At around one o’clock in the morning, I wrap my comforter around me and tap the folded, paper-plane icon in the top right corner of the Instagram home page. I begin to scroll through my inbox — one hand holding the phone above my face and the other hand shoveling Trader Joe’s cookie butter into my mouth. I lie in bed like this, searching for the username “modernageboy” every Friday night. After the various bars close and the house party speakers shut off, when the lines at the taco truck are longest, I am in my creaky, Collegetown apartment searching for a particular thread of Instagram direct messages.
I got the idea for this Friday night ritual from a girl I met at group therapy. I went to a bereavement group my freshman year of college. We crowded folding chairs into a messy circle, squeezed shoulders and shared stories of lost loved ones. Everyone in that room started out a stranger. However, four years later at Cornell, even my closest friend doesn’t know me like any one of those grief group members do. One day, during a particularly quiet Thursday night meeting, the leader asked, “How do we talk to the people we love after they die?” We all thought for a minute. One boy explained how he listens to voicemails his father had left him before he passed away. A girl described sitting at her brother’s grave for hours, playing good songs through her weak phone speakers and catching him up on the family drama. Finally, another girl admitted that she still sends Facebook messages to her best friend, who died years ago. It was the only thing that felt natural to her. And it sounded like it could feel natural to me, too.
Before my high school boyfriend, Hunter, passed away, he left me no voicemails. And three years since he has passed, he still has no headstone marking where he rests. These two facts carve me up inside. Beside the guilt from his grave going unmarked, I also deal with the impossible task of how to talk to him. His father tells me that he feels Hunter by this one white oak tree on his property. His mother tells me she feels him at church or when The Strokes come on the radio. I have touched an oak tree, I have tried out church, I have listened myself raw through the complete Strokes discography, and I wish I could say those things made me feel Hunter, but I can’t.
Hunter was the first person I ever really fell in love with. For those frantic, loud eight months we spent together, driving his clunky Volvo through our hometown like a tank, I talked with him through everything. We were rarely apart, but when we were, I was magnetically drawn to my cellphone. I’d even prop my phone on the rack where I hung my towel when I showered, so I could dry my hand and type out a quick response at any given moment. We accrued hundreds of thousands of text messages, Instagram direct messages, Twitter threads and silly Snapchats. We were so incredibly social media savvy. And because of that, each day had a photo, a DM, a hashtag. It didn’t feel like detailed archival work, and I certainly didn’t expect that these would be the things I held onto when he died just months later. It was just a natural part of being two teenagers dating in the 21st century. “I love you more than being 17” was a line from his favorite Strokes song and also one of the truest things I could have told him. Every day, step, breath, word was magic when I was that in love. It was deep, and it cut like crazy, but it was the most real thing I’d ever done; I fell in love with someone.
Hunter died by suicide six days before I left for college. I have written thousands of words about him, about that, about these feelings, but I still can’t really say any of it aloud. I still can’t really talk to — or even about — him. But the suggestion of sending messages via Facebook struck a chord with me. It was so familiar. It was so easy. It didn’t feel like a forced prayer or a depressing cemetery picnic. It felt like talking to my high school boyfriend, who I missed and wanted to catch up with. After leaving grief group that night, I laid down in my dorm bed and opened up the Instagram app. I tried to resist scrolling through the messages Hunter and I had exchanged when he was still alive, but it was impossible. He had sent me hundreds of photos: post-haircut selfies, stupid memes, photos of myself that he had sneakily taken. He ended nearly every message with “I love you more than being 17.”
Hunter was 19 when he died, but we inhabited (and maybe still inhabit) that impossibly hopeful space where being in love was our biggest concern. There is a part of me that still feels like I’m 17 and dating Hunter. I don’t know if it’s possible to fall out of love with someone after they’ve died. I can’t process this like a normal breakup. The grief is different because the loss is different. I won’t ever log into Facebook and see that he is engaged to someone else. I won’t ever meet up with him for coffee in our hometown and exchange stories of our time apart. I won’t ever go on-again, off-again with him because we never had the chance. I went from being deep in the throes of my first love to being at his funeral. I wonder if a part of me will always feel like I’m still with Hunter. I wonder if our lack of a breakup has permanently stunted my love life. I wonder why I feel so okay with that.
When I read through those Instagram messages, I can almost convince myself that I am in those moments of shared aliveness again. His voice is so authentic, jotted down between shifts at work or late at night in bed. Sometimes it hurts too much to read the words we exchanged — especially the ones when we were arguing. So, I buried them deep into the archives with more recent messages. They are long monologues that look like thick, grey clouds when sent through Instagram’s software. I always tell him I miss him. I always tell him I love him. Sometimes I ask questions. Sometimes I just tell him about my week. I send him photos of my face with bangs photoshopped onto my forehead. “Does this look good?” I ask. Sometimes I even tell him when I’m going through a breakup, or had a fight with my mom, or am angry at him. The weeks when I’m angry at Hunter are the hardest ones to message him during, but I still do it. I still tell him I miss him. I still tell him I love him.
Instagram kept our sweet, uncurated interactions filed away where I can always reach them. I don’t have many recordings of Hunter’s voice, but I have these messages. They are a treasure trove of memory, but more than that, they are the tin-cans-attached-by-string that let me talk to him. One day, I hope to be able to sit by his headstone and to tell him I miss him and to tell him I love him. One day, I hope I will feel him in every rich moment filled with notes of him. One day, I hope I will be in a relationship that is filled with so much strong love but still has a place at the table for Hunter. I’ve dated a lot of people, and it always ends for one reason or another, but I am most thankful for those who always were deliberate in making space for my grief. It never created distance between us because the space Hunter takes in my life has always stayed the same. However, when I allow my life to grow around that space, like renovating a house around an already-perfect-living-room, I start to feel like I’m healing. I start to believe I’m not really stunted.
I have been wondering lately, when I graduate in May, will I finally feel Hunter there? Will he know that I made it? Will he bookend my college experience: leaving the world right before it began and coming back right as it ends? I am working two campus jobs to save up money to go to a music festival that The Strokes are headlining a few days after I get my diploma. I know that I will look out into the stands and have some combination of hoping and yearning for Hunter to be there. I’ve learned that grief hits hard in those milestone moments — in those special times and places you shared or wish you could have shared. I miss Hunter on his birthday, at Ikea, when I receive good news, and I will, in all likelihood, miss him just as much on my graduation day. At least I know at the end of all that pomp and circumstance, I can still find him in my inbox: my modernageboy.
Sarah Lieberman is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Blueberries for Sal runs every other Tuesday this semester.