In the first surreal stretch of the pandemic, when the whole world paused like one of the static squares of Instagram, I could see the man I loved only through the internet, where his face grinned up brightly beside the smug smile of his ex.
She had left him in those last weeks of normalcy, when risking the unfamiliar to venture from the safe shelter of a relationship, of home, had still seemed an inconsequential decision.
As his decision must have also seemed, more than a year before, when he had interrupted our own intermittent relationship and left our hometown — and me — for her.
“Is there someone else?” I had questioned, protesting his plans, despite his promises that nothing but adventure and advancement of his career was beckoning him to a new life in Berlin, away from our Chicago home.
“Then please don’t go,” I begged.
But then, just a few weeks before he was to leave, I opened my phone and scrolled to a stop on a photo of the Tempodrom, a German event venue he had visited on a preparatory trip when he had pointed his phone camera to the structure’s top. And now its pointed white peaks poked up into my face from his Instagram account. “Beautiful Berlin,” he had inscribed beneath, his caption catching my hand, my pointer finger shaking above the screen.
And I knew then that he would leave.
Once there, his Instagram captured the German capital’s long canals lined with autumn leaves, its grand shopping malls decked for the winter holidays, until I told myself to look away. Away from the joyful highlight reel of each passing day, each passing frame, of his life without me.
And for going without for a set time — two months, maybe stretched to three — I would reward myself, I decided, with some luxury. Perhaps a beauty treatment that seemed to make models irresistible to men like him on Instagram.
Each time the app beckoned to my fingertip, hovering above the pink-and-gold icon, I paused to picture my promised prize, glinting at the end of the successive winter sunsets marking yet another day of my darkened screen.
Then the first warm morning of spring bloomed in Chicago, and the sun kissed my shoulders on my way to a matinee play. When the lights came up at intermission, I turned my phone face up to a message lighting my screen.
“Thinking of you. I’m so sorry for how things works out with us,” he had written. The typo, the slip in tense, intended, surely, as past, our relationship slipping away from the present into history. A kind of final eulogy.
But at first, I did not comprehend. I thought only, hopefully, of his thoughts, directed across the miles and months, to me. I turned the phone to my friend beside me, and her eyes filled watching me cry.
In a mournful scene in act two, though, a depiction of unrequited love, I began to understand: He had started his own second act.
“He is seeing someone,” I told my friend afterward in the blinding sunshine, just before she was to descend underground into the dark subway stop. My darkened screen dangled, weighty, from my fingertips.
“Will you look for me,” I asked. “Will you see if you see anything on his Instagram?”
In an Instagrammable nearby tea shop, a converted greenhouse with tall glass walls looking out onto a garden of budding bushes, their fragrance wafting in through the open doors, I waited for her report.
“I saw something,” she typed, cryptic.
Then my fingers were fumbling over my phone. Slipping on the screen. Tapping out the screenname that had only just begun slipping from my muscle memory.
And then there: his familiar face.
And there, beside his: a new girl’s.
Far away, the syllables of my name, or perhaps just the iterated ingredients of my waiting drink, must have been repeated with increasing urgency as I rose from the clanging metal chair. The bird calls from bush to bush must have escalated as I stumbled outside. The traffic must have swerved as I swayed into the street and flailed my arm toward a taxicab.
Life must have continued, as it does, regardless of small, individual tragedies. I do not know. My life, my reality, had condensed into the stilled rectangle of my screen.
“Instagram isn’t real life,” one of my more pragmatic friends had long reminded me. And Instagram itself, with its famous filters, winks at that open secret. In the hidden, second frame is relegated reality. “Swipe right,” influencers quip, “for Instagram vs. Real Life.”
I readily acknowledged this reality. Of course, Instagram is not real life. It is the ideal life. Life as we wish it to be, the fantasy, movie version.
Who would play you in a movie of your life? the question used to be posed, a staple at cocktail parties, inviting a list of celebrities for the role.
Now we play ourselves.
In picture-perfect pictures. Selections of the best moments of our lives.
And she had been selected to co-star in the movie of his life.
