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Picture this: a college girl on a date. She’s wearing a short red dress with a V-neck and frills. Sometimes it’s more casual: dark jeans and a cropped red jacket. Or the pants are red and the jacket is denim. She’s cute. She looks happy.
Picture the man sitting across from her. He has blonde hair and skin almost as white as paper. Other days his hair is dark and wavy. Or maybe it’s the burly one with a bad haircut and a sweet voice. Or the slender one, a swimmer with a penchant for dumb movies.
Maybe they’re talking about the tattoo he just got: a whale, which symbolizes something related to his mother’s tribe. They could be talking about video games, something he likes and she’s feigning an interest in to be polite. The wavy-haired man always has a good story up his sleeve. Maybe he’s telling her how his great uncle traveled the world and left him a golden Buddha. She eats it up. With him, she cares more about entertainment than truth.
After the date they walk aimlessly, more focused on each other than any destination. After the date they sleep together like they both knew they would. After the date she walks home alone. They text for another five days and then never again. She taps the pink icon on her phone and swipes for twenty minutes, and the cycle begins again.
That year is behind her now, she thinks. She didn’t kill herself. She didn’t even go to the hospital. She’s medicated, so that all must be over now, right? No matter that she still doesn’t have college friends, people she can see face to face. No matter that she still hasn’t told her family. She’s in shape, has good grades. Everything must be all right.
There’s nothing wrong with a little fun.
They meet at a coffee shop. A boba place. A park. When they first see each other, they smile. Maybe they shake hands. A couple times they hug, in a way that’s both innocent and promising more. They meet, they talk, and they exit, whether together or apart. And so on.
They serve as distractions. She doesn’t see them as people.
She doesn’t know herself well enough to know what she’s doing here. She doesn’t stop to think about why she’s doing this. If you were to ask her, she’d say she’s just having fun. And what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with a little fun after the worst year of her life?
She swipes, meets up, leaves together, leaves apart. She visits their dorm rooms, their apartments, their frat houses. It’s strange to sleep in a place she’s only just entered, next to a man she doesn’t quite trust. She ignores this.
She may not have college friendships, but she has fading ones from high school. It’s the reason she downloaded the app in the first place; they thought it would be fun if they all tried it. She’s the only one who’s stuck with it. She’s also the only one who doesn’t have new friends.
When she talks to her fading friends, it’s boastful. She tells them about the blond one’s curiosity, the swimmer’s kindness. When the blond turns out to be a dolt she laughs about it, even as she realizes his exit leaves her with only the wavy-haired one, whom she’s starting to care too much about.
She’s searching for something, even if she’s not conscious of it. There’s a want, a need that sears her. An urgency driving each swipe. She thinks she’s having fun and most of the time it is fun, but then there are the moments where the swimmer can’t hold an intelligent conversation and she groans inside. The moments when the wavy-haired one is too handsome and too far out of reach. So she swipes. And swipes again.
She sees the wavy-haired man on one of the last nights of the spring semester. They cuddle but don’t sleep together. There’s still a trace of light left when she walks back to her dorm that evening, through a residential neighborhood and then the town’s main street. It’s warm out, almost summer. She doesn’t realize then that it’s the last time she’ll ever see him.
Things are starting to happen outside of the search. She gets a good job for the summer. She’ll learn a lot, and it pays well. She finishes the longest thing she’s ever written. She still doesn’t have friends, but she’s becoming a better friend to herself.
And when she finds love, a month later, it will happen completely by accident.
She stops seeing the blonde. When he sends her a follow request on Instagram, she deletes it without a second thought. The burly one is long gone by then, Snapchat deleted, memories already starting to fade. Things ended awkwardly between them—her trying to want him and failing. She never rejected him outright, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew.
Elly Hong’s (@ehong961) writing has been published in The Common, where she is the Thomas E. Wood ’61 Fellow. Her thesis at Amherst College was a fabulist novella about grief and female friendship. A native of Los Angeles, she will soon reside in Western Massachusetts. Follow her on Twitter @ellhong.
Jia Jia Zhang (@leo__pard__) is a(n) Wuhanese American, ADD-er, stutterer, and independent mixed media artist. Her work features in the Mead Art Museum’s permanent collection and has also been exhibited in the SMFA, Massachusetts Government Center, Project Citizenship, Education First, and more. She has served as a teaching assistant for K-12 drawing and painting courses and continues to create commissions and sell existing artwork.