I’m scrolling through Facebook at three in the morning and in an unruly state of mind when an ad hovering about the margins catches my peripheral. There is a girl in red flannel, legs dangling as she sits at the edge of a rocky cliff, stoic as she watches a picturesque sunset vanish over the distant horizon. The text, a smooth black font, reads: “Click Here to Find Someone that Understands.”
I sit up in bed, intrigued. The light from the screensaver on my TV casts a faint glow across the room, alternating flashes of color as the digitally rendered fireworks erupt and the vanish from the display. The floor is covered by a mixture of clothes – some dirty and some less dirty – and torn up packaging from Amazon boxes. Next to the bed, my nightstand is littered with empty plates and junk food wrappings, with a stack of empty cups towering alongside a Target lamp whose bulb has been burned out for about six months now.
One hyperlink later I find myself in the app store, on a page for something called Griefer. A brief description at the top outs it as a dating app, but with a novel twist: Instead of matching people based on personality quizzes or airbrushed photos, Griefer uses a “Soul Algorithm” to link users with compatible tragic backgrounds together.
“Our tragedies define us, which is why finding a partner who understands your past is so important. Studies have shown that romantic partners who have experienced similar trauma are more than seventy percent more likely to endure than couples who have not. Griefer uses our state of the art Soul Algorithm to compare millions of painful backgrounds and match users who are likely to relate based on their shared misery. All you have to do is open up to us. Download Today!”
I check the time again – almost 3:30 AM now – and press the download button. Assuming I can get to sleep by four, that will leave me with a decent three hours of rest before my alarm goes off and I’m forced to start the daily trudge towards the office. Nothing a little coffee can’t slap a band-aid over.
The Griefer interface is modern, well-designed. I log in with Facebook and am promptly ushered through a series of aesthetic menus that help to narrow down the exact unpleasantness that the Soul Algorithm will use so find my one and only. I select “Death” from a list that includes “Heartbreak,” “Regret,” “Guilt,” “Failure,” and “Loathing.”
From there I am presented with a myriad of options to further elaborate my damage. Before selecting “Family Member” from the list, I pause and let my eyes linger on the phrase. For a moment, I can almost hear Liz laughing at me, poking fun at her big sister downloading yet another dating app. Tinder, Bumble, Liz had never needed to fuss with those in order to meet people. Her enormous personality and blue eyes won her more suitors than any dating app ever could.
I finish setting up my profile just before the clock on my Echo Spot hits four. Griefer congratulates me on my progress with a heart graphic that throbs in the dim light of my phone screen, passing along the message that I have been successfully added into the Soul Algorithm’s database. I poke around for a minute, looking for a place to swipe, but apparently Griefer doesn’t work that way. Annoyed and feeling like I probably just wasted my time, I roll over in bed and let the whirring of my ceiling fan finally lull me to sleep.
Somewhere along the timeline I dream about the night she died. I’m back home for the holidays, watching TV at my parents house after a tense dinner that ended with Liz storming back up to her old bedroom after refusing to eat a bite of her food. Her eyes were glossed over and she was badly slurring her words as she repeatedly denied that she was still using. Dad flung his plate into the sink, yelling about how much money they’d spent on rehab. Mom was crying silently and staring at her reflection in the wine glass. The dark circles and grey strands were permanent now. The last thing Liz said to me was “Do you have any cigarettes?” I looked at her funny and just shook my head.
When my alarm goes off there is a notification from Griefer that the Soul Algorithm has found me three suitable matches. I tell Alexa to shut up and tap open the app on my phone, curious to see how this will work. The interface now is more like a traditional dating app, with my prospective matches presented in the usual swipe right or left format.
My first option is a heavyset guy, maybe a few years older than me. He looks like a standard-issue frat boy turned banker bro – tailgating photos, a night under the blue haze of the club with his boys, him in a suit looking deceptively engaged at some sort of corporate event. His tragedy, which is listed directly under the photos, is that he watched his dog get hit by a car. I swipe left.
The next screen is much better looking offering, tall, clean shaven, muscular. Closer to my age. His photos are all of him being active, at the gym, mountain biking, rock climbing. I’m feeling optimistic until I reach his last photo, which is him playing soccer with one of those indoor pickup leagues. My mind instantly flashes to the Snapchat Liz sent me of her knee in a giant immobilizer with the caption “Still scored the game winner tho.” I panic and swipe left without bothering to read about whatever tragedy has befallen this dude.
My third and final Griefer match is somewhere in between the other two, average height and sporting the early stages of a Dad Bod. He has nice eyes and a friendly smile. A flannel guy, for sure. I gauge his pics for a moment, stuck between a photo of him at the Eiffel Tower and a shot of him as one of the groomsmen at a wedding. His tragedy is that his brother was killed by a drunk driver. I swipe right and then drag myself out of bed to start getting ready for work.
