The man inside the telephone

When an inanimate object becomes the object translating your affection, what is real and what is imagined?

[edit: this article was originally written before COVID-19, but it connects strongly to the feelings many have experienced from virtual dating during the pandemic.]

When I was very little, I remember thinking there was a tiny man inside the television, pulling knobs and levers and pressing buttons to operate the pictures that came to life on the screen in front of me. There was a man in the radio, too; just like the man behind the scoreboard at the baseball diamond (except he was real, at least until the Little Leagues became digitized).

These miniature humans I’m sure took inspiration from the Smurfs I saw on TV, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, or even Miss Frizzle and The Magic School Bus. It just made sense in my imaginative and still-developing mind that there was a craft to the magic of an on/off switch— and someone steering the wheel.

Perhaps just as perplexing as the discovery that a bunch of electrons shot motion pictures through a cathode-ray tube into my TV — or, even more mystifying, the myriad 1s and 0s controlling the different types of screens that became commonplace as I grew into adolescence — is the modern dating scene. Equally perplexing, and also done in large part behind the facade of a device.

Which got me thinking: How well do we know the man inside the telephone, in the modern dating scene? Is he pulling levers and pressing buttons to make things work like magic? And is he real, even? What part of the “man inside” is simply imagination, at work, in adulthood? I’m curious to play this out further, because of a recent experience I had. Dating a phone.

Sure, we met a few times. And I really (!) liked him. So…no catfish, no problem, right? Alas, the entire experience still felt like I had gotten reeled in: hook, line and sinker.

Let me elaborate.

I met this charming, tall man on some dating app or other. He was the salt of the earth; great smile, could carry a conversation like few I have met. I fell quickly into his graces, keeping up with his fast-paced quips face-to-face and via text. And if you know me, witty exchange is one of the surest ways to my heart. I was in.

We chatted it up for nearly a month via text before meeting in person. One strike against him, I was initially convinced. Perhaps a sign to proceed with caution, or at least an indication of what was in store (in hindsight). But I decided to reserve judgment (he was witty, did I mention?) until at least the first meet-up. That’s what we’re told, right? Not to jump to conclusions at the risk of foregoing a chance to truly get to know someone — and all their quirks?

First date, smooth sailing. Quite smooth, in fact. The first time in ages I had gotten butterflies (I thought those went away, never to return again, around age 25 or so; I was proven wrong). We stayed out for hours and hours, bouncing from spot to spot, chatting about every topic: from baseball to politics, SNL to IT operations. He was like an open book, making me open right up in kind. In one of the most refreshing dates I’ve been on in the last five years (that’s no small number of first dates, friends), I felt a wave of understanding rush over me. He just “got” me.

And so we fell into a rhythm from that day forward (or even preceding that first date, to be honest) of what would become an epic marathon of texting: good morning turned into an hour-by-hour status breakdown, a plethora of GIFs; a stated frustration or aspiration thrown into the mix on occasion. Each night — more or less — ended with either a heartfelt good night, much like the day began, or falling asleep mid-text only to pick up the conversation where it left off the next day.

I feel like I should clarify at this point how much I hate texting. Nothing grinds my gears more than getting out of a meeting only to see 27 notifications appear on my lock screen. I am known to be that person whose phone is dead when I need to be reached; and while I place utmost value on my relationships in life — and the conversations, digital or IRL, that encompass them — I’d rather cut to the chase via text to get to the good stuff in person than share cat videos until my thumbs break off.

So when this man came into my life — emoji guns blazing — I knew he was special, or I wouldn’t have even briefly entertained the notion that texting would play such a primary role in our budding relationship.

Alas, it did. But boy, did we soar! Despite the text-heavy nature of things, we never ran out of things to discuss or excuses to check in. For whatever reason, it never seemed to lose its spark. There were a couple more dates sprinkled in to fan the flame — sure — but the majority of the relationship with the man inside the telephone took place between suspended ellipses.

And so, I continued to withhold judgment. This was me finding joy in dating again, whatever the medium! I told myself. He always finds ways to be thoughtful, I mused. Whatever the rationalization, I came to find that you really can laugh out loud at a joke or a flirtatious comment texted. You can blush at innuendo. You can beam when they remember something of importance, or sigh when their digital words strike a chord. Whatever emotions register in person, they too can translate in a modern way — via a screen.

Much like the euphoric “honeymoon” stage can come across without difficulty over text message, early signs of stagnation can, too (if you’re paying attention). Would I be willing to read the signs? And when they came, what would be the appropriate response?

The text-nado that was my relationship with the man inside the telephone was as powerful as it was prolonged. Nearly five months at it, to be exact. I can’t say whether it was timing — we both, in our own way, needed someone on the receiving end of those texts, whether at noon or at midnight — or a reluctance to give up that ongoing communication — which was rich with nuance, rejuvenating, and supportive, even if it was predominantly via text — that made calling it quits so difficult to muster. It took a few tepid tries (on my part) and a few dodged “tough conversations” (on his part) before we finally laid out the reality of the situation: we couldn’t keep texting each other daily, with no end in sight. There had to be something we were building up to, right?

