When self­ies are all you have left of a re­la­tion­ship

The Hamilton Spectator - - LIVING - JEN­NIFER SWANN

When my boyfriend and I broke up, we per­formed all the stan­dard rit­u­als of end­ing a years-long re­la­tion­ship: we said good­bye to our one-bed­room apart­ment; we ar­gued over who got to keep the set of fancy chef’s knives (he won be­cause he was the far su­pe­rior chef ); and we rav­aged our shared book­case to de­bate which books be­longed to whom. He took the bed; I took the couch; and we left the cof­fee ta­ble right back where we found it, on the side­walk.

But even af­ter we packed up our ob­jects into card­board boxes and moved into tinier spa­ces on the op­po­site ends of town, there were re­minders of him ev­ery­where. It wasn’t the wooden book­shelf or the brown sofa. In­stead, ev­ery­thing I needed to know about our re­la­tion­ship was con­tained in pix­els and gi­ga­bytes on my iPhone. Ev­ery time I thought of him, all I had to do was tap on our text mes­sage thread, click on the in­for­ma­tion icon, and scroll through the grid of im­ages and I’d get in­stantly trans­ported back into the emo­tional in­ten­sity of our re­la­tion­ship. Look­ing at the hun­dreds of photos, each one more in­ti­mate than the next, it was as though we had never bro­ken up at all.

In the be­gin­ning, the photos were mostly staged: posed with our re­spec­tive groups of friends at bars and par­ties, drinks in hand. Send­ing them via text felt like en­ter­ing a com­pe­ti­tion to see who had the wilder week­end, long be­fore we would spend ev­ery Satur­day night to­gether, some­times never leav­ing our apart­ment.

But things moved quickly, and our ar­chive of im­ages re­flected the speed with which our ro­mance pro­gressed. When he’d ac­ci­den­tally leave his glasses on my bed­side ta­ble or his T-shirt on my floor, I’d send him photos of my­self wear­ing them. He’d send back pic­tures of the jew­elry or the hair ties I’d left on his bath­room sink. The photos de­liv­ered our mes­sage: we were hold­ing each other’s be­long­ings hostage un­til we could see each other again.

Pretty soon, these gave way to ones in which we were both framed in the shot. There was the one we snapped, pos­ing cheek to cheek, just be­fore his best friend’s birth­day party, the night I met most of his friends for the first time. The ones we took from the bal­cony of our ho­tel room when I sur­prised him with a trip for his own birth­day not long af­ter, and then there were the blurry ones we snapped from a mov­ing walk­way months later dur­ing the week­end he met my grandma in Las Ve­gas.

Af­ter we moved in to­gether, our snap­shots evolved to re­flect our do­mes­tic­ity: photos of frit­tatas in cast iron skil­lets and hand­made piz­zas in the oven re­placed the ones we used to send of meals at up­scale restau­rants or cock­tails at clubs. Of­ten they were the kinds of im­ages that we’d never post to In­sta­gram or Face­book — they felt some­how too re­veal­ing, too ex­posed, too unattrac­tive to any­one’s eyes but our own. They in­stantly con­veyed our fa­mil­iar­ity in ways that were some­times dif­fi­cult to de­scribe.

The more time we spent to­gether, the less flat­ter­ing our self­ies be­came. One sum­mer, we sent each other photos snapped in the bath­room mir­ror to com­pare which of our sun­burns looked worse.

The im­ages were not care­fully posed or well-lit. We didn’t suck in our stom­achs or at­tempt to look se­duc­tive; our faces were al­ways cring­ing. By that point, we al­ready knew all the ways our bod­ies looked when sun­burned or bloated or bruised. The photos we ex­changed of our­selves were not a pre­cur­sor to in­ti­macy but a re­minder of it.

Even af­ter we broke up, we still texted photos from time to time: I got to see the ar­rival of his new nephew, whom I’d picked out cloth­ing for when we were still to­gether, and he got to see pic­tures of my rel­a­tives at a fam­ily re­union he was sup­posed to at­tend. He’d send me a photo of his of­fice at a new job I knew he’d been vy­ing for, and I’d send him a photo of a dish he used to make for me that I’d fi­nally mas­tered on my own. We were catch­ing glimpses of the life we could’ve still shared but in­stead had fig­ured out how to do solo.

Even­tu­ally, the photos got to be too heavy. They were just pix­els and gi­ga­bytes, but they felt like weighted an­chors that tugged at my emo­tions ev­ery time I looked at my phone. I fi­nally deleted our tex­ting thread, dis­solv­ing the only thing that kept us con­nected from afar.

Now when I think of him, it’s not be­cause I’m scrolling through self­ies of our sun­burns. Usu­ally, it’s be­cause I can’t find a de­cent knife in my kitchen.

DIG­I­TAL VI­SION., GETTY IM­AGES

Ev­ery­thing I needed to know about our re­la­tion­ship was con­tained in pix­els and gi­ga­bytes on my iPhone.

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