I was laying in my bed on one of the first warm days of spring. I’d thrown the windows open in an attempt to feel like I was experiencing the changing season despite the fact that I hadn’t set foot outside—not even for groceries—in six weeks. My phone buzzed and I flipped it over instinctively. “Fine. I see how it is,” the text read. “I won’t bother you again.” A bubble inflated in the pit of my stomach. Anxiety? Excitement? No, relief. My absence had successfully conveyed my lack of desire. I won’t paint myself as the asshole because this is my story, so rather than exploring the ethical dilemma of ghosting someone during what may be the loneliest collective experience of our time, I’d like to make a case as to why he deserved it.
In February of last year, I invited a man I’d been dating for a few months to a feminist art conference. He was an art school grad, though now he works in IT, and he leaned left politically so I thought it’d be a fun time. I was wandering through the atrium looking at the work when he walked in looking flushed from the frigid air. Cute, I thought; he looked like a more mature version of my ex. He was the first person I dated after the end of that relationship, and their striking similarities were the reason I overlooked his more unsavory quirks.
We walked through the rows together, commenting on the art: a multimedia collage of unsolicited sexts and dick pics, and my favorite, a collection of portraits of Black women painted on paper bags. We stopped at a film project depicting a woman forcing herself into the splits for four excruciating minutes, and we watched in silence until he broke it with this riveting observation: “Her feet are dirty.” There was, in fact, dirt on the bottom of her feet, brown-black and caked on. I thought it contrasted nicely with the artist’s pale skin and scarlett bodysuit on the stark white backdrop. I noted that it was interesting that his response to a commentary on the ways women are forced to contort themselves to conform to the male gaze was to critique the artist’s body. Seeing as we both have backgrounds in art (albeit his was validated by an institution and mine has been mostly self-taught), I thought we might have a pretty meaningful conversation. Then he said flatly, “you know artists make mistakes, right?”
I explained my theory in an earnest effort to defuse the situation and practice the communication strategies I’d learned in therapy, but he dropped it and walked toward a sculpture several feet away. My guts inflamed, vibrating against the spot where they connect with the base of my rib cage. I’ve learned to read this feeling as a warning. I used to think it was a deep-seated fear of conflict, but now I know it to be an internal resignation; no matter how thoughtfully I express myself or how much space I hold for the man—because it’s almost always a man—to express himself, he’s already decided not to hear me. We didn’t have sex that night, and he seemed a little taken aback. I never withhold sex as punishment, but since he operated from the understanding that sex was a reward, it probably felt punitive to him anyway. I washed the dishes after dinner and walked him to the door. I bristled as he kissed me goodbye, my mouth puckered tightly.
Forty days later, Toronto was locked down and I was working from my bedroom. He texted me to see how I was, and I said I was fine, which was mostly true. He said he was still going into work and being mistreated by his employer. I said I was sorry to hear that and wished he could still qualify for the government’s monthly stipend if he quit. “I like to work,” he responded. “I’m not a bum.” There it was again, the inflammation. I worded my response carefully: “Please don’t use that word and besides, there’s nothing wrong with being unemployed or seeking government support. In any case, I’m just sorry you’re stuck in this situation.” My phone buzzed a minute later, “I miss debating you *heart eyes.*” I stared at the notification in disbelief, then I cracked. I laughed hysterically, sliding off my bed and onto the floor like a child. Without another word, I stood up, put my mask on, and walked to the park empty-handed.
I never spoke to him again. I ignored his updates, enquiries, and memes, hoping to be spared the energy of explaining myself one last time. With nowhere to go and valid reasons to fear public transit, I knew meeting up wouldn’t be possible for at least a few months—hopefully long enough for him to find another poor woman to bother. Ghosting was a tricky game to play during the lockdown, what with tweets and pastel-hued graphics reminding us that just because our friends weren’t texting us back in a timely manner it didn’t mean they hated us. Those of us who really did hate people got caught in the crosshairs of this new compassionate rule. The pandemic put a lot of things into perspective, the importance of community being among the most palpable, but also the necessity of letting go of other people’s expectations—which means being alright with being misunderstood or memorialized as an asshole by strangers. So maybe ghosting is a form of compassion after all: self-compassion.
It’s been almost six months since I’ve heard from him, and the indifference with which I write this confession is a little unsettling. I’m used to caring too much, ruminating over things left unsaid and circling back to make one last point. I guess that’s why I’m saying all of this to you now; and if you happen to be the man in question, this has been an abridged version of the reason I ghosted you.
By Tamara Jones
Illustration by Julian Alexander