My female friends, who associate dating apps more with the Grim Reaper than with Cupid, warned me against them, saying, “The guys just want to hook up and disappear.”
Again, fine with me. I was graduating in a few months, and attachment would mean a hard goodbye, which would mean tears, tissues and snot. No thanks.
Michael was also graduating. He was tall, thin, looked as if he loved L.A. and routinely announced, “I love L.A.”
Every Monday night for the next month, I would stuff my contact lens solution into my backpack and walk to Michael’s apartment. He’d lean against my shoulder as we watched movies in his barren living room, which he decided not to decorate because he had signed only a one-year lease. “No point when it’s so temporary,” he said.
Everything about us was temporary. We would talk a little, watch a little and then go to bed. In the morning, I would zip up my coat while he asked, “Heading out?”
I would nod and say, “Thanks for the toast.”
There was a rhythm to it. Monday night, pack my bag. Tuesday morning, walk home.
By asking for more, I knew I was breaking the rules. Dating apps allow you to set obvious parameters: age range, distance radius and so on. But there are also unspoken rules: a deadline for the relationship (in our case, graduation); what feelings shouldn’t be expressed, from affection (“Thinking of you!”) to criticism (“It bothers me when you do x”); and boundaries on what shouldn’t be shared about your personal lives (family details, past loves). And you can regulate how much you want to integrate the person into other spheres of your life (not introducing each other to friends).
For a month, I was totally in control. Then one morning, as I returned to my apartment, my hand paused on the doorknob. Instead of considering the warm shower I was about to take, or even dreading the slog of classes that awaited me, I was still thinking about Michael.
I started daydreaming about how the moonlight trickled in while he played me his jazz records, how he chuckled and buried his face in his hands after I explained my odd internships, and how he held up a picture of his family and described each of his brothers. Our kiss was interrupted when he started smiling and then I started smiling.
I was an idiot. Of course I liked him. It was as if I had been carrying an armful of bricks for the past few weeks but only just admitted, “Wow, this is a little heavy.”
I tried reciting my mantra. Hard goodbye. Tissues. Snot. Then I gave in and dropped those hints, which he didn’t get. So I said it flat out: “I like you.”
Within an hour of texting him my confession, my phone lit up with Michael’s reply: “I like you too.”
For a second, my future brimmed with Michael: his records, his quiet demeanor but abrasive sense of humor, his shamelessness in recounting the time he was struck with food poisoning at a hostel in San Francisco. Then another text appeared: “It’s just that I’m apprehensive about the commitment.”
When I clarified that I didn’t expect a long-term commitment, with our coming graduation, he expressed his real concern: “Monogamy.”
My thumbs hovered dumbly over my phone screen. What?
I had known there were other girls. Once, while lying in bed with my head against his shoulder, he squinted at his phone and I caught a glimpse of the name at the top of a text message: Sophie.
Earlier, I had noticed how he’d become Facebook friends with a Sophie, along with a series of girls from other schools. One had cute glasses and a nose ring, and another looked as if she played guitar better than I did. Michael didn’t share mutual friends with them, so I could only assume he had met them on Bumble or Tinder.
I tried to shrug it off. So I was Mondays, and I guessed these girls were maybe Thursdays, Wednesdays or Saturdays. I figured they, like me, were just players of the dating app game, where Michael undoubtedly pressed the proverbial “play again?” button after each successful connection. I thought I could deal with that.
But then Michael started feeling less like a game to me. When he sat across from me, I stopped seeing his face as a “yes” or “no” to swipe on. With the months we had left, I wanted to get to know him, the actual Michael, not the Michael that appeared before me like a selection in an online catalog. I wanted to leave the game behind and develop something special, if only for a short time.
Yet Michael hesitated.
It struck me that the “fling” was dead. Now we have flings, plural, because that’s what dating apps encourage.
Dating apps are the courtship equivalent of next-day shipping, where you don’t have to twiddle your thumbs and wait for an adequate romantic prospect to drift by. They release a flood of potential suitors, your inbox notifications flashing red with heartbeats of their own.
