Couple: Falling in love was easy. The hard part was admitting that they connected online.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Normally I am not a liar. I'm the person who fills out the customs declaration for two postcards and a duty-free candy bar. Security guards know my life story, and cops know if they pull me over I'll confess that, yes, I was speeding.

Then I met a guy online -- a great guy. And for a long time, neither of us could bring ourselves to tell the truth about it. Now, during this week of hearts and flowers, it's time to come out of the closet.

I was a 24-year-old writer living in Spokane, Wash. My future husband, Ray, was a 29-year-old engineering technologist living 700 miles north in Prince George, British Columbia, hereafter known as Frostbite Falls.

Our separate, unconnected lives were fairly normal. We spent our daylight hours at work and found social lives wherever we could. In blue-collar Spokane, where drinking is the main occupation, that usually meant hanging out in bars. In Frostbite Falls it meant hanging out in bars and watching hockey on TV.

Though we're both computer- literate, neither of us had ever done any digital dating -- it was too geeky for normal people like us. So when by chance we connected on the Internet, we had the same thought: I can't really be one of those people -- the digitally desperate, the socially stunted.

We certainly couldn't let the world know.

Nor were we alone in these misgivings at the time, or in our newfound willingness to come out of the closet.

Net insecurity

In a recent survey of 1,100 of its members, Match.com found that 81 percent feel more comfortable telling the world they've found love online today than they did just a few years ago.

Match.com is the Web's largest online dating service, with more than 5 million profiles. But when it started in 1995, even its satisfied customers didn't want to talk about it, according to Trish McDermott, the company's Vice President of Romance. (Job titles like hers may be one reason so many people feel embarrassed.)

"It wasn't just meeting people online. There was a vast sense of [Internet] insecurity," McDermott said. "People didn't even want to give their credit card numbers online. They asked things like 'What kind of people would I meet?' What you imagined was a thoroughly unsuccessful person or someone unscrupulous."

Ray and I considered ourselves successful. We held responsible professional jobs, owned cars, had savings accounts. Romantically, we were no worse off than most singles. We had both dated and tried the bar scene, with unspectacular results.

I was, however, getting tired of fending guys off by saying things like, "No, I don't like tattooed heads." And Ray was tired of telling prospects, "I'm allergic to cats, and 20 in the same house would make me break out in hives."

We were only unscrupulous if you counted the fact that we lied to everybody about how we met.

It was April, 1998. An old friend from Memphis suggested that we save on phone bills by keeping in touch with an instant messaging program from the now-defunct Tribal Voice PowWow.

In the first few hours, I received an avalanche of chat requests from people with handles like "I'mTooSexy" and "HottieXXX." In the list of things I don't like in a guy, handles like this rank right up there with vanity license plates and body piercings : If you have them, I'm not having you.

I certainly wasn't going to create a cute little handle that spells out something like "GR8TGRRL." So I based mine on my own name, "AngieG." It was not only insipid, but like a clove of garlic, it helped ward off the chat room creeps.

A chance encounter

One night, however, Ray spotted AngieG on the roster of available users and clicked on my name. Other than my gender and place at the top of the alphabetical list, it meant nothing to him. He had just installed PowWow software to keep in touch with his sister, and he wanted to test it.

For some reason, I answered the page. At first our chat was small talk about mutual interests -- hiking, canoeing and traveling the Northwest. Inevitably the questions turned personal.

"What do you do for living?" he asked. "Are you married?"

This is where I had to make my first big decision: go or no-go.

"How do I know you're not some psycho-killer-pedophile-stalker? I've heard of your kind," I said.

"Well," he replied. "I'm Canadian."

Okay, he was from a country that prides itself on being pathologically nice. I decided to test him further:

"I will tell you," I said, "but only if you give me your Social Security number, driver's license number, date of birth and your mother's maiden name."

And he did. But it's called a "Social Insurance number" in Canada, he said. Was this guy for real?

