Three years after the breakup, the last thing I expected from Martin was spam mail.
The spam wasn’t as obvious as a Nigerian prince who’d fallen on hard times and needed a loan. It was more like the kind of spam that tries to convince you to click a link to an “article” you might be interested in, when it’s actually porn. It’s the kind of spam that makes you wonder if someone has joined a flat earth cult or spends all their time on seedy Reddit threads.
I might have fallen for the spam if we hadn’t broken off our relationship on such a fractious note. Martin and I had gone out to dinner for our two-year anniversary and argued over him not wanting me to hang out with a gay male friend. Martin believed this friend was only pretending to be gay so he could spend time with me alone while I was dating another guy. Martin believed this friend’s ultimate goal was to woo me away from him so this friend could date me. How Martin came to this absurd conclusion was a tangle of mental gymnastics I didn’t care to perform. We grew up in Alabama in the pre-legalized gay marriage days––no one pretends to be gay for longer than a night, and that’s usually done to avoid being propositioned by someone deemed unsavory.
Unable to be swayed by reason, I dropped Martin off at the curb in front of his house after dinner and told him it was over. He slammed the car door and, after an hour of stewing, sent me a hundred apology texts over the next couple of days which I ignored.
Besides his general obtuseness on social issues, Martin was a thoughtful guy and sending me a random article that made him think of me wasn’t outside his purview. He was my high school sweetheart and when I went off to college––leaving him to wonder about the nonexistent droves of university boys who he thought were sure to fall at my feet––he didn’t take it well. It baffled him that not every guy I encountered was as enamored with my charms as he was. Texts to see how my day was going turned into him begging me not to hang around anywhere there might be boys, especially frat boys, or lesbians. No one escaped his jealousy.
Martin and I were cruel to each other in the ways young, inexperienced lovers are: by testing the bounds of what is acceptable treatment. We were rash and unreasonable, quick to blame and accuse, quick to assume the worst, and quick to sling curses we didn’t mean just to see it sting.
But that’s all in the past. It had been three years since we’d seen or spoken to one another. We’re adults now, so I did the mature thing.
“Hey,” I wrote. “I just got some spam from you, so it looks like your email has been hacked. I thought I’d let you know so you can change your password. Hope you’re well. Sincerely, Mandy.
Simple, clear, and to the point. No response necessary. No room for misinterpretation or speculations about rekindling the old flame.
Three days later, new spam mail. It was more porn and this time it wasn’t masquerading as some interesting article.
“Hey there,” I typed. “It’s me again. Hope you got my last message. You really might want to change your password and do something about your email being hacked.”
A few days later, still more spam. The messages kept coming, as they would for years, with no acknowledgement of my replies. Over time, Gmail started filtering them out of my primary inbox, so I would forget about them until I’d go hunting through my junk folder for a lost email and see more spam from Martin.
It was then I first wondered if he’d died.
Several more years have passed and my parents still run into his parents around our hometown, usually when the community center puts on a murder mystery dinner theater. Afterward my mother would call and say, “You’ll never guess who I just ran into. Martin’s parents!” As if this is a rare occurrence in small town Alabama. Then she’d launch into all the latest news from Martin’s family––his dad’s job woes, his aging grandparents, and his little sister, Lexie, going off to college.
“That’s great, Mom. Did they say how Martin’s doing?”
“No. No, they never mentioned him,” she’d say wistfully, as if it completely escaped her mind to ask. As if our two-year relationship was a blip, an afterthought. As if she’d forgotten the boy she’d taken shopping for a promise ring with a pinprick of a diamond––a promise ring he’d insisted on giving me by getting down on one knee and asking if I’d marry him on some undecided date years in the future.
Back then, our bedroom community outside Birmingham felt too small for Martin and me. We wanted to take college classes in high school. We wanted to act in community theater where we’d be coached on our performance, not praised for being warm bodies who showed up to rehearsal within an hour of the start time and didn’t miss cues because we were making out backstage. We took ballroom dancing lessons and wanted opportunities to dance the Rumba beyond the handful of slow songs at prom. We made a hundred plans to run away––plans made in notes passed in the hallway between classes, in text messages painstakingly typed in T9, and via email when our parents railed against us for burning through our 200 text a month limit.
No living person would allow a hacker to use their email account, so I thought this onslaught of spam could mean one of two possibilities: Martin had either retired that email address, after which it was hacked, or he was dead.
I did some quick searches, typing his name into Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and––after weeding through a hundred or so people with his same name––found nothing. I Googled him, combing through all ten pages of results, which yielded nothing from the past five years. He wasn’t inclined toward social media when we were together, but I assumed he would have succumbed to the siren’s song at some point over the past decade. I thought he might have at least made an account, even if he chose not to post.
That was when I wondered: have I been blocked?
