The Ghosts Of New York

Pairs well with: Evil, by Interpol

I believe in ghosts. Spirits, phantoms, apparitions, reality television filmed in haunted shoelace factories, all of it. If a ghost challenged me to a hand of Texas Hold ’Em, I’d ante up. I believe things aren’t always what they seem, weird moments happen, and sometimes nothing can be explained. Ghosts don’t scare me, I save that for the spiders. For the most part I had always believed ghosts were harmless. One might scare the shit out of me in the mirror of a haunted dive bar bathroom, but that’s as rough as it’s ever been. I’ve never seen any real evidence that ghosts will hurt me, so reasonable doubt has always made me feel safe. My whole life, I always believed in ghosts. Now I know for sure they’re real.

The rise, if not utter dominance, of online dating apps has birthed a new superpower. Not incredible strength or the ability to walk through walls. No. Men now hold in their hands the gift of invisibility. The chance to disappear into the void. To vanish as if they never existed. The only memory of them a seething, burning anger and the slow rumble of sad confusion. It’s called ghosting. We’ve even given it a cute little hashtaggy name. It’s the act of immediately and without notice, fucking right off.

Initially it seemed like a coincidence. A few stories heard in passing that seemed terrible, of course, but rare. Then over time, and not much time at that, I realized this wasn’t something rare, this was something that happens. This is on the menu now, this is an option. You can, apparently, date a woman for as long as you like and when you tire of her, or when you think your connection to each other might be beginning to grow (because egads who can stomach that), simply pretend she doesn’t exist. Congrats, you’re now a ghost. A phantom. A specter. A dick.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but don’t though because I really want to tell it: A coworker of mine dated a man she met online for six weeks or so, slept with him many times, he’d met a few friends. Then one day the texts stopped. They’d been daily in their frequency prior. But then they stopped. A casual (though of course panicked) text to “check in” resulted in silence as well. A week after that, the anger set in. She texted with genuine concern for his wellbeing. A day later, a response.

“I just don’t think I’m ready for a girlfriend right now.”

And even that she had to pry up out of the moss-covered earth. He couldn’t offer it, couldn’t utter the words without the necessary amount of provocation, if not demand. Courtesy was not his first instinct, dismissal was. She didn’t get even a minimal amount of honesty without begging for it. Ready for a girlfriend or not, she certainly wasn’t going to be one, and the instant he figured that out, she was garbage to him, unworthy of even one more word. A grown woman. Kind, successful, sincere. Willing to split the check. Tolerant of bad cologne and unflinching in the face of his mistreatment of Uber drivers. She’s trash to him now. She’s disposed of. Gone.

“She’ll get it, just by me not texting her anymore, right? I don’t have to like, do anything here, right? Cool. Bartender, can I have a local IPA?”

And on he went, to the next. The next almost-girlfriend. The fun, comfortable, not-too-attached girl who knows better than to ask him what he’s doing for brunch after they’ve already woken up together and had morning sex. She knows it’s too soon for that. She knows it’ll spook him — like her grandmother’s horrible cat, Matilda. She knows that today, she’s going to do laundry, and he’s going home to watch SportsCenter. But in three weeks, they’ll be walking down the street and they’ll begin holding hands. Not a big deal, just a casual gesture. They’ll have just left happy hour, it’ll be a warm evening in late May. You can’t hear them, but sirens typically reserved for tornado warnings will go off in his head. His heart will beat faster, he’ll sweat. He’ll start envisioning the great landscape of endless vagina he hasn’t conquered yet in his young, 34-year-old life. Later that week she’ll ask him if he feels like grabbing dinner after work. He’ll text back sure, indicating they’ll confirm a restaurant later that afternoon. They’ll never speak again. Whew, that was close.

Later, a girl I met at happy hour in Midtown. This ghost had guts. After four months of dating, they were spending the night often, attending functions as a couple. She hadn’t opened one of her dating apps since the first time he slept over two nights in a row. One Friday evening they spent apart, she texted to confirm they’d meet up at a flag football game of friends the next morning. He said yes. The next day she woke to a text from him that had arrived at 2:00 am saying,

“I’m coming over.”

