in memory

Kane Branch Webster was my first internet friend. We met on Christmas day in a Half-Life chatroom, where we had both wound up being that afternoon’s funnymen. We’d independently wound up there, falling in with a group of older guys who were stealing a few afternoon hours away from their families to goof off and shoot strangers on the internet. We were twelve and fourteen.

As things wound down and holiday dinnertimes started ramping up, another guy in the group asked both of us if we wanted to join their clan: Black Mesa Security. It was flattering and we said yes.

Being fourteen was an awful time. So were fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen. I’d made the decision to go to a large high school because I was tired of being known, of feeling like who was would be circumscribed by who I’d been, who people thought I was. I wanted freedom in anonymity. I wanted to disappear.

I was scared shitless of getting to know anyone. There were a few peers from prior schools, but I largely avoided them. I didn’t talk to friends I used to have. I didn’t hang out with anyone except Antonio, who lived down the street and who I’d known since I was six. Most of the time at school, I would wander the hallways and pretend to look like I was going somewhere. Eventually I discovered the library and would sit alone in a corner.

I’m not sure why I was so anxious about talking to people I once spent time with. All I remember was that I felt that we were now different, and the past was not the present. There was no way to relate, and it was better to avoid the conflict of being mutually alienating.

Antonio and I don’t talk now, although I think that was more natural. Growing into different people and all that.

How do I describe the development of an internet friendship? We showed up to clan practice, which was just like regular deathmatches except we’d play each other. We would invite the other to play games when practices weren’t scheduled. We sent each other links, traded quips and barbs, and got to know one another’s personality and tastes better than the individual’s person. It was like playing Battleship, except there was never a point where we turned our boards around and showed the other what we were seeing. Just endlessly launching stuff into a foreign geography.

People would sometimes argue for a purity in distant friendships. You encounter the person as they are, with all of the bullshit stripped away. They aren’t their job, their living situation, their street, their family, their friends, their food, their couch, their shoes.

Except people are those things, too. They are how they feel about their job. They are how they talk to their family and how their family talks to them. They are where they live, what they eat, what they wear and sit on, what they see when they look outside, the people they encounter on purpose and by circumstance, the music they listen to; on and on. They are the entirety of their lives, their sensations, their thoughts, their feelings, and their responses. It’s all in there, it all has some relation.

Maybe it’s a failure of my imagination and humanity that I couldn’t appreciate this stuff through the text interfaces that we used to interact. Even though we talked almost daily about things big and small, ran a website together, were the keepers of each other’s secrets and miseries, we never actually spoke. He always resolved into some distant figure whose reality was separate from mine. Out of context. A distant and fabled land.

As my life slowly improved after high school, Kane and I fell out of touch. I took classes at community college, made friends, started dating, and transfered to University of Redlands. All of the things I’d hoped to do, all of the person I’d hoped to be. We still chatted about games and music a bit, but I spent more time talking to people who were present, getting involved in the intrigues that were at hand.

If I could have filled this with more about him, I would have. He was my friend and I had talked him through dropping out of high school, bad internet dates, failed relationships, and depressions. The sad thing is I don’t remember much of any of it. I remember his first email, kew@mindspring, and I remember the flash animations he made. I remember sending him a picture of a particularly uncomfortable young guy from a porn site, and him translating the pose into a cartoon dinosaur with the same deer-in-the-headlights expression. I remember being on a deadline to finish a story and him IMing me, belligerently drunk and demanding and then begging to talk to me on the phone, circuitous about feeling suicidal, and how I told him I couldn’t. I felt like he was manipulating me. I had a deadline.

It happened five years before he died, but it can be hard to separate the guilt of failing him because I wanted to live my new life where I had escaped the internet, the interconnected web of depression and failure that hung over it and the people I knew on it, and the slow dawning that occured when an email bounced and I realized we hadn’t spoken in months.

Over the years, I tried to research him and find out where he went. To put it bluntly, my life fell apart within a couple years after college and I found myself back where I used to be: alone, depressed, and playing games all the time. I wanted someone to talk to who knew what it was like, who was my age, who may still be in the same boat. I’d send emails and watch them bounce. I’d search what few fragments of hard information I could recall; stuff like old email addresses, catchphrases, usernames.

It wasn’t until going through a folder named “pics du internet” that I found a text file with addresses for everyone I knew, and realized I’d been searching the wrong name. I looked him up and the first result was an obituary page, with memoriam comments from the kinds of internet people we used to hang out with: “Kane I poured out a 40oz of kickflips for you! $$$ R.I.P MY N1GGA I WILL NEVER FORGET YOU $$$” and “p0ur3d my Sk4t3b04rd 0ut in ur h0n0r d4WGG…. #swag ~ NeVeR FoRgEt – We MiSs YoU~.”

1986 to 2011. Six years later and I finally grasped at the right straws.

I think this is as close to knowing as I can get. For now, at least. I’m not sure how I feel about tracking down one of his parents and cold-calling them about their dead son, my dead friend. Reopening a wound to confirm that he died at twenty-five of suicide instead of food poisoning, or car crash, or whatever; I can’t do that. Better to let him lay in peace.

Kane, my fondest memory is when we trolled a car chatroom and an admin named NO2 said “you mess with nitrus u gonna get burned” before he banned us. Such a critical fail. We laughed and went to play some more Half-Life. I was fourteen and you were twelve.

I wish I could have done better by you. I’m thirty-three and you’re thirty-one, but dead. Twenty-five. I’m sorry.