Mark As Spam
A man finds something unexpected in his spam folder
Hey friends: I’ve been writing more fiction lately. Here’s a piece I hope does not get stuck in your spam folder even though its all about spam emails. Spam!
I kept the character’s name as Alex Dobrenko because I used actual e-mails from my spam folder as inspiration and was too lazy to change it.
Besides that - and the many other similarities between me and the Alex in the story - this is purely fiction.
Mark As Spam
Alex can always tell he’s in a bad place when he scrolls through the “Spam” section of his email account. “You never know when you might miss something” he tells himself before reading through each and every one of the seven hundred and twenty five (725) emails in his queue with subjects like:
(98) 𝗥𝗘: ALEX.DOBRENKO ⭐ 𝗬𝗼𝘂𝗿 $25,000.00 𝗦𝗲𝘁𝘁𝗹𝗲𝗺𝗲𝗻𝘁 𝗖𝗵𝗲𝗰𝗸 𝗔𝗿𝗿𝗶𝘃𝗲𝗱 👉 , 𝗟𝗮𝘀𝘁 𝗱𝗮𝘆 𝘁𝗼 𝗖𝗼𝗻𝗳𝗶𝗿𝗺 ✔
💗🍆🍌👙𝐓𝐞𝐧𝐬𝐞 𝐓𝐡𝐢𝐬 𝐌𝐮𝐬𝐜𝐥𝐞 𝐅𝐨𝐫 𝟏 𝐌𝐢𝐧 ⏱ 𝐓𝐨 𝐔𝐧𝐥𝐨𝐜𝐤 𝐌𝐚𝐬𝐬𝐢𝐯𝐞 𝐆𝐫𝐨𝐰𝐭𝐡🔼💥
and today’s favorite:
That last one caught Alex off guard, the simplicity of a ‘Hello’ from Stephen Gionis amidst a sea of chaotic emails from names like “LOVE CAM 💓” and “ₜₒₑₙₐᵢₗFᵤₙgᵤ” made him think that maybe just maybe this was real.
Alex opened Stephen’s email.
My name is SGT Stephen Gionis (US ARMY). I would appreciate your indulgence and assistance which would be of mutual benefit. I will reward you with 40% commission for your assistance. Please reply back to me for more information.
Ah. Got it. Good. A classic, genuine request for indulgence.
There was a certain madness to the e-mails. Who would ever fall for one of these? They were so obvious. So fake. Satirical. And yet, here they all were.
The fact that Alex has yet to find anything of value in the spam folder does not deter him. Quite the opposite, actually. There always has to be a first, he once explained to his now ex-girlfriend Simone. Take the numerical concept of zero, he told her on one of their last dates together at the Shake Shack.
Zero was first invented by Brahmagupta in India in the 7th century AD aka the 700s. Before that, no one (aka zero) people conceived of zero as representing the quantity of nothing. And then came ol’ Brahmagupta and he changed the game.
Alex believed that his game changing discovery, his zero, could come in the spam section. Except it was he who would be discovered. His talents as a comedic actor with heart would finally be recognized. His time to shine would come.
What if David Lynch was sending wacky emails that he made sure went into people's spam as a test to see who would be crazy enough to respond. Maybe that was how Lynch cast his films and TV shows - just a bunch of no name actors who were crazy enough to check their spam.
Alex was going to make sure that if such an email was out there, he would find it.
Scrolling through today’s batch of emails, Alex takes a sip of his half caf Americano. A strange coffee order but one that his local shop - Denny's - had come to know.
And no, it wasn't that Denny's, it was a local fairly high end coffee shop whose tagline was "No, not that Denny's" which worked surprisingly well as marketing.
The real Denny's was first started in 1953 just two years before the first Waffle House in 1955 and five years before the first IHOP in 1958. Musta been something in the 1950s American water making everyone start breakfast focused restaurant chains. Pancakes and omelets - what could go wrong.
Because he opens each and every email, Alex checks to make sure no one close to him at Denny's is looking over his shoulder. The images usually don't load, thank god, but some make it through the filter and some, Alex must admit, he's allowed his Gmail to show. Yes, we’re talkin’ sexy pics.
But he has never ever signed up for any of the services offered. He asked me to tell you that, but then realized he came on a little too strong when he asked, like he was trying to hide something, so he tried to downplay it and said "ah do whatever" but even that seemed weird and now, well now here we are.
