When Your Search History Says What You Can’t


If the eyes are the window to the soul, what is Google search history a window to? Our bunions and boils? One glimpse at my boyfriend’s recent searches caused our already precarious relationship to topple. This is a cautionary tale of the heart as well as the browser.

I went over to my boyfriend’s house on a late Saturday morning. The plan was to work on a puzzle we had tinkered with for months with little progress. The puzzle was not the typical Monet painting or postcard landscape but a color gradient, transitioning from red to orange. My boyfriend, a 3-D designer who wore shirts in goofy prints, belonged to this puzzle’s target demographic.

Predictably, the color gradient puzzle was challenging. Even assembling the outer edges proved to be a task beyond our skill level. With one of his NPR podcasts on, we would hold pieces under the light of a desk lamp, questioning our ability to discern between shades. I found myself wondering about the nature of color itself. What was red? What was orange? Where did one stop and the other begin?

The puzzle was a fitting metaphor for our relationship in that I never knew what we were or how to move forward. With a sense of doom, I would stare at the pieces of our fraught connection, turning them 90 degrees, willing them to fit in ways they didn’t.

I only discovered that he considered me his girlfriend secondhand. He had an always-answer policy for his grandmother’s phone calls, which had endeared me to him early on.

“How’s your girlfriend doing?” I heard her ask through the receiver.

I put my hand to my chest and gasped. If I had asked him about our relationship status directly, he probably would have changed the subject, then avoided me for days. He was glad to use the idea of commitment to make himself seem more put together for his family, but he did not care to let me in on it.

One day after I asked him, “What are we?” we didn’t speak for a month. I would go on dates with other men but always found myself more interested in hanging out with him, even if our pairing was frustratingly undefined. Instead of taking this as a sign of disinterest, I rationalized it.

He had childhood experiences involving abandonment that had left him spooked about relationships. Though I sympathized, it did not excuse the fact that he, a man in his late 20s, could not have a conversation about sex or feelings while maintaining eye contact. To me, he was a puzzle. Though, like the color gradient one, he was unusually difficult to solve, I was determined to figure it out.

After an hour of staring at loose red-and-orange pieces, I suggested we consult the internet for advice. We went to his standing desk, which he had made himself out of an old door, and he opened Google.

As he began to type “how to solve a puzzle,” what emerged below the blinking cursor was a recent search, one that made my heart thump: “How to break up with someone you’re not attracted to.”

I felt like a piano had fallen onto my head, but I did not scream or cry. He went on typing as if nothing had happened.

My first impulse was to assume that it was not about me. Perhaps he had asked that question on a friend’s behalf? But this was a desperate rationalization.

He clicked on a video made by a graphic designer, but she was just assembling the puzzle — hers was the black-and-white variety — not explaining how we might do it ourselves. I waited and watched quietly, running my jagged fingernails over my bare thighs so they left white streak marks, until I eventually excused myself to use the bathroom.

As I stood to go, he stroked my arm almost tenderly. It was as if he was testing to me to see if I had noticed the damning evidence on his screen. This act made me even more eager to escape. I could not decide in his presence what to do about the situation.

The enclosed space of the bathroom enabled me to collect my thoughts and establish the will to confront him. I would not go on as if this had never happened. That is not what the woman I wanted to be would do. I was a big girl, I told myself. I could handle whatever direction the conversation took.

Even so, I took my time peering around his bathroom. I recalled the first time I visited his house almost a year prior. He must not have expected to ask me back to his place, because he had left an open tube of foundation on the sink. My boyfriend lived alone, so I knew it belonged to him. Perhaps he used it to hide his acne scars?

Whatever the case, there was now no beige-colored makeup to be found. Clearly, he had decided at some point that I was not worth masking his flaws for.

When I emerged from the bathroom, I tried to stride back into the living room with my head held high.

“Hey, can I ask you something?” I said, almost too brightly. He was still seated in his black swivel chair, shoulders slumped, looking helpless. I took a seat on his couch and told him what I had seen. He stopped me before I had a chance to ask what it was about.

“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “Sorry you had to find out that way.”

Hearing this confirmation of the worst, I was too shocked to respond.

He went on to explain himself. He had been seeking advice about whether he should be honest about his lack of sexual attraction to me. He had intended to break up with me the day before during our walk in the park, but we ended up having such a nice conversation that he lost his nerve.

I reflected on how, when we returned from the walk, I made him dinner while he watched. He had commented on how sexy my legs looked. Once again, the puzzle pieces did not fit.

The conversation was awkward and painful for me, but it was also exceptionally revealing. From the way he spoke about our relationship, I realized how much of himself he had kept hidden and, once these secrets were revealed, how deeply incompatible we were. I said that I could have loved him, and he started to tear up.

I had recently reread Erich Fromm’s “The Art of Loving” and had found comfort in the idea that love was more about my ability to give rather than another’s worthiness of receiving it. Still hung up on the idea of finding his “dream girl,” he was not ready to accept this.

Though there had been plenty of signs, it was not clear to me how flawed our match was until it was in shambles. “Well,” I said, “I guess I should go now.” I was proud of how I handled the situation, neither raising my voice nor shedding a tear. I slung my purse over one shoulder and looked around to make sure that was all I had brought with me. I would not miss his house, with its unswept floors riddled with Kitty Litter and its hipster artwork dotting the walls.

He walked over to the door and opened it for me, a rare gentlemanly move for him. He looked at me with his bottom lip sticking out like a little boy denied a Popsicle, and said that we would take a break.

Baffled, I nodded and marched out to my car.

I drove away under the hot New Mexico sun.

As far as I know, the orange gradient puzzle remained unfinished on his kitchen counter. But my personal puzzle, though lacking in pieces and a vision for the final product, was at last complete.

We all turn to Google search when we need guidance, whether to ask how many ounces are in a cup or how to extricate ourselves from a stifling relationship. My boyfriend, in seeking an answer to his problem, finally liberated me from mine.


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