I forget all about Griefer as my day gets rolling, riding the crammed train into the city, iced coffee from the Starbucks next to my stop. Christine snaps me a selfie of herself drinking a latte with the caption “COFFEE CHECK,” and I reply back with a “COFFEE CHECK” of my own. Tim from accounting DMs me a meme on Insta as I’m waiting to swipe into the building, which I ignore because he really needs to take a hint. Someone up at the front of line has forgotten their badge and starts arguing with the security guard about how they should be let in anyway. I close my eyes for a second, letting myself enjoy the weight of my eyelids, before forcing them back open once the line starts moving again.
I’m slammed that morning with a flood of emails about some project having run way over-budget, and don’t have a chance to look at my phone until somehow its already past noon and my hunger pangs yank me away from the spreadsheets. I glance at my phone as I start to move towards the elevators, and realize that the Griefer heart has been waiting along the notification bar. Daniel has sent me a message.
“Ketchup or ranch with your fries?” he asks.
“Ketchup,” I respond.
“Ooo wrong answer. Ranch is objectively superior to all other condiments, but especially on fries”
“Oh yeah? I don’t think I’ve ever tried that particular combo.”
“Then you are seriously missing out and need to experience this majestic pairing ASAP. Like say, Corner Tavern at 6:30 tonight. They have the best fries in the city.”
Always refreshing to find someone quick and to the point. After a while the endless cycle of matching with someone, spending a few days flirting over text, and then never speaking again starts to wear on you. Most of the dudes swiping are so hot and cold that you can’t even reliably use these dumb apps to get laid, let alone start an actual relationship. But then I’m guessing they think the same thing about us.
“I probably won’t be out of the office by then. How about 7?”
“Works for me. See you then.” He signs off with a string of French fry emojis.
The rest of my workday passes by uneventfully, leaving my anxiety with plenty of time to ramp up as the clock ticks closer and closer to seven. I message Christine about my plans, although I substitute Bumble for Griefer because I don’t feel like explaining the app to her over text. She is confused at first (“Didn’t you just delete Bumble like three days ago?”), but then proceeds to give me the usual pep talk about staying calm and confident.
“Do you have a last name?” she asks after wrapping up the words of encouragement. I imagine her cracking her knuckles over her work keyboard, preparing to run a background check that would put the FBI to shame. “Or his job info?”
“Nope. Just the first name and those pictures.”
“Ugh, I’ll see what I can do. Also you matched with a dude that doesn’t have his job listed? You must be really horny or something. Which I’m here for, obviously.”
I dip out of the office a little after six-thirty. It’s already pretty dark outside, and the smoky air is chilly with just enough of a gust to get my nose running. The rush hour traffic crawls along at a glacial pace as I make my way towards the Corner Tavern, which in only three blocks from the office. A homeless person tries to approach me at a crosswalk, but changes course after noticing my Air Pods. I can feel my phone vibrating in my pocket, probably Christine blowing me up because she has uncovered evidence that my date is a wanted murderer or a Trump voter.
The inside of the Corner Tavern is warm and welcoming. I’m fifteen minutes early so I brush past the host, who is glued to his phone and doesn’t notice me anyway, and make my way over to the bar. After ordering a vodka soda from the girl behind the counter, I check my phone to make sure all that vibrating wasn’t Daniel flaking at the last minute, as is usually the case with these dates. Luckily, the messages are just Christine, who shockingly was unable to dig up any dirt on my latest subject, and another DM from Tim, who I continue not responding to.
Liz always got on me about that. No one in her inbox ever went ignored – leaving someone on read just wasn’t coded into her DNA. Of course, that meant there was always at least a half-dozen hopeful boys blowing up her phone, all fooling themselves into thinking she was interested and not just being her usual friendly self. She knew it too, and would play along with the games, though if anyone asked, there were all just friends.
A few minutes later Daniel walks through the door, and my first impression is that he is better looking in person. I wave to him from the bar and he smiles and walks over. He’s wearing khakis and a black Patagonia jacket that is unzipped over a light blue oxford. Probably another banker bro, most of the dudes in the dating pool around here are. Not that working in finance is necessarily a bad thing, seeing as I do too. At the end of the day we all gotta pay those loans back somehow.
“Lauren?” he asks, as if I might just be a random stranger that waved to him for no apparent reason. But I’m nitpicking here.
“Hi, yes. Wanna grab a table?”
“Sure!” He is still smiling. So far so good. Maybe Griefer is onto something with their Soul Algorithm after all.
We move to a nearby table and a waitress promptly swoops in to offer us a pair of menus. I order another vodka soda and he orders something called a Deep Dive Facebook Stalker, which predictably turns out to be an IPA. I make a mental note to mention this to Christine, who will definitely be all about that name.
“So, Griefer, huh?” asks Daniel after the server heads back to the bar to grab our drinks. “Kind of a interesting concept.”
“It’s definitely a unique approach, though so far the results don’t seem much different from the usual methods.”
He laughs, tearing at his napkin nervously. “So far, yeah. Do you go on a lot of dating app dates?”
“Not really. You?”
“Nah. Try to avoid them, actually.” Same old, as if anyone would ever admit to binging on Tinder dates, especially while on one. I’m normally at home, in bed, watching Netflix and waiting on my Uber Eats delivery; this date is just a freak coincidence, the cosmic result of the planets all lining up. Actually, that first part is mostly true.