Alex keeps scrolling through, noticing how every subject line is littered with emojis:
alex.dobrenko 🩺💡📈 Former Nazi Doctor Makes Manhoods 𝟔𝟖% 𝐋𝐨𝐧𝐠𝐞𝐫___3113 💪👩🌋
The erupting volcano? A nice touch.
alex.dobrenko Your 🦠🕵️♀️McAfee subscription expired today 27/03/2022 😬😬😬
️𝟏𝟎𝟎 🎲🎡🎰 𝐅𝐫𝐞𝐞 𝐒𝐩𝐢𝐧𝐬 𝐏𝐥𝐚𝐲 𝐟𝐨𝐫 𝐅𝐫𝐞𝐞 𝐖𝐈𝐍 𝐟𝐨𝐫 𝐑𝐄𝐀𝐋! 🤑💰💹.6970
Hey its Alex Dobrenko 👋
This last one catches him off guard. First off because it has a single emoji and second because its from him.
He reads the email.
I know this is going to seem insane but, hi. I'm Alex Dobrenko.
I'm not a different guy with your - our - same name, though such a guy does exist - he's a ship builder in Russia - have you heard of him? Not real ships, miniatures. Anyways, I'm in the year 2077 and still haven't figured out if you / I are related to him.
Its strange to write you / I so much, so I'm going to use 'we' from now on.
I'm not reaching out because I have any earth shattering news - a warning that you need to make sure to be at the Hilton hotel in Tarzana on the night of December 5th or your life will end. And I don't have any fantastic stock tips for you. I mean, I could but, that hasn't really been a thing we do in the future when emailing with the past because everyone can do it, so if everyone did it like what happened in your 2008 the market just recalibrates, so, yea, we don't really contact the past anymore. Everyone's more focused on the future and the "Side" whatever that means - I'm getting a little too old to care.
Alex checks the "From:" part of the email and sees Alex Dobrenko (firstname.lastname@example.org).
He scratches the pimple on his neck. What in the fuck is this?
And so anyways, I'm emailing you. To see how you were. And see if I can help.
Again, not materially or substantially, but more spiritually. Emotionally. That's the part of communicating across time that no one really ever talks about, even here. Its always end this war, save this species. What about just 'check in, see how the hell they're doing back there?'
You're probably thinking this is bullshit. A new age grifter. I'm not, but I understand if you think otherwise.
I hope to hear from you (me) soon,
sorry, I couldn't resist,
He reads it back. And again. It's strange how much it sounds like him. It's not, though, he knows. It's obviously some absolute bullshit, he thinks, and then remembers that that's what he - the person pretending to be Alex - said in the letter.
That night while walking his dog Larry who, thank god, does not wear a sweater like most of the other dogs in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, Alex can't stop thinking about the e-mail.
It was so different from the rest of the shit Alex saw in Spam. Or any of his emails, period.
It was well written and kind and what the hell was he even thinking of course it was a scam. A good scam. A high end scam. Maybe he should play along like those YouTube channels that catch scammers in the act. That could be fun. Maybe he could even write a screenplay about it if things got interesting enough.
That would take a lot of work though, all that writing and emailing. Best to just let it be.
A few days later after an audition Alex feels great about but knows he isn’t going to get, he re-reads the email, though by now he has it memorized.
Its like there’s a spell cast over him, an insatiable urge to reply , to speak with himself even if he knows it isn’t really himself.
He drinks a few Diet Cokes (cans, on sale at Costco) and, feeling a little hot in the collar, writes back.
If you are me then prove it.
And he hits send.
The next day, no answer.
The day after, still no answer. He does learn that didn't book the gig - a commercial for Pedialyte where he played "Dad Obsessed With Pedialyte."
The day after, right between an email from Squirting, Squirting and Lawsuit_compensation, there was a response.
You care way too much what people think about you. You’re smarter than you give yourself credit for and even though you’ve had the gift of an incredible education, you’re holding yourself back from achieving all that you could. I know its bullshit but self love is real - you gotta do it more or you’ll end up dying hating yourself like I do. If you could just feel how much everyone else loved you, man, your mind would be blown. Oh and all those ideas you have - they’re good. They have artistic integrity in them, which is why they don’t all go viral like you want, but that’s not the goal. Remember - there is enjoyment and there is pleasure. Seek the enjoyment more and the pleasure less and you’ll be okay.
I bet that’s not what you were expecting. I bet you wanted a classic birthmark on the left butt cheek detail that only we would know. Ok fine:
When you were eight or nine, I can’t remember, you thought you had three balls. You freaked out and told your parents and you guys went to the doctor. Turned out you had two balls and a big air bubble in your nutsack, which you then had to get taken out. You kept the mask they put on your face with the anesthesia till you went to college, I think?
That enough detail?
I still suffer from all the same stuff as you do, besides the 3rd nut which thank god both of us are free of, but it does get a little easier.
