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20:03

So, they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.
— A.A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner

I.

Excavating friendships is a painful process.

I think of her now and then in the vaguest of ways, seeing her shape in the broadest impressionistic strokes, not even a Van Gogh so much as a Picasso in his cubist phase. Amanda: 19, white, blond, cup size 36C. There’s also Greg, her boyfriend, whom I imagine as a kind of studly Midwestern farm boy wearing flannel shirts, his brown hair falling into his eyes a little, his grin the sincere stuff of romantic tragedies. And there’s Hank, her uncle, a man whose existence troubles me, but not for the reasons Law & Order: SVU would have you believe.

I met Amanda when I was 15. She was all cheer and yellow, different from my own Hot Topic palette, and if I’d met her today, I doubt I would have given her a second glance. But this was mid-2004, and there are prejudices that melt away in certain spaces. Teen Open Diary was one of those.

Teen Open Diary was an extension of Open Diary, one of the earliest online diary communities. It launched in October 1998, about six months before LiveJournal. The TOD offshoot launched in 2000 and was meant to be a place where teenagers could discuss their teenage concerns; the site even included daily questions and prompts targeted at that crowd. By the time I signed up, other sites already existed, but I disliked LiveJournal’s dull aesthetic and found it confusing to navigate, and I hadn’t heard of Xanga. In 2004, TOD was one of the few spaces in the online world that felt safe and right for a 15-year-old Israeli-American girl who was figuring out her sexuality and the fact that she was a writer.

Thing is, I barely remember what I wrote there. Instead, I remember that the site was where I learned how online community works. If you wrote on TOD faithfully, no one would care. Even if you wrote about scandalous stuff, interesting stuff, even if you fictionalized your life to the point of well-written fanfiction — so what? Sure, you’d get random readers now and then, but they had real lives and real people to attend to outside the internet, and their loyalty would fade. What you had to do on TOD, and on LiveJournal and Xanga, and later on Blogspot and WordPress, was read and comment on other people’s diary entries. Then they might check yours out. You’d share daily musings, you’d give your opinions on one another’s lives, you’d read one another’s secrets, and you might even become friends.

I explain this because I still come against people, both older and younger, who don’t understand why or how friendships form online today, who don’t understand why I check Twitter and Facebook rather fervidly. But I learned early that it is possible to connect to another person online regardless of age, gender, race, religious affiliation. It is possible to fall in love — my best friend from high school married a man she met on a massive multiplayer online game called Guild Wars — and it is possible to form true friendship. Even when people lie, even when people tell the painful truth, even when there’s no way to corroborate their stories, connection is still possible.

I explain this also to make it clear that when I write, as I am about to, that Amanda was my best friend, and that her death shook me, I mean it.

II.

When I was 15, Amanda was my best friend. When she died, it shook me to the core.

Amanda’s diary pages — the walls of the virtual bedroom where we chatted as teenage girls do — were yellow. Her screen name was trophie36c. I can’t remember whether she found me first or whether I found her, but her screen name, which makes her sound like a sex bot, was a nod at something deeper than it seemed. She had chosen this screen name, she explained, because this was who she had been for a long time: a trophy. She was thin and blond and had breasts that caught the eyes of boys. She lost her virginity young and regretted it. She partied a lot and regretted it. And at 19, when we met, she was in her last year of high school, planning on majoring in journalism, and had finally found a person who was good to her: a lovely boy named Greg.

Our friendship developed through the long notes we left on each other’s diary entries, in which we were both excessively polite and self-effacing while also trying to offer good advice. We read one another’s entries religiously, our notes ending up almost as long as the entries themselves. Neither of us was writing explicitly to the other in our diaries, because we both had other readers and friends on the site, but we became each other’s biggest supporters. When TOD began to malfunction — it was already in its death throes when we signed up — I tried emailing Amanda, but she didn’t respond. When I next saw her on TOD, she wrote that she’d been sick and in the hospital for a couple weeks. I gave her my email address, and she wrote me quickly, letting me know she hadn’t gotten the two emails I’d sent, and signing her email “Love, Amanda.” From the moment we started emailing, our friendship became deeply intimate, as we began to share our days with one another privately.

Amanda was kind. She told me she couldn’t believe I was only 15, because I wrote so well that I made her envious of my writing. She told me I was mature beyond my years and always treated me as an equal rather than as a younger sibling; she appreciated that we had different life experiences but didn’t take that to mean that I couldn’t understand hers.

You haven’t made mention of it in your recent e-mails — how is your dad doing with his chemotherapy? I know the side effects of chemo can be difficult to cope with, but I am hoping the chemo is having some beneficial effects.

