Feminisms


The purpose of the group chat was to talk shit about Eloise’s ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. We were feminists so we knew it wasn’t the new girlfriend’s fault but she was from Iowa and easy to hate so we hated her with a political conscientiousness befitting smart young women who want to support other smart young women. Except that we thought she was dumb. Her Instagram was comprised of photos of pasta dishes and charcuterie boards she had made. She had a fashion Blogspot and in all her selfies wore contour, smoked eyeshadow and red lipstick, even though everybody knows you should only pick one out of three. Online she called herself a ‘shameless Sagittarius’, an ‘introverted Swiftie’, a ‘self-taught sommelier’. Her family were all Republicans, or so we’d heard, and when we looked up their address the house had a pool and a long, manicured walk. Every tidbit we found added fuel to the fire: she was short, she worked in marketing, she made TikToks, she was gluten-free. We were nice girls and we wanted to save her from herself, but also from Eloise’s ex-boyfriend, who was clearly taking advantage of someone so naive. We considered it our moral obligation to protect Midwestern girls from older city guys we knew were bad news. When we went out for drinks we saw how the transplants gallivanted down the sidewalks in groups, all dressed up in their faux-fur coats, blow-dried hair, little heeled booties. Like baby elephants grappling for a tail to hold. These women needed us. We kept an eye out for predators.

Eloise and the ex-boyfriend had dated for five years and when they broke up it took an additional year to sort through their shared belongings. Eloise took her table, her cat, her collection of Japanese kitchen knives. Her ex-boyfriend fought her on the knives, so we told her to fight him on the Bluetooth speaker, even though it had never worked well and she didn’t really want it. She pretended to want the couch, as advised, so that she could take the coffee machine too.

The last time they spoke had been a year to the day after their break-up, when Eloise went to collect the last of her books. The ex-boyfriend hadn’t even boxed them up, just left them in a stack on the kitchen counter. He found a shoebox in his closet and handed it to her. The books hardly fit.

‘What the fuck?’ Eloise told us she said. ‘Whose shoes are these?’

‘Yours?’

The shoebox was from Target. Heeled espadrilles with ribbon ties. Women’s size 8.5.

From there the story gets a little confused. Eloise throws the box at the ex-boyfriend, or sits down in a chair and cries, and they end up ordering Hawaiian fusion and dissecting the particulars of their break-up again. Or maybe she storms out and he runs after her, into the hallway, apologizing, insisting they’d broken up a year ago and so, of course, he’s moved on by now. He had to. He knows how to comfort Eloise the way a person only knows after five or six years of loving somebody, and when Eloise cries he stands close to her but they do not touch. It’s the not touching that makes it horrible. Maybe that’s when Eloise starts to cry. He tells her he loved her. He’s always loved her. He will always love her. The past and present tense get all mixed up. He tells her he has been seeing a girl, but it’s not serious, she’s not his girlfriend. Maybe Eloise says fuck you, or maybe Eloise says she hopes you’re happy, or maybe Eloise says that’s all fine, it’s seriously none of her business. But later it comes out that the new girlfriend was in the apartment the whole time, which Eloise will term a ‘colossal betrayal-cum-humiliation’, though her ex-boyfriend will say it was all a ‘big misunderstanding’, and later tell mutual friends that Eloise is ‘just kind of crazy’. He also uses the phrase ‘rumor mill’. That bit everybody knows for sure, because the new girlfriend goes around quoting it in his defense, and this gets back to Eloise, and so it gets back to us.

The problem with the new girlfriend is that she’s nice. It’s all anybody has to say about her. There’s really nothing we can dislike, except for the fact she exists, which isn’t her fault. That’s on her Republican parents. Instead the group chat is forced to look beyond first impressions. We craft a fuller picture, seeking out all her angles to really celebrate them. In tagged photos her eyes always skew in the wrong direction or glow camera-flash red. That’s when she really comes alive for us. We understand what she sees in Eloise’s ex-boyfriend because we understood what Eloise saw in him, even if we now call him ‘that idiot’. What we can’t understand is how a person who was in love with Eloise, the way we love Eloise, our brilliant, beautiful Eloise, could also be in love with the new girlfriend. We pity the ex-boyfriend who has clearly gone mad with grief, stabbed his eyes out like Oedipus and tied himself to the mast of a ship, Odysseus-style, to wait for any old siren to save him from the misery of his own making. The new girlfriend isn’t a siren though, she’s a field mouse. She looks like she’s never gotten wet in her life. She has a Pinterest board for ‘brunch vibes’. She has a Pinterest board called ‘spooky season’. She has a Pinterest board filled with images of Margot Robbie, and it’s clear from the number of photos that someone once told the new girlfriend that she looks like Margot Robbie – though she doesn’t, not at all, she’s just blonde. When Margot Robbie cuts her hair short, so does the new girlfriend.

