"So, I’ve got a question for you..." The man opposite me swirled his forefinger in his gin and tonic then sucked on it loudly before taking a sip. There was something obscene about the whole performance; about the way he pursed his wet mouth around his finger and the suckling sound he made; about the fact that he kept eye contact the whole time.
"Oh yeah?" I replied.
"Do you squirt?" The pub was full of people and too hot. We’d managed to get one of the last tables, next to a searing radiator, and were hemmed in on all sides by people standing with their backs to us.
I think at one point in my life I might have laughed; I might have been like, "Ha ha, WTF, why are you being a weirdo?" But I'm 31 and it was a dank Friday night and I felt the pull of my friends somewhere out in the city. I imagined them huddling together in the smoking area of a pub or sitting on a sofa, eating chips and cracking jokes.
Fuck this, I thought, before replying: "Not sure that’s an appropriate question to ask someone you only met 20 minutes ago?"
"Oh come on!" He pushed his glasses up his nose with that still-moist forefinger. "I’m just trying to get to the juicy stuff."
"Juicy being the operative word?" I raised my eyebrows.
"Exactly," he banged the table, laughing, before taking another swig of his G&T.
In fairness, Michele had warned me not to go for a Scorpio. "It’ll be intense," she said, "and such a journey."
Michele Knight is Bumble’s in-house astrologer. The app introduced the astro-filter last year and Bumble says it has since become the most-used filter, allowing swipers to whittle down potential matches based on their star sign. All of which has been reported in the media with varying degrees of side-eye.
Haters cynically joke, "Ha ha look at these idiots who love star signs even though there’s no scientific proof they’re real," as though dating based on astrological compatibility is somehow more ridiculous than dating based on how someone looks in three carefully selected pictures and a 30-word bio.
In fairness, many studies, like this one conducted at Cambridge University, have argued that astrology is neither accurate nor scientifically sound. But still, a few months ago I found myself single again after an acrid break-up with a Virgo, and looking for any reason (beyond the fact that I’m a shit person who doesn’t deserve love) to explain why we hadn’t worked out. I’ve always been into horoscopes enough to know about my own sign (Leo) and which signs I might be compatible with.
My best friend at school was an Aquarius – my opposite – and growing up we’d spent hours reading about what that meant for our friendship in the back pages of Mizz magazine (as a Leo, I learned that I was brash and flirty, attention-seeking but loyal to a fault). From that early knowledge I knew, vaguely, that Virgo and Leo were not a good match.
Buckling under the crushing sadness of our break-up – tinny desperation that brought tears to my eyes when I found one of his T-shirts, folded neatly among my pyjamas – I grasped at the fact that maybe it wasn't 'all bollocks'.
I looked it up online one night soon after the Virgo and I started seeing one another. Virgos, as I understood them, were myopic, detail-oriented and organised. They loved order and had a tendency to be judgemental. He was sitting next to me on the bed reading Adults in the Room by Greece’s ex-finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis and I thought it might be funny to tell him what I found. Funny in a bleak way: one site put our emotional compatibility at 1%. ONE PERCENT. He was annoyed that I’d even bothered to read it and pointed out that it was "all bollocks".
I shrugged. "Yeah, maybe."
Almost two years later, buckling under the crushing sadness of our break-up – emptiness in my solar plexus, tinny desperation that brought tears to my eyes when I found one of his T-shirts, folded neatly among my pyjamas – I grasped at the fact that maybe it wasn’t "all bollocks".
Maybe we just weren’t meant to be, cosmically. Wouldn’t that explain it? Hadn’t it so often felt like we were speaking different languages? I found him to be overly critical. He found me to be needy, messy, erratic and unfocused. He found my silliness annoying but my sullenness insufferable.
"For you, somebody like a Virgo or a Taurus will be too restrictive right now," Michele said, out of the blue, when I called a few months ago to find out whether astrology was to blame for my break-up. I told her that my ex was a Virgo with a Taurus moon and Taurus rising. She laughed.
"Well, that’s interesting...I would say you probably weren’t suited. He probably admired a lot of things about you, but you probably felt he was too critical." I didn’t reply. "But I bet he also made you feel very safe. You felt grounded by that earthy energy." Yes, I replied, that’s true.
She advised me to aim instead for a Sagittarius ("they’re adventurous and eccentric...they’ve always got something interesting to say"), a Gemini ("this one could end up being your soulmate; they’re good talkers and will keep you entertained") or an Aries ("Aries men are a bit troublesome – you could have quite a fiery, passionate relationship though. Maybe good for a fling"). She also said a Cancerian might work (more on this in a second) but cautioned against a Scorpio. "They’re very intense personalities; sexually curious, even a little deviant," she explained, "but your moon is in Scorpio, so you have that too and would probably be drawn to it. I just don’t think that’s a good energy for you right now. Very intense..."
