On one screen, a group of refugees landed on the Greek coast under a gray sky. They jumped from an overcrowded raft, carried their children up the rocky shoreline and shivered from the cold water under foil emergency blankets.
On another, smaller screen, I opened Snapchat and took a photo of my penis. I deleted it, adjusted the angle, sent it across the country and waited for a similar photo to be sent back.
It was 10 p.m. I had a two-hour documentary on the refugee crisis by Ai Weiwei to finish by the morning and a boy I liked on the opposite end of the phone. I’m a multitasker.
This all started months before, in the innocent, innocuous way these kinds of things usually start for a modern 20-something — casual flirtations in Instagram direct messages.
“Honestly like wow ur so cute!”
“Haha! Omg, I’m blushing,” I shot back.
I was, in fact, not laughing nor was I blushing — this isn’t even how I normally talk. I was staring at my phone with a blank, bewildered expression, brow slightly furrowed, mouth slightly open, the uncomfortable expression of someone who just received an unexpected, indecipherable text from an ex-boyfriend.
What proceeded was months of banal backs and forths, sometimes days apart. But he kept me in his orbit.
But did I mean it? Was I good? I was plagued by a nagging question: What did he want?
I was getting what I wanted — attention, the attention he never gave me when we were together. At the end, we said goodbye in a withdrawn, transactional monotone as I stepped out of his Honda sedan and walked away. I never saw him in person again. From then on, he existed in my phone.
A year later, social media sent our two planets careening back together. It got to the point that we talked almost every day. There was a shared history to account for, a certain ease with which we talked and an unspoken undertone to everything. I don’t remember how it started, how the conversations turned flirtatious and then overtly sexual. Then, on this night, things turned visual.
I have a rule that I only send nudes over Snapchat. The fact that the photos disappear — and that you’re notified when the receiver takes a screenshot — makes Snapchat the ideal medium. It offers a thin layer of safety, but safety nonetheless.
On my computer screen, a tiger stalked the dirt floor of a makeshift cage in Palestine. My phone buzzed. “New Snapchat from Alex.” I hovered my finger over the notification in anticipation. I knew what it was, but I still had the giddy feeling of opening a Christmas present. I sent another one into the technological haze.
Two girls walk hand in hand in front of the graffitied walls of the Israel-Gaza border.
Another message: “Can I see your ass?”
I rolled my eyes. Dealing with someone else’s misplaced horniness was beginning to wear on me, but I wanted to be liked and liked to be wanted. So, I paused the film and headed to the mirror and lowered my underwear. Then I crawled back into bed and pressed play.
Ai Weiwei sits in front of the camera, close, uncomfortably close, as someone shaves his head. I think, perhaps I should have shaved.
It ended, he finished. I watched it happen, holding my phone inches from my face, as my laptop hummed and radiated a soothing heat beside me.
“Hey, good night.”
That was the beginning of the end of what we had. And what was it really? A relationship built on bygone physical intimacy that precipitated some sort of virtual intimacy, if you can even call it that. There is no intimacy in Snapchat sex, just the cold, detached, impersonal mechanism of technology.
What we had wasn’t real, to be sure, but I still felt like I lost something. A friend? A casual lover? Or something entirely different? A kind of relationship that has yet to be named.
I think technology has become too good at tricking us into thinking our virtual interactions are real, into believing that you’re growing close to someone who exists only in your memory and your phone. It’s not the real person. It’s never the real person. I liked Alex, the Instagram user, the texter, the Snapchatter. He kept me company, he gave me compliments, he sent me nudes. I don’t know if I liked the real person.
As for me, the guy who sent those nudes no longer exists — or rather, he never did. He, too, was a version of myself that I created to fit within a 5-inch piece of technology.
And this, ultimately, is my point. Because this is not a sex column or even a relationship column — no, this is a column about modern communication and the technology we use to do it.
It is a column dedicated to the absurd realities of modern relationships, as they are mediated through the expensive bricks of glass and accompanying jumble of wires that sit in our pockets. This is the column of a natural cynic, a wary tech user and an occasional social media whore. But above all else, this is the column of someone trying desperately to navigate the strange, saturated, virtual world we live in — and often (too often) failing miserably.
Call me Miss Communication.