Fiction: Propinquity

Fabian Broeker

It was short. Like, really short. Chris took her eyes off the mirror, leaned over the sink, and watched the toothpaste-water mixture run down from her mouth in white strings. She’d told him to take an inch off. Or that’s what she thought she was saying. She’d been in Berlin 3 months now, yet her attempts at German were mostly met with bemused smiles. Like the look she had given to her cat, Karl, that time he placed a bloodied bird at her feet. Her research fellowship included mandatory language training, but she had been putting off scheduling an appointment with the designated instructor. Anyway, everyone at the university spoke English. In fact, the whole city felt like it was becoming more and more anglicised – walking past the shops on her street you’d see at least 5 sale signs for every one Ausverkauf.

Turning again to the mirror and examining the result of her miscommunication with the hairdresser, she felt as if this was the city’s way of telling her to try harder. She took out her phone from her dressing gown and half-heartedly typed an email to the language office at the university. A notification from Duolingo appeared at the top of her screen, as if to goad her on: ten minutes to midnight, the last chance to save her streak. She imagined what that green owl would look like, bloodied, in the mouth of her Karl. She pulled down the notification centre. There, vying for her attention alongside Duolingo, was a notification from Tinder – you matched with Paul – as well as a WhatsApp message from Hanna, that she’d forgotten to respond to. Scrolling down further, she was alerted that she had ten matches on OkCupid and Bumble from earlier that day. Chris had updated her profile pictures across all the dating apps on her phone to showcase her new haircut. It wouldn’t affect how many matches she got; she knew perfectly well that most men would swipe right on her no matter what her hair looked like, partly because she was pretty, and partly because that’s what men did on dating apps, they swiped right. She didn’t debut her new look on Instagram; she hadn’t posted a photo of herself in at least 2 years. Her friends teased her for lurking.

The apartment was organised for her by the university, a typical Berlin Altbau; wooden floors and high ceilings. She even had a small balcony. When she FaceTimed her friends back home in England, showing them the view to the leafy street below, they called her an aristocrat. She could never have imagined living in a place like this in London, especially not on a postdoc salary. It had become a habit to keep the doors to the balcony open as the temperatures increased and Summer jostled past Spring. Now, sitting in bed, leaning her back against the cool wall, she can see through the open doors, into the windows of the apartments facing her. A man irons his shirt. The glow of a tv; somebody browsing Netflix. On the street below a group of people walk past, speaking animatedly in French, their laughter climbing the four-story building with ease, lingering in Chris’ room. She looks down at the MacBook resting on her lap, the open word document, the half-finished paragraph. Her phone vibrates, once, twice, against the wooden floor. There is only one plug socket in her bedroom, located centrally beneath her bed. To charge her phone she has to place it on the floor below her, out of reach. She could buy a longer cable, or shift the bed around, but she likes the way the frame has been placed to let her look out onto the balcony, and she likes the comically mandated distance to her device. Leaning over the edge of her bed, she sends a searching arm out into the darkness below. She expects to see a message from Hanna on her lock screen. But instead, she sees the familiar, lurid red of Tinder. Paul sent you a message. She unlocks the phone by letting it scan her face and presses her thumb to Paul’s name. Rectangles realign themselves and Tinder’s interface fills the screen. She reads his message.

What’s your ideal fake sick day?

She remembers swiping right on Paul that morning in bed. His profile was clean and inviting. Three kilometres away. There were no pictures of him topless, nor did he use any emojis in his bio. He had nice, thick hair. He was twenty-four, three years younger than her. He worked at a large gallery in an unspecified position. She had googled the gallery, the James-Simon, after she couldn’t quite place the name and felt embarrassed when she realised that she had walked past it on countless occasions. There was a picture of him on a climbing wall. She wondered if he knew that at least half the men she came across on Tinder seemed to be into climbing. She guessed he didn’t. The app was saturated with men in choreographed poses hanging off man-made rockfaces; stretching sinews, tensed bodies. The promise of hard surfaces, inevitably softer than expected upon touch. He was American – his profile listing his origin as North Carolina – but he’d written his bio in English and German. Presumably he had a better grasp of the language than she did. As openings go on Tinder, asking about her ideal fake sick day was middling. At least he didn’t say: hey. She liked the aesthetic of his Instagram and looking down at the other unanswered messages in her Tinder inbox – hello, Are you doing anything to-, My dad is called Chris, PRETTY GURRRLL – when placed alongside this competition she felt he merited a reply. What was her ideal fake sick day?