So I set my filters on Bumble (I included all of the signs she mentioned, even the ones that weren’t quite right, so I could make a comparison) and started swiping.
Immediately I was reminded of how profoundly odd the whole app dating thing is. Mostly I was surprised by how many pass-agg one-line bios there were out there. My favourites included "don’t be a psycho", "looking for someone who can keep up" and (mind-bogglingly) "must have at least a B in GCSE maths".
I came across one Sagittarius whose main picture was of him smoking a massive spliff. I swiped right because, while I don’t actually smoke weed, the picture did make me laugh. It seemed to stick two fingers up at the gym selfies, rugby photos and borrowed-puppy pictures.
Perhaps I was too eager to find someone a bit 'out there', though, because as soon as the Sagittarius with the massive spliff got my number he sent me a GIF of him grabbing his dick through his boxers. I replied with "lol that you made that into a GIF" (because, really, what else can you say?) and blocked. I also spoke to two noncommittal Geminis and a Scorpio who made a reference to Enoch Powell (wtf?) but the first actual date I went on was with a Cancerian.
"You’ve got Venus, the planet of love in your seventh house of relationships," Michele told me, cryptically. "So you’re very drawn to Cancerians. I think you might end up with one. The Cancerian is emotional, wants to talk about feelings and wants to love freely. But if you’re going to go for a Cancerian, you’ve got to be ready for a relationship."
Worth a try, I thought, and he seemed like a nice man. Early 30s and a marketing manager for a tech startup based near Silicon Roundabout. When we met he looked handsome in a dark blue suit. He’d gotten himself into a bit of romantic trouble last year after having an affair with a married woman. "Her husband didn’t pay any attention to her," he offered as a sort of explanation. "She was so smart (he gave me a significant look) and fun." Across the table (we’d migrated from a pub to a burger place) he looked downcast. "I’ve kept it a secret for so long, it’s nice to tell someone," he said. "Sometimes I open my messages on her name and think about what I’d say to her. Sometimes I type out a message. But I never send it." I nodded. "Is that weird?" he asked quickly.
Is dating based on astrological compatibility any more ridiculous than dating based on how someone looks in three carefully selected pictures and a 30-word bio?
He’d just ordered a plain burger, no cheese, no sauces, no veg; he made the waiter repeat it back to him so as to make sure there wouldn’t be even a whiff of lettuce on his plate. "I’m quite picky," he explained. I told him the message thing was less weird than ordering a completely plain burger. He laughed but I was serious.
"I do that message thing too sometimes," I told him. "It’s hard if you care about someone to just pretend they don’t exist, even if that’s for the best."
He nodded, "Yeah, that’s exactly it." This, I thought, is one of the joys of modern dating. The Venn diagram of our lives didn’t overlap in any way; we had no friends in common, no work acquaintances. There is something freeing in that anonymity. We parted ways but kept chatting over the coming weeks – all of which was great, until suddenly it wasn’t. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The next date was the Scorpio who asked if I squirt. As you can imagine, I left pretty soon after that despite the fact that when I said, "It’s just a fucking weird thing to ask," he looked chastised and apologised. After him came another Scorpio, who seemed awkward and unhappy until about three drinks in. We’d gone to one of those soulless pubs near the City; I felt for him, it sounded like he’d been having an intense time at work (he did some kind of banking). He explained, pulling at his tie with an angry, clawing hand, that it was starting to seem like nothing means anything.
"Yeah," I said, "I’ve felt like that too before." We talked for a while about life and then he got a message and had to "run outside for a sec". I waited with our drinks and a moment later he came back. "Do you want some coke?" he asked, suddenly bright-eyed. It was a Tuesday night. I demurred. "But you do you," I said. We talked some more but I left soon after.
When he messaged for another date I said that maybe he was feeling existential because he was on a comedown. "Probably," he replied. "Are you free Friday?"
I saw the Cancerian two more times; nice, fun, chatty dates. Nothing too intense. He didn’t want to repeat last year’s drama, he said, he just wanted something simple. He liked me – he said it often and without any great fanfare. He was being open and straightforward. Perhaps Michele had been right, I thought, perhaps it’s a Cancerian.