‘It looks good,’ Eloise says, though we disagree.

When we show the screenshots to Eloise, she always says that we have gone too far. That the new girlfriend deserves to be happy. That her ex-boyfriend does, too. It’s not a good look to be vengeful, Eloise says. She doesn’t know that we have another group chat without her.

The secret group chat always gets active around the holidays, when we are all forced to see our own missing-limb messed-up families. We prefer to share photos from the new girlfriend’s accounts, where she and her four siblings wear matching sweaters and drink champagne with their parents. They have two Christmas trees, one upstairs and one downstairs, one dressed in silver and the other in gold. The new girlfriend wears red lipstick and red leather boots to Christmas dinner. It looks good, we have to admit, even if she doesn’t do the look justice. She is too blonde, too pointy, too much face.

We started the stalking after Eloise told us she couldn’t stop dreaming about the new girlfriend. Long, Jungian sagas in which there was always someone extra in the room, some hidden secret. This was back before we knew anything about the new girlfriend, aside from her espadrille shoes. We diagnosed Eloise with acute bad dreams, which are different from stress dreams and categorically distinct from nightmares. We figured some facts might quell the speculation. It was our duty as friends to put her mind at ease.

We started with Instagram: first, the main feed, then delving deep into tagged. The new girlfriend hadn’t bothered to scrub her history from the record so we preserved it for her, filing her past selves neatly into an archive of our own making. We taxonomized her from pimply teen to roll tide sorority girl. We knew all of her siblings by name. After that we sped through Facebook and Twitter, which were not nearly as fruitful as her Pinterest and blog. Between broken links and ads the new girlfriend turned out to be a prolific writer. She covered subjects of great interest to us, including the best way to make sugar-free toffee pudding, why loving wine did NOT make you a snob, a list of her favorite restaurants to visit in the month of September. We spent the evening trading links through the group chat and quoting from her greatest hits. Then we typed in her username and clicked forgot password, first on a whim, then a few dozen times, so it would look like a hacking attempt.

That night Eloise said she had a dream that she was being driven by a muscled blonde man – hot, she specified – who she seemed to know but not from real life. He kept offering to help her get over the ex-boyfriend – sexually, we presumed – even though it turned out that he was driving her to the ex-boyfriend’s house. When they got there Eloise said she started shaking and crying, begging the blonde man not to take her inside even though she knew he was going to, and when they got to the door the new girlfriend was there and she was brunette and tall, with high cheekbones and a tennis skirt the color of dry corn. You have my nose, Eloise told her, like the old dad joke, thumb pocketed in palm, except Eloise hadn’t meant it figuratively – the new girlfriend’s nose was identical to her own. After that, Eloise said, she forgets what happened.

‘I don’t know how my brain made up a face for this girl,’ she texted the group chat. ‘I thought people in dreams were supposed to be people you had seen in real life, like in Inception.’

‘She doesn’t look anything like that,’ we assured her. ‘She’s blonde.’

‘It’s weird you guys know this,’ she said. She was worried we had a problem with boundaries.

‘People put things online because they want other people to see them,’ we told her. ‘We’re giving her what she wants.’ To support this statement, we created a collective burner account so that we could follow the new girlfriend without exposing ourselves. But soon enough the new girlfriend had blocked us, and we realized our mistake had been anonymity. Nobody wanted a faceless gray bot on their page. So we made up another, this time furnished with photos from a distant cousin’s profile, and made sure to only like the new posts after a sufficient amount of time had passed. This ended up being useful because for a while we had all wanted to follow lots of other women without racking up clutter on our feeds. Now when we scrolled we could keep up with the new girlfriend alongside Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez.

‘Just don’t follow me,’ Eloise said, when we told her our plan. ‘It’s gonna seem like it’s my account or something.’

‘No one would think this is your account,’ we replied. We used emojis in all of the captions. We used hashtags occasionally, too.

‘I use emojis sometimes,’ Eloise said, but she didn’t.

A month later the new girlfriend announced her relationship online. That was a really good day for the group chat. We circled Eloise’s ex-boyfriend, drew arrows between his shoulder and the face of the new girlfriend, compared their photo to others: Angelina and Brad, Obama and Michelle, Kim and Kanye, Beyoncé and Jay-Z.

‘They’re definitely going to break up,’ we determined.

‘I don’t want to know,’ Eloise replied.