And then he "Googled" me, a term for scoping out prospective dates by looking for their name on the Google search engine. He discovered I was a reporter for a local paper. So he was smart, industrious and quick on his feet. I liked that.

Friendship blossoms

Over time, we continued our electronic communiques and eventually agreed to exchange photos by e-mail. In mine, I was 10 pounds heavier and two years younger. In his, he was only a centimeter tall -- it was snapped from across the street during a vacation in Mexico. But what I could see looked good.

Eventually we swapped phone numbers and started talking instead of typing -- more personal but far more expensive. He was polite and funny, and a few months later we agreed to take the next big leap: a meeting.

We set a mutually convenient time and place: noon in Vancouver's Stanley Park. I would be visiting the city with a friend. He was helping a buddy move from Frostbite Falls to the sunny South (by Canadian standards).

The problem was concocting a cover story to explain our relationship. Ray was adamant about not coming clean. "My friends will tease me forever," he said.

Fabricating a past

He came up with something involving a meeting with a long-lost pal that we hadn't seen in years. I was skeptical.

"How am I going to explain that I have a friend living on the frozen tundra when I was raised in the South?" I asked him. "You've never been East of the Mississippi River. Or south of the Arctic Circle."

So we elaborated. As we'd both done a lot of traveling, we'd say we met three years earlier in the Frankfurt Airport (which had the ring of authenticity), and that we'd kept in touch by e-mail. We could even rationalize that it wasn't entirely a fabrication. The last part was true.

On a warm May afternoon, we met beneath the statue of Lord Stanley, the Canadian icon whose name graces pro hockey's trophy. It's a romantic spot, a traditional meeting place for lovers in one of the most beautiful city parks in the world.

Inside, we felt like awkward seventh-graders at their first dance. Outwardly, we bluffed our friends, pretending we had known each other for years.

Secretly, I was impressed. He was tall and handsome in his shorts and T-shirt. He thought I was attractive, if a bit overdressed in slacks and a blazer (the casual West's equivalent of a Versace gown). For once, reality met expectation. The relationship was going somewhere.

We still didn't come clean, though.

Getting serious

We saw each other one weekend every month, traveling to the Oregon Coast, or Seattle or small towns nestled in the mountains of British Columbia. I flew to Frostbite Falls in the dead of winter, where 12 feet of snow lined the streets and even humans need engine-block heaters to get out of bed in the morning.

Eventually, Ray traveled south to visit me, and I had to tell a few close friends the truth. Some weren't thrilled, particularly our police reporter. "I might wind up having to write about your body being found in a ditch outside Calgary or some damned place," he warned.

That didn't happen, but the $500 phone bills and commuting by dog sled eventually got to us. Ray moved south and got a job in Spokane, at which point we figured it was time to tell everybody the truth.

Coming clean

You know something? It wasn't as bad as we feared.

"It's nice to see you met someone normal," my sister said, a commentary on either the Internet or my past dating experience.

A friend admitted her profile was posted on at least two matchmaking Web sites.

Nor were my parents upset. My father, a tech-savvy fellow, rarely comments on his daughters' choices in men because he thinks that vocalizing his thoughts would validate the men's very existence. My mother's encounters with computers generally involve cursing and stomping out of the room.

So, whether natural inclination or ignorance, they were remarkably quiet when I told them I'd met Ray online. And when they met him in person, they fell in love with him. As they dropped us at the airport, my father wouldn't stop shaking Ray's hand as if to say, Thank you for taking my daughter.

In September 2000, Ray proposed at the same statue in Stanley Park. This June we'll have been married for two years.

In a 2001 American Demographics survey of 2,600 singles on the Net, more than half said they used an online dating service. And they're much more apt to tell the world: Some even have computer-shaped wedding cakes and paste their online profiles into their guest books.

We never went that far. When people ask about our love story, mostly we say that we just clicked.

Angie Gaddy lives in Montreal with her husband and dial-up connection.

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