A Touch of Class

f. rainne

Love Before First Sight: The True Story of mpt and fantasai

or, You've Got Mail—the geeky version. This is a long story: sappy and romantic, but true, and probably the most personal post that will ever make its way here. Skip it if you don't care.


Did you ever study the relationship between humans and floodplains? Humans have a strong tendency to settle on floodplains. They're fertile, they're near water (= transportation + other things), and they're flat. It makes for a very good life—until the river floods, which of course it's bound to do. Lately, humans have been trying to control the floods, to stop them. They build up the sides of the river—then it floods worse further down. They build dams to control the water—but if the dam fails, it's a catastrophe.

Back in elementary school, I had a crush on my early childhood friend Ben. We were on line patrol together. He made jokes, and I had fun around him. I didn't tell him I liked him.

By early 6th grade, I concluded that I spent too much time thinking about him and not as much about my close friends, who were much more important to me. Having a crush on someone was definitely not worth the trouble; it was obsessive, it took attention away from my friends, and it was generally impractical. I didn't want it. Somehow that ended overnight, and I resolved never to have a crush on anyone again.

And for the most part, I succeeded. When friends asked Who do you like? I could truthfully say No one. I was above all that nonsense. (It did strike me as nonsense.) I couldn't understand why anyone would want a boyfriend, although I did sometimes wish I had a close guy friend. Sitting on some guy's lap and stroking his hair seemed very silly. It certainly looked silly. I was a very logical kid. (Clueless, though.)

Don't you think he's hot?

He looks nice, I guess.

Oh, come on. You can't be completely asexual.

Part I

16 April 2000

When I first encountered mpt, I was wandering through n.p.m.ui before posting some feedback I'd gotten about Mozilla from a friend. I hung around the newsgroup for awhile afterward, posting occasionally. My impression of Matthew `mpt' Thomas, usability weenie was that he posted a lot, seemed to know what he was talking about, and was therefore probably someone important.

4 June 2000

One day I came across this. mpt had a very long task list. I didn't understand most of it, definitely couldn't take on any of his work.. but I noticed one task that I could do.

* update/HTMLize Aphrodite menu spec (see, that's how low priority it
  is, isn't it shameful)

I knew HTML pretty well: I could do that, for sure! So, having time on my hands and wanting to be helpful, I decided transcribe his menu specs into HTML. I started looking them over so I could come up with a good structure, but then.. Wait a minute, that doesn't make sense. And this is inconsistent.. and that accesskey is used twice.. and wouldn't it be better if...

So, instead of transcribing them to HTML, I printed out a copy of his menu specs and kept it with me during the day, taking notes in the margins. When I got home, I typed up my comments and sent them in.

netscape.public.mozilla.ui: Aphrodite Menu Specs [long]

That June, mpt and I emailed back and forth on his menu specs, he cleaned them up a bit, and then I transcribed them to HTML.

29 June 2000

netscape.public.mozilla.ui: Aphrodite menu spec, now in HTML format

That was how we met.

mpt and I had a few other similar conversations over the years. There were some in the newsgroups, some in Bugzilla, and then Gerv's proposed website reorganization, which we took off the newsgroups and continued on IRC because it was just us two discussing details no one else cared about. Many of those IRC conversations happened between 2am and 4:30am my time, because of the time difference to New Zealand. Matthew was working at an internet café in Christchurch at the time, so I tried to work around his schedule. It was crazy, and although in the end it didn't accomplish much, I enjoyed those conversations, and I also learned a lot.

One of those days I called an IRC meeting among several folks interested in the website reorg plans.

26 December 2001

The meeting was scheduled for 7am NZT. Matthew was still awake and chatting in #mozilla at 4am NZT. I told him to go get some sleep. He kept chatting for awhile, then finally left.

Later that day I signed on for the meeting.

*** fantasai (fantasai@08-141.022.popsite.net) has joined channel #web
*** mptCranky (mpt@203-96-146-88.apx1.paradise.net.nz) has joined channel #web
<fantasai>   I worry about you, Matthew
<mptCranky>   :)

At that moment, I suddenly realized I was attracted to this guy.

No, no, no, that's not possible. Stop thinking about it.

The next couple weeks were a battle between two sides of my brain, the one trying to convince me (by repeated insistence) that I have a crush on this guy I've never met, and the other one pointing out (with carefully listed arguments) that it doesn't make sense and it can't be possible.

But, I like him.

No, you don't. Stop thinking about it.

