I wouldn’t say we had been friends in high school. We ran in similar circles back then: the self-appointed misfits who congregated in the literary magazine office, listened to college radio, and read a lot of the kinds of books that weren’t on the AP English curriculum. He was good looking with a hard edge to his attitude and behavior. He was walking the walk of the outsider more than I was; he actually did things like skipping school and seeing alternative bands live whereas I was mostly a good kid with a penchant for red lipstick and Kurt Vonnegut novels. The only rules I was breaking were fashion related. I thought he was impossibly cool. I assumed he thought I was annoying.
Twenty years later, in discussions on Facebook, I discovered that he hadn’t thought he was cool at all. He felt like a socially awkward fuck-up, a failure who never fit it. He was amused to find I’d thought he was so much cooler than he ever perceived himself. He did not confirm or deny that he found me annoying. He probably did. I was pretty annoying back then.
In the two years since we connected on Facebook, probably out of a sense of common past and idle curiosity, we maintained casual contact in the social media realm. A lot of comments and likes, a lot of shared links that showed common interests in politics and social justice issues, an on-going Words With Friends rivalry. I found it amusing that I was basically playing Scrabble with a man I hadn’t seen in two decades who was thousands of miles away. It was fun. Not a profound friendship. Just a pleasant contact with someone from my past. A connection to what we once each were, a jumping off place for examining how our then affects our now.
He died this week.
I don’t know what happened. There have been hints in the many tribute posts on his Facebook page but his wife has asked for privacy on that matter and his friends are respecting that. I just know that he’s gone. He doesn’t like my status updates anymore. I don’t click on articles he’s posted any more. Yesterday my phone told me that he resigned from the Word With Friends game that had been idle for several weeks. The casual yet frequent presence I had taken for granted is an absence I never expected.
I am grieving him more that our relationship should merit. Or maybe not. I don’t know how to mourn a virtual friend. What degree of grief is correct? What is a the proper response to a void left in cyberspace?
The people we interact with only in social media become a part of our days, inextricably linked to the ephemeral space in our computers and phones. In reality, out relationships with them may be no deeper than with the clerk at our favorite coffee shop but they have the same sort of familiarity: a near-daily presence, a constancy without intimacy. We know only what they care to share about their lives and they know the same about us. Our interactions are brief and perhaps of limited substance. But they are there. They are elements in the mosaic that makes up our lives, both virtual and physical. When the flash of color that is a social media friend vanishes from the larger picture, there is a noticeable blank space. It is a loss.
I’m stumbling through this process of mourning for a person I knew but didn’t know. I’m reaching out to those more connected to ask how best to honor his memory. Because I can’t just forget him or the social media friendship we forged twenty years after we last saw each other.