A Three-Week Relationship in 19 Parts

The saga of two people who meet on the internet

Harris Sockel
Human Parts


Calligraphic Trompe-l’oeil Calendar by Matthias Buchinger, 1709 | Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Program

1. Three weeks ago, when I was a totally different person, I met you outside of a bar. Back then I was a little dumber, but also happier, and my skin was clearer. I checked my phone a normal amount of times each day (approximately once every 10 minutes), which was a lot but probably half the amount of times I check it now. My resting heart rate was slightly lower.

2. How did you make me leave my house? You put all the exclamation points in the right places. You used tildes on either side of the word “date” and every once in a while you’d type in ALL CAPS, which I enjoy. You repeated parts of my messages in yours to communicate that you were listening, but not so often that you sounded like a politician. Sometimes you put that extra space before the exclamation point to make it ironic instead of sincere !

3. Ways a first date can make me feel: high, old, young-but-in-a-rearview-mirror-kinda-way, like a character in a mid-2010s dramedy, gay, irresponsible, “young and hot” [spoken off-camera by a gay man in his mid-50s], constipated, manic, funny in a focus-grouped way, fake, you know what it’s like when your teeth feel smooth after you brush them? like that but for your whole body, manipulative, understated, judgy, tiny and vulnerable like that meme of a baby grasshopper grabbing onto a human thumb, undercaffeinated, pretentious, desperate but trying to appear the opposite of that, nihilistic, mysterious, dumb.

4. I’ve learned, or thought I’ve learned — I keep thinking I’ve learned — to keep my expectations on the floor, to casually douse them in gasoline while I archive marketing emails on my phone. But you know what they say about expectations: If you’re not managing them, they’re managing you.

5. There’s a phrase I once overheard someone say at a bar that’s relevant here: You want to find something already moving at speed instead of just getting started. It applies to the first 30 seconds of a movie, the first sentence of an email, whether you want to keep talking to someone after they tell you one basic fact about themselves. Some conversations just have momentum. Every comment opens a portal to another ten. Maybe twice in the last five years have I met someone — and not all on dates! one was at work! — who seems to be listening at a higher frequency. They hear the overtones. It’s like we’re building something, composing, not just passing a mic back and forth. Three minutes in and we were laying down our first track.

6. “Tell me your worst trauma,” Lydia says to Milton, famously, in Season 5 of Love Is Blind. You and I can’t stop laughing. It’s not supposed to be funny, but imagine saying that two dates in? How cringe. At 10 p.m. on a Friday you’re leaning over to tap the spacebar on my MacBook, pausing the episode: “We’re gonna talk through this whole thing, right?”

7. I believe you can learn more about some people by how they write than how they talk. It’s a direct line to their brain. In a live conversation there are so many other things to pay attention to. Your ideas mutate and expand, and both of you modulate your messages in response to nonverbal cues so you reach a kind of middle ground (or I do). In writing there’s less interference.

8. “Wow that is beautiful,” you text after I send you a photo of a leak in my ceiling.

9. Relationships are built on specificity. Lydia and Milton love to discuss the intricacies of geology on their two-episode honeymoon in Mexico. You love it when all the buses in Philly, your hometown, say “Go birds” on game days. It’s not about being a sports fan, you explain. It’s about everyone agreeing to care about the same thing at the same time.

10. I remember the second I decided to like you. I made an executive decision while your mouth was open, trying to figure out what to say next. “I like you,” I read off a cue card in my head. It was a given that you liked me, too.

11. “That’s the rule of New York: You can get two but never all three — a good apartment, a good job, a good boyfriend,” my friend Ingrid says, bastardizing Sex and the City. “You already have the job and the apartment,” she explains, not knowing about the leak in my ceiling. “Okay, so what are you saying?” I ask, panicked.

12. I’m calling this disease Expectation Inflation. I’m Patient Zero. It’s been two weeks and we’re on a tiny film set I built in my head that looks like my parents’ condo. We’re stage-whispering before Thanksgiving dinner in 2033. We’re riding a train to Cold Spring and it’s a different season outside every window. I’m buying you the tiniest succulent on earth.

13. In 2014, a group of neurobiologists found that gay men are more oxytocin-influenced than straight men. Oxytocin is a hormone that makes you more trusting. Some say it makes you fall in love. When the neurobiologists sprayed oxytocin into 37 men’s nostrils, only the gay men really started acting differently. They interpreted facial expressions as friendlier, rationalized people’s flaws, perceived lopsided things as more symmetrical, and gave everyone the benefit of the doubt.

14. You walk into my apartment and I think to myself, “You’re uglier than I remember?” and immediately suppress that thought. I flip to host mode, my Do you want water? personality. I stare at the back of your head on my pillow and wonder what animal you would be if we were not human (squirrel, I decide). I’m pretty sure I’d be in the rodent family too.

15. Like I do with everyone, I start seeing myself through your eyes. My brain figures out how to be someone you’ll like before I’m aware that’s what I’m doing. You know what’s adorable, I think to myself while trying to fall asleep, when all the buses in Philly say ‘Go birds’ on game days! I’ve never even been in Philly on a game day, never seen a game, never will. I’m adaptable, more adaptable than I ever knew. It’s not that I’m fake, it’s that I can smooth out my edges on command. It seems cold and calculating but no, more a limbic system survival-type thing, me on a barstool modulating my voice to make it slightly less gay even though, um, we’re both gay… that’s why we’re here? Society, man. Gemini supreme, the only astrological sign I’ve ever really identified with. To quote my friend and sage

, “I thought the only way to be myself was to first be someone else, as though one version of myself was simply a gateway drug to the truer, more accurate version.”

16. When I started writing this I was like, what if I write an anticlimactic story about dating? Nothing memorable would happen. It would end before any major conflicts have a chance to start, which feels true of many things in life.

17. “Think of every relationship like a book,” my friend Jay says. By this point something in our texting rhythm has gotten all fucked up and I’m not sure why. It’s like the Changing Room Illusion; you know something shifted but can’t pinpoint when. “It doesn’t last forever,” Jay says, “and it shouldn’t. When a book ends, that’s good. You put your books on a shelf and look at them. You’re happy you got to read them.”

18. On our final night together, which is also our fifth night together — a record number of nights together for me — we order Thai food and tell each other our worst traumas on my couch. It takes two hours. No one cries. No one proposes and goes to Mexico afterward. No one leaves the pods teetering on their stilettos. We just make out for 30 minutes and then you’re like, “Where did I put my wallet?”

19. A relationship is a group project, and like all group projects it ends when you stop agreeing on what’s real — when your expectations get in the way of your perceptions. In this case, that was sometime between the night you exclamation-pointed me out of my apartment and when I started writing this.