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  • Ariel Bartlett

Tinder, Goethe, and Nikita Dragun: An Essay on Romantic Rejection

(Content warning: Suicide and self harm.)

(Photo sourced from here.)


My roommate and I are in the living area of our flat: the sort of eclectic space you’d expect from two PhD students with an interest in monstrosity, complete with its own yet-to-be-named resident Furby (who’s been having some concerning mood swings lately). I’m scrolling through a recent Tinder conversation, my thumb working harder than my nipples in winter to flick through three weeks’ worth of messages with a boy who’s so intellectually and emotionally engaged his presence on the app seems an inconsistency worse than the German shepherd in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.


‘This is giving me anxiety,’ says my roommate. ‘Instead of becoming Tinder pen pals, why don’t you just ask him out?’


I take a seat on the couch, struck by a Freudian theatricality. ‘I guess I’d just rather cling to what we have now than risk losing any contact with him.’


*


On the first night I started speaking to my Tinder co-novelist, I wound up on www.modaoperandi.com. Some people have hallucinogenics, some have porn addictions, others have World of Warcraft. I have Moda Operandi: First Access to Luxury Fashion, my precarious utopia where everything is as I want it even if none of it is actually mine. My cursor flicked to ‘Clothing’, and I perused a dropdown of what I pretended were legitimate options. ‘The Occasion Edit’ read one header, and beneath it: ‘The Wedding Salon’.


I promise I’m a feminist. I don’t let a female friend leave my sight unless we’ve passed the Bechdel test. With that said, my own aspirations are about as progressive as ‘Sleeping Beauty’. In that moment, scrolling through a catalogue of frothy wearable concoctions bearing labels like Carolina Herrera and Miri Zwillinger felt shamefully more important to me than professional independence, freedom of expression, or even my ability to participate in democracy. (Did you hear that? Sheila Jeffreys squealed because she finally has proof trans girls are bad for feminism.) I opened an array of dresses into multiple tabs, their value certainly exceeding every organ in my body. (There goes that financing option.)


I know. A guy doesn’t open with, ‘Dtf?’ and I’m hearing wedding bells. I was spiralling into the sort of frenzy that came over me when I spent half my pay every week to eat at a cafe so I could see the waiter who had my circulatory system tied into a lovelorn knot. Or when I celebrated a friend of a friend’s birthday as though it were a religious holiday, making cake to eat by myself because we’d only spoken five times and he had other plans. Or when a boy waved at me one Sunday afternoon, and I returned to the same spot at the same time every Sunday for a year in the hope I’d see him again. Unrequited love for me isn’t just a slight disappointment; it’s a dramatic display that rivals Madama Butterfly in its grandiosity. When I’m attracted to you, I don’t just make romantic playlists and scrawl your name in my diary. I wish I had that restraint. Rather, when I’m attracted to you, my circadian rhythm mistakes the moon for the sun, I can’t remember my name without saying yours first, and gravity tightens its grip for fear of letting you go. Those layers of tulle, sequined bodices, and starburst pleats were a full moon, and in the words of Shakira, ‘Darling, this is no joke. This is lycanthropy’ (2009).


*


An all-consuming and, at times, self-destructive desire for a relationship has been the through-line of my entire existence. I’ve scoured the contents of psychology books, both aged and dusty and newborn and glossy, for explanations for my susceptibility to the sort of love that seems at odds with my instinct to survive, the sort of love Goethe cautioned against in The Sorrows of Young Werther. Despite an immense body of psychological and anthropological inquiry into the matter*, the most resonant explanation was to be found in poetry (as I find is often the case). In Sara Teasdale’s ‘“I Am Not Yours”’ appears possibly the most beautiful couplet from last century:


‘You love me, and I find you still
A spirit beautiful and bright,
Yet I am I, who long to be
Lost as a light is lost in light’ (2012 [1915], p. 102).

Whether intentional or not, such a rendering of romantic desire seems congruous with a near-suicidal desire for an absorption of the self. Here, love is not a union of autonomous wholes, but rather, an utter annihilation of the boundaries between self and other until a new, hopefully fuller form is realised. As someone who’s long been haunted by a belief in my own inadequacy, I suspect it is this same impulse that holds me hostage to a need for male validation.


