Leaving Michael’s apartment one Tuesday morning, I smiled and said, “Have a good class today.” That may not sound like much, but I was trying to leave a hint: I was interested in more than our one-night-a-week thing.
Understandably, he didn’t catch on.
So a little later, I texted, “Could you send me a playlist of your favorite songs?”
He sent one, but I still wasn’t sure he got the picture.
I decided to be a little more obvious: “Do you want to go to the Grand Canyon over spring break?”
“Sounds fun,” he replied, “but I’m busy then.”
This was ridiculous. Finally I wrote, “I like you and I want to be with you.” Then I squeezed my eyes shut and pressed “Send.
Six weeks earlier, Michael and I had met on Bumble, the dating app where women have to make the first move. Our first date had been in a local cafe. Afterward, I told my eager roommate that the date was “just fine,” but “just fine” was fine with me. I wasn’t looking for a relationship, let alone love.
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.