Shortly after Kieran and I break up I start watching My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. It begins with just an episode or two a night when I get home from work, but then lockdown starts and that second Sunday, after eight days of not leaving my apartment, I binge. There are nine seasons, each of which has twenty-six episodes save for the third season which has only thirteen, plus the one holiday special, so that’s 222 episodes. When the binge starts I am midway through season four and it takes me only three days to watch the rest of the show. A week later I start again, limiting myself, at first, to watching only four episodes a day. I’m pretty sure I’ve watched every episode at least three times now, but life has a weird pace these days and I can’t quite keep track.
I don’t know that I’d call myself a brony, but by the fifth week of lockdown I am spending hours each day on Reddit and sites devoted to MLP debating and dissecting each episode. I’m new to the show compared to most of the people I interact with, but I’m invested and I have my opinions. Is Discord’s storyline consistent? No. Can Celestia be trusted? Depends on the season. What does Fluttershy’s cutie mark reveal about her true abilities? Unclear, but I’ve read some good theories.
Since being furloughed from my job at the box office, MLP has become the primary focus of my life, and the connections I’ve made through my time on the message boards feel like a kind of lifeline during lockdown. I still check in with my non-MLP friends, but most of them were Kieran’s friends first and I can sense their loyalties, so I keep our interactions short.
Today I watched a video compilation on YouTube of every hug in the first six seasons of the show. It’s 24:04 long and I watched it twice.
Kieran and I were together for about a year. It was a good relationship. We loved each other, though maybe not in the right ways. It’s a bit unclear to me what happened. In the months preceding our break up we had reached an intimacy I’d always wanted but had never experienced before. We peed with the door open and farted in bed. Well, Kieran farted in bed, and I tried, but for some reason I just couldn’t do it. He was my main support system. My only support system. I’m not particularly close with my family, and we met pretty soon after I moved to the city, so I had few other attachments. Kieran liked to say that I slotted nicely into his life.
Things ended one night after weeks of discussions about whether or not to move in together. I wasn’t ready, I said for the umpteenth time.
“I’m not sure you’ll ever be ready,” was Kieran’s final response. “I want to take a break.”
When lockdown happened, the break turned into a breakup. Discovering Equestria and the ponies has helped me cope.
Before bed now I read some of the MLP fan fiction I downloaded to my Kindle earlier in the day. Most of it is garbage, but one site posts some good stuff and this is where I first encounter AKL5379. Their stories are brief and comic, often straying far from the show, which I seem to mind less than some of AKL’s other readers. I happen upon their screen name in a Reddit subgroup for Bronies and Pegasisters of the Tri-state area a few days after discovering their writing, and I invite them to switch to private messaging. I introduce myself by name when we make the switch. They remain AKL.
I mostly just compliment them at first, but for some reason I find I want to keep the connection alive, and so I offer to proofread or edit any forthcoming fanfic they plan to release. <I was a creative writing major in college,> I say. This isn’t true, but I hope it will make them more likely to say yes. What can I say, I’m no Applejack. It works. I never read any new pieces, but AKL does seem touched by my interest and begins to keep me updated on their progress, floating new story lines to which I am always sure to respond with enthusiasm. While they generate new work, our messaging casually shifts from MLP banter to more personal conversations.
AKL asks about my day, my family, my friends. Maybe it’s because we’re messaging instead of speaking, but I find myself sharing in a way I never have before. I mostly tell AKL about my breakup with Kieran. Through writing these messages I begin to realize how hard it is for me to be alone right now. I had been distracting myself by watching MLP endlessly, but the lack of closeness to anyone while the country is experiencing such upheaval, while I can’t go read in the library or sit in a movie theater, is starting to take its toll. Aside from the friends I made through Kieran, the handful of people I’m “close to” at work have all gone back home. Even my roommate left. Luckily he’s paid his rent through the end of our lease, so that gives me a cushion, which is good because home just doesn’t feel like an option for me. My parents didn’t invite me back, and even if they had, I don’t know that I would have gone. I wouldn’t be any less alone there. It would have been different if I had Kieran, but I don’t. I send message after message to AKL about how isolated I am. It feels good to have a friend.
After a week of corresponding I ask AKL to video chat or even to talk on the phone, but it never happens. We make plans to speak, but something always comes up on their end: a cold, a dead phone, a broken computer camera. Soon AKL stops acknowledging my requests, and I don’t push the matter further. I get a lot out of our email exchanges, so I’m not too disappointed.
