrote it was 10 stanzas that ended like this:
Though waspish, L, you entertain
With harsh quatrains your wooers bold.
And therefore, setting chat aside,
Cru-Elle, my distant couplet be.
By the time he got her third poem he was becoming more interested.
When time is still and thick and slow (she wrote)
The words are much the same. Not all
Days hold a poem. Some do not.
Be grateful for a phrase, a sigh.
Today began as one without.
A dry report. Too long, and grim
With mispronounced ideas. And then
Necessity, disguised as you.
They sent more poems. Tucked into the couplets seemed to be some hints about her life: She was apparently divorced, had a small child and an unreliable car, was studying for her finals, wanted to get a Ph.D.
Information wasn't the point, though. In a medium filled with incessant chatter, where the past was a nanosecond ago, they seemed to have made a different kind of connection, something formal and measured and tantalizing.
And then, suddenly, she disappeared. No more poems. No one named Lycida. That's when he wrote to the Deseret News.
At first his letter was routed to the paper's editorial writers, and then to an editor on the news desk: hard news types who were not intrigued by the possibilities of lost love. Undaunted, Games wrote back, this time to the features section. I give him a call.
"Most of the conversations online are fantastically banal," Games says when we finally reach each other. By now it is the end of June.
Games, it turns out, is a British journalist living in L.A. He writes articles about American politics for papers in London. He is developing two radio programs for the BBC, one about emerging cultural issues along the Pacific Rim, the other a spoof of talk shows.
Games thinks Lycida's poems are good. He has sent them to a friend in Baltimore who has a cultural affairs program on the public radio station affiliated with Johns Hopkins University. The friend thinks the poems are good, too. She thinks that if Lycida applied to Johns Hopkins she might get into the graduate English program, one of the top 10 in the country. All the more reason to find her.
There can't be too many people named Lycida in Utah, I say. Oh, but her real name is Laura, Games says. He thinks the name Lycida might be a reference to a poem by Milton.
"I'll find her," I hear myself say with bravado.
My first call is to the University of Utah English department. The secretary politely listens to my story, then she delivers the bad news: "There are 600 students in the English department," she says wearily. I suggest that only a few are probably named Laura. Maybe some of the Lauras write poetry, I say hopefully.
She says - politely, guardedly - that she'll see what she can do.
I hang up the phone and am walking across the room when the phone rings.
"Hi, this is Laura Clayton," says a voice. "I think you're trying to find me."
The information highway is wide and long. Wider than metaphors about highways can conjure up. Billions of words, millions of people. Faceless people with usernames, those fake passports of cyberspace. People traveling across continents at the speed of fingers tapping on keys. A person in cyberspace could be anywhere, could get lost and never found.
But Salt Lake City is a small town.
Laura Clayton graduated in June from the Univerity of Utah, in English. Now she is working as a secretary in the department of languages and literature. Her office is down the hall from the English department. She was the first person the secretary approached in her reluctant search of Lauras.
"America-On-Line kicked me off," Clayton explains. Just a financial mix-up. Now she's back on. But she had to pick a new username. Those are the rules. This time she picked Eristry, the Greek goddess of discord.
She has written poems since she was 6. "Sesame Street" was a big influence, she says, as were two English teachers, Donna Parker at Bountiful High School and M.L. Bean at Mueller Park Junior High. Not every day is a poem day, she says, but when she writes a poem she's pretty fast about it. She wrote one of the poems to Games while she was giving her daughter a bath one evening.
She hadn't contacted Games after logging back on to America On-Line because she assumed he had lost interest in their dialogue. She knew the rules of the information highway, which are much like those on any old road and not at all like the rules of normal social contact: You can cut people off any time you please.
She didn't know he had in fact been away. She didn't know he was British. She didn't know his name, first or last, but only his username, UKMR1. She was surprised to learn that he had been trying for two months to find her.
The information highway is wide and long, but Salt Lake City is small. It turns out that Laura Clayton is a cousin of Deseret News travel writer Katie Clayton, who sits across the aisle from me, 10 feet away.
After a few more poems and some real-time online conversation and several phone calls through most of July, Clayton and Games decide to meet in person. By now Clayton knows that Games is 16 years older than she, that he is ready to settle down now, that he is an Orthodox Jew and is looking for a Jewish wife. Clayton, raised a Mormon, doesn't fit the bill. But they decide to meet anyway because they are curious.
I call her at work the day she gets back. "Well. . . ?" I ask.
She laughs, then tries to sort it out.
The truth is that life is something like poetry: not always so easy to understand on the first read through.
And the truth is that life is not much like the Internet at all.
They had a good time in California. They went to the beach and went for drives and he teased her by stopping by Nicole Simpson's house on Bundy, as if they were wide-eyed tourists. He was charming and he was cute with her daughter.
But it was a little awkward, too. They didn't really know each other but felt that they should. On the information highway you can have a conversation and really learn very little information at all, and you can start to fill in the blanks with the way you hope the person really is.
"There's a false intimacy on the Internet," says Laura. Maybe it comes from knowing that you're talking across so many miles to someone you may never meet, who can't hear the hesitation or sarcasm or the fear in your voice. And the poetry just compounded the mystery.
When I call Games, he is eager to talk. He says he thinks Clayton is pretty, intelligent, funny and an excellent mother. He wonders what would have happened if religion weren't a consideration.
He hopes I'm not disappointed that it didn't turn out to be a love story, that he wasn't the Robert to her Elizabeth Browning. Life, like poetry, doesn't always rhyme, he says. But he thinks he and Laura can have a successful friendship, with poetry at the core of it.
They can send the poems to each other through cyberspace, where a person can float in from Salt Lake City on a string of words. Nearly perfect.