The epiphany happens one day when you’re cleaning your apartment: Oh! I haven’t heard from him in a few days. I think I’ve been ghosted. You get your phone out, go down the most recent text messages. A few names of friends scroll by, your dad whose health is doing fine, your mom who is safe from the hurricane in Texas, a couple new connections whose names are not in your phone yet. Yup, there he is: Handsome Andy, who you chatted with a year ago. You saw him again more recently at a bar, and holy shit now he has a beard and is handsome as f. A nice full beard is nature’s beer goggles.
In an uncharacteristically forward move, you asked him out on a date the next day. There were sparks when the two of you met up again in person, and you both texted each other walking home from the restaurant. What you wanted to say to his face before you guys parted was “hey it was great to hang out with you, I really want to again!” or “wow sorry I was staring at your forearms so much this evening”, but instead you text him “was fun, yay if again” with no punctuation. Your doofy brand of flirting is intact.
Fast forward to now, after a few dates. You see his text messages to you, see the time stamp: Wednesday, the day after he came over the night before for pizza and a movie. Today is Saturday. Wait, did we ghost each other? you think to yourself. You text him: “hey, hope you’re having a good weekend!” Later, you check the message. He has read it. He is having the best weekend of his life! Just without you.
Hours stretch into days. You do not hear from this human being again, presumably for the rest of your life.
The reason why we ghost is nuanced and it has to be a modern phenomena. You don’t hear about how Frida Kahlo deleted Diego Rivera from her Facebook after he stopped returning her texts and unfollowed her on Instagram. Shakespeare didn’t write in a scene where the end of the play is just Juliet asking Romeo’s friends where is he and if they’ve seen him lately and they’re uncomfortably shuffling their feet and mumbling that he’s probably just busy with stuff.
You leave your apartment, go for a walk in your neighborhood. You can’t walk a block without running into one of Portland’s famous Aggressively Friendly Cats, and after three years you know them by name. This latte-colored Siamese is Baxter, he pushes his snout into your palm and purrs when you crouch down to scritch his neck. He writhes until he collapses on the sidewalk, overwhelmed with scritches. This Russian Blue doesn’t have a collar, you call him Not Ned; every time you see him your heart drops and you fear you’ve left a window or door open and your own cat has gotten out. Silvie is onyx black and super friendly, but easily overstimulated and bites when you pet her more than precisely twice. And there’s Frodo, another black cat, but with a big kink in his tail. When you pet him he just stands there, you can feel his old bones under his coat. He has battle scars but is still here. You like Frodo. You identify with Frodo.
Your neighborhood is a weird mix of distinctively Portland businesses and chains, being in proximity to a mall. The mall itself is suspended between remodeling to modernize it and struggling to fill vacancies. You walk to the Cinnabon; each time you are rejected, you treat yourself. At this rate you’ll have diabetes by the end of the year! And it’s Cuffing Season soon: the time of year that people stop screwing around and pair off, get ready for the long winter by selecting a steady partner. Perhaps someone will lower their standards enough to date you for a few months!
But even that level of self deprecation falls short, you stop yourself from that line of thinking. You’re not heartbroken, at least not from this ghosting experience. Dating is hard, and it’s a numbers game. Walking, you affirm the idea that ghosting is modern; it’s the side effect of dating technology. Apps have conditioned people into thinking that love and chemistry is a commodity. We live in the world where someone who asks questions back and who is polite is a unicorn, so scoop them up immediately. We live in the world where you can swipe left on people in real life.
You’ve left the mall and your Cinnabon far behind. You reach a corner of the block you’re walking on. You could walk forward, then you hit the freeway eventually. You could turn left, and walk along a busy street with shops. You turn right instead, deeper into Irvington, towards the big single-family homes and old Victorians. Maybe it’s all about too many choices, you think. Maybe that’s why they ghost. When people are dating and talking to multiple people simultaneously, they can easily lose the momentum with one particular person they’re dating. Maybe Handsome Andy got distracted, like a magpie in a city made of tinfoil. Maybe it’s our nature to look for the Next Best Thing, and only an act of Herculean effort keeps us focused on one person.
You walk deeper into the neighborhood, the cars parked backwards on the streets, a distinctly Pacific Northwest signature. The old trees are full and only let dappled light through their leaves. Their massive trunks and roots crowd out the walkway, but people don’t report the uprooted sidewalks lest the trees get removed. You’re walking by a hedge when suddenly a man with a huge frame comes silently through a space in the hedge you didn’t see there before. He sees you’re startled, give a brief apology (we’re really good at saying “sorry” in Portland), walks past you down the sidewalk.
I was so scared. Scared of what? Scared of confrontation. And just like that, another reason people ghost is born: maybe some are simply scared of conflict, of the fight that may come with telling someone you’re not feeling it. But that’s part and parcel of pursuing romance, isn’t it? That in the end you’ll be honest with each other and not vanish. Being romantically involved means being vulnerable, and if one person disappears with no explanation, it’s not just inconsiderate, it’s calculatingly predatory. You risk trauma to the other person.
On the other hand, isn’t this the contract, unwritten and tacit, that we sign when we start dating someone? Don’t we put our Big Boy Pants on and know that we’re going to be hurt at some point? At what point are we ourselves accountable for our own emotions, and the other person isn’t? We’re in charge of how we perceive the world; there is not a conspiracy to make us unhappy. As much as it might seem like it sometimes.
You get back to your house, throw your keys on the console. It hasn’t been a great track record this year: men who lost interest because of the distance (including one who forgot to tell you), the guy whose rejection broke a certain cycle, the guy who you tried to change for. You remember how it felt when you met your ex: like everything that came before earned the dizzying feeling of love that came when you met him, when the feeling was mutual. This will happen, you just have to stay str-
Your thought is interrupted by your phone buzzing in your pocket. You look at the text. It’s Handsome Andy, whose phone was lost but has now been replaced, a week later.