The Saturday Rumpus Essay: The (Online) Stories We Tell

By

There was a man I thought I was in love with. In hindsight, I was infatuated with the idea of him, the newness after a relationship of ten years had just ended. I stalked him on Facebook after we met. Because that’s what people do these days: a preliminary review, scanning for red flags and binging on information about the person’s past in an attempt to “know” them more quickly. We want to know everything without the vulnerability of actually having to connect.

For six months we slept together at his place and occasionally hung out at mostly empty bars after eleven at night. He had mentioned the names of two girlfriends in passing. I looked them up, and they were both prettier, thinner, and more accomplished than me. I was a lowly grad student working an office job at the time. Even though I was getting an MFA, I wasn’t really writing and I was definitely not publishing. I wondered what he saw in me. I guessed not much, since we were on and off, and he’d found it perfectly acceptable to show up drunk at my house in the middle of the night in the cold. Kneeling down in the doorway, he said he wanted to taste me. He licked me through the jeans I had quickly pulled on when he’d called and said he was on his way.

When I missed him, because he said he would call but he didn’t, or I texted him and he didn’t reply, I would scan through his profile photos, of which there were very few: a selfie in what I now knew was his bathroom, in front of the mirror on his medicine cabinet, the hand holding his cell phone clearly visible, wearing the ID bracelet he always wore, the one that jangled when he touched me. One close-up professional shot from probably five years before, when he’d let the edges of his hair grow long and curl over his ears. Then there was a throwback photo of him as a tween in the 80s, wearing a ridiculous assortment of colorful clothing and a pair of hi-tops.

I was searching for something in every photo, in every update, in every public message someone had written him. I wanted a reason why he didn’t love me or want to be with me regularly. I needed a story to tell myself, to answer the why. I blamed my body. I was so much curvier than his previous girlfriends. I blamed my lack of experience. I’d only been with two other people prior to him and one of those people had been my husband. I blamed my lack of career aspirations. He owned his own furniture-building business too, although he spent most of the time working on his mother’s house down the road. This should have told me something about his lack of ambition, but I misconstrued it to mean he really cared about his mother, which was a good quality in a man, one that would supposedly predict how he would treat me. I wanted so badly to share my life with someone again that I painted every red flag into something fascinating instead of a fuck-up. I made him into a myth. I told myself the version of the story that I wanted to believe.

***

My ex-husband had met a woman online during this same period of time—they ended up getting engaged fairly quickly. She was, from what I could see in Facebook photos, the opposite of me in most ways: thin, preppy, a yoga-devotee. I no longer loved my ex-husband, and our divorce was mostly mutual, so there were no feelings of jealousy, but my sister and I would look at their photos and be snarky, talking about his receding hairline or her sartorial choices.

More recently, I learned they had a baby together. Looking at the photos made me feel a little strange and nostalgic, seeing a chubby child who looked a lot like my ex, like the baby we might have had if we had stayed together. While there was nothing snarky to say about the baby, who was as adorable as most babies are, he did have a name that I thought was kind of stupid. My sister and I texted about it with laughing-faced emoticons. I feel guilty sharing that now—likely it is a family name or something that has special meaning to them. I don’t know. I don’t know much about their life together at all. Only what I occasionally see when stalking. And I wondered if either one of them stalked me or made assumptions about my life based on what I had shared. I wondered if he commented on how much baby weight I had gained or if she openly judged the number of selfies in my Instagram feed.

About a year ago on Twitter, I happened to re-tweet a quote from the current Pope and a seemingly random person favorited the tweet I had reshared. The avatar looked familiar. It was my ex’s new wife. She didn’t follow me or interact with me on Twitter: she must have accidentally liked it while stalking me. She is a devout Catholic, and I suppose she saw a tweet from the Pope and couldn’t help herself. I thought it was weird, but I didn’t do anything about it, except tell the story to a few people close to me. A few weeks later, she actually followed me on Twitter. Was this some kind of olive branch? I followed her back and decided to send a message. I very warmly congratulated her on their life together and thanked her for the follow, joking that I was probably on Twitter too much as a form of procrastination. See? I was telling her. I’m just a regular person. The everywoman.