“When something notable happens, I post on Instagram,” my lover later admitted, a succinct description of social media’s inherent necessitation of curation. We all now function as film directors, or art gallery owners, choosing what to include in the special exhibition, and what to leave in the dark, unseen storage in the basement or back room.
Back-alley had been the designation for our relationship — or, rather, our secretive sexual relations — that I had flung out in fights with my lover years before, in the months after we had met when he had hesitated to mention me on the internet. What if there, my dark eyeliner, detailed in tutorials by so many Instagram models and influencers, somehow crossed the Facebook page of his conservative Wisconsin mother?
“Has your family ever even heard of me?” I asked him once, and he paused, silent across our Internet phone call before he was able to name only two of his loved ones.
“I reserve Instagram for people I love,” he had blurted, too blunt, on the last drunken night of our first trip together, in the back of a taxicab on the Brooklyn Bridge, suspended over the dark waters that imprison Manhattan.
The trip had originated at my request, as my attempt to match his passion for travel in those first heady days of romance, when similarities are explored—and sometimes forged, in both senses of the word: created, and yet also imitated in deception, sometimes even unconscious deception of the self.
But perhaps I had also unconsciously offered the trip as an escape, as a kind of recompense for the imprisonment of exclusivity that I had requested, and he had granted begrudgingly.
But he had demurred at first. “Not New York,” he had said. Too many friends there would expect a visit, would express offense if they did not see him, yet saw his trip on Instagram.
“If I don’t post anything online,” he had finally compromised, “we can go.”
When we went one foggy morning to Central Park, when the raindrops sparkled like the glass skyscrapers above his head, I was the only one who lifted my phone. And then I uploaded his smile, reflecting mine behind the camera, as he bent down to the water, where a pair of brown-and-white ducks poked their beaks up toward his tanned nose, which had been dusted, while kissing, with a powdering of white makeup from my own.
“Who is this?” a friend commented on my Instagram post.
But he could have been anyone. A male figure, maybe a stranger, somewhat distant. A similar perspective I had chosen a month before when I had posted my first picture of him. Far off on a hiking path. Just a man in a hat.
And neither photo identified him with a caption or a tag.
I composed a caption in my mind, though, rearranging and repeating the lines like an incantation the next morning as I circled the gallery floors of the Whitney Museum alone, returning to each identical set of stairs folding up to the top balcony, where I sank to a hot metal bench overlooking the sunlit roofs of New York City.
Below, just an hour before, he had tilted his hat and sunglasses and smile at me across a small metal table in a park, where our napkins and newspaper fluttered beneath our coffee cups and cake, and I had tilted my camera to capture, close up, the crumbs on his tank top, the golden hairs on his tanned arms. Happiness itself encapsulated in this particular moment.
This particular man.
“I didn’t know the New York City tour guides were so handsome,” I had formulated for the photo’s hypothetical subtitle as my eyes had glazed over the exhibitions on the floors below. And then a white wall, imprinted in large black letters with W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1929,” had risen in front of me. My eye — and then my phone — zoomed in on five brutal lines: “For the error bred in the bone / Of each woman and each man / Craves what it cannot have, / Not universal love / But to be loved alone.”
Alone, then, on the bench above the city, where each individual life blurred together from this vantage point into an indistinguishable mass, I posted those hopeless words in place of his specific face. Because I knew then that I had no place to claim him so publicly, so particularly, as my own. To ask to be loved alone.
“I’m not posting to social media, remember?” he reminded me later that evening. “And I’d think it’s common courtesy to ask before you’d post me,” he added, his gaze drifting off ahead. We had both just met the eyes of a tiny white dog peeking up from a basket beside us in the stands at a tennis match, and he had urged me to photograph the improbable spectator for my Instagram.
“Why don’t you post it on your Instagram,” I had countered, still hoping for one small acknowledgment of our reality, our relationship, on this the trip’s final night.
I left then. Rushed out to the stadium concourse, dizzy with fans and food vendors. Spun around in search of an empty corner. Leaned over the railing in the cool night air. And shaking, my finger slashed at the Instagram app and batted at the screen until my two photos of him, even if depicted from afar, disappeared.
