I have never felt more alone than that first autumn in New York. This became clear when I realized that despite our weekly happy hours, me and my fellow interns, whom I was banking on becoming best friends with before I’d even met them, had nothing in common except youth and desperation. “We’re just using each other until we make real friends,” one of them, a pretty girl with a Valleyspeak accent, joked one late night over drinks in a SoHo wine bar. We hung out a lot back in those days—so much so that the office gossiped about us dating. I guess I liked those rumors, not because I wanted to date her, but because those assumptions of romance were assurance of our burgeoning friendship. I was spending that much time with someone.
I didn’t have any friends in New York back then, not any real ones anyway, and I thought about that with each creaking step up to her fourth floor walkup, which was directly above the bar we’d just left. She had invited me to stay the night so that I didn’t have to trek back to Brooklyn. Anticipating a couch, she offered to share her floor-covering mattress instead. Immediately, I became flooded with anxiety as I mulled over the various ensuing scenarios, all of which seemed equally possible. We lay down together—not quite cuddling, but close enough to make a man wonder—before I decided I best not try anything. Keeping her as a friend, I rationalized, was more important.
We stopped speaking within weeks of our internship ending. During the increasingly rare occasions we did see each other, the conversation inevitably steered towards the same question: Who are you dating?
Dating got me through the first year in New York. It seemed to be my best chance—my only chance—of fostering human connections.
The roommate who was supposed to join me couldn’t find work, so he remained in Philadelphia for three months despite signing a lease. I didn’t mind at first: he was still paying his share and how often does one enjoy their first apartment in New York solo? But as the weeks went by, it began to wear. Most nights, defeated after yet another humbling shift serving tourists in Chelsea, I came back to a barebones dwelling with no one to talk to. New York was starting to feel like a real, and lonely, mistake.
I spent a lot of my free time swiping. Tinder. OkCupid. Bumble. Anything that could get me face to face with another human being. It wasn’t long before my Tuesday nights, typically occupied by reluctant trips alone to Brooklyn Stoops, my local dive, were replaced with dates in jazz clubs (Village Vanguard), underground restaurants (Wo Hop), and waterside parks (East River State). Each date promised the introduction of a new venue, a new neighborhood, and best of all, a new person. The companionship, though usually fleeting, was so intoxicating that I often scheduled first dates four days a week. It felt like a full time job. Except instead of earning money (which I was quickly running out of), I was getting paid in intimacy.
My experience, it turns out, is not unique.
“I took to casual dating to fill up my evenings,” admits Kaitlyn, 25, who lives in Bushwick. In 2013 she began commuting to the city from New Jersey. Knowing she wanted to eventually relocate to one of the boroughs, she began searching for company outside of the office, where she felt her options were severely limited. “I didn’t want to spend every day going to work with a handful of strangers who weren’t very friendly and then immediately head back to my parents’ house in Jersey.”
“I was going out with a new person every week.” She spent all her free time on dating services looking for people to talk to.
“I was looking for attachment any way I could find it,” says Ben*, 30, who went on dates three to five times a week following his move to Bay Ridge from Atlanta. “It’s not that I wanted to hook up all the time, it was just easier to meet people that way.”
“All of the people in my life I call my friends I’ve known for at least five years,” says Steph, 25, who recently moved to Chicago from Philadelphia. “Even though most are scattered all over the country, I mostly rely on those already established friendships.”
Most of the subjects I spoke with partially attributed this phenomenon to college. Once students are removed from an enclosed campus environment where they repeatedly cross paths with classmates of the same interest, cultivating friendship—a relationship we’re conditioned to develop “naturally”—begins to feel like a daunting challenge. Everyone—students who commute (like I did freshman year) or who defer enrollment or who don’t attend college at all—can encounter these breeding grounds for bonding. The place you call home morphs over the years into a campus of its own—select, confined neighborhoods inhabited like dormitories decorated with memories and familiar faces. Once you act upon the prospects of a novel undertaking, it’s like you’ve reverted back through college into kindergarten, the first day of school, nervously wondering if you’ll muff Two Truths and a Lie.