You’re probably thinking, Why didn’t you just pick up the damn phone and talk to one another? To which I reply, Ok, Boomer. I kid, I kid, though generational tendencies certainly played a role. And though it’s easy to blame the work schedule (he’s a consultant, travelling across the country each week, working long hours) or the distance (he lived four hours away, when not consulting in the city where we met), those factors alone don’t seem to paint the full picture. Just excuses, really, in the grand scheme of things, but it still seems inadequate to dismiss the entire thing as a ruse. We had set a precedent in the beginning that texting would play a major part in our romance: myself begrudgingly at first, warming up to it as he showered me with attention — that I ultimately came to rely on. And that precedent, despite a few in-person dates and one or two extended offers to chat over the phone, had a lasting effect on the course — and progression, or lack thereof — of it, too.

I will spare you all of the details between then and now. Suffice to say, we’re no longer together. Or, I should say, we don’t text like we used to; our thumbs no longer stroke the keyboard in sync.

I found myself wishing I could ghost him. After failed attempts at bringing up the futility of our continued — and frequent — conversations, I didn’t see a way to end it gently, but I knew I needed to do it with grace: another sour ending felt too heavy for something so light and lovely, despite its eventual fizzle. Putting a stop to it became increasingly necessary, if only for the sake of my heart, which had become surprisingly accustomed to the ebb and flow of our daily routine. The fact that I couldn’t just ride it out showed me that I was too invested in him to treat it as just a blip on the radar (I had raised the red flag to him, after all, on a couple of occasions, voicing how the limbo we found ourselves in had made me feel. No bite.). But how do you convey so much meaning — gratitude, above all; wistfulness for a different outcome, certainly — via text? Can you? If he wasn’t coming into town in the foreseeable future, was it a comically tragic inevitability that our end come through the same channel as its beginning?

I wish the story ended differently, but maybe it was never set up for success. Maybe technology damns us to a world with stilted relationships. Maybe we just lost interest, or grew apart, and used technology to hide behind to soften the blow (or drag out the unavoidable, depending on which way you’re looking at it).

Or maybe — all those things aside — we had something real, mixed into a mode of communication often cast aside as illegitimate. We built a foundation that didn’t have sufficient material to keep building upon, living in different cities and straddling different worlds. And so it, like most romantic relationships, just…stopped. As it had begun, with a text. Emojis and all.

There’s a term for all of this: false intimacy. I scrunch my nose at the thought that our generation builds its reality around such pervasive artifice, but it does make a bit of sense. Every text ping, every sweet dreams receipt, every GIF from The Office was like a Pavlovian experiment. A trigger that conditioned me to feel. Am I too old to be hoodwinked by such activity? It surely didn’t feel contrived; just a product of circumstances. I was honest. I set boundaries and expectations where needed (except maybe a screen usage limit). Is it false because it happened by text message, or because there was no eventual follow through? If the new ways of communication prompt inferior capacity for intimacy, this relationship had me fooled. It challenged the way I look at modern romance, if only because it felt strikingly real — despite its duration, the connection felt strong and pure and different, causing me to throw skepticism to the wind (if only temporarily). The medium mattered less than the substance, but it was also a telling sign that it wasn’t going anywhere. Is it possible to weigh those things in the moment, rather than in hindsight? If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that texting can’t alone disqualify something from being valid. The signs — however they’re delivered — are still written out on plain display when a change in energy shifts. And though an ending via text message feels less like a snub if the relationship was carried out in much the same way, that doesn’t necessarily mean it has less impact.

To the man in the telephone, thank you. I can’t know for sure if your intentions were genuine, or if you were just looking for something to fill the void. Maybe that’s the most genuine thing we all are seeking, to connect with another without explanation needed and to meet them where they are — for just a moment or for forever.

In my mind, you’re not really over someone until you begin to lose the memory of their details. The way they tousle their hair mid-sentence, or rub their nose when they’re nervous or uncomfortable. A secret freckle. The way they overuse the word “literally” (ok, I hope you’re not dating one of them). What happens when the details are digitized? Is it less valid to remember their favorite emoji? Whether they used “hon” or “hun”? The way they changed subjects mid-stream of consciousness? The first time they sent back-to-back messages, or the last time they apologized for a delayed response? Our digital worlds beg us to consider that digitally-initiated relationships have their own place in our hearts, dictated by different rules without dismissing their effect, or — on the other hand — becoming a crutch. Can they be meaningful — memorable — without being cast aside? Or is the relationship with the man inside the telephone as much a figment of my imagination as the one inside the television?

I’ll let you decide. I can’t say I’ve fully decided myself.

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