My ex was always there, of course, in the back of my mind. But this was a nice distraction. For the final two weeks, I decided to concentrate my efforts on finding some Sagittarians and Geminis. In the end I went on two dates with one of each. The Sagittarian was wild, even by my standards. He was an artist with a big laugh and big hands. On our first date we ended up in a strip club and that’s as much as I’m willing to say.
The Gemini was a bright, funny, gregarious stockbroker with an endearing lisp (he told me to make sure that I mention his lisp). The second time we met, we walked around and around and around Victoria Park until it started raining, then had coffee nearby. "I can’t believe we’re both just...sober," he said at one point. "I usually need a few beers on a date." I agreed it was kinda cool.
Then we went and got drunk. By the time I went home, we’d been chatting for seven hours. It was a good date, with a lot of jokes. But back at home, hair wet from the downpour and feeling an acidic, white wine anxiety, I opened my messages and searched for my ex-boyfriend’s name.
I typed something out, deleted it, typed something else. Finally I sent: "Are you free to hang out?" He replied a little later saying that it probably wasn’t a good idea, but maybe dinner in a few weeks. Always so practical and thoughtful. So grounded. I cried for 10 minutes, saying to myself: "You’re so pathetic, such a sap, such an idiot."
In the background of all this, the Cancerian had been sending nice messages. It had only been a week since we’d last met, but his messages were insistent: When would I make time for him? Why wasn’t I discussing how I felt? He wasn’t being pushy, he said, he just wanted to see me. I told him I needed space, that this was all a bit much from someone I’d only known two weeks.
He got annoyed: Why couldn’t I just give it a chance? I said, again and again, I’m sorry, it wasn’t because of him, it was just bad timing. Then, one evening on my way home from the gym, he messaged to say that he was on his way over with wine, that it was 'mad' to end it before it had even started. "I’m not home and I really don’t want to hang out," I said. But he was already there and planning to wait.
At 9.15pm I walked down my road, feeling a strange combination of dread and embarrassment. I did not want to upset him. But I felt him pushing through the invisible boundary I’d drawn around my home, and around my life. That space suddenly felt less secure. I got to my door and he came forward. "Hey," he smiled.
"What are you doing?" I countered. "You absolutely cannot turn up at my house, especially when I’ve asked you to give me space. Please just go."
My key was in the lock, I felt the bite of metal on metal and the door swung open. I stepped inside and closed it quickly behind me. I cancelled all the other dates with all the other men. Even without this small drama I was, quite obviously, not ready for any of it. A few days later he sent an apology for turning up like that. "It was intense and unpleasant," he admitted, and signed off. "It was a really fun couple of weeks."
We're trying to mitigate the risk of pouring all our feelings into one person only to find, a few dates or even years down the line, that they weren't the right one for us after all.
Admittedly, I’d found the Scorpios the most erratic and I’d gotten on best with the Gemini, like Michele predicted. I’d also had the most, erm, emotional experience with the Cancerian.
Look, I’ll concede that horoscopes are pretty ridiculous. But are they really any more ridiculous than app dating in and of itself? Than putting yourself out there so that others can window-shop your personality? Is picking someone based on a star sign any more arbitrary than picking them based on a few photos? All the rapid-fire messaging – the dick pics, GIFs and silly memes – is time-consuming ephemera which, added up, doesn’t actually say that much about who we are and what we want. A bit like horoscopes.
In a digital world where nothing means anything and connections exist in the most intangible ways, it makes perfect sense to me that so many of us are turning to the fatalism of astrology. We’re searching for some meaning, some grand plan to make all that effort, and all that energy, feel somehow worthwhile.
When you stop to think about how high stakes entering into a relationship is (when all is said and done, you could end up hurt), perhaps it also figures that we’re trying to mitigate the risk of pouring all our feelings into one person only to find, a few dates or even years down the line, that they weren’t the right one for us after all.
I spent last weekend with my friend, watching films on his sofa and ignoring my phone. He’s a Scorpio who’s just had his heart broken by another Scorpio. "We’re both passionate people," he told me, between mouthfuls of bacon sandwich. "We’re either great together or terrible together."
"Which one do you think you were?" I asked. He shrugged. "Both." Another bite of bacon sandwich. On the TV, Thanos had just dissolved half the world in Avengers and I thought about my Virgo ex. Regardless of how incompatible we were, he was always, always there when I needed him. He always went out of his way to say funny, kind and constructive things.
"How’s the dating making you feel?" my friend asked.
I shrugged back. "Like I miss my ex-boyfriend."
He laughed. "Even though your star signs weren’t a match?"
"Yeah," I said. "Even though our star signs weren’t a match."