My father was diagnosed during my time on TOD, after I’d met Amanda online, and she never forgot to ask about him during those months when we exchanged emails often, sometimes daily. My father had lung cancer, Stage 4, which meant he wasn’t going to recover. I didn’t really realize this at first — and it took me months to come to terms with this reality — but every step of his journey was a delay rather than an attempt at recovery. And the delay wasn’t very long. He died eight months after his diagnosis, on November 6, 2006.

My father’s first extended hospital stay happened during the end of my sophomore year of high school. I didn’t know it at the time, but these were also the final days of my friendship with Amanda. I spent long afternoons by my father’s bedside, wandering the halls to get coffee for my mom and blasting AFI and Pink Floyd from my iPod Nano. I didn’t have a laptop, and smartphones weren’t really a thing yet, so I had no way to answer Amanda’s emails during the days I spent at the hospital. I was also completing my final year of an accelerated math program and spent much of my weekends poring over problem sets and gridded notebook paper, in love with the way my handwriting remained neat in numbers as it didn’t anywhere else. My emails to Amanda slowed because of this, but she still checked up on me often.

Her last email to me, on July 12, 2006, has the subject line “Concerned.”

My Dearest Ilana,

I feel terrible about not writing to you in almost a week. I have tried on a number of occasions, but each time I just sat staring at my computer monitor. Then instead of talking to you, my mind would wander and I couldn’t concentrate enough to start typing. With each passing day, I became more and more concerned about you, your dad, and your entire family. I love you so much and in your last letter you told of how your dad had his surgery but was still in the hospital.

I wrote back to her on July 15 (“Missed You!!!”), and then, after not hearing from her for a week — which wasn’t typical, for either of us — I wrote again on July 22 (“Still Missing You”).

But Amanda had died on July 16, at 1 a.m.

III.

Ilana,

I am Amanda’s uncle…Uncle Hank (my real name is Al). I know that Amanda has told you a little about me. As you may have already guessed, I am writing to you with some very bad news. On the way home from a party, at about 1:00 a.m. on July 16, at a friend’s house with her boyfriend (Greg), their car was hit head on by a semi truck and both Greg and Amanda were killed in the accident. The driver of the truck apparently fell asleep, crossed the center line of the road and struck Greg’s car head on at high speed. Amanda and Greg more than likely died instantly in the collision. No one else was in the car with Amanda and Greg. I know this will be very upsetting to you, but I thought I should let you know so you would not be left wondering why she quit writing to you. Amanda mentioned you often. She did not say much about what the two of you wrote to each other, so I know very little about you. I do want you to know that Amanda told me many times that you had become her very best friend and that she loved you even though the the two of you never met.

IV.

Excavating virtual friendships like this is as painful, I imagine, as it would be for someone in the 19th century to pull out a stack of letters from an old friend who died of a wasting illness in a land far away. Painful not just because reading the words of a dead person is harrowing, but also because humans are flawed and full of inconsistencies, and I’m certain that no matter the age, if you looked back over your letters from a friend, you’d find moments that would make you doubt either your friendship or the veracity of your friend’s reality.

Dear Ilana,
Damnit! Right now I’m feeling like to world’s biggest jackass. Just what you need…me signing my last e-mail as “Heather.” I’ve really got to set aside my paranoia about using my real name (AMANDA!) on the internet. I got so many fake names for myself and friends that I mention that I can’t keep it straight. Last week I started corresponding with two American soldiers stationed in Iraq and, as you have probably guessed, I’ve been using Heather as my name. Well, I had just sent each soldier an e-mail last night right before writing the one I sent you. You can see what happened. I am sorry for confusing you with these fake names so once again, MY REAL NAME IS AMANDA.

Her first email to me was signed Amanda but the name Gmail registered was Anna Hill — when signing up for her account, Amanda said, she was paranoid about using her real name on the internet. Then came an email signed Heather, a confused response from me, and her explanation. Still, this was the time when teenagers using the internet were carefully instructed never to share any real details with people they didn’t know. And so emails continued to pass between Amanda and me without incident and with all the declarations of intense friendship and love that came to define us.

You have become an absolutely awesome friend and I am at a loss for the right words to tell you how much I cherish our friendship.

Sending e-mails back and forth to you has been so great that I find myself checking my Gmail account at every opportunity. It’s almost to the point where I feel like I’m sitting at the kitchen table having a nice talk with you. (I hope that doesn’t sound too silly.)

Amanda and I were always astonished at how comfortable we were talking to one another, how incredibly freeing it was to write to someone and not need to see their face as they reacted. Part of the point was that we didn’t meet in real life.

