first person

The Great Ghosting of 1985

I was in high school, and I had no idea what was happening.

Photo: Cavan Images/Getty Images/Cavan Images RF
Photo: Cavan Images/Getty Images/Cavan Images RF

When I was 15 my very first boyfriend ghosted me. I wish I had been prescient enough to go around saying “Who gets ghosted in 1985?” but I didn’t even know what was happening. Instead, I was like, “Why is my boyfriend of at least six months not calling me?” He had to be dead, I thought, or lying in a ditch, and yet, somehow I knew that he was alive and fine, because if he weren’t, it would be on the news.

I was impressed with myself when “ghosting” became a word and I realized it had happened to me when I was a mere child. “I understand millennials,” I would say to millennials, as an icebreaker. “I was ghosted in tenth grade.” When I flew across the country for a job interview seven years ago and the guy told me, “Yeah, I’m very interested,” I was proud of myself when I walked out knowing that he would never contact me again, even prouder, somehow, than I would have been if I’d gotten the job.

The first time my ghoster came to my house — it was a blind date — my dog greeted him with a bloody maxi pad in her mouth. Not just that: Our front door was made of glass, and the dog leapt against it so that this guy must have felt like you do when you’re at the aquarium and the hammerhead swims right up to your face, except he was probably less excited and more grossed out. My first words to him were, “It’s not mine.” (It was mine.)

He was 18 and tall, but in the jackpot!, not the awkward sense. His bone structure was enviable, his mature expression enticing. I was wearing my usual evening attire: Sasson baggy jeans, an angora sweater from T.J. Maxx, low heels, and patterned stockings, also from T.J. Maxx. Eventually, we left my house and went to see the movie The Falcon and the Snowman, starring Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn, who, 30 years later, would claim Charlize Theron ghosted him (Theron denied it). Timothy Hutton and my grandmother had the same birthday, I told him. He wondered how I knew this. “I read it in the paper,” I said. “Celebrity birthdays are next to the jumble.”

I don’t think that this guy woke up in the mornings looking forward to the satisfying challenge of unjumbling the jumble or knew which famous people were born on his birthday. He liked cool music. I liked the Police, and like, just the Police, pretty much. I had a crush on Stewart Copeland, a friend of mine liked Sting, and she and I used to write each other notes in Algebra II about Police lyrics. Her favorite song was “Bring on the Night”; mine was “I Can’t Stand Losing You,” because it had been her favorite song, and I was just borrowing it from her. We were bored. So bored. Our school was tiny — the same 55 people in our class, the same 14 of those in our honor classes, every day for so many long years.

My best friend (not my Police friend), and I would talk about the guys in our class for hours, trying to make them mysterious to each other. It snowed and the snow turned gray and people did doughnuts in the parking lot and then it was muddy and the one traffic light between my house and the school turned green, yellow, and red, and this just went on and on.

It was into this wasteland that this older, good-looking person from another school walked. We did not have a terribly intense or deep relationship, but I think we liked each other well enough and I was extremely attracted to him. After The Falcon and the Snowman, I believe we went to one more movie, and then most of our relationship was just physical, but not, due to my age (clears throat), “that.” This went on regularly for, as I said, about six months? We lived kind of far from each other so sometimes we would write each other letters, which weren’t super romantic but probably had moments. I was mostly concerned with making jokes because everyone knows if there is one thing a teenage boy likes in a teenage girl, it is a really great sense of humor.

He was a senior, and I was a sophomore. I didn’t think that we were going to “stay together” when he went to college. I knew we were not Lyla Garrity and Jason Street, or, more appropriate to that era, Joanie and Chachi. I knew he was going away for the summer, and I would never have tried to persuade him to stay — it would have been really weird if I ever mentioned it. I did, however, think that I would see him again after the last time I saw him. It didn’t even cross my mind that I would not.

But then on the night I sort of expected to hear from him I did not, and then the next night, I did not hear from him either.

By the third night I was starting to wonder — what if this person never calls me again? I was alone in the house, writing a term paper about Tennessee Williams, comparing Summer and Smoke and The Glass Menagerie. In retrospect, a girl in tenth grade in 1985 whose first boyfriend is ghosting her is about the only reasonable audience for Tennessee William plays, which are not very good. Alma and Laura and their humiliated heartbreak were much more than abstractions to me that night. I felt a sadness and a shame that began gendered but then expanded into a terrifying formlessness.

I felt the vast coldness of our house, of the white tin ceiling and, two floors above me, the closet with an open cubby at the back of it where you could crawl into the guts of the house, where my brother would go but I would never, and then, in the front of our house, an antique streetlight and our small New England town, a checkerboard of manicured charm and weathered sagging. I was aware of the woods behind our house and the base of an unbuilt treehouse there and behind that, an abandoned mansion and the quaint country inn owned by Holocaust survivors. The wife there used to babysit for me when I was little and I asked her once if she had brothers and sisters and she said, “I did but Hitler killed them all,” and then made me an egg that was too soft, but I ate anyway. I was filled not with sadness or lovesickness but with terror. The world is made up of dark paths connecting empty rooms, I thought, as the phone continued not to ring.

That summer, six or so weeks later, I met an older girl named Anne. “Guys are disgusting” was one of the first things she said to me. “They — are?” I said. “Yes of course,” she said. “They’re not even human.”

This was an interesting proposition. She asked me if I had a boyfriend. I told her that I had had one, sort of, but that suddenly he had just become absent. “I was sitting there writing a term paper on Tennessee Williams waiting for him to call me,” I said. “And we were like — I mean — I guess we were ‘going out’ — but then he never called me again.”

She looked at me with big wild eyes. She had a scratchy, sexy voice and was about to be a freshman at my top safety school. “You were waiting for a guy to call you while writing a term paper on Tennessee Williams? That’s amazing. I mean, you are so lucky.” She slapped my leg. “So lucky!” We were at a party, and every time we met one of her friends, she said, “This is Sarah, she has the funniest story,” then she’d slap my shoulder the same way she slapped my leg. “Tell them!” she said. “Tell them about how you were writing a term paper on Tennessee Williams while someone was not calling you, forever.” Everyone loved it.

I loved it too. It was funny, especially without the part, always left out, where I’d called his house about a week after the ghosting, and his brother answered and said, “No, he’s not here, he’s in Seattle,” which, of course he was. He hadn’t changed his longstanding plans. He’d only changed his plan to speak to me before leaving.

As soon as I knew that my ghoster had arrived at college, I wrote him a letter saying he was mean. I did not hear anything — what kind of fool writes to a ghost? But some months later, he wrote back, mostly about how he’d had a terrible summer, and then, something like: “I hope you don’t badmouth me to your parents.” I told my mother and she said, “Us? Why would we care?” It was a truly mystifying statement on his part. My parents didn’t care about my current happiness, only my future happiness, which would be secured by my intelligence, and by my success. These were all on track. Everything else was just the stuff that happened to me while I was waiting to become something else.

The Great Ghosting of 1985