Google saved my relationship long after I wanted to remember it.
In the fall of 2011, a poet friend asked me to explain an article he'd read, about young people and the Internet. Greg is in his forties, and he couldn't wrap his mind around how casually the youngs were sending naked photos to each other, as easy as swapping baseball cards. I told him nobody swapped baseball cards anymore, they just enroll in fantasy leagues online, but Greg doesn't care about baseball, and this new kind of image exchange astounded him. “What about breakups?” he asked. Greg could imagine only revenge, exes uploading revealing photos of one another into the ether, unraveling intimacy with tweets and texts. I told him that I'd never date the kind of person who'd share the pictures of me anywhere else. “You don't know what he's like in a breakup,” said Greg. “You really trust him?” I did.
Greg and I met when I was studying in Prague, where we took long walks and drank beer and he introduced me to writers who'd lived in the city since before the Berlin Wall fell. My boyfriend, which never seemed like enough of a word for what he was to me, but what other word was there? was back in New York, and creative camera use had become necessary for us to create sexual tension—teasing and risk—long distance.
What I didn't tell Greg is that surfaces come easily to me—snapshots, facade, performance. I can talk brashly about sex, but it's hardly the same as being vulnerable. B and I had both online—in Skype sessions that lasted for long in-between hours, my early morning and his midnight because of the time difference. Sometimes that meant each of us talking just a little bolder and louder than how we normally spoke, lobbing our fantasies across pixelated space and angling the webcam to catch our faces as we came. Or else we whispered little fears and tenderness to each other from dark hostel beds. It somehow feels important that the photos we sent each other during those times—I have a few of him, too—only ever show us by ourselves, alone. B is really good with a camera, and we kept planning for him photograph me nude, but in over two years it never happened. There was no need for the reach of a camera's lens when I was really right there, and something about inscribing the images on film felt more permanent, more transgressive, than transmitting them across digital pathways.
A year and a half later, I ended things—bluntly and in person. We were on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at twilight, and the increasing volume of our voices rang against the building's marble steps before fading into the falling snow on Fifth Avenue. Where should we go next? became nowhere. It was the most recent in a series of attempted breakups, but the first to stick. Not that we ever stopped wanting each other, but we stopped knowing how to be kind. We stopped knowing how to include each other in our lives as the familiar patterns shifted, as we figured out how to grow up.
I was eighteen the first time we kissed, which was also the first time I had kissed anyone. He could already legally drink by then, but what really intimidated me was his recently-ended four-year relationship, and the women (girls?) I knew he'd slept with since. I suspected in him a skill for intimacy I could only guess at and an appetite for closeness that worried me. Despite my lack of experience in relationships of any kind, he was the one wild with romance, while I was often too guarded to embrace him in public. The voraciousness with which he wanted me and my time was thrilling and brought on a deep fragile swell in my chest, but I believed that indulging would pull us away from the rest of our lives, so I didn't. My reserve only faded in the most private of spaces—in bedrooms and on the Internet.
As a teenager I went online to look for answers, and for the questions I didn't yet know to ask; the Internet is an only child's big sibling, whispering and giggling about sex in the middle of the night.
Dan Savage and Jessica Valenti taught me about consent and kink before I had much use for either one, but by the time I did I knew what I wanted. The night before I visited B's apartment for the first time, I Googled advice on how to give a blowjob—and the online back issues of Cosmo came through for me. I'd seen my first erect penis six months earlier, during a late night on Chatroulette with a friend.
When B and I started dating, one form of connection was rarely enough. I blew through two months of texting fees in two weeks, and got a Gmail account not long after because my inbox needed the storage space. We were apart for the end of that first summer, before whatever was growing between us had acquired a name. He was visiting family in Bulgaria, while I was staying with a good friend in the Netherlands. It was my first time abroad, and for every moment of genuine awe and excitement, there was another of relief as I realized that the experience would give me something interesting to write to him about, an excuse for contact across the continent. Our digital communiques were unmistakably love letters in content, but growing up I'd imagined them sealed with wax, not HTML—though I soon learned to relish the daily possibility of his name hovering in the left-hand chat column, marked red for busy but never too busy for me.
The moment I understood that we were making something together, and not just expending gigabites, was an afternoon in September, when I should have been at Rosh Hashana services. We kissed and talked and fooled around, and I enjoyed it too much to think about whether sex was an appropriate use of a holy afternoon. When we were done he opened his laptop and pulled up a comic strip featuring a half-naked medieval cartoon queen and a dancing droplet of jizz. I loved reading Oglaf all the more for the eager hesitancy with which he pulled it from his browser's history, and for the embarrassed arousal it evoked in me. The depths of the web allowed us to communicate what we couldn't articulate—to recognize a commonality that alone was shameful, but that between us was a pleasurably dirty secret—which, as far as I can tell, is the point of the Internet. Then I pulled up this fetish map, and we started telling dirty secrets of our own.
About six months before we broke up, B moved to the far tip of Manhattan, in a neighborhood to which I only ever ventured for him, and which I now easily avoid. But the rest of the city is marked with memories of how we were together—the Hester Street fountain where we ate pickles and kissed with briny breath, the church tower we snuck into and climbed up, frightening pigeons. Any romance in a city is a romance with the city, and external memories take even longer to fade than the old-fashioned kind; a hard drive retains information until it's wiped. B saved my data once when my laptop died, uploading files onto his own computer for safe keeping. I'd never felt so exposed as when he gained full access to my bad taste in music and my first drafts, but I shouldn't have worried; he kept my secrets password protected.
I have physical mementos—books he wrote in, photo strips, a ring I'm glad to have lost—but the greatest repository of our relationship is my unwitting archive—the saved texts, inbox, and chat history. The messages are a full chronicle of our time together—links to articles and the discussions that followed, suggestions for restaurants to try and movies to see. Where did we go on the night of April 20, 2011? I just have to run a search. Permanent deletion is possible, but it feels like betrayal. What I know is how to tell stories, read signs. If I erase the hyperlinks, did we even exist? In the first days after we broke up I taught myself not to call or text, but it was weeks before I unlearned the impulse to link. My drafts folder filled with emails unsent, fragile and volatile, too easy to reach him with a click of the mouse.
We never made our relationship Facebook-official, but we wrote on each other's walls and got tagged in posts and pictures—though I resisted those too, and I know it hurt him; it was disappointingly easy to disentangle our public lives after the breakup. Without any editing or deletion on either of our parts, nobody would ever know from Facebook stalking that we had been together, though the rise in my Klout score in the weeks following suggests that I suddenly had a lot of free time on my hands. And whatever between us had been encrypted or pixelated, it's at least clear now that I'm spilling it in print.
Follow Diana on Twitter: @dclarkwithane.