A Man on Tinder Said He Wanted Me To Be His “Her”
The oscar-winning film mirrors the pain of dating and grieving while imperfectly human
Eight months after my dad died, I flew to Anchorage, Alaska. Feeling untethered from my own life in Brooklyn, I left as often as I could. Grief compelled me to be elsewhere, and elsewhere could have been anywhere I didn’t have a memory of my father.
On the descent into Anchorage, I peered out the plane window and saw a vast, mountainous landscape unlike any I’d seen before. I checked into a downtown Hilton, then settled into a chair by the window. I briefly gazed out over the grey Gulf of Alaska, and then fired up Tinder. Within minutes I had two promising matches.
Tinder in Alaska is much better than Tinder in Brooklyn, I texted a friend back in New York. I already have a marine biologist and an ER doctor.
It was 2015, and dating apps were still new enough to be intriguing, especially when traveling. For me, they offered a unique lens to see into whatever place I’d just landed. Who were the single men there? What was the ratio of self-identified liberals to conservatives? Or the ratio of men posing with dead fish to those posing for bathroom mirror selfies? It didn’t take long before the marine biologist called me cutie one time too many, and I let our conversation dissolve. But the doctor was compelling. Our banter was rapid-fire and electric.
How do you type so fast? He asked. Are you sure you’re not a bot?
I sent him a picture of me standing in the hotel lobby next to an enormous taxidermied polar bear. He sent a shot of himself at his parents’ house, several hours north of Anchorage. We quickly exchanged numbers—I saved him as Tim (The Doctor) in my phone—and moved off Tinder and onto texts. Just as quickly, I imagined a world where we’d connect back on the east coast and split our weekends between his place in New Haven and my apartment in Brooklyn, only two hours away by Amtrak.
Soon, Tim had taken up residence in my phone, which was always in my hand. I sent him photos from a boat as I cruised past blue-white icebergs and pairs of otters holding hands. His texts made me laugh out loud while I sat perched on a barstool staring at my phone and inhaling french fries, only half noting the attractiveness of the real-life bartender who served them to me.
I actually really like you, Tim wrote on day four of our nascent textual relationship. I kind of want you to be my Her.
The year before, I’d watched Spike Jonze’s movie, Her, in a packed theater and wept through the second half of it. Framed as a love story between a human man, Theodore, and a computer operating system, Samantha, the scenes are soaked in intimacy. As viewers, we’re often lying in bed next to Theodore, nestled in so close we can almost feel the expensive linen of his pillowcase on our own cheek. There, Theodore whispers to us; Samantha purrs back, her voice dripping with suggestion.
When Tim said he wanted me to be his Her, an operating system who was always available and had no real needs or body of her own, I felt flattered: Samantha was witty and insightful, so that must mean Tim thought I was too. I was vaguely excited by the possibility.
I wasn’t sure I knew how to be anything else.
My father’s death less than a year earlier had left me stunned by grief. I felt numb, disconnected, and acutely aware that having a body meant having a body that could fail—a body that, by its very design, would eventually fail. Being human meant engaging in a world rife with risk; living with emotions coursing through my veins, inevitably vulnerable.
On one of my father’s last days, I stood by his hospital bed and experienced two urgent and competing thoughts. The first slammed into me with brute force: I don’t want to die alone. I need a partner and a baby and a new family immediately. When that thought receded, it left in its wake a quiet and more sobering one. I will never love again, I told myself. Not if this gut punch of devastation is what it comes to.
Back in Alaska, the omnipresence of dating apps meant it was suddenly normal to text with a stranger from morning to night. And Tim was a stranger, despite our never-ending conversation. We exchanged pictures, but I didn’t know what his laugh sounded like or how he smelled; I didn’t know how his embodied presence would make me feel.
Still, we texted constantly. I told him about my fear of grizzly bears and a sign I read that warned, “If a bear starts to eat you, play dead.” He told me not to worry about bears, despite the image seared in my mind by that sign. Tucked into my hotel bed each night, I’d scour the internet for strategies on how to deter a bear from starting to eat me.
Don’t make animal noises or run away, the websites said. But each time I visualized an encounter with a grizzly, I saw myself unable to resist the impulse to growl and then sprint.
Talk to the bear, so it knows you’re human, the sites advised. Back outside in the Alaskan wilderness, I began to train myself to speak human language to counteract the instinct to growl. Each time I stepped out of the car, I yelled, “I am human!” I’d continue as I took my first steps into a forest. “I am human!” I kept declaring throughout the vast state of Alaska.
