Central Line, 6pm Yesterday

Sometimes when I come home late at night I look over at the Rectory. I see something white at the window. Could that be you, Miss Alma? Or, is it your doppelgänger, looking out of the window that faces my way?

Everything that has ever happened to you is happening now.

Facebook posts about nights out in 2008; that old LiveJournal you used to anonymously talk about anorexia and boys; that review you left of a book you hated; the handful of blogs you abandoned, one after six months, one after two, one that never got further than the url you spent two weeks coming up with to impress a boy in one of your lectures who, close up, didn’t really resemble the person you thought he was after all; your ex-girlfriend’s MySpace wall and the anaesthetised monument of her top friends; every Tinder conversation and Facebook message you ever sent someone you fancied; every hopeful unreturned text message: parts of you are scattered across the universe — perfect crystallised sigils of hope, desire, loneliness, fear, hatred, boredom — replaying, constantly, forever.

In 2004, when I first started using the internet in earnest, we weren’t so aware of this vulnerability; I’m still not sure now whether it never factored into what we were doing online or if it was the whole point. It was an experiment then — totally random — and we were unthinking in how carelessly we cast our thoughts into the universe, how quickly we were willing to bare ourselves to total strangers. It was a true randomness, too — we weren’t siloed into clean, organised or regulated corners of the internet like we are now, carved up by what we like or what our politics are. We sat up on ChatRoulette until 3am, talking to strangers in Ohio and clicking past the men aimlessly masturbating at the mere idea of connecting with a woman, spilled our barely anonymised thoughts onto blogs our school friends could probably have found if they’d really wanted to. We talked about sex on AOL Messenger (“A/S/L?”) without even seeking it out: connection was accidental, immediate and absolute. I met my first boyfriend on Soulseek — not, as the name might suggest, a dating website, but a P2P file sharing program where I’d torrent old Manic Street Preachers b-sides and albums the NME said were cool. After months of talking online, we eventually met “in person” — and in 2007, that distinction was important, tangible and real.

Now, the lines between on and offline are increasingly blurred — and we’ve responded accordingly. No more vulnerability: everything we share online is precision-engineered, perfectly fit for purpose. We’re reminded as teenagers that anything we say online stays there, indelibly, forever. We think about the impact every Instagram post and Facebook status will have on our ‘personal brands’, a phrase now used largely unironically; some of us even pay for ‘personal branding’ courses. “Your personal brand is within your control and can be carefully shaped and crafted according to your guiding principles,” the blurb for one course, £450, reads; another, £395, suggests that “you are a brand…and you need to know what your brand stands for”.

It’s no surprise that these masochistically comprehensive exercises in self-presentation have seeped into our dating lives, too. At first, we just selected the best pictures for our profiles, added a few inches to our height — who wouldn’t? But now we have ‘profile songs’ on our Tinder profiles, selected to best sum us up; we list, in excruciating detail, the bands we love and the things we like to eat and the things we could never live without. OkCupid provides users with thousands of questions to answer — “is a woman who sleeps with 100 men a bad person?”, “were you picked on a lot at school?”, “are your parents ugly?” — that run the gamut from revealing to mundane and everywhere inbetween. The questions are, ostensibly, to ensure that you find a good match, and profiles are presented to you with a ‘match percentage’ at the top of them, but 500 questions deep and it can start to feel like an impossible exercise, a futile attempt at total self-knowledge. Here is an encyclopedic list of everything I think and feel about every conceivable topic on the planet, I remember thinking to myself as I browsed aimlessly through all of my answers one night. So why do I feel like I’ve still not expressed who I am? I stopped and edited my ‘about me’ again.

This all makes sense. In what other sphere are we more finely attuned to our frailty, our ability to be broken, than in our romantic lives? Where else do we feel so helpless in the face of even imagined hurt? It speaks to a uniquely human terror of emotional pain, how inured we’ve become to vulnerability. Our slow evolution into one-man brands makes total sense: you can’t break a brand’s heart.

