It was about 2:30 AM when my girlfriend and I stepped onto the train to Brooklyn. A friend from college had a going-away party that night, and a number of characters from my past reappeared. It was easy to fall into old habits in that environment. As expected, I was fairly drunk by the end. My girlfriend, significantly less so.
After we sat down on the bench, I surrounded her body with my arms, and she rested her head on my shoulders. The train slowly lurched forward, and, when it achieved its maximum speed, its slow bouncing lulled us into further relaxation.
When we got to the next stop, my girlfriend looked up at me and asked, “Was your ex-girlfriend there tonight?
When I heard this question, I abruptly opened my eyes. It’s not like my ex and I had any lingering feelings. It was so long ago. We were on friendly terms, and I had spoken to her very briefly at the party. She was hoping to get a job in Boston and move in with her boyfriend, who I also knew from school. But when my girlfriend asked, I began to feel guilty, like I hadn’t been fully honest with her.
“Oh… yeah, I guess she was there. I almost didn’t think about it myself. We dated our first year of college… that’s like 6 years ago.”
“Hmm, okay” she replied. “I would’ve liked to meet her.” My girlfriend didn’t know any of my friends when we first met. That’s something I liked that about her. I could be someone new. I really didn’t want her to meet my ex. To me, there was no reason why they should’ve.
“Yeah,” I mumbled.
The train continued rolling, and the clank of all the metal took up the space of our momentary silence. I thought for a moment, our bodies resting against each other’s. I didn’t recall ever talking about my ex to my girlfriend. As always, I couldn’t resist asking when I should’ve let it go.
“I don’t know if I ever spoke to you about her. How’d you know I dated her?”
“I think I saw her in one of your profile pics on FB.”
But again, when I should’ve dropped it, I didn’t.
“I don’t think she was ever in one of my profile pics?” I like to be precise.
She moved away a little, separating our bodies. “Yeah, I think she was”
I sink in, going through my eight or ten profile pics in my head.
“Uhh, I don’t think so. I think I was in one of hers, but she was never in one of mine.” We now intently locked eyes.
She responded to my rebuff with more certainty and strength. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure that she was in your prof pic. You’re gaslighting me.”
This accusation angered me. “No, you’re gaslighting ME! You’re insisting something happened that didn’t happen.”
I raised my voice to overcome the noise of the moving train. At this moment, I moved to a perspective outside of my own mind. I’m being an asshole… but maybe I’m not, because I know I’m right. Still, as I say often to myself, if I have to question if I’m being the asshole, I almost certainly am. I started to wonder if anyone else on this quiet and sparsely populated train was listening to us. I glanced around to check for stares while maintaining focus on my girlfriend.
“I swear, I saw her in one of your prof pics!”
“I don’t do that thing, putting a partner on social media like that.” This isn’t an explicit rule for me, just something that I have refrained from doing in the past. It seems wrong to put other people at the center of my online identity when I know it will be weird later when I’m with someone new. If when you scroll back just a few photos and see someone else’s face, it’s almost as if that person holds some looming presence in your life. But, that’s not the case here.
“Well, okay maybe it was in a tagged photo, but it’s weird you don’t believe me.” She gave up and stabbed me with the truth. I wince, knowing she’s right.
“Let’s drop it.” I raised my hands up and try to shake it off.
She didn’t say anything, and she fell back into her seat. We don’t say much for the rest of the way. Our conversation returned when we got off the train.
I can’t tell if we would’ve had an argument if there wasn’t Facebook. Our relationship wasn’t the most stable at that time, and any little annoyance could’ve been cause for a discussion. Nonetheless, I felt put off that this piece of my personal history–the simple existence of my ex-girlfriend–was not brought up on my terms. I couldn’t explain who I was then, or what I was doing. All there was were a few simple photos of us smiling together with some cheesy caption at party or on a hike, and my girlfriend constructed the rest on her own.
I am scared of that lingering, artificially-constructed but decontextualized past that is on my profiles. It’s like I can’t outrun the expectations and assumptions that someone draws from them. Can I be someone new with those photos, tweets, and posts existing out there? It took me years to get the courage to go through and remove some of those embarrassing memories that aren’t even serious (homecoming dances, braces, bad haircuts,) and those painful memories that hurt to think about (dark times, ruined friendships, lost loves). Yet, it was all there for everybody to see. I agreed to it.
So, I shouldn’t have been mad about it when my girlfriend did it. But getting defensive, that’s second nature to me. And my only solace in the argument? Was I right about the profile picture? I don’t know, I never wanted to check and haven’t since.
Name: Ryan F.
Relationship status: Single
Dating apps: Tinder, Bumble, Hinge