Still visible, though, were my tears when I returned, and he looked up, from the swinging rackets on the court, to our own volleys of words, just starting at love-love.
“I’m done. You can be free,” I flung out after the match as we waited on the dark lawn for a taxicab. And after he closed the plastic partition between the driver and our heated exchange in the backseat, I opened my window, and a rush of air swept in from across the Brooklyn Bridge, chilling the years ahead, the faltering fits and stops and starts of our future love.
His last lovers, he explained, leaning forward with the speed of the tires, had attained their place, centered in the squares of his Instagram, because of his love for them.
So he was capable, I understood with a jolt, of that kind of public recognition and love.
“But you,” he continued, “I’ve only been holding you halfway.”
And he rested just one hand on my unbuckled knee, jostling over the pavement the same way it swayed later on the train back from the airport, when he stood up just before his stop, and he leaned down and centered just one kiss on my forehead, and then he was gone.
“I really have given the whole social media thing a lot of thought since New York,” I emailed him a few days later, attempting to undo the finality of our goodbyes. “I took it as a symbol of how you feel about me and how open or proud you are that I’m in your life,” I explained. The past tense took surely an attempt to convince myself, more so than him, that I had left this previous perspective somewhere back in Manhattan. “I’ve realized that I don’t want to live my life based on the silly unreality I’m performing for a few people online.”
Only 767 friends or family members or strangers — or most probably robots, those best representatives of social media’s unreality — monitored his online life. Only 270 took any notice of mine. Ours were not the accounts of supermodels or singers — or even the lesser celebrities created by Instagram itself, the influencers — followed by thousands of fans and reporters ready to re-gram a posted public announcement of a relationship substantiated by going “Instagram official.”
In contrast, perhaps our Instagrams were actually laughable.
His scoff resounded throughout his responding email. “I don’t feel like I can take this seriously as a relationship. You broke up with me because of a comment I made about Instagram,” he marveled. And in the inferred emphasis on that last word, I heard his exasperation at my fascination with frivolous triviality. “You acted like a 5-year-old girl who threw a tantrum because she didn’t get the lollipop she never even asked for — even though her parents had just given her a horse and a new bike.”
He only played at dating after that, granted only casual, sporadic rendezvous in the months until he left me for a real relationship in gritty, graffitied Berlin, where he saw his new young lover, with her freckles and full cheeks, seriously. Officially.
He accused me of childishness, though, when I requested he remove her wide, childlike smile that still stretched across his Instagram grid after the close of their relationship.
He had just crossed the Atlantic before the close of borders. And though the virus had divided countries from each other, it had brought him home to reunite with me.
“Visiting CHI,” he had titled his preparatory email during the final weeks of winter, when we were all still anticipating a typical spring. When he was still planning a brief trip to the U.S. for his brother’s birthday celebration. A stop in Wisconsin at his aging mother’s bedside. A visit to Chicago, he proposed, for a sexual liaison with me.
I hesitated. Debated.
“Maybe just dinner or a drink,” I texted, tentative, only hours before the official pronouncement of the pandemic flared onto my phone in a startling news alert.
And then the reports started scrolling down my screen: Celebrity infections announced on Instagram. Sports seasons suspended. Cities locked down. The restaurant reservation he had made — canceled.
The plan for the venue, and menu, changed to sparkling wine at my apartment.
And I began to imagine him there for more than just one evening. Weeks, even months of quarantining together — easing into a lifetime of living together.
Perhaps this dark force of nature could accomplish what the forces of time or maturity or my endless begging never had: Keep him with me.
Then he was standing in the center of my living room and extending both hands to hold me — not halfway, but all the way, pressing my body against his. Then stretching together on my sofa as the TV screen streamed endless distractions from the pandemic, which lurked invisible in the dark outside my home.
“I want to be your home, your family,” I whispered one night on his lap.
“You’re my lady,” he announced at last.
