Nights in NLA

I have told this story before, in a different form, about how many years ago a group of strangers that I met on the Internet saved me from myself.

It wasn’t an especially unique story.  Back when the Internet was young and new, I frequented a chat room called Alamak.

It was 1997. I didn’t know anyone in there, and the only reason I was there at all was because a friend told me about it.

I was living with a few girls in a double-storey house in SS2. Every morning we would walk to the bus stop in front of the (now defunct) Cheow Yang Restaurant to go to college.  At that time I was already painfully aware that I was not cut out to be an accountant in a sharply-tailored Ralph Lauren business suit toting a patent leather briefcase and a monogrammed Montblanc.

It was hard to start a new life when everyone you know is from your past. I knew they sympathised with my struggle but they didn’t understand it. I knew that too. Maybe it wasn’t the best of ideas to turn to the Internet for support, but I needed to be among people who didn’t know me – people with whom I could reinvent myself, people that I could lie to.

It was a hot afternoon when I decided to log into a chatroom called The Globe. I was wondering what nickname to use when I happened to glance at the TV where a singing competition was taking place. I have forgotten the name of the competition and the name or face of the girl who sang it, but she sang “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid.

So I typed Ariel and pressed Enter. For some reason, the bot changed the nickname to Ariel6.

And that was the nickname that I used when I eventually logged into Alamak. It didn’t take me long to make friends. The girls liked me because they thought I was a boy. The boys were suspicious of this fast-talking, charming newcomer. I was competition. Once they found out I was a girl, the relief came hard and fast and everyone quickly became friendly in order to overcompensate for their earlier combative mode.

It was a freeing experience.

This group of people – strangers – they embraced me and accepted me as one of their own. Soon I found that I was looked after, cared for – someone was always calling to ask me how I was, someone was always at the front gate to take me out to supper, someone was always making sure that I was included.

By the same time the next year I was a different person. I cut out a new life for me. It wasn’t the best of beginnings and I wasn’t exactly prepared for it. I withdrew from Alamak, not because these people have become disposable, but because by then I didn’t need the anonymity of a chat room to feel accepted. These friends I made, they were no longer just nicknames. I knew them. I’ve been to their weddings. We’ve celebrated birthdays. Shared many late night teh tarik and nasi lemak sessions in Kg Baru.

By the time I had gained enough footing to be able to say I’ve got planes to catch and bills to pay, I was no longer able to see these friends.

I told you this wasn’t an especially unique story.

I am still in touch with friends I made from those Alamak days. Many of them are on Facebook. We may not be as close as we used to – it’s hard to recapture the recklessness and carefree-ness of our youthful days. To say that I miss those days would not be truthful. I was not in a happy place then; I was descending into the bottom of one of Murakami’s wells. I came out of it fairly alright; but it’s not something that I want to go through again or re-live in my memories.

But I never forget those friends. Or the kindness and friendship they shown me.

One of them passed away tonight. Immediately I remembered what he used to call me – Arial6 instead of Ariel6. He used to tease me that my nickname sounded like the tv antennae; sometimes he’d call me adik (little sister). When we found each other again on Facebook in 2010, he sent me a  private message to ask how I was, how life was treating me. He was the same as the person I knew in 1997 – cheerful, friendly, never overly familiar, always respectful.

We had a lot of shared memories, a mutual friend reminisced.

Me too, I thought, me too.

Good night abg zuliss. Thank you for the friendship and those nights at NLA.

Rest well under the grace of God. Al-fatihah.

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