On Ghosting

By

The first time I tried to find love on the internet, no one warned me about the ghosts. They sprung from a coil of black chest hair or a curdled megabit of an ass picture or a ramshackle dollop of character-limited sweetness, scrubbing his or his or his himness into less than absence. Anything could become the catalyst of possible leaving: an improperly placed laughing emoji, a particular pattern of body hair, a predilection for the thirteenth versus the fifteenth Final Fantasy. In a 2019 article, Psychology Today described ghosting as the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of a friend or loved one without notice. The absence of trace distinguishes ghosting as the optimal verb. I imagine they might describe Grindr as a rolodex of ghostly possibility. Sometimes, after sending a mawkish photo or refusing to confirm my masculinity, men block me, the app’s interface wrenching over our chat’s absence. Afterwards, I scry my body, searching for the culprit, as if a single follicle vespers into ghostliness, a small portal to the other side of pleasure hidden on my skin. The Psychology Today article explains that repeat ghosting numbs a person, as if the original ghosting generates weaker copies of itself. I don’t agree—each ghosting feels like the first—but I’m charmed by the idea. I imagine a haint quilt, a feeling prophylaxis, woven from the skin of ghosts.

I didn’t believe in ghosts as a child, but the femininity I coveted foamed with ghostliness: the Nilotic glamour of the water witches in my storybooks, the silken otherworldliness of Dolly Parton’s corseted breasts, pictures of my mother in North Carolina as a child. In my favorite picture, which hangs beside the mirror in her childhood bathroom, my mother and her sister tilt against the flank of a tractor chassis, two sepia starlets gussied in fabulous Southern dresses. My mother clutches a clementine parasol, and her sister looks off to the side, into the suggestion of a field. My mother and her sister are alive, but these girls model ghosthood: untouchable pristinity, two lovely yesterdays in tall grass.

 

In the ninth grade, my friend Savannah, with the finality of a grosgrain blonde, decided to ghost her boyfriend. Green-backed and my public queerness freshly minted, I’d never heard the word ghost verbed this way. From the back row of World Geography, Savannah removed him from her contacts, blocked him on the requisite apps, and told her mother not to mention his name at the dinner table. I didn’t believe she’d succeed, but after a few weeks, he stopped trying to catch her attention between classes, stopped excessively perusing the biographies near her stoop in the music library, stopped sending gambled chains of heart-emojis. I marveled at his sudden, wondrous absence. In my early world of intimate possibility, Savannah felt like Moses working a reverse miracle, coaxing the sea into a more unassuming version of itself. She beamed with a feminine brilliance. To ghost, to refuse, to satisfy yourself with yourself, felt impossibly newfangled, like something I’d like to try.

 

I met Danny—an older boy two counties over and my first ghost—on Grindr. We connected instantly, his revelatory jawline and the exquisite arpeggio of black stomach hair like a queer footnote to my conservative fringe of upstate South Carolina. He called me baby, sweetie, sugar, honey, country radio vixen names. He beckoned from the back door of sweetness, invited me into affection I’d never allow myself. We sent each other photos every day, and in my favorite, he is eating a single purple grape, just shy of a smirk. At the end of the summer, the day we’re supposed to meet, he tells me his mother orchestrated a meeting with his perennially absent father, an Argentinian drug mule. Fifteen minutes later, my texts stop delivering. I panic, fear his father kidnapped him, think about calling the police. But after a few textless days, I tend a horticulture of disappearance theories. Maybe Danny manufactured this series of small and large distances because he couldn’t confront me as the gangly proxy for his desire to be desired by men, or something close to one. Or maybe the “Danny” I knew was merely a cloak for a much older man, a lush avatar with which he pilfered photos from underage boys across the Upstate. Or my most devastating theory: that Danny existed in the form to which I’d endeared myself and simply didn’t love me, blazing an improbable escape into the Argentinian highlands. Only later do I understand that Danny as I knew him did not exist. Danny, my pixel prince, figmented in the cybernetic cowl of unbelief. Sometimes, I still wonder who I talked to that summer, how they swindled me so deeply, if the real boy in Danny’s photos might have loved me.

