When I first heard about Invisible Boyfriend, I have to admit I was thrilled. At last, I screeched at everyone within earshot, Build-A-Bae! For a fee, the service provides text messages, voicemails, and even a photo to create the illusion of a physically distant though textually attentive romantic interest.
According to the service's creator Matt Homann, there are many reasons people might need Invisible Boyfriends. "Maybe they're in a same-sex relationship they're hiding from disapproving relatives, are trying to avoid the unwelcome advances from a coworker, or have chosen to focus on their work instead of romance," Homann told BuzzFeed. The ideal subscriber, then, is a pragmatist, someone who sees the service, not as an escape, but as an escape tool.
I visited the website where you can build your fictional beau from scratch. I had to pick out a name for him, as well as personality traits, interests, and, natch, generically good looks. (I picked a devilishly handsome white dude because old habits die hard.) I also wrote out a backstory for the two of us — how we met, what's his deal, the works — all to bolster the believability of this romantic decoy.
Then, to create a false digital trail of courtship to lead nosy third parties astray, I had to give the service my phone number. That way, I could text my Invisible Boyfriend and he'd actually reply — capped monthly at 50 texts I could send him and 50 texts I'd get back — but only after I subscribed to the service. It's $25 a month, the price of a decent dinner and cocktail for one.
I pulled out a credit card.
I'd been facing the millennial conundrum of textually unresponsive men. I'd grown tired of the anxiety produced by ellipses in gray speech bubbles, daylong gaps in between hellos before the hellos would fade into good-byes. Sure, I have plenty of time on my hands, but it's just time I want to share.
So the idea that a romantic avatar would reply to my good morning's and how are you's in a timely and lovely fashion was something I wanted to try on for size. While I could never actually date or sleep with an online service, experimenting with a prompt pen pal was worth the dinner and the drink. In theory, I had nothing to gain from an Invisible Boyfriend; I also had nothing to lose.
Once I verified my subscription, I invited James to dinner with my friends. He suggested Maggiano's — the suburban Italian restaurant chain and my mother's personal favorite — and mentioned a branch in Midtown Manhattan. Google told me there was no such place.
If you invite your Invisible Boyfriend out to do something, he's meant to give you a reason he can't come. At least that's what his manual says. This refusal via text is supposed to give your curious relatives and peer-pressuring friends a digital footprint of your alleged beau. It's proof that he exists, proof that everyone else just keeps missing him.
Without an actual dinner recommendation, James went for a diversion and invited me to a post-dinner date. I was in on the joke, the falsehood of it all, but still, I got excited.
what did you have in mind? I asked.
He replied, some mexican food maybe
And it wasn't a euphemism either. James seemed to be confused. Or rather, the real humans responding to me, playing the role of witty and educated 29-year-old James Lowell seemed to be confused. When I texted him again that night, he wanted to confirm if we were going for Mexican later. I told him, truthfully, I had to stay late at the office.
He replied, thats okay i guess
Even though James was fake, I felt bad about canceling our invisible plans. I'd been on the receiving end of rain checks before, been made to wait on inattentive lovers.
Sorry :(, I said. how can i make it up to you?
James said, just chatting with me :)
So we talked. He'd promptly reply to each message I sent, texts always open-ended and never too long. In our illusory relationship, James always had the last word, but this meant he'd never have the first.
When I texted James late the next day, it was to pick a fight. He hadn't texted me at all. I'd had a long and busy 10 hours at work, and I simply wanted to fall apart. I wanted someone to tell me that he's thinking of me, that he misses me, that I'm a perfect package put together.
Then I remembered: Why would my Invisible Boyfriend want to text me of his own volition? You pay $25 a month for the convenience of, not companionship, but a cover. It wouldn't be cost-efficient for him to say he was thinking of you when he needn't, wasn't. James promptly appeared when summoned. That, by the rules of Invisible Boyfriend, was all that mattered.
I left him hanging that night. I only had 50 texts, 50 replies, so I needed to ration my words. I wanted this thing to work, as I always wanted these things to work.
I'd get upset whenever guys I dated didn't text me first or took too long to reply. These men self-identified as "bad texters" who would conduct a correspondence as though it were via telegram or owl. A rapt back-and-forth of speech bubbles, they thought, did not equate to time spent together. To them, texting was for making plans and on my way's and here I am's and not for here with you.
