Tinder in Three Acts
We’re swiping for god knows what — and not finding much of anything
You match with a 34-year-old woman named Tracy on Tinder. You start exchanging texts. Your point of entry is the fact that you lived in Korea for two years teaching English to elementary school students, and Tracy happens to be Korean. It’s a good opening gambit. Being in Korea was the one time you could work the “endearing foreign guy” shtick, and maybe you can still kind of pull it off.
Your Tinder motivations perplex you. Part of it is simple distraction: Going on a date is more interesting than not going. But you also seem more concerned with narrative arc than anything else. Concerned with dramatic structure. It’s more about seeing the plotline through to its absurdly grim conclusion than it is about the pursuit of a relationship. Even if you know by date number one that things probably won’t work out, you’re propelled forward by some sort of inexorable dating death drive.
You arrange to meet Tracy on a Saturday in March at a coffee shop in Chelsea. As the time of the date draws near, you find yourself dreading the inevitable awkwardness of two strangers meeting via dating app.
You sit down with your coffees at a wooden counter facing the street. You talk about where you lived in Korea. What she’s doing now. She’s a student somewhere in the city and also works as a maître d’ at a Japanese restaurant in SoHo. She’s got her shift to go to once the date is over. Somehow, things start to pick up. She thinks you’re funny. You start to accumulate some of that ineffable momentum.
You leave the coffee place and ask if she wants to go for a stroll. She says sure. You’re all out of date ideas already, so the plan is to lead her in the direction of your place and incidentally happen upon your neighborhood dive bar, Kettle of Fish. It works. You walk down Ninth Avenue and, suddenly, you’re at Christopher Park. You casually suggest grabbing a quick drink.
You order two beers. She says she finds you interesting. You look like you’d just be a jock, she says. You don’t look like someone who’d be into literature or philosophy. You grab darts from the bartender and step around the corner to where the boards are. She’s not good at darts, which is fine because it means you get to offer dart-throwing advice, stand closely beside her and try to give her pointers, correct her form. You play for a bit longer and Tracy sends a dart spiraling toward a table of imbibers seated to the right of the board. (It’s okay it’s okay what do you mean it’s okay your date almost killed my girlfriend.)
One week later, you meet again. Between dates she’s checked out your blog, which you link to in your Tinder profile. She says she likes your writing. You pick the location for this date, too: a place called Tile Bar you found on Yelp. Toward the end of the date, she starts asking when you were last in a relationship and you tell her, and then she tells you about her last relationship. You look down and notice you’re holding hands. You go outside and a light snow is falling and you kiss her on the corner. You walk back in the direction of Astor Place, kissing periodically. You walk her to her subway stop, make out with her some more in the entryway, and then part ways.
There was a point in your life when this would be enough: making out on the sidewalk on a snow-dappled evening with a woman you met via dating app. Sure, maybe she’s not your soul mate, but this should at least be fun. Instead, it feels perfunctory. Exploitative. Which it is. You’re doing this simply because you can. Simply because it gives you a jolt of confidence to know someone is interested in you.
Some weeks later, it’s a Friday evening and you’re sitting on your futon with a book about Tibetan Buddhist mind training cracked open on your lap. You hadn’t been planning on going out that evening, but reading about the ephemerality of existence and hearing the hum of activity on Bleecker Street down below changes your mind. The clock is ticking. You text Tracy.
You meet up at Izakaya and have beers together. Then you leave her and meet up with your friends at another bar, but not before walking her back to the subway again and making out with her more en route. As you kiss her up against a bike rack in Cooper Square, she says she didn’t know what to think when you stopped texting her after your last date. You kiss her more in the subway entrance just before the turnstiles, pulling apart when people pass by. She presses her body up against you and says she feels like a “bad teenager,” canoodling in public like this. She turns and heads toward the turnstiles, smiling back at you before she heads through. You exchange a few texts after that but you don’t ask her on another date. That’s the last time you see her, pushing through the turnstiles and grinning back at you before she catches her train back to Queens.
For you, Tinder falls in the same category as binge drinking, as compulsive masturbation, as overwork, as overexercising, as voluntary sleep deprivation. The philosopher Zapffe wrote that consciousness is a burden, like a set of oversized antlers weighing a moose down to the ground. Tinder is a way to momentarily lift them. But it’s something more than that, too. Lately, it feels like Tinder is your way of outrunning anxiety itself.