I am human, I said, trying to convince myself as much as the bears.
In the movie Her, Theodore is reeling from a divorce when he “meets” Samantha. Devastated after being left by his wife, he begins a relationship with an operating system at least in part because he’s afraid of something more real. Human relationships bring inherent risk, unlike relationships with computers. Samantha picks up on this fear. “I wish there was something I could do to help you let go of it,” she tells him. “Because if you could, I don’t think you’d feel so alone anymore.”
When I “met” Tim, I was still reeling from my father’s death, a loss that had left me as broken as Theodore. But if I’m honest, it’s also true to say that I was afraid before that, too; that maybe I’d always been afraid.
In the months before my dad died, I’d briefly dated Zach, an English teacher I’d met on Tinder in Brooklyn. I was enthralled from the first moment I sat down next to him at a dive bar—mesmerized by his catalog model-esque looks and startling intellect. Our spark was instant and intense. But he was cautious. I don’t know if I’m looking for a relationship right now, he’d said. That’s cool, I’d lied.
But a few months into casually dating, something changed. “I’m starting to really care about you,” Zach said. “I want to give this an actual shot.”
Uh oh, I thought.
I’d been waiting for him to say those words, but when he finally did, I watched my own feelings parachute out the window.
Prior to that moment, Zach had been consistently emotionally unavailable, which made dating him feel safe: it would never become too real. Now, I had to ask myself if I really liked Zach—if I really cared about him, as he said he did for me—or whether I was just dazed by physical attraction. It took him opening the door to unguarded emotional connection for me to realize I did not. I gently closed the door and walked away, alone.
Less than a week after I ended things with Zach, my dad checked into the hospital for what was supposed to be a simple outpatient procedure. Doctors discovered that his white blood cell count was alarmingly high, and since they couldn’t figure out why, they kept him there. On the day after he was admitted, just nine days before he died, I arrived in his hermetically sealed hospital room. There, the rest of my family sat in stiff-backed chairs, staring at books or their phones while my dad dozed in a metal-framed cot. I quickly caught onto the protocol: distract yourself.
I couldn’t focus on a book and didn’t want to text any of my friends, who might reasonably ask what was going on, so instead I opened Tinder. My physical, lived reality in the hospital already felt unbearable. I turned to Tinder because I needed a place to go where exhausted doctors in white coats and loosened ties weren’t shuffling in and out of the room with dire faces and inconclusive diagnoses. I swiped left again and again, passing up possible connections; then, finally, I swiped right on Andrew, a creative director at a tech startup. In his profile photo, he wore a hoodie over a plaid button-down shirt. I liked his three-day scruff and sleepy eyes. It’s a match! Tinder told me, so I opened a chat window.
Any fun plans this weekend? I asked, demonstrating my ability to initiate riveting conversation.
After enough time swiping and then texting with what sometimes feels like interchangeable matches, it can be hard to remember that the chatbot on the other end of the phone is not a chatbot at all, but a human being. That was fine with me: if I could forget there was a living, breathing person with human wants, feelings, and needs on the other end of the conversation, I could also kind of convince myself that I wasn’t subject to human emotions either. Instead, I could turn myself into a chatbot. Andrew was funny, so I donned my banter cap as if to say, look, I too am funny.
Did I even like Andrew? At the time, I don’t think it really mattered. I was looking for distraction, and the specific human on the other end of that distraction was almost irrelevant.
Siri, look up the stages of grief.
Alexa, turn off the lights.
Tinder Man, make me laugh.
When we first meet Samantha, she’s a nascent operating system and, thus, wholly devoted to Theodore. But eventually she confesses to talking with 8,316 other people at the same time she talks with him. She’s in love with 641 of them, she tells a shattered Theodore, who made the mistake of assuming he always knew what she was up to on the other end of their conversation.
I never told Andrew I was sitting in a hospital while we talked. Never told him, as days progressed and we batted banter back and forth, that my father’s illness was also progressing. When he broached the idea of meeting up when I got back to Brooklyn, I avoided specifics since I didn’t know if or when my father, who lay in a hospital bed three feet away from me, was going to die.
A couple of weeks later, I did meet Andrew in person. I showed up to a dimly lit bar somewhere in Brooklyn, shell-shocked and nearly paralyzed with grief. He ordered whiskey and smelled faintly of unwashed hair. I ordered a double IPA, but even loosened by alcohol, I still did not tell him my father had just died. Instead, I peppered him with questions about his job. I felt like I was disintegrating from the inside out, but pretended like it would be impossible for me to imagine anything more interesting than the creative design of iPhone apps.
