A Cyberspace Love Story
I first met Kelleigh in 1991. I was a college senior and she was a local high school senior. Kelleigh’s 17-year old best friend Sunny was dating one of my classmates and Kelleigh accompanied her to a mixer on my campus that fall. We met, we clicked, and we discovered that we had the same birthday, exactly five years apart. She was adorable and full of a sort of mischief that made me laugh and want to get to know her. We flirted, I loaned her my denim jacket, and we took walks around a campus decorated in autumn’s palette. It was collegiate puppy love at its very best and its innocence is one of my fondest memories of that time. Alas, Kelleigh was barely seventeen, I was twenty-two, and at that age, everything seems ephemeral. We both graduated from our respective schools, moved away, and said we would stay in touch.
I didn’t really expect to hear from Kelleigh again, knowing that she was off to college herself and had some amazing experiences ahead of her. However, the summer following my first year of dental school in Pittsburgh, my phone rang and I was happy and surprised to hear her voice on the other end of the line. She had tracked me down through the only reasonable means available in those days: the phone book. She was also in Pittsburgh, attending college and majoring in dance on a full scholarship, and she was now, ahem, of a consenting age. We spent an amazing day together and felt that click again, but she was busy enjoying college and not ready to commit to anything serious and I was of a different mind. We kept it innocent and we promised to stay in touch again.
I heard from Kelleigh once more in the 1990’s. She had recently returned from a whirlwind tour of the world, performing aboard cruise ships and visiting exotic locations, and I was preparing to graduate from dental school and move to Philadelphia. We spoke on the phone for some time and felt the pull once more, but this time I was in a committed relationship and the unavailable party. We agreed again to stay in touch.
That could very well have been the last time we spoke. I was engaged in some demanding hospital residencies for several years and I pursued other relationships along the way that often seemed to be leading to something more. Kelleigh and I lost track of one another, but I never forgot the mischievous sparkle in her eyes.
Throughout the 1990’s, the World Wide Web was exploding and I became enamored with cyber-technology. Browser technology had become widely available with the dissemination of Mosaic and Netscape, and full text crawler-based web search engines began to crop up. I became interested in HTML (the programing language of the World Wide Web) and in search engine algorithms, so I created my first website in 1996. I began experimenting with the keyword meta tag element, and I decided to use it to create a kind of spider web for lost friends. In those days — the pre-Google days — search engine algorithms were far more simple in the sense that they relied upon the good faith of webmasters to include keywords in their HTML code that were relevant guides to the content on their sites. In other words, if your site was full of information about exotic birds, then you were expected to include things like “parakeet” in your meta tag keywords. This was, of course, soon manipulated by savvy web marketing pioneers who included popular (but irrelevant) keywords like “sex” and “Britney Spears” in their HTML code simply to attract web surfers. I realized that this technology could be put to better use and I created a simple web page that listed everyone with whom I regretted losing touch over the years, which I dubbed the Planet’s Edge, as in “people I have known who seem to have fallen off of the edge of the planet” (I know, I know). I included their names in the content of the site itself, as well as in the keywords meta tag element of my HTML.
I was frankly astounded at how well it worked. I was soon receiving emails from people on my list and from their friends and relatives. In those days everyone was using search engines to find one another, as social media had not yet been born, and the World Wide Web was a wonderland of possibilities for anyone with a 28.8 modem and a PC. Over the course of several years, I located something like 85% of the people in my list, with one notable exception: Kelleigh Miller. Although prominently placed in the list, Kelleigh did not reach out, and I assumed that she had either gained a new surname, or lost interest, or both. After a good run, I eventually retired my Planet’s Edge page as part of a larger overhaul of my long-standing website.
In 2005, I found myself living in Pittsburgh again, this time attending law school, and feeling nostalgic about life. I sifted through some of the HTML that I had written in the 1990’s and I laughed at my goofy animated gif files and gaudy website colors, but I paused when I came across my Planet’s Edge page and I marveled at how many of the people on the list were now part of my life again, through the miracle of search engine technology. I spotted Kelleigh’s name and I felt a ping of disappointment that my little experiment had never succeeded in finding her. For kicks, I re-hosted the original page, this time on my own server and with a disclaimer stating that it was a tribute to the “old days” of the Internet. By then, Google had become the prominent search engine, having captured around 50% of the market, while Yahoo! Search and Microsoft’s MSN Search services comprised the bulk of the remaining market share. I knew that Google’s algorithm was no longer susceptible to unscrupulous webmasters and their keyword element manipulation, and hence my Planet’s Edge page was unlikely to uncover anyone new. The MSN and Yahoo! algorithms were less complex and might still be susceptible to such tricks, but who was really using those dated search engines anymore?