This crept into my own life, too. I found myself not just cringing but physically recoiling when I could see that someone had made an effort on a date: it repulsed me. Shoes that were too clean, too new, gleaming under the table of a carefully picked bar; a sentence too artfully constructed to be spontaneous. I should have liked it, really — don’t we all want someone desperate to impress us? Someone attempting to reach out through the gloom, to take our hand and really see us? But to me a statement of such clear intent, evidence that someone actually cared how the date went, was too painful and poignant to be bearable. I found it pathetic.

My worst anxiety came at the beginning of dates, when I would catch sight of someone’s face as they looked for me in a crowded bar. It was just a moment — the split second before they spotted me and smiled or waved, a flash of trepidation and uncertainty and a little anxiety. But it felt too intimate to me, too real, like I had caught them masturbating — or, worse, weeping. Even more horrifying to me was the idea that I would be the one caught in this moment of unguarded vulnerability, so eventually I started turning up to dates early, settling in a chair within sight of the door and fixing my eyes on something neutral and immovable; the leg of a table or the edge of a picture frame. Sometimes I would do this for minutes, sometimes for nearly an hour. It was worth it to know that I would not really be seen and that I wouldn’t see someone else either.

So I started doing two things: sleeping with my ex-boyfriend and obsessively trawling through the missed connection ads on Craigslist. They were both, essentially, about the same thing: intimacy, or lack of it. Sleeping with my ex was an act of masochism specifically designed to preclude me from that intimacy: I didn’t have to let him in because not letting the other in was the whole point. It was casual, yes, but our past let us safely simulate a deeper intimacy; we still had a history we could play with, children with toy soldiers acting out the sadism of war but hurting nobody in particular, occasionally themselves.

Missed connections did the opposite. Breathtaking in their poignancy, in their distance from my own life, they were a window into pure, uncontaminated human connection. The carriage was packed, we were close, you were wet, I have your scarf, contact me one read. You gave me the sweetest kiss I have ever had; if you read this, I’m the girl looking at her phone all the time said another. Saw you on the 86 bus from Romford to Stratford; green bag, green jacket, amazing eyes, blue hat. You received a text from currys. You where amazing i was sitting behind you. You had trainers with pink laces. You where amazing.

They somehow said something profound about the way we used technology, about how we lived in cities, how we tried and failed to love one another; like MISSING CAT posters or online pleas for the safe return of stolen pieces of jewellery, they were unabashed in their longing, unashamed of their tenderness, their desperation. They were what happened when everything else fell away — the self-presentation and the personal brand, the lists of likes and dislikes. They were the exact moment I hated at the beginning of dates: an undiluted ache, a burning need to be seen and understood, no embarrassment at their honest attempt to ask for this despite, presumably, a litany of past hurt and heartbreak. They allowed me to observe intimacy without having to really touch it, to glimpse the thing beyond myself that I couldn’t quite manage: the ability to try again. They were beautiful.

Travelling to work from my ex’s house one morning at 7am, I was tired — exhausted — from a night of anxiety and sex. But somehow I kept walking. I had to be at work, for a start; had to be somewhere other than East London; had to be anywhere in the world other than “my ex boyfriend’s house”. So I walked down his stairs, out of the house, to the tube; through the gates and onto the DLR, through the throngs of people at Bank, the whole heaving mass of neuroses and intimacies and traumas and memories and secret histories jostling past me all at once. I thought about the missed connections I could write — you: falling asleep on the Hammersmith & City line at 08.42 this morning. Your nose looked like it had been broken once — are you a rugby player? You look like someone who became a doctor to please their father but whose true love was poetry. I was the girl with the palpable existential void radiating from her chest — the missed opportunities for true affinity I was purposefully wasting every night I spent with my ex. Even surrounded by people, even though someone else’s sweat and spit was still fresh on my body, mingling with my own, I knew I was alone. I knew I was further from intimacy than I had ever been before.

I was exhausted. But still I kept walking: propelled impossibly forward by legs that didn’t quite know where they were going or why, but were somehow moving anyway.

This essay was commissioned by the Almeida Theatre; it appeared in the programme for the Tennessee Williams play Summer and Smoke.