Good question, Paul. I think I’d steal my friend’s 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder, take it for a joyride, maybe go to a museum, maybe a cubs game. Maybe I’d crash the Von Steuben Day parade and perform a rendition of Twist and Shout.

Haha very good, he responds. That’s the plot of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, right?

Gem of a film.

Why are you up so late?

Working late or trying to, she types. Evidently not trying hard enough.

What are you working on?

Planning a gallery heist.

I work at a gallery, need a man on the inside?

Why do you think I swiped right on you?

I want a twenty per cent share of the loot.

Ten. All you have to do is cause a distraction, I’ll be in and out in five minutes. No guns.

I’ll agree to a ten per cent share if we grab a coffee tomorrow to sweeten the deal?

Smooth, Paul. That sounds fair. How do you feel about leather trousers?

Leather trousers?

Standard heist attire.

I didn’t know heists required leather, but I’m willing to adapt. Does one work? Lunch break at James-Simon-Galerie? My number is 4917628613050, I don’t always get notifications through on this app.

Sure. I’ll message you.

Nice, see you then, Ferris.

Night, Paul.

Chris closes Tinder, moves to WhatsApp, replies to Hanna, tells her about Paul, and puts down her phone. It’s not unusual for her to arrange a date a day in advance. She’s had wittier opening conversations on the app, but they didn’t always equate to good in-person chemistry. Long exchanges often result in disappointment. When they were drunk last Friday, Hanna told her Tinder is for bad sex, Bumble is for good sex, Hinge for something real, and OkCupid for vegans. That’s probably not true.

*

Chris sits at the small table on her balcony, already dressed in case her neighbours are watching. Her Spotify is on shuffle – like always, since she refuses to pay for premium. Her balcony gets plenty of sun this time of day. There’s a breeze. She looks down onto the street. It is starting to get busy, people leisurely making their way to work. She envies the constraints of other people’s careers. Being needed somewhere, having to make a journey to an office – things that require presence. Chris can work from anywhere; all she needs is her MacBook and the PDFs organised neatly on her hard drive. She takes pleasure in downloading many of these files illegally from dubious websites, rather than through her university’s library portal; it means that she can keep them indefinitely and feels like a small rebellion against the academic establishment. She wonders if other academics do this, but the thought of asking makes her uncomfortable. Chris doesn’t need to go into the university, other than for the occasional meeting – although many of these are now carried out online – yet she likes the walk there, along the Spree. Sometimes she covertly takes photos of people she passes in the streets and sends them to a Facebook Messenger group chat populated by her old housemates. Together they work up stories about who these people are and what they do for a living, who they love, and who they hate. It has become a ritual of sorts; a way to make her friends feel a part of her life in this new city. When she first arrived, she gave them a tour of her neighbourhood on FaceTime, bleeding data as she wove past unfamiliar buildings. They said they would come visit in August.

*

At ten to one Chris packs her MacBook into her backpack, whispers her goodbyes to the other researchers in the campus workspace and quietly shuts the door behind her. She had sent Paul a WhatsApp message that morning, a teasingly ominous: I know where you work… He responded with a picture of himself wearing a pair of lederhosen – a photo she’d already spotted on his Instagram, posted a year ago – with the accompanying caption: ready to heist. They messaged intermittently throughout the day in the lead up to their date. Had he not given her his number she probably would not have talked to him until their meeting, since she felt too embarrassed to open Tinder in public. WhatsApp felt less revealing, less carnal, more mundane, when exposed to the glances of curious passers-by. She hated that she cared about the imagined feelings imagined strangers held about her love life. She also hated that whenever she got a notification from Tinder, or Bumble, or OkCupid, informing her that she had received a message, the notification would not tell her the content of the message. Unnecessary secrecy for an app which in truth carried far less intimacy than WhatsApp. It was WhatsApp which was interwoven with all the joy, anger, excitement, and pain of everyday life, and WhatsApp through which she had communicated her most private thoughts and feelings, shared her body, comforted, cried, seduced, and wounded.