It’s summertime, the week before the Fourth of July. After you match with a girl who lives on the Upper West Side named Liz, you suggest the two of you go for a drink. You know this cool place called Tile Bar, you say. She has long brown hair and hazel eyes. Slightly aquiline nose. Works from home for a university in Boston doing what sounds like event planning. Making reservations, essentially. She’s cute, but again, it’s evident from the first drink that there’s really nothing there. That this is just a Tinder date. Or at least it is for you. But to shake hands politely and go home now would mean being with your own thoughts once more.
Later, you play darts at Kettle of Fish. You and her against two guys who work in real estate. Wives waiting for them back at home. You retire with a record of 1 and 1. While you’re preparing yourself before your next shot, making sure your foot is behind the throwing line taped to the ground, she comes up and tells you to hold on and gives you a kiss of encouragement.
You and Liz stand on the fire escape of your apartment. Your roommates are asleep. She smokes a cigarette and you don’t smoke so you stand there with your forearms braced on the railing. It rained earlier and you watch a rivulet of moisture race down the green awning of the bodega below. Taxis periodically roll by on Bleecker, tires hissing on the rain-slicked street. Liz finishes her cigarette and flicks it down the fire escape and you watch it descend, caroming off the steel grating and sending off small showers of sparks.
You lead Liz into your bedroom. You don’t have sex but you take off your clothes and make out for a while. She says she doesn’t just have sex with anyone. She leaves to use the bathroom and you lie there staring at the ceiling fan rotating overhead, listening to the hum of the air conditioner in the window. It’s tough to deny that it’s nice to be doing this, this talking with and touching someone, even if that’s all it is.
On Friday evening, you go over to Liz’s apartment on the Upper West Side. She has a pet shih tzu called Teacup. Or Princess. Or Teacup is its actual name and Princess is its nickname. Or vice versa. You can’t remember now. You don’t remember much about Liz now.
You get dinner together at a bar down the street and then go back to her place and this time you do have sex. The shih tzu remains perched beside her pillow, head cocked quizzically looking down at the two of you.
When Fourth of July weekend rolls around, you take a cab downtown to meet your friends Brett and Max from college. On Saturday morning, you and Brett and Max and their girlfriends (Jessie and Emily, respectively) walk to a dingy dive bar on First Avenue. The bartender pours Baileys in your coffee.
Later that evening you find yourself sitting alone in your apartment on the futon, nursing a bottle of recently opened champagne while your friends from out of town are off having dinner with their respective girlfriends. You text Liz. She comes over and you have sex and then you go to a Thai restaurant down the street. You head out to Brooklyn to reconvene with your friends at a bar and Liz comes along with you.
You end up taking a taxi back to the Upper West Side with Liz at the end of the night. You exit the taxi and promptly puke on the sidewalk. You go upstairs and she makes grilled cheese sandwiches and you eat one. She gets you a glass of water and you get into bed together. You don’t know where Teacup/Princess is. In the morning you ride the 1 train downtown to meet your friends for brunch. You’re wearing a pair of oversized basketball shorts and a T-shirt with an image of Oscar the Grouch on it and the words “Talk Dirty to Me” emblazoned underneath. Liz gave you these clothes because yours are spattered with puke.
Later that day, you throw a party at your place. Brett and you think it will be funny to try to throw an intentionally bad party, so you go to the sex shop down Seventh Avenue with Brett and buy a bunch of penis-shaped balloons. Dig out your roommates’ old Playboys and fan them out on the coffee table. You think all of this will be funny but then people show up at the party and it just feels puerile, sad. Liz comes to the party along with her roommate and they stay for a bit. She and her roommate bat a penis balloon back and forth across the kitchen counter like a volleyball.
At this point, the evidence that there’s nothing between you and Liz is irrefutable. You decide to do something to put an end to things. You text Liz the day after the party to let her know that you don’t think things are going to work out. She says she wants her Oscar the Grouch shirt back. When you open the door of your apartment building holding her stuff, she’s talking with someone on the phone. She snatches the clothes from your hand, already halfway turned around as she grabs them.
It’s August and you’re still living in the West Village but are about to move up to Harlem. The lease is up soon and all of your roommates have moved out, leaving behind a barren living room and bedrooms. Now it’s just you and the cockroaches that scuttle out from beneath the mold-ridden sink cabinet, brown mounded exoskeletons appearing in the middle of the living room when you come home and flick on the lights.