So, now can I ask, how are you?
As if he was in a hallmark movie, Alex blinks and a single tear falls from his cheek onto his laptop.
He marks the email as “Not Spam.”
The third nut thing? No one knew that. He’d told maybe a few friends drunk one night in college, but that was it. Was this one of them? No. They all had kids and wouldn’t waste the time.
Were his parents sending him this? Their way of apologizing for pushing their dreams of him becoming a lawyer too hard for his whole life?
Whoever it was, they understood something about Alex that he didn’t understand about himself.
And so Alex wrote back. And then Future Alex wrote back. And back and forth and back and forth they wrote.
Alex told Future Alex everything he was worried about. He asked questions about how to find love - IF he would even ever find love - and Future Alex assured him that he - Future Alex - did, but that wouldn’t mean that Alex of the present day would.
It wasn’t deterministic - Alex’s timeline would be different from Future Alex’s and there wasn’t really any explanation as to why. This wasn’t a time travel movie, every day people care a lot less about ‘why’ in real life - they just want to live and hug their families. The rest is too much to worry about.
Alex of course asks about the future, about climate change and America and all of the rest. Future Alex explained that none of the stuff we understood in 2021 would matter in fifty years. That there was some ‘earth is actually round’ sorta shit around the corner, but he didn’t want to spoil the surprise. But that also we had really fucked it up, especially in 2022. That was looked back as the worst year. Just garbage.
Alex felt guilty, hogging up all the space with his questions, his worries, so he asked if Future Alex had any questions, and Future Alex said not really, well no actually he had one: what does it feel like to be 34 and have most of your life ahead of you?
Future Alex was 89 and, though his health was good and science had advanced to the point that he might live till 130 or so, he no longer had that special thing, that drive, that hope of what the future might still bring.
Alex didn’t know how to respond. In his mind he was already over the hill. On the decline. Sure, age 34 was still ‘young’ but either you had made it you hadn’t - the rest of life was regret, a hopeless clawing to catch up because of how far behind you were. That he would need to pull off a hail mary to succeed in any meaningful way now, but that it was a lost cause.
But here was his Future Alex, or probably just some random catfisher, he kept reminding himself, who was putting things into perspective.
Future Alex told Alex that “Age is just a number, maturity is a choice,” a quote from the future president of the United States, Harry Styles.
For a few days, Alex felt something in him change. Sure this obviously wasn’t real, or maybe it was?, but either way, he stopped feeling bad about himself.
Thirty four is young, god damn it, Alex told himself. And for a few days more he believed it. And then he forgot. His familiar dance with the three headed hydra of self-hate, self-loathing, and low self-esteem returned, though for moments here and there, when he was emailing with Future Alex, he did feel okay.
And that’s the end of our story.
No. No it isn’t. Because one more thing did happen. A very important thing, in fact.
About a year or so later, after over 200 emails had been exchanged between them, Future Alex told Alex that he was going to go back in time and visit.
Future Alex explained that every person alive after 2045, the year they completed successful double blind trials on human temporal transport, would be allowed one trip back or forward in time. Everybody got one. They were maniacal about keeping track.
And Future Alex wanted to use his one shot to see 2022 Alex.
Future Alex wanted to meet in person. To hang. He thought maybe he could get some of that youth back, a contact high, and he wanted Alex to see who he could become. It was important, Future Alex said, for the both of them.
Alex laughed at the idea that an old man version of himself would gain any benefit whatsoever from hanging out with his former self, before remembering, for the thousandth time, that there was no possible way this could be real.
And yet, Alex thought, it was worth it to meet. Maybe it was real. Maybe his whole problem in life was not believing in things. In himself. In the possibility of the world being something other than the dark ‘if A then B’ stories that had been the roadmap of his life.
They decided to meet in downtown Los Angeles. That's where Future Alex would be. You get four hours back in time and then you have to return.
And so Alex Ubers to meet Future Alex. He brings Larry the dog.
And he takes the elevator to the 6th floor of a new fangled LA loft building on Hill Street, finds Apt 629 and knocks on the door.
There's no answer.
He knocks again.
Still no answer.
He checks his phone to see if Future Alex has written an email saying he can't make it, or that he’s late. Who knows how time travel actually works. Are there schedules like trains?
But there's nothing.
Alex waits another minute. Two. Ten. This is stupid. What the fuck was he thinking.? He’s going to be murdered. Or humiliated. No, he’s already humiliated. Getting murdered now would be great actually. Better than this. He can’t even tell his friends because they’ll laugh. Classic Alex they’ll say.
It will literally be too embarrassing to tell his therapist.