He was homeless now, barred indefinitely from Berlin, where his landlord had ended his lease and stuffed into a corner his abandoned pile of possessions. And like them, he too had been abandoned, his mother’s life ending in a nearby Wisconsin nursing home where he had not been permitted to say goodbye, had not been able even to plan a memorial gathering with his siblings.
So when he left later to mourn with his brother at a cabin hidden somewhere in the mountains of Vermont, all I had left was his voice, distant in his calls from across the continent, and his photos, vivid in living color on Instagram.
Where his face pressed again and again against the freckles of his ex.
“Please delete those photos,” I began to beg, finally becoming the whining child he had labeled me as our voices rose in opposition and carried across the phone line well past either of our bedtimes.
And maybe my behavior proved his characterization of Instagram as just for kids. Perhaps the preoccupation with a simulacrum of perfection, the preference of fantasy to reality, mirrored the fascination with bedtime superhero stories and fairytales that children are expected to outgrow. Indeed, of young Americans ages 18 to 24, 75 percent told a Pew Research survey that they used the app. While in the older age range, the 30s and 40s that my lover and I occupied, not even half had posted or perused in the year prior to the pandemic.
Now, however, in this surreal moment of disconnection from the physical presence of others, from the whole physical world, suddenly everyone seemed to be — indeed, almost had to be — on social media. The digital representation of the self became the actual self, the only possible version to present to others.
Instagram was, in fact, real life.
At the start of my daily new routine — the mindless playing of the morning radio to populate my apartment with disembodied voices, the still-sleepy dreamlike floating from my bedroom to my kitchen-table makeshift cubicle — I would open his social media.
Yes, his “good morning” would also flash onto my phone in a text message notification. But that brief greeting could not replace his presence in the slow unspooling of the ordinary mornings we had once shared. The debates about the headlines twirling on his tongue. The breakfast eggs sizzling beneath his spatula. Then the pause at the open window for the inhaling, exhaling of his cigarette smoke.
So I looked to social media for a brighter, fuller picture of his life quarantined miles from mine.
What rejoinders had he tweeted to the first cycle of bad news breaking with the dawn?
What sunlight had he Instagrammed slanting over the hardwood floor where his toddler nephew crawled, captured in silhouette?
What lofty Vermont mountains had he documented like a classical oil landscape painting?
And in the gallery below, always currently on view, hung the still lifes I would visit afterward, reflexively, in the exhibit I had privately titled Life with His Ex. Cocktail with ice, lemon peel, and palm trees on island vacation with her. Bowl of soup, garnished with sour cream, made by her. And then, girl with basil in her arms, preparing to make his birthday dinner. Girl with straw hat by phone booth. Girl with sundress on steps. Girl, solo, still.
Still, as in motionless, yes. But still, also, as in continuing. Because on the Internet, everything goes on forever. A whole relationship still intact. Still together.
“You’re asking me to erase my past,” he objected, almost whined, on another late-night phone call as our separate quarantines — like the pandemic, like his Instagram — continued unchanged.
“This isn’t the long-distant past, some long-ago ex,” I countered. “You left me for her.”
I had always sympathized with the one who is left, whether in life or in works of art. I took the side of the poet Sharon Olds the first time I read her haunting titular poem “Stag’s Leap” in her collection about her divorce, despite her admission that “Even when it’s I who am escaped from, / I am half on the side of the leaver.” On the contrary, I was wholly against any leaver, whom I had long branded the abandoner, the quitter. Even in middle school, I had learned with enduring horror of Paul Gauguin’s desertion of his wife and five children for the island where he would paint his multitude of nudes. And I believed the leaving itself must have struck less harshly on the canvas of his family’s lives than did the painting of their naked replacements. Celebrating. Publicizing. Worshipping.
“I’m sorry for asking you to take down your shrine to her,” I told my lover. Sarcastic. Exaggerated.
Yet, what is the solo photograph of one’s loved one on Instagram if not the ultimate adoration. And what is the camera if not an instrument of love, the way the rosary serves as an apparatus for religious devotion, a way of connecting and opening oneself fully to another? Taking up the camera and gazing with a steady focus on one object centralized and lit within the aperture.
