“Only fools fall in love,” goes that undying movie cliché that all your friends will try to tell you when you’re feeling particularly down about your latest rejection. There is something cruel about putting yourself “out there,” meeting new guys and trying to “date” only to learn after a few months of shared sexual experiences and quaint dinners that the Other desires only to “be your friend.”
The words seem to hit even harder when you’re forced to read them via a text message — a “friend,” with seemingly no decency to have an honest conversation in person about how they delicately danced around you for the last couple months only to throw you to the wayside and add to the garbage heap of past affairs.
This is how I’ve spent the last five years in New York City and it didn’t seem to matter how I would initialize a connection with someone (believe me, I’ve tried many methods), it all ended pretty much the same. At some point you’re left with only one option — take a step back and think, “is it me?” Am I incapable of building a genuine connection with another? Am I too nice or too trusting? How do I always find myself in this position?
Why is it considered polite to suggest “let’s just be friends” when everyone that has ever said that to me hardly makes the attempt to deliver on such a promise? Why am I always carrying the burden of making it happen?
Of course, wasn’t it Roland Barthes who had said The Lover is that subject that is always already waiting — waiting for a text back, waiting for the boy to show up to dinner, waiting for an indication of affection? It doesn’t matter what you try to do to avoid slipping into that role — you could decide to wait a couple hours before sending a text back or you could try to be less punctual by wasting time — it never seems to work.
The problem is that even if you successfully do these things materially, your mind is still preoccupied with the Other. That whole hour or two waiting to properly submit a reply is wasted on continually opening and closing the message app, reading their last text over and over, trying to decipher every punctuation mark (or lack thereof), every word choice, and every little misspelling as if somewhere there is a hidden meaning that will reveal The Truth.
It would take about two years consisting of a series of particularly bad attempts at “dating,” followed by a year of intense introspection and depression, and culminating in the chance meeting of a new friend before I’d officially end my role as the perpetual Foolish Lover and learn how to navigate the murky waters of 21st-century dating while more-or-less remaining emotionally intact.
* * *
It had started, nearly three years ago, when I decided I wanted to date more seriously. Most of my twenties consisted of relying on apps like Grindr or Scruff to meet boys and attempt to begin new relationships (friendly, sexual, or romantic). The apps seem to be used by pretty much every gay male that could possibly be interested in meeting new people; we stopped using the bar or the club as an intermediary and instead curled back into our reclusive bubbles and lurked. Occasionally, a hook-up would turn into a few dates (or vice versa) but not even a friendship seemed to last by the end. Marked by obsessive cycles of installing then deleting the apps, only to re-install and delete them again a week later, it became clear that not much good was coming out of this experience.
There seemed to be a point in which you reached peak activity — when you first download the app there are a lot new messages, many new connections, and willing partners. But as time passed there would be less and less, and even the people you had met before seemed to “ghost” all the time and fall out of the picture. The app became completely voyeuristic and a waste of time. I told myself I would finally give up and try something new — I decided to try OKCupid which, by all appearances, was for those lovers-in-waiting who wanted to “get serious” about finding a match.
The website offered the ability to provide prospective lovers a more in-depth glimpse into who I was and what I was looking for which went beyond the reductive Grindr/Scruff apps that turn living humans into mere statistical data (age, height, weight, race, sexual position, etc.). I was sure to be thorough and clear with my intentions on the website and I sought out others who appeared to be looking for something more than just a Hookup of the Week. This lead me to the first pair of dating mishaps that would become indicative of the years to come.
* * *
The first boy was a dancer. He lived down the street and our first meeting at a bar sharing a massive pile of nachos and sucking down beers went swimmingly. There was a strong sense of attraction and conversation never seemed dull or forced — it flowed naturally as we exchanged interests and past experiences. I was, admittedly, smitten almost immediately. As a more reserved and shy guy, it was unusual for me to feel already so comfortable with someone I had just met.
We had separate interests — me a bit more political, him a bit more fun — but rather than being divisive it opened an opportunity for endless sharing. We spent the next few weeks talking quite frequently, meeting up for aimless walks, sharing musical tastes, a few joints, and a few beers. I invited him one night to a concert I was attending and it turned into of the best nights I had in quite some time.
The show was incredible and after many drinks we instinctively began making out while waiting to close our tabs at the bar. We left the venue laughing, drunkenly walking and searching for a place to pee when another drunk stranger approached us asking for directions to a local bar. They offered to buy us both a round if we would accompany them to the bar and help locate their friends and we accepted without hesitation. The bar was tiny, full of drag queens, and not exactly our scene. We drank our complimentary cocktails and proceeded to head back uptown to his place. I stayed overnight but made the decisive choice not to have sex with him. I wanted to spend more time building a connection than consummating it too quickly.
The next couple months were full of similar experiences of casual and fun hangouts as we both had indicated to the other that we were interested in taking our time rather than rushing to anything official. I took this as a pretty good sign of things to come until one day, when I had left the city to visit my hometown, I received a “funny” text from him recalling how he had a “friend” over the night before and after returning back to his room he decided he no longer wanted the company. Problem was, the friend had left his shirt in his room and just when he thought he had gotten rid of him, he had to come back to retrieve it. Oh, how hilarious!
