Part I: E-World
I remember when she called me baby boo for the first time. “Stupid auto-correct,” she said. “I meant baby boi ;).” I laughed, suggesting we write a screenplay called “Lost in Auto-Correction.” She went along, and then paused. “Actually, I think I like baby boo better.”
We had met six months earlier on Instagram. Somehow we happened to be following each other. After she liked a few of my pictures, I direct messaged her a picture of a bowl of coffee ice cream. “Yum!” she had said, and I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. “I’m hoping I never grow up,” she replied, the perfect answer. I was a writer and data scientist in New York. She was a law student in Boston. Within weeks, we were texting.
Her messages were liberally peppered with emojis. 😁 when she grinned sheepishly, 🙈 to accompany shy, hesitant attempts at flirtation, and as our conversations became more personal, 😍, which I describe as “I’m looking at you with hearts in my eyes.” For example, when I told her I listened to classical ghazals by Mohammad Rafi, “you’re such an old soul 😍,” she responded. When I hinted that she share some (more) of her feelings with me, she hesitated: “I’ve already shared too many, I need to chill 🙈.”
That emojis can be powerful tools in building emotional intimacy seems absurd yet obvious at the same time. The ambiguity of the form allows the receiver to interpret them in accordance with his subconscious desires, his mind filling in the vivid imagery of a girl staring at him, eyes sparkling in admiration, hand pressed delicately on her chin. From the sender’s perspective, it’s far easier to express vulnerability when words need not be involved. Yet in hindsight, I wonder if that same effortlessness of use also makes them less meaningful.
In Snapchat parlance, one’s “best friends” are the three users one has exchanged ephemeral pictures with most often in the past week. In real life, a “best friend” presupposes an unshakeable relationship and years of shared history. In Snapworld, a “best friend” implies literally no recorded history – because snaps only last for a few seconds – and a fragile position easily upset in a matter of days. In real life, a “best friend” is someone to whom you confide all your secrets. On Snapchat, anyone to whom you send a few duckface selfies becomes your new “best friend.”
We live in a culture that’s dissociated traditional expressions of caring from actual caring. Like no longer means like. Heart no longer means love. And, as I learned from my Boston friend, xoxo doesn’t mean hugs and kisses but is actually an ironic reference to “gossip girl xoxo.” Sometimes I wonder if our world is only the natural culmination of a postmodern dream in which nothing is what it seems.
By September, our e-lationship had begun to gain steam. We had spoken by phone once, while I was in line at Starbucks in Astor Place and she was driving to some community service event. We only spoke for a few minutes but we made each other laugh and we talked about how our days were. Isn’t that all we really need in life? Someone who listens, someone who cares, someone who briefly makes us feel less alone?
When I flew to San Francisco for work for a week, I was exhausted by days packed with back-to-back meetings. When I would return to my empty hotel room, often past midnight, inevitably, she’d be awake even though it was 3 in the morning on the East Coast. She was a night owl like me and we’d often fall asleep listening to the sounds of each other’s voice.
Once I sent her a quote: “There’s a considerable loneliness that comes from being awake when few others are. One feels both that one owns the world, and that despite this triumph, has no one to share it with.” Minutes later, my phone buzzed: “Awww I’m awake baby boi, you’re not alone.” Many times, I felt like I was living in the movie Her, devoid of any meaningful female presence in my life except her virtual one. We were supposed to watch it together. We were supposed to do so many things.
I was driving to Los Angeles from San Francisco, passing through the barren, drought-stricken Central Valley, when she mentioned that she had been feeling out of it after having brunch with two friends who were about to get married. “They kept talking about wedding planning and all I could think about was my meeting with a VC investor next week,” she said. I asked her if marriage was on her product roadmap. “Theoretically,” she responded, expressing frustration at the lack of eligible young men.
Finally, I thought, we’re having a real conversation! I asked her what qualities she was looking for. She responded instantly: “Not just a nice guy, someone who does what he says and says what he means. Someone I can grow with, religiously and intellectually. Someone who will take me closer to Jannah.” I was taken back, not having expected such depth and grounding from a girl who still struck me as mostly superficial. I texted my friend Adam. He responded immediately: “Who is that?! She sounds badass!” My friend Salah concurred: “Yo, she’s deenin’ off the hook!”
She continued, joking that she was “taking applications for Prince Charming.” This was more than enough for the gears in my mind to start spinning. I responded with a rap:
“i’m far from a prince / just tryna put my soul through a rinse / meetin hella resistance / don’t worry girl i’m made of persistence.
it’s about that spiritual cleanse / word i could use some focus in my lens / babygirl i don’t drive no benz / i’m just tryna break out of my mental pens”
She clapped – or rather, she responded with a clapping emoji. “Haha,” she said. “Love it. Persistence is key.”
Part II: New York
“Okay WTF dude this is what im talking about – this sounds like LOVE.” My friend Michael Scotto, never one for subtlety, was sharing his advice about Boston girl. I read him some of our texts:
Me: I don’t cry nearly enough, I really want to have more feelings, I feel like I had more when I was younger.