“She’s beautiful,” someone commented on one of his photographs. An emoji of a hand curled into the symbol of perfection.
“Lovely,” one of his own captions agreed.
I had appeared only in the captions on his past Instagrams. Just my nondescript screenname after the @ symbol.
When he had visited a park alone following our separation after the New York City trip, he had pointed his camera to the gray pointed peaks of Chicago’s skyline and acknowledged the beauty of the view — a view I had always observed alone, since he had never joined me on my blue-checkered blanket despite my varied invitations.
“I hear you,” he had finally agreed beneath his Instagram photo. The gesture diminutive. Delayed.
And then, even later, had followed a throw-back post: A full-length portrait of himself, styled in a suit coat as dark-blue as the New York City night which he was awaiting on the blue-checkered carpet by the hotel elevator while my camera captured his pose.
“Nice shot,” he had commented, in the comments section, concealing his attribution to my Instagram handle far below the photograph.
Not only were the only photos from not just that vacation mine, but almost our whole relationship. For any of its special moments — a new jacket, a decadent dinner, an especially impish smile — I had my camera up. His remained in the darkness of the front pocket of his jeans. Or facedown on a table across the room.
Yet how often, across stadiums, cell phone cameras had risen up, blocking my view of the stage and taking the audience out of a transcendent moment at a concert — even as I nodded along to songwriter John Mayer’s “3×5,” announcing his resolve to lay aside the camera so he could see the world with both his eyes.
And fashion photographer Helmut Newton echoes that sentiment in the recent documentary The Bad and the Beautiful, describing how his camera served as a kind of protection, taking him out of a situation as if he were not really there.
How often, too, have psychologists and spiritual gurus urged us toward presence in the moment: living instead of Instagramming.
But I viewed the camera, the photograph, as a celebration of the future, preserving (and posting) the moment, the beloved — indeed, the love itself — so they continue forever.
The ephemeral breakfasts he made me in those first weeks of quarantine when he set down beside my keyboard his offerings of love: French toast with blueberries and maple syrup, or mashed avocado topped with a poached egg — I photographed them so I could keep those meals and memories after they inevitably disappeared.
But then I posted them without a tag, without a mention of the chef. As if I were quarantined alone.
Boyfriend won’t let me post him on social media.
Boyfriend won’t put me on Instagram.
Boyfriend won’t take down pictures of his ex.
Were my Internet searches questions? Laments? Or dark, shameful confessions?
They blended with the bleating of countless other anonymous online women, desperate for recommendations, or reassurance, from relationship experts. Perhaps he is just private, one therapist comforted, like a patient priest, within the pages of the love-and-sex Bible, Cosmopolitan. Another article title likewise minimized the subject’s significance. “Is this petty?” it questioned.
Yet such public gestures of commitment have long formed the rituals of relationship, acknowledged the therapist in Cosmo, citing high schoolers’ exchanges of objects like letter jackets and class rings prior to the two-dimensional displays — or disavowals — on social media.
“Turns out he was cheating on me,” concluded one of the women unacknowledged by a past partner on Instagram.
And in the past, beneath countless filtered photos of plump breasts, my lover too had offered his flat red heart, his emoji yellow wink. I had lurked in the shadows of Instagram and watched him call out compliments across languages and continents in anticipation of his international trips between his casual sex with me. And then he would strip away the screen to touch the three dimensions of the women, who would dissolve back into the two dimensions of my screen when they posted photos at bars or museums, where I could see in some piece of mirrored art his smile reflected in the background of the photograph.
Instagram as dating app. Hookup tool.
Did not that then render the photos of a partner, at their most elemental and crude, a cockblock? One he had chosen not to erect for me.
“Why haven’t you posted any pictures of us on Instagram?” asks the protagonist of her hesitant girlfriend in the British comedy Feel Good, which we screened one evening as our quarantine activity, lying together on the sofa.
I leapt up from his chest. Poked my pointer finger at the TV screen. “Yes, yes, yes,” I yelled. But he did not respond.