Upon my return I had an embarrassingly emotional confrontation with him, asking why he has never tried to kiss me but can seemingly hook up with someone else with no hesitation. He admitted that he has a hard time being intimate with someone he really likes because of his relationship history. I accepted this, and even though I knew I had lost any chance of something serious developing, I foolishly continued to be a close friend on the hope that he might change his mind. He never did — in fact, one night when he asked if I wanted to share some wine with him and I thought were were having a nice night, the buzzer to the apartment rang.
He took a few minutes and proceeded downstairs. He returned and headed straight to his room with his “friend” following right behind him. There was no introduction as they closed the door behind them and quickly put on some music. It was quite clear that this was a hookup and I just sat there confused and emotionally wrecked. I had to leave — I walked to the park and called my best friend, crying. He did this one other time, being friendly as he could but not addressing what was really happening, before I finally told myself I had to move on.
Awhile later he would eventually apologize to me personally for his behavior during this time but it seemed maybe a little too late and once I moved out of the neighborhood the following summer there wasn’t much that kept our “friendship” together.
* * *
The next guy I met had more than a few political quips on his dating profile and that intrigued me quite a bit. Thinking that my dating mistake before was mostly centered around expectations, I wanted to be sure that this time I would be as carefree and open to possibility as I could. This was an attempt at building a defense mechanism so that I couldn’t get too hurt down the road should he decide he is no longer interested in me.
We hit it off quite well and nothing stands out to me more than sitting across from him at that first bar in Brooklyn where we met, just staring at his big smile. He was jubilant and it was infectious. We had a lot of fun together and would trade-off weekends either uptown or in Brooklyn so that the distance wasn’t too much a burden for either person. We were both interested in dating openly with other people and this was a facet of our dynamic that I was happy with as another means of dropping expectations of the Other.
Despite what seemed like a great, genuine connection between the two of us, it all the sudden got harder and harder to set up time to hang out with each other. I couldn’t quite understand it — once a week he would send me a “how’s it going?” text but it never progressed far beyond that after my initial response. It came off quite stale (more impersonal than the Hello’s you trade with department store cashiers) and I made the decision not to go out of my way to force him to hang out with me if he clearly wasn’t that interested anymore.
Then one day when I was at work in Chelsea, I received a text from him saying he was on his way from his job in Flatiron to meet up with me. I had the biggest smile on my face because it had been awhile since I saw him and I found it cute that he spontaneously decided to walk the few avenues over to see me. But that smile didn’t last too long — he eventually texted me that he had turned back, that he “got lost,” and was just going to go back home. I found that quite odd given he had been here before and every time I hung out with him he was always on his phone, always searching for the best routes to the places we would go together. How could he not find his way across a few avenues and down a few blocks? This was the final straw for me and I lost all interest in trying to make this work.
When I moved to Brooklyn that summer, though, he agreed to meet up with me and have a talk about everything. I made it clear that I was hurt by how he treated me. I don’t remember that he actually said he was sorry but he indicated that he did want to be friends. He just didn’t think we were sexually compatible (a comment I still don’t quite understand since we had shared a good number of sexual experiences — you’re just realizing this now?).
Given our past, I made it quite clear that our friendship was dependent on him. I had no patience to put in any effort when he had been ghosting me and was not even trying to see me. We met for drinks at a local bar a week or so later and that was the last time I ever saw him. It was clear he wasn’t even interested in being friends.
As luck would have it, it wouldn’t be too long before Guy #3 had also decided to tell me we should “just be friends,” after a few months of going on dates and enjoying each others company. I had met him during one of the long lulls between me and Guy #2. He was a graphic designer, incredibly friendly, cute, and adventurous.
We had a lot of good dates, stayed at each others places, and met friends — everything seemed to be going well. As the summer was just about to begin, he was heading back to his home for a few months and I joked that he was going to leave and forget I ever existed. He laughed and promised it wouldn’t happen.
But alas, once he had returned, it was suddenly quite difficult to find time to spend together. Eventually we decided to take a day to go to the beach. My birthday was coming up and it was nice to spend the time with him, relax and be goofy with each other. Little did I know then, that it would be the last time I would hang out with him. After more scheduling conflicts and what seemed like a lack of interest, I had made some sarcastic joke and his reply was something to the effect of, “Don’t be silly. You’re a good friend of mine.”
The most troubling part of this was that I had to piece all the subtly together myself and embarrassingly approach him directly to specify what he meant by that comment before he would earnestly tell me he had no intention of dating. Coming not even two weeks after the last guy had indicated a similar sentiment, I sunk into a depression that would take most of the next year to reconcile. What was wrong with me? Why was it so hard for boys to be upfront and honest with their intentions? Why did all these dating attempts have to end so tragically?