 

At the end of ninth grade, I posted a picture of my second boyfriend for Man Candy Monday, a reverse-ghosting, my digital debut in the land of the beloved, and my boyfriend did the same. We like-for-like, comment-for-comment, garland our images with fey chains of heart emojis. We are beautiful boys supine in fields of yellow jessamine, legs twined, tips of our noses joined in a bacchic vertex of supreme lovability. When Savannah realizes our Instagram activity appears in a tab on her account, she slams me with the spiritual scorn of a ninth-grade Southern Baptist princess fresh from vacation Bible school. Savannah damns me to hell, says God didn’t make fags so she won’t condone them, especially not on the internet, my faggotry a thorny cipher of associative sin God forbid her mother or brother see. She doesn’t want my blood on her hands, tilting earthward from heaven. To her, I’ve already become a ghost, a ruinous haint, the limit of the possible.

Sometimes, I crave the bloodless certainty of my first fuck. In that bearded carpenter’s house, hogtied to the mahogany warble of an unfinished kitchenette chair, quivering like a smaller boy, blonding into the pain like a bigger one, I knew I wouldn’t bleed. Sometimes, I want to send a galactic email to my younger self with Pride.com’s “20 Tips to Help You Become the Ultimate Power Bottom” pre-flagged as Required Reading, Immediate Action Necessary, because I never felt that certainty again. In the parking lot of a derelict Baptist church in Cashiers, North Carolina, I let a man fuck me between a porcelain toadstool and a cracked prayer bench for three boutique bottles of Makers Mark. Our second, third, and fourth times, Daddy Mike popped Viagra while his partner toiled on a treadmill at Gold’s, his kisses rattling into my mouth like coins emblazoned with heroic men from an old empire. An army veteran in Portland, Oregon, finished, twice, before he slapped my left buttock and said he’d call it a day. I held a Cottonelle vigil, after, and always with the same bloody result, its dark gloss staining the dumb cape of my belief in my own body. This became my most terrific and awesome lesson in ghosting—terrific, as in the Biblical sense, meaning a fright of impossible proportion. Perched on the toilet seat, I scanned the water for crimson ghosts. I imagined I shed failed versions of myself for whom beauty emerged at the extremity of bodily pressure, my most fuckable and lovable and glamorous personas wilting like the doomed petals of a rare but worthless flower into the toilet bowl. If beauty was the ability to hold anything and everything, what did it mean that I could hold nothing, not even the dregs of my failure to, even for a moment, perfectly become the beautiful center of a man’s entire world? Where did these little ghostly shantungs of extreme fuckability go, and how could I follow them? I wiped, I washed, I slept on a navy-blue towel. I bled. And I bled. And I bled, and I bled, and I bled, and I bled, and I bled—

 

After Danny, I presided over a cold and beauteous zoo of ghosts. Men and boys shirk meetings, fizzle after coffee dates, vanish after sex. But I ghosted with an equal ferocity, no language for gentling out of a future love, unsure how to finish what I start. Sometimes I relish in ghosting’s simplicity. I don’t blame the men who ghost me, but I almost always want to know why, as if knowledge might render me truer, a better anchor for desire. Other times, I ghost out of fear. I’ve seen the brute, lunar face of men refused, and as a teenager dabbling in the bad magic of love on the internet, I need an adamantine way out, a surefire safety.

 

I’ve never cried during sex, but I’ve experienced post-coital tristesse. For days after I orgasm, I enter what the poet Lucie Brock-Broido, in her poem “Extreme Wisteria,” describes as “the green rooms of the Abandonarium,” garlanded with bilious strings of language, clumps of junked time gathering around me. For this reason, I often defer orgasm, hoping my partner interprets this as pleasure found through penitence. If they ask why I won’t cum, I tell them it makes me feel slow, damp, a little less lissome. I don’t tell them it feels like ghosting myself, tusking a me-shaped pit into the meat of me.

