AOL Unrequited Love Messenger
I got online via AOL around 2000. I knew then, even as a 12 year old, that AOL wasn’t “cool,” and prided myself on using the streamlined and feature-filled standalone AIM client. I painstakingly set up my profile and pseudo-html text themes. As an anxiety wracked and depressed pre teen, I favored harsh greens and reds on black backgrounds and any font that expressed my inner, pre-pubescent turmoil.
My screen name was the literal name of a character from my favorite anime. I was lonely in my fandom, living in a the rural northeast of the USA, and only knowing about anime thanks to Adult Swim on basic cable. I developed a habit of scrolling through the AIM public directory looking for people with screen names that might hint at shared interests.
I made some amazing friends this way, all via cold-chatting people. In the “real” world I would shake and sweat when meeting new people. I was overweight, dressed weird, and talked funny. My peers were hell and middle school made me a misanthrope. Online, though, I never thought twice about chatting a stranger to say hello.
One day my heart jumped: I came across a screen name that wasn’t just from the same anime as mine, but was based on a female character. I wasted no time in chatting this stranger, and it turned out she was just as eagerly making friends online with shared interests. I’ll call her Hana.
Hana became my best internet friend. We chatted every single day, and our friendship spread onto an anime forum. I shifted into a fully digitized life as I started high school, eschewing meatspace friends for my much richer and more satisfying online friends.
Hana and I traded letters and scanned pictures of each other. We learned just enough Japanese to greet each other and say good night each day. We knew about each others’ teachers, friends, and anxieties. Within a year, puberty had gotten a hold of me, and for reasons mysterious to young me I could not stand “just” being friends with Hana. I developed a crush more fervent than I had ever experienced at school.
I don’t remember how I finally decided to ask her “out,” but I remember how incredibly sick with anxiety I was. It turned out that she already had an internet boyfriend. Worse, he was older by a few years. Worst of all, he was the moderator of the anime forum we were both on.
I didn’t take it well. My already grim AIM profile got about as morbid as it could get. I made it clear I was miserable and suggested, indirectly, I might hurt myself. She took it seriously and cared, but we chatted less and less.
My concepts of love and betrayal were primitive. In other words, I got angry at Hana and was a little shit. I made someone feel bad and at fault for not fulfilling a fantasy I had let overwhelm our friendship.
I never fully left the Internet, but I used it way less after that. I found other misanthropic kids I could hang out with in person and we developed a shared hobby of getting as fucked up as possible. For the rest of high school Hana and I made small talk here and there, but never had a meaningful connection again.
The last time we spoke was during my first month as a college freshman in 2006. We hadn’t spoken in years at that point, and while we caught up I realized I was in the state she had lived in when we had been close. I ended up at my college for a variety of coincidences and hadn’t thought once about how it was in the state she was from. I brought it up and said something like “isn’t it funny, after all these years, that I ended up in your state?”
Hana politely ended the conversation and I never saw her online again. I had matured enough then to know I had put her in a terrible position when we were younger. I didn’t blame her for blocking me, but I was still young enough to not understand the scope of my toxic behavior.
In 2015, I was cleaning old papers out of my childhood bedroom. I found a letter still tucked in its open envelope, accompanied by a sheet of cute stickers. It was from Hana, sent sometime in 2001. What I didn’t understand at 13 and had barely understood as a college freshmen hit me all at once. I realized how I’d abusively forced responsibility for my feelings onto Hana at a time when neither of us had any degree of emotional maturity. How I’d destroyed a friendship, however youthful, and made someone feel awful in the process. I cried, not for lost love, but for how I’d hurt a friend.
I realize now that as obvious and necessary it felt to be “more than friends” back in 2001, it feels like a little miracle every time I make even casual friendships online in 2017. To be able to meet a stranger in a bodyless void and connect so deeply is a unique aspect of this awful, beautiful network we’re on. Every new day online in the 21st century, the chance of making such connections feels increasingly remote.
I’m sorry, Hana, for 13 year old me. I’m sorry, those who missed out on the innocent days of the AIM public directory. I hope that’s the Internet we can have again one day, but that by then we’ve all become kind enough to deserve it.