* * *
Speaking with other single friends and colleagues through all of this was helpful. It became clear that this wasn’t just happening to me — it couldn’t have been a result of a personal flaw on my part. Increasingly it became obvious that the problem was rooted in the way our society and culture had gutted out all human interaction and all that was left were stale gestures and empty personas.
The rapacity of social media and the sense of immediacy that the Internet helps to cultivate has ravaged our social spaces and our human intimacy in a way that has yet to be fully deconstructed. One major problem is that expectations are generated rapidly and we do not allow adequate time for human connections to develop and flourish.
Instead, we spend our time collecting data, mining information resources regarding Others, and make snap judgments of why this or that person is not a good match. This carries into real experiences when we physically “meet each other” and decide after a few encounters whether it’s worth pursuing a relation or not.
But because we are all caught in this endless cycle of Self-creation (and destruction), through the constant updating of our social media presence(s), we end up becoming more of a Character of ourselves that we sometimes present to others but never completely. This prevents us from being honest and intentional with each other (we’re too often not even honest with ourselves).
Everyone is seemingly in the midst of a full-identity crisis and yet it is also everywhere denied — it is the best kept secret of those who pretend to “have it all figured out” and know exactly what they want.
This doesn’t fully explain the specific experiences I had in dating but I think it illuminates the reality that it is often hard to build sincere and intentional relationships with others when we’re surrounded by a never-ending pool of options while we trade out one mask for another in an endless quest of Self discovery.
This became clear to me once I had made the decision to give up trying to “date” using any social media app or website. There seemed to be something disingenuous with these abstracted connections and I was putting more faith in the Other as being genuine than I could reasonably expect to occur. It is, after all, much easier to toss someone aside when they begin and end as just another, fragmented digital character in which we sometimes engage and sometimes don’t.
It took meeting another quasi-Luddite for this thesis to be tested by personal experience. We met by chance — I was actively looking for a new place to live in the city and I happened by a post on Facebook in a housing group that was offering a cheap room in Brooklyn. I remember walking up the steps for the first time and meeting him. He was gorgeous with a sparkle in his eye and welcoming smile.
I spent the afternoon checking out the place and having a good conversation with him and the other roommate about each others interests and we all got along fairly well. I couldn’t help but sense, even then, that there was some deeper connection between the two of us and I was excited to be given the chance to explore it.
Given that we were roommates, the next year would be spent delicately dancing around each other in a way that was flirty but not too-flirty. We became good friends instantly — we shared similar political ideas and often ranted to each other about the toxicity within both mainstream culture and queer culture, which was proclaiming itself as an alternative. We spent many days lounging on the couches, each reading our own books, every now and then sharing musings with each other. We went on “dates” — various bars in the neighborhood for drinks, a few dinner dates, a few trips to see a movie, etc.
We were making a (subconscious) decision to truly get to know each other and allow it to be taken in whatever direction it would go — neither of us trying to force it — and it worked out beautifully. There was something about his presence that made it all clear to me: he often looked at me in a way that many people don’t, being deliberate and precise in his engagement with me in the moment. For the first time, I felt at ease. I had no fear that he was “leading me on,” or that he was being insincere. I didn’t fear that he would one day carelessly toss me aside as if I had never mattered to him.
There was one night after many drinks and laughs at the bar that when we returned home, I had tried to kiss him and he backed away. He laughed hysterically, walked down the apartment hallway, and returned giving me a hug, grabbing my butt, and giving me a wink. I was confused and (drunkenly) annoyed that he did not accept my advance — it was so clear that he wanted it too — but I let it go and slept it off. Months later after he moved out and returned back home, he had admitted to me that he was, of course, very interested in me but did not want to create a possibly bad situation since we were roommates.
Even though he moved back home, we have continued to get closer with each other and build a solid connection and friendship. Last fall I went to visit him for a weekend — we went camping in the middle of the woods — and it was as if we had never been apart. We seamlessly picked up where we left off and enjoyed the intimate weekend together. He has also been back to the city twice now, on very quick trips, but has made it a point to see me each time.
I certainly adore him and would love to continue to develop our relationship as best as we can but I’ve reached a point where even if he were to one day tell me, “let’s just be friends,” it wouldn’t completely destroy me and I would know that he meant it earnestly. I have no expectations — all I know is that I care about him deeply and he has brought more light into my life than I thought would be possible given these social conditions.
Our communication with each other right now is predominately through text message, though we have been sending gifts and letters by mail as well. But there seems to be a stark difference between generating a “connection” through digital means first and trying to make it work in The Real World, and generating a physical connection first and using digital communication tools as a supplement.
While there are exceptions to every rule (and I know of a few online-dating success stories), it does seem incredibly unlikely that digital connections can be the basis for empathetic, human engagement. More times than not, we do not see our social networks as “people.” They are data sets that sometimes coalesce into a Character before returning back to their larval state in the cold cocoon of the Internet abyss. This is not to say that it is impossible to build genuine relationships through these means, but that it first requires an honest assessment of all the factors that actively work against it and making a conscious decision to fight it.
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An earlier version of this piece originally appeared as part of POLEMIC(X).