The last email I sent to her was a simple note:
Looking for you. That’s all.
This is a love story of sorts, but not in the way you think it might be. A story of how we met, how our relationship grew over 15 years and how I lost her. She was my first internet-turned-real-life friend.
Aimee and I met in a Yahoo chat group for aspiring writers in 2005 when Myspace was hot, blogging was gaining popularity and Facebook was merely an insignificant blip on the internet. There was no Snapchat or Twitter, no Instagram or TikTok. Still, we thought we were on the brink of some amazing technology that had opened up a whole new world.
Aimee and I connected immediately in this chat room, bonding over our love for reading, writing and chick lit, in particular. We were motivated and inspired, and wanted to write books like our favorite authors: Jennifer Weiner, Emily Giffin and Laura Dave.
In this group of about 40 writers, Aimee and I connected and became online friends. We wrote thousands of words with each other and shared our work; we talked about what we’d do when (never if) we became famous authors, and we supported each other daily.
When she emailed that she was going to be in town to see Jennifer Weiner at an author event near me, we decided to meet in person. I remember spotting her in the bookstore’s fiction aisle, her large eyes expressive, her smile genuine, her laugh infectious. I think we probably hugged right away. Immediate friends.
There was nothing weird about meeting her in real life. After the book event, we went to a bar next door with two other women we met and drank wine and laughed and laughed.
We were friends for the next 15 years.
After our first meeting, we made plans with other writers from the Yahoo group to attend a writer’s conference in my area. Aimee and I decided we would share a hotel room to cut costs. When I told my husband of our plans, he asked, “What if she’s an ax murderer?”
I said, “What if she’s thinking the same thing about me?”
I was older than Aimee. She was single but dating and working a full-time job in magazines. I was married with three young kids and trying to find writing time while also dealing with the constants of parenting. Maybe we were drawn to what the other had? If that’s the case, I don’t think there was any jealousy between the two of us. Just admiration.
We both started blogging, and each of us grew respectable audiences, becoming friends with our readers and connecting with others online. Aimee and I would write about each other on our blogs, and we had a collective fan base, so readers would toggle back and forth between us, learning about our friendship and laughing at the stories we wrote. We started referring to each other as BBFFs: Best Blogger Friends Forever. We signed handwritten cards and letters “from your BBFF.” In my novel, I wrote in the acknowledgments:
To Aimee, who has saved me more often than she knows in times of writing despair. You are a friend and writer extraordinaire and will always be my BBFF, forever and ever. I love you!
We’d mail each other birthday gifts, something I’ve never done with any of my close friends or even family members. We’d carefully curate our birthday boxes to one another, sending writing-inspired gifts and trinkets that reminded us of each other. I’d send her the latest Emily Giffin book, and she’d send me CDs with songs by new-to-me bands. She knew the cool music, and she also knew I’d love her selections. I listened to those CDs like a teenage girl who’d been gifted music by a boyfriend. Over and over and over again.
I took her to get her ears pierced because she’d never had them done, and I took her for her first bikini wax, holding her hand while the technician slathered on hot wax and then ripped the hair from her skin. Afterward, we drank margaritas and ate chips and salsa in the sun at a local Mexican restaurant. I felt like a big sister to her, and I adored her. I thought she thought the same.
She motivated me to try harder in my writing; she encouraged me to get published. I encouraged her to submit a short story to a contest sponsored by one of the authors we both loved. Of more than 500 entries, Aimee’s story won.
I felt like someone different when we were together, someone younger and more fun, someone who laughed a lot. And I liked feeling that way. I liked the person I was when Aimee and I were together.
My family loved Aimee, too. My kids would get excited when she came to visit, and my daughter would bawl when she left. Then Aimee moved to the East Coast, and I moved to the West Coast. We’d still always be friends, we assured each other. The distance wouldn’t matter.
