AOL Teens, Eye Drops, and Things That Don't Make Sense

From the "Does anybody remember this, or is it just me?" files

There are a lot of things I could write about right now, in this odd and terrifying time. I’ve started and deleted several different posts in the past few weeks. It didn’t feel right to be writing about scary things. Instead, I think what we need is something light, maybe some bizarre memories of things I am sure only I remember.

So, today I want to talk about a terrible AOL Dating Sim I once played.

I was probably about eleven or twelve, and I did not know what Dating Sims were. For those of you who don’t remember AOL, never used it, or are too young, there used to be these things called “AOL Keywords,” which were something of an alternative to URLs. AOL’s search function was terrible, but if you entered a keyword, you’d be sent to a page they’d made for a brand, like Nickelodeon, or on a particular topic, like Health or Parenting. To eleven-year-old me, AOL Keyword “Teen” was where it was at. (And it was much safer than searching “teen” on any other primitive search engine. That would have just led to porn. Everything led to porn in those days. I remember searching “large earthquakes” for a seventh grade science report and getting the suggestion that I also search for “large vaginas.”)

No actual teens hung out on AOL Teens, I’m sure, the same way that very few actual teens read teen magazines. Well, that might have changed these days, with Teen Vogue and all, but in my day, by the time you were seventeen, you had probably grown out of reading Seventeen and moved onto Cosmopolitan. I don’t remember much about AOL Teens, just that I spent a lot of time there, that there were message boards and articles and the obligatory embarrassing moments, and there were at least two games. They were called Crush! and Mack! respectively: Crush! was supposed to be for girls, and Mack! was for boys. They were basic text-based games, with multiple choice questions, accompanied by some photos of a model playing the person you were supposed to be courting, whose expression would change depending on how well you were doing in the game. They’d say something, you’d have to choose one of three replies to try to win their hearts.

I played Crush! first. The male model was supposed to be playing a high schooler, but he was clearly over 25. I remember him looking kind of like a blond Christopher Reeve — though I may just have him in mind because 32-year-old me watched The Remains of the Day the other night. Older guys didn’t do it for me then, although honestly, neither did most younger guys: I’d decided I was officially into boys the summer before sixth grade, but I found that whenever I had a crush on a guy, he always found a way to kill my attraction pretty quickly. I never had a middle school or summer camp romance (unless you count briefly dancing with my camp crush Shane at the camp dance, then getting furious when he non-consensually grabbed cool fourteen-year-old Stacey’s boobs three days later, and pouring half a bottle of Pepsi in his hair in female solidarity). I had to wait until high school to get my heart broken, and didn’t actually fall in love until college. I was a bit of a late bloomer.

Still, middle school me liked the idea of dating and romance. I liked the idea of there being nice boys out there, and flirting successfully. So I played the game. The goal was to get him to dance with you at a school dance. The description insisted he was the “one you’ve had a crush on forever, the cute jock with the great bod and killer smile” — despite the model looking much more like a teacher — and that finally, you saw him in the corner “at the Valentine’s Day dance, alone.” The game started with you almost bumping into him while he was drinking his punch, causing him to respond, “Whoa. Watch it, sweetie!” From there, you could choose to say “Sorry, hope you didn’t spill your punch,” “Oops, clumsy me!” or “Oh my god, you called me sweetie! Somebody please shoot me so I can die in bliss!” That last answer would lead to several more prompts, with several more creepy prompts about how you had such a crush on him and the two of you were meant to be together, until finally he would end the game by saying one of the most late nineties things ever said: “What are you, a stalker? Go join a Leo fan club and stop wasting my time!”

(I only won the game once, by impressing him with my dancing skills. I think the line “dancing is just a vertical exploration of horizontal desires” was even offered as a choice in there somewhere. Being a terrible dancer in real life, I felt this did not bode well for me.)

Mack!, the game “for boys,” I found far more interesting. By middle school I was starting to suspect that I was interested in girls. I remember getting some uncomfortable tingles when friends of mine did a sexy choreographed dance at the talent show — the song they danced to, was, ironically, “It’s Raining Men.” Then there was the forwarded List of Things Girls Like About Guys/List of Things Guys Like about Girls I kept getting. I can still remember several entries from the list about Girls (“the way their head always finds the right spot on your shoulder,” “the way they always smell so good, even if it is just shampoo,”) but never could, and in fact, still can’t, remember anything from the Guys list. I also definitely had a crush on cool fourteen-year-old Stacey at camp, hence my willingness to take revenge on my former crush Shane for being a grabby asshole. But by eighth grade, with a slate of neuroses and diagnoses to deal with, I figured I already had too much going on and just couldn’t possibly be gay or bisexual, too. And I continued to think this for more than ten more years. When I finally voiced it aloud, as a way of explaining to a friend why I’d been closeted so long, he just said, “Well, that doesn’t make any sense.”