They never spoke again. Perhaps the hardest thing about understanding ghosts? They haven’t actually died. I mean sure, we want someone to bring us their heads, but they aren’t injured, they haven’t incurred some horrible accident, and they’re not in the hospital with amnesia. This particular gem of a human being was just fine. She saw him in an elevator a month later, where he refused to allow even his peripheral vision to meet hers. They worked in the same building. Even with the likelihood of running into her on a regular basis, he wasn’t afraid to ghost. He wasn’t afraid to repeatedly show her how little of a shit he gave about her feelings.

They just don’t want to talk to us anymore. They want the space they’ve taken up in our lives to black hole itself into oblivion, far from the reality of having to actually do something about us. Deal with us. Exchange parting words. I like to imagine they think if they actually do say goodbye properly, actually do let us know this is ending, and why, we’ll kill them. We’ll reach across the table with a sharp object and jam it through an eye socket. We’ll throttle them with a sudden improbable strength. Suck the life out of them like a Dementor. What else? Truly? What else could justify this abhorrent modern-day dating practice? That’s the only excuse I’m accepting, they fear death. Are we really so terrifying? Are women so imposing, so monstrous that telling us the truth prompts a quick and silent retreat? I don’t know what it is about women that makes men think ghosting is okay. I want to know, I really do.

What then, should we do? The haunted? I know what we’re supposed to do, simply shrug our shoulders and move on. As if our minds and hearts are filled with nothing but sweet smelling, cotton candy air where puppies and rainbows float about and we never mind a little cruelty, fa-la-la.

Are you fucking kidding? Ghosting behaviors ignore all logic. Certainly all manners. You don’t get to bounce out of person’s life where you have at first inserted yourself in it on purpose. You came here, you did things. You made us laugh, talked with us inappropriately in movies, figured out what kind of wine we like. You’ve seen us naked and you follow us on Instagram. You will say goodbye goddammit.

Then came my turn. You wouldn’t know this, we haven’t met, but it’s pretty rare that I actually meet someone. A real someone. A person I don’t have to fake my laughs with. Someone who isn’t simply looking to date a Pumpkin Spice Latte of a human being who nods and smiles and loves sports and doesn’t mind that you only enjoy bars that have TVs. I’m usually stuck meeting men who think I’m “artsy” because I have bangs, a “tough customer” because I’m witty, and “too much” because I don’t end all my sentences with a high-pitched question mark. So when I do meet someone I’d like around for longer than a Honda commercial, it’s kind of a big deal.

I could relate to him. This guy could have been described as all those hipster pigeonholes people try to stuff me into. Scruffy blonde beard, tattoos, creative job. My mother would have hated his hair. But I thought he was pretty neat. Not the funniest guy ever but a good conversationalist and seemingly quite the gentleman. I liked him so much in fact that I completely forgave his 5’10 app dating advertisement on a 5’6 frame. Then I apparently fucked things up. By not fucking.

I’d decided to stash my healthy sexual female curiosities (you know this kind of behavior better as me being a slut) on the shelf and wait until I knew whether or not I actually wanted this person to be my boyfriend before I dropped trou. Most sexual encounters in the app dating world end in dead silence, so I figured I’d increase my chances of keeping him around this way. After five or so dates, I went away with some friends on a brief vacation.

Rather excited to see him upon my return, I texted to let him know I was back in town, would love to see him in the coming week, etc. Where once his texts were so flirtatious, he’d now reverted to one-word answers. The dating death rattle. When I, after three days, grew tired of the bullshit, and was desperate to simply rip off the bandage, asked point blank to make actual plans with him, he never responded. Four days away was apparently too much. My prowess and likeability couldn’t hang on that long. He lost interest.

Over the years, I’ve noticed several constants when reading online dating profiles where men have listed out their preferences, if not requirements, for future partners. Confidence is one of them. I like confidence. I would like my future partner to have it as well. (But I certainly don’t list in in my profile as some pre requisite like dating me is something you major in). Confidence is what they want, but it’s also what they take. Every ghost, every vanishing Matthew, takes with him a handful of confidence as he slinks away into the fog of forgotten faces.

And isn’t it a bitch? They built a certain part of that confidence up! They texted repeatedly. They made multiple dates. They stayed present. We didn’t imagine all of this, it happened. They created a relationship (I used the word, try not to faint) between two people that didn’t exist before and they gave women confidence that there was interest and connection there, that they’d hear from them again and then nothing. And they always take more than they gave. Until there’s no dating confidence left. Until we’re walking on eggshells even down the aisle.

