How do you know when a relationship is truly over? The word relationship, here, is a placeholder for all sorts of liaisons: going on three dates with someone in 2012 but then mutually ghosting each other; hooking up with an out-of-town firefighter to whom you mimed your phone number across a subway platform in 2014; texting someone from a dating app for weeks without ever meeting up. These low-stakes romantic antics never feel finished because they don't end abruptly in betrayals or break-ups; they drift into silence like the end of a 90s pop song.
My memory is so poor it alarms medical professionals, so the only record of these encounters I have are contacts in my phone and the oral histories of friends who were there or received texts from me at the time. Last week, I was scrolling through my contacts and found these names attached to real numbers in my phone: "Ugh," "No," "Australian," "Greek The Clubs," "Ant French," "Rando in the Subway," "British Penmy Farthing," "Pat Gov Ball," "Alberto Montenegro," "Jake Harvard," and "New England Alpacas."
While I remembered why "New England Alpacas" is in my phone—everyone should have an emergency alpaca contact—I couldn't recall the identities of "Greek The Clubs" or "Australian" at all. I remembered going on a corn-dog date with "British Penmy Farthing" (a drunken typo of Penny Farthing, the fratty East Village bar I frequented as a recent college graduate) and an ice-cream date with "Pat Gov Ball," but I don't remember how or why things ended, or even what their faces look like. There was someone in my phone whose name was listed as "Eilson Low Self Estrrm" followed by his company, Sex. What?
I began meditating on an unhealthy question: How dead are things that are over? What if, instead of swiping left on Tinder for that hour I lie motionless in bed after a shower, I could be dating someone already in my phone?
Because I have nothing left to lose with these people, on a spectacularly sunny Saturday afternoon I decided to stay inside and text "U up?" to every dude in my phone. I had two caveats: I wouldn't text guys with whom I myself had ended it, because that's cruel, and I wouldn't text people I'd actually dated dated, because that's self-harm.
My stomach was in knots. There's something uniquely pathetic about reaching out to 20 strange men at 3:00 PM. A saying attributed to French novelist Guillaume Musso feels appropriate here: "When you decide to hit rock bottom, humiliation is part of the deal."
Now I had to wait. Ant French responded instantly, though didn't show any traces of knowing who I was; he had clearly deleted my number or gotten a new phone. Later, I would respect the fact that he was the only one who actually answered my question, confirming that he was, in fact, up. Ah, la politesse francaise. We had a pleasant back-and-forth.
Then, a response from Australian rolled in. I will never know who he is or what we did.
The majority of the guys, however, didn't respond, whether because a "u up" at 3:00 PM on a Saturday feels like some kind of trap or because they didn't have the same number from years ago. Or because they hated me! Regardless, the lack of response was kind of surprising; if I received a "u up" from a random number, I'd interrogate the shit out of the sender. What if it was Lindsay Lohan?
Perhaps the most brutal non-response was from Pat Gov Ball because his read receipts were on and that is inhumane.
For some of the messages, typing in the contact brought up our old conversations. For example, I had the privilege of learning how Greek The Clubs and I met. Judging by the 4:48 AM time stamp, I suspect we were at The Clubs.
From all the weirdness came two net-positive, albeit strange, encounters. The first was with a guy I had a flirtation with five years ago, and the second, with a dating app guy I never ended up meeting last summer, for reasons I can't remember.
The first guy was doing well, though he seemed to be grappling with some fundamental insecurities, opting for the British spelling of apologize though he is not British and using the word programmed in a way that felt somehow pretentious. Still, catching up felt nice. I ended the exchange with a light and cheery "dope."
The dating app guy—who is in my phone as Jake Harvard—ultimately won the contest that this experiment in no way was. For some background: We texted in the summer of 2016, and then never met up because we both got busy.
When I texted him "u up" on this particular Saturday afternoon, almost a year after our last exchange, he didn't skip a beat. It was a swift and charming execution of the "yes...and" improv trope. Were we playing chicken with each other? Seeing who could take it further? No one should ever play that game with me.
We now have plans to go to an unorthodox museum, proving a theory I brought into this experiment: The odds of getting dates by harassing old contacts in your phone are pretty good. Did I answer my question, though? How dead are things that are over? Maybe things that are over are only sometimes dead.
Sex Machina is a new and very personal column exploring the intersections of sex, romance, and technology.