Since we were friends online first, we were used to being apart. We were used to texting and chatting and calling one another whenever we felt like we needed a sounding board, a supportive friend or just a good gut-healing laugh.
I thought we’d always be there for each other. I never thought there would come a time when we weren’t friends.
But here we are. Or here I am. Because she has disappeared.
When COVID-19 hit, I became aware of her absence. It was slow for me to realize, and I figured that life was hard for everyone. I noticed my texts to her were going unanswered. She wasn’t commenting on my social media posts, and she was no longer posting on her accounts. I started worrying. I sent her texts and emails. I reached out to the very few of our mutual friends:
“Have you heard from Aimee?”
None of them had.
It seems she doesn’t want to be found. She doesn’t want me to find her.
Why? I don’t know.
Here’s what I think. Here’s what I worry about, and here’s what I do know. She got married and moved from the East Coast to the South. She didn’t talk much about her husband, like ever, and that always rang an alarm in my head. I kept trying to reach her, sending casual DMs through Instagram and Facebook:
“Just checking in!”
“Haven’t chatted in a while, let’s catch up.”
“Miss you! Hope you’re well!”
Finally, I just put it out there via a DM.
“Are you OK?”
“I’m really starting to worry.”
“Please text me!”
I received a short reply from an Instagram DM that said something like the pandemic was affecting her mental health and so was all the social media about it, so it was likely she was going offline.
That didn’t sound like her. At all. I had been connected to her for 15 years. I tried to get her to talk to me, but that unusual DM was it.
And almost immediately after I got that DM, she took down her Instagram and Facebook accounts, and shut down her blog. There is a LinkedIn account with her name and previous job, but no profile picture. Emails I sent bounced back from several of her accounts. She’s left absolutely no online presence. I called her phone number and was stunned when I heard the automated reply:
The number you have dialed has been changed or disconnected.
She had had that number for as long as I had known her. Who changes their phone number after 15 years? It didn’t add up. Was she in some kind of trouble? Or really just fed up with COVID and social media and the changes going on in the world?
I started to seriously worry about what may have happened to her. I had her address, I knew her married name. I knew so much about her, but there was also so much I didn’t know. I searched for her siblings and other family members on Facebook; I scoured the obituaries hoping to God I wouldn’t stumble across her name; I Googled her and her husband’s name combined and separate; I Google-Earthed their address, searched for clues on Zillow even. I found her husband’s cellphone number, called it and got his voicemail. I left a casual message that went unanswered:
“Hi, I’m just trying to connect with Aimee. This is Stephanie. Please have her call me.”
I’ve become a bit obsessed. I feel like a stalker, a jilted lover, writing her letters that remain sealed in my top drawer, fantasizing that someday I might send them certified, just to see if I get a response. Just to make sure she’s alive. I wonder how someone can disappear from the internet that cleanly, without a trace? How could I have lost contact with her after 15 years of friendship?
Nearly two years later, I still don’t know.
I realize I may never know what happened. It could have been something extreme where she had to go off the grid to stay safe. It could have been that the world of social media got to be too much for her. Or maybe Aimee just got tired of our friendship and wanted to end it. Though that may be the simplest of answers, it’s also a hard one to accept.
Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly nostalgic for her friendship, I’ll go down a rabbit hole searching for answers. It’s ironic really, because she was the one who taught me about Google and search engines and how to look up old boyfriends before there was social media, and now I’m using those tactics to try to find her.
I probably won’t stop looking for her online, but honestly I don’t know what I would say, or, even more important, I don’t know what she might say. But it’s mystifying and it’s frustrating, and it makes me question every moment of our friendship. It makes me wonder if real relationships can be established online or can they be tossed away with the click of an unfollow button. Can a virtual connection turn into a lasting, genuine and real friendship?
I’d like to believe that our friendship was real and true, and that she felt the same way I felt about her. Maybe it’s enough to know that I had a BBFF whom I cherished and loved, even if it was for a small moment in my life.