For an app that’s about as romantic as Amsterdam’s red light district on a Friday night, I’ll concede Tinder is an unusual strategy for finding a meaningful relationship. The design of the app itself seems an exercise in reducing its users to commodities on a sexual market. When you’re trans, the chances of being seen as anything other than a sexual curiosity become even slimmer. Nevertheless, not only did this boy seem at ease with my transness; he also seemed a willing and suitable candidate for something long term. Talking to him made me feel like Liza Minnelli (God, I wish) stepping on stage in Cabaret, ‘Maybe This Time’ untangling itself from whatever part of her psyche had held it captive. ‘It’s gotta happen, happen sometime. Maybe this time, I’ll win’ (Cabaret 2013 [1972]).


But the show was over before I even reached a stage. One morning before work, with a bowl of oats cradled in my lap, I sat on the lounge and opened YouTube. A Nikita Dragun video appeared in my subscriptions. Nikita is one of those people who make me feel inadequate just by existing. In many ways, I’ve had a blessed transition: supportive friends and family, no difficulty receiving hormones, and I’ve managed to have most of the surgeries I want. When I see a trans girl like Nikita though, I just think, ‘Where did I go so wrong?’


I clicked on the video. ‘Hey, Draguns,’ she chirped, waving at the camera. The video was a litany of posing, glam shots, and ‘pussy stunting’ (her words). I sat in my food-stained nightie, hair clinging to what remained of the previous night’s plait, my dumb face reflected back at me from the darker portions of the screen. Meanwhile, Nikita loomed before me: features as delicate as my ego, waist smaller than Trump’s mind, arse big enough to be colonised.


It’s been a week since watching the video, but it returns to me every time I catch even a fleeting glance of my reflection. Every mirror, tinted window, teaspoon, or blank screen all too willing to offer another reason no one could ever truly love me.


I tried reminding myself this guy had seen me in numerous photos, and he obviously saw something in them, but this wasn’t enough to still my mind. The difference between warm lighting and fluorescent lighting on the face is about as significant as years of oestrogen and over $50,000 of plastic surgery. (I would know.) Whenever I’ve met with someone after connecting online, my first question is nearly always a feeble, ‘Do I look like my photo?’ No answer to the affirmative has ever been enough to persuade me I could actually be desirable.


This conviction in my own undesirability coupled with a torpefying fear of rejection, for me, has only ever resulted in violence: self-criticism, slapping myself until I turn red, scraping at my wrists, or — when I’m feeling merciful — squeezing blocks of ice. When an annihilation of the self becomes your objective for a romantic union, the absence of romance leads you to more creative means.


*


I finally met with my Tinder co-novelist this morning. Amongst muted midday sun, we felt our way through a local bush track. He walked in front of me, holding back menacing branches; offering to slow down whenever my low-heeled boots proved impractical; and entertaining me with a conversation that traversed our lives, families, and future plans. I saw in him a light within which I wanted to be lost.


I’ve only left bed once since he confirmed he couldn’t see anything developing with me, and that was when I rushed to cry in the backseat of my car because my tears became too loud to be muffled by my pillow. For weeks, my roommate has watched me cathect to this guy, and right now, there are few thoughts more humiliating than letting him see how quickly any potential relationship ended.


This is no injustice. This boy has as much right as I to choose who he does and doesn’t want to devote his time to, and he did so compassionately. This is merely the consequence of a self-esteem too threadbare to support itself alone.


I’ve managed to prop myself up for long enough to assemble these thoughts. My dress from the bush walk still sits on my bed along with a box of tissues I disemboweled when the boy sent the message I was dreading. The remaining space sufficient only to contain me.


A date recently mocked me for only having a single bed. I considered upgrading, but I now feel doing so would be a disservice to myself. Tonight at least, learning new ways to accommodate someone else seems less pressing than learning to see space for me alone as enough.


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Notes:

* I’m not qualified to comment on their academic merits, but I found Dorothy Tennov’s Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love and Helen Fisher’s Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love particularly compelling.


References: Cabaret 2013 [1972], DVD, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Burbank


Fisher, H 2004, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, Henry Holt and Company, New York


Goethe, JWv 2015 [1774], The Sorrows of Young Werther, trans J Calder, Alma Classics Ltd., London


Shakira, 2009, ‘She Wolf’, She Wolf [CD], 886975670628, Sony


Teasdale, S 2012, The Collected Poems: Sara Teasdale, Digireads.com Publishing, Milton Keynes


Tennov, D 1999 [1979], Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love, Scarborough House, London

© 2020 Ariel Bartlett