I don’t mind the gaps. You know the kind. The moment before an exhale and a laugh not yet realized, still bundled in the lungs. The instant before a foot hits the ground, a great crack of thunder right before the strike. A liminal space where everything hangs in the air, simultaneously fated and foiled, invariably and all at once.
There’s a finality to choosing, the ghost of the road not taken lingering in a series of troubling, utterly intolerable—utterly intoxicating—what-ifs. After all, I’m prone to trying on three or four outfits in the morning, just to be sure. And when ordering drinks, I am Sisyphus, the menu a tumbling boulder down a steep, steep hill of indecision. A chronic overthinker at my core, I know there’s an infinite number of moments to make a right decision, to be wrong.
Perhaps this is precisely the reason I’m an avid user of dating apps. Especially for a college student bearing the burden of youth and endless potential, the entire process functions like a pendulum caught mid-swing. Matching, exchanging pleasantries—it’s a no-man’s land where nothing is promised and even less is expected. If a message is botched, there’s another equally—if not more—likable conversation queued. If someone seems promising, I can imagine all the little ways we fall in love and then out of it, without the onus of living through it. With each little icon added to my repertoire of potential suitors, I am comforted with the knowledge that everything and anything is still possible, should I want it. A cat trapped in a Tinder-shaped box.
My fondness for unrealized reality rests on its propensity for self-preservation, a shield against the digital world. For one, I’m self-aware enough to concede that I’m a difficult person to get to know. My social media presence is close to nonexistent, and I take at least five business days to respond to texts. The feeling of immediate availability through Snapchat or Instagram or whatever makes my throat swell, choking on the threat of encroaching intimacy. For me, self isolation is familiar, almost instinctual.
Maybe it’s because I’m a twin—a constant, breathing weapon for comparison—or maybe it’s simply because I’m quiet by nature. But I adore being self-sufficient. I don’t—can’t—drive, so I’m intentional about living in walkable cities with decent public transportation. I take the time to be with myself and appreciate how my legs get me from place to place, a reliable source of movement. I make my own doctor appointments, I buy my own groceries, I pay for my own apartment. Two years ago, I researched colleges for my mom to resume her undergraduate degree. Now, nearing the close of my own college career, I’m soothed by knowing that wherever I land, I’ll be fine on my own.
In a similar manner, I frequent Tinder because, for me, it’s safe. It’s all low-stakes entertainment, a way to turn my brain off after a long day. There is no legitimate threat to my independence, my ego. Stuck in a superposition between suitor and stranger, I endure Schrodinger’s Tinder date over and over. Rarely do I match with friends (another form of self-preservation; I take three hour seminars with most of them), and so the majority of my time is spent pursuing profiles of people who I vaguely register as real. After hundreds of matches, faces and names are pretty much indistinguishable, with pictures of European vacations and New York bakeries blending into a single, amorphous mass. In a roundabout way, this banality opens me up. I can rant about my penchant for niche YouTube video essays and make grand statements about my unabashed devotion to Taylor Swift’s entire discography without fear of being cringe or weird or too much. These people don’t exist—not really—in the truest sense of the word. Rather, these conversations carry all possibilities, each one occurring at once. I have not yet arrived at a coffee shop for a date, I have not yet been rejected. There’s no telling if we, our texts, our flimsy attempts at a future, will coalesce in heartbreak, or even worse, love.
I have been in love before, once. It was good, until it wasn’t. For a long while, the pain was sharp and pointed—the words of a lover, now a scythe. The process of rebuilding myself was tedious. Even months after the blow, there were moments where I’d realize I was doing something we used to do together, now alone for the first time. The crushing weight of knowing I’d have to shower alone, sleep alone, write love letters to no one, was almost unbearable. I grew accustomed to the way his sweaters hung over my knees, how he’d take photos of us going grocery shopping. For a while, I wasn’t sure where to put all the extra love I still had in me. It festered and hung like a phantom limb, and I carried on with the weight of a love that was more alive than it should be.
Even after lots of intensive therapy and accepting that I was not treated like I should have been in that relationship, the process of being vulnerable again is, at best, scary and, at worst, absolutely petrifying. I finally excised him from my life, stopped him from overriding my brain at night. And now, when conversing on Tinder, I sense myself turning acrid, giving people a reason to leave, instead of a reason to stay. Another version of relinquishing the cat to another’s hand. I know love will come again, inevitably, as it always does. But what if I find someone who doesn’t mind my unintelligible ramblings about focaccia? What if they don’t mind that I still scroll on TikTok before I sleep? What if they rip my heart through my throat? What if I am wrecked and ravaged and—worst of all—what if I like it?
Still, I continue to swipe. Maybe as an act of stubborn self-defiance, or maybe because, even at my worst, I am an eternal optimist. Even when I won’t admit it, and I throw sarcasm at the wall because it’s easier than sincerity, deep down, I know I am fueled by hope. A writer through and through, it’s my job to live in doubt and come out the other end with a fully fledged world, forged in my own hands. Perhaps dating apps are another one of those stories, flourishing through a different medium.
These days, I swipe with no expectation. But still, no expectation is better than expecting the worst. I text, I talk, I go on dates. Slowly, I am making a direct observation, forcing an outcome, making the particles align. I cry, and I learn. I lose the cat, and I gain myself.