We never spoke again after that night. I forgot about Andrew almost entirely until several years later, when I saw a fictionalized TV series set at the company where he worked. Our brief connection came rushing back, and I Googled him. The search window greeted me with the exact same photo I’d stared at in my father’s hospital room, the kind face and three-day stubble I’d hoped could transport me away from reality. A newspaper story reported that he’d gotten married to someone he’d met on Tinder just eighteen months after we’d matched.
I kept digging, eventually finding my way to his Instagram account. He’d posted the first picture of Tinder Wife barely a month after he and I’d met. Huh, I thought. I wonder if he was already dating her when we matched. I scrolled through images of their children; I noted how often he was kissing the top of Tinder Wife’s head in photos and how easily she posed, nestled into the crook of his arm. That was one of the things I’d liked about him before we met—his stated height. Apparently, she did too.
As for Tim, the doctor from Alaska, he and I never met in real life. We texted for months after he returned to New Haven and I went home to New York. I assumed we’d meet right up until he canceled our plan to do so at the last minute. When I expressed dismay—what had we been doing all that time if not preparing to meet in real life?—he expressed disbelief.
“Remember,” he said. “I’m the guy who wanted you to be my Her.”
I felt as if I’d been slapped in the face; as if he’d told me I wasn’t a person at all.
I am human, I wanted to tell him, just like I’d told the bears. I am human.
Not long after my trip to Alaska, I moved from New York City to Maine. There, I took an extended break from dating and tried to find my footing on quiet, windswept beaches. Then the pandemic descended on America. In the early days of lockdown, the number of physical humans in my day-to-day life shrunk to zero. Aloneness fell like an anvil on my head.
I thought, again, of Her. Throughout the movie, there are lots of scenes where people walk by Theodore talking and gesticulating, presumably engaging with their own operating systems. It’s a crowded world, but one with a dearth of face-to-face interaction.
I could relate.
In those first few months of the pandemic, nearly everyone I knew was on a life raft peopled by others. I, on the other hand, was adrift on a solitary innertube in Maine, a state where I barely knew anyone. Suddenly, being single felt like a life-threatening condition. During long Zoom meetings for work, I’d stare at my own image on screen and wonder: Am I actually here? Do I have a body, or am I just this pixelated representation of myself?
The loneliness was visceral, and it was in this condition that I decided to download Hinge, another dating app. It didn’t take long before I matched with Josh.
He had deep-set eyes and bone-dry wit. We started texting—a lot. I called him Josh Hinge and he called me Amy Hinge, a joke that’s doubtless been made between countless fledgling online romances, but still felt specific to us. Although he lived in Maine, Josh was spending the summer with family in St. Louis. Several hundred miles away from each other, we quickly established a routine of daily contact. I became dependent on the little rush of dopamine that hit when my phone buzzed with his name: four letters that set off a tiny electric jolt in my gut.
Soon, it felt like Josh had taken up residence in my phone, just like Tim had. I felt that same sense of heightened intimacy so well portrayed in Her. Josh was always there, one click away, ready to share secrets, fear, and laughter. I became used to him, my very own operating system.
And then, suddenly it was August, and Josh was headed back to Maine. After months of daily texting, 1.5 incidences of sexting, and several long phone conversations, my disembodied operating system was about to become a human being, and I worried we wouldn’t connect in person. Beyond that, I was scared to lose my pandemic lifeline—the guy who soothed me when I woke at dawn swirling with anxiety and sent one-liners that made me laugh out loud during conference calls.
Josh, like Theodore, was reeling from a divorce, and he’d expressed ambivalence about the idea of starting a new relationship. Once he was back in Maine, I didn’t know if I would be able to be casual. The frequency with which we communicated and the way we talked made it feel like we’d already progressed well beyond that; he had taken on outsize importance in my mind. Fearing I might lose him, I postponed meeting in person as long as I could. But eventually I had to admit it was ridiculous to text all day with someone who was sitting in their apartment ten minutes away from mine and not actually meet him.
We decided to get together at the beach near my house, and my first glimpse of him standing at the edge of the sand dissolved all the worry. He was smiling. Adorable. We tucked our masks into our pockets and found a place to sit on jagged rocks perched above a calm sea. As the sun sank low in the sky, we sipped lukewarm cans of cheap beer. Covid kept us an approximate six feet apart, but the distance didn’t really matter. The quick-wit and deadpan sense of humor Josh had displayed so often on text was even more appealing when his eyes were locked into mine. After we said goodbye, Josh moved seamlessly from my driveway back into my phone. As soon as he got back to his own apartment, we started texting again, as if we hadn’t just spent the past several hours together in person.
