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Over e-mail, we can be anyone we want, even our best friend

This entirely true story starts out funny then ends up tragic. It's like a class where you go to the first lecture and laugh at the professor showing slides of some famous scientific calamity (a volcano spurting magma on villagers with Loony Toons T-shirts), or the Grand Canyon (the professor's family vacation). Then after missing most of the lectures, you take the final, and you fail (which in Princeton means you get a B, "ruining" your GPA). Now the story.

Across the hall from me live two chaps whose roommate, Bob, spent fall semester in Spain. Both Nick and Rick had singles and shared a common room all semester. The lesson: For an optimal rooming situation, convince your roommate to go abroad. The housing office will threaten to fill the space with a parasite-ridden "should-be-in-the-quiet-zone-type," but this never happens.

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Nick and Rick became worried during reading period because they had not heard from Bob since his departure. Bob had given us his e-mail address SpanishBobbie@hotmail.com but never replied to messages. How to figure out the room transition with no communication? Short answer: I became Bob. Long answer: Seeing a situation ripe for exploitation, I went to Hotmail's Website and created the e-mail SpanishBobby@hotmail.com (notice the difference from the address above). From this account, I sent a message to Bob's two roommates.

E-mail 1: "Hey guys, sorry for not replying earlier. Spain was awesome, lots of wine and women. I have tons of stories, mostly about drinking and one about a mountain goat we called Nebuchadnezzar. Reply to this address to work out our situation."

Harmless, right? We had been pretending all week to see Bob around campus. "Look there's Bob!" "No, it's just Dean Fred smoking his pipe" or "No, it's just Peter Singer hiding in the bushes with a gun watching those groups of children entering the art museum."

Just after I sent the message, Nick came into my room minutes later to explain that we had been sending our e-mails to Bob at the wrong address.

E-mail 2: "Hey guys, I think I'll need the single. You had singles for a semester. Later, Bob."

Nick and Rick came to my room to tell me that Bob is demanding the single. I do my best to be sympathetic and act natural. It's like acting without a stage. Or lying.

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E-mail 3: "I'm bringing my stuff today to move in. I'll just move into the room that's cleared out. I have stuff for the common room too. I might even want to stay for a couple days. I'm leaving New York as soon as my dad helps me get the bar into the rented trailer. Later, Bob."

A few hours later, I saw Rick moving his stuff out of his single. Nick looked depressed and began a monologue about how "uncool" Bob was acting. Rick had checked his e-mail at Firestone, stopped studying for his organic chemistry exam and come back to the room.

I suddenly realized that I had sinned and had actually prevented him from studying. Has this ever been done by anyone except those involved in "fraternal" activities?

I left their den of despair to write an e-mail to Nick.

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E-mail 4: "Joke's over. It's Dave. I got you guys pretty bad. Wooohaaa!" Minutes later, Nick charged into my room with a baseball bat. He was laughing, but I saw in his smile a yearning to really beat me into a bloody pile of cells.

Rick talked to me for the first time since the incident last week: "I hate you."

He failed his exam, but he said he isn't too upset that the practical joke destroyed his chances of going to medical school. He may even take next year off (I know who I'm drawing with).

Okay, I'm lying again. Rick did fine. So the story isn't tragic. It's like hooking up with someone who is too drunk to realize you aren't her boyfriend. Someone might be hurt, but it sure was a funky ride for everyone, right? The point is that a lot of fun can be had in this anonymous Internet culture. Just don't fall in love with Hottie69 on Instant Messenger. It could be some dirty old man. Or perhaps even the guy across the hall.

David H. Turner is a 'Prince' columnist from Alexandria, Va.

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