I was perusing the produce section at Trader Joe's when I noticed David* standing about twenty feet away from me. He was looking skinny and a little tired, but just as attractive as he'd been eight months earlier, when our summer fling had faded quietly into fall.
After circling around the store for about fifteen minutes and wondering if I should strike up a conversation, I finally mustered the courage to march over to him in the canned goods aisle, put on my boldest face, and say hello.
We chatted for a bit, caught up, and after a sufficient amount of pleasantries, parted ways for what I suspected would be — and what indeed was — the last time I ever saw him.
But instead of that empty gut punch that signals what you know is likely a final good-bye, I sugarcoated the moment with a bit of mental balm: “Well,” I thought, “I can always keep an eye on him on Facebook.”
It wasn't a thought that I'm entirely proud of, but at the time it let me fend off the inevitable sadness, and it also made me realize — social media has rendered it easier than ever to put off letting people go.
Once upon a time, saying good-bye to a lover meant losing touch with them completely. Barring a chance encounter, you would rarely have occasion to know whether they stayed in town or left, how they were coping with the separation, whether they were drowning their sorrows in drunken, Instagrammed nights or sitting around at home cooking sad excuses for meals while reaching out into the ether to try and forge some kind of human connection.
But now, that feeling of sudden, sweeping loss can be kept at bay, at least in small part. If the urge strikes, there's a direct window into the lives of people from our past via a simple Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Tumblr search.
And the temptation can be overwhelming. I won't say that I visited David online often, but when I did, I could predictably see his blue car parked in a dusty lot, stills from the most recent film he was making, paintings he had completed and hung around his apartment. As sorry as it was, it made me feel like I still knew what was going on in his life.
Not wanting to detach from ex-lovers is inevitable, even if you were only with them for a short time. The notion that you'll never again see or speak to someone you once cared for carries with it a permanence that at best stings for a week or two, and at worst brings you down for months, if not years, on end. A quick peek online can make us feel like we haven't totally lost contact, like we still have a connection, like we can still briefly touch this person who was once important to us.
But hanging on to the idea — or the Twitter handle — of an old flame only means dragging the relationship on indefinitely. Even if only a small part of our minds stay in the past, we wind up lingering, pondering and mulling instead of ripping the band-aid off, letting the wound bleed, and then letting it heal over for good.
So for a while after ending an affair, we might be better staying off Twitter, steering clear of Facebook and reminding ourselves that our ex-lovers' online presence isn't quite as meaningful as we think it is, anyway — they exist in real life, and they, quite possibly, have already let go.
*Name has been changed