Add On to a Story

Or, The Lost Art of AOL Frenemies

Jacie and Lil ruined everything.

All I wanted was to be taken seriously as a writer. All I wanted was for someone to respond to continue my story. All I wanted was the respect of the AOL Teen Writers message boards.

This was before social media, before LiveJournal, perhaps even before It was a tough crowd, especially for someone not actually a teen, but only a preteen. I’d found the easiest place to get a response were the “Add On to a Story” boards: you didn’t have to do much work and wouldn’t get angrily critiqued by the angry older teenage boys who read only hard Sci-Fi and hated romantic subplots. My first post, which was about a girl staring out the window, thinking about how everything was unfair and how sad she was (yes, I was clinically depressed at the time, and yes, I eventually got help), went mostly ignored. I tried again.

“Ow!” said Jenna. “What’s wrong?” said Chris. “Nothing,” said Jenna, then she blurted out “I hate it here!” “Shh, don’t let them hear you,” said Chris.

More than a little desperate, I titled it “A Few Lines, Please Reply!” and hit send. Someone had responded this time! I was thrilled, until I saw who had responded: Jacie.

Jacie and Lil were two older teen writers, and in my opinion, they ruled the “Add On” boards. Their stories were fast-paced, riotous adventures about the two of them traveling through time and space with their bandmate and best friend, Michael Stipe. They time-traveled and shape-shifted and referenced The Simpsons. They fought menacing creatures like Britney Spears and giant talking blobs in their stories. And if they didn’t like someone else’s story, they wouldn’t hesitate to derail it and turn it into one of theirs.

Which is what they did to mine.

“What is there to hear?” Marjorie, the yellow blob, snorted. She laughed derisively as the two poor, pitiful, fiction characters stared blankly at her and Bob, the blue blob. Suddenly, Jacie burst through the door, with Lil and Stipey close behind…

I stopped reading. Poor, pitiful fiction characters? They had ruined my story. They were making fun of it! They were making fun of me! I was as humiliated as I was incensed. Was it because I was new there? All I’d wanted was a little validation, and these girls I was so jealous of, these wise sixteen-year-olds who posted about exotic musicians like Ben Folds and Liz Phair were denying me it. It was the beginning of a pattern in my adolescence and young adulthood: humiliation at the hands of hip older girls. Pop culture had led me to believe those girls would be something like Sarah Michelle Gellar in Cruel Intentions or Kim Walker in Heathers, but they usually looked and acted more like Daria.

Well, fine, I thought. I’d let them have that one, but they weren’t going to embarrass me again. I quickly wrote up one of the ideas I considered more fringe: an innocent woman being framed for a crime and having to live in prison with another woman who was an unrepentant killer. “Very odd story, please reply,” I titled it, and with all my frustration and bitterness, I hit Caps Lock and added “BUT DON’T TURN THIS INTO A BLOB STORY!”

No response. Well, one very short response, but it did not go any further. After a few days, I panicked, wondering if I’d made a serious faux pas. How could I have been so stupid? I’d only made myself look bad, the newbie trying in vain to challenge the undisputed queens of the board. Guiltily, I went back and changed the title. Nothing happened: my story remained at the bottom of the board. The truth was probably that it just wasn’t very good.

Meanwhile, Jacie and Lil kept the “A Few Lines, Please Reply” thread going, and I followed along, bitterly, to see if they were going to mock me further. They never did. They hadn’t seemed to notice my attempt to assert myself. That was when I first learned one of the bittersweet lessons of adolescence: the people you obsess about most usually just don’t think about you at all.

What was worse was the deeper I got into their story, the more I found funny. They got sucked into a wormhole where they suddenly switched places with The Beatles in the early ‘60s, but couldn’t perform because they were laughing too hard at Stipey’s Liverpudlian accent. They had to assassinate a giant evil version of Britney Spears, but their adorable anthropomorphic “Happy Dagger” was too afraid to do it. They met a talking ferret, and asked his name. He said his friends called him Stephen, but he didn’t have any friends, so they could call him “The Archbishop Peter.”

Maybe you had to be there. At twelve years old, though, it made me laugh, and I hated that it made me laugh. But it didn’t stop me from quoting it to other people around me on the Thomas and the Magic Railroad set on the Isle of Man that summer. One of the make-up artists found the line about Stephen particularly hilarious.