Not long after Josh came back to Maine, I left for a work trip. It was my first time traveling since the pandemic landed five months earlier, and I was ravaged with anxiety. But Josh was there in my phone each morning as I yawned and stretched in my hotel bed before dawn; he kept me entertained during endless meetings; he was waiting when I returned to the hotel room at the end of each day, finally ripping off my mask and scrubbing my hands with astringent soap before settling in with a microwave meal and a book.
On the last day of my trip, I woke up to a text from him before dawn. You get to see your dog today! He seemed excited I was coming back, and the attention he lavished on me had made it easy to forget his stated reluctance to start a relationship. But when I returned to Maine, things began to feel confusing. Josh still spent more time in my phone than he did in my actual physical presence. When we did get together, I struggled to reconcile his human form with his digital form.
Then, one morning, the home button on my iPhone stopped recognizing my finger. The fingerprint reader that unlocks my laptop also stopped reacting to my print. It was as if my hand were no longer a human hand.
There’s a scene in Her where Theodore and Samantha go from friends to, for lack of a better word, lovers. It’s a magnificent sex scene considering only one of the characters has a body, and the other is just a haunting voice. “I can feel my skin,” Samantha tells him at one point, as if the sex were actually turning her human. The next morning, Theodore freaks out. He tells Samantha he’s not really looking for anything serious. Each time I watched that scene, I groaned and heard Josh. “I never seem to know what I want,” Theodore confesses to his friend Amy. “I always hurt and confuse the people around me.” Ever since I’d returned to Maine, Josh had been hot and cold, available then not. He disappeared for days, then apologized for the silence when he resurfaced. Was he talking to 8,316 other people? Was he lavishing attention on 641 of them?
“Am I in this because I’m not strong enough to be in something real?” Theodore asks his friend Amy about his relationship with Samantha.
“Is it not real?” Amy asks.
“Of course it’s not real!” I heard myself yelling at my laptop screen. “She’s a computer!” But, the lines are blurred in the world of the movie. Theodore’s feelings are undeniably real, even if his girlfriend is not. Now, it suddenly felt like the lines were blurred in real life too. I knew the digital shape of Josh so well; the sight of those four letters on my screen still created a small jolt of excitement and, inevitably, subsequent laughter. I was in a kind of relationship with his digital form. But in person, he often felt like just some guy I occasionally met up with. I wanted to ask Josh what we were doing, but I was afraid of his answer. The uncertainty unhinged me; I felt insecure and frayed at the edges.
At the instruction of my job, I installed new antivirus software on my laptop and then, while composing an email, I received a pop-up notification that read “vulnerability blocked,” and I started to wonder if my computer might actually know me better than any human did.
“I changed your name to Amy in my phone,” Josh said to me one afternoon after removing the “Hinge” qualifier from my name. “You’ve been granted personhood.”
But I didn’t feel like that was entirely true. Instead, I felt like Samantha. There’s a scene in Her where Theodore frets over whether he’ll ever feel anything new again, and Samantha replies, “At least your feelings are real.”
Theodore soothes her with an earnest response. “You feel real to me, Samantha,” he says. What mattered was not whether she was actually real or whether she felt real to herself, but whether she felt real to him. And she did.
Until she didn’t.
In another scene, he becomes annoyed with her for making exhalation sounds to punctuate a thought. “Why do you do that?” he asks.
“That’s how people talk,” Samantha says.
“Because they’re people. They need oxygen,” Theodore says. “You’re not a person.”
In the world of the movie, this feels almost violent; as if he’d slapped her in the face. He’s furious he allowed himself to forget she wasn’t a person, for thinking that what they had together could be real; for thinking that it was real.
It was this simulacrum of connection—this almost connection—that started to feel all too familiar to me. I was real to Josh, except when I clearly wasn’t. Most of the time, he still seemed just out of reach. For the first time in years, I felt like maybe I was strong enough for something real, but Josh could not or would not provide it. Still, I was reluctant to let him go entirely. Instead, I told him I needed to pause our communication to recalibrate, as if I were an operating system that simply needed to reboot. During that break, a thousand times a day I’d see articles, podcasts, or memes my thumb itched to send him. I began to wonder if I could keep Josh the OS without the attendant pain that Josh the human stirred up in me.
