The thing about ghosts—except for the one in Hilary Duff's 1998 romp Casper Meets Wendy—is that they haunt you. This is why they're such an apt metaphor for the aspect of modern dating that allows people to vanish after dating or fucking, never to respond to another "u up?" again. But despite this illusion of vanishing, ghosts never quite disappear; they're everywhere.
I learned this firsthand in January, when a ghost appeared in my life, six months after he'd disappeared, because of something my butt did without my consent. Even recounting this is horrifying: After finishing burgers with a love-interest-turned-pal at Shake Shack, I looked at my phone to find that my butt had made eight separate FaceTime calls. While I'd been wrapped up in deriding my friend for his demented libertarianism, my butt had gone forward and reached out to a large, puzzling array of people: two friends; two dudes I hadn't spoken with since college; a family member; and then, one guy who ghosted me last summer after four pleasant dates, two of which had a food component. I mention the number of dates and the food component to illustrate that he had, in fact, ghosted; if you stop texting back after two dates—neither of which involving sushi or daytime macarons—that's not ghosting, that's just work is crazy-ing someone.
During dinner, my butt had attempted to video-chat him twice. And my records showed that he picked up both times.
I saw he had texted me back, too, asking if I was drunk. It was 7:18 PM. I told him no, I wasn't, noting that my butt had done this but I couldn't yet prove how. We slipped into an amicable back and forth. He was good; I was good; burgers were good; dying before the inauguration of Donald Trump would have been good.
A few days later, on Thursday at around 9:00 PM, the guy (I'll call him Mark) texted me again, asking if I'd be interested in grabbing a drink. I was eating pizza with a friend, cruising through my fifth beer and feeling reckless enough to have Googled "micropenis stats" a few minutes earlier, so I said sure, if he would come to a bar near where I lived. (He lived in Manhattan, uptown; his commute would be over an hour.)
When I walked into the bar, Mark was sitting at a table, reading a thick paperback—I didn't recognize the title, but I could tell from the imagery that it wasn't in the Song of Fire and Ice franchise so I got a little aroused. Is this some kind of sex trap? I wondered, remembering how cute he was. He's wearing reading glasses and a clean shirt! Our faces brightened when we saw each other. He bought me a drink. It was 11:00 PM. We talked about how law school was going for him (hard) and how writing was going for me (hard). Then, we pivoted to the subject of online dating (very hard). We started talking about last summer.
I found myself in a unique position—I could ask a guy why he lost interest in me, and my feelings probably wouldn't get hurt. The conversation felt low-stakes because a) I'd never been that invested; b) half a year had passed; and c) there were two corn dogs in my freezer waiting for me when I got home. He looked relieved when I told him I wasn't mad when he ghosted—I reminded him that I hadn't followed up, either.
He offered an explanation: Tinder, and the act of swiping itself, had desensitized him to women. He felt he had thousands of options, and he did. With me, he could have happily gone on another date, or he could have happily not. It was easier to not. He'd liked me, but not enough to transcend the possibility of someone else. He presented a classic Paradox of Choice scenario, as framed by psychologist Barry Schwartz: The more choices we have, the more anxious we are about making a choice at all. Rather than empowering us to make better decisions, which is what we're promised, the modern abundance of options makes us feel more depressed and alone. In the case of dating, the Bumbles and Tinders and Sea Captain Dates of the world have created a landscape where a person could spend 20 hours a day for the next 20 years swiping through faces, holding out hope that the next one will be hotter or have more tigers. (Is this what guys want? I am not the person to ask.)
He'd liked me, but not enough to transcend the possibility of someone else.
Mark said he wished he could have crushes on girls like he did in high school, when you obsessed over people because they also listened to Oasis or didn't try in gym class either. The conversation was bumming me out. Why were we here? Were we both just perversely curious about the reason things didn't work? Would we have ever seen each other again were it not for my butt and its schemes? I only really knew the answer to the last question: No.
I remembered Trump was getting sworn in the next day, so I started to feel faint and hot. Mark said his presidency wouldn't to be so bad; I said it would be. (I was right.) I said I wanted to go home. He walked me there. When we arrived at my front door, we turned toward each other and stood silently for what felt like the length of the House of Cards theme song.
"I want to kiss you," he said. "Is that weird?"
It probably was. "No, it's not," I said, leaning in toward him.
After another House of Cards theme song, I pulled away and went inside for corn dogs, alone.
I wish I could say we never spoke again, but that wouldn't be true. A month later, I drank a bottle of wine at a house party and texted him to tell him I was right about Donald Trump. He responded, "You were." I can't imagine us meeting again, unless one of our butts—or the universe—has other plans. But I'm not really convinced our butts aren't the universe, either.
Sex Machina is a new and very personal column exploring the intersections of sex, romance, and technology.