He sent me an Alice in Wonderland GIF on Tinder on February 28, 2020.
I remember because it was my last normal weekend before COVID hit South Africa, where I live. I went to a birthday party that night, got outrageously drunk, and replied to his Tinder message the following day.
Within five messages, I discovered that I had a lot in common with this Tinder match, who I’ll call Max. We studied at the same university, even completing the same degree (though he finished two years before me). We were both writers, with similar views about the world in general. Not even a week after matching, we were exchanging our writing. Instead of focusing on an upcoming work deadline, I stayed up late reading the first few chapters of his sci-fi novel.
Before long, Max and I were sending about 100 texts a day. My screen time showed me that I was spending five hours on WhatsApp alone. If I was last to reply before going to bed, I would wake up to read his response in the middle of the night.
Max and I lived an hour apart, but about a week after we matched, my grandparents invited me to spend a weekend with them at a beach flat they were renting, which was near where Max lived. He and I planned to meet up then.
A few days beforehand, however, the first COVID case was confirmed in South Africa. And on the day of our date, I woke up with a headache, mild fever, and swollen glands. I had to cancel.
Max was understanding and supportive. I spent most of that day sleeping through my fever and whenever I woke up, I had multiple messages from him checking in on me. He suggested that we go on a virtual date, and we arranged to watch Marriage Story “together.” Throughout the movie, we texted about the size of Adam Driver’s nose, the awkward acting, and how absurd it was that Adam Driver’s character’s favorite meal is a salad. (Come on, who doesn’t like carbs?)
Soon after our canceled date, South Africa entered a hard lockdown. No one other than essential workers could leave their homes, except to purchase food.
Max and I had no idea when we would meet. We voiced fantasies of quarantining together in the woods or going on dates in Hazmat suits. “As soon as this is done we’re going for drinks and I’m gonna kiss you and hold your hand and we’re gonna be gross and take lots of pictures together, okay?” Max texted me.
He and I joked that we had bewitched each other. I couldn’t work out how I could be so invested in someone I never met. I wasn’t new to the Tinder world when I connected with Max, and, typically, I’d had more luck dating people I knew in real life. With dating app matches, I tended to get bored of the superficial conversations quickly. I’d forget to respond, and the match would fizzle out before we made it to an in-person date.
I likened my strong interest in Max to finally meeting The One. That said, when he started calling me “baby” and “my love,” I knew this was odd since we’d only been talking for a few weeks. But, I was obsessed with him, and clearly, this meant he was obsessed with me too, right?
At this point, I viewed the lockdown as little more than a minor setback to my relationship with Max. Instead of feeling anxious or hyper-fixated on the pandemic and its consequences, I fantasized about our future relationship. Despite the onslaught of bad news, my dopamine levels were higher than ever.
This changed about a month after Max and I started texting. His messages turned from hot to cold. I assumed that it was just a bad day and that his change of tone was unrelated to me — his “baby,” his “love.” But soon enough, he texted, “I’m sorry if I’ve been off-ish lately. I really enjoy talking to you and I care about you a lot, I just don’t know if we got a bit ahead of ourselves here.”
I was floored. Max had initiated everything, so up until he sent these messages, I was 100% certain that everything I felt, he was feeling too. I told him this and questioned what his doubts meant for us. “I’m second-guessing everything. Maybe it’s best we take a break,” he texted back.
I felt numb and betrayed. How could Max change his mind about me so quickly? I also felt like I was losing my own mind. I had let myself believe that we had something special. Had I made up the whole thing in my head?
For days after Max ended things, I couldn’t eat or sleep. I was working at a fraction of my normal pace and I had to ask my clients to push back deadlines. I stalked his Twitter account, looking for a reason for his sudden change of heart. Why didn’t he want to talk to me anymore? Was he still in love with his ex? Was I just an experiment? Or worse, a game? I didn’t have an answer from him, and I couldn’t stop myself from searching for one in his cryptic tweets. What I deduced from his tweets was that Max was still hurting from a recent heartbreak. What we “had” was probably his attempt to project a relationship onto me. When that didn’t work, he decided to end things. But this understanding of what had happened didn’t make it any easier to move on.
In the week that followed Max’s break-up text, I relied on (virtual) support from friends, who never questioned the sincerity of my heartbreak over someone I had never really met. They validated my feelings and told me that my response was normal and that things would get easier.
After a week or so, though, my friends stopped asking the post-split, “How are you coping?” questions. I understood why. I assumed they were having the same thoughts I was: that I had never even met the dude. That we’d only been talking for a month. That if I hadn’t already forgotten about him, I would soon. People were going through real breakups, I told myself. And whatever Max and I had, it hadn’t been real. How could it have been, if we’d only communicated via text?
Around then, I started dating again. I went on Zoom dates and, when the COVID-19 case numbers dropped in South Africa, real dates. For the first time in my life, I was dating intentionally. I felt a newfound confidence. My dating life was fun. But even though the people I met were intelligent, interesting, and charming, none of them went past the third date, when it became clear to them, or me, or both of us that I had no feelings.
In all honesty, I wasn’t over Max. Months down the line, whenever I was in his city, I’d find myself secretly hoping that we would bump into each other. If I could just see him, then maybe I could get some kind of closure. Or maybe there would be a spark. All I knew is that I needed something. And after a while, this need began to baffle me. Previous heartbreaks from people I dated in “real -life” didn’t last this long. Why did I find it so hard to move on from Max?
Over the past year, I’ve had lots of little moments of clarity that helped me answer that question. One is recognizing that Max love-bombed me. He led me to believe that I was the most beautiful and intelligent person he had ever met. The level of affirmation and attention he gave me in such a small space of time created a dopamine high that I struggled to forget.
Max fed into every rom-com fantasy I thought I’d outgrown. He affirmed me, complimented me, and paid close attention to everything I said. He was able to talk candidly about mental health, therapy, and personal issues. He was the perfect man.
But — and this was my second moment of clarity — I only ever saw part of him. In early relationships, we often project fantasies onto our partners. Usually, along the way, we realize that they are flawed and complex individuals. I never got the chance to learn about Max’s flaws or what I might have perceived as negative qualities. Instead, he became a representation of an intense fantasy of mine. Of course it’s harder to let go of someone who seemed so perfect. But I was trying to get over someone who never really existed — and understanding that helped me move on.
It’s been almost a year since I last had contact with Max. Thankfully, I no longer crave the closure or contact that I thought I needed for so many months. I’ve also learned to stop judging myself for taking so long to move on from someone I never met. I feel confident that I will meet someone that makes me feel the way Max made me feel. But it will be better — because they will be real.
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