Monday, July 15, 2024

If eyes are the window to the soul, what does Google search history represent? Our bunions and boils? A glimpse into my boyfriend’s recent internet searches shook our already tenuous relationship. This is a tale with a moral lesson for both the heart and the browser.

I went to my boyfriend’s house on a Saturday morning. The plan was to put together a puzzle that we had been toying with for months without making much progress. This puzzle was not your typical Monet painting or picturesque landscape; it was a gradient of colors ranging from red to orange. My boyfriend, a 3D designer who wore shirts with silly prints, was the target audience for this puzzle.

As expected, the gradient puzzle was quite challenging. Even assembling the outer edges proved to be a task beyond our skill level. With one of his NPR podcasts playing in the background, we held the pieces under the light of a desk lamp, questioning our ability to discern between shades. I pondered the nature of color. What was red? What was orange? Where does one end and the other begin?

The puzzle was a fitting metaphor for our relationship, as I never knew what we were or how to move forward. With a sense of doom, I stared at the pieces of our tense connection, rotating them 90 degrees, wishing for them to fit in ways that they didn’t.

I realized I considered myself his girlfriend when someone else asked him about it. He had a policy of always answering his grandmother’s calls, which made me grow fond of him from the start.

“How is your girlfriend?” I heard her ask through the receiver.

I put my hand to my chest and gasped. If I had asked him directly about the state of our relationship, he might have changed the subject and avoided me for days. He liked using the idea of commitment to appear more stable to his family, but I wasn’t part of that.

One day, after asking him, “What are we?” we went a month without speaking. I went on dates with other men, but I always found myself more interested in being with him, even though our relationship frustratingly lacked definition. Instead of taking it as a sign of disinterest, I rationalized it.

He had experienced abandonment in his childhood that had scared him away from relationships. While I sympathized with him, it didn’t excuse the fact that he, a man in his twenties, couldn’t hold a conversation about sex or emotions while making eye contact. He was a puzzle to me. Though unusually difficult to solve, like the gradient puzzle, I was determined to figure him out.

After an hour of staring at the loose red and orange pieces, I suggested we look for advice online. We went to his standing desk, which he had made himself from an old door, and opened Google.

As he started typing “how to solve a puzzle,” what appeared under the blinking cursor was a recent search that made my heart skip a beat: “How to break up with someone you’re not attracted to.”

I felt like a piano had fallen on my head, but I didn’t scream or cry. He continued typing as if nothing had happened.

My initial impulse was to assume it wasn’t about me. Perhaps he had asked that question for a friend? But it was a desperate thought.

He clicked on a video by a graphic designer, but she only showed her process of piecing together the puzzle—hers was black and white—without explaining how we could do it. I waited and silently observed, nervously biting my nails on my bare thighs until I excused myself to go to the bathroom.

As I left, he lightly brushed my arm, almost tenderly. It was as if he was testing me to see if I had noticed the incriminating evidence on his screen. That act made me want to escape even more. I couldn’t decide what to do about the situation in his presence.

The confined space of the bathroom allowed me to gather my thoughts and steel myself to confront him. I wouldn’t continue as if nothing had happened. That wasn’t the woman I wanted to be. I told myself I was a grown woman and could handle any direction the conversation took.

Still, I took a moment to look around his bathroom. I remembered the first time I visited his home almost a year earlier. He must not have expected to invite me over because there was an open tube of foundation on the sink. My boyfriend lived alone, so I knew it belonged to him. Perhaps he used it to cover up his acne scars? In any case, there was no longer any beige makeup. It was clear that at some point, he had decided it wasn’t worth hiding his flaws for me.

When I came out of the bathroom, I tried to return to the living room with my head held high.

“Hey, can I ask you something?” I said, almost too cheerfully. He remained seated in his black swivel chair, shoulders slumped, looking helpless. I sat on his couch and told him what I had seen. He stopped me before I could ask what it meant.

“Yes, yes,” he said. “I’m sorry you found out like this.”

Upon hearing that confirmation of my worst fears, I was too stunned to respond.

He went on to explain himself. He had been searching for advice on whether he should be honest about his lack of sexual attraction towards me. He had intended to break up with me the day before during our walk in the park, but we ended up having such a pleasant conversation that he lacked the courage.

I reflected on how, when we returned from the walk, I prepared dinner while he watched. He commented on how sexy my legs looked. Once again, the puzzle pieces didn’t fit.

The conversation was uncomfortable and painful for me, but also exceptionally revealing. The way he talked about our relationship made me realize how much he had hidden from himself and, after those secrets were revealed, how deeply incompatible we were. I told him I could have loved him, and he started to cry.

I had recently reread Erich Fromm’s “The Art of Loving,” which comforted me with the idea that love had more to do with my capacity to give than with another person’s worthiness to receive it. But he, still clinging to the idea of finding the “girl of his dreams,” wasn’t willing to accept that.

While there were many signs, it wasn’t until it all fell apart that I fully grasped how flawed our relationship was. “Well,” I said, “I guess I should go now.” I was proud of how I had handled the situation, not raising my voice or shedding a tear. I slung my purse over one shoulder and looked around to make sure I had everything I had brought. I wouldn’t miss his home, with its unswept floors, cat litter-stained carpets, and walls adorned with hipster art.

He walked me to the door and opened it, an unusually chivalrous gesture from him. He looked at me with a pouting lower lip, like a little child denied a candy, and suggested we take a break.

Confused, I nodded and walked towards my car.

I drove away under the blazing New Mexico sun.

As far as I know, the orange gradient puzzle remained unfinished on his kitchen counter. But my personal puzzle, though lacking pieces and a vision of the final product, was finally complete.

We all turn to Google for guidance, whether it’s to ask how many ounces fit in a cup or how to escape a suffocating relationship. My boyfriend, in searching for an answer to his problem, finally freed me from mine.

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