So I tried alternating between gentle suggestions and outright shouts, mixing my requests for representation on his Instagram with my complaints about his ex’s continued presence on the app — and in my mind — despite his own absence after he left for Vermont.
In between our interstate phone debates, I composed long drafts of potential texts in my phone’s notebook app. Emotional pleas. Rational arguments.
In a more irrational moment, I considered ending our relationship, yet again, years later, over the same stubborn subject: Instagram.
Or perhaps my relationship with the app itself, I considered, should end instead. How often had I declared my exasperation with my endless scrolling through influencer accounts, which all transformed as if following the same unprinted script, from portrayals of perfectly styled soufflés or swimsuits into a picture of a sparkling engagement ring? A reminder that although we were all united in this pandemic pause, we did not all share this separation, this isolation, in the same way. Some had lovers to hold instead of phones.
Yet my phone alone now connected me to my family, to my brother, who shared his daily quarantine run on his Instagram now instead of sharing our once customary Sunday night dinners at our favorite restaurant.
And in my loneliness, even the strangers whose lives I watched with voyeuristic envy became a comforting kind of perpetual company in the absence of my lover in the darkness of my bed each night.
Then one morning, his text message lit up my screen before I could even open social media to those pictures of his ex.
“I’ve deleted them,” he said.
I set the phone down on the kitchen table.
The screen went silent. Dark.
“I don’t know how to respond when I finally get what I want,” I had told him previously when he had at last proclaimed me his lady, exclusively. And again, I could not articulate — maybe could not even feel — the relief. Out of practice at happiness.
For with the erasure of those pictures had also come an easing of the painful past. Of the long last summer, when I had refreshed my phone, my finger stabbing at the screen in dread of the stabbing agony, to see the photos of her uploading in real-time, poking up repeatedly into my eye.
“Look,” I had moaned to my friends as I jabbed my phone into their faces, too.
But one friend had turned away with a wave of her hand. “Nah,” she had said before a swig of her wine at the bar beside me. “I don’t believe it. People only post shit like that when things aren’t going well,” she had insisted. Their filtered photos merely a veneer, trying to convince the world, or, more likely, themselves, of their happiness.
“It wasn’t what you think,” my lover confirmed later as we drank cocktails together in the cool dark on my balcony. “I wish you could understand how little those photos meant.” How much he was trying to prove or pretend at his success. Despite how lost he had felt in his new adopted city, Berlin. How lonely among the piercings and tattoos, when his style was as plain as his bald head. How miserable in the immature bickering with his much younger lover in their intermittent relationship.
Maybe he was tinting the past, as if with an Instagram filter, so that its sharp colors pricked me a little less. Or maybe he was telling the truth. Perhaps when you are truly happy, you stop forging the fake art online, and you start just living life. The way a writing teacher once remarked, when a fellow student criticized the plethora of sad endings in my nonfiction drafts, that when you finally get your happy ending, you stop writing. Because there is no need to anymore.
“I’ve realized that actual real moments with you are far more important to me than whether you or I post a picture about it and my friends like it,” I had written, long before, in my email to him after our New York trip. And now that he had promised to return from Vermont, now that he had returned from his far longer, more distant sojourn in Berlin, maybe the fact of his presence was all that mattered.
Here was the real thing. Real life.
He had materialized here on my balcony, in the green chair that I had purchased while he had been gone, when I had repositioned it repeatedly at different angles in the corner, where I had hoped it would somehow beckon him back to me, to take a seat, to stay — instead of standing over the railing’s edge, the way he used to smoke his cigarettes. As if he were ready to dart away and disappear, like the smoke into the air.
And in that solid chair, as he smiled at me at last across the balcony, I raised my camera, of course, and captured him. His nearly naked body. His legs splayed revealingly. A risqué photograph. And as I sent it to him later in between equally racy texts, I realized I could not have put that up on Instagram anyhow.
It was just for us.
Yes, I still hoped maybe we would someday smile online side by side, looking out proud and public at the entire bright world, when it ventured out from the surreal seclusion of this dark sickness. But for now, we were stilled together in a kind of private, paused enclosure. We were our own whole world. •