I used to keep Tinder in the games folder on my phone. No, really, it held the first spot, the top left, followed by Tiny Wings and Words with Friends.
“I downloaded Tinder because I was bored” is a good lie I tell myself. After my sophomore year of college, I moved home for the summer, and the novelty of living in my childhood bedroom was wearing off. My friends were either working 9-to-5 jobs or studying abroad, leaving me to my own devices — in this case, my phone.
After my first long-term relationship ended earlier that year, I needed a quick fix for affirmations. It turned out that Tinder was a free slot machine that spit out semi-creepy messages and heart-eye emojis every few swipes.
I’ve always had a problem with phone games. As a kid, I cycled through apps like relationships; I became infatuated with them, then obsessive, then eventually had to delete them after they started becoming a toxic presence in my life. I had a phase with Restaurant Story and Smurfs Village in middle school, which required that I get up in the middle of the night to tend to my virtual estates. In high school, I played Guitar Hero III with my boyfriend every time I was at his house, hoping to level up.
For my friends and me, Tinder was also a game. We would swap phones and swipe for each other, gawking at the white boys holding fish and their shirtless mirror selfies. Some put photos of girls in their profiles as if to prove women had been attracted to them at one point. Their bios were typically that one quote from “The Office” everyone loves but isn’t funny. Swipe left.
Soon, I found myself swiping passively, then compulsively. I would swipe at night and wouldn’t fall asleep until I got one more match. It wasn’t that I wanted to meet with any of these people, or even talk to them — I just wanted them to talk to me. The more messages that accumulated in my inbox, the more I felt I was leveling up.
Then I found Drew. In his first photo, he was petting a puppy with one hand and holding a ukulele in the other. Fifty-six miles away. “College baseball player, puppy father, aspiring pediatrician, novelist, INFJ.” I swiped right so fast. We seemed too compatible — we were both writers, loved dogs, played the ukulele and even had the same Myers-Briggs personality type.
Had my swiping paid off somehow?
We matched. I messaged him and we met for bubble tea in Ferndale. He showed me his poetry, which wasn’t terrible. I thought he was cute. We decided to have another date.
“Let’s play ukulele together!” he suggested as we parted ways. “I could show you the metropark by my house. You can meet my dog, too!” It sounded romantic enough. I drove home with the sunset behind me and realized I had a real crush on him.
I didn’t tell my mom where I was going before packing up her car and driving 56 miles to Drew’s house. I was met with a side hug. Once inside, I met the puppy from his profile, which immediately peed on the ground.
“Mo-om,” Drew called and left, leaving me in the front room with a small puddle of urine. I opened Tinder to do some anxious swiping.
A girl’s bare torso filled my screen. Half of a boy’s face. A close-up of someone’s lips. Body parts came and went as I swiped in a rapid fire.
Drew returned with his ukulele and drove us to the metropark. We sat in the middle of the picnic area, completely surrounded by suburban families. When the time came to play ukulele together, Drew began shaking as he tried to strum a chord. It looked foreign in his hands. That’s when it hit me — this boy doesn’t actually know how to play the ukulele.
I ended up giving him a free lesson, after which he became frustrated and asked me to play a song. Very aware of the families surrounding us in a 360-degree stage, I sang as quietly as possible. Our audience heard and started clapping. I announced we were leaving immediately.
We went to a drive-thru ice cream place where Drew ordered Flamin’ Hot Cheetos soft-serve, then took us to a baseball field for his dog to run around. Drew took one bite of his ice cream then spit it out onto the gravel. I watched in horror as he called the puppy to finish it.
The dog demolished the cone, leaving only orange specks on his nose. I opened Tinder again with my phone tilted away from Drew and continued swiping, faster this time.
Somehow, Drew decided this was the correct time to kiss me. I quickly locked my phone as he put his mouth on mine, and the cheesy dust on his lips burned the inside of my cheek. It was the only spark I felt when he kissed me.
We sat in silence for a few minutes as his dog ran laps around us. Finally, Drew invited me back to his house to play Guitar Hero III. I smirked.
We played a few rounds of “Reptilia” by The Strokes before tackling “Through the Fire and Flames” by DragonForce. Four minutes in, a figure walked downstairs and almost made me drop my plastic guitar.
Drew’s dad, a short white man, was holding the scariest chainsaw I had ever seen. The light from the TV cast a shadow that made him resemble the final boss in a video game. But this wasn’t a game anymore.
I should have told my mom where I was.
I watched, petrified, as the man approached us, turned on the machine, and started sawing a slab of wood behind the couch. Drew didn’t even turn around. I jerked my body back and saw that he had an entire workshop right there behind us.
“Hey, you’re missing your solo,” Drew yelled over the noise.
“I can’t hear!” DragonForce swelled as the chainsaw made contact with the wood, emitting a crackling screech like newly-caught prey. The noise stopped as soon as it had begun, and Drew’s dad calmly climbed the stairs again with his two large pieces of wood.
I jumped up, shaken. “I need to leave,” I said and grabbed my bag. Fifty-six miles. I drove 56 miles for this.
In the car, I hastily deleted my Tinder app, but knew I would download it again within a few weeks. It took me another five months to realize I couldn’t win and cut it off for good.
As I merged onto the highway, I saw the faintest sunset in my rearview mirror. Bright orange filtered through the dark clouds like dying tinder in a fire. I laughed.
All the clouds were shaped like Cheetos.