I’m walking down the sidewalk of the city I have just moved to and I swipe through the strange faces on Tinder. This one looks cute, this one seems too arrogant. I’m not sure about the haircut on that one. One of them only has an emoji of an eggplant as his bio and it makes me wonder what he’d be like in bed.
It has been two years since I’ve had a lover to call mine and mine only. Two years of flicking through men and doing my best to embrace my solitude. In these long months, I have been to restaurants and car parks and bedrooms. I’ve shivered while the man I am dating steals all the bed sheets. I’ve driven to a seaside town to spend a night with a casual encounter that takes me to a beachfront bar. In the shower I have laughed, stark naked, with a man who I have let touch me on and off since my teen years. One night on a sidewalk the rain fell all around while a man stopped me to ask for my Instagram. I’ve handed out fake numbers, and real numbers, and scathed my way through the sometimes-dreary tunnels of the dating world.
Some men have riveted me with their audacity, and others have left little trace of their existence. Some have given me ghastly, invisible wounds, and others only left dusty memories that glitter on the edges. A lot of them I have met online.
As the days add up and another date ends in hushed disappointment – an unmoving conversation, too much glaring aggression, an unwanted touch – I reflect on the plastic nature of dating in the 21st century. I wonder, with futile longing, how many more nights I am willing to sacrifice to partake in an evening with a stranger who feels hollow.
Some days, after a particularly plastic date, I will feel vigour in my blood as I decide that I will dedicate the next few months to building myself up into the most wholesome being possible: I will meditate, and journal, and I will not swipe on Tinder. No, I will meet someone the old fashioned way.
My daydreams are lush: perhaps I will be perusing the aisles of an old bookshop and a handsome stranger with thick glasses and a boyish grin will stop me to recommend my next favourite read. Or maybe I will simply be sitting in a coffee shop minding my own business as I innocently catch the eye of a wise businessman. Moments could exist, I dream, where I am rushing down the street, late for a job interview, and I physically collide with a tall man who helps me pick up the bag and the papers and the coffee that have spilled onto the sidewalk in our clash. After a stumbled conversation, we will discover that he is the one doing the interviewing, and a novel worthy love affair will ensue. I imagine soft touches and coincidental meetings and a red string of fate tying me from today to tomorrow. In all the scenarios I am surrounded by an authentic fever that was born from a date with destiny.
My daydreams do not deviate from reality entirely. I regularly put myself into real- life situations where potential suitors have the opportunity to cascade around me. I have met many men in the last two years in ways that skim the edge of the modern fairytale: one made my drink at the bar, another sidled past me on the dance-floor before scooping me by the waist.
After these meetings though, contact must be continued through technology. If they are lucky they get a phone number, and if you are smart they get your Instagram handle. From here, the read receipts and the delayed responses and the active notifications begin. From inception, the luminescent cables of social media bind and distract and carve out the guts of a lavish courtship.
Banished are the days of waiting for letters to arrive by post, or not hearing from your lover for a few days. With a single click, we can download a person’s entire history. We gobble it down with greed, with selfish torment, and we leave no space for mystery. When you catch up for coffee, you already know that their cousin has just given birth to their 2nd child. We recoil when they view our messages without replying, and then we feel a gust of adrenalin when they finally do reply. As if our human anatomy has shifted from reacting to the hunt of wild animals to the hunt of a lover.
Hours of waiting wheedle by and you are plastered together through an invisible thread. When you are face-to-face again, there are no exciting stories to spill. There are no hidden pockets to unveil from the day. Somehow, we have stolen that from ourselves.
My favourite question to ask a couple is: “So, how did you guys meet?” Mostly because I am curious, but also because somewhere deep inside I am keeping a tally. I’m still deciding whether this tally lives in my brain or my heart, but I refer back to it regularly.
When I ask elderly couples, I love to watch the lady’s eyes burn as she recounts the moment when he came over and asked her for a dance. Usually their mind transports them, and they will smile to themselves as they whisper, “And the rest is history,” or they’ll laugh a little while still glowing, “He was the best looking out of the lot.”
Sometimes the answer is a gilded chance meeting. Like, a next-door neighbours nephew who had a crush on my friend for years until he worked up the nerve to speak with her. Or another: a work colleague’s cancelled Valentine’s Day plans that led to him meeting his future wife that day.
