I had embarrassed myself, I was sure of it. I had treated The New York Times like my own personal priest and submitted an essay to the Modern Love College Essay Contest wherein I confessed to having murdered my dignity. In my piece, I detailed a muted heartbreak, one that got bottled up in my own factory. I told the world that I used Instagram as a tool to be someone different, to be the side of myself I found most desirable in order to win somebody’s love. When it didn’t work, I repurposed the tool. I started to use Instagram to get said person’s attention. I killed two birds with one stone, pretending I wasn’t heartbroken over him while shoving my cyber-joy in his face. This went on for so long that the pogo stick I was riding, made out of all my coolest, documented moments, upgraded itself to a jackhammer underneath me. I was bounding down the street, loudly drilling into everyone’s head that I was unemotional and funny and that’s all, folks! It got away from me. I became everything I was online, and that everything wasn’t much. I fessed up to this, not to my closest confidants, but to The New York Times.
When the essay was published, I turned off my phone and hid from my friends. You know, like a hero. I was certain the public would pity me (and some have) or at the very least I’d get accused of being a low-level cyberbully. Expectations were low. Maybe MTV’s Catfish would contact me, I thought. I’d definitely tapped into some weird form of half-catfishing they might find intriguing! To me, this was the best possible outcome. So I was surprised when Nev did not reach out, and even more surprised when kind people did. They began messaging me on social media every day to tell me, someone who shies away from roller coasters, faints when they see blood and once completely abandoned a friend at the sound of gunshots (no one got hurt and I played it off like I was running to get help), that I am brave.
Millennials like me are not known for our bravery. Aside from believing we are special and creating Justin Bieber, we are primarily credited for our inability to live without the Internet and all its sooty corners. Even knowing that we’re all living in the same cyber-neighborhood, I wasn’t convinced that my essay would speak to anybody. I wasn’t sure even a fellow millennial could relate to my heartache and the obsessive online loop that had me jogging in circles around myself. If they did, they’d have to be eerily similar to me. I’d thrown a bright orange life jacket into a pool of floundering strangers, and whatever sorry girl grabbed on would have to be my doppelganger. I was wrong. Moms, dads, high-schoolers, thirty-somethings, teachers, Transylvanians (a real place, it turns out, not a mythical land full of catfishing vampires who are messing with me); The whole gang logged on to tell me that there is something universally hard about being honest, about admitting that you are socially ugly. To do it takes bravery.
A lot of people told me they even had a “Joe” of their own. Like me, they’d directed their social media presence at one oblivious, frustrating person. They spent their days painting a beautiful self portrait, and never expressly invited their “Joe” to come take a look at it. I was participating wholeheartedly in this secret art project until my essay ripped my painting to shreds, leaving me in the rubble of my gallery with one truth: that I was hurting. They were hurting too, and so they read my self-destruction and, where I called myself pathetic, they called me brave.
I’m trying to absorb this new title, my cyber purple heart, but for now it’s only pinned to the surface. I always imagined bravery as a metallic adjective that sits heavy somewhere in your solar plexus, right where the Hulk rips off his t-shirt. This is where I feel nausea; The feeling that kept me pacing around my room in the middle of the night, waiting to submit my essay until 40 seconds before the deadline.
But my essay for Modern Love, an admission of pain and passive aggression, was also a very public promise. I vowed to be expansive, to let myself be more than the “witty, creative me, always detached and never cheesy or needy.” To be, well, me.
What was intended as a pressure-free pledge to myself quickly morphed into a pact with everyone who felt a solidarity with my essay. I was unexpectedly married, and with that all my “I’s” became “we’s.” We won’t reject facets of ourselves. We will be everything we are. When an opportunity to be honest, to make our lives harder at first and then much easier, presents itself, we will be this type of brave. It did not take much fussing with the curtain of my social media before I found a chance to test myself, to see if I really could be brave.
Three weeks ago, I went out two times with one man. If we follow this mathematical pattern (3-2-1…), the next number that follows is zero: the amount of times we’ve spoken to each other since. Sometimes, you crack open a seltzer and it only takes minutes for the carbonation to escape the surface. It’s a bit disappointing, and you want to sue the grocery store, but the science of it is sound, and ultimately, that’s comforting. The same goes for interactions like these. I don’t like you very much, you don’t like me, so we don’t speak.
This simple logic is thrown for a loop when the person in question watches your Instagram story every day. It is a mystery that is so heart-achingly 2017 in its execution. But think, if this were a decade ago, and we had gone out and lost touch, it’d be considered, well, illegal for you to stand outside my window every day. At the very least, it would be weird.
For weeks now I’ve been checking to see if he’s watching, and just knowing that I have this unreadable audience member has made me perform. It feels a bit like I’ve come to on a stage, and I can’t get a good look at the marquee. The lights silhouette the audience and all I can see is backlit expectation. Suddenly, I have to deliver.
And I think a couple of weeks ago I would have. I might have continued to deliver while the mystery of what he wanted shaped my appearance, molded my days into what would make for the coolest pictures, the life of someone you couldn’t possibly lose interest in. I might have exhausted myself completely in the process.
This is a trap that is so easy to fall back into, until you realize that the drawstring that flips you and pulls you until you’re hanging upside down is connected to your own wrist. For years, Instagram had me sprinting to catch up to my own representation of myself, but only because I let it. Now it’s giving me options, letting me order off menu. Through hundreds of private messages, it’s giving me the option of being brave.
It’s not what big bravery looks like, but it’s the kind I might be able to dabble in, and it begins in a familiar fashion. It’s 11 p.m., I’m wearing an oversized Reba McEntire shirt, and I am wondering why someone I’m not even sure I like is watching me eat a pulled pork sandwich in 15-second intervals. I am frustrated, conflating caring with losing.
I know it is too late for detached and cool (I’m wearing a Reba shirt,) it’s too late for not caring, it’s too late for all the things I want to pretend that I am. More importantly, I know that pretending to be these things makes me the most miserable, distracted version of myself. It makes for a life that I could lose interest in.
So I ask him why he watches my story, and I accept that if I cannot be indifferent, maybe I can be brave, even if it’s for a brief few seconds, in the middle of the night.