‘Beautiful couple,’ we responded to the Instagram story, where Eloise couldn’t see. The new girlfriend liked the message, but she didn’t say anything more. She didn’t even throw us a decent ‘thank you’. In the group chat we all call her an ungrateful bitch, and we’re joking, but really she has no idea how much work we’ve put into this, what big fans we are. One of us is almost always refreshing her stories. We turned on notifications for all of her posts. When she goes dark for a week we are desperate. We yearn. We re-review the classics: the tags, the blog, the LinkedIn. We speculate: maybe she figured us out? Maybe she blocked the account? Now we are managing multiple burners, each of us cultivating a serious following of porn bots and middle-aged Indian men. Maybe she’s doing a ‘digital detox’, but we suspect she would have warned us if it was something so benign. Her silence must be darker, more private. Maybe they’re busy moving in together. Maybe she’s pregnant. Maybe they broke up. Maybe they’re married. Maybe she died. Eloise’s ex-boyfriend offers no helpful hints or clues. He hasn’t posted in years and even when he did the photos were opaque: grayscale sunsets and shots of strange buildings. The occasional vacation carousel. A bearded dragon perched atop a low rock.

Two weeks into the new girlfriend’s silence, Eloise goes on a good date. She sends us a picture and promises he is cuter in person, more interesting than his profile suggests. We put in the requisite efforts. We google. We skim. We say things like, ‘you can totally tell that he’s cuter in person’, though really, we have no way of knowing. His photos are blurry and probably old. None show his teeth, though Eloise tells us they are normal. She’s already felt them with her tongue. In his tagged photos lives another girl, long-haired and leggy. She can be seen surfing, walking a Dalmatian, sun-tanning in a park that looks vaguely familiar. Eloise asks if she looks like her and we say no, though there is a resemblance around the eyes, in the smiling scrunch of the nose. But everyone looks like everyone else online, we say. At least a little bit. This is our working theory, anyway.

The potential new boyfriend invites Eloise to meet his friends at a concert. Everyone agrees: this is a big step. She sends us photos of outfits until she runs out of time, at which point she just puts on the first one, which we figured she would choose from the start. We know these things don’t matter – Eloise always makes a good first impression – but this is our duty as friends.

In the secret group chat we are busy coordinating our own weekend plans. Having endured three weeks of silence from the new girlfriend, we make arrangements to go to her favorite wine bar, described on her blog as both an ‘ideal second date spot’ and a ‘cozy hang’. When we arrive the bar is regular and overpriced, run by a chubby redhead and a tall man with a mustache. We scan the tables for a blonde bob and take turns skirting chairs, texting from the line by the bar, side-eyeing one another upon return. Not her. Not her. Not her. If it is her, though, we have a plan. We’ll be casual. Drop compliments. We can catch her on the way to the bathroom, or ask to borrow a pen for the check. Has she been here before? Does she live nearby? We’ll ask all the right questions until she feels comfortable, until the flow of information becomes endless. We’re girl’s girls and we know how to win a girl over. Look around the bar, there are so many of us. Drinking wine, wearing leather jackets, watching your stories, being good friends. By the time we leave, the new girlfriend will be a whole new woman. That’s what a city can do to a person: toughen them up, straighten them out, set their priorities in order. We can teach the new girlfriend things that Eloise’s ex-boyfriend could never imagine. We can offer her something better. We know just what to say.

She’s not at the bar that night, but we know she’s out there somewhere. We know her so well by now that we feel her presence like a heartbeat. In the mind’s eye of the group chat we envision her reaching for the hand of Eloise’s ex-boyfriend. Tossing his laundry in with her own. Cleaning a spot of toothpaste on the mirror of the apartment he once shared with someone else. How quickly the past might be forgotten if we weren’t here to remember it. We do our job well so that everyone else can move on.

Drunk at the concert, Eloise texts us that the potential new boyfriend’s friends are so fun – we might like them. She posts a video that is all bodies and light, and when her date smiles his teeth are normal, even cute. The video is getting weird traction online though, she says. Recently she has been accumulating new followers, cheerful women with no mutual friends and sweepstakes accounts boasting iPads and cash. At first Eloise thought it was normal – the algorithm is a mystery – but now she’s worried. Unknown accounts are watching her story. Every time she refreshes there seem to be more. They crowd out her friends list and fill her phone with alerts that disappear the moment she opens the app. We tell her to block them, we’ll investigate tomorrow. For now we have to find our own lonely ways home. We text her through the commute and on the gray, unlit walk and up the dark stairs to our beds. But as we wait for sleep via scrolling, we all get the notification at once: the new girlfriend is back. Our prayers have been answered in the form of an Instagram post. We need to coordinate so that we can all see it together, this delicious surprise just for us. We’ll finally have clarity, some much-needed new news. We get so worked up about it that we accidentally text the main chat, where Eloise tells us this has to stop, she doesn’t want us involved in it anymore. But that was only a slip-up, we know what we’re doing. We’re her friends, we’re feminists. We ask Eloise if she’s still having bad dreams and she says no – only sometimes.

 

Image © Pawel Czerwinski

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