He mopes back toward the elevator with Larry and presses the L button. L for loser.
And as the elevator doors open to take him back down into his normal life, he hears a door creak open behind him.
He turns in what feels like slow motion but is actually just the speed at which life happens sometimes, and sees a face staring back at him.
It is not his face, nor is it the face of an older man who he will become.
It is a woman. Mid twenties.
Alex is speechless. This is not him from the future at all. This is a red haired curly lady. Glasses with a smile. Awkward.
“Hi,” Alex says. I mean what else do you say?
“Hi,” she says back.
“Are…you going to murder me?” Alex asks.
She giggles, like way too loud, then realizing he’s serious says, “No. What? No. I - no. No one has ever come before and -”
“What?” says Alex.
“Do you…want to come inside, maybe?” she says.
Alex is pissed but he can’t tell at who. Is it at Future Alex for not being real? At this woman? At himself? Yes.
He thinks a second, then says “I don’t think that’s a -”
“I made lemon bars,” she says, as if its the quality of her snack offering that’s holding Alex back.
And she, realizing, also laughs.
The inside of her apartment is overflowing with stuff, a collector bordering on hoarder. Glass figurines of old Disney characters, miniature clocks in the shape of race cars, dolphins, phonographs.
“This was my grandmother’s place. All this stuff is - was - hers.”
Alex sits on the grandma couch (old, too soft) and grabs a lemon bar. He’s always been a nervous eater.
She sits across from him.
“So there are others?”, he says, taking a bite of the lemon bar, “dang these are good.”
“What?" she says.
“You said ‘no one has ever come’ - are there -”
“Oh. Yea. I send a lot of emails. Almost no one ever responds though, and when they do they’re usually assholes,” she says, remembering each of the people with whom she’s emailed. “A few people are nice, they believe, maybe, but whenever I invite them to meet their future selves, they bail. Or call the police.”
Alex stares at her trying to decide if she’s a genius, insane, or both.
“How did you know about the third ball thing?” he asks.
“You talked about it once on a podcast,” she says, laughing.
“Shit. So what, you’re like a stalker?”
“No. Just a fan. Not even really, just someone whose bored and online.”
“And all the other stuff? How’d you know so much about -”
“I didn’t. I send the same email to everyone in Los Angeles. Not the ball part, obviously, but the rest: ‘you are talented, under appreciated, depressed,’” she explains, “Oh and out of work. That’s just about everyone here.”
He eats another lemon bar and lets Larry lick the whipped cream off his finger.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Allie. I do go by Alex sometimes but, let’s say Allie.” she replies.
They laugh again.
It slowly dawns on Alex that he’s been emailing with this woman named Allie and he starts to feel strange. Gross. Used.
“I told you so much shit, personal shit,” he says, pissed.
“I loved hearing it. And I wrote back always as myself. Always.” She says.
She can’t make eye contact for too long but every time she looks in Alex’s eyes he can tell that she’s not crazy. That she’s as lost as he is.
She continues, “I really do believe that is how time travel will work. Like, it won’t be such a big deal.”
“That…weirdly made sense,” he says.
“Right?” She says back.
Another long pause as Alex looks through the apartment. Photos of a large family, all ages, and so many of just Allie and an older woman, her grandma, as if the grandma raised her.
“So…Future Alex. Here we are. What did you want to say to me?” Alex says.
Allie giggles again, adjusts her glasses, then finally says “I don’t know! Stop being such a sad sack of shit!”
They both laugh, a deep kind of laugh that comes from your gut.
“And what did you want to say to me?” she asks.
“That you look great for 89,” he says, “and also thank you. I needed this.”
“Me too,” she says, “no one ever comes.”
Allie and Alex talk until they get sick from too many lemon bars and watch half of the movie time travel movie Primer which neither of them understand until they both fall asleep on the grandma couch.
Alex wakes up and looks out the window - nighttime. He looks over at Allie, asleep, and Larry the dog cuddling up next to her.
She wakes up too, sees him looking and smiles.
He says that its late and he should go, but asks if he can see her again. She says maybe. Probably not, but maybe. That she'll email him.
They hug and although he knows it isn't the case, he feels as though he is hugging himself from the future. There's something warm, eternal, sad and absurd about it all at once, made all the more weird given that its just Allie, the insane woman he met a few hours prior under the strangest of false pretenses.
He gets into the elevator. “Goodbye Alex,” he says.
“Goodbye Alex,” she says.
And Alex knows they won't see each other again. That whatever this was, it was only one time, and that that’s okay.
Instead of getting an Uber, Alex walks home with his dog Larry that night and, for the first time in a long time, his heart is full.
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