Anyway, Mack! remains in my memory not because it was my first time exploring what it might be like to flirt with a girl (I’d gotten a perfect grade on a story I’d written for English class months earlier, from the point of view of a young straight boy in love, and there was far too much detail about the object of his affection), but because of a line in it that didn’t make sense to me. Something that still doesn’t make sense to me. And things that don’t make sense tend to stick around in your mind longer.

It wasn’t just the term “mack,” though at the time, I only kind of knew that “mack” could mean “to flirt with” or “hit on.” I’d heard it in songs, but at our school “macking” usually meant “making out,” not “hitting on,” and those phrases were confusing enough. The setting of this game was a little different: the girl you were into worked at a local swimming pool, and you knew she’d had a boyfriend, but lately you hadn’t been seeing him around, and “you suspect her red eyes have nothing to do with chlorine.” So your aim was to pick her up while she was vulnerable! This didn’t sit so well with me, but I figured (probably unfairly) that boys were more pragmatic and less sensitive. The model was very pretty and probably about 19 (definitely younger than Old Man Crush! over there, who looked like he should have been chaperoning the dance). She was also in a bikini the whole time.

She started the game looking sad and asking “Got any eye drops?” My instinct was to choose variations on “Is something wrong?” I didn’t have much success there. Though that might have actually made sense: after all, this was supposed to be coming from a boy, and “Is something wrong?” sounds different coming from a girl than from an obviously-interested boy. The model informed me that was a personal question, and I ended up losing the game.

I tried a few more times, got frustrated, then finally chose the bottom option, choice number three. It made her laugh! It worked! I went on to make another “joke,” and kept her laughing until she agreed to go get a sandwich with me. But my victory rang hollow. I wasn’t sure what I had done that had made her laugh so hard, because I hadn’t understood the bottom option. I knew it was a joke, but I didn’t understand what it meant.

Adults always said “I’ll tell you when you’re older,” or “when you’re older you’ll understand.” But there are still so many things I, as an adult, don’t understand. I’ve found you can mostly function in adult life without understanding them. (Even if it does still bother me that my friend Taylor laughed at Grease when Rizzo said “Sure it is” when Frenchy said her nickname was Frenchy for the way she smoked, and when I asked Taylor what “Frenchy” really meant, she just huffed, impatiently, “Think about it,” and I did, and twenty-two years later I still don’t get it.) In Mack!, you would respond to “got any eye drops?” with the winning line, “Yeah, sometimes, when I party too hard, my eye drops a little. Is that what you mean?”

WHAT.

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN.

AND WHY DID IT WORK?

I’ve been through so many explanations, but none of them make sense. It’s not even a pun! This was written in English, so you can’t blame translation.What kind of “partying” makes your eye “drop,” anyway? He couldn’t have been referring to weed, let alone any harder drugs: this was the very corporate AOL in the late ‘90s, there were anti-drug campaigns all over AOL Teens. Besides, weed makes your eyes red, but I’ve never once heard it say it gave them “eye drops.” “Eye Drops” is not a phrase people use! It was not slang in the' ‘90s! I’ve never heard of eye drops being used to describe anything other than liquid in a small bottle that you put into your eye. So why the fuck would she find it funny? NO. NO, THAT IS NOT WHAT SHE MEANS.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN? WHAT WAS GOING ON IN WRITERS’ ROOMS ON THE INTERNET IN THE LATE ‘90s?

As we know, I’ve lost my shit over things that didn’t make sense to me before. I have trouble letting things go. This may be one of the worst cases yet. It’s been there for more than two decades, and I don’t see myself solving this anytime soon. This isn’t Certo, something your grandma might know about. This is going to be with me for the long haul. And I am pretty sure no one remembers these games but me.

If this were an essay for any other site than my own, I’d probably close it by saying what Mack! and Crush! taught me about flirting. But no, I don’t really think they taught me anything. I think that flirting is a skill you have to pick up with real-life practice. Although many of my most successful attempts at flirting have involved being funny, and it is a bit weird that Crush! never gave you the option to be funny. Still, at least I’m funnier than whatever guy wrote the script for Mack! And also, being publicly bi and all, I also bet I’ve had more girls with crushes on me than he ever did. How do you like them eye drops, buddy?

Stuff I Did This Week: Not a whole lot, considering there’s a pandemic on. BUT! The book and audiobook of The Faceless Old Woman Who Lives In Your Home is out this Tuesday, March 24! You can pre-order it now! I love this book so much, and I loved reading the audiobook for it. Stay inside with this wonderful horror-thriller-adventure story!

Fake BBC Show of the Week: Boris Boris Boris! Out Out Out!