It starts with the lone question mark. We’ve all gotten the lone question mark before; that nudge to keep the banter going because the road to intimacy and long-term commitment is paved with consistent check-ins and goodnight emojis. This specific question mark came 36 hours after my last exchange with "OneMilkTwoSugars" (not really OneMilkTwoSugars), a F/25 newly minted lawyer, getting the hang of odd work hours. Its subtext was clear: “Hey: It’s your turn.”
Our prior exchange had been pleasant enough. (My work was going well; she was having Seamless for dinner again; unnecessary LOLs were had by all.) After a few false starts in which we’d both had to postpone or cancel drinks, texting had become our platform of choice and the check-ins had fallen into an almost-daily rhythm. It took effort but less so than starting all over with a brand-new match. We joked about still technically being strangers while only living seven subway stops away from one another, which in hindsight, should have been the first sign. (New Yorkers are known to travel farther to pick up good Thai food that doesn’t deliver to their address.) But I did not reply to the lone question mark, nor to the dozen or so messages that followed. Instead, I ghosted OneMilkTwoSugars.
A Paltrow-affiliated publicist might call me “the active precipitator of an unforeseen, one-sided uncoupling.” You might settle for asshole. Somewhere along the way, my interest in meeting with OneMilkTwoSugars had simply vanished. It was a half-shrug of a thought process; like forfeiting a game of Words With Friends in which you had the lead, having no interest in seeing the outcome through.
Ghosting — the act of cutting contact in the midst of an ongoing interaction with someone you are casually, or in some cases not so casually, seeing — is nothing new and plenty has been written about it. Many view the practice as a callous dismissal of another person’s feelings: cowardly, rude, and disrespectful. On the other hand, it is also very literally just not doing a damn thing at all, something at which us twentysomethings excel.
Two days after the “?”, came OneMilkTwoSugars' follow-up: “Wow. Really?”
It was passive-aggressive, but an opened door nonetheless. I could salvage this with an apologetic lie. My boss died in a car accident… my apartment was flooding… I lost my phone on the subway on the way to the flood crisis center… Lying was a better option than silence but still I did not reply. Reactions among my friends were…mixed.
“So you’re ghosting her?” asked a good female friend, while in line at the movies.
“I’m ghosting her.”
“That’s really disappointing coming from you, Ben.”
When I asked why, she explained that I was not the typical ghoster. Not a “fuckboy” nor Felipe. No picture of my penis had ever been sent to an unsolicited party, which I’m told is the litmus test of fuckboy-ery. The argument that this person and I had never met held little weight in her eyes. In fact, it made things worse. I was supposed to be a good guy.
“That poor girl is going crazy, thinking there’s something wrong with her.”
In my non-action, my friend saw the same dismissal she had herself experienced with some other good guy who had made a nice first impression, sometimes over the course of several dates, only to suddenly fall off the face of the earth. (The streets are apparently filled with ghosts and wounded parties waiting for an explanation.) She dealt with these ghostings by imagining each ghoster to be an asshole who was doing her a favor by showing their true colors early and bright.
Another friend of mine, Dave (not really Dave), shrugged it all off. “[Ghosting]’s not a thing,” Dave argued. “You’re letting someone know you don’t want to interact with them by not interacting with them! It’s not your problem if they feel entitled to more.”
To be fair, Not-Dave is a bartender and a renowned fuckboy in his own right. He mostly avoids apps and his ghosting takes the form of incredibly light steps as he vanishes in the morning and adds one more entry to his list of bars across the city to avoid. His dick snapshots fly fast and furious. Heck, your last text notification might be a picture of Dave’s dick. I do not have the looks, eight-pack, or self-confidence to date like Dave, but didn’t Dave have a valid point? What exactly is owed here?
The next time I was on OkCupid, I received a message from OneMilkTwoSugars, as my continued existence greatly displeased her:
“I see you on here so I know you’re alive. I don’t know what the deal is but this is beyond rude. Disgusting.”
That green dot marking me as being online confirmed that I had not fallen prey to a falling AC unit while walking one day; I was not in a huddle of crying family members, living through some tragic and sudden loss; I was not suddenly asexual, having turned my back on dating altogether. Nothing was preventing me from playing a listless round of Quickmatch at 11:52 p.m. and this was “disgusting.”