 

On his thirteenth birthday, my brother received a new iPhone. All day, he lorded the device throughout the house, and when it synced with our family iCloud, he asked me why I know so many Jonathans. I snatched the phone from his hand and scrolled through his contacts, a portmanteau of everyone our family has ever texted, a dizzying index of my previous flirtations. I tell him I’ll fix his phone and began my renegade deletion: Andrew, Andrew with two pink heart emojis, Daddy Mike, Daddy Jim, Jonathan, Johnathan, John, Ryan, Ryan from Grindr, Ryan with a sparkly emoji, ad infinitum. Sometimes, my thumb hovered over a name, a darling glyph of prior adoration, but some names conjured no sweet horse of memory. My brother’s phone became, briefly, a Necronomicon. When I finished, I returned it to him and made him promise not to tell our mother about the Jonathans. When I finished, I cajoled the bytes of purloined affections into the air and away over the mountains, but I knew the boys would never truly disappear, lurking in the ghostscape of our family’s digital cloud forever.

 

In July 2016, Amanda Large Teague, a Belfastian widow, married the ghost of a Haitian pirate she interpellated as a proto-Jack Sparrow on a schooner in the Atlantic Ocean. According to the Washington Post, what began as a meditative mishap mauved into a poly-planar love affair, an astral reckoning spurred by the death of Teague’s young son. At first, the utter implausibility of Teague’s marriage to a swashbuckling specter amused me. But that she seeks, in the adamantine gauze of one’s ghost, the ghost of another—and in my desire to constantly love and be loved—I believe I understood Teague.

 

My catalogue of coital disappearances ends with fear of contagion. First, hoodwinking my mother’s Toyota Siena, I meet a couple for a threesome, our hook-ups almost seasonal and frothed with all the mundanity of a fitted sheet. Twinned tops, I plan to power bottom with them for the first time. In the kitchen, one top reveals that the other has genital herpes, and after a sojourn in their bathroom, I garble a story about collecting my brother from his Presbyterian youth group, rehearse the gestures of intimate apology, and leave. Last, I meet an online regular at the Sands Motel for a routine romp and find him naked and supine, a needle gloomed into his forearm, and a foursome similarly occupied on the motel’s burnished brown couch. I play dumb, and the man on the bed promises to show me a good time, but I leave before even taking off my shoes. And in the middle, similar messiness: feigning illness or flaccidity, rushing for the emergency exit of his or his or his mezzanine, tugging toward an elsewhere. Once I say I want something, I feel I can’t take it back, can’t ghost gauze-ward into the promise of safety.

 

What does it mean that I’m horny for what it would feel like to get fucked and imagine my balding suitor ghosting himself into his own coffin? I want to recite a cryptic haiku at his funeral, wear a feathered fascinator in the shape of Chiron’s ferry, and cry into a blue monographed kerchief. I want my own plush death to squall, quietly, on the other side of the door.

In the previous six months, I’ve experienced more wet dreams than I did during my entire pubescent life. This novel, uncontrollable articulation smacks of ghostliness. Harnessed, inexplicably, to my errant desire, my wet dreams are the cliché of “nocturnal emissions” found in puberty primers. I hate the spectrum of my dream avatars on the brink of spillage—either releasing an infinite stream of piss into a canyon, or fellating a Cassock on some plush, anachronistic loveseat, or performing an entirely useless, un-sexual action, like gently prying a pistachio from its shell. When I wake, sperm clouded and anthered over my stomach, I seethe at the pure accident of it all: an orgasm ghosted into nothingness, a haint molten into bits of loveable excess, quickly drying on my delicate sheets.

 

Over spring break in Portland, Oregon, an Iranian dentist invites me to Steam, one of two local bathhouses. I respond with two purple devil emoticons. When I arrive, I mewl Tuesday’s breakfast money through the attendant’s glass keyhole and pilfer a small, cream-colored towel from a plastic carrel. Sylphlike, bespectacled, I strut the empty bathhouse to Katy Perry’s “365,” lushly enveloped in the feeling of not being touched in a space furbished simply for contact. I imagine a negative capability of touch blooming with each step, a hirsute gravity, so I prolong finding the dentist’s private room. No off-duty Marshall’s clerk kneels beneath the ovoid glory holes, no retirees beckon from the hot tub, no cock-handed somnambulist lopes around the corner, a bottle of poppers charmed around his neck, deep in the nude warble of drugged-out love. Eventually, I find the dentist’s room, knock twice. Inside, he coos kisses into the armpit of my spin-bike doppelgänger, a twenty-something twink with a slightly more svelte figure, a stronger cupid’s bow. The dentist tells me to stay, to play with his friend, to tweak his nipples while they make love, but I perch on the edge of the bed and wait my turn. Every few minutes, the dentist asks how I’m doing, kisses my cheek. With each minute, my pastness crinolines around me. I know he will not choose me. In fact, has unchosen me. I know, but I watch the dentist put on a condom, a garment of my possible significance, and I cuckold the dentist and my uncouth imposter until they both finish. I ghost myself into the other boy’s body, nearly beloved, foolish and fooled.