It’s nice to imagine that Michael liked me the most, but even if that were true, I’m not sure what it counts for in a dating scene of instant gratification with seemingly unlimited choice. After all, dating apps never announce, “Congratulations, you’ve matched with everyone you could possibly like!”
They tempt you to keep swiping, and as you whiz through tens, hundreds or even thousands of profiles, you can only infer the obvious. Out of all these people, there’s got to be someone better than the person I’m seeing right now.
Which means that monogamy requires more sacrifice than ever. If offered free travel, why would anyone settle for one place when it’s possible to tour the entire world?
I finally texted Michael back. “You know,” I said, “maybe it would be best if we called it good.” He said he understood. “Good luck with …” I began, a message I would typically end with “… your paper” or “… your test.” But I realized this was the end, so I wrote, “… everything.”
A mere six weeks after our first date, we were over. I’d broken the rules; my glimmer of expressed affection had led to a fatal imbalance in the game.
Feeling a little dispensable, I opened Bumble to pause my account. It was the first time I’d opened it since Michael and I met, and the app had clearly been waiting for me with its arms crossed. A notification flashed, indicating that I had been right-swiped by a few people: 1,946 people.
As the saying goes, there are plenty of fish in the sea, and it turned out my sea held 1,946 of them. The “play again?” button glowed brighter than ever. And yet, almost comically, I wanted to date only one particular person.
Was Michael the best of my 1,946 choices? I doubt it. We differed in too many ways. I showed up to dates five minutes early, while he sauntered into the movie theater five minutes late. I hate Mexican food, and he worships it. But what is “best” anyway?
It’s impossible to know, but that’s what having nearly 2,000 potential dates will make you think about. All I know is Michael lived five blocks away, and he would lean against me and play me his jazz records, and I couldn’t help but appreciate him for all he was and all he wasn’t.
It’s easy to dismiss dating apps as insincere, objectifying and sketchy. But in the end, they did do one thing for me. They introduced me to Michael, someone I was willing to bend the rules for, someone I was actually able to admit I liked. And maybe there is hope in that.Continue reading the main story
Since then, I have consolidated that variety — scrubbed it away, really — to emerge as one consistently cool girl: one face, two arms, one black leather jacket.
And so it was a validation of sorts when Joe fell for her, the me in the leather jacket. He was brilliant, the funniest guy in our TV writing program, and my ideal cool counterpart. I could already see us on screen; we made sense.
Best of all, he thought he liked me more than I liked him, and that was perfect too, because it gave me the upper hand. I was above love, above emotional complication, dedicated to higher pursuits.
Periodically Joe would confront me about this imbalance. We would meet at a park on Second Avenue and 10th Street, and he would tell me that I drove him crazy, that he couldn’t be as removed as me.
And, of course, the truth was that I wasn’t removed at all. Over the many months we were together, as we went from being friends to more than friends, I had fallen for him completely. The singular syllable of his name had started to feel permanently tucked between my molars and was always on my mind.
But I was reluctant to change my character midseason and become someone who was more open and, God forbid, earnest about love. He had fallen for the cool, detached me, so that’s who I remained. And he got bored.
That’s the way it goes with half-hour TV shows. Consistency can become boring. The will-they-or-won’t-they characters have to get together, and at that point the show is closing in on its finale. It’s all in the build, and when that becomes tired, the show gets canceled.
Like an allergic reaction to becoming unloved, my Instagram account went into overdrive, all aimed at one audience member: Joe. Through hundreds of screens, I was screaming at him: “I’m here! I’m funny! I’m at that fish taco place I showed you!”
The likes I got from my followers did little to quell my crushing need for Joe’s cyberapproval. “Like me again, like me again,” became my subconscious mantra.
But he didn’t like me, and each time he didn’t, the heartache felt like a warm bullet exploding in my gut. I would lie on the couch and clutch my stomach so tightly it was as if I were trying to expel the shrapnel from my throat. I knew no one else could extract it for me because no one knew it was there.