Inconceivable! Vizzini, The Princess Bride

As 2002 shifted into the summer, mpt and I drifted into different parts of the Mozilla Project and our paths crossed less often. In September mpt left the Mozilla Project.

And I pretty much forgot about him.

Christmas Day 2002

My family isn't religious, or even remotely Christian, but we celebrate Christmas anyway: gathering together, exchanging presents, and enjoying the holiday atmosphere and days off from work and school. This year my sister gave me a CD of anime theme songs she'd collected, and I listened to it with my headphones as I triaged Mozilla bug reports late into the night.

Around 3am, as I was listening to My Will from the InuYasha soundtrack, I landed on bug 6782.

Matthew `mpt' Thomas (gone)

I missed him.

I blamed that on the silly notion that I liked him, and reasoned that it wasn't a good enough excuse to go looking for an mpt. He was finished with the Mozilla project. Let him go his way, and I'll go mine...

But as I sat there contemplating his signature, I was crying. I finally let myself admit that, whatever else I may or may not feel about mpt, I really did miss him deeply, not superficially.

I signed on to openprojects (now Freenode).

And he was there.

<fantasai>   mpt!
<mpt>   Good morning/afternoon/evening, ma'am!
<fantasai>   long time no see
<fantasai>   I was looking through some old AltSS reports; ran across your name
<fantasai>   "Matthew `mpt' Thomas (gone)"
<mpt>   AltSS?
<fantasai>   alternate style sheet
<mpt>   o, alternate style sheets
<fantasai>   (that's the summary code)
<mpt>   (gone) indeed.
<fantasai>   Signed onto openprojects on the off-chance I might find you here.
<mpt>   Though I pop in occasionally to do some QA, when I feel the need to
        do something which requires zero brain activity
<fantasai>   I miss you.
<mpt>   awwww.
<mpt>   Sorry.
<mpt>   I suppose I'm compelled to ask why.
<fantasai>   You shouldn't apologize
<fantasai>   Why I miss you?
<mpt>   My absence seems to have had zero effect on Mozilla, while making
        several of its contributors considerably happier
<fantasai>   Ah, I guess I'm not among those lucky few. :)
<fantasai>   So, my answer would be, whyever not?
<mpt>   (`Sorry' (1) for being flippant with the `awwww', and (2) for causing
        the being-missed-iness in the first place.)
<mpt>   I have trouble connecting emotionally (in any direction) with people
        I've never met in person, so I suppose I have trouble imagining other
        people doing so.
<mpt>   Does that make sense?
<fantasai>   heh~
<fantasai>   yes, that makes sense
[... what I'd been up to Mozilla/CSS-wise ...]
<fantasai>   Lost interest in UI since you left, come to think of it.
[... more on table rendering, context menus, etc. ...]

Well, that conversation verified that he didn't, couldn't care about me as a person. So even if I did like him, it was futile. And in some sense I was relieved, because I didn't want to hurt him even by accident, and if he didn't care about me, I simply couldn't.

January 2003

I'd regularly finish work at three, four AM that year, so occasionally I'd sign on and chat with mpt awhile before going to sleep. Talking with him about CSS and Mozilla and UI design cheered me up at such lonely hours when everyone else was asleep and I was exhausted from a 20-hour day.

By the middle of spring of that year, I couldn't stop thinking about mpt. I stopped listening to my Shrek soundtrack, because some of the songs invariably reminded me of Matthew Thomas. I tried to avoid chatting with him, only pinging him when I had a question...

By June I could no longer deny that I liked the guy. And I really, really, really wanted to tell mpt that I liked him. Just tell him. Just tell him. But I resisted: I didn't want to make him feel awkward. The whole idea was ridiculous, and what would that accomplish anyway?

My head is battling with my heart Bic Runga, Sway

30 June 2003

One day in June I had a question for mpt, so I decided to go online that night and ask him.

As I brushed my teeth near midnight, I felt a strong compulsion to tell him good-bye. It was very odd. Why would I want to say good-bye? I wasn't going anywhere. It didn't feel like either of us was going to die. But I felt strongly compelled to say farewell.

1 July 2003

Sometime past midnight I signed on to Freenode and asked my question. Something about FAQ navigation... Then... I just hung around, silent, not having anything to say but still troubled by the strange compulsion to say goodbye.

7:24am I finally plucked up the nerve to say something about what was bothering me.

