I’m not a social media person. I get addicted to fantasies of my own concoction too easily and so I’ve tried my best to avoid TikTok. I’ve never had Instagram. Or Twitter. I barely touch Facebook and when I do, all I see are political ads and my great aunt’s xenophobic posts.
But, I do have Venmo. This story starts with me trying to transfer dog sitting money out of Venmo and accidentally spotting my ex’s name next to a tennis ball emoji.
We broke up two years ago. I was the one who ended it. Over Facetime, while we were living states apart. I know that’s a terrible way to end a three-year relationship with a beautiful dark-haired boy who had once been my best friend — but it had to happen. It was after our college graduation, and I was starting to accept that I was queer, restless, repressed, and the only way to keep living was to give myself the freedom I had never had.
We haven’t talked since. Last year, when I found out from a mutual friend that my ex had started seeing an unnamed someone who made him both happier and better, it took me a while to swim out of paralyzing grief. Since then, I haven’t heard anything else about his life. No details. No pictures. Not a hair of him or her. Not even on Facebook.
And now, after all this time, thanks to Venmo — I know her name.
It is so easy. I’m surprised it took me so long. Here I am, simply minding my own business, about to transfer that $25.00, and then I see my ex’s name at the top of my Venmo timeline. Some lady had paid him for a tennis lesson. Hmm, the evil-part-of-me that-yearns-for-pain thinks. Actually, it isn’t even a complete thought. It’s a reflex. Evil-me snarls into control, and I tap his name. And then I scroll through his payment history.
Her name is everywhere.
To Jennifer — *little blue airplanes*
To Jennifer — Uber and lazy
To Jennifer — za za za
To Jennifer — FORE *golf club swing*
To Jennifer — *heart heart heart*
In that moment of seeing their names tangled together, Venmo transforms into my kryptonite of all social media, my Achilles heel, my hamartia, the weak hollow spot of my left breast, the chink of my armor ripe for arrows. Venmo is a gorgeous, maddening mix of details and vagueness lovingly giftwrapped and placed at my imagination’s feet.
Here, Venmo says, what story can you craft out of a payment made for $16.50, a coffee cup emoji, paper towels, and the phrase “can I get the meat sweats please?”
I slam my phone down. Venmo was open for less than ten seconds, but it was more than enough. I breathe — sharp breath in, sharp breath out.
No one really thinks of Venmo as social media. No one seriously puts efforts into stunting on Venmo. It’s a circus tavern of careless, wild exchanges where mere handfuls of winged dollars fly back and forth from person to person. It’s a flirtatious and ecstatic community that revolves around endless partying, eating, and drinking — foamy mugs of beer, za za zas, eggs sunny side up, brrrrunch, red red wine. It’s also sprinkled with the hard realities that make personal worlds go round: new can opener, cleaning shizz, grosh, wifi. It has none of the posture and delicate art of Instagram. No deliberation of a Facebook thought. It’s carelessness over posts and the propensity of inside jokes gives it an informal, personal cloak — unlike other social platforms, it always seems so raw.
And yet, Venmo is frustrating. With their lack of substance, payments can mean anything. Three crab emojis from Katherine to Cheryl. Did Katherine and Cheryl go to the beach and lie golden and hot together, drinking coconut martinis, slipping in and out of turquoise water, sandy patches sticking their wet freckled skin? Did they eat at a loud, jazzy restaurant, split a platter of stone crab legs, and dip tender white meat into warm pools of butter throughout their eager conversation of med schools? Or did Katherine give Cheryl pubic lice and is now kindly helping pay for treatment?
Sam to Tiffany — you know *smirky face*
Craig to Mike — *hissing snake*
Anne to Iza — wet season
Sofia to Anne — for helping me not die
Mike to Caroline — im for the BOYZ
Cryptic, hieroglyphic. Venmo is a goddamn epic poem constructed out my ex’s name and dollar bills. I am intoxicated with stalking guilt, challenge, dejection, and curiosity. There is no going back.
For the record, I don’t limit my stalking to my ex. I half-scrolled through my sister’s account. My best friend’s. A brief crush’s. I create whole narratives out of emojis and snips of arbitrary slang phrases. It’s great. Very healthy. Very non-invasive of other people’s privacy.
But if evil-me is looking for pain, he’s the only one that can give it.
The worst one is on the public payment page. It’s from him, sent to his older brother.
For Jenn and I
No emojis. Bare, whitewashed. To a less obsessed person, it would be nothing to work with.
But not for me and the powers of my fucking awesome imagination.
First of all — For Jenn and I — excellent grammar sounding language. I applaud. He always did write well. And quickly. He once wrote a ten-page history paper in a few hours while I sat next to him in the library and sweated over a single paragraph for my study abroad application. I remember eating a mushy red apple because I was starving. We left the library just before midnight and it was raining, so we ran back to his dorm in the humid dark, slipping on the wet bricks, laughing, backpacks held over our head.
But that’s beside the point. For Jenn and I. To his brother. Who I met the one time that I visited his family in California. During my visit, while my ex and his brother were in the basement grabbing more beer, his mother pulled me aside in their kitchen. She had laid her silver knife down, paused in chopping cilantro, and put her warm hand on mine.
