A few nights ago I was working on my manuscript, when a chapter wandered off on a tangent about my old MySpace page. Specifically the fact that in my 2004-era profile, I listed Cheryl Strayed under my Heroes category. Back then, an undergrad professor assigned us one of her essays for class, and it broke in and rewired my heart. As in, I decided (after crying myself to sleep) that if I ever became a writer, it would be with the mission to make people feel the way that essay made me feel. A little less broken. A little less alone.
It’s one of those stories I’ve told a lot. Including to Cheryl when I met her in-person for the first time in 2007 at her Powell’s Books reading of Torch. “You’re one of my heroes on MySpace!” I word-vomited all over the signing table.
While I was setting the tale in type, I wondered: Hey. The Internet is forever, right? Shouldn’t I be able to go and see that old abandoned MySpace profile? Make that well-tread memory real again? I’m a sucker for proof that I didn’t make shit up. There’s a cozy nostalgic comfort in finding a scrap of evidence that what you remember was based in some semblance of reality.
MySpace, if you haven’t been over to look at it this decade, has morphed into a kind of music Pinterest page. Like if Hot Topic and American Eagle Outfitters had a doomed child. My old profile showed up in a search, but at some point I set it to Private, and it couldn’t be viewed without logging in. Unfortunately in the last 8 years I’ve forgotten my username and password and needed a reset. Thus beginning an odyssey to my defunct email account, firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is a tibbyhime, you ask? Good question! It has a really stupid answer. Tibby was my nickname in high school, given to me by my defunct best friend’s mother. It was so ubiquitous in those years that my mom had to talk me down from listing my name as Tibby Jensen in the yearbook.
“I don’t think you’ll be so into that in 15 years,” she warned.
Moms are smart.
“Hime” is the Japanese word for Princess, and is hyphenated alongside a name as in Tanaka-san or Usagi-chan. Tibby-hime. Because from age 13-17 I was a living Saturday Night Live “J-Pop American Fun Time Now!” skit, trying to watch enough anime to qualify for Japanese citizenship.
Tibbyhime was my email address from our family’s first dial-up internet connection in 1999 up until 2008, when I switched over to my grown-up married-name-based email account. Even though I gave up an old, embarrassing alias around the same time I threw out my Hello Kitty steering wheel cover and Wet ‘N Wild glitter gels, I still checked in on the account a few times a year to clear out the cobwebs. It’s always overflowing with interests that have forever fluttered away, larks I didn’t chase, and causes I’ve since given up. There’s a bunch of spam from a Portland pole-dancing class, a historical costuming supplier, and the Seattle theater where I saw Kate Mulgrew playing Katharine Hepburn in 2004. The Democratic National Committee has been begging into an empty void since I volunteered for Howard Dean’s campaign. Notifications from fanfiction.net on my Pirates of the Caribbean romance serial.
I delete all this junk mail and am left with another lifetime’s correspondence tucked inside its folders. Emails from high school and college, and my first year as a graduated Official Adult. It’s probably been about nine months since I last looked inside, when I was searching for another piece of evidence: the email that Cheryl sent me when I wrote to tell her how much I adored her essay. It was there, in my “College Stuff” folder, just like I remembered opening it in my dorm room. A small kindness that meant the universe. I wish I lived in an age where I’d have this on memory-real paper to hold and fold back up, but we garner as much warmth as we can from pixels.
But this time I signed into tibbyhime, after switching the password over to something I’ve already forgotten, nothing loaded. Only an inbox interface with the message “:) There’s Nothing to Display Here.” That icy robot emoticon mocking me, grinning at my dismay.
No folders. No emails. Maybe the server’s down, I thought, and fired off a test message from my normal email. Five seconds later the smiley message disappeared, and one unread test message appeared.
“No,” I muttered into my empty office. “Nononononono.”
…we garner as much warmth as we can from pixels.
I Googled a Hotmail forum, where a user described her duplicate plight: “HELP! I haven’t logged into my account for a while, but when I did, all of my messages and folders had vanished! I never wanted to delete them! How can I get the messages back?”
Her panic was addressed by a Microsoft-authorized representative with an avatar from The Getty Image School of Everywoman Stock Photography: “We’re so sorry to hear that you’re having a bad experience, but periodically we purge emails from our systems. After server deletion, they are non-recoverable. In the future, please login frequently to legitimize your account. Thanks!”
Nothing disappears from the internet, right? Isn’t that the story we hear when we take naked selfies and write racist Tweets? That bytes are permanent? How could nine years of my life be wiped off the face of the earth?
Correspondence is proof that we existed. The words we exchanged with people live on beyond relationships, transcend ourselves. They tell stories that we didn’t think were important to transcribe, that we have forgotten, that live on only in the carbon copies we made as by-products of living. Without letters we would have no history.
That old inbox held the person I used to be. It was a steamer trunk in the closet, musty and yellowed, but something I knew much better than to throw away. I didn’t want to re-read the emails from my ex-best friend because they hurt, or the messages between me and a one-night stand because they’re freaking humiliating, but it was a comfort knowing they were there. It meant that everything–every mess, every missed opportunity, every fleeting connection–that etched my fully realized self into being still remains. I could touch it. I could look back with the ever-widening lens of hindsight and see the strange, serendipitous switchbacks and tributaries into my destiny.
To have a history is to have a heartbeat.
I can’t remember what all tibbyhime held. There are stories and people that my mind has since sieved out. Embarrassments of a personality flailing to become. Lost now, along with the concrete proof of so many of the things I tell myself.
True, I still have my memory. I can still tell my story.
And I know that even paper isn’t permanent. It burns. It drowns. It can be lost or shredded or smudged. I know I am not the first person to lose herself in this way.
But this is why we mourn these losses so fiercely, why we grab our photo albums and scrapbooks out of the jaws of death with only moments to spare. Ephemera may be fleeting, but it’s also irreplaceable.
So tonight I mourn tibbyhime in all of her ridiculous, misdirected, doomed and ascending glory. I mourn the people I’ve lost ties with and those that time has turned over. I mourn a sprawling, messy narrative.
And I mourn the redesign of MySpace, which purged all of our old profile information away into a single folder of the pictures we left behind with the Bush administration. The rest, as they’d say, has been lost to time.
So go ahead. Take that naked selfie. Because nothing is forever.
Tabitha Blankenbiller is a graduate of the Pacific University MFA program living outside of Portland, Oregon. Her essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Barrelhouse, Hobart, Brevity and other such places. Her food-and-writing memoir Eats of Eden is forthcoming from Alternating Current Press.