She enters my life like the dozen women who came before her and the hundreds who will follow: in the palm of my hand, flickering on the touchscreen of my phone. Her name is Michelle (no it isn’t) and she is milf sweet pea 26. Being nearly a decade older, I find her youth a bit distressing. Being a man, I find it a bit enticing. Further stoking my curiosity is the knowledge that Michelle is three miles from here, which has the effect of making her seem more real than the catalog model she resembles, blurring the line between fantasy and reality, pixel and potential. But mainly what I’m drawn to in Michelle is her looks: brown hair blown straight, white jeans that seem to have found their way onto her slender frame via skin graft, a face punctuated by the sort of vaguely suggestive grin made culturally ubiquitous by the selfie. “She looks like fun,” I think, and so I press my thumb onto the screen and swipe her to the right, a gesture that passes for flirtation here in the peculiar world of Tinder, the mobile app responsible for “introducing” us. With that, the word liked flares up in green, a virtual stamp denoting my interest, and Michelle vanishes into the digitized ether as quickly as she first appeared.
I contemplate this for about a second, then forget Michelle entirely, distracted now by Christine, the 36-year-old in a sequined evening gown who has taken Michelle’s place. Christine seems nice. Certainly more age-appropriate, but she is 28 miles away and, more to the point, doesn’t inspire the sort of fun thoughts Michelle did. I swipe Christine to the left, watching the word nope flash across the screen in glib orange lettering. Nope, nope, liked, nope, liked, liked, nope: This is what romance looks like on Tinder, the fastest-growing mobile dating service in the nation, and either the most unapologetically superficial one to be invented or the one most honest about the primal instincts that have been drawing strangers to each other since the beginning of time. Should two people independently like each other, a “match” is made, prompting a private text-message box to open up, and leading to the fiery, 21st-century beginnings of… hold that thought. For all I know, Michelle, the first woman I’ve liked, has already gone and given me the nope.
It takes about 10 seconds to understand Tinder’s cleverness: a dating service designed to never explicitly feel like a dating service. The effect is that instead of feeling like another lovelorn castaway handing the reins of your heart over to the algorithm of, say, Match, you have the sense that you’re merely putting a minor addition to the same social network you already share with a billion people.
But these are not ordinary circumstances. Thirty-four years old, newly single for the first time in years, I have dealt with the breakup by impulsively moving from New York to New Orleans, where I know next to no one. I have not been out with a woman in months. Or, if not that, then perhaps sex, an act you have fond but increasingly dim memories of enjoying, will be involved. That, you think, would not be so bad.