I was in bed, an old pug snoring next to me, two cats curled at the foot of the bed, my husband at my side checking his fantasy baseball league on his iPad, when the obituary for my first thirst-trap crush came sliding up my Facebook feed. I froze and stared at the attached photo. He looked the same, maybe a little wider in the face, a little thicker neck. I clicked on the link and scrolled through the details. He was an only child, which I knew. He was only 39, a year older than me, which I didn’t know. We’d never talked about our ages.
The obituary didn’t say anything about a husband or partner.
Below the link a shared friend had posted a comment saying that he’d talked to the family. My crush’s parents were devastated. They had Christmas presents wrapped and waiting under the tree. The friend assured everyone that it wasn’t suicide. He had fallen and hit his head and was dead for several days before anyone found him.
Seeing the obituary reminded me of how fascinated I was with thirst traps when I first started online dating in 2011. Thirst traps were any provocative photo someone posted online to attract attention. Shirtless men holding food or cute animals, grinning widely for the camera. Guys in their underwear looking pensively off-camera, as if lost in thought. Men lying in bed with perfectly coifed hair, the photo cut off in just the right place to leave enough to the imagination. They were everywhere, begging me to stop and look and linger.
At first, these thirst traps seemed fake, needy, manipulative even. They were meant to lure us away from our lives, to prey on our never-ending quest for the desirable, to make us believe that everything in life can be immaculately-staged and perfectly-posed. I had just spent two years in China, a country obsessed with image and appearances, and the showiness of thirst traps gave me the same hollow feeling I’d get while staring at something I knew wasn’t as good as it looked.
Thirst traps made me feel sort-of empty inside.
But, there was also something captivating about how the thirst traps presented their subjects, how the good ones seemed to offer a snapshot of perfection in the minute it took to take them. I approached looking at thirst traps like I did those Magic Eye 3D posters I’d stared at as a kid. If I stared long enough, I believed, I could see something real in those thirst traps. One day it would just appear like the sharks and butterflies and other hidden images did. I just needed to look at them long enough.
I was especially curious of the thirst traps local men posted on their dating profiles. The man from the obituary was one of the first I remember stopping and lingering over. In the man’s photo, he stood in front of a shower curtain, his bare shoulders and chest just visible, his wet hair swept back from his face, the corner of his mouth raised in a smirk. He was handsome, in a boy-next-door kind of way. I stared at the trap for a while and then clicked into his profile and sent him a message. I normally wasn’t so bold, but something about the trap’s allure gave me courage. To my surprise, the man responded, and after a few flirty quips back and forth, he introduced himself as Michael.
For a week, Michael and I volleyed messages back and forth. We chatted about dating in a small city and our favorite novels and what we liked and disliked about The Walking Dead. He told me about being an only child and I told him what it was like being the oldest of six. We shared our stories of growing up and coming out. He had a Yorkshire Terrier named Winston and I had just rescued a pug named Amos, so we sent each other dozens of photos of our pets in various situations. Chatting with him felt comfortable, safe. At times it even felt real, like we were in the same room.
Eventually, I felt comfortable enough to send my own version of a thirst trap, one of me lying on my couch with my arm over my head and Amos snuggled at my side. From there we moved to talking on the phone. The first time we talked, I nervously paced my living room trying to think of what I could say to make myself sound authentic and worth meeting in person. I wanted to convince him that I was more than just what he saw in that thirst trap. At the same time, I was accumulating enough evidence to convince myself that what I saw in his thirst trap was real. I wanted to believe Michael, but I also felt it was difficult to portray yourself authentically online and I was suspicious of anything that seemed overly manufactured and posed. I had heard about catfishing, where someone pretends to be someone else online, so I was protecting myself in case Michael’s thirst trap was all just a façade.
One night, a couple weeks after we’d started chatting, I was out walking Amos and I stopped in front of a house to watch a woman hang shelves in her living room. From all the unpacked boxes I could see through the window, it seemed like the woman had just moved in, and seeing her putting up shelves and settle into her house, I found myself thinking about all the scenes of domestic life I’d seen on television and in movies. I thought about buying a house with someone, about walking our dogs together around our new neighborhood, about hanging shelves and making dinner and curling up in each other’s arms in front of the television. I wanted all of that, and even though we’d only been chatting a few weeks, I felt like Michael wanted that as well. I knew it was foolish to draw this conclusion from only chatting for a few weeks, but I couldn’t help it. Our weeks of chatting and texting had started to slowly fill in the space around that thirst trap and seeing this woman settle into her new home made me long for a life together with someone. All I needed to do was convince Michael to meet me in person.