But there was a possibility that we would. Amanda lived, I think, somewhere in or near Wisconsin, because she was planning on going to a state school there. My brother was attending the University of Chicago at the time, and so Amanda and I thought maybe she could drive down and meet me next time my family and I flew out to visit him. Of course, that visit never happened; my dad died, and my brother came home for a while. My mother and I visited Chicago at some point, but Amanda was long gone by then.

When I start to reread our emails now, I am at first put on guard. Our first few emails seem impossible — why do we sound so adult? Why so formal? And why jokes like —

Of course you may need to know all these details since you are really a 40-year-old man trying to hunt me down and do all sorts of nasty things to me. Won’t you be surprised when you find out that I am also a 40-year-old man with the same intentions. hehe. hahaha.

But then…then there’s this:

Maybe I should just keep my mouth shut, but by now you know that I’m not very good at that when there is something I want to say. Ilana, I have to tell you that it upsets me when you become so self-critical. The most recent examples of that were some of the things you said in yesterday’s e-mails regarding your desire to have a boyfriend and then your severe criticism of yourself as to why you don’t yet have a boyfriend. Perhaps you recall some of the things you told me: that you have a hormonal thing that repulses guys and pushes them away from you; that you hate the way you talk and look; and that no one would ever want to see you romantically. I do get upset when you talk about yourself like that because I think that’s all bullshit, especially the part about the hormones. OK, so I don’t know what you sound like when you talk or what you look like. But what I do know is that you’re a wonderful person with innumerable good qualities.

Eleven years later, my self-esteem is something I am still working on in therapy, often, and the fact that Amanda responded with so much love to my self-deprecating remarks feels too real to dismiss even now. It’s too painful to think that there really was a 40-year-old guy on the other end of this conversation who just wanted to do nasty things to me, and who got hooked, connected, and then had to draw back when he found himself too emotionally invested. But maybe he didn’t exist. Maybe there was just only and always Amanda.

As I keep reading, I stop caring about her small inconsistencies, which mostly center around names. After all, in my own emails to her, I stumble upon names I’d long forgotten: Who’s Nadine? Or George or Tom? Ah, yes, I think. I remember them. Nadine was actually Gal, the first girl I kissed, the first manic pixie dream girl I fell for. Tom, I think, was my close friend Omri, the first boy I kissed, who recently married his long-term boyfriend and to whom I’ve offered my body as a surrogate, if he needs it, because I know he wants children who share his genes. George — I think he was my friend Maya’s crush at the time, who also turned out to be gay. We were such predictable teenagers, that group.

I am brought back to that time, rereading Amanda’s emails, and I marvel at all the love and wisdom that a 19-year-old gave to a girl so much younger than her. She was critical to my days then, and her care for me was incredibly generous. I am grateful for it.

V.

Was Amanda real?

I don’t know. The night I found out she died, I told my parents, who knew about our friendship, to an extent. They convinced me that I should still go out with my friends, as I’d planned on doing. It’s the first time I remember having a truly dissociative experience: I was walking to the mall an hour away from my house, going to see a movie — I think it was The Exorcism of Emily Rose; back then, we got movies many months after their U.S. openings. I was walking with my friends, the same ones I mentioned to Amanda in email after email, and I felt myself laugh and smile, but I wasn’t really there. I was still reading Hank/Al’s email, over and over, trying to figure out whether Amanda had really died, whether she was sick of me and invented the whole thing, or whether she had never existed in the first place. I told my friends that night about her death, and their faces crumpled for a moment — there I was, asking for the kind of sympathy and empathy that most sophomores in high school don’t yet know how to give, the kind I never really got when my father passed only four months later. To accommodate them, I did the same thing that night as I did after my father’s death — I pretended everything was okay, while inside some of me unraveled, my edges fraying.

I never really got to mourn Amanda, whether because of my parents’ skepticism over our friendship or because my father was dying at the same time. If we’d stayed friends for just a couple more years, Facebook would have opened up to us, and I could have maybe come to know her in that slightly realer world of photographs and regular updates. I have friends from my early WordPress days with whom I still correspond with (Erin, I owe you an email, as usual, I’m so sorry) or whose updates I see and love (McKenzie, your babies are so beautiful, I am so glad your husband is so wonderful). I know these women are real.

In my drafts folder, I have an email that I recently started writing to Amanda. I don’t know if I’ll send it. In it, I ask her if she’s real. If her death was real. I tell her I’ve become a writer, and that now, more than a decade after her death, I’m reckoning with our relationship. Maybe I’ll send it. Or maybe I’ll wait and hope that she reaches out to me, either as a woman or as a ghost. But whatever happens, I have her emails, and the memory of our friendship. Whatever was behind her screen, that was real.