You match with Jamie on Tinder. She played Division I collegiate soccer as a goalkeeper at a school in the South. You played college ball as well, albeit at the Division III level. You text for a bit about the various amateur soccer leagues in the city, how it’s fun to play the game even if it’s just recreational now, even if it’s just exercise. You find out she’s an architect and you ask her if she’s more Howard Roark or Peter Keating. You have to look up the characters’ names on the Wikipedia entry for The Fountainhead before you text her, but she doesn’t know that. You ask if she wants to meet for a drink that week. How about Tile Bar, you suggest.
You don’t have a problem with androgyny or tomboyishness but you’re just not attracted to Jamie. She has long straight black hair and she wears sweatpants and a T-shirt on every date, which is a welcome respite from the sundress-and-Panama-hat-wearing female milieu populating the West Village, queuing up outside of Sweetgreen and By Chloe. But you’re still not into her. You think it’s admirable that she’s an architect, you think it’s cool that she studied philosophy in college, but apart from that there’s no real attraction physically or even personality-wise, and yet here you are again. It’s like you won’t stop until you eradicate what little possibility there is of a relationship, until you prove the incompatibility through repeated dates and achieve total certitude that the two of you will never work. You’re not sure if you’re a sociopath or if this is just what dating in your twenties feels like.
She rides her bike home after your first date. You’re standing there about to cross Broadway after just saying goodbye to her when she comes careening around the corner, hanging tight to the curb and helmeted and leaning forward over the handlebars, pumping away like she’s a part of the peloton as she merges with Broadway traffic. She doesn’t see you standing there.
On Friday you rent a truck from U-Haul and move your few belongings uptown. Late on Saturday afternoon in your new apartment, you’re beset by the restlessness that descends on weekend evenings in the city, so you text Jamie. You barely thought about her during the week. How about Kettle of Fish, you suggest.
As a former collegiate athlete, Jamie is quite competitive. It’s unclear to you whether you’re better off beating her in darts and showing her you’re a competent player or letting her win so she doesn’t get upset. You beat her in three consecutive games, in part because as you attempt to stop trying you grow more relaxed and your accuracy improves.
You take a cab headed uptown. The taxi is going to let her off at her apartment and then continue onward and bring you home. You’ve exhausted all possible conversation topics and both of you know this, so in the dark cab interior, for lack of a better idea, you lean toward her and stretch your seatbelt out to kiss her. Then the cab jolts to a halt and she gets out.
Later that week, you meet her for dinner at an Italian restaurant near you. You go to a nearby bar after, and once you leave you start walking toward your apartment building. You go upstairs. You go into your room. You lie on your back and she climbs on top of you. You quietly rejoice as you always do when you’re able to successfully remove a bra, any bra. She bends down over you and you run your hand down the ridges of her spine.
“What do you want?” she asks, gyrating.
Probably not this, you realize.
Part of it is that you realize what you’re doing, again. It’s like all the brief sad Tinder romances you’ve had recently. It’s like the unprotected sex you had with a girl on her period at a wedding earlier that summer up in Boston, the bed sheets in the hotel room left looking like the murder scene from The Night Of. It’s the same as drinking hard on a Friday night and then getting up early on Saturday morning and playing intense soccer under the hot sun down on Cherry Street with the Manhattan Bridge traffic roaring overhead. The tactic is becoming tired, transparent.
After a few minutes of trying, changing positions, nothing really working, things getting increasingly uncomfortable and sweaty in your AC-less bedroom in late August, you decide to pause things for a moment. You sit up and say some something about how you want to get to know her better, how so often on these Tinder excursions you just meet someone and it’s like each of you is ticking off the minimum requirements on an internal checklist before determining whether they’re going to have sex. You know you don’t mean any of this.
“I think I’m going to go,” she says, getting up from the bed. “It’s alright. It happens. Just because two people are cool doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll want to have sex.”
You text her after she goes to apologize about the evening, to apologize for making things weird. You apologize more profusely the next day. Astoundingly, you ask her if she wants to hang out again and even more astoundingly, she says yes. You meet her once more at 1020, a bar down the street. You play darts. As you step outside the bar at the end of the evening, you ask against all reason if she wants to go back to your place. She declines. She says she wants to pump the brakes on things after last time. She goes home, and in the morning you’re glad that she did. At least someone is being an adult.
Maybe you ought to start doing the same. Just do the simple things. Meditate regularly. Help others. Get outside of your own head. Be a better son, a better brother. Exercise regularly. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Make a JDate profile. GoodBye