Chris walked briskly out of the front gate of the university, down the palatial expanse of Unter den Linden and up a cobbled side street. She’d applied some faint lipstick and wore her usual shades of black. Spots of perspiration formed on the back of her neck, coaxed out by the sun, which by noon had given itself completely to the city. The gallery emerged beside the Spree. The building was more than familiar, indexed in her mind as a key architectural point on the geographical template that made up her understanding of Berlin. In fact, there, in reasonably big letters on the white stones, the structure was clearly marked as James-Simon-Galerie. She had walked past on countless occasions, seen the letters but not read them, taking them in as part of the building’s aesthetic without ascribing them any meaning as a label. Her phone vibrated against her thigh. A message from Paul.

It would be a shame to waste this weather. We can sit on the steps outside?

Perfect, I’m already here, she responded. I’ll wait on the steps.

She thought for a moment, like she did before most of her dates, whether to tell him what she was wearing so that he could identify her. But she didn’t. They always recognised her anyway. She felt that she looked better in-person than in photos. Friends of hers sometimes felt anxious that their dates would expect them to look different. She hoped he wouldn’t turn out to be shorter than her. It shouldn’t matter, but it did. She was a little taller than average – whatever that meant – although she felt like she was shrinking since she’d moved to Berlin, where everyone seemed to tower over her. Running her hands through her hair, which still felt just a little too short, she hoped he’d be fun, nice, not dull.

She sees him coming down the steps towards her. He’s slim, and taller than her, thankfully. The way he moves seems familiar, his limbs slightly out of sync with one another, like his body is recalibrating with each step. She can’t quite place him. He looks around, by now there are plenty of people sitting on the steps leading up to the gallery, having lunch, maybe on dates too. She waves at him and he comes over, smiling. She puts away her phone.

Hey, Chris.

They hug.

So, about this heist, she says. I’ve reconsidered. I feel bad for pushing a nice, young man like you into a life of crime. I’m calling it off.

Probably a good call. I don’t do well in high pressure situations, and I’d be too pedantic about packaging the art properly.

His accent is a thick, southern drawl, quite at odds with his slender frame. Immediately she recognises him. She had been on a date with Paul before. Maybe 4 or 5 years ago. They’d matched on an app in London. The intervening period had been kind to him; he looked well.

How’s your day been at the gallery so far? Catch any art thieves?

She looks into his eyes; it hasn’t clicked yet. She can’t remember exactly how things ended. The date was okay, a bar in Shoreditch. Someone catcalled her on the way there. She remembers that clearly. She was quite drunk. They kissed. They didn’t sleep together, nor did they speak again after their date. He must have a different number now, she thought, or their old messages would have been in her WhatsApp. She remembers a little of their evening together but dating him now would likely be like dating a different person. She wonders how many people she has kissed since him.

It’s been quiet to be honest. No one wants to be inside when it’s like this, he says, motioning at the sky, as if he stands in direct competition with it.

For a moment she considers not telling him that they know each other, but she feels that would be manipulative, a one-sided marshalling of a pre-existing intimacy between the two of them.

You don’t recognise me, do you?

Paul stares at her. She imagines him cross-referencing her face with any number of intimate encounters he has had. Then it clicks.

Shit. London, yes.

