My ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend is beautiful. I’ve never actually seen her, but I know because I’ve stalked her on Facebook, and Instagram, and Twitter. Although we’ve never spoken, her Tumblr page informs me that we have a lot in common, including an appreciation for modern art and a dark sense of humor. I’ve never met her parents, but I’ve learned from late-night Google searches that her mother is an architect and her father is retired.
I check each of her profiles at least once every day — which is a generous way of phrasing it because it’s usually much more frequent. I visit her Facebook page more than those of my closest friends or my current partner, more than my own, in fact. Chrome tells me that her Twitter page is my most frequented website. When I’m not paying enough attention, I often find myself typing one of her many usernames into the toolbar. I’m like Harriet the Spy, but with worse glasses and a Wi-Fi connection.
The few people I’ve told about my behavior assure me it’s completely natural, that everyone does this, regardless of whether they want to admit it. But I have a problem, maybe even an addiction. I often try to quit, going as far as blocking her on all accounts so I can’t access her pages. But I never last more than a few days before I unblock her and binge on the Tweets, status updates, and photos I’ve missed. Like a junkie getting her fix, the renewed connection fills me with joy and floods my system with adrenaline — until my phone dies and I am stuck staring at my own reflection in the blank screen. The guilt returns. The self-hatred resumes. The cycle continues.
I’m interested in this girl because I could so easily be her.
This particular ex-boyfriend isn’t even that important — definitely not significant enough to warrant this Mark David Chapman–level stalking. He wasn’t my first and he won’t be my last. He didn’t love me in any specific or revelatory way; he never bought me anything extravagant or particularly heartfelt; we didn’t make any promises to one another that we failed to keep. Our breakup was amicable — one of those hazy conclusions we described as “mutual” to half-caring friends — and we went our separate ways. We texted occasionally, then infrequently, and now rarely. I don’t miss him.
Still, the minutiae of this new girl’s life fascinate me endlessly. Every post about her experiences on the subway to campus, her Instagram chronicling the dogs she meets in the street, her tweets ranting about the latest episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race — they all enthrall me. She’s smart, she’s cool, she’s witty. I don’t hate her. In fact, I am convinced we would be friends. We have a lot in common.
I think that’s it. I’m interested in this girl because I could so easily be her. There could be (and the multiverse theory tells us there should be) a universe where this particular man and I are still together — holding hands, arguing about whether Catcher in the Rye is a good book, and kissing lazily in his midtown apartment. Before the internet, I could only wonder at this world. With the help of Mark Zuckerberg, I can see it play out.
The internet is great because we can be anybody we want. Still, this complete freedom presents endless limitations. In choosing who we are, we also must decide who we aren’t. We can only ever be ourselves, but each day we have to craft this person, which means rejecting parts of ourselves too. These decisions are large and small. I often wonder how my life would be different if I altered every single choice; if I would be happier if I had gone in the opposite direction at each metaphorical fork in the road. With Facebook, I can live these alternate lives vicariously through friends who went down (and now chronicle their adventures on) different paths. It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, except with more GIFs.
I don’t think I’m actually stalking her. I think I’m stalking what my life looks like refracted through hers. I’m not addicted to refreshing her Twitter page; I’m addicted to the person I could be but am not. In playing this constant game of compare and contrast, I’m trying to decide if I made the right decision. Some days, I think I did. Others, I’m not so sure.
A few weeks ago, I ran into my ex-boyfriend in the soap section of Kmart. He said hi, we chatted idly, and then I heard a voice call him from a few aisles over. To my simultaneous shock and chagrin, his girlfriend proceeded to turn the corner with a tube of toothpaste in her hands.
“Oh, hi,” she said. She was shorter than I expected, her voice deeper. I felt the dull disappointment usually reserved for meeting a celebrity; the crushing realization that even famous people are just people.
“This is Claire,” my ex-boyfriend said. She nodded. We spoke for a few more minutes. I made awkward small talk before grabbing my Softsoap, telling her it was nice to meet her, and leaving.
I wish I could say it all stopped there. It didn’t. The only thing that changed is that, after meeting her, I mustered up the courage to actually friend her on Facebook.