I often joke that I have come up with a foolproof test to determine whether or not someone has truly moved on after a breakup. Think of a person with whom you are not currently romantically involved, but you still think about. It could be your high school ex or the person in one of your classes who told you last week that they didn’t want to be entangled in anything serious with you. Now here’s the test: can you delete your text thread with them?
A text thread, in this age, is a visual timeline of a relationship—the little blue and white bubbles painting a story from courtship to close. Texts are a collection of modern love notes, concrete proof that something existed. And, especially in the beginning of a relationship, these messages carry great significance. When trying to determine the seriousness of a new romantic prospect, friends will often pose the question: “Are you guys texting?” The idea being, the more often the texts come in, the weightier the relationship. Our phones have turned us into linguistic analysts who measure the gravity of an exclamation point, deliberating the context of a simple (or not-so-simple) hello. In the courtship process, a text is a way to test the waters, to dance around meaning in the pursuit of an answer that will often arrive cloaked in equal obscurity. In the game of modern romance, those chat bubbles are our chess pieces.
Virtual interaction gives us room for security and cowardice in equal measure. There is a difference between asking, “Do you want to hang out tonight?” and, “What are you doing tonight?” The former makes the speaker more vulnerable; it implies a specific desire to spend time together. The latter, however, leaves room for feigned nonchalance, for a safety net from outright rejection. And though texts with our friends can be rife with typos and distractedly written, texts to people we are romantically interested in are sent with an extra layer of thought. So often, we play a game—pressing send and declaring, your move.
This caution, this sense of security in obscurity, is so often mirrored in how we go about meeting people in college. Those of us who have been at Tufts for more than a few months are undoubtedly familiar with the concept of a “screw.” A “screw” is a formal dance, often thrown by a sports team or a Greek organization, where members of the host organization will often request to be set up on a “mystery date.” Last semester, my friend received an email invitation to a frat party screw saying that he had been chosen as a “mystery date” for one of the frat brothers and that he would only find out who it was when he showed up to the event. Though he could not be sure who invited him, he had a valid suspicion that one of the boys in the frat (who he had met in passing) had requested him. Upon realizing that he had a commitment that weekend, he confessed how he was relieved. He lamented the fact that the boy had to hide behind a cryptic email to get to know him. “Why can’t he just ask me out for coffee?” he asked.
The common tradition of “mystery dates” at Tufts is just another way for us to hide in ambiguity, to forgo larger, courageous gestures (like asking someone to Formal in person) for smaller, hesitant ones. We have become creatures that skitter away from outright rejection at all costs. One of the fears that plague our modern consciousness is the newly-coined term “ghosting.” The thought of being ignored, of being so unimportant so as to not even warrant a reply, is almost worse than an outright rejection. And, even if we do eventually receive a text back, we check time-stamps, we search between lines of pleasantries for enthusiasm, for reciprocated interest. The daily anxieties that we feel are so often caused by the weights of glass and metal that we carry around in our pockets. And so much of this anxiety is caused by the fact that we have been forced to learn, not a new language, but a new art—the art of reading between the lines, and the art of hitting the perfect note in our message back.
We assume (often correctly) that everyone has their phone with them at any given moment, and this assumption of unbroken connectivity puts pressure on any relationship, especially a budding romantic one. And when the relationship progresses, so does the pressure to be consistently in touch.
A collection of text messages is a road map, tracing a story that so often exists between the lines. It’s not the text about what time to meet that means the most; so often it’s what happens when you get there. Though so much of love exists in spaces and not words, we need words to access those spaces.
This summer, I watched my best friend from home go through each stage of a break-up. In May, I sat with her at a coffee shop as she spoke through tears about how the boyfriend she had during her first year of college had told her that he wanted to be single again. In June, I watched her go out more, laugh heartily, start to forget; in July, I was with her when she met another boy who was fun and kind and just what she needed until he went back to college at the end of the month. And finally, in August, I watched her press the red delete button on her text thread with the boy from college. The game was not over—instead, she had stepped out of it altogether. No checkmate needed.