 

When ex-trystees confront me about ghosting, I never know how to respond. When men explain their absence to me, I feel nothing but futility—as if I’d asked them to capture the wind’s assay of their bent elbow, three years ago, in the middle of that cold summer, from six hundred miles away. I want to be better than the men I’ve tried to love, but my answers always arrive inadequate, malaprop, not you, not me. But I understand, so terribly, the question’s solemn underskin. On Grindr, a single message rattles the kudzued gate of a future resplendent with affection. A date shelters the possibility of another, and another, and so on, entomic, a turning other-ward, a falling into. In the beginning, it’s impossible to forecast the litany of Why’s we might exchange, the kisses we might not.

 

Days, weeks, months into relationships, I find myself ghosting out of affirmative sentences, straining for a decision’s less legible hinterland. When my current boyfriend asks where I want to eat dinner, I deploy a phalanx of deflective questions: What are you in the mood for? During sex, I pose splendidly, an Appalachian wind-up doll, waiting for my cue. In the summer, as a noon-drunk couple’s kept boy, I can never decide which swimsuit to wear to the gay beach, always insist we flip a coin. My friends call this bottom energy, the sheer inability to make choices. I think of it as defensive ghosting, protecting myself from folly, from the wound of an improper selection. I’m communing with the face on the dark side of the coin.

In October, a significantly older ex-boyfriend purchases a copy of my chapbook. I meet him at a coffee shop a few blocks from campus and we exchange pleasantries, discuss his evolving relationship to bread. I hide behind an immutable scrim of nubile charm, crossing my fingers that he won’t mention how I ghosted him. When he refers to our relationship, it’s as if he refers to a Lilliputian marvel or a small architectural wonder—nothing to cry about, pocketable, quaint. After a few more minutes of chat, we hug, and I give him the book. Secretly, I balk at the way he belittled what could have been my first love, how he ghosts the memory of my ghosting.

 

A BBC article on new dating trends describes orbiting as the condition of being “close enough to see each other, far enough to never talk.” Orbiting arrives as ghosting’s rival blight, a lasso of digital attention, though still a unique mode of abandonment. But when I think of my ghosting dossier—crying in my ex-boyfriend’s Acura when he tells me, after a month of silence, he could never picture me dolled on his arm at a work party; driving from one Carolina to another only to discover my fledgling lover never left Tennessee; sipping latte after latte, dandelioned in the corner of a familiar coffee shop in an unfamiliar city—I prefer orbiting. I want to orbit the way one field orbits another, the way a tear orbits a cheekbone, the way a smaller moon could orbit ours, and an even smaller moon could orbit that one, and so on, and so on. I want to fill the center of a lineage of sight. I’ll never not want to be seen.

 

I want to patent a cotillion for ghosts. Imagine the ballroom at an astral Marriott brimming with my ex-lovers, ex-hypotheticals, ex-techno-crushes, each ghost tuxedoed and gloxiniaed, teaching each other how to sip broth, how to fold a dinner napkin into an animal shape, how to stand when I enter the room.

 

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Rumpus original art by Dmitry Samarov.


Aidan Forster is a queer writer from Greenville, South Carolina. They are the author of the chapbooks Exit Pastoral (YesYes Books, 2019) and Wrong June (Honeysuckle Press, 2021). Their work appears in or is forthcoming from The Adroit Journal, Best New Poets 2017, Columbia Poetry Review, Copper Nickel, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Teen Vogue, and Tin House, among others. A 2017 Tin House Summer Scholar in Poetry, they serve as an associate editor for Sibling Rivalry Press. They study Literary Arts and Public Health at Brown University. More from this author →