Perfect Stranger

Joshua Alexander looked at all the lonely women in internet chat rooms-- and saw nothing but opportunit

There was one time, and one time only, when Joshua Alexander said no. He and this woman were in bed together, undressed, just starting their foreplay in earnest. Alexander had orchestrated a couple of extramarital affairs before this, and would engage in more than a dozen afterward. There were so many women out there in the ether: Women in it strictly for the sex. Women who would nuzzle in his arms, besotted with need and longing, perfectly excited to hatch wedding plans with a man they barely knew. There were women who hadn't been touched in years, and women who routinely planned afternoon assignations for those hours when their husbands and kids were away from home. There were easy exits and messy breakups.

And, this one time, there was nothing at all.

"I said, 'I can't do this. It doesn't feel right,'" Alexander recalls. "It was a little too real." This was a woman he'd met at a bar. More to the point, this was not a woman whom Joshua Alexander had met and wooed online. He felt out of his element.

Joshua Alexander is a pseudonym, a name chosen by the protagonist of this true story. It seemed only fitting that we let him select his own alias, since fabricated identities are a specialty of his. Over the past six years, he has deployed dozens of Internet screen handles in his helplessly compulsive quest for diversion, thrills, and one true love. Behind those monikers, he has concocted an assortment of "real" user profiles, on file so other chat room participants could learn more about him. Among these was Michael Peterson, an 18-year-old chat room novice looking for an older woman strictly for cyber- or phone sex. Then there was Rudy Anderson, described by Alexander as "a guy who owned an advertising business, lived pretty moderately, but made probably about $300,000 a year and traveled a lot. Rudy had four kids, but Rudy was divorced so the kids lived with his ex-wife. He didn't date a whole lot because he was always busy traveling, but he was looking for someone special to settle down with and help him run his business."

Similarly detailed biographies were created for Samuel Carlson, David Elliott, Antonio Vargas--well, there's no telling anymore how many there have been. Neither Alexander, who says that medication for depression has eroded his memory, nor his wife, who has made it her business to ferret out as much as she can about his activities, thinks they'll ever get an accurate accounting of all the names. He has even used the pseudonym Joshua Alexander before, playing the role of a Montana rancher who lost all his land to bankruptcy. That one snared a woman from North Carolina, who commenced wedding plans with him over the phone and flew in to see him even after he told her he was already married.

On rare occasions, Alexander has broken down eventually and told women his real name. That's when people have really gotten hurt.

Alexander's 44 years on earth have been rife with experiences destined to deprive him of peace of mind. He was born the 12th of 14 children, but began bouncing through a series of foster homes at the age of three, when his mother couldn't handle the strain of raising such a large brood after his father was hospitalized. At the age of 11, he was sexually molested by a member of the clergy during confirmation classes. Growing up, he and his best friend spent a lot of time exploring underground sewer routes and foraging in dumpsters for serviceable junk like coffee makers and old toys and utensils. He dropped out of high school and spent four years in the Marines, returning home to Minnesota in 1979, where he started working in a waterbed factory. Nights were mostly spent drinking in bars and singing karaoke, with an emphasis on country songs. Continuing a lifelong pattern, he changed apartments every three or four months. "I've always been easily bored and moving was a way to come up with something new," he says.

Three years out of the service, he settled down quite a bit after marrying his teenage sweetheart, loyally swearing off alcohol after a medical condition forced her to stop drinking. It was a happy union that ended tragically with her death from cancer in April 1984. By September of that year, he was distraught enough to attempt suicide by overdosing on his medication. The person who found him and saved his life, another woman he had dated in high school, soon became pregnant with his child. The two were wed in 1985, but Alexander's joy at the birth of his son could not overcome the rocky marriage, which fell apart after two years.

The loss of his first wife still weighed heavily on him during the late '80s. At karaoke bars, he became fond of singing "Honey," the old Bobby Goldsboro tearjerker from the 1960s, about a young woman who dies suddenly. His love of animals has always been another way for him to assuage his loneliness. "I'm a big fan of zoos, wild animal parks, the Humane Society," he says. "We always had at least one dog in the foster home where I spent the most time. Sometimes you can feel like a third wheel with people, like you don't belong, but with dogs it doesn't matter, they don't care who you are. I figured if you can't get real close to people, then be close to a dog. They love you unconditionally."

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