There exists exactly one photo of the man I call my ex on my Instagram account. I know how to get to it, even though it is buried years deep. (Okay, I have it bookmarked.) And every so often, I’ll go and look at it for a minute or five, wondering what it would have felt like to have been one of those couples who selfied together. The kind of couple I say outwardly that I can’t stand, but, deep down, I envy a little. You know the ones. Maybe you are one. Let me say it again: I envy you.
I’m not quite sure why. It’s not as if having any pixelated proof of a relationship makes the emotions we shared and the words we said and the time we spent together any more real. And I’m sure that, because we are now no longer together, I would have gone through my account to perform the ritualistic purge of his presence, deleting every trace of him from my digital life until it seemed like he was never there at all. Because our generation is primed to overshare on every platform we can, when we retract all of that data, it is done in a big, often noticeable way. You don’t just break up in this day and age. You delete someone.
I didn’t delete this one snapshot of him, the only one I ever posted of him onto my account. Every other photo of him, I kept just for me, away from the eyes of the people who follow me, and from my family who live thousands of miles away and would have asked questions, and my friends who didn’t really like him anyway. He didn’t want me to post photos of him, and I was made to feel wrong for pushing him, for asking if it was okay to share a story or a joke on social media. It always baffled me. If I am excited enough about a pizza to take a photo of it, why shouldn’t I be as excited about someone in my life?
The day I posted this one image, though, it felt subversive at first. You can’t really tell that it’s him–his face is obscured–but I knew. I found my loophole. And he didn’t object to it.
It felt like a milestone for us–or to me, anyway. I often wonder how couples navigate the things that seem like major steps to the outside world, but are probably just mundane realizations that drift across you like sleep. You were casually seeing each other, but you wake up and realize they’re the only person you’re dating. A slip of the word boyfriend or girlfriend. Attending that first party together, or going to brunch with friends. They are things that could be made into big ordeals if you overanalyze them (and if there is one thing I am good at, it is overanalyzing) but are more likely than not, just moments you share together.
Because we were never really official–I hesitate to even call us a thing, even though we were and had something, I know that for sure–I didn’t post these milestones to social media, preserving them in pixelated amber before putting my phone down, and continuing on with our day. People often critique the digital generation by saying that we don’t know how to live in the moment, and that we’re too connected to our phones, that we never look outside of the screen. But I have seen, overwhelmingly, that most people strike a balance. We take a photo of our burger, sure, but then we put our devices down and savor every bite, only to go back and look at the number of likes once the meal itself is gone and it’s no longer impolite to whip the phone back out.
Instead of doing this, I dwelled in the moments my ex and I shared. I magpied them. And it wasn’t just photos, either. It was everything. I hoarded his small tokens affection, knowing that he’d never Instagram me or change his Facebook status, so I had to settle for other things, things that arguably felt more real but still weren’t the validation I wanted. The nickname he called me in the morning, when he was too tired to use my already easy name, became the thing I signed my emails with. The afternoon when someone put on “All I Want for Christmas Is You” on the jukebox at the bar and we danced as if it was the most natural thing to do in the middle of June, made it hard to listen to the song in December, when we were broken up.
Do you know how many stores play Mariah Carey in December? All of them.
It occurred to me that I was projecting the pieces of our relationship outward to prove to the world that it existed. That these pieces signified a greater whole, because if he wouldn’t call me his girlfriend or introduce me to his parents, I would take these other things and distort them into something more real. They were consolation prizes, polished up shiny and new until they meant so much more to me than they probably meant to him.
We danced in a bar one afternoon. Sometimes he used one syllable instead of the two that comprise my name. That’s all these things were.
When you so desperately want more than what someone else can give you, you will craft your own happily ever afters in the moments where you know they won’t mind, either because they won’t realize to look there, or they simply never think about it at all. A relationship is a huge jumble of moments and memories and words and emotions, things that are shared by the parties involved. And sometimes, some of these things that wind up in the pile mean more to one person than to the other. Sometimes, one person cares more about all of them. After all, it’s possible to be the person who loves the other more.
It is not wrong, though, to want to even out that imbalance. It’s damn near impossible to do, of course–you often cannot convince a person into caring more, though I think that is the main action at play for most people. And of course we want to be made to feel that another person is proud to call us theirs. That’s all we ever want: to be wanted. And if someone’s first inclination is to bury you, rather than consider the idea that if pixels don’t, in the grand scheme of things, matter all that much, why not indulge you with a simple image, what else will they want to hide?
Love, I have realized, is also a matter of humoring the dumb things another person wants, if only for their sake alone. If only–and maybe expressly because–we love them. Even if a photo, or a status update, or showing face at a high school reunion in which neither of you know anyone is one tiny moment in the grand scheme of a relationship, and doesn’t make that romance any more or less special, these are those strange milestones that still matter, in some way. You pose, the camera flashes, you post. And then, I’d imagine, we’d put our phones down, and continue in our shared life together, rather than dwelling on moments in the rearview and turning them into much larger memories than they really were.
Illustration by Paige Vickers