<fantasai>   mpt
<mpt>   yep
<fantasai>   I feel like I should be saying good bye.
<mpt>   Why is that?
*> fantasai is not pleased by this
<fantasai>   It's been bothering me most of the night.
<fantasai>   dunno, maybe I'm off-balance or something..
*> mpt will need to go to bed soon
<fantasai>   yes.. I should go, too
<mpt>   Will you be back another day?
<fantasai>   *freezes*
<fantasai>   I don't know. Logically, I'd say yes.
<mpt>   Well, in case you aren't ...
<mpt>   grrr
*> mpt gets a hankie
<mpt>   I wasn't expecting to start crying :-)
<mpt>   I guess it's late.
<mpt>   And I didn't sleep enough yesterday.
<fantasai>   mpt...
<mpt>   Anyway.
<mpt>   Not your fault.
<mpt>   In case you aren't back, thankyou for being so interesting, so thoughtful, so smart, and so patient.
<mpt>   You've kept me much more sane than I would otherwise have been.
*> fantasai stares at the keyboard
<fantasai>   trying to figure out what to type
<fantasai>   Everything you've said.. same back to you. Literally.
<fantasai>   And.. 
<fantasai>   I'm crying too.
<mpt>   This is where the lack of a Hug Transmission Protocol really really sucks.

I had to say something. I couldn't just let him go off, never knowing I cared about him. I had to type something.


The back of my mind was saying "I love you". The front part was vehemently denying it.

I love|

Slowly I forced myself to finish typing, all the while part of me saying to myself that it was ridiculous, it couldn't be true, and therefore I must be lying.

I love you|

You're lying. But I have to say something. Nothing else I could think of said enough. I pushed Enter.

<fantasai>   I love you
<fantasai>   good bye~

I hovered over "quit", then forced myself to pause for a few seconds to give him a chance to respond before I ran away. This is what I got back:

<mpt>   I love you too, fantasai
<mpt>   It makes no sense
<mpt>   I wish I didn't
<mpt>   But I do

And that's when everything came crashing down.

<fantasai>   Same here
<fantasai>   same here
<mpt>   Is that why you're going?
<fantasai>   I don't know. I really, really don't.
<fantasai>   But I have to come back sometime, because there's a silly
             little story I have to tell you.
<fantasai>   :)
<mpt>   okay
<mpt>   You know where to find me, even if the reverse ceases to be true :-)
<fantasai>   I think.. I guess it might be awhile, though.
<fantasai>   Heh~
<fantasai>   I'm not disappearing off the 'net.
<fantasai>   I'll still be around Mozilla
<mpt>   okay.
<fantasai>   and www-style
<fantasai>   laters~
<mpt>   Goodbye


Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point. Blaise Pascal

Part II

My logic has been torn apart Bic Runga

All the barriers I'd built around myself to avoid feeling like this toward anyone were gone, broken, demolished, a pile of rubble. I was (clearly madly) in love with mpt... and by some strange quirk of the universe he was in love with me, too. I was traumatized.

I spent the next week being very, very confused. I cried a lot. I didn't speak to mpt at all for the first few days, just wrote him one very cryptic email and a blog post in French. (I couldn't bring myself to write anything in English... so I translated it for him afterward.) I couldn't believe what had happened. I didn't understand it, and I had a lot of trouble accepting it.

Finally, after several emails back and forth, the next week I signed onto IRC.

Things moved very quickly from there. We chatted a lot, this time hardly ever about web browsers or web sites. We had our first phone call. Matthew didn't sound anything like I'd imagined, but I quickly came to love hearing his voice. Sometimes I'd ask him to read whatever was handy, just so I could listen to the sound of it. And as our conversations were always in the middle of the night my time, I often fell asleep listening to him talk.

By the end of the month, we'd come to the conclusion that we'd rather be living together, and I was still incapable of concentrating on anything besides my daydreams (which was very frustrating when I was trying to work). Neither of us had much money, however, and I was still in school. We estimated it would be another three years before we'd get to meet in person. I promised to visit him after I graduated, whether or not we were still together.

I told him my real name, how old I was, my address, and what I was studying. I refused to exchange pictures, though, because having a photograph to stare at for three years but no previous interaction in real life struck me as a bad idea. We exchanged a lot of email, sent a few letters, and chatted (online and/or on the phone) nearly every day.

That summer I was deliriously happy in ways that didn't make sense. Half of me loved being in love with mpt, and was afraid I'd wake up the next day having suddenly regained my senses. The other half thought that would be a beneficial turn of events. In the background, the less silly parts of my brain brooded over the conflict between knowing that this relationship would work out long term... and a certain feeling that we would nonetheless have to split up someday. Meanwhile, my uncertainty about whether I'd still be in love with mpt the next day faded over time. It didn't quite disappear, though, until we met for the first time in person.