I was embarrassed for the people I saw who pined publicly on Instagram, but I also envied them. They were showered with support, with reassurance. If they were not completely cured, at least the illness seemed to run a shorter course.
Meanwhile, every time I twisted my spine, I felt that warm bullet scraping my insides. I was scared it might fossilize there and become permanently embedded.
In an effort to self-soothe, I wrote letters to Joe — actual, physical letters, pen to notepad — that felt like some ancient ritual, using my whole hand and not just my thumbs. Staring at his cowlick in class, I would write down everything I wanted: for him to critique my writing, to stroke my hair while we watched “Curb Your Enthusiasm” on his ugly futon, to read his plays and believe I was moving ever closer to his core.
Rather than give him any of these letters, I burned them, trying and failing to cremate that side of myself.
Day by day, hour by hour, my Instagram feed became more manic, nasty and petulant. Posts that were once meant as romantic gestures became tiny, pixelated middle fingers.
Joe began to notice, but instead of magically falling back in love with me, he became hurt and angry. I was inexplicably cold to him, posting photos of parties I threw that he wasn’t invited to, pictures of me abroad where I hadn’t told him I was studying, and pieces of art I made but hadn’t shared with him.
In return, he sent me messages of unvarnished honesty: “Why didn’t you invite me?” “Why are you being like this?”
Oh, it’s just who I am. I am fun, I feel nothing and I have completely forgotten you.
And so it went, and I kept at the beautiful box I was crafting for myself. A shoe box covered in stickers and fake jewels. The kind you would make for a pet parakeet you have to bury. I would dream about Joe at night, and in the morning I would post something silvery and eye catching. It was always just tinfoil, though, not truth. And I prayed no one would notice.
I posted a photo of me standing next to a shirt that said “The World Shook at Adam’s bar mitzvah, 1995,” with a witty caption about simpler times, before global warming. A girl who follows me, with whom I’ve spoken only a handful of times, told me it was so “on brand.”
My brand, specifically: funny, carefree, unromantic, a realist.
I’m like the chief executive of my own company, so I’m familiar with my branding, but its success doesn’t thrill me the way it used to. Instead of feeling validated by her comment, I felt deflated. I barely know this girl, and yet she knows me, knows my “brand,” and I am overwhelmed by the desire to tell her that I am fake, that I am heartbroken.
I can’t say for certain that being more honest with my friends or broadening my “brand” to include a bit of depth, romanticism and pain would have helped. What I can say is that clinging to continuity has made my skin crawl and itch, as if I super-glued a mask over my face. I thought every day about peeling back that mask, but I couldn’t; the girl it represented was everywhere, and I feared that her insides were completely mechanized.
This year, Joe and I are in a class together, and he’s unsettled by my presence. I haven’t spoken to him in forever.
“What’s good, man?” I say with the signature casualness of cartoon me. “It’s been a minute.”
This is not the me who changed her outfit five times before arriving, who coughed repeatedly until her voice had acquired the perfect amount of rasp, who dug into her pores the night before, trying to rid her body of all signs that he was still buried there, thick and toxic under her skin.
If you spend eight years building a house (no matter how uncomfortable or ugly it may be, no matter how impractical or poorly lit), it becomes nearly impossible to knock it down. That is about how long I put into building my social media presence, into becoming the cool girl I showcase on Instagram and Facebook.
I built her without blueprints, not knowing that she would become a wall with no doors. She has stopped me from online dating, because that would mean I care about romance. She has stopped me from wearing pink, because that would mean I’m too feminine. She has stopped me from being publicly heartbroken, from sobbing on the orange subway seats, from showing up on Joe’s doorstep with the letters I wrote, because that would mean I’m not cool.
Most recently, she tried to stop me from writing this essay, from admitting to everyone that I am hurting.
I wrote it anyway, though, and that’s a start.Continue reading the main story