Are you Dating me or my Instagram?
Feelings are hard and Instagram is a thing. I never quite processed how interconnected these two things were until my most recent relationship ended. The 4-month affair was bookended by Instagram interactions that highlighted how easily we slink into communication via social media when emoting feels like too much of a chore.
Mateo started Instagram flirting with me after several months of following me. You know what this looks like. Eager likes on photos that focused on me and were flattering. A few random likes peppered in at times when I hadn’t posted anything new, just to let me know he was poking around. I knew that this seemingly innocuous communication could be the seed of something big. And it was.
Eventually, he DM’ed me to ask, “You know I always thought you were beautiful, right?” I was in a particularly good place at this point. I’d scraped myself up off the floor after a couple of years of an emotionally charged relationship with a woman. We’d been living together and experimenting with such privileged (and painful) millenial dalliances as the “open relationship.” I had just started my yoga teacher training, was on a low dose of antidepressants that helped lift a cloud of anxiety that I’d lived with for years, and I felt focused and confident. I replied with an answer that was reflective of my current state of fierce independence and Beyonce-inspired lack of regard for approval and said, “I know.” Winky face.
Looking back, I should have had all the information I need from his next DM: “If you ever…” These are not the words of a person who was truly prepared to get to know me. He was grasping for the impossible potential to be so absorbed in someone else that, temporarily, all the real problems and suffering of life fade into the background. This is the unfinished sentence of a person who was already steeped in escapist behaviors and saw the faces on Instagram as another substance to abuse to alleviate the tricky problem of self-awareness. But that’s hindsight. And he was very charming. I replied, “If YOU ever want to take me out to dinner.”
We jumped in really quickly. The fact that we had known each other since freshman year of college and had been following each other on Instagram for months played into a false sense of groundwork already laid. We skipped over some of the necessary time that it takes to truly get to know someone and dive into a partnership. We spent countless hours holed up in his bedroom listening to music, laughing at ourselves and admiring each other’s bodies and faces. He drank a lot, but I was intent on not “fixing” him. After two weeks he asked me to be monogamous, after a month he came to my parent’s house over thanksgiving so as not to be apart for a whole weekend. He told me he loved me in a room surrounded by pictures of me wearing funny hats as a child. He told me I wanted to say it too. I did. It all seemed ass backwards and perfect at the same time.
I had dated a 25-year-old photographer prior to this, so I was aware of the statements that could be made about the status of a relationship based on the frequency of two people appearing in, or tagged in, photos together. Friends from far and wide texted me during that year asking, “are you with that girl now?” even though I’d provided no textual evidence as such.
Mateo started talking after just a couple of weeks about how badly he wanted to post a photo of us and let our mutual friends know about our relationship. He pored over this more than I would have expected, given that he was prone to a Bill Burr-inspired rant about how disillusioned he was with all the trite trappings of society. He often professed his deep concerns for the state of our country and society as a whole and dismissed any petty obsessions of mine like being concerned about a zit in a photo, because he “had bigger things to worry about.” And I bought into this. Oops. And duh.
When he posted that first photo of us together, I felt a deep and false sense of security in how committed we were. It was out there, our mutual friends would now know that our worlds had collided and that it wasn’t just sex. The conversations that were probably necessary around where the relationship might be headed were never had. They were replaced by a photo and an assumption of being on the same page. We happily plodded along our path of cracking ourselves up and doing things together.
We went on a trip to Colombia together, posting photos that told us and “them” how we were doing. The four months were intensely fun, but riddled with red flags. He couldn’t deal with my frequent insomnia, lashing out at me because he felt guilty that he snored. He disappeared for four days over Christmas and barely showed up for the conversation when I insisted that we talk. While he poured shots of Evan Williams, I implored him to understand that it scared me to be in a relationship with someone who didn’t even consider talking to me about his demons. He questioned my sexual past and some of my friendhsips and became a bit possessive over my time. It was early enough in the relationship that I was able to see past these things. Did I mention he was charming?
My body often tells me things that I’m not ready to see. Insomnia kicks in when I’m with someone new no matter what. After time proves that I can let my guard down and be vulnerable, it gets better. We tried white noise machines, earplugs, nose strips, sleeping on his side, and my sleep was still spotty. The exception was our trip to Colombia, wherein I realized that I felt totally on equal ground as him for the first time. I slept beautifully and didn’t even hear his snoring. In the week that followed that trip I had this one picture of the two of us on the beach. Every time I went to post it, I couldn’t pull the trigger. My finger was paralyzed and this spoke volumes.
Three weeks after the trip he became a little distant. I thought this was the inevitable need for us both to remember that we had our own lives, with our own interests and friends, and I was actually relieved. He reneged at the last minute on a brunch plan, claiming that he didn’t want the “pressure” of not being able to cancel last minute. Considering I hate plans too, I said, “I hate brunch! I hate plans! You invited me to this.”
I had a massage that day and was told that my “heart protector” was really tense. There goes my body again. I didn’t hear from him all day so I sent the YouTube video of Rick Astley singing, “Together Forever,” a little inside joke we had. Except I got it wrong, the inside joke was actually about the song “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Looking back at the state he was in, he probably saw the words “together forever” and went into full blown panic. Oops again.
That evening he called to tell me he needed “space.” This hit me like a stab wound to my gut and sent me down a spiral of realizations and tears that lasted two weeks. I couldn’t talk to him at all. In that time he posted two photos. One was of himself and his brother, sister-in-law and their two kids, a testament to how hard he was trying to repair what I knew to be a damaged relationship with his brother who was going through a tortured divorce. It was partly for my eyes and perhaps his own sense of self worth. I didn’t like it. He hadn’t seen his brother in the four months that we’d been dating and I thought it a ploy at martyrdom and a scapegoat for his irresponsibility with his own emotions.
A couple days later, seemingly to prove to me that he was embarking on a self improvement journey, he posted this: a photo of his home cooked porkchop and asparagus dinner with the caption “Dinner for one #hungryman”. I unfollowed him then. It was unnecessary and too soon. It was either a declaration of his independence from me to outside eyes or a selfish attempt to show me that he was poetically isolating himself and bettering himself through the culinary arts.
I wanted to believe that he wouldn’t be actively looking for my unfollow, but I also wanted to hurt him and show him in language he understood that I was deeply wounded by his actions. It worked. A couple of days later when he realized he lost a follower, he texted, “I see that you unfollowed me. It sucks but I understand it. I will miss you. Goodnight, goo.” I regret not writing back, “You unfollowed me in real life. That also sucked.”
I’ve been wondering over the past couple weeks what’s behind the locked door of his private page. I no longer have the tagged photos of us in Colombia, and I do not have any way to track what he is doing. It struck me how jarring this is. With the umbilical cord of his social media totally cut off, I feel exposed and vulnerable and alone. It’s a stark way to feel the darkness that overlays everything that used to glow when I was in love. I can resist the temptation of looking at my saved photos and videos until I’m ready, but I know that if I still could see his Instagram page I would succumb. I would look and I would feel like we were communicating. I would feel that warm social media blanket enveloping me and telling me we are still together on some level. But it’s not real. I wonder if he knows that.