Falling in Like

So while I teeter between anger with myself for not admitting how I feel and anger at him for not figuring it out, neither of us can be blamed. (Or we both can.) Without labels to connect us, I have no justification for my feelings and he has no obligation to acknowledge them.
— Jordana Narin, "No Labels, No Drama, Right?"

This is for the cumulative hours spent getting ready for first dates. (Or seconds, or thirds). For the agonizing moments between when your phone goes off and when you actually look at it; your hope that it's him quickly dashed by the press of a button. For pretending that it doesn't matter when he changes or cancels plans because you resolved long ago, even before Gillian Flynn hit the proverbial nail on the head, to always be the Cool Girl. For the algorithms designed by faceless, nameless engineers who think that they can analyze, quantify and execute a connection between two people. 

This is for suppressing the butterflies in your stomach before you see him and, later, the urge to picture what a future together might be like - the places you'd go and the things you'd do. For the note (since deleted) that you made on your phone when you brainstormed potential birthday presents for him. For the book you read and the movie you watched that you know he'd like. For life's unexpected moments that you wanted to share with him, like that time that will.i.am was seated about twenty paces away from your spot on the pastry line but, oh yeah, you deleted his number. 

This is for missing the rhythm of his heartbeat as you lay next to each other with your head on his chest. For taking his hand in yours during movies even though it was always slightly clammy. For his scent, and the tiny imperfections that were only really noticeable up close; the ones that made him endearing and prevented him from being impossibly good-looking and therefore unapproachable.

But memory is like a mine field. And when you eventually look back with clear eyes free of tears and something verging on objectivity, you tell yourself that the signs were there all along - his avoidance of certain subjects, the ever-increasing response times to your texts, and the way he never introduced you to his friends and roommates, as though you were invisible. Or the fact that he miraculously had tampons and makeup-removing face wash in his bathroom the first time you spontaneously slept over. How many others have already come and gone before you? It's as though you are interchangeable while he goes about getting his fix, beholden to only himself.

So when he told you, in no uncertain terms, that "things" would not "work out" in the "long run," why were you so surprised? You had been careful not to mention commitment, exclusivity, and other key words that implied any kind of recognizable togetherness, because you had thought it better to see him on his terms rather than not see him at all. Even so, you weren't prepared for this: that the demise of a non-relationship still hurts as much as an actual break-up. 

After all, this is supposedly what people your age do. Go out, mingle, juggle multiple partners at once ("partner" being used, of course, in the loosest sense of the word). Dating just to date in a sociotechnological ecosystem that fosters an attitude of always being on the lookout for someone better; the promise of a good match just after the next swipe left. There are no rules any more, no guidelines or advice to follow. In a bygone era, he was expected to take care of the bill. Now when he puts his credit card on the table it feels like a transaction. (Either that, or maybe he's just from the South). Do you go home with him after? Kiss? Something more? 

Your generation was spoon-fed female empowerment and ownership over one's body. Yet when you leave his apartment the next morning - you in last night's clothes, he freshly shaven, showered and ready for work, something in the dynamic has shifted. Because even before you say your goodbyes, you know that you'll be the one waiting for him to text, to call. (And, of course, you'll answer when he does).

Around and around you go, feigning intimacy while pointedly avoiding the conversation that will either make what you have into something more, or break it. Until one day, you take a deep breath, and out comes a watered-down version of the mental speech you had prepared; an automatic self-defense mechanism that shows you care but not too much. 

Regardless of how he extricates himself, you will never get a satisfactory why. Maybe he's sitting next to you on his couch when he tells you it's over, or texts you, or simply responds less and less before ceasing altogether ("ghosting," we call it). Closure remains elusive (for how can you break up if you were never truly together?) and yet afterward you feel as though missing something that almost was and now never will be.

The next match comes along, and whether it's out of spite, bravado or misguided optimism hoping that you won't end up back where you started, you say, "Game on."