By Daragh Fleming

You took your time to message me, didn’t you?”

The reply vibrated onto my screen. A consecutive vibration let me know a laughing-face emoji followed the first text. I smiled, slightly. She had a sense of humour anyway. We’d matched about a month ago, but I only messaged her for the first time the previous evening on the bearable end of a hangover. She didn’t waste any time calling me out on my bullshit. I liked that.

There weren’t many pictures on her profile - just three - but she was clearly very pretty, in a classical Irish type of way. Auburn hair and blue eyes. You could imagine her in a retelling of Tír na nÓg maybe. She looked like she’d been torn straight from a book of myths about the Fianna. Her smile was subtle and her wit was quick. At first, the conversation seemed forced by both of us, like neither of us knew what to say, but neither of us wanting the conversation to fizzle out and end either. Sort of like the conversation you’d have on a first date but spread out over several hours. We circled each other, both being too polite, unsure of whether to show all our cards so quickly.

Once the ice broke and fell away, that was it then. Our conversations, influenced by global warming, became less cold and rigid. Thoughts flowed into texts unfiltered. We chatted throughout the day, most days. She sent me pictures of how her day was going, and I sent her links to humorous tweets, because she didn’t use Twitter. We’d similar taste in music and she told me details of her life you couldn’t know if she didn’t tell you herself. There was no longer a sense of urgency or forcefulness, and we both got to know the other over the internet, like modern people do.

We didn’t live in the same city when we met. We did initially - when we matched on the dating app - but by the time I messaged her she was miles away. She told me she was on Erasmus in Europe, while I was working back home in the city I was born in. It was February, and we matched on the app the last time she’d been home, which I assumed was for Christmas break. We casually made plans to meet the next time she returned to Cork, which was only a few short weeks away. There was nothing set in stone, but there was an intention to see one another at some point, and that was fine by both of us. Our conversations didn’t make me feel insecure, and there was no pressure for either of us to do anything at all. Eventually voice-notes started flowing in, and it was nice to be able to connect her face to a voice. She let her words float on the air like the lyrics to a song, and her laugh was a gurgling spring of water found only in the mountains.

We talked about a lot of things and about nothing at all as well. It was the sort of meandering, everything-you-say-is-interesting conversation which characterises the start of something new. I found myself genuinely interested in the process of her mind, and how she thought about the variety of global dramas on offer. Her opinions were precise, well thought out, and open to further consideration. When she got drunk she’d send me selfie-videos of herself dancing in the kitchen in the early hours of the following day. She told me about the Netherlands and how different it was, and how she’d applied for part-time work in a clothes shop to keep herself afloat. She’d send grainy videos, with even grainier audio, showcasing her favourite songs playing in the background of whatever bar she found herself in. She asked me about what I’d done in college and I told her. I was a few years older than her but she didn’t make it feel like there was any age gap at all.

Her questions were pointed and exact. If she didn’t feel the conversation moving forward she didn’t reply for the sake of it. My phone would vibrate again later on in the day when she’d thought of something worthwhile to say, or if something interesting had happened in the hours of her absence. She never messaged just for the sake of it and it, making each interaction less like an obligation and more like an adventure. Her mind was a playground of sorts, always tinkering away at some epiphany-inducing contemplation. She seemed genuine in a disingenuous world, and I hadn’t even met her in person yet.

The weeks began to flurry past like cars on the motorway do when you’re standing very close to the road. It was hard to say exactly how long we’d been talking for. We’d only been in contact for a handful of weeks, but it felt like we’d known each other for far longer. Myself and this girl from Tinder, now mutual followers on the Gram, were digital pen-pals – a day didn’t go by when we weren’t texting. It was exciting and felt like there was, at the very least potential, for something good and meaningful to grow from it.

But then one day in March without warning, she stopped opening any of my messages. Snaps remained as full red arrows. WhatsApp messages were two grey ticks in bottom right-hand corners, taunting me. There was no presence from her online whatsoever. It was odd, but not unusual. I figured she was busy, with college or with work, so I forced myself not to overthink it. I tried to distract myself from her lack of replies in order to avoid the sending the dreaded double-text, which would only confirm my sticky insecurity. However, the next day was the same blackout, and the day after that, until a week had passed and I hadn’t heard a peep from her. I was disappointed and reached out a final time to no avail. I thought I knew exactly what had happened.