Someone out there hated me specifically because they hadn’t met me — which, unless you take a firm ideological stance against Canadians, should be the minimum requirement for hating someone. Worse still, indifference was all I could muster. There was no guilt on my end.
I read over our past two weeks or so of correspondence, and in pixel form, my enthusiasm to meet matched hers. We’d had good banter along with some fairly intimate exchanges. It had also never really stopped; I had simply opted out of keeping it going. The prospect of coordinating schedules and finally meeting had grown more wearisome and our first date was weighed by all this pre-intimacy we’d established. The simple answer was that we had waited too long to meet, so why was the prospect of writing about it more appealing than just telling her that in 160 characters? Was I a functioning sociopath for not wanting to be bothered?
What if I had met OneMilkTwoSugars? What if we’d gone for drinks, dates, and had sex before this unflappable indifference of mine had set in? Would that be preferable? Ending things at that point would be an entirely different process, but would it not eventually lead to a series of excuses in the hopes of achieving this same result? ("My phone died," "Didn't get your text," "I forgot to hit send," "I fell asleep, lol.”)
I realized I could text her that — these exact words — and absolve myself of any further responsibility. But Not-Dave’s words kept echoing: I did not know this person. We could ride the same subway train, sit right next to each other, and probably not recognize one another. There was admittedly a bit of egotistical curiosity there too: How long could this person I had never met remain upset at the prospect of not meeting me?
“She likes you more than she ever would if she’d met you,” my roommate laughed. In a parallel universe, we have been dating for three weeks already.
To ghost someone is to put them in a no-win scenario: If they seek closure, they are crazy. The more closure they seek, the more annoying they come off; it is a game of Chinese Finger Trap right there on your phone where applying pressure only makes it worse. Eventually, both the ghoster and the ghosted convince themselves that they’ve dodged a bullet. That’s the protocol, at least.
Fourteen unanswered texts/messages later, we’d both dug our heels into this pattern. She would not fade away under fear of being seen as the crazy chick; I would not block her number or provide a reply. Clearly, neither of us was an expert in the ghosting process.
"Why do I owe you a breakup if we’ve never met?" I once considered asking, when I got a new text from her in the midst of a busy workday, before thinking better of it. OneMilkTwoSugars was attractive, smart, educated, photogenic, and hadn’t listed "oxygen" among the six things she couldn’t live without: Surely, I was not her only prospect. I pictured all the guys she ignored in favor of spending so much effort on me, this would-be fuckboy. Was the sting of rejection that bad for the uninitiated? From dating sites to apps, every facet of dating has been streamlined via new technology; why couldn’t the rejection be as well?
Seven days ago, I received my last text from her. The preview was enough. "Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu"
New York City is one of the most densely populated areas and one of the loneliest places on earth. (See: every other song about New York.) Unlike someone in a small county of West Virginia — limited to 14 — you can swipe until your thumb is sore and not run out of singles in your age range. As a result, amazing people who would leave you with butterflies in a social setting are assessed and dismissed like weather app pop-ups.
I’m still no closer to a better insight for OneMilkTwoSugars than maybe the half-real person she had become through all of our texting was less appealing than the blank entry in the carousel of online dating she had been in when we first started interacting. The pressure of being rejected by that person was more tangible than the rejection of a hot stranger who amounted to nothing more than a few photos and lines of texts.
The effort of writing this essay is much, much longer than the three-sentence message and slight awkwardness I could have sent weeks ago. But, I didn’t owe OneMilkTwoSugars anything, right? That’s the low expectation of “low-expectation dating.” It was a chain of picking and choosing we all opted into with our first swipe, nudge, poke. Dating apps don’t traffic in people; they traffic in distractions existing somewhere between a listicle and an unenthused game of Candy Crush. Was that something worth hearing? True as it might be, she wasn’t owed this insight. She should know this already. We all should. ‘The ghoster" was an established role I could easily navigate and again, one that required nothing. There was no uncertainty in performing it. In this new reality, she was the creep for expecting more. It was all safe and familiar ground.
Ultimately, the main lesson of online dating might be a harsh one for everyone involved, from the dick pic–sending fuckboy to the person with whom you felt meaningful contact: That stranger you find attractive does not owe you anything. Check the contracts you accepted when you registered for your site or app of choice: "Satisfactory resolutions" are never guaranteed.
Ben Philippe is a writer and TV reviewer who splits his time between Montreal and New York City.