When selfies are all you have left of a relationship
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.
Everything I needed to know about our relationship was contained in pixels and gigabytes on my iPhone.