Some of my favorite friends are people I've never met.
No, that's not some misanthropic inclination à la "the more people I meet, the more I like my dog" although I do harbor some misanthropic tendencies. Rather, I am indebted to the wonders of technology; e-mail and my near-constant access to it have yielded a small constellation of e-mail friends, folks with whom I can spend vast amounts of time trading stories, ideas, gossip and flurries of one-liners...all without really knowing them.
Julia, Elena, Maryanne, Jeremy, Marijean, Jay, Spike...although I have eventually, and briefly, met a couple of them in person (and in one case become actual, honest-to-God, Velveteen-Rabbit-turning-real friends), these folks remain largely intimates in my inbox, people I look forward to hearing from even though I don't always have a clear picture in my mind's eye of who's talking.
But in a way, I do really know them, and on a deeper level precisely because we've not sat across a table from each other having coffee. Minus the physical characteristics that we all use as social shorthand, I'm probably more inclined to focus on what my disembodied friends are actually saying. It's cheating a bit, I suppose, because when I write back, I can take all the time I need to craft a sufficiently thoughtful or achingly witty reply, a luxury not always afforded folks in a face-to-face conversation. (It's like that New Yorker cartoon: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.") On the other hand, my words are also minus the all-important body language and inflection that, in person, spell the difference between dry humor and downright insult. Even the most nuanced of emoticons can't always bail you out, you know? ;) Plus, my natural tendency is to fire right back, so it's rare that I come off as one of history's great conversationalists.
The much-ballyhoed quickening of our culture has the occasional upside; my e-friendships that have come about initially due to similar interests, common friends or random crossing have developed quickly. I feel free to be casual, personal, jokey...all a lot faster than I might in real life. It's astonishing to me that I end up discussing floundering marriages, gender identity, career sea change, parenting issues and more with people who probably wouldn't know me from Eve if they passed me (and, I guess, Eve) on the street.
And frankly, who knows if we'd even want to meet on the street? If it ain't broke, don't fix it; that's surely what Julia was thinking when she confessed that she wasn't sure we should ever meet for real. "You could continue to be my e-Charlie, and I'll be your Angel," she explained in an e-mail, when it became evident that we were both going to be attending the same event a few days later. And then: "That sounded so pornographic, and yet I chose to leave it."
That's the kind of stuff your e-mail friends let you get away with.