On my last day at work my colleague Ralph gave me a book of French porn. The porn – which was about a couple who liked to bathe their bottoms in saucers of milk – was a high point for us, sexually. We had been having a torrid affair via the office’s instant messaging service for the past year and a half, but we touched each other only once a week. On Tuesdays, Ralph would make a pot of coffee for the editorial team at the magazine where we worked, and as he walked behind my chair on his way to the kitchen he would pinch my left shoulder.
Our skin-on-skin contact would last about three seconds and while it was happening I would make my body go completely still, like a cat. Ralph had been living in Tottenham with his girlfriend for the past eight years, and I liked to think of his weekly pinch as a communication of everything he felt but was too noble to say out loud: “I hate her”/ “I love you”/ “I would like to bathe with you in a saucer of milk”.
When I dream about falling in love, I mainly imagine feeling relief. Me – the problem of being me – will be solved when I am in love, I believe. I will be liberated, by romance, from the terrible responsibility of forging a path into the future. In some ways my fantasies about being in love are a bit like fantasies about being dead.
In the most furious months of my online affair with Ralph I felt – not without a flutter of pride – that the problem of being me had reached crisis point. By day I mostly wrote 50-word blog posts about adult ball pits and by night I slept on a mattress with no sheets because I thought of myself as too eccentric to need bedding. In flat, empty moments I worried that my room was not so much a garret as a space I slept in after writing blog posts. I seemed to be becoming pettier, less interested in other people, obsessed with cataloguing all the intricate ways they had wronged me. I wanted – in a desperate, self-hating way – to be a writer, but anything I wrote made me ashamed of myself. Crying became velvety and familiar, like being stroked. I found I enjoyed it. My boss, who could sense I spent most of my working life hoping to be pinched, was gearing up to fire me.
Google’s G-Chat, in this context, was heaven. Because the great appeal of having an instant messenger-based relationship in your late twenties is that if your personality isn’t turning out quite as you’d hoped, you can simply rewrite it. When I felt twisted up by my own selfishness, I asked, coquettishly, after Ralph’s health and happiness. When I felt sexless I sent him an artfully cropped picture of my bum. My fingers, when typing out a Maggie Nelson quote and pressing send, were so supple and quick they felt God-like. Reading back through our chat in the evenings was like dancing: I was so magnanimous! So mysterious! Ralph – whose idealised G-Chat persona seemed to be a kind of wise, tired owl – replied to me mostly in terms of dreams he had where we were together, all heavy with symbolism about how it could ultimately never work out because I was so young. (I was 27; he was 32.)
On particularly red-hot G-Chat afternoons the messages came so thick and fast that I would skim Ralph’s and read only mine – long, sad screeds about lovers I had known and podcasts I had listened to – and lust after myself. Sometimes I would feel, guiltily, like I had eaten him. When I looked up and saw him sat there, hunched over his computer two desks away, it was an affront. We would blink at each other and feel ashamed.
The fact that neither of us thought he would leave his girlfriend thrilled me with a sense of my own invulnerability. Nothing I ever said would have any nasty consequences, so I allowed myself to say everything. I begged him to come and live with me on my mattress.
I sent poetry. When my boss cut my hours, I dashed back to my computer and wrote “I Love You.” I love you! It felt good to write it. I developed a system where I immediately followed up every bum picture with one of my face, so I could scroll back up our feed and feel multifaceted, but face pictures seemed to frighten Ralph. He started calling himself “tired boy” and talking less specifically about me, more about the news and the cruelty of man to man.
Often when I looked over at his computer he had several windows open, G-Chatting other people. This just made me chat harder: about the richness of my interior life and my faults, all of which seemed to revolve around living too wild and too free.
The only time we kissed (by the loos, after work drinks) he kept his lips firmly closed, like an old movie star, and breathed out dramatically through his nose. I remember a terrible split second where I tried to hold his face still and he tried to wriggle out of my grip. When I looked at him he was small and rumpled and afraid of me, and I was suddenly paralysed by need. By how badly I needed him to see me as I’d written myself.
A month later I was finally fired, and in my last days in the office he G-Chatted with all the old enthusiasm, edged with a palpable note of relief. The porn was his parting gift. The story inside was so explicit it made me feel a fraud. It had all the actual fleshy sex we had just pretended to want so we could get back to talking about ourselves. Inside he’d written an inscription that carefully sidestepped any mention of love. Over the next year, I compulsively reread it. I hinted darkly about our affair to acquaintances – and told one bafflingly specific lie about Ralph leaving a trail of Haribo from the office door to my desk, to say goodbye. Increasingly, I found myself returning to his inscription just to feel disgusting. I would linger over less tender sentences and wonder whom I could have been to spark devotion: more thoughtful, quieter, less needy.
Recently, I’ve stopped being able to inhabit the G-Chat me. I picture her there, lit up like a lava lamp by the warmth of the man who desires her, but no quick quip to type springs to mind. And I’ve stopped reading the inscription. I can hear the insincerity and the selfishness in it – my selfishness – and it embarrasses me. Now I skip straight to the porn and think about dipping other people’s bottoms in saucers of milk.
This article appears in the 26 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The death of privacy