I know you’re the one looking at my author website. You’re a regular at the page with my headshot. In the photo—taken by a man who is now my ex-husband—I’m standing in front of a smooth black background with my chin tilted up. I made him keep shooting until I was sure I’d gotten my expression just right. I always knew you would see it.
After I published my book, which contained a chapter about you, I found you online. You saw me looking and followed me. Before I knew it, you were visiting my website on the weekends using a private browser, presumably so your wife wouldn’t know. I found this strange, since we had a system where you could send me a thumbs up whenever you wanted to chat—or see photos of me in my bra. I feel like a teenager, you said at first, giddy for us to be exchanging messages again. We talked about our lives, and what we would do with them if we didn’t have anyone to answer to. We talked about what we would do to each other. We even talked on the phone.
Eventually, you cut off contact and blocked me. Typical, a friend of mine said when I told her. Perhaps less typical was how you continued to watch my every move on social media. I would share a story as banal as my local bodega cat lazing about the aisles—or as enticing as me in a bathing suit. Every time your head popped up at the top of my “watched” list, it felt like a peep show—your eyes on me through a tiny circular hole in the screen. You were so consistent it made me question whether I was performing for you.
Once, I checked to see if a new crush had “seen” my story, and grew incensed when I saw your head there instead. I hadn’t yet blocked you back; I wanted to prove that I was a more well-adjusted person, someone who writes openly about her obsessions instead of keeping them closeted. I’m a private citizen, you once told me. I couldn’t tell if you were implying that I was not because I was a writer, or because I was a woman doing things on the internet. You decided to go back to visiting my headshot. Eventually, I emailed you from my work address (I assumed you’d blocked the personal one), and asked you to stop doing that too. You didn’t respond, but took a break for a while, then returned a year later, cloaked by the anonymity of a VPN, which my website’s basic analytics easily sniffed out. Very Spy v Spy, you once said about our thumbs up, thumbs down system. When I looked up the IP address, there you were staring back at me, in the form of twelve digits and three periods.
I swore I could sense you thinking about me—a phantom tingle that has traveled down my spine on and off since our twenties, when we were lovers in the flesh. Before we ever slept together, you brought your girlfriend to the restaurant where we worked. We never discussed it; I remember only that she was blonde. At the time, I didn’t think of the way you ended it with me—by avoiding my calls then eventually not answering them all together—as ghosting. That word wasn’t yet part of a shared cultural vocabulary, and social media was just beginning to catch on.
The year after you first became my ghost, I tried asking Jeeves if you had a MySpace, and eventually found you on Facebook. In your profile pic, you were wearing a t-shirt and sitting on your living room floor with your back up against a couch—the same couch where we’d once laid on top of each other, your pants unzipped and mine around my ankle. I lost count of the nights that I came when you called, a sailor heaving herself at a rocky cliff. I guess I found the freefall exhilarating.
When I asked years later if you had a sex addiction and you said, No, do you? I hesitated before responding no, because I was thinking, Only to you. I’m still not sure whether compulsively fantasizing about a single person constitutes a sex addiction. At the time I referred to it as nontransferable horniness. I always thought we were the kind of thing you couldn’t give oxygen to, because it would spark then burn before turning to ash if one dared press a finger into it. If I’m being honest, I still hate that I don’t know what to call you.
Ten years after you ghosted me (the first time), you arrived in my inbox, hoping to talk. Where would it get us? I said, my heart pounding so loud I was sure the person in the next cubicle could hear. We had both recently gotten married. Yes, you seemed to agree. Where would it get us? I could feel a tension in the unspoken nature of the answer, the gravity of the fact that we both knew but resisted its pull. I didn’t hear from you for another seven years.
The last time we talked, it was via an encrypted app, and you were telling me which hotel you’d be staying at the following week. We simultaneously called it off before I booked my room. I assumed there was a good chance you wouldn’t show—you’d been less and less responsive, not even bothering with a thumbs down when you couldn’t talk. The ghosting was on the wall.
When we had first reconnected, you won me over with an apology. I was a coward, you said of the way you ended our IRL sex life, all those years ago. I shouldn’t have gone all Casper on you. You told me I was one of your biggest relationship regrets, and I remember thinking this was strange; we’d never been in a relationship (together anyway). When we were lovers, I had romantic feelings for you, and sometimes thought I felt them back, but it was never anything I could hold onto.
I was crazy about you, you later admitted, via the encrypted app you’ve since deleted.
When I see your avatar there, a ghost in the machine I carry everywhere, it makes me feel like a plant. What I mean is that the act of suddenly cutting off contact is a silencing, which is a kind of living death. Sometimes I wonder if by engaging with you, and agreeing to see you, I was trying to force things to a real end this time. Because as long as I can still sense your existence, whether it’s your silent IP address or my inability to stop thinking about you, I remain stuck in this limbo—both the medium and haunted, trying to figure out what it is that you could possibly still want from me.
You once told me about a fantasy where you wore a suit and sat in a dark corner of a hotel room, telling me exactly how and at what pace to strip down to my panties. The description gave me a shiver of pleasure. I was excited by the idea of you watching me, so close but just out of reach. Performance can act as a kind of protection. Maybe what’s happening now—the orbiting—is just another version of the same fantasy I’ve been living all of these years. One where I never have to find out how you really feel about me.
To be fair, I wasn’t exactly a submissive plant. After all, I was the one who suggested we send a few sexts. I was the one who decided to get divorced. I was the one who introduced video to our exchanges. When you said, I don’t want anyone to get hurt, for some reason that completely eludes me now, I thought you meant your wife.
Before you cut me off for good, I sent you a video of myself in the late-afternoon sunlight, my legs slung open, the wind swirling around my hair. I chose that time of day specifically because I knew the light would be diffused, that it would make me look beautiful, and that you wouldn’t be able to look away. I watched it from start to finish and cringed at the end. The skin on my inner thighs rippled as I quivered into stillness. When I sent the first clip, you responded, holy fuck.
Months later, I wondered if you saw something real in my performance that scared you. That you worried I might take you with me on my free fall.
Recently, I was alone in a hotel room by the sea. My windows open, the waves lapping against the beach. I lay in bed with a sheet wrapped around one of my legs. The ocean air rushed in and out, leaving a salty taste on my skin, and I felt a distinct sensation of you—or my version of you anyway. The pull was particularly strong that night. So I went to the only place I knew to look: my web analytics. There you greeted me from a gleaming screen.