Her: I was the opposite. No feelings when I was younger. Now I have too many
Me: Haha sounds like we complement each other 😉 Can I have some (more) of your feelings? haha
Her: Lol I’ve already given too many feelings! I need to chill out
Scotto was on fire now, his animation clearly evident through his texts.
“Dude thats what I been tryna tell you exactly – you need a girl that can make you FEEL. Thats something you cant get anywhere else in your life except for love. Let her take you into that unknown land on a journey of feelings. Go into that shit PROCEED AND BE BOLD.”
Boston girl was coming home for Eid weekend. She said she would try to meet me in the city on Saturday. Saturday came and went. She finally texted me at 3 in the afternoon. “Hey sorry I can’t make it today 🙁 tons of family stuff going on!”
Scotto was incensed that she had flaked.
“Just be like “youre all about snapchat – are you also about real chat?” You gotta let her know you want to see her in real life. The reason I tell you to watch out for this girl is she might be what I call a “Time Waster.” Girls love to flirt especially when it comes at no cost to them, I want to see that this girl actually means what shes saying.”
One of Michael’s sayings – I call them Scotto’s mottos – is “if you don’t do it, it’s not real.” And when I think in hindsight about how it all went down with Boston girl, I can’t help but question whether he was right. He deeply believed that the virtual world wasn’t real; that’s why he kept pushing me to force my e-lationship from e-world to the real world. But what if that chasm is too vast for some situations? What if crossing between them is like passing through a black hole, something that causes matter to collapse into itself, unable to withstand the pressure of the singularity?
“Focus on closing the sale and if not then exit,” he told me. “Here closing means f2f meeting?,” I asked. “Confirmed.” I still had doubts. “But what if i also enjoy cost less flirting long distance? Youre saying thats a waste of time and a silly substitute for the real thing?” His response was to the point: “Would James Bond do that?” “Love it, thank you sir,” I said.
Scotto wasn’t finished. “You are a sexy man that has little time for people who waste his time bc you can get a girl who actually wants to see you very easily,” he reminded me. I took a deep breath and texted Boston girl: “when do i get to meet you in person?”
She responded: “iA Id love to see you as soon as I’m feeling better. I know I look fine but I really don’t feel it and I’m awful company right now. Will come down and visit you then!”
This was the moment of truth. Proceed and be bold. There was a hackathon coming up in Boston the next weekend, and I had been asked to be a judge. I hadn’t seriously thought of going. Until now. Bismillah.
“haha i worked a republican presidential campaign – in the winters of iowa. pretty sure i can handle babygirl’s company. tbh, i’m not the type to wait for things to come to me in life. i’ll be in boston next weekend to judge for a hackathon. should i stop by and see you? i’ll bring the chicken soup.”
She responded that she might actually be in New York that weekend for a meeting, but she had already told them she might not make it because she wasn’t feeling well. I played it cool: “ok cool i’ll probably see you saturday then.” “Sounds good :),” she responded.
Part III: Boston
It was Saturday afternoon. Michael Scotto, his sort-of girlfriend, my friend Adam, and I were driving to Boston. I told him I had never done anything like this before, but he had been ridiculously persuasive, and here we were. Driving into Massachusetts, we played the song Boston by Augustana.
“Oh dear you look so lost, eyes are red and tears are shed, This world you must’ve crossed… she said… You don’t know me, you don’t even care, oh yeah, She said You don’t know me, and you don’t wear my chains. She said I think I’ll go to Boston… I think I’ll start a new life, I think I’ll start it over, where no one knows my name.”
I had been intending to surprise her and hadn’t mentioned my Boston trip since we last texted about it on Monday. Scotto was pissed. “Dude, you have to tell her you’re coming.”
Me: hey i’m in boston.
Her: Yayy. Hackathon tonight right?
Me: It’s winding down. Planning to stop by a friend’s party tonight. What are you up to?
Her: Lol sitting on my couch in my oversized sweater drinking tea and reading.
Me: are you feeling well enough to leave the house?
Her: Not really 🙁 My neck is still red and swollen a bit 🙁 Im gross right now Trust me you don’t wanna see me.
Me: Sorry to hear that. Hey listen, I’m going to be straight up with you because that’s how I roll. We’ve been talking for a while now and I’d like to see if this might go further. But if you don’t feel the same, just be honest and let me know.
Her: to be honest I haven’t really thought about it much. I know we started talking a while ago and I seriously had no idea what to make it of it. Wasn’t thinking you were interested in anything but networking. And I know lately we’ve been talking a lot more and have been a bit flirty lol guess I wasn’t sure whether or not you were serious.
Me: I’m interested in having a relationship with you. The only way to know for certain is if we meet in person.
Her: Fair enough. I’m sorry I’m really not avoiding you or anything and would love to meet you, soon! Maybe tomorrow morning ?
Me: What time works best for you?
Her: What is your schedule like tomorrow?
Me: I’m pretty open. Does noon work for you?
Her: Yes! Are you downtown or in Cambridge? Rather which square are you near?
Me: I think it’s closer to a rhombus actually. Lol staying with my friend at mit.
Her: LOL. You’re actually right. Ok so you’re by Kendall/MIT. I can meet you in that area!