She tells him it’s okay, she didn’t recognise him either. Yes, he’s changed his number. She still has the same phone. They matched on Bumble last time. They both apologise for not following up after the date, then agree that it’s not ghosting if both parties are ghosts. They run through their lives over the past four years. He graduated in history of art and has been living in Berlin for the past three years, working admin roles in museums, and now, finally, getting a job as a gallery assistant. He was in a polyamorous relationship; she should try it, it’s very Berlin. She finished her master, finished her PhD, freelanced as a journalist, and then accepted the postdoc offer at the university here. They retread some of the same territory as four years ago. They have distant, mutual friends; they don’t use twitter; London housing is overpriced; men would go wild over her accent in the US; men in the US go wild over anything. Conversations that feel as if they could be occurring between any two people sitting on the steps around them. They find some new topics of discussion. Chris’ cat has been pissing all over her apartment ever since she moved to Berlin. The James-Simon-Galerie is primarily a visitor centre, a hub for tourists to explore the surrounding museums; the term gallery is misleading, slim pickings for a heist. They watch people come and go, up and down the steps. Intermittently they say they should go and buy a coffee, or a cold drink, but they never do. The warmth of the sun keeps them rooted. She asks him how to say, could you just take off an inch, in German. He tries, but his German is American through and through, mangled to the extent that he sounds as though he is speaking English backwards. He admits he used google translate to write his German Tinder bio. She gives him the contact details of the language centre at her university.

At two thirty, they part ways. He kisses her on the cheek, goes up the steps, and she down. She already knows that she will not meet him again. Nor will she message him. She thinks he might message her, maybe not tomorrow, but in the coming weeks, one evening when he’s drunk. They have little to connect over, little that could offer the potential for a more intimate foundation. There is a degree of attraction, but not enough to merit sex for the sake of sex. She had a good time, in the same way as she would have had a good time talking to a cousin she sees once a year. Paul is a nice guy; she could see herself matching with him again in five years under similar circumstances, having forgotten all about him. She takes her phone from her pocket and downloads a picture of Guy Pearce in the film Memento from google images, a man whose body is covered in tattoos that act as notes to counter his amnesia. Editing the photo, on Guy Pearce’s torso she scrawls: don’t date Paul again. She sends the image to Hanna. This kind of thing has definitely happened to other people.

Exegesis

Smartphones can be seen as part of a polymedia environment, wherein varying social and emotional consequences are produced by the ways in which users switch between, and navigate, different media spaces (Madianou, 2014). This short story focuses on the sociocultural category of dating in relation to this polymedia environment, and the way technology is integrated into everyday life, mediating experiences, encounters, practices and spaces (Bareither, 2019). My PhD thesis focuses on the narrativized dynamic between dating app users, technology, and city space in Berlin, and this short story is thus founded on an ethnographic understanding of Berlin’s dating culture. I use the concept of affordances as a framework in which technological devices open up or constrain certain actions and practices (Hutchby, 2001). This piece of fiction offers a portrait of the mundane, almost invisible, integration of technology into the protagonist’s everyday life, how her actions are mediated, yet enacted dynamically, not as separate spheres of offline and online interaction, but rather as one continuous realm of experience (Miller et al, 2016).

The short story form provides an excellent medium for this particular strand of research, for it integrates seamlessly the narrativization of self into the actions of the protagonist. In matters of intimacy, and particularly dating culture, narrativization plays a prominent role in experience – dates are discussed and dissected with friends, repackaged as stories. For example, in her investigation of the dating lives of American teenagers, Thompson (1989) likens the girls she interviews to professional novelists as they recount their dating history. Such practices are amplified on dating apps due to their text-based and archivable nature, Tinder’s “repetitive and fast-paced swiping is designed to invoke ongoing participation, rationalizing the app’s use for dating and generating authenticity as it becomes part of one’s biographical narrative” (Duguay, 2017; 360). As such, the short story provides the perfect medium to portray practice and narrativization as interlinking, not only in content, but also in form.

The events narrated in the story are based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out in Berlin, data gathered through conversations, refracted and repurposed as narratives originally by those recounting their experiences, and eventually committed to writing. As such the narrativization at the core of this fiction can be said to have occurred already in the moments during which these experiences were shared with me. Furthermore, the piece also seeks to integrate the psychogeographical impact of the city; Berlin as a force of inflection that subtly colours the lives of its inhabitants. Ultimately, the piece is a reflection of a particular experience of social life in Berlin, as it is lived and narrativized by the protagonist.

Fabian Broeker is a PhD candidate in Culture, Media, and Creative Industries at King’s College London. His research focuses on the affordances of dating apps in relation to narrativization and space in Berlin.

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