I like the anonymity of the internet, especially when stalking exes, because I’m one of those people who like to know things. Not as a casual or fleeting contemplation––like, I wonder how Martin’s doing. I haven’t thought about him in so long––but as a need to be satisfied. I’m the kind of person who’s disappointed when obituaries don’t list the cause of death and crime articles don’t show photos of chalk outlines and blood spatter. I wailed when I heard the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn closed, knowing I wouldn’t get to cross that item off my bucket list. Maybe it’s from reading Goosebumps or being allowed to watch The Sixth Sense and The Addams Family in second grade or too many afternoons in front of the TV watching CSI, but my curiosity is keenest at its most morbid. I need to know.
I searched for Martin’s obituary.
Whether he was dead was the ultimate question. If he was dead, it would explain why no records seemed to exist of his present life. If he wasn’t dead, I could assume he blocked me or is one of those rare birds who doesn’t while away hours of his life consumed by other people’s minute-to-minute dramas and pictures of dinner.
This search, like the others, led me to nothing.
Internet stalking exes is one of those social taboos that, surely, everyone does, but few will admit to beyond a handful of close friends and the occasional self-deprecating joke.
Sure, I could ask around––the internet leaves me that option, too. I could strike up conversations with high school friends I intentionally haven’t kept up with. That’s a small social inelegance compared to the conversations that would ensue if it turns out he is, in fact, dead.
“How did you not know?”
“You’re only just now finding out?”
“What do you care? Didn’t you dump him?”
The discussion could sour just as fast if some other misfortune had befallen him. Maybe his parents never mention him to my parents because he’s off in rehab for meth or he’s in prison for selling pirated movies or he ended up taking a factory job where his arm got ripped off by a defective machine. Meanwhile, I’m living a perfectly normal, functional life, as if to spite him. Maybe it’s because I broke his heart and his parents don’t want me to know he’s moved on or because they feel as awkward as I do.
Or maybe his parents never mention him because he’s dead and the news stopped.
I was hoping to see he’d met some nice girl who was uglier than me and who his parents loved because she was probably conservative and they’d married young and were living a happy life together arguing over all the Vera Bradley and LuLaRoe charges on the credit card statement to their joint account while their baby spit up on her shoulder. Really, I hope he’s out there and doing well. Or at least is able to hold a job, however menial, and pay his bills. A guy living in his parents’ basement and fixating on a failed high school romance as “the one that got away” just because we lost our virginity to each other is no use to either one of us. Things happen, people grow up, and life goes on.
His sister followed me on Twitter and Instagram about a year ago and I have no idea what to make of this. Martin and I have been broken up more than seven years and she was in middle school last time I saw her. Does she genuinely want to know what I’m doing nowadays or did he put her up to following me? Is she gathering intel and plotting to murder me for dumping her only brother?
She seems to be doing well. She likes volunteering and Christian rock shows and taking photos of the sky on her phone. She is unquestionably alive––that small curiosity, at least, is satiated.
I searched her Instagram feed for any news of Martin, but after scrolling for close to 15 minutes I could only find one photo from about five years ago, which is around the time of the last Google result on him. I imagine what my social media feeds might look like to him if he were to Google me back. My relationship status would be apparent within 30 seconds. I answered the siren’s song of social media.
I want to ask how he’s doing, but I don’t want people assuming I’m unhappy with my fiancé or that I’ve got some sentimental notion about “what might have been.” I’m not writing a sappy country song or a Southern fried Sweet Valley High remake. I’m just a curious person who wants to know if he graduated from college summa cum laude and if he was in any more plays after the time we were in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. I want to know if he can still dance a mean Rumba and if he ever made it out of our town.
And if he’s dead, I’d like to know how it happened.
To be clear, I don’t wish him dead. I fear karmic retribution and don’t make a habit of hexing people unnecessarily. He was needy in the way that teenage boys are and misguided in the way people raised by evangelical Republicans often are when they’re young. I thought college, even that indoctrinated Baptist college he chose, might be good for him. He disappointed me and broke my stupid teenage heart, but that’s to be expected with young love––it’s not a wishing dead-worthy offense. But for a millennial to have virtually no web presence, that’s about as close to dead as you can get without being in a vegetative state. Searching for these lost––or unfindable––people is like being eternally ghosted.
Despite my best online stalking efforts, I’m still not sure if Martin is dead or alive. The internet leaves doors open where none should be. It fuels endless conjecture about other people’s lives and grants infinite permission to speculate. We expect answers, preferably on the first page of Google results. We expect people to invite us into their personal lives through the looking glass of the screen, regardless of how close we are in reality. Then we’re annoyed when they share too much and all the more frustrated when they don’t share enough.
Google doesn’t know everything. And, in the end, what good is it to know? He’s not a person in my life anymore––just a vague status update and some ill-considered clicks. Maybe it’s better this way; better not to know. If he’s out getting arrested for loitering in grocery store parking lots or shooting lines of coke at Walmart I can’t be embarrassed of our history together if I don’t know what he’s doing that would mortify me.
Image Credit: Red Ventilator, Arthur Osver (1945)
Mandy Shunnarah is an Alabama-born writer who now calls Columbus, Ohio home. Her essays and poetry have been published in The Rumpus, The Citron Review, Barely South Review, Heavy Feather Review, The Missing Slate, New Southerner Magazine, and Deep South Magazine. Read more on her website offthebeatenshelf.com.