This week’s Stylist short story is Alphabet Games by Emma Harris, which explores the complicated reality of modern dating
Recently, X has found themself dwelling on aloneness. One Sunday evening at eight thirty, they download a dating app. The action sits somewhere between pathetic and exultant. They choose the photos they think are the most attractive (a close-up selfie, a full body picture, a group shot), then spend too long shuffling around the order. Then they think about what their ex would have said about the selection (lacking in confidence, desperate)—and delete all the photos they’ve just uploaded. Finally, they find a combination (a mixture of individual and group shots, an outdoorsy one, just one selfie) which, they think, hits precisely the right balance of edgy/attractive/sociable/smart.
But the prompts take even longer to choose and complete. Now they’re frustrated and about to delete the app entirely. Fuck it, they think, hit ‘done’, and the profile is released. Butterflies fill their belly as they browse their options—it feels similar to choosing their next meal on Deliveroo. When a like arrives, then another, the butterflies start battering against their organs.
Three days later, they make arrangements to meet Y, a software engineer born locally but recently returned from living abroad. It feels like a promise to the end of X’s loneliness and they cannot help the swell of fantasy dilemmas: where will they have their first kiss? Will they spend the night together on the first date or wait until the second or third? How would they navigate spending time at each other’s’ houses—would they split the nights of the week equally or would X stay at Y’s more often? That would be alright, X decided; they would enjoy spending some time away from the studio apartment they call home.
Two days after the first date, precisely a week after they downloaded the app, X is waiting for Y to reply to their text. The date went well—drinks at a wine bar in town, followed by a kiss but no sleep over. Just right, X thought. Let’s not jump into things too fast. When the text doesn’t come within an hour, they turn off their phone. This makes them feel as blank as the screen. Two hours later, they turn the phone back on. There’s a text from Y, suggesting another date—Dinner tomorrow? My treat ;). X agrees.
Twenty-three hours after the second date, nine days after X downloaded the app, and five days after they went on the first date with Y, X is again waiting for Y to text them. Their mind deposits images of Y with someone else, sipping wine at the same wine bar, accidentally brushing foot against ankle below the table. X leaves their phone in the bedroom while they make dinner, but turns the volume up high. When they finally put their phone on ‘do not disturb’ and get into bed, there is still no reply.
The following evening, a Wednesday night at 12.17am, roughly forty-nine and a half hours after the end of the second date, X is curled up in bed around their phone, its blue light illuminating their bloodshot eyes. There is no text from Y. Fuck you, X says to the phone, drops it onto the floor and rolls over to the empty side of the bed.
The following day, during their lunch break, X strikes up a virtual conversation with Z. They like the idea that Y might eventually reply and then Z and Y would start competing with each other for X’s attention and X would have to choose between them. Z’s photos make X laugh (they include a picture of Z cuddling a puppy and another of them on a rollercoaster), though they’re not as attractive as Y. Z suggests drinks; X suggests dinner at their apartment afterwards. Z agrees.
They meet the next evening, four days after X last saw Y. Z is bundled in a coat and gloves, smiles widely when they see X. X’s smile is smaller (definitely not as attractive, X thinks). They have several drinks. Z asks if X still wants to go back to their apartment. X says they do. They skip dinner.
X checks their phone as Z snores beside them. There’s a text from Y—is X free on the weekend? X replies that they are. Z drapes an arm across X’s stomach. X puts down their phone and gazes at the ceiling, letting Z’s arm rise and fall as X breathes.
At 7.38pm the following day, a Saturday, X is brushing their teeth. They use too much pressure and there’s a little blood in the spit. A few minutes later, they text Y to say they’re on their way. There are two unread texts from Z. When Y comes to answer the door, X sees Y’s flat mates drinking in the living room. Y takes them to their bedroom and they half-watch something on Netflix. X glances round the room, at the small curtainless window and dirty white trainers lined up by the door, and questions if this is where they want to be.
Two hours and twenty-seven minutes later, Y yawns and offers X a ride home, which X declines. They search for their underwear which Y passes to them silently. When X goes downstairs, Y’s flat mates—loud and drunk—are getting ready to go out. They barely acknowledge X, who pulls up the hood of their coat before slipping out the door.
They check their phone at home. There’s a text from Y—did X get home safe? They click on the message from Z—does X want to meet up again? Perhaps they can get round to making dinner this time ;-). Eyes sore and head heavy, X switches off their phone. Then turns it back on after eighteen minutes.
An hour later, at 1.57am, X has replied to Y with a monosyllabic affirmative but not to Z. They are browsing the market, eyelids drooping, the emptiness on the other side of the bed gaping. A new like arrives which catches their attention. W—how’s X’s night going? Do they wanna meet?
Stylist publishes a new and exciting short story each week and is open to submissions. If you would like to submit, please send a story (fiction) of no more than 1,000 words and any genre to email@example.com. Successful submissions receive payment of £200, more information is here.