It started out as a normal, 21st century love story: I met Paul*, I liked Paul, so I Googled Paul. We’d been hanging out for two months, and I knew he was fluent in French, played guitar, and liked India Pale Ale. Now I was ready for the good stuff, the stuff only the internet could tell me. I was hoping to find mentions of him in school newspapers, signs of previous girlfriends, and, if I was lucky, the holy grail of Googling: his high school LiveJournal.
Instead, I found a New York Times article: “Paul Reed Pleads No-Contest To Rape Charges.” I caught my breath, but didn’t let myself panic. Surely “Paul Reed” was a common name? I clicked another article: Paul Reed, 20, Dartmouth. But it couldn’t be! Not my Paul Reed, because, well, my Paul liked books and history, and was shy around girls, and, well, hell, he’s definitely not capable of anything like that!
I click the next hit: this time, a picture of a sandy-haired, gawky kid with glasses, accompanied by a grim-looking lawyer. Despite the suit and tie and unsmiling expression, there was no doubt about it. My Paul Reed.
Instead of pouring over LiveJournal entries or posts on his MySpace wall, I spent the next two hours reading every article, blurb, and comment about Paul’s case. I was shocked to see him featured and discussed on my favorite blogs. Was it possible I’d heard of this at the time, and just not paid attention?
The incident happened at school: They knew each other, went to a party, and then, according to the girl, he raped her. I winced as I read the words “bite marks,” “bruises,” “restraints,” and thought about all the times he’d put his arm around my shoulder, never forcefully, and never more than that. My mind wandered to the inevitable, if hyperbolic question: Could that have been me? Thank God nothing happened; thank God I found out just in time.
And then I forgot about Paul my crush and thought about Paul my friend. In the past two months, we’d spent countless hours together, talking about everything. I’d told him about my plans to be a writer, fights with my mom, my worries about money. I’d told him everything about myself, but for some reason he’d held back from me, his friend, what hundreds of perfect strangers already knew.
And then, I made a decision. I couldn’t drop the matter, and I didn’t want to read any more articles, I didn’t want to Google. I wanted Paul to tell me his story himself.
I saw Paul again the next week, at the usual bar. I told him I wasn’t feeling well and stuck to soda—I didn’t want to be drinking for this conversation, but in a way felt that Paul might be more inclined to talk after a few beers. It occurred to me, as I sat on the stool making small talk, watching him drink, that in a sick way, the roles had been reversed. Paul was the unsuspecting victim, and I was the predator.
I began to steer the conversation towards topics that I felt would inevitably lead towards the rape: I asked him about school, and when he didn’t bite, brought up dating and sex in college. I studied his face for any flicker of awkwardness or remorse, but he was obviously practiced in the art of pretending. He wasn’t glib about it, just noncommittal. In retrospect, I don’t know what I was expecting; he couldn’t very well have said, “Yeah, college was crazy, I even raped a girl once!” I changed tactics.
We began talking about life, and hardship. He kept steering the conversation away from himself, bringing up friends in common who were going through difficult times. “So-and-so’s had a rough time of it,” he said.
“You haven’t had an easy life either, have you Paul?” I asked.
He looked at me, questioningly. “Why do you say that?”
And then I went for it. “I Googled you.”
I didn’t have to explain any further beyond that phrase—he instantly understood the implication. And then, seamlessly, with very little questioning on my part, he told me everything. Meeting up with her at the party. Getting drunk. Taking her home. The morning after. The arrest. The trial. His family. Getting kicked out of school. Every single detail, in a breathtaking, pained monologue, the kind I thought took place only in movies.
So did he do it? He claims not to, of course. I’ll never know for sure. After that night, we never talked again. It was as if we both knew we could never be friends after that conversation. To believe him completely would have felt like a betrayal to women, and to suspect him, a betrayal of our friendship. And as for Paul, I don’t think he’d ever opened up about the situation before me. I knew he’d never be able to look at me without thinking of that night.
Sometimes, I wonder what would have happened if I’d never Googled Paul that afternoon. Would we have dated? Would he have told me, eventually? Or would I have found out some other way, when it would have been worse? And I wonder if Paul will find himself in the same situation again and again. If somewhere down the line, another girl will meet Paul, like Paul, and Google him.
* Name has been changed.