She replied briefly but was nice enough. Eventually, she stopped following me—maybe it was reading the thinly veiled piece of fiction I had written about my life with her husband before she knew him; maybe it was just that I was really annoying on Twitter. Maybe she’d gotten her closure. Maybe she felt she had ultimately “won.”

We construct our own online identities based not only on what we share but what we choose to omit. I am quite active on social media, but mostly as my writing persona, which is only one part of me. Sure, there are photos of me with my family or out and about, but they are filtered, because I typically only share the happy and the good. A flattering selfie from my best angle (high and to the right). A pie that I didn’t burn this time. My daughters engaged in a craft activity instead of staring vacantly at the iPad while I try to write. The things I put forth into the world are like slivers of a mosaic: what you might piece together about me is more art than literal rendering. More of an abstract than a still life.

***

After I finally broke things off for good with the booty caller, a friend introduced me to one of his single friends, and we decided to meet for ice cream, which turned into dinner, which turned into an accidental kiss in his car in the rain, which turned into a sleepover at my place. I liked this man, but there was no intense chemistry. He lacked a sort of confidence and certainty about himself. I knew we wouldn’t end up together long term, but he liked me, and I was lonely. He was the first man who called me first, who obsessed over me, and it felt undeniably good (though I realize it was also incredibly selfish). I would break it off with him every few days, riding the rollercoaster of guilt and loneliness. I enjoyed his company, and he never said no to me, never didn’t text me back.

One afternoon we slept together, and month and a half later, I learned that I was pregnant. At the time, I had stopped spending time with him altogether. After a lot of consideration, I decided to have the baby, and I got in touch with him to let him know.

He was elated. He wanted to take care of me. He wanted to move in together, to marry me. But I knew that I didn’t love him in that way, and with one divorce behind me, I didn’t want to knowingly sign on for a second. I told him we could be friends, and for a while, he seemed okay with that. He was doting, always checking on me, bringing me candy to ease my queasiness, offering to take me out for dinner or a movie—to the point of irritation. One day, as we were talking, he leaned over to kiss me, but I pushed him away. As much as I craved physical connection, I knew I couldn’t lead him on. I had already told him we would just be supportive friends, possibly co-parents if he wanted that. And he said he did.

But really, he wanted more. After the rejected kiss, he slowly started to disappear, until I no longer heard from him at all. I moved home to Pennsylvania to live with my parents, and we talked once about insurance help (because I was unemployed at the time), but then all communication ended. Part of me was relieved.

But part of me worried. He had a history of self-destruction, which he’d openly shared with me early on, and I wondered how he would cope with this situation. I put myself in his place, and in the same situation, I knew I would not be okay. He had gone through several abortions with previous girlfriends, he’d also told me, even though he had wanted to keep them. He once told me he’d had a dream that he and I were fooling around in a department store dressing room, and in the dream, I was pregnant. It ended up being a weird sort of prophecy.

We had been Facebook friends—though he rarely used it—but after I left town, he blocked me. I blocked him back, just to be sure. Once I started sharing photos of myself and revealing to the world my out-of-wedlock pregnancy, I worried he might come back and want some part of me. I felt like I was always holding my breath, every time I checked my email, every time the phone rang.

He remained silent. I remained grateful.

But occasionally, I would find myself Googling his name, to check in. He was rarely active online. He shared beers he was trying via some app that posted to his mostly unused Twitter account. He once asked a local restaurant a question about what was on tap that night. There wasn’t much to see. I had to fill in the blanks.

***

I recently watched Sarah Polley’s engaging and heartbreaking documentary, Stories We Tell. In the film, Polley gathers family and friends of her mother—who died when Polley was eleven years old—to unravel a mystery about her mother’s life. In some ways, the pieces of the story come together, but in other ways, the truth eludes them, since Polley’s mother is the only one who could really tell the story, but she has no voice. There is a phone call that plays a central role in the mystery, but there is only speculation as to what was actually said. The person on the other line recalls the conversation—he is the only living link that pivotal moment. In one discussion of the making of the film, Polley said of the process: “[The act of telling the story] was changing the story itself.”

