I called the police this past weekend. No, not my local police. I googled the PD of a smallish town in another state way across the country and called them. Why? Because one of my Imaginary Internet Friends was missing. And I wanted them to find her.
I know, that sounds a bit crazy. It felt a bit crazy too. I even thought to myself, You’re calling the POLICE. They do not have a sense of humour. What are you going to say to convince them you’re not a total whack job?
First, let me explain the whole “Imaginary Internet Friends” thing, which is what my kids started calling them way back when I first discovered what a blog was. I’d be reading and writing blog comments — laughing and fascinated and completely distracted from real life — and the kids would say to each other, “Geez, mom is talking to her imaginary internet friends again.” Insert dramatic teenaged eyeroll. “Next she’ll be sending email to herself, convinced it’s from real people.”
[I wrote a post a few years ago about the time my daughter and her best friend sat down and warned me about my highly dangerous internet behaviour. It was hysterical. You should go read it [here]. But be sure to read the comments, from back when this was on blogger and there were word verifications, because they’re even funnier and it will give you a good idea of who these imaginary friends are. And why I love them.]
How we all met is a long strange story, but we ended up creating a group blog of our own, maybe three dozen of us, in a quiet corner of the internet where we share the various concerns of our daily lives. We’re not fascinating or entertaining, we’re just friends. And we notice when someone doesn’t show up.
But I could just imagine how badly this might go with the police. I mean, how exactly do you explain internet friendships? That you’ve never met this person and yet are worried sick that something awful might have happened simply because she stopped commenting on a blog?
So I called and a woman answered and I said something like, “Hi, I live all the way across the country but one of my imaginary friends lives in your town and she hasn’t commented on our blog in almost two weeks and that’s just not like her and she doesn’t answer her phone or respond to email and she lives alone and so I was wondering [quick nervous breath] can you go check on her? I have her address from a cookie exchange we did a couple years ago…”
There was an awkward pause and I just know the woman was turning to check for hidden cameras or looking to see whether I was calling from prison or thinking maybe I’d put a hit on this person and was trying to obtain verification of a dead body before I made the payoff. [Yes, I write fiction.]
I imagined her saying, “Sure, lady, right away. And tell me, what is YOUR name and address, we’ll send someone right over.”
But the woman was very nice and just said, “Yes, we can do that.” Which made me even more nervous. Like, this is real.
She asked for the address and phone number. Oddly, she didn’t ask for my friend’s name, but I gave it to her anyway. Then she asked whether I knew her race. I thought, Why on earth does she need to kn– And then I realized, hell, they might need some way to identify her. This awful thought, the hard realization that the police might actually be walking into a house with a DB or a crime scene, had me so frazzled and upset I started rambling. Before she could even ask, I told her how old my friend is (educated guess) and that she has dogs. I figured that was something a police officer would want to know. I felt bad when she asked what kind of car my friend drove and I had no idea. I mean how ridiculous is it that I know the name of her horse but not what kind of car she drives?
The woman assured me that checking on my friend was no problem, better safe than sorry, and they’d send someone right out and call me back.
While I waited, stomach clenched in twisted knots of bile, I imagined all sorts of horrible things. My friend’s last blog comment was that the repair guy was coming out the next day to install a new water heater. Maybe he moonlighted as a serial killer. Some people do, you know. Or was involved in the drug trade and crossed someone and they caught up with him at her house and then eliminated the only witness. Or he had a nasty temper and there was an argument and he hit her with a wrench and then left her there, unconscious and alone. Or maybe he was just incompetent and when she turned on her hot water the next morning, her entire house exploded. [Did I mention I write fiction?]
So when the woman called me back, within a very short time, and told me in an officially calm sympathetic voice that in checking their log she saw they’d had a call from that address four days ago and the fire department had responded and transported someone to the hospital . . . well, I heard “fire department” and sort of forgot that they’re usually first responders no matter what, even if all you did was stub your toe, and was totally convinced the house had exploded. I vowed right then, that repairman was going to be so fucking sorry the cartel hadn’t gotten to him first. I imagined the worst. We’re talking fireballs and third degree burns and smoke inhalation and a coma and skin grafts and–
But wait, the woman was still talking. What’s that? Would I like the name and number of the hospital? Oh hell yes.
So I called the hospital and they transferred me a couple times and I had a few bad moments wondering how I was going to convince the hospital staff to tell me anything — since they have even less sense of humour about privacy than cops do — and debating how plausible it might be to claim I was her long lost next of kin. But then they asked whether I’d like to be transferred to the phone in her room.
This is when I realized things were maybe not quite as bad as I suspected.
So when my imaginary friend answered the phone, sounding all weak and tired, even though I’d never actually heard her voice before, nor she mine, I’m pretty sure the first thing I said to her was, “What the HELL are you doing in the hospital?”
Turns out it was a bad case of pneumonia that went really fast from I-don’t-feel-so-good to help-me-I-can’t-breathe and she’d called the EMTs. Which, considering the alternatives I’d come up with, was damn good news. Because she was pumped full of antibiotics and recovering.
But this whole thing has me thinking about friendship. And what it means and how it develops. I’ve been thinking about these imaginary friends of mine and wondering whether any of us would have taken the time or made the effort to introduce ourselves and get to know each other in the real world. Sadly, I think the answer is no.
On the surface, we’re all very different. Different ages, different interests and professions, different physical appearances, different politics and religions and lifestyles, even different nationalities. I’m not sure any of us would have found each other in the course of real life. And yet, we all connected online and forged a common bond and have been friends for many years — based solely on what we think and what we have to say. No, not even “say,” but what we “type.”
We share a rather twisted sense of humour and a passion for reading and a commitment to discourse without discord. Several of us have even met up in real life and discovered the joyous indulgence of the five-hour lunch and have realized there isn’t a conspiracy to harvest our organs for the black market after all. And we like each other. Hell, we’ve come to love each other. Enough to call the police.
And then I happened upon this TED Talk by Brene Brown. She’s very funny but also very wise and she talks about expanding perception and offers some important insights about the power of vulnerability and courage and authenticity and even shame. And how important those things are to forming human connections. She says: “Connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.” Really, go listen to it. It’s only 20 minutes and well worth it. What she says about people who are “whole”-hearted I think describes my Imaginary Internet Friends very well.
Many of you reading this ARE those above-mentioned friends. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts on friendship and the internet and whatever else comes to mind. If I could turn word verifications back on for you, I would.
What about the rest of you? Do you have Imaginary Internet Friends? People you know and love but have never met? People you’d miss terribly if they ever disappeared? I hope your answer is yes, and that you treasure that gift as much as I do.
By the way, if you ever have to call the police, try not to mention the word “imaginary.”