Usually, the answer has a technological heartbeat. No less full of love, but a beginning born from a friend request, or a follow, or a swipe right. No less full of love, but woven from a robotic fingertip.
The more couples I ask, the more I gravitate toward online dating. The fail-rate seems slim, and the convenience is undeniable. I could be grocery shopping or feeding the cat or relaxing in the bath all while meeting new people. Through messaging platforms I have the opportunity to weed out all the men who flaunt their red flags early or have bad grammar.
There are no repercussions, I can simply unmatch or unfollow. Instead of being wrecked by the guilt of not knowing how to politely turn away from unwanted advances, I can simply delete them from my life.
So, the vigour in my blood will usually settle and I will redownload Tinder. My finger will swipe and my heart will feel dirty. Dark features, wide shoulders, easy smiles: those are the ones I will always swipe right for. But then I will think about all the men I’ve encountered in real life that have caught my heart in their hands who do not possess those features. I wonder how it is that I decide that this man could be fun, while this other one is definitely not my type, based off a small photograph and a short bio. I will close the app feeling muffled and unwelcome in my own body. Then I will open Instagram. Or Facebook. Or Snapchat. And conversations with distant humans will ensue.
I once listened to a podcast where the host called Instagram a ‘dating profile’. She explained the kinds of pictures you needed to have uploaded, the amount you needed to have uploaded so that you would not be perceived as a ‘weirdo’, or how many was probably too much. She explained how easy it is to slide into the DM’s and that you don’t necessarily need to be active on the platform to successfully meet potential partners on it. There was no malice in her observations, they were simply a reflection of how dating works in the 21st century and how acutely aware we are, as a society, that we are constantly being observed by future lovers through a glowing smartphone screen.
Much like filters, our relationships near manufactured states. Ideals are plastered all over our feeds. We expect glamour and prestige to ooze from our connections so that a good photograph can be posted to the gram. Or a fancy meal from a restaurant should be captured before consumption so that it can be released onto a story.
Our expectations are caught somewhere in between these contrived meetings and real-life longing, and our sexuality has digressed even further. A chance meeting that once led to an unfiltered night of passion has morphed into a simple “You up?” text whenever we are craving physical intimacy. It has become easier to entangle with strangers, swapping the uncalculated for the engineered. We do not have to buy them drinks, or make small talk, or work an angle, we simply have to state our intentions and find a match willing to conjure a single night of desire. It has become commonplace to forge a connection, but it has become common to sever that connection just a quickly as it was formed. The follower counts are high, but the deep, throbbing relations are cheapened by quick thrusts and grunts.
Some nights I wonder about questions that have no answers. Like, what happens to love when humans merge with AI? When our lives become robotic, will our love mimic our society? Which is stronger: the human heart and our desire to love, or science and its gleaning force? I think about the men I have dated, and the ways in which I have met them. I notice how technology brought us to one another, but that the force – the chemistry and attraction and yearning – was all human. I notice how the plastic feel of the 21st century dating world still has a human taste.
All these things we participate in – the photographs we post, the swiping we do, the chances we give – all come back to the carnal humanity we all possess. Our lives are increasingly monitored and monetised and processed, we are fed statistics and stocks, yet we search for love in between the technology. We sift our fingers through the high-tech robotics and we point to this or we point to that as we swipe, and we think, maybe my heart could rest here. The plastic veneer that sizzles over 21st century dating casts an eerie glow over passionate, raw, accidental love, but it is us, as humans, yelling at the top of our lungs, bleating hope into the wind and convincing ourselves that under the muddle of the melted plastic there could be something beautiful.
I am walking down the sidewalk in the city I have just moved to and I notice an old building. I peer closer as the sun rains down heavy, and read the rusted sign standing on wooden poles out the front. The whole city is slanted and this building is no different, it is part dilapidated and part refurbished, and I notice that the writing on the sign reads ‘There is hope in Christ!’. I do not think much of it until I stroll a few steps down the sidewalk and notice the next building over is a cosmetic enhancement clinic. I think about how close we stand to unadulterated living, how little space we have separating us from a filtered life and a truthful one. How much we all want love, yet how unwilling we are to remove the plastic and live in total vulnerability. I think about the transactional nature of 21st century dating, how often we invite stale and plastic interactions into our lives, but how much we want the real thing and are willing to work with the technology to get it, even if it means existing side by side with the unfavourable, hollow date nights.