The Next 20

The Companions of My Heart

On making friends on the internet.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by iStock.

My memories of meeting Nicole Cliffe, my helpmeet and t’hy’la and sometimes-business partner, are a bit hazy; I often remember running into her arms at the Salt Lake City airport, when in fact she sent her husband to pick me up because she was busy at home with her infant daughter. She had been the books editor at the Hairpin for roughly six months, and I an impassioned comment-leaver at the same, when we decided that our shared interest in Dune, the Patrick Melrose novels of Edward St. Aubyn, and meat-based casseroles meant that we were destined to be bosom friends. “I should come to Utah,” I told her often over Gchat, not expecting her to call my bluff by purchasing a plane ticket to Salt Lake City on my behalf.

At the airport, I did not run into her husband’s arms, as that seemed excessive; I offered him a firm, hearty handshake and listened to him describe the Wasatch mountain range on the 15-minute ride back to their house. His is a noble spirit that could embiggen the smallest soul, and I know a great deal more about quartzite than I did before. I must have run into Nicole’s arms sometime later that afternoon, in their home, and under her family’s benevolent eye. We have never been parted since.

Or rather, to be scrupulously accurate: We have been parted often since, in fact most of the time, as I live elsewhere, though she has ever been the companion of my heart. But I first knew her as my own on the internet. Making friends on the internet is the closest I have ever come to fulfilling my dream of becoming one of the monks of the B’omarr Order, who keep their brains in jars and the jars on mechanical spider-legs, and who are seen briefly in Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi: It is a nearly perfectly unembodied act. Online, we are all Jane Eyre yelling about soul-kindred-ness to one another.

That first weekend I met Nicole we moved rapidly from “actual strangers” to the “Damon and Pythias” phase of friendship, mediated primarily through the nonstop deployment of lines from Rebecca, the 1940 movie about how nervous Laurence Olivier made Joan Fontaine. For nearly 48 hours we drifted around Nicole’s house, periodically pulling one another into a tight, nervous embrace and whispering, in doomed tones, “Are you heppy, Maxim? Because I am. So terribly heppy, here with you.” Her heart was already known, and already beloved, to me—I knew how the Litany Against Fear and the Season 5 finale of Buffy had gotten her through childbirth, I knew what she kept in her purse, I knew that she, and only she, knew what dress size Marilyn Monroe really wore.

I knew then. I knew the way you know about a good melon. I knew the two of us were put onto this Earth in order to go into business together. I knew when we fought, it would be clean and beautiful and result in a deeper sense of knowing and being known; I knew that I would love her husband and her children and her dogs and I knew that someday, when she dies, I would ask to be buried at her feet like the dog from Beau Geste, and everyone would just be really cool about it, somehow.

I am not always right, but I was right about Nicole. She fit into my life, and I into hers, as if they had been created to intersect.

* * *

No one from the internet has ever murdered me. No one has ever murdered me, full stop, for which I’m extremely grateful, but I’m particularly gratified that I have never been murdered by anyone I’ve met from the internet, as that was a real concern for those of us who grew up in the freewheeling AOL chat rooms of the late ’90s and early aughts. Chat rooms seemed to children of the 1990s as New York seemed to Midwesterners in the 1980s: a carnival of murderers trawling for prey. No one, the thinking went, was who they said they were online; 90 percent of instant messages were exchanged between murderers trying to convince one another to buy a ticket to Chicago, all of them blissfully unaware they were talking to fellow murderers with the identically murderous intentions.

In 1998, my friend Briana told me that she was planning on meeting a girl named Talia that she’d met through a Hanson fan group who lived a few towns over, and I remember taking the news like a funeral invitation. Oh, I thought, Briana is going to die, because the only people on the internet are Us and Murderers, and Talia isn’t Us, so Talia must be a murderer, and I will have to carry on Briana’s legacy as best as I can, with only half of this Best Friends necklace to remember her by. As we were all gratified to learn, Talia wasn’t a murderer, she was also a 12-year-old girl, and she and Briana became quite good friends, and I think Briana gave her a Best Friends necklace too. I don’t say this to criticize Briana. We all have to decide for ourselves how many Best Friends necklaces we are willing to share with friends. (The correct number is one, obviously.)

The internet went on to do me the very great favor of expanding the circle of Us and constricting the circle of Potential Online Murderers. I have found a multiplicity of Us there—I did not meet Nicole in a classroom (could not have; she went to an excellent, prestigious college and I did not) or at a grocery store, or through friends, and in fact I could not have found the same friendship with her that I have anywhere else. I could not have met her as she grew up in Canada, or as she started raising a family three states over in Utah; I could only find her through the magnetic pull of our shared obsessions broadcast over the internet. I have not always been a romantically confident person, but my conviction in my own ability to befriend others, given the slightest encouragement, knows no limits. “Two things are going to happen tonight,” I once told a stranger, who later became a friend, at a party: “We are going to fight about that jacket you’re wearing, and then we are going to become best friends.” Both of those events came to pass exactly in the order I had predicted. Every friend I have ever made, I have been at least partly convinced that we were formed for one another in the Halls of Mandos. Every moment in my life before I had met Nicole had prepared me to meet Nicole. We knocked on all the same doors, and eventually we came to the same room.

The internet did not merely generate our friendship but sustained it; for the next three years, as we ran the Toast together, I woke up most mornings to a series of cheerfully efficient messages about data-server costs and went to bed only after having flung several links to fake-documentary trailers like “Pooljumpers” in her direction. In between, the running dialogue covered everything from edits we disagreed on, to trips to meet one another’s families, and everything we’d found on the internet that day that we loved or hated or couldn’t believe or all three:

–Did you see


–And then the video

–ahhh no SEND IT–


–say what, I’ve been off Twitter for hours, what did I miss–

–I’m sending you that book I told you about, the Debo Mitford one–

–Mallory check your email–

I never did; she always had to remind me. We had only one rule: We could complain about one another’s fitness as a business partner as much as we liked, but we could only complain about each other to one another. We kept to it, too. After three years, I still find myself looking eagerly for her next message, which is never too far behind the last one. We no longer run the Toast together, but the only thing that’s changed is she no longer has to remind me to check my email anymore. She just lets me forget.

A great many of my friends now have come from the internet; viciously brilliant souls with robust texting plans, and I regularly cram them into my guest room and force them to watch television and share the inner workings of their hearts with me when they come to town. (If one cannot be a brain in a jar, one should at least be within couch-length of one’s dearest friends at least once in a while.) I fight with them about their jackets, and then we become permanently ensconced in one another’s hearts. None of us exchange jewelry, but I believe we care for one another just the same.

*Correction, Sept. 26, 2016: Due to a production error, a graphic in this piece originally misstated that Mallory and Nicole met on the White House lawn.