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My best friend disappeared from my life without a trace.  I’m still trying to find out what happened.

The last email I sent him was a simple note:

I’m looking for you. That’s all.

It’s kind of a love story, but not like you think. A story of how we met, how our relationship grew over 15 years and how I lost it. She was my first real internet friend.

Aimee and I met in a Yahoo discussion group for aspiring writers in 2005, when Myspace was in vogue, blogging was growing in popularity, and Facebook was just an insignificant blip on the internet. There was no Snapchat or Twitter or Instagram or TikTok. Yet we thought we were on the verge of amazing technology that had opened up a whole new world.

Aimee and I immediately connected in that chat room, bonding over our love for reading, writing, and the lit chick, in particular. We were driven 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 friends online. We have written thousands of words with each other and shared our work; we talked about what we would do when (ever if) we became famous authors, and we supported each other on a daily basis.

When she emailed that she was going to be in town to see Jennifer Weiner at an author event near my house, we decided to meet in person. I remember seeing her in the bookstore’s fiction aisle, her big expressive eyes, her sincere smile, her contagious laugh. I think we probably kissed right away. Immediate friends.

There was nothing strange about meeting her in real life. After the book event, we went to a bar next door with two other women whom 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 Yahoo Group writers to attend a writers conference in my area. Aimee and I decided to share a hotel room to cut costs. When I told my husband about our plans, he asked me, “What if it was an ax killer?”

I said, “What if she thinks the same of me?”

I was older than Aimee. She was single but dated and worked full-time in magazines. I was married with three young children and was trying to find time to write while dealing with the constants of parenthood. Maybe we were attracted to what the other had? If so, I don’t think there was any jealousy between the two of us. Just admiration.

We both started blogging and each of us grew a respectable following, becoming friends with our readers and connecting with others online. Aimee and I wrote about each other on our blogs, and we had a collective fanbase, so readers came and went between us, learning about our friendship and laughing at the stories we wrote. We started calling ourselves BBFF: Best Blogger Friends Forever. We signed cards and handwritten letters “from your BBFF”. In my novel, I wrote in the acknowledgments:

To Aimee, who has saved me more times than she realizes in moments of writing desperation. You are an amazing friend and writer and you will always be my BBFF, forever and ever. I love you!

We were sending each other birthday presents, something I had never done with any of my close friends or even family members. We carefully organized our birthday boxes around each other, sending scripture-inspired gifts and trinkets that reminded us of each other. I sent her the latest Emily Giffin book, and she sent me CDs with songs from bands I didn’t know. She knew cool music, and she also knew that I would love her selections. I listened to these CDs like a teenager who was given music by a friend. Again and again.

I took her to get her ears pierced because she had never had them, and I took her for her first bikini waxing, holding her hand while the technician smeared hot wax then ripped her skin hairs. Then we drank margaritas and ate fries and salsa in the sun at a local Mexican restaurant. I felt like a big sister to her and adored her. I thought she thought the same.

She motivated me to try harder in my writing; she encouraged me to be published. I encouraged her to submit a short story to a contest sponsored by one of the authors we both loved. Out of over 500 entries, Aimee’s story won.

I felt like someone different when we were together, someone younger and funnier, someone who laughed a lot. And I liked to feel that. I loved the person I was when Aimee and I were together.

My family also loved Aimee. My children were excited when she came to visit me and my daughter bawled when she left. Then Aimee moved to the east coast, and I moved to the west coast. We would always be friends, we assured each other. Distance wouldn’t matter.

Since we were friends online first, we were used to being apart. We used to text, chat, and call each other whenever we needed a sounding board, a supportive friend, or just a good gut-healing laugh.

I thought we would always be there for each other. I never thought there would come a time when we wouldn’t be friends.

But here we are. Or I am here. Because she disappeared.

When COVID-19 hit, I became aware of its absence. It took me a while to realize this and I said to myself that life was hard for everyone. I noticed that my texts went unanswered. She did not comment on my social media posts and she no longer posted on her accounts. I started to worry. I sent him texts and emails. I contacted some of our mutual friends:

“Have you heard from Aimée?”

It seems that she does not want to be found. She don’t want me to find her.

Here’s what I think. Here’s what worries me, and here’s what I know. She got married and moved from the east coast to the south. She didn’t talk much about her husband, as always, and that still rang alarm bells in my head. I kept trying to reach her, sending occasional DMs via Instagram and Facebook:

“I haven’t chatted in a while, let’s catch up.”

“I miss you! Hope you are well!”

Finally, I just posted it via a DM.

“I’m really starting to worry.”

I got a short response from an Instagram DM that said something like the pandemic was affecting her mental health, as was all social media about it, so it was likely she was logging off.

It didn’t look like him. At all. I had been in contact with her for 15 years. I tried to get him to talk to me, but it was this unusual DM.

And almost immediately after receiving this DM, she deleted her Instagram and Facebook accounts and closed her blog. There’s a LinkedIn account with his name and previous work, but no profile picture. The emails I sent bounced off several of his accounts. She left absolutely no online presence. I called his phone number and was stunned when I heard the automatic answer:

The number you dialed has been changed or disconnected.

She had this number since I knew her. Who changes phone number after 15 years? It didn’t fit. Was she in trouble? Or are you really fed up with COVID and social media and the changes going on in the world?

I began to worry seriously about what had happened to him. I had his address, I knew his marital name. I knew so much about her, but there was also so much I didn’t know. I looked up his siblings and other family members on Facebook; I skimmed the obituaries hoping to God I wouldn’t come across his name; I googled her name and her husband’s name combined and separated; I looked up their address on Google-Earth, looked for clues on Zillow itself. I found her husband’s cell phone number, called him and got his voicemail. I left a message that went unanswered:

“Hi, I’m just trying to connect with Aimee. It’s Stephanie. Please ask her to call me.

I became a bit obsessed. I feel like a stalker, an abandoned lover, writing his letters that remain sealed in my top drawer, fantasizing that one day 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 so cleanly, without a trace? How could I have lost contact with her after 15 years of friendship?

Almost two years later, I still don’t know.

I realize that I may never know what happened. It could have been something extreme where she had to get off the grid to stay safe. The world of social media may have become too much for her. Or maybe Aimee was fed up with our friendship and wanted to end it. While this may be the simplest answer, it’s also hard to accept.

Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly nostalgic for his friendship, I go down a rabbit hole looking for answers. It’s really ironic, because she was the one who taught me about Google and search engines and how to find old boyfriends before there was social media, and now I use these 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 more importantly, I don’t know what she Can say. But it’s mystifying and frustrating, and it makes me question every moment of our friendship. It makes me wonder if real relationships can be made online or can they be thrown away with the click of an unsubscribe button. Can a virtual connection turn into a lasting, authentic and real friendship?

I would like to believe that our friendship was true and real, and that she felt the same way I felt about her. Maybe it’s enough to know that I had a BBFF that I cherished and loved, even if it was only for a little while in my life.

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