I thought she’d ghosted me. If you don’t know what ghosting is, allow me to explain. It tends to happen often in the modern era of online dating, and it can be quite jarring. You’ll be chatting to someone and then one day, out of the blue, they’ll begin to ignore your texts when you no longer hold their interest. This may be for a multitude of reasons. Maybe they found someone more suitable, or maybe you just didn’t make the cut. You might have said the wrong thing, or held the wrong opinion. Whatever it is, ghosting is a cold, albeit convenient way to end things before they ever really begin. You don’t have to say anything to anyone. There’s no onus on the person to give an explanation, and it can be quite surprising and disruptive. People just stop replying and you have to conclude from this that the likelihood for future interaction is non-existent. There’s an unwritten expectation for you to just accept that the situation has concluded, and that you’ll make no further attempt to make conversation. This is what I assumed had happened when this girl from Tinder who lived in the Netherlands stopped replying.

Of course, I was disappointed, as I felt there had been some sort of connection, or at least the potential for one. I searched my mind to figure out if I had said something unintentionally offensive or inappropriate, but I could find nothing. I was frustrated, but she knew didn’t owe me anything. We’d never met and there was no reason for either of us to stay invested or consistent. I could see why texting with someone who lived in a different country might be unappealing. It’s hard to maintain when people exist in different counties, let alone across state lines. So, although I was upset, I didn’t want to seem desperate or needy, and I too, left it be. I had to respect her desire to be left alone, and I moved on from our conversations, still holding knowledge about the life of a person I would probably never speak to again.

And I never did end up speaking to her again.

Months passed. I moved beyond this encounter with the girl from Cork on Tinder who lived abroad. Life happens that way - you forget about many, many people to whom you were once close, or at the very least, chatty with. By the time May rolled around, I still wasn’t seeing anyone, and I had been telling myself this was a result of being too busy for that sort of thing.

One hungover Sunday, I was lying in bed trying to recover from the previous evening’s shenanigans, which consisted of too much whiskey far too late in the evening, and nowhere near enough sleep. I was flicking through stories on Instagram, casually consuming a Saturday night from the perspective of dozens of different people. Then, seemingly from out of nowhere, the girl from Tinder from all those months ago was staring back at me. She appeared as a smiling square-shaped photo with no caption or remark, and it struck me as perfectly odd. I wouldn’t have shared a picture like this of one of my friends at all. It seemed unusual and it made me uncomfortable, because it reminded me of a missing person’s post. My stomach did somersaults and unknowable alarms rang in my mind.

The post was shared from another profile – a friend of the girl from Tinder. The picture was just a close-up of her face, and she seemed quite happy, with a closed-mouth smirk and eyes glistening like jewels underwater from the camera’s flash. Curious as I was, I clicked through to the original post. What I read in the following 50 seconds shook me from my hangover, and shook me from any frivolous thing I had been worrying about.

I was never ghosted by her. I hadn’t been ghosted whatsoever. The girl with auburn hair and a quiet smile, who liked the same music as me, and didn’t force conversation, was dead. She’d been struck down by a car in the Netherlands in March. The day I thought she lost interest was the day she had died. The week I felt annoyed because she had ghosted me was the week of her funeral, and I had no idea. Guilt swallowed me immediately like a great whale. I felt awful for assuming she had done this immature thing. I felt bad for jumping to this conclusion when the reality was so much more permanent and so much more devastating. I had made it all about me and how I felt. There was a huge knot in my stomach and the whole world turned grey when I found out this girl who I’d known but had never met had died.

By then she’d been dead for several months. My mind flickered to her family and friends and the devastation darkening their minds. A death so sudden and so tragic would surely have painted their lives a permanent shade of sadness. She had died away from her home and I had reduced her in my mind, to just another person acting selfishly in the age of social media.

I didn’t know what to do. There was grief, but it was a strange hue of it, because we’d never met in person. It felt odd to think that I might reach out to her family when we hadn’t known each other really. What would I say? What could I say, really?

But in another sense I felt I had known her, and now she was gone. There was hole, despite its odd shape, and I did feel a certain loss. Whereas her friends had pictures and moments to remember her by, all I had were reams of text messages and selfies, passed back and forth across borders, and across the internet. She was a ghost in my phone, and I didn’t feel right for weeks after.

Fleming is an emerging Irish voice in short fiction, using a conversational style to address complex and difficult themes. Informed by an education in psychology and linguistics, Fleming delves into everyday life to showcase the surreal in the mundance.