Let me tell you about the first and last time I was ever ghosted.
My first conversation with Jesse* lasted four hours. “Tell me your life story,” he said. He acted rapt, as if the mundane stories of my childhood contained some secret code to his future happiness.
On our second date, he paid for an extra ice cream for the elderly woman waiting in line behind us. “I’m just showing off,” he told the woman, winking, “to impress this girl.”
He begged to give me massages. He seemed ecstatic at the prospect of cooking me dinner. One night we were standing in a park and he literally swept me into his arms, and we stared up at the stars. It was as if he was doing an over-the-top pantomime of a male lead in a romantic comedy—he kept waking me up with extravagant pancake breakfasts and watching me eat them. Our relationship was characterized by me being uncomfortably full of breakfast foods.
We went on maybe eight or nine dates. And then one day his texts became brief. He canceled our plans, saying he was overworked. And then he stopped contacting me altogether. I knew that he was sending me a message that he didn’t want to see me anymore. But he didn’t send an actual message. He didn’t call. He didn’t text. He did not spell out “It’s over” in pancakes.
I didn’t want him to change his mind and go out with me again. I just wanted him to value me enough to break up with me.
I was shocked and also a little impressed by Jesse’s audacity—he really thought that he could make me listen to a three-hour Jason Mraz–based playlist and then slip quietly into the mists of time like a twee forest creature when he was done with me. Somehow the bar for how I expected to be treated by men had sunk beneath the level of the water table. I didn’t want him to change his mind and go out with me again. I just wanted him to value me enough to break up with me.
Being ghosted makes you feel crazy. That’s on purpose. People ghost when they do not want to experience the negative emotions that come with rejecting another person. Jesse didn’t want to find the right words, or deal with my feelings, or experience a moment of guilt. It’s a relatable but cowardly impulse—in seeking to avoid a situation he would have found personally unpleasant, he made me feel like a human gum wrapper tossed carelessly, inches away from a trash can.
Ghosting can be hurtful after a date or two, and it can be hurtful after hundreds. People of all genders ghost. And I strongly suspect that this summer—as people feel safe enough to connect in the aftermath of more than a year of isolation—we will see unprecedented amounts of ghosting. People are going to be extremely confused and horny and overwhelmed, and, to varying degrees, traumatized. There will be love and sex and joy and people who enter your life and rearrange your consciousness for the better. And also, a lot of people will hurt each other, often by ghosting as they maneuver between each vaccine-enabled hookup.
When you are ghosted, you may feel like you should quietly accept the rejection and never bother the person again—either to prove that you “get the message” or because you want to preserve your dignity. This is exactly what your ghoster wants: to not have to deal with you. They want you to feel bad and then second-guess whether you even have the right to feel bad over a person who doesn’t even think enough of you to dump you, and then doubt yourself until you’re tired out. But here’s the truth: You cannot preserve your dignity, because this person has taken it from you by pretending you do not exist. What you can do is stand up for yourself.
I hope if you have the misfortune of being ghosted, you will consider doing what I did with Jesse. I arranged to dump myself.
A point of clarification: People who don’t want to see you anymore don’t need to provide an explanation. They are not required to hear you out, or “just meet for a quick coffee” or give you a phone call. But they do owe you human decency. If you have had sexual intercourse or spent hours getting to know each other one-on-one, your relationship is not “chill.” It is extremely personal, and each of you need to communicate directly about your plans to never see the other person again.
After weeks of no contact, I called Jesse and left a mysterious, “Hey, there’s something I really need to talk about with you…” message, channeling my gynecologist when she leaves me foreboding voice mails that turn out to be about yeast infections. He texted back immediately. I said it would be better to talk in person. He arranged to come over right away.
I did not want to be rejected. But I did want my rejection to feel humane.
Jesse materialized in my apartment, winding a beautiful scarf around his beautiful neck. I felt wild, witchy—he had ghosted me, but here he was now in the flesh. He had discarded me, but I had brought him back. I am the necromancer! I thought to myself, feeling crazed with power. My hair looked bad. Jesse looked at me with fear and with pity—I was no longer an object of his sexual interest, just an emotional woman.
“You ghosted me,” I said. “We went out too many times for that to be okay. If you knew you didn’t want to see me anymore, you should have just said so.”
Jesse squirmed. He had been planning to get back to me, he said. It was a busy time, he said.
“No, you ghosted me,” I said.
“I’m sorry you feel that way.”
“You don’t have to be sorry you feel that way,” I said. “Just be sorry you did it.”
“I’m sorry you feel like I did it,” he said. We continued on like this, a game of cat and other, more annoying cat. I asked if—as he claimed—he had been meaning to text me, what he would have texted.
He looked pale.
“Say it,” I said. He was silent.
“Say it!” I hissed. “Say it now!” He looked up, spooked, like a peasant child waylaid in the woods by a witch woman.
“I felt like maybe we were moving more toward being friends,” he stammered.
I am the witch queen, I thought, as his steps echoed down the hall. I am the resurrector. I am she who turns ghosts to men and men to dust! I was still sad. I did not want to be rejected. But I did want my rejection to feel humane.
Since Jesse, I have refined my process for breaking up with myself when the person I’m dating refuses to. It’s important to remember that people are allowed to break up with us at any time, and they do not need a reason. To save time, I usually go with a text. I try to stick to the facts—“We went on four dates and you kept asking me to sleep over and watch you play ‘SexyBack’ on acoustic guitar. I think that our relationship merited a more respectful ending than you gave it by trying to just taper off texts to me. It hurt my feelings and I wish you would have been more direct.” No matter what they reply, I don’t get into a conversation. (In the early days I let an in-person self-dump get out of hand, and he ended up crying and saying he needed therapy, which was kind of thrilling but ultimately beyond my capacity.)
Every time I do this, I feel a little better. It’s as if I’m writing a letter to myself that says, “You are too substantial to melt gently away when someone is done with you.” Part of why I insist upon behavior that other people would find embarrassing is that I want to remind myself that I have worth. There’s an older school of thought around sex and dating that sometimes makes me think, Well, you went out with this man and had sex with him without getting a commitment, so what did you think would happen? And the answer is: Having sex and intimacy outside of a monogamous commitment still entitles me to basic decency. And if I don’t get basic decency, I will ask for it nicely.
I often hear a kind of nostalgia for the “old ways” of dating. People lament the days of men knocking on the doors for dates, and bringing flowers, and calling on the phone. But we would never, ever want to go back to those days. Those small kindnesses were given in exchange for women staying in a kind of straitjacket of femininity—female pleasure was unmentionable, queerness was forbidden, and there was almost no recourse for rape and harassment. I can buy myself flowers, I can open my own door, and when I make the mistake of dating a person who doesn’t value me enough to be direct, I can even dump myself.
It’s nice to take back control, to demand respect, even if it makes me seem crazy. It reminds me that I am real, worthwhile, and alive. It’s okay with me if, afterward, the person I was dating goes back to being weightless, formless, imaginary.
He should be nothing but a ghost.
*Name changed, but you know what you did, Jesse.
Originally Appeared on Glamour