“I didn’t make it up, you know,” I told her after the twentieth time I’d made her laugh at it.

“Well, you should have,” she said.

When I got back to the U. S. and regular AOL access, I noticed Jacie and Lil hadn’t been posting recently. Someone else noticed, too, and posted asking what had happened. Jacie wrote back a few days later, explaining that Lil didn’t currently have internet access because her “eeeeeeeeevil mother read her diary and decided I and her other internet friends were a bad influence.” She’d be back shortly, Jacie assured us, once Lil could convince her mom that Jacie was not a “satanic” influence. She added, “You guys should join in with us on these stories sometime, they are quite fun.”

I felt a bit sheepish. I’d always assumed thought they hadn’t wanted anyone else to join in. I’d also thought that they knew each other in person: they were best friends from school, or maybe even a couple. They were even mentioned in each other’s profiles, which was the mark of true friendship. These stories might have been what brought them together: just two girls having fun. I’d forgotten this was supposed to be fun.

Maybe that’s why I eventually moved on from the Teen Writers boards. It wasn’t fun anymore: there were far too many judgmental boys being gatekeepers and girls whose idea of a critique was responding to long poems and stories with just the word “cliche.” That’s not to say I say I forgot about it entirely. I remembered it the way I remembered all my embarrassing adolescent memories: they were always there, always in the back of my mind.

Then, in my early twenties, my friend Ali mentioned someone she’d met at a party. It had been thrown by a guy named Bryan, who had been wasting her time for over a year. He was a “sensitive type,” the kind of guy who had a lot of feelings and always talked about his feelings and made girls figure he would be kind when it comes to their feelings. He wasn’t, and Ali worried that he was going to string along this new girl she’d met, too.

“She seemed pretty cool,” she said. “She’s a musician and she read my tarot cards. Here’s her Facebook.”

There I saw a young woman, a few years older than me, playing guitar. Her name was an unusual nickname for an already unusual name, spelled the exact same way as the girl from the AOL Teen Writers message boards.

It was her. I knew it.

“Ali, I think I know her,” I said.

“What?” She said. “How?”

“Well, I don’t actually know her at all. But… I, uh, think I had a complicated relationship with her ten years ago on an AOL message board.”

Ali just shrugged. She’d always had a high tolerance for my nerdiness, and having grown up in D.C. amidst the political elite, she knew it was a small world. But I was stunned. Part of the joy and terror of the earlier days of the internet was that you didn’t know who was on the other end. I’d long ago accepted the fact that I was probably never going to know what happened to LuvMalfoy or HenryPup or AlaskaActress from my old AOL Harry Potter RPG. In some ways, they didn’t really seem real. But Ali’s new friend Jacie was a musician and a writer, someone who wrote candidly about her struggles with self-expression, and about her depression. I’d never considered that maybe Jacie was as depressed and insecure as I was. She was too real.

It couldn’t be her, I told myself. It was too big a coincidence. Yes, her name was unusual, but it wasn’t that unusual (and I should mention that it wasn’t actually “Jacie.”) Besides, if it was her, she wouldn’t remember me — and did I even want her to?

I let it go for another ten years. Until a few weeks ago, when she commented on a status Ali posted, and I found myself looking at her profile. There, among her friends list — which, mercifully, did not include Bryan — was someone whose name could easily be shortened to “Lil.”

That’s when I suddenly remembered something from the days when AOL was constantly re-inventing itself, and could be a huge hassle to navigate. At one point, after an update, I couldn’t remember how to get to the Teen Writers boards. After swallowing my pride, I emailed the one screen name I could remember from those board.

“Hey, this is embarrassing,” I wrote to Jacie, “But do you think you could send me a direct link to the Teen Writers boards?”

“Soitenly!” She wrote back. “Here it is!”

It was a small gesture, but it had meant a lot to me. It meant I was included. It meant she thought I belonged with the other Teen Writers. Maybe she didn’t remember that I’d made an ass out of myself trying to stand up to her. Maybe she just didn’t care.

Maybe I should send Ali’s friend Jacie a few lines, and see if she replies.


Stuff I did recently: Talked about being an angry woman (alongside some awesome company) on WNYC, had a great talk with Jeffrey Masters on LGBTQ&A, and wrote about my former acquaintance Allison Mack, the Roe v. Wade script, and why cults and movements like to target former child stars, for Elle.

Fake BBC Show Title of the Week: A Farewell to Humberside