Notes From Heartbreak Creek
Sitting there on the couch next to him, I realized how much I wanted to go home and lie down on the floor and listen to Jenny Lewis.
The first night we met in person, I felt a shame deep enough to reach China.
I was a gawky college student, with deep wells under my eyes from staying up late and a flabby stomach, ever growing. He was a beautiful man in his mid-twenties, with his dark hair effortlessly coifed and his black Warby Parker glasses perched over clear skin. Straight teeth, good style. He was professionally successful, with a blooming career and a spotless car. When we started talking online, I had the sneaking suspicion that I was accidentally catfishing him. Had he looked through all my pictures? My hotness had peaked in 9th grade and been steadily evening out ever since. Did he really know what he was getting into? In warm bar lighting, I was maybe a Minneapolis 7. A Chicago 5. In the days leading up to our date, I was consumed by that most modern affliction: anxiety over whether you can live up to your highly-curated social media presence.
It was July 2014. I was 21 and had an administrative job on my school’s rural midwestern campus, forty minutes south of Minneapolis. The town was deserted. When I wasn’t in the office, I was usually at a coffee house a couple blocks away, sipping espresso and hate-listening to One Direction. I read some books, but usually I was looking at Facebook on my phone, eavesdropping on the lives of my geographically disparate friends.
I tried cooking. I drank too much. I was saving money and being responsible, I told myself. I had a job and I could scribble down poems and stories and that was all good, it really was.
But I needed something else. Maybe I needed excitement, or connection. Maybe I just needed a good story.
Grindr, a popular hook-up app for self-identified gay men, was a joke in my bereft part of the woods. On a whim, I downloaded Tinder, hoping that maybe there was some suitor-in-waiting in the tri-county area who would materialize before me with the swift move of a fingertip. Tinder’s true benefit only manifested after a few days of sorting through local profiles, when I finally began to see profiles from the Twin Cities. It felt as though I could participate in a dating scene that was at once rooted and rootless, anchored be my phone’s GPS but encompassing a fifty mile radius.
Eventually, I was greeted by the previously mentioned hair and glasses. Felix’s profile was sparely worded, with a few interests listed and some links to his Instagram and Twitter accounts, but his pictures could have been in GQ. Perfect teeth, perfect skin, perfect clothes. I almost swiped left to rid myself of him. Wouldn’t beauty always get in the way?
I swiped right. We didn’t ‘Match,’ but I hoped that signified my obscurity more than my undesirability. Maybe my profile hadn’t shown up yet? Tempering a grief for the unknown, I officially ‘followed’ his social media accounts, scrolling through his immaculately curated selfies and black-and-white pictures of coffee cups. He had thousands of other followers, like some kind of handsome deity we all carried secretly around with us.
A week passed, and I watched his daily life unfold. His life was glossy and alien to me. He traveled for his job and stayed in nice hotel rooms, taking pictures of the Nevada desert on his iPhone from behind the blue window of his Las Vegas suite. He wore crisp white shirts but also took self-consciously goofy portraits of himself in a frumpy hat and with his friend’s dachshund puppy.
After three beers and a cider, I tweeted at him, saying that I loved his pictures. It was so transparent, surely he would see right through?
The miraculous happened. He retweeted me and responded with a blushing emoji smile. Then, in a DM, he asked me out.
I agreed. We decided to meet at a coffee house in the Northeast neighborhood, which I interpreted as a mutual meeting place as opposed to what it really was: his first date of the day.
I arrived and found myself shaking both Felix’s hands and the hands of another man named Peter, young and Eastern European and clearly interested in Felix. They were just wrapping up a coffee date. Peter left soon after I entered the coffee house, but it was plain that Felix had scheduled back-to-back dates. He hadn’t even bothered to change locations or space them out. I felt embarrassed but wondered if this was the future of dating in the gay community, especially for a good-looking, social media-savvy dandy like Felix. In a world of overwhelming romantic options, how do you make time for one person? Who was I to judge?
Trying to be open-minded, I didn’t say anything. We went to a Chinese restaurant by the University of Minnesota campus and grabbed a beer at a bar afterwards. We talked about celebrities we thought were good-looking, about our families and the shows we liked to watch. He talked about his parent’s divorce. He was still thinking about his ex-boyfriend, an amateur catalog model, and showed me his Instagram account. As he scrolled through the photos, I imagined him going through my own account, mentally scoring me like a judge at the Olympics.
He didn’t follow me on Instagram, I remembered. I voiced this, careful to seem uninvested.
A lot of people follow me online, he said, and I forget to follow friends all the time.
These things didn’t deter me. We parted with a hug and I returned home to the empty, star-lit campus. We texted everyday. We still didn’t ‘Match’ on Tinder, and he still didn’t ‘Follow’ me on Instagram. Our conversations were light and flirty, but the anxious minutiae of 21st-century courtship plagued my days. It was a new brand of mixed signals, where his interest displayed in-person didn’t translate to the arena of social media. I felt more and more like a voyeur on a life I should have been a part of, on a person who seemed ever more vague underneath the handsome camera filters. I was following him deeper and deeper into a place that did not resemble my cloistered academic world, where I didn’t care about books or music or current events or feeling valued. Where the laws were undone by lifting, hair gel, and a good orthodontist.
August came. Felix and I had another date, but I knew what to expect now. Felix discussed work, admired a guy at the restaurant he thought was cute, and texted another guy while we were watching a movie in his apartment. More curious than amorous, I ran my fingers through his hair, feeling the lightness of the coif. It was real, right there in front of me, soft under my palm. So awfully real.
Sitting there on the couch next to him, I realized how much I wanted to go home and lie down on the floor and listen to Jenny Lewis. I wanted read my book. I wanted to watch the night sky from my dorm window and look out onto the luminous campus lake. I wanted someone to read the poems on my website and tell me they weren’t awful. I wanted to call my best friend in California and talk to her about Beyoncé. I wanted to go home and hang out with my parents. I wanted someone who wanted to ‘Follow’ me back. I wasn’t ashamed of being less pretty than Felix anymore. With one touch, the hair now confirmed something I had long suspected in myself: the easy attraction wasn’t enough, even when I wanted it to be. Felix was attracted to that which he didn’t have, and that was all.
Felix and I are still friends, and we text occasionally. The exchange petered out eventually, but that’s ok. I keep up on his social media accounts, but he still has yet to return the interest. I wish I could provide an easy takeaway here, to say that he was superficial and shallow and I was really interesting and unappreciated, but that's just not true. We were the accumulations of sometimes contradictory desires and actions, mutually informed by our histories.
We were open wounds, just like everyone else.
That night, we parted again cordially. We made vague allusions to a future date, but I’m not sure either of us really expected there to be one. I got in my car and drove down the highway for a second time. Felix was beautiful and I was not and, for the moment, that was ok.
A full moon rose. Motionless and aloof, now waning. Hurting but not hurt, I wanted to reach up and peel off its luminous surface, to get past the light and confirm that it too was just another weathered rock, floating through the open void of space. Another thing aimless, still yearning.