“He’s such a good person,” she said. “I know all mothers think this about their son, but he is different. Different than my other sons. He feels things very deeply. He is very special.”
“Yes,” I said. I knew it then, like I still know it now. “He is.”
For Jenn and I. To his brother. Okay. His brother is living in Peru, coaching tennis. Perhaps they went to visit him. The three of them sat around a wooden table in a tiny apartment under warm lighting, rose candles on the table, scratchy jazz on an antique record player, a bottle of 2018 Malbec popped open on a granite counter. They eat flays of duck breast with coriander and spiced honey. His brother bought and cooked the duck and the duck was so great and so expensive — it was a very rare breed of duck — and they all had such an incredible time that he and Jenn wanted to send his brother some money as a “thank you for hosting.”
Jenn. I should probably change her name for this piece, but I can’t. It’s usually easy to change the names of people I write about. I’ve done it for him countless times. But her. All I have of her is her name. It’s all that’s real. I have not scrolled through her Venmo because I’ve somehow drawn the line there, but I see her full name appear throughout his payment history. It’s Jennifer. He calls her Jenn. It’s so intimate. I cling to it.
I am aware that my behavior might be problematic. But hey. When I tell my roommate that I’ve accidently become addicted to stalking my ex on Venmo, she slaps her hand on our kitchen counter.
“I’ve done that!” she says. “Venmo is such a weird corner! You can find out EVERYTHING if people spend enough money.”
My roommate says she once followed the life of a toxic, alcoholic guy who had dragged her around for six months. After he told her that they couldn’t see each other anymore, she watched him through Venmo enter a relationship with someone named Lucy — saw the uptick of their dinners and drinks — saw him buy groceries with Lucy — hampers of food, baskets, receipts — and move in with Lucy — rent emojis, tiny bundles of money next to a cute yellow house. He’s going to AA meetings now. My roommate says she hopes Lucy is all right.
It makes me think about my own payments. What could someone glean from my Venmo history?
In Venmo, I eat a lot of pizza. I’m possibly seeing someone named Kevin. Ned sent me a payment with the caption “it’s about Power” so I could be running for political office. Or maybe I beat him in an arm-wrestling match.
In reality: I wish I ate more pizza. Kevin is gay. Ned and I hooked up, went on a long hike, and talked about gender roles in the bedroom.
Honestly, is there anything more ridiculously self-destructive and millennial? I love it. I feel like a new smoker sneaking outside and crouching under my strict mother’s porch steps to take quick drags on a cigarette before stamping on it violently as if I had never been smoking at all. As if the vehemence gives me credit to denial and infallible protection against lung cancer. God, it’s so thrilling. How much pain will I feel in these 49 indulgent seconds scrolling through Venmo before my better-self screams in horror — WHAT ARE YOU DOING — and rips me out of the app with two quick home clicks, a swipe up, and a facepalm.
There’s so much activity on Venmo. Turnover is intense. New posts come up every hour of the day. It’s Russian roulette on the public payment page. There’s no guarantee that I’ll see his name attached to hers. No guarantee that I’ll even see his name. Let no one say that I don’t live dangerously. Scroll — cousin and “concert tickets.” Empty click. Scroll — coworker and “Chick-Fil-A.” Empty click. Scroll — his name and Jenn’s with “gnocchi,” an emoji of a bowl of noodles, and a pulsing red heart on February 14th. Bang. I’m fucking dead.
I mean, come on. Who can resist a game like that?
After all this time, after all the people I’ve paid, he’s still in my top friends. Every time I tap on the little notepad in the right-hand corner, the tiny circle picture of him, smiling in a red lobster hat, comes up as my third suggested recipient.
And let’s not even talk about my Venmo profile picture. The picture he took our sophomore year of college where I’m holding a huge white flower next to my face, beaming, looking at the camera, looking at him. We were on a walk. It was just before we left school for the summer, and we had plucked the flower from a lush, vine trailed fence by the arboretum. You can see it in my eyes, which are scrunched and happy in the sun, that the only person in the world that I would ever want to look at is him.
It’s my first and only Venmo profile picture. I’ve never had the energy to change it.
Venmo can be so cruel. In its automatic assumption that because you’ve paid this one person many times, you are still able to pay them. Like this one person still is — and always will be — happy to receive a payment from you. Venmo is so hopeful in its suggestions of top friends. So positive. It wants you to send him money for a breakfast burrito. It wants you to reach out.
It’s so hard to tell your hopeful Venmo — i can’t.
What’s in a name? A name that rocks onto your phone in little neat grey letters when you least expect it, a name that you scour for on-screen among dollar signs, a name that you will always recognize in every arch and curve even if you were struck blind. A name that starts on the tip of your tongue and ends folded back in your throat. A name that you can no longer place in his mouth with yours.
What’s in a name? You cannot answer. You only know that no rose by any other name will ever grow on Venmo — gorgeously crimson and painful through your bewildering first love — just as bitter, just as sweet. •