When We Start Over
This story is part of the Internet Time Machine, a collection about life online in the 2010s.
“We don’t talk anymore, but when he starts dating again I’ll know,” I told the friend who’d just asked about my ex. She and I were sharing a joint at my going away party, days before I would print out a one-way ticket to the clean slate of Los Angeles. To start over, or to try.
“How?” she asked.
“He’ll delete my profile from his Netflix account,” I told her.
It made logical sense: He’d come home from some date — a setup or a right-swipe, I wasn’t sure — and settle into an apartment I’ve never seen and probably never will. He’ll turn on his TV, or maybe his laptop, and before he can even begin to scroll through any number of wildlife documentaries, there I am. My name, my avatar — one more ominous reminder of that time we shared our lives. Maybe there’s a girl with him, and her presence will remind him of my absence in every place but one. And poof. The shared Netflix account goes Gone, Girl. It’s only right. We’d broken up six months ago, and I’d never thrown him my half of the bill, anyway.
Any act of starting over has incidentals.
But when I crawled into bed that night to watch movies with my surrogate lover (the laptop that sleeps on the right side of my mattress), I was met with a surprise. My avatar was gone. I considered phone tapping, psychic abilities. Didn’t the Law of Attraction have something better to do? I logged out of my ex’s account for the last time, then, and registered my own. Rated a couple movies to expedite the Getting to Know You process. Passed out within five minutes of turning on the ABC Family drama, Cyberbully. My first rebound.
Any act of starting over has incidentals. You can lose your Netflix account, for example, and even entire neighborhoods. On bad days it feels like you’ve lost years, until insidious memories sneak into your brain and remind you of all the good things, the growth. How could those years be lost? They’re practically part of your muscle memory.
And yet. Pieces of you do get lost in relationships. Even those of us who cling to our individuality are bound to compromise on the “little” things. Like sure, we can listen to this album instead of that one. Let’s binge-watch this show, not that show. Let’s stay at my house; it’s more comfortable. Look how well we get along! By the way, have you seen my basic essence anywhere?
When you spend a long time with someone, it’s hard to remember which is a You Thing and which is a Relationship Thing. A Relationship Thing isn’t necessarily a compromise, it’s just something you enjoy together. Breaking Bad. That Mediterranean restaurant with the bangin’ bastilla. Andrew Bujalski films. Whatever.
But sometimes Relationship Things start to encroach on You Time. You forget that you also love to scream Michelle Branch at the top of your lungs, or that you’re free to go to all the bars your partner hates, or that you miss playing dice for money. Instead, you go alone to the Mediterranean restaurant with the bangin’ bastilla because like, where else is there to go? Honest question, I don’t remember anymore.
This happened to me, the week before I moved. I was alone most days and spent them wandering around with the same thought knocking between my ears: “What will I miss?” I’d lived in Brooklyn for a collective two decades before deciding to leave; there had to be some restaurant, some boutique, some bar or patch of sidewalk that warranted a goodbye. So I tried to think back to the years before him and couldn’t remember where I’d spent my time, or why I’d stopped; if it were my choice or his. Some places had closed, of course. Others, I just outgrew. Maybe. Point is, I gave up on goodbyes and took myself to the Mediterranean place for breakfast. Too early for bastilla and too late for some other things.
Lately, when I look at my Instagram feed, I scroll all the way back to the beginning. I don’t even realize it’s happening until I reach a picture of myself holding a yellow poetry book. It was taken in 2013, on the first day of a job I left five months ago. When I reach that photo I think, “I’m doing it again.” It: Using the facts to piece together who I was.
My Seamless history has a similar effect. In my dropdown list are the four offices I’ve worked in, the five apartments I’ve lived in, the two apartments he lived in, that awful Airbnb in San Francisco, the house where we cat-sat Christmas of 2014, when it was decided we’d break up in 2015. Disaster preparedness. “Not right now, there’s no reason to do it now,” I’d said. We had holidays and vacations and love, still. “But in 2015…”
We broke up four months later, but not before casually entertaining the idea of moving to Los Angeles together. (Casual, entertaining — these words are not accidents.) In the end, we both moved there anyway, separately. After months of processing the breakup together, it seemed Los Angeles was maybe the only thing both of us were sure about.