There is an awkward pause before he speaks again. “So, your sister overdosed?”
I flinch at the bluntness of the question, but then I guess this is kind of the whole point of Griefer, right? “Yeah…” Trying to shake off the nerves. Liz would be laughing, telling me to get my shit together. “Eight months ago.”
“That’s awful. Heroin?”
“Fuck, I’m so sorry. Had she been sick long?” He pauses, glancing away from the table. “Sorry if I’m getting too personal too fast.”
“You’re fine. Also, we kinda signed up for this so.” Now it’s my turn to look away. Not that I don’t like talking about it or anything; sometimes it can even feel therapeutic. But there is still this lingering discomfort, not so much an ache as it is the sensation of betrayal, as if telling the story might somehow cause all the bullshit to cycle through again, spoken back into existence. Like we’re all stuck in this loop where Liz is forever unraveling and everyone, me, my parents, the police, the rehab people, everyone is powerless to stop it.
“Not at all. She played soccer at State and tore her ACL and it just kind of spiraled from there. Started with the pills, and later we found out that the specialist she was seeing for post-surgery stuff was taking cash in exchange for refilling scripts. That went on for a few months, but eventually he cut her off so she started getting into actual heroin. It all happened so fast we barely had time to process everything.”
“That’s horrible.” He leans back in his chair as the waitress returns with our drinks. “Fucking Opioid Crisis, am I right?”
“You’re telling me.” We cheers our drinks and though he is still smiling, I can’t help but feel like the air has been sucked out of the room. Somehow, talking about my sister’s drug overdose has not kindled any romantic urges.
“Well?” he asks as I force a smile back. “Aren’t you going to ask about me?”
“Oh, right.” Not exactly giving me a window to recover here, but okay. “I’m sorry about your brother. Drunk drivers are the worst.”
“They really are.” He gestures towards my vodka soda. “Which reminds me, I hope you didn’t drive here.”
Kind of aggressive. “I took the train.”
His posture relaxes. “Gotta make sure. People are such fucking hypocrites. Dylan, you know, he was my best friend in the world. We did everything together. And some drunk asshole just snuffed him.” There is a pause as he takes a huge gulp of his beer. “It’s just so terrible, getting killed by someone else like that. I don’t know if I’ll ever be over it.”
The phrase someone else escapes his lips with a twinge of hostility, but then maybe I’m just imagining things. “I know how you feel. Liz was my best friend too.”
“Do you know how I feel?” he counters, cutting me off. “I mean, maybe the algorithm thinks so, but I wonder.”
“I, uh…” I’m flustered now, off-balance and not thrilled with this weird combativeness. “I mean, we both lost our siblings to untimely bullshit, so yeah, I can definitely empathize with you.”
“To an extent, yeah.” He takes another giant swig of beer, emptying his glass and signaling to our server that he needs another. “But they’re not really the same thing, you know?”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
He smirks, exhaling through his nose. “I mean that Dylan died because someone else fucked up. It wasn’t his fault. He didn’t want to die.”
“And you’re saying what, that Liz did? That it was her fault some asshole sold her fentanyl and told her it was heroin?” I can feel my temperature rising as my hands start to tremble. Not sure what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t this.
“Well yeah, kind of. Nobody made her start using drugs. Nobody forced her to take pills or stick a needle in her arm or between her toes or whatever. She knew the risks and she made a decision.” His second beer is already almost finished. “Dylan didn’t have any problems like that. He was a good kid that didn’t deserve what happened to him.”
And I’m speechless now, fucking floored. My blood has turned to steam and every impulse in my body is pushing me to lunge across the table and smack the ever-living shit out of this asshole, but I fight the urge and instead just sit there, mouth hanging half-open, blinking rapidly in total disbelief.
He calmly finishes his drink, apparently oblivious to my simmering rage, and smiles. “So, what do you do for work?”
“Are you kidding me? What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“Huh?” He makes a face, confused. “My brother fucking died, if that’s what you mean.” Shaking his head now, and with the audacity to package the movement with another bullshit smirk. “So much for this app finding someone who understands.”
“Yeah, I would say it failed.” I reach into my clutch, find a twenty, and casually fling it onto the table. “That should cover my drinks. Good luck with everything.”
“Wait, seriously? Are you leaving?”
“No, I’m going to the fucking bathroom.”
“Unbelievable. Dramatic ass bitch. Thanks for nothing.”
“Sure thing.” I push my chair in and make a swift break for the exit. It’s even colder outside now, but in some strange way the chill is preferable to the phony warmth I just endured. As I walk away from the bar, I can feel my anger giving way to this profound sadness, a horrible loneliness that has me fighting back tears.
But then, somewhere in the distance, I can hear Liz laughing at me for being so dumb. “Dude, fuck that guy.”
“Yeah,” I whisper, tearful urges vanishing as I pull out my phone and drag the Griefer icon into the uninstall bin. “Fuck that guy.”