I go to a My Little Pony cocktail hour on Zoom, and though I have nothing to go on, I spend the entire time looking for them, trying to figure out who I have been talking to. Hardly paying attention to the conversation, I click through every participant searching for a name that matches AKL’s initials. The closest I find is an Arnell Knight, but in his introduction he shares that he has only just discovered the series and hasn’t even finished the fifth season yet. Not my AKL. I go from participant to participant, pinning each video to get a good look at everyone, but I don’t know what color hair AKL has or how they dress. I know their favorite MLP pony, their texting style, most used emojis, and when they wake up in the morning. One time they mentioned they watched the original MLP series when it aired, so that places them in their thirties or older, but that hardly narrows it down. None of these things help me figure out who AKL could be and whether or not they’re at the cocktail hour.
At first it bothers me not knowing what they look like, and so I try to give them shape in my mind. Not one particular shape. I try out many. Is AKL like me? Are they soft or are they bony? Are they a put-together professional? A slouchy recluse? Are they my mother’s age, tsking with impatience as I launch into yet another rant about some MLP conspiracy theory I read on the Brony Boards? I try picturing AKL with lank brown hair that reaches down to their shoulder blades and I give them mournful eyes. Maybe they have a long torso. Thick legs. I try giving them breasts. Piercings. Facial hair. Perhaps the ponies’ cutie marks run up and down their arms in vibrant tattoo sleeves. In trying to give AKL shape I begin to conflate them with Kieran, and it is profoundly sad. Ultimately I leave AKL unknown. There is a kind of comfort in the mystery, and it somehow makes it easier to share, not being able to picture who I’m sharing with. Besides, not knowing their bodied self makes our emotional connection that much more pure.
Each time I share with AKL I feel a redemptive release. I pour myself into our correspondence and they receive everything with compassion and openness. <You’re like a real-life Celestia,> I tell them one night after two margaritas, <and I’m Twilight Sparkle, learning about the true meaning of friendship.> I groan the next morning when I reread this, but their response is sweet: a GIF of Twilight sleeping under Celestia’s wing in front of a roaring fireplace. Celestia’s hair and tail undulate majestically around them while Twilight rests. If you let the GIF play, the princess’ large, shapely eye looks down at her ward again and again. Endless tenderness.
One day AKL tells me they want to see more of me. I offer again to video chat, and they say, <No. I want to see more of YOU.> I send them a picture of my face and they say, <No. More.>
We message constantly, and our intimacy increases. Though they can’t or won’t use their camera to talk, I start sending AKL videos of myself at their request. I feel self-conscious at first, but soon it’s as though they’re always with me. When they first ask, I am shy about undressing for them. Kieran and I used to send each other “sexy” pictures when we were away from one another, but they were relatively tame, and we already knew each other’s bodies intimately. Photographing myself for AKL feels disconcertingly vulnerable. Risky even. The safety I felt in their anonymity turns to uneasiness, but then I find the danger turns me on. It’s hot: the not-knowing. I give AKL everything and they take it all. Eagerly. Figuring out the best angle to photograph my asshole when they ask is tricky, but if I prop one leg on my bathroom sink I can get a decent picture through the mirror. I film myself in the kitchen making breakfast, and at night as I get ready for bed, talking to them all the while. I rarely feel lonely anymore.
When we’ve been talking for six weeks AKL asks me to come with them to another site. <Another MLP site?> I ask. <Which one?>
<No, no. Something different. It’ll be sexy,> they say. <We can pretend we’re strangers in the chat room.> I’m confused. Our relationship is so wrapped up in our shared love of MLP. I assume this is a stalling tactic as they seem to have lost momentum with the production of their fanfic so I agree. Besides, their messaging has slowed down, and I don’t want to lose them.
The site is called Supernatural Connections.
I find AKL on a message board titled “Am I Living in a Haunted House?” writing about their experience in the apartment they share with their sister.
<My silverware rattles,> they write, <and I’m pretty sure my sister has been possessed. It’s like she’s just a shell wandering around our apartment.> I’m hurt. They never told me anything about this before. We’ve been talking for close to two months now, and they’ve never even mentioned their family. Have I asked?
<Is this real?> I message privately. <Do you actually have a sister? Why didn’t you tell me you live in a haunted house?>
<Oh no! I don’t really live in a haunted house. I’m just messing around. Can you believe the responses?!?!>
I feel relief, but then wonder if they were “just messing around” with me when we met on the My Little Pony boards.
For AKL I actually get into all this paranormal stuff, watching virtual tours of haunted houses and reading firsthand accounts of supernatural encounters. I don’t want to abandon MLP, and so I try to split my time, still checking the Brony Boards daily and maintaining the other, lesser friendships I have forged there, but it is hard to keep up. AKL doesn’t seem to have a problem. If their presence in the MLP community decreases at all, I can’t tell. And they are extremely involved with Supernatural Connections, regularly posting about recent experiences and developing a long convoluted narrative about their haunted apartment.
We interact in both spheres for a while, and continue to message privately. Next AKL has us meet in a gamer chat room. Then I try to learn French so we can connect on a French-speakers-in-America site.