In a similar fashion, Sufjan Stevens talks about the making of his most recent album, Carrie & Lowell, in an interview with Pitchfork. Carrie was the name of Stevens’s mother who was largely absent from his life due to her struggles with depression, schizophrenia, and alcohol. “As a kid, of course, I had to construct some kind of narrative, so I’ve always had a strange relationship to the mythology of Carrie, because I have such few lived memories of my experience with her,” Stevens said when asked to describe his relationship with his mother.

There are many reasons we search out people from the past online, but for me, the most compelling is the desire for story, for narrative, for a relationship to come full circle. It is a rare thing that a relationship ends in a fully satisfying way for both parties. Even if you’re the one who ended it, there are often doubts and uncertainties. You want to know you did the right thing. You want hard evidence. Sometimes you want to dream about the life you didn’t get to have. Sometimes you want to see the life you were lucky to escape.

***

One day, as I searched his name again, there was something new: a mugshot website, with his full name and address. Around Thanksgiving, he’d been arrested for a DUI, with a rate very much over the legal limit. Something about this knowledge made me angry. I had a story in my head, a story where he would grow up and make himself successful and be the kind of dad my daughter deserved when she eventually met him (which was always in my plan). This was not the story I wanted. Some drunk loser who had just given up. I worried about what else he might do. Who he might become.

I drafted an email to him. I never sent it.

A few months later, I checked in again and found an abundance of photos of him with another woman. There were photos of them traveling overseas and out with friends at local bars. Something about seeing that he moved on made me relax a little. I was strangely happy for him.

Eventually, through the wonders of the Internet (well, his girlfriend’s very active Flickr site), I learned they had gotten engaged. I saw engagement photos and eventually wedding photos. He looked happy. She looked happy. I truly hoped they were. But in the back of my mind, I admit, I also wondered: Had he told her about us? Did she know? I still don’t know the answer.

Once, a year or two ago, I saw him at an outdoor market where I was working. My daughter was there with me. I had made my presence at the event widely known through advertising—I couldn’t help but wonder if he had stalked me, if he looked at photos of his daughter online on my Facebook page or Instagram feed, if he was trying to see her. I panicked inside. And then I felt angry. What did he think he was doing after four years, just trying to pop by unannounced?

Again I drafted an email. Again I deleted it.

***

The former objects of our affection or rage or fascination are similarly absent and voiceless: we build their lives out of scraps we find online, like birds foraging for nests. Sometimes the stalking is about comparison: is this lover’s new life (or lover) better than mine? Who’s winning? Sometimes it’s a masochistic indulgence, wanting to relive and mourn, even if we’ve moved on. We see their Twitter feeds as lines of dialogue, their Instagram photos as setting, their Facebook connections or passive-aggressive status updates as the plot lines. We tell the stories to ourselves to provide some comfort or closure, the way Sarah Polley makes films or Sufjan Stevens writes songs.

This week, my daughter turned five years old. She has never met her biological dad, though at the urging of friends in similar situations, I have mentioned him here and there, in a capacity she might understand. Last week, I learned that her biological dad has left the area completely with his new wife, thanks to a change in his Facebook location (at some point, he must have unblocked me). I like to imagine them in a sunny home in the south, eventually with a child they choose to make together—a half-sibling for my daughter—and I imagine sending an email someday, congratulating him, confessing to trying to keep up with his life so I’d have something to tell his daughter if she ever asked about him.

My daughter knows how to write every letter of the alphabet and spell a few words she uses regularly: her name, Mama, Dada, Papa. She has more recently started putting together random letters on the pages of my writing notebooks to try to make words, asking me, “Mama, what does this say?” She is already highly advanced at technology: I can only imagine that she’ll do some sleuthing of her own and based on her findings, come to some conclusions about this person who abandoned her, as well as some conclusions about me and why I never pushed him to become a part of her life. And I wonder what origin story will she craft for herself as she fills in the empty spaces with the online fragments she finds. I hope she pieces together the story that tells her she’s been loved her whole life—the story we’re all searching for.

***

All photos provided by author.


Amanda Miska is Editor-in-Chief of Split Lip Magazine. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from American University. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published in Whiskey Paper, CHEAP POP, jmww, The Collapsar, Storychord, Five Quarterly, Lockjaw Magazine, Pea River Journal, Hippocampus Magazine, Cartridge Lit, Atticus Review, the Prairie Schooner blog, and elsewhere. She lives and writes in the Northern Virginia—for now. More from this author →