When I got back to my apartment, I sent Michael a message asking if he wanted to get coffee. He agreed and we made arrangements for our first date. We would meet on a Sunday afternoon at a coffee shop in a strip mall on the north side of town. I was looking forward to the meeting. After watching the woman put up shelves in her new home, I couldn’t help but let my mind jump forward to this imagined future I created. On the day of our scheduled date, I ended up getting delayed coming back to town and had to cancel at the last minute. Michael didn’t seem to mind when I called to reschedule.
“It’s OK,” he replied when I cancelled. “I like to take things slow.”
When I tried to set up a new date, he was noncommittal, mentioning work or other obligations, and I thought that I’d missed my chance. Still, I kept trying. I suggested crowded bars and quiet coffee shops, weeknights, afternoons, morning coffee. Nothing stuck, and after a few failed attempts, I started to believe that he’d lost interest. For a week, I teetered between believing I could make that imagined future of buying a house and walking our dogs together a reality and believing that nothing about what I’d learned about Michael was real. He wasn’t this cute, boy-next-door type. He didn’t watch The Walking Dead. There probably wasn’t even a dog named Winston. It was all fake, like I’d initially imaged thirst traps to be.
Just when I was about to give up, Michael texted with a new piece of bait. Our state was about to vote on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as only between one man and one woman, ensuring that same-sex marriage would become illegal.
“If the amendment fails,” Michael wrote, “I will give you a kiss.”
I was stuck inside his trap and instead of admitting to myself that he was just stringing me along, I once again took his bait. When the amendment failed, I casually brought up the kiss in a text message, hoping this would finally lead to us meeting. But Michael just brushed it off. The skeptical part of me was saying give up, move on, but the hopeful part still believed that there was something real between us. I just needed to wait a little longer, to keep looking for the hidden butterflies that were bound to appear.
I didn’t hear from Michael for a week, and then, out of nowhere, I saw a post on his Facebook page saying that he’d met the man of his dreams and that they were engaged to be married. I was blindsided. All this time he’d had someone else. He was just casting his line out, seeing if anything new caught his eye.
I stared at Michael’s post and tried to figure out what had happened, where this other guy had come from. I was right there, right in front of him (figuratively—after a month and a half of chatting back and forth, we had still never met in person), yet I wasn’t able to make him see me. I’d spent all this time looking for something real in Michael that I’d failed to think about how I could make myself more visible, more desirable, worthier of meeting in person. I’d failed to consider how weak my own thirst trap was.
I should have ended it there and tried to forget about Michael, but instead, I sent him one last message explaining how hurt I was hearing about this other guy. In my head, I composed a message that was filled with fury and frustration. I wanted to say something about hope and manipulation and how deceptive it was making people believe in a facade. Mostly, I wanted him to feel bad about leading me on. But when I actually wrote the message, none of that anger came out. Instead I wrote, I hope you find what you are looking for, even though I wasn’t entirely sure I believed that.
Looking back on that time now, I am embarrassed by how intense this desire to see something real in Michael had been and how feverishly I had wanted him to see me. All those thirst traps made me believe that I could be seen online the way I wanted to be seen if I posed the right way and said the right things and made people stop and linger over my image.
Seeing Michael’s obituary reminded me of the only time I ever saw him in person. It was years after we’d first chatted online. We hadn’t kept in touch, but when I saw him, I recognized him immediately. And I think he recognized me too. We caught each other’s eyes in passing, and for a moment I wondered if he’d stop and smile and ask about Amos or if I was still watching The Walking Dead, and we’d start over what we’d begun so many years before.
I heard from Michael once more after that. A few years after first chatting online I received a text from him asking to borrow money. It was an odd thing to text someone you’d never actually met in person. But after reading it, I wondered if Michael had felt a real connection with me, one he felt was strong enough to consider reaching out and asking for money. Could that have been possible? I thought. Or was I just falling for another one of his traps?
I never responded to the text.
“What’s wrong?” my husband asked when he noticed me staring at the wall, lost in thought after reading Michael’s obituary.
I looked over at him and tried to smile. I couldn’t help but feel sad about Michael. I wanted to know if he’d lived a happy life, if he actually found what he was looking for. Days later, I went back to the obituary and scanned it for clues. He was survived by Winston, the obituary said, as well as many aunts and uncles and cousins and friends. The comments under the obituary were filled with descriptions of Michael as a kind, loveable guy. A neighbor commented about Michael always holding the door open for her. Someone wrote about always chatting with Michael in the break room at their work, even though he didn’t know Michael’s name. One comment in particular caught my eye because it seemed to express my own experience interacting with Michael online. “I had not known Michael long but [as] soon as we met we were friends,” the comment read. “We seemed to be able to talk to each other about anything.”
The obituary didn’t say anything about a husband or partner.