Kelleigh was living in New York City and carving out a career as an actress and a model. She was acting in an off-Broadway production and was receiving accolades for her performance. Critics began posting reviews of her production and fortunately for me, she was also one of the last people on earth still using MSN’s quirky search engine. A quick search of her own name lead her to my Planet’s Edge page and to my contact information. She sent an email to the address that I had provided on the page, an address that I was using primarily for spam-management by that time. Her email appeared in my inbox, from “k miller,” subject “hi.” I promptly deleted what I assumed was a piece of spam without ever reading it and that, too, was nearly the end before the beginning.
But Kelleigh persisted and sent a second email. This time I read it. It began “I am writing just this one last time in case you didn’t get my first message…” It was short and revealed little, but I was instantly mesmerized. It had been over nine years since our last contact and fourteen years since she had first donned my denim jacket. As I tripped over the keys to cobble a hasty reply, I wondered to myself at the likelihood that she might still be single like me. I was 35, which would make her 30. How many 30-year old women did I know who were still single? A perilously small number. Statistically, she was likely married, divorced, and raising kids. I was almost certainly ten years too late — I had to be. I felt something in the pit of my stomach that seemed to say that it wasn’t to be. But I wrote to her anyway and paced about waiting for a reply.
A reply came almost immediately. We exchanged several short emails and then agreed to speak on the telephone. Elation! Like me, she was single and had never married. She had traveled the world and lived in Japan and Sweden, and she would soon be appearing on a TV show. We spoke for hours. We text messaged. We instant messaged. We text-instant messaged. She was a savvy cyber-geek like me and I loved it. A romance was blossoming. Soon we were communicating constantly and I was watching her on television weekly. I was doing some of my best writing in school and receiving recognition for it; her performing career was taking off. It was an amazing time and it was all we could do to keep our focus on our careers while we spent every moment getting to know each other.
But one wrinkle remained. I was in my last semester of law school, nearing graduation, and I had applied for positions at law firms all over the country. Most firms seemed to have a hard time figuring out what to do with a dentist who wanted to practice intellectual property law, despite my claims of technical proficiency and success in passing the patent bar exam. My techy side was regularly overlooked by hiring committees, who regarded my dental background with some confusion. But one solid firm in Pittsburgh recognized my value and an offer was apparently forthcoming, so it appeared that I would spend at least the first few years of my legal career in southwestern Pennsylvania, which would have been wonderful — but for Kelleigh. In a difficult conversation, Kelleigh confessed that her career was booming and that she was not ready to leave New York City and I admitted that I would probably never get a job offer in New York, home to some of the most prestigious law firms in the world, which regularly extended offers to Ivy League graduates (read: not me). Another near miss seemed imminent.
And then a funny thing happened. One of my law professors had recently worked on a patent infringement case in New York City with a very prominent intellectual property boutique law firm located at One Broadway in Manhattan. He was a graduate of my law school and, like me, he had a science background and had come to the law as a second career. He mentioned me to an attorney at the New York firm and suggested that I would be a good match for the them and then he urged me to contact them. I sent my resume, expecting a polite “thank you, we have heard nice things about you, but we’re all done with our hiring for this year,” but was instead invited to interview with them in New York.
I scheduled the interview for a Monday morning and immediately called Kelleigh to ask if I could stay with her the weekend prior to my interview. She was traveling in Europe, but planned to return to the Big Apple just in time to have me as her guest.
Our weekend together was nothing short of magical. On Saturday, we attended an art exhibition, explored the city, dined in restaurants that were uniquely New York, and rounded out the evening at a comedy improv show. It was springtime in New York, and in true movie fashion, we got caught in the rain in Manhattan and ran for shelter. I wiped out on a slippery sidewalk grate and landed on my backside, both of us laughing as the rain soaked through my jeans. Later, back at her apartment, Kelleigh patched me up. On Sunday, we drove up to the Shawangunk Mountains and spent an amazing day rock climbing some of the best routes on the east coast. It was April and we were practically alone on the cliffs, surrounded by peregrine falcons and all of the magnificence of springtime in the mountains. I arrived at the law firm on Monday morning with bandages on three fingers and a grin permanently affixed to my face and I had the the best interviews of my life.
I returned to Pittsburgh more than a little reluctantly. My short visit to New York had left me feeling the happiest I had been in years and I knew there was a chance that my time there with Kelleigh would be the beginning and end of a very short relationships if our career stars did not align. But the stars did align: two days later, the firm called to offer me the job. The rest, as they say, is history, although I would be remiss in not mentioning the gratitude that I have expressed over the years to my law professor, who was kind enough to speak up and open a door that lead to more than just a job. Kelleigh and I moved in together in New York, I immersed myself in law firm life, and a year and a half later we were married on the edge of a New Zealand cliff as the sun rose from the sea. Lucky me.