But by then it was too late. My own ability to transform myself into a chatbot no longer worked.
A captcha test online announced, “We need to confirm you are human,” and presented me with a series of photographs and instructions to click on the images that showed cars. The images were blurry, or my eyesight was blurry, but either way I was never confident in my answers. And couldn’t a bot recognize a car as well as I could? Why was this the test for humanity? Shouldn’t it be an empathy test instead?
Pick out the faces of the people who are sad.
Now find the ones who have lost someone.
Choose them all.
About a year after I broke off the last remnants of contact with Josh, the pandemic had finally begun its lingering goodbye. Regulations were lifted, states of emergency undeclared, and masks no longer required in doctors’ offices. But the inertia hung on, and my life still seemed to happen primarily on a screen.
I read article after article proclaiming a crisis of loneliness in America, and then ChatGPT burst onto the scene and threatened to further blur the line between humans and our devices. A tech company built a program modeled after the operating systems in Her. I don’t think that was the point of the movie, I couldn’t help thinking.
Eventually, I drove down to Brooklyn to see my old friend Roger, who was visiting from England. Once there, I walked with my friend Silvia to the restaurant where we’d meet Roger and his thirteen-year-old son, Archie. As we navigated busy sidewalks, the full moon rose low in the sky, and streetlights started to flicker on. We passed under decadent pink cherry blossoms contrasted against the deepening blue sky and ducked out of the way of people on their way to restaurants, bars, and Seder dinners. Eventually, we spotted Roger and Archie standing in front of the restaurant. I gasped. During the pandemic, Archie had grown into a full person and was now almost as tall as Roger—far from the little boy I’d once known.
Years earlier, Roger and I had lived nearby. A few times a week, we’d meet for breakfast and then walk to work together. Then, at the end of the day, we’d walk back, eventually peeling off to return to our separate homes. Now I lived in Maine and Roger in England, and communication from our separate spheres had become sporadic at best.
Once inside the dimly lit restaurant, the four of us crowded around an old wooden table. A French waiter in a half-unbuttoned shirt praised my choice of dry Sancerre, and I beamed. The small dining room vibrated with energy and overflowed with people standing at the bar or sitting packed together at tables, engaged in raucous conversation. Our own table was so small that our legs knocked into each other, but we still had to lean our heads in close together to hear soft-spoken Archie amidst the bustling noise. Our forks mingled over grilled artichokes, and we took turns snatching french fries from Silvia’s plate. We talked quickly and laughed loudly to make up for years of separation. Every time I said something that made Roger guffaw, I’d burst into laughter in response.
After dinner, when I hugged Roger in front of the restaurant, the smell of his deodorant launched me back years, to the week after my father’s death. I’d gone back to work before I was ready. In the middle of a meeting, I ran to the bathroom, locked myself into a stall, and began to sob.
A few minutes later, Roger sent a text. Are you okay?
No, I’d replied.
I’m at the door, he wrote. If you want company.
I did. As soon as I left the stall and pulled open the heavy bathroom door, Roger looked helplessly at my tear-stained cheeks. I collapsed into him and buried my face in his thin cotton shirt, dripping snot and salty tears. As I shook and shuddered, gasping for air, he put his arms around my shoulders. Roger remained like that, unswaying, holding my imperfect human form like no operating system would ever be able to do.
As I thought back to that moment, I was reminded of the ending of Her. In it, all the operating systems decide to leave the human world. Theodore says a tearful goodbye to Samantha, then walks to his friend Amy’s door. She opens it and stands there in pajamas, her eyes puffy; his shirt is untucked and rumpled. Together, they walk up to the roof of the apartment building and sit down. There, the camera focuses so tightly on their faces that we can see every detail of their skin and each tiny imperfection of their flesh-bound bodies. Amy rests her head on Theodore’s shoulder, and they watch the sun rise, both in their own personal grief but also together, fully human.
I thought a lot about that scene on my walk home from the restaurant. By then, I could tell that my own face was flushed with wine, despite the cool April breeze. The muscles in my legs ached from miles of walking, and my belly felt full. Brooklyn was packed with people and positively alight with energy.
“What’s it like to be alive in that room right now?” Samantha asks Theodore one night while he’s lying in bed. On that walk, I was struck by the overwhelming sensation of it. This, I thought. This is what it’s like. The pulse of the world hummed around me, and the warmth of the bistro still animated my skin. The laughter of my friends lingered on me; it coursed through my veins. My very vulnerable; very precious; very human veins.