Me: Okay cool let’s meet at the stop at noon.
Her: LOL at the stop? Do you wanna get brunch? We can go to a good salad or juice place! Lol
Me: haha sounds good
Her: I’ll check places after I take a nap. Yes, I know I’m pathetic. I’m so old. I’m sleepy at 7:47 on a Saturday evening.
Later that night, I went to a party for my friend from Michigan who was in town and we texted briefly.
Me: I’m at a party with a few Muslim friends, you should come by.
Her: I would love to but did you not see the current hot mess I am baby boi?! Lol.
Me: Its a hot mess kinda party
Her: Lol I’m in bed.
Me: Sleep well 🙂 See you tomorrow iA.
Her: Thanks! 🙂
The next morning, I wake up to my phone buzzing.
Her: Morning h dizzle ! I’m sorry I really don’t feel good and have to reschedule 🙁 a bit feverish right now 🙁
Me: My three friends wanted to drive back to NY last night. The only reason they stayed is because we’re meeting.
Her: Omg I’m so sorry I thought you were here until Sunday . That’s what you told me last time! So sorry I had no idea 🙁 You should’ve told me yesterday and I wouldn’t have let you wait on me
Me: Well I did wait. So are you the type of girl who does what she says or are you the type who flakes out?
Her: You didn’t tell me about heading back! You told me you’d be here until Sunday. Hahah ouch. When I’m not sick, I always do what I say. I told you I wasn’t feeling good and was hesitant to make plans this weekend. I had to cancel my ny meeting on Friday too. So really don’t take this personally!
Me: If this were the other way around and you were in NY and I was sick, I would still keep my word and not stand you up last minute.
Her: Omg you’re making me feel so bad. I don’t wanna get you sick! I’m not standing you up just rescheduling. I’m really sorry, I had no idea you stayed only for brunch. I thought you had more hackathon related or friends to see today. I will make it up to you! I wouldn’t force you to hang out if you were sick!
Me: I’ll be honest with you. I took you seriously and only came to Boston with the intention of spontaneously seeing you. It was not the hackathon or any other reason. It was because I wanted to see if you were someone who could be part of my life. Clearly, you are not that person and six months of communication and a one-sided effort of me trying to meet you in person multiple times when we were in the same city shows me that this is not meant to be.
Her: I wish you told me this before. I told you earlier this week too. Anyway fair enough, I won’t argue this because we clearly have different view points and it’s kinda pointless. I’m not going to make a decision or judgement about the situation or “what could’ve been” considering it was only seriously brought up last night. I’m glad you had time think about it and decide on what you want. I honestly didn’t even start thinking about it until last night. It’s a bit unfair to expect someone to reciprocate everything immediately. 6 months is also a stretch…I recall us speaking on the phone for the first time in August. And probably texting often in July. Everything else was neither here nor there. Nonetheless, I am sorry for any inconvenience I’ve caused you. Was not my intention. Anyway best of luck with everything!
It was over in less than 500 words.
Part IV: Post-Script
It’s been five days since I lost my Snapchat best friend. I also thought about calling this story “Getting Catfished in Boston.” Because isn’t that what Catfishing is? When someone’s virtual persona is radically different from who they are in real life? Was Scotto right that only the real world is real? Is it ironic that we had planned to watch the movie Her together?
What hurts me the most is our blind reliance on technology in our last fateful minutes together. It was clear that feelings were hurt and there were lots of emotions and misunderstandings in the air. Wouldn’t it make sense to sit down and discuss them face-to-face? Why do we place our lives in the hands of these electronic devices that distort our meaning and corrupt our very understanding of what’s real?
I was also thinking about the idea that we have to reduce friction, the dogma of Silicon Valley, the idea that we have to make it effortless and easy to stay in touch. We have to be wary of anything that reduces the amount of effort necessary to achieve something. Friction is the only way we have of knowing how much something matters. Ask yourself: how hard is it? That’s probably a good gauge of how valuable it is.
Sending a “I’m looking at you with hearts in my eyes” emoji only requires one keystroke. Actually telling someone, “When I look at you, I feel a great deal of affection and tenderness,” is hard. Somehow, when we see the first, we assume the latter, when it’s not necessarily the case. Horace says, “Nil sine magno labore”, nothing is valuable except that which requires great effort.
I’m also reminded of two somewhat paradoxical quotes from Facebook. The first one is “Move fast and break things.” The second one is “Never confuse motion for progress.” So you have to go forth, “proceed and be bold,” but just because something is happening doesn’t mean it actually constitutes progress; you could be moving around in a circle.
And no, I haven’t heard from her since this went down. Except on Instagram – where she’s liked all 4 of the pictures I’ve posted over the past week. But I’m not sure if that’s real at all.
Perhaps it’s only poetic, for a relationship that began with an Instagram direct message to end with an Instagram like.
Author’s Note: An earlier version of this piece was read at the Muslim Writers Collective in New York on October 27, 2014, a few days after the events described in Parts 2 through 4 transpired. The author is grateful to numerous friends – especially Sona Makker and Sarika Persaud – for their critical and insightful feedback throughout the writing process.