“It’s so much more intimidating to convince someone, or a group of people, that you should be a part of their social circle on a platonic level, because you don’t expect the rejection that you do in casual dating,” Kaitlyn adds. “At least when you’re on a date with a stranger and you decide you’re not interested, you can walk away from it and never text them again and not bat an eyelash about it.”
Back when I would patronize bars alone, most nights saw me sitting in the backyard, chain smoking and knocking back drinks in hopes of gaining the courage to approach a stranger. Of course, I rarely I did, but once in awhile I’d hit it off with a fellow smoker asking for fire. We’d strike matches and conversation over cigarettes, ultimately exchanging numbers. By the end of the night, I was convinced I’d just met my new best friend. Alas, I’d come to realize the person was magically trapped in a cycle of perpetual busyness. Or my requests for lunch were ignored altogether.
“Often times I don’t follow up on these potential friendship opportunities,” says Jessica, 28, who recently arrived in Bed-Stuy from the Bay Area, “and, more often—even if they have my number—these new friends don’t reach out.”
If making friends as an adult is difficult, why is dating—especially as a transplant—so much easier?
Technology is one obvious answer. Fifteen percent of American adults—roughly 36.3 million people—reported using either online or mobile dating apps as of 2015, with usage by 18-24 year olds nearly tripling since 2013. And it’s not just happening on Tinder, OkCupid and Grindr. Shawn*, 24, and based in Westchester, told me he got laid via Instagram by simply liking a woman’s pictures back and forth until he “slid into her DMs.” “Likes” and social media messaging offers the ability to court partners without face-to-face communication. Too often, the technique is abused on platforms like Twitter, but, Shawn maintains, it can be “excellent way to flirt with mutual friends or acquaintances.” Just like swiping, it’s low risk, high reward.
But for those moving to new cities, quick and casual dating is about more than just digital convenience. It offers newcomers their best shot of meeting new people.
“Casual dating definitely helped me feel more settled in and like I had a life,” says Samantha*, 25, who moved to Chicago from suburban Pennsylvania. “None of these encounters panned into anything more than a handful of dates, but I was really glad to have these apps because I met a ton more people than I would have just at work.”
It’s also an effective way to learn your new city. I always used to let my date pick the location. Dozens of those places—169 Bar, High Dive, Videology, and so on—remain favorites of mine to this day.
“I accredit my knowledge of random bars and restaurants in nearly every neighborhood to my dating experiences when I first moved here,” says Kaitlyn.
“Most of the guys I’ve talked to are stoked I just moved out here,” says Steph. “They really want to help me feel comfortable and show me some cool spots in the city.”
But at the end of the day, it’s also a lot about attraction.
“If I meet a cute dude on Tinder and we vibe, I think there’s a greater likelihood that we’ll connect because there’s potential to hook up,” explains Jessica. “We’re all driven by sex.”
My excursion into the realm of casual dating concluded once I began dating-dating. One of those OkCupid messages panned out and I latched on, desperate for attention. I valued her as a friend as much as I did a lover. More, actually.
She wasn’t interested in coddling some wide-eyed rookie, though. A recent NYU grad, she had already been in New York for four years. One March evening, after waxing poetic about my six month “anniversary” in New York, I signed off my melodramatic block of text with a “#RantOver.” She responded, “#RelationshipOver,” and we didn’t speak for two weeks.
But, blessedly, things improved with time. After months of resisting my pleas for commitment, she finally allowed herself to fall in love with me. I found a decent job and even better people. And then suddenly, I didn’t need her so much. She could tell.
“You’ll leave me once you figure this all out,” she whispered in bed one night.
“You finally got what you needed,” she screamed three months later, on the night I broke up with her.
As she walked out of my apartment—out of my life—I thought back to the person I was eighteen months before. I thought back to that girl from my internship—my first wannabe companion, and how perplexed I was—offended perhaps—in that candlelit bar at two in the morning.
“We’re just using each other until we make real friends.”
I watched my new ex-girlfriend trudge down the street, flicking in and out of the streetlights, fading with distance. She was right.