<Tu est mon meilleur ami,> I write.
<Es. Tu es,> corrects AKL.
I’m not sleeping well and with my attention scattered between all these different online communities I have a hard time being the kind of friend AKL wants. They complain about my videos getting shorter and scold me as my participation on the boards becomes weaker. <It’s not like you’re working right now. What else do you have to do?> One day I reference the MLP episode Party of One on a gamer board we’re on together and AKL pounces on me.
<Are you a fucking My Little Pony fan?> they write on the public chat board. <You waste your time watching that garbage? Only nine-year-olds, and emotionally stunted losers geek out over that frilly horse shit.>
<Don’t worry,> they say in a message to me moments later. <It’s all for show. Just spicing things up.> But a show for who? I try not to let AKL’s attack get to me, but I’m shaken.
Soon AKL is ridiculing me regularly in the chat rooms and leaving nasty comments on my posts. They call me an idiot, make fun of my theories, and deride my opinions. It hurts. With each new abuse my instinct is to apologize, and I do, repeatedly, for about a week, but then I catch myself. What am I doing?
I draft AKL a long letter with the subject heading “The End in Friend?” which is the title of an MLP episode neither of us care for, but I think will get my point across. I begin the message by reminding AKL of the very beginning of the My Little Pony series where Twilight, united with the other ponies, each representing an element of friendship, triumphs over Nightmare Moon. <You have been my closest friend,> I write, <think of the laughter, loyalty, honesty, kindness, and generosity that has existed between us. Why are you doing this to me?> I want to remind AKL of all we have been through together, hoping this will bring them back to their former self, like what happens with Nightmare Moon, but as I write, our friendship begins to slip away and lose shape.
I return to our first messages trying to find some glimmer of sincerity, hoping to discover evidence of care, but I find none. AKL always only spoke to me in quotes and GIFs from MLP, and knowing Fluttershy, Applejack, Rarity, and Pinky Pie to be good, pure creatures, I saw genuine sentiment in our interactions. But these were hollow gestures. The purity I thought possible because of the nature of our relationship—the fact of AKL’s anonymity, and what I now see as my deluge of unadulterated sharing—vanishes in looking back on our friendship. I had been okay not knowing AKL’s body, not knowing their face, because I thought it was only their appearance that was unknown to me, but with the revelation of their cruelty I realize I know nothing about them. Nothing at all. But they know all of me. Everything I had, I gave to AKL5379, and they offered nothing in return.
I feel foolish.
I erase the message without sending it and deactivate my accounts on Reddit and the Brony Boards. I check my email for a few days in hopes of getting an apology from AKL, or a quick line checking in on me to make sure I’m okay, but they don’t and I’m disappointed but not surprised. I can’t bring myself to watch My Little Pony anymore, and can’t imagine returning to Equestria anytime soon. But knowing that Twilight and Applejack will be there whenever I’m ready is a small comfort. Another small comfort: the thought that everything I told AKL is still with them, haunting them, and rattling their silverware.
Days go by. A week. Then I message Kieran.
<I’m having a hard time. I could really use a hug.>
He responds immediately.
<Aw. This isn’t easy, is it? I have a hard time some days too. Want to meet up?>
One time Kieran bought us one of those packs of twelve miniboxes of cereals. Each morning we spent together we would both try a new box, splitting our bowls if we got a kind the other hadn’t had before. Lucky Charms, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Frosted Flakes. We would make up tasting notes like we were drinking wine. Kieran would waft the scent before taking a bite. “I’m getting stonefruit with a light minerality.” (Corn Pops.) Apple Jacks tasted “barnyard-y with a mouthfeel of Nerds.”
“Like you,” I said, smiling at his sleepy eyes and mop of unkempt hair. “You’re barnyard-y with a mouthfeel of nerd.”
We meet in the park and keep our masks on while we walk. When Kieran asks how I’m doing, I start talking and can’t stop. I talk about My Little Pony, about AKL and how much they hurt me. I talk about my family, about feeling alone.
When Kieran and I were together we never really talked about what our lives were like before we met. Kieran tried early on in our relationship, but I always shut it down. It felt like it should have been enough to be there with each other, but it clearly wasn’t. Maybe it would have been better if I had shared more and taken up more space like Kieran asked. Maybe I would have felt less like I was protecting something fragile.
After I finish talking I look over at Kieran, and for a moment I see just another person hiding their face while asking that I share everything.
“Did you read the article I sent from the New York Times about how to hug safely?” he asks. “I know you haven’t seen anyone face-to-face for a while. Do you feel comfortable?”
We approach one another, both of our heads turned to the left, and embrace. One. Two. I inhale deeply even though I know I’m not supposed to. Three. We step apart again.