Ghosting redefined

As in dating, so in the afterlife. Ghosts don't disappear, they haunt.

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Illustration by D. Thomas Magee
Illustration by D. Thomas Magee

They are our brothers and sisters, our mothers and fathers, our teachers, our students, our bankers, our janitors, the bathroom attendant, the perfume-counter girl, the porn star, the preacher. They are the right-wing nut job, the Left Shark and the guy in the middle seat. There's no discernible difference between us and them. In fact, there's a good chance you're one of them. They are ghosts -- or so we've been told.

Ghosting -- the unexplained disappearing act that happens after an emotional connection -- isn't new, but it has become a sign of the "dating apocalypse." Depending on who you ask, ghosting is either a necessary evil, an easy out or just plain fucked up. But what does it really mean to ghost? If you really think about it, what we've come to know as a ghost isn't a ghost at all.

The traditional definition of a "ghost" as it applies to dating is a misnomer. When a would-be partner cuts off communication without explanation, they are, in effect, dead to you. They are a corpse, for all intents and purposes: gone, never to call, text or try and communicate from the other side. Real ghosts, on the other hand (the ones we read about and see in movies), don't just up and disappear; they stick around. Ghosts don't "ghost," then. They haunt.

That's not to say that ghosts don't exist in the realm of online dating. They are not, however, the Houdinis of hookup culture we've come to know and loathe. These ghosts hang out long after the party's over. These are the scrubs who, despite a clear split, continue to lurk in your social media feeds, liking your Instagram posts or listening to your Spotify playlists. They disappear only to quietly, passively communicate through the clicking of a tiny heart or a thumbs-up.

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Like ghosts, they made passive overtures at communication without having to commit to real-world interaction.

Last summer, I dated a Spin instructor in his mid-30s. He was tall, handsome and funny, but his mood could flip on a dime and he proudly announced that he didn't read. Anyway, he was everything my recent ex wasn't and he had muscles -- lots of them. On our first date, he complimented my posture and told me I was the kind of guy he wanted to date, not just hook up with. We went for a stroll around the lake after a boozy brunch before heading to his house where we popped a bottle of bubbly and immediately hopped in the sack. Say what you will about buying the cow when you can get the milk for free; I've always been a fan of sampling the goods early and often.

In the month or so that we were seeing each other, he made a regular habit of sharing his Spin class Spotify playlists with me. He followed me on Instagram and I followed back. It seemed perfectly harmless and, frankly, natural. After three or four dates, we made plans to Netflix and chill at his place on a Friday night. It was going to be our first sleepover and he was even going to cook me dinner. Friday rolled around and I hadn't heard anything, so I reached out. He said he was feeling particularly antisocial and asked if we could reschedule. We pushed the date to Saturday. Again, he wasn't feeling himself.

I knew it was over, but those muscles! I tried one last time. We made plans for a Wednesday. On Tuesday afternoon, I reached out to confirm. I asked if he still wanted to hang out the next day and he responded defensively. I brushed it off and reassured him that I still wanted to see him. Five hours later he replied. He'd needed time to "think about it," "things had changed" and he wasn't "emotionally available at the moment."

No shit, I thought. I sent him my favorite brush-off GIF and prepared to find a dude who had read more than two books in 10 years. Weeks passed and I filed the experience away in the annals of my sex life. Then it happened. He liked a particularly gratuitous selfie on Instagram. He may have been dead to me, but he wasn't gone. In fact, his avatar began to haunt me in the most innocuous ways. There he was, in my Spotify feed listening to Demi Lavato, Beyonce, Ricky Martin. Ricky. Fucking. Martin!

The spin instructor was the first of these, but there would be a handful of others. We'd date for a short period of time, carry on extensive conversations via text, follow each other online and then go our separate ways. But instead of staying away, they'd slowly, passively creep back in, faving a tweet, liking a picture of my biological daughter on Instagram or mistakenly including me on a mass invite for a multicultural queer dance "happening" at a West Oakland church. Like ghosts, they made passive overtures at communication without having to commit to real-world interaction. They were haunting me through social media.

On Christmas Eve I found myself curled up on the couch with a dude who had long-term boo potential. He had a good job, a great sense of humor and he actually read: newspapers, books, magazines, legal briefs, you name it. He wasn't much in the muscle department, but I'd learned what could happen when you base a relationship on BMI. We'd met just two weeks prior, but he had me turned out in no time.

I ran through a series of cliched dating affirmations in my head, trying not to feel the sting of rejection.

I was falling for him, and the feeling seemed to be mutual. I checked my feelings of excitement frequently, reminding myself that love doesn't blossom over night. But I was emotionally invested. He brought his best friend/ex-girlfriend to my Christmas party the next day and I introduced him to my closest friends. Everyone got along swimmingly.

We'd hang out one more time in the next few weeks due to holiday travel and busy work schedules, but when we parted ways, just before I set off for an eight-day trip to Las Vegas, he made me promise we'd pick up where we left off. Over the next few days, our communications became less frequent and when I returned I could tell something had changed. He wasn't responding as quickly to text messages, when we hung out he didn't seem as engaged, and when I tried to buy him that Owl sweatshirt from the Hot Line Bling video for his birthday, he refused to tell me his size.

After a couple of failed attempts at setting up our next date I told him my weekend was free and to get at me. That's when he went silent. I can take a hint, I thought. Besides, the sex was only average and he had a weird aversion to old movie theaters. I ran through a series of cliched dating affirmations in my head, trying not to feel the sting of rejection.

"His loss."

"I can do better."

"I need to be alone."

"He wasn't really my type, anyway."

"Maybe he's dead?"

With a little help from my friends gin and vermouth, I felt like I was over it in the space of three days. I'd even resolved to stay single for a few months and focus on myself. And then the ghost of our short but meaningful relationship came back to haunt me in the form of a tiny red heart. He couldn't be bothered to confront his feelings or even just brush me off completely, but, boy, did he like bathtub selfie.

I spent the next three days fluctuating between confusion and rage. I'd heard of ghosting, but this was some next-level bullshit. I eventually confronted my ghost and he told me that he didn't mean to give me the wrong idea but had done some self-reflection and resolved to be alone for a while. We chatted a bit and even had an awkward night out at the movies, but eventually I gave up the ghost. Or maybe the ghost gave up on me.

He's still out there lurking in my social feeds, occasionally surfacing in text, along with a handful of other spooks who just couldn't let it die. Sure, I could block them or even confront them, but I've come to find comfort in their presence. With every heart, every thumb's up, I'm reminded of the fun we had and the mistakes we made. And, hey, at least they didn't straight corpse on me.

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Ghosting redefined