Googling Former Flames: A Detective Story

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They're so easy to find and naturally we're tempted; our former loves, crushes, flames and almost-flames, the ones who got away. They all live inside the Internet, some of them basking in the fluorescent light, some hiding in the darkest, most irretrievable corners, but all leaving a string of clues behind them. Perhaps we seek them out due to our curiosity, our romantic tendencies, our desire for closure, or our desire to remain however ephemerally connected. Maybe it’s just a dabble, or a more intense search. Maybe it's late and we’re bored or we’ve had a glass of wine and one click leads to another. Maybe we used to feel one very specific way about them and wonder if we still might. It’s a singularly contemporary detective story, this searching. Once we liked them enough to cook them dinner, cry when we parted at train stations, tell them our deepest secrets, ask them to carry our lipstick in their jacket pocket at parties. Once they showed up at our door with a song they'd written us recorded onto cassette. But now, these years later, they're traveling to other continents with people who aren't us and singing karaoke in the middle of the afternoon. We want to know if they'll look good with gray hair, if they'll have babies, if they'll go crazy. And now we can.

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Former flame seems different at a distance.

Tier 1: They’re easy to find with minimal clues.

This is usually because they do something relatively high profile like star in TV commercials or make really cool music videos. They’re in semi-famous rock bands. Their esoteric lectures can be found on YouTube videos. Or they’re NYC curators who bring up a highly satisfying image search of them attending many an art party wearing a tie tucked into their sweater. They live in Mexico, Ohio, Los Angeles and London. They occasionally have traditional occupations, but it's more likely they work in digital innovation, whatever that is. They’re hipsters with homes fashionable and curated enough to appear in lifestyle blogs and subsequent lifestyle blog books that sell at Urban Outfitters. They have personal websites where they’ve misspelled something and have questionable grammar or incomprehensible artist statements. They model in NYLON. They've published poetry chapbooks, with poems that are actually pretty good, kind of visceral, with a lot of switchblade imagery.

Tier 2: They’re more difficult to find, mostly only accessible through social media, and mostly only when there are still friends in common.


This is usually because they've not gone the rock star/curator/commercial actor/poet/digital innovator route. Instead they’re happily married, have children, and a tendency to purchase their own homes. They’re often in law school (there's a high likelihood of this), or perhaps a neurosurgeon. They’ve gained weight or stayed basically the same. They've been known to be a failed actress, criminal, or someone who took over the family business. They live in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and upstate New York. They're earning a PhD. They already earned a PhD and are teaching somewhere, living a life that seems comfortable. They pilot airplanes, or write plays. Some are divorced, which is terribly grown-up. Their favorite song last year was our favorite song last year. That seems sort of nice. Their Instagram feed indicates a more stable lifestyle than when we knew them. Often the photo of them standing happily somewhere with a small child who looks like them is strange in some discomfiting way because we mostly remember the time they threw us on the ground outside of the dorms and kissed us. Even though they've published some stories all that comes up other than those is an image of them in a wooded grove posing seductively with a woman.

Tier 3: They're impossible to find.

They have common names and/or no social media presence. Searches for their name bring up men on boats who died in the 1800s. They moved to Alaska and have only been known to communicate through the postal service. They have a drinking problem and are a bit older which might explain the lack of online life. They build furniture. It must be something about the tangible qualities of this pursuit, but they're nowhere. There are rumors about them for years, spread through mutual friends. They had some kind of manic episode. They went in search of treasure. They fell off the grid. They went to jail. They moved to the desert to build a recording studio. Some of them turn up from time to time and can never quite compete with the inherent power in the mysterious years they were absent. Some never appear.

Image via Tumblr.

Findings: So what now? Are we satisfied somehow? Maybe we really don't want to know. Knowing someone seems a bit more complicated these days. Sometimes being just a little bit close is worse than being far apart. Perhaps we’re disappointed by what we find. We hoped they'd be as we remember them. Or they are as we remember, just an unfamiliar desert behind them in the photo. Or we see them and they're a stranger. We don't remember loving them at all. That's not entirely comforting either. When we see them in real life, we hide. Finding them is a puzzle, a detective game. The act of typing someone's name into Google is not entirely real. We don't look for the ones we really loved. Just a small half-clue, just that photo in the woods, only heightens the unknowing in some way. Really, we're happy for them. We thought we might have something to ask them, or say, but we don't.

My grandmother once said she kept expecting to see an ex-boyfriend around, but never did. Today we can see a handful of ours at any given moment if we really want to. The affair continues in this strange space, where one sees but is not seen, back and forth, intermittently until someone stops following the clues or disappears into Tier 3. It's interesting that, despite geography or time or the simple fact that it would be too painful or boring or unnecessary to talk to the person again face to face, we never really lose someone. Instead they echo in a sort of way, not just through memory but through layers of wire and screen and the words we type to find them.


The same way we sometimes wish we could Google, "What did I dream last night?" or, "Where did I put my book?" we actually can Google, "Name of Ex-Flame," and more often than not, there they are. Gardening. Singing. Traveling. Being interviewed. Tweeting. Looking happy. Starring in a documentary. Attending a picnic. Embracing a beautiful woman wearing feathers in her hair. Existing in time and space, one way or another. Probably a lot like they once were and a little bit different too in some important, unknowable ways.  Just like we are.