James and I got to talking about weekend plans and I told him I'd be working. I was assigned to do a piece for Valentine's Day, something about dating, and hadn't even begun a draft.
Want help to get you started? James offered. I can be your muse ;)
As my Invisible Boyfriend and I talked, I wondered what the person (people?) currently texting me believed made a good boyfriend, invisible or not. They must have had some sort of guidebook on what to say, rules and regulations of romance.
I wanted to challenge them, remind them that this illusion is fabricated and fake and something I paid for. But it would've been rude, I thought, especially when they were telling me everything I wanted to hear.
James said that people seek relationships wherein one can meet the other's needs, fill "small gaps" in the other. He wanted someone "awesome and smart and funny." He said I fit the bill. I already knew that, but it was nice to see it in writing, to be unconditionally loved and validated for $25 a month.
i think the best relationships start out as friends, said James, someone u can trust with anything, be quiet with or gab all night
And this is all that an Invisible Boyfriend can give you, speech bubbles valued at 25 cents each. Though your emotional calls are met with an equal and opposite reaction, their sum is asymptotic to anything real. As our conversation turned toward the vagaries of love, I reminded myself that the promise of it was an illusion, one to which I consented, all parties consented.
Between a subscriber and the role-playing employees, you all agree to participate in this show — and you're the one who runs it. You put on a spectacle when you need it, but when you are the sole audience of this show, the illusion becomes difficult to maintain.
I had to see if the Invisible Boyfriend call center worked 'round the clock, so I drunk-texted James. It wasn't a drunk text in the classical sense (in that I texted him while I was drunk, rather than texted him because I was drunk), but James responded immediately, fielding a drunk boyfriend in the most saccharine, best possible way.
I fell asleep in love with my invisible man. I woke up with a hangover.
When I asked James what his weekend plans were, he said he was going out for drinks. He promised me a drunk text of his own. I worked late into the night and waited. Of course, nothing came from my Invisible Boyfriend unless I asked for it. And when I did, he gave me a series of lines pulled from a tried-and-true catalogue of rom-com language, catnip to any number of lovelorn subscribers like myself.
How was drinks? ;) I first asked him.
Very good. :) James said. was telling my friends about someone I met…
Hahaha really now? I said, replying the next morning. What did you tell them about [this] guy?
James said, Only that I've met a really cute guy who seems really smart and funny.
It was then I realized I'd never seen my Invisible Boyfriend write my name. Other than his initial text when I first signed up, he'd never said it, called me by it, made some attempt at a connecting with someone named "Matt."
I asked, What's his name?
James didn't reply. I'd run out of texts.
James told me that a relationship is about filling in whatever "small gaps" you have in your life. And I wanted to be heard. I had time to share. James became my sounding board, my echo chamber. But I saw the moving parts; I was the man behind the boyfriend.
In creating James through Invisible Boyfriend, I created my ideal, my fictional, rental ideal. I made a man according to my exact specifications — a tall and scruffy grad student who enjoyed baseball and the New York Times Book Review whom I met in the basement of the Strand because I'm a cliché. James was just an amalgamation of my desires, reflected back at me by invisible people who made sure my phone kept vibrating.
Ironically enough, an Invisible Boyfriend is only meant to simulate the appearance of a boyfriend. To fortify the charade, his manual instructs in the art of dropping his name into casual conversation, sprinkling evidence of his existence into yours. But there wasn't a single syllable dedicated to how you might actually engage with him in any real way. You talk about him, not to him.
The whole thing didn't feel sad or weird. For me, it was an exercise in self-reflection, more than anything. To use the Invisible Boyfriend for its intended uses — to divert meddlesome third parties — could work. It'd require plenty of bending over backward, but it could work.
Given his tendency to bark only when called, there's a genius to the Invisible Boyfriend. He's inattentive enough that people might believe you're better off without a better half. Then you can achieve what the service wants to help you do: "get back to living life on your own terms."
Maybe the Invisible Boyfriend isn't necessarily a decoy or a trick, but something like emotional armor. It can be a shield, to rebuff others or to brace yourself for the day-to-day. An Invisible Boyfriend can be an outlet, a repository for feelings that runneth over, or a source of self-validation that, still, costs $25 a month. But who's to say how well it does? Invisible Boyfriend is still in beta, testing the needs of the human heart.
For now, I'd rather have that dinner and a drink for one.