Part II.5

In January of 2005, Matthew received a job offer from Canonical. They contracted him to appear as a design consultant at a Launchpad developer meeting in Montreal in February, and would decide whether to hire him from how things went there. Montreal is pretty close to New Jersey (comparatively speaking), so Matthew booked a flight to visit me the week after his conference there.

February 2005

And so, on a wintery Friday in February only ~1.5 years after July 1st 2003, Matthew Thomas arrived at the local train station with a rolling duffel bag, a backpack, and a map with instructions for getting to my building. My friend Wren had decided to go stalk him, but, seeing him looking so lost she took pity on the poor guy and guided him through the university campus. We met in the hallway.

It was a very strange feeling, to see him in person. He didn't look anything like I imagined of course, but he was also tangible. I could touch him. I remember wondering how this odd contraption of bones and tissue could house something like a person's soul. I had never been so amazed at the miracle of life. And it took several days before I could completely associate Matthew Thomas with the human visiting me.

In the evening my sister drove down from my parents' house and slept over. We went to karaoke night at Campus Club, and in the morning, she drove us all home.

My parents had scheduled a party with my cousins and other close family friends for Saturday night. My two best friends from grade school also happened to be in town, so many of the important people in my life got a chance to meet my newly-met boyfriend the first full day of his visit. We planned to return to university on Sunday, but that evening Matthew had a high fever: he'd contracted the flu. So Monday morning I returned to classes on the train while Matthew stayed home with my parents to recover. My mom felt so sorry for him. "He must've felt very awkward," she told me afterwards. I skipped class on Friday to go home late Thursday night.

Matthew's work at Canonical had gone well, so on Saturday he flew out of JFK to South Africa for another conference. On his return in March he came to visit again, and that time the logistics worked out a little better. He came to NJ several more times in conjunction with his work travels: Matthew baked New Zealand pavlova for our 2005 Thanksgiving dinner, and showed up as a surprise—although my sister, my parents, and my roommate all knew—for my graduation in June 2006. (I was stupefied. It didn't even occur to me that he might make the trip.)

Transitioning from an online relationship to an offline one was surprising only in that there were no surprises. We got along just as well, and were just as happy being together. For me, the only unexpected thing was the way he looked—and that was to be expected.

I knew I loved you before I met you Savage Garden

Part III

Finally, last August, I flew to New Zealand. I spent two nights at the lovely City Garden Lodge in Auckland and spent an afternoon exploring Auckland (while chatting about text formatting) with roc. On Sunday I met mpt, who had just returned from Lithuania, at the airport for a shared flight to his hometown, Nelson. We stayed for several weeks at a beautifully-renovated vacation cottage his parents were renting out, then moved to a more permanent residence down the road. I was so happy. I don't think I'd ever smiled as much in one month at least for the previous 4 1/2 years (during which I was probably at least mildly clinically depressed). I spent most of my time cooking, helping Matthew's parents with renovation work (mostly by carrying stuff), and trying to set up my new laptop (the old one broke).

In October I had to return to the US for the CSS WG face-to-face and to crash my friends' wedding. Since Matthew had another 2-week conference in November, I stayed through Thanksgiving, returning to New Zealand on December 1st. We went to his sisters' graduations with his whole family, celebrated the summertime Christmas with them, travelled around the North Island between Christmas and New Years, and took several short weekend trips: hiking in Nelson, meeting up with Wren to tour Christchurch, backpacking in Abel Tasman National Park nearby, exploring Queenstown and Fiordland, and showing off our corner of the South Island when Wren came to visit us. (New Zealand is indeed a gorgeous country.) On the weekdays, I spent time on the computer, failed to grow tomatoes, helped his parents demolish a chimney, took a full-time woodworking course, sorted photos, tried to find a job, and worked on CSS3 Text. Matthew and I took turns cooking dinner and randomly split doing the laundry.

Many relationships, I'm told, fall apart when the two people start to live together. In the five months Matthew and I spent living together we had only a few forgettable spats—and I can count those on one hand. There are important reasons why I don't think we'd be compatible in a marriage, and Matthew has come to his own understanding of these over the past seven months. But our lifestyles at least are compatible, and we thoroughly enjoy being together.

I'm reaching the end of my stay in New Zealand. I know that I will miss mpt more than I can imagine, and that most of that will be subconscious. It's likely that we'll split up as life pulls us down separate paths, but the time we've spent together has been worth it.

I think I dreamed you into life Savage Garden