When did men develop the delicacy of orchids? When did their care requirements start to include:

  1. Like us, but don’t like us too much.
  2. Have sex with us, but don’t really open up or get comfortable.
  3. Be available when we want to hang out, or we’ll forget about you, but not too available, because then we’ll feel obligated to see you.
  4. Be awesome, but not too awesome, you’ll scare us away.

I was once ghosted upon by a man after he introduced me to all of his friends. All of them. College buddies, their wives, I don’t think there was a couple at that party whose wedding he didn’t have the commemorative matchbook from. We went, had a fantastic time, and went back to his place. Normal, happy, relaxed. It was late summer in Chicago, a fine time to be outdoors for a barbeque. A few days later while having beers in his backyard, he looked at me, and in the most accusatory tone said:

“My friends really liked you.”

Like I’d eaten his leftovers. It wasn’t a happy statement. It was a cold, mean, why-did-you-do-that tone I’ve only ever heard from my mother or an elementary school teacher. His friends liked me. I made a great impression. And then he never asked me out again. The mere suggestion that he’d found a girl his friends thought was a good idea was too much to stomach. The nerve of me for being myself.

Sometimes I imagine women in the online dating world as little puppets in a show put on for children. Dance about too closely to the audience, and one of them will grab you, break you, and the show is over. Move too far toward the back of the stage, and they’ll forget you’re there, get up, and leave. There’s one sweet spot on stage where we have to hover, still, but always looking and performing our best, not seeming too eager, but still retaining attention. All the while the stage is moving back and forth beneath our wooden feet.

Most of the time when I’m let down in the dating world, which is most of the time, I try very hard to keep my spirits high. Don’t take things too personally, smile and move on, block out any unfortunate encounters for the sake of self preservation (which makes writing a book about them later really hard, FYI). But this new ghost did make me sad. I thought I was going to date someone. It had been about five years since my last boyfriend at that point and I did truly think we had a live one here. For a moment I allowed myself to imagine not being alone all the time, silly me, and it was a fun thought to think. So I was a little sad for awhile. I cracked the concrete around myself just a little, enough to momentarily imagine having someone care about me, having someone’s hand to hold. I shouldn’t have done that.

But how can you spot a ghost? For the love of Haley Joel Osment I wish I could see them coming! I wish we could brand them. Paint a gold, glittery G on their foreheads, warning women for miles around that they’re dealing with first class asshole. Don’t even think about this one ladies. Make out with him at a bar, sleep with him once if you dare, but don’t even save his number, there’s no point in wasting space on your phone. Throw this one back, he’ll swim away anyway.

Conversely, I wish I could recommend the good ones. The ones not interested in me but with manners enough to tell me that. I wish I could respond to their let down texts with, “Hey thanks for letting me know. By the way, my friend Sarah is amazing and I think you guys would get along really well.” I’d have confidence that he wouldn’t ghost out of Sarah’s life, and even if things didn’t work out between him, she wouldn’t have to ask herself, not even once, “what the fuck happened?” I want to save my friends from “what the fuck happened.” From “are you kidding me?” From “I don’t understand.”

We want to understand. I want to understand. I don’t want to keep you, ruin you, trap you, boil you for soup. I don’t mind that you don’t want to be with me. I mind the manner of your exit. I mind that you leave things open for interpretation. You leave my mind wandering and worrying. For days. You don’t care what you’ve done to me. You don’t care that you’ve wasted my time. Would you allow someone to do this to you? To your sister? To your mom?

One of the most common words of reason single women exchange when they’ve been ghosted upon is that the guy went back to his old girlfriend, or he met someone else. We have zero evidence of either of these things, but that’s the only rational conclusion we can come to without succumbing to the jaded, cold, crusty “all men are dicks” attitude. We don’t want to be that. But we don’t want to be gullible, either. I never really believed these reasons, and six months later, I got my proof. I received a message from my ghost. Not one of closure, but instead of apparition. This ghost wanted me to get another glimpse of him. An unwelcome shadow over the shoulder, a creaking floorboard in an empty house. He didn’t text, though he certainly had my number. It was via an online dating site, the one where we’d first connected.

“Hey, I keep seeing you on here. Seems like the universe is trying to tell me something.”

I wrote him back that I hoped work was going well, and take care. I didn’t feel like letting a ghost take another crack at my spirit.

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