If I had to choose one word to explain why the relationship ended, it would be incompatibility. It was his word. I had never considered it: I thought we had no future because I’m bad at cooking and closing cabinet doors, because of the size of my bones, because I take astrology a little too seriously. Things that could be forgiven, could even be loved. But no, the problem was more fundamental than that. We were born mismatched. It just took me forever to notice because I believed — believe — so deeply that relationships require effort. Showing up. Quieting the voice in your heart that sometimes reminds you, “But maybe this would be a little easier with someone else?”
Lately I find nothing more romantic than falling out of touch.
A friend recently asked me if I wished I were a teenager in the 90s. I reminded her I had been, albeit briefly. Then I thought of my sister, who has 16 years on me and lived out her twenties with answering machines and primitive AOL and boyfriends who disappeared when they became ex-boyfriends. “I wish I’d been in my twenties in the 90s,” I told her. She asked why. “It was the last time people had to make an effort to maintain relationships. You had to go out of your way to use a payphone, leave a voice message, ring doorbells. You could let the phone ring dozens of times and it wasn’t weird. And when things ended, they ended.” Lately I find nothing more romantic than falling out of touch.
Whenever I open Venmo to send money, my ex’s name appears at the top of my suggested friend list. Of course. You can’t give so much of yourself to one person, over and over, and expect that all will be forgotten. Not anymore, anyway.
Netflix does not help me remember who I once was, not like Seamless or Instagram. I first shared an account with an ex-roommate, Venmoing him $50 every four months or whenever I remembered. Then my ex got an account and gave me a profile, and I switched between the two. Building disparate sets of preferences. Letting each profile differentiate between Relationship Things and Me Things. I never got to compare the two; they’ve both been deleted.
And now we start over. And now I live in a blank slate of a city with a blank Netflix account. A Netflix account that angered me the other day when I realized, after scrolling through my recommendations, that I was not Getting To Be Known. I had watched for hours, given countless stars, shared my input. But whatever the old Netflix knew about me is gone, now. It tells me to watch The Interview, Worst Cooks in America Collection. It seems to mean nothing to Netflix that I’ve spent 14 hours watching The Twilight Zone.
God. The desperation in wanting to be known by anything, even an algorithm.
What did I expect? This whole thing — the moving, the breakup, the algorithms — you really do have to start over. You have to collect whatever’s left of yourself and redistribute it. Again again again. You have to get out of bed and learn a new city, even when you discover your stowaway depression hiding in the darkest corner of your suitcase. You have to keep a whole and vulnerable-enough heart to let a boy with eyes like aventurine kiss you in broad daylight. You have to let [the city, the boy, the Netflix] take their time with you. You have to take your time with them.
God. The desperation in wanting to be known by anything, even an algorithm.
The boy with aventurine eyes told me about Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlists. I get 30 songs delivered to me each Monday: songs I might like, or used to like, or had completely erased from memory. Songs I gave up during all those negotiations. Songs I gave up to grow up.
“Connected” by Stereo MC’s reminds me of driving on the interstate with my brother, all the windows down in 90-degree heat because his beat-up Toyota had no air conditioning. “Canned Heat” by Jamiroquai reminds me of watching Napoleon Dynamite in a friend’s dorm room freshman year, just months before meeting the first of many men I’d tell, “Whatever you want.” “Pale Blue Eyes” by Velvet Underground reminds me of watching Jesse Eisenberg in Adventureland and just longing for any time or love but the one I had.
Every Monday I am recollecting the lost bits. Rediscovering the Before of Bastilla and Bujalski. Dancing with someone I thought was dead. I am not being known; I am remembering myself. And when all of that is taken care of, then. Then is when we start over.
Keep exploring the Internet Time Machine.