The internet can make you feel like you know a person — until they actually show you what they’re capable of.
In the beginning, before things got out of hand and police became involved, there were the dates and the drives and the dinners. Ethan and I did things like sail his dad’s boat off Santa Barbara and go out to brunch in Montecito, California. On nights when I visited him at his beachside apartment in Los Angeles, we would get high, buy Nobu takeout and watch Quentin Tarantino classics. Ethan was white and wealthy, and even though he had a DUI, he still drove buzzed. He seemed untouchable, and whenever I was with him, I felt untouchable too.
We met each other the way everyone else in college meets in the summer of 2018 — through Tinder on a Sunday night, drunk and carefree. I texted him to come over, and when he stumbled out of his Uber an hour later, we kissed before even speaking.
I was in my third year of college, knee-deep in student debt, living in a converted garage. He, on the other hand, had just graduated from a California university notorious for bribery (the “Harvard of the West,” his family liked to call it), and he drove a new silver Range Rover.
Ethan was everything I wasn’t and couldn’t be. As a child of working-class Filipino immigrants, I felt like there was a line between things I could have and things I had to earn. Perhaps that’s what drew me to him in the beginning: I liked the promise of having everything without having to work for it.
By the following week, he’d introduced me to his parents even though we were far from serious. Ethan treated me as if I didn’t exist half the time. Nevertheless, he came up to visit when he got tired of Los Angeles, and by the fall we were driving back and forth along the California coastline just to see each other. I asked him to be my boyfriend. He said no.
Still, I kept seeing him. Ethan loved the great indoors, and he would nap for hours in his parents’ home theater. I was a surfer but spent most of my days wondering if I was being unproductive by being outside. Ethan always carried himself as if he never lost valuable time, and because of that I understood he possessed a quality that most people did not: true power.
One time, I asked Ethan if he ever overcame hardship.
“Like, it’s gotta be something you really fought for, not a hard test or hot yoga,” I said. We were on his bed, swathed in artisanal eucalyptus linens, and I was trying to find depth in our conversations.
“Not really,” Ethan shrugged, taking a hit from his Juul. He lifted my chin and exhaled the vapor into my mouth. “Life’s been great all arouuund, baby.”
It was an honest answer. I was jealous.
Over time, however, this jealousy developed into a sincere disgust. I had dreams of becoming a writer, and I was serious about it. I would leave Ethan’s apartment to write and work at a coffee shop for hours, only to come back and find him in the same position he was when I left, watching football on the couch.
He watched too much television. He drank alcohol with every meal. A mimosa for breakfast, beer for lunch and wine for dinner. When I came to visit him in Los Angeles, we would walk up and down the Promenade and shop. I forgot I hated LA, and I forgot that I hated shopping.
The last time I saw him was the week before the 2018 Super Bowl. We rode electric scooters over freeway overpasses to a loud and crowded sports bar with brick walls and dim lights. We sat on stools in front of the bartender, an Asian woman in her 30s with tattoos. After she took our order, Ethan sipped his beer, turned toward me and announced, “We should have a threesome.”
Immediately, I remembered what Ethan had said when we first met, when I’d asked him why he liked me.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “I just really like tiny Asian girls.”
We ordered two sets of hot wings in different flavors, and we shared half of each set so we could taste both. The rest of the bar cheered for the Rams as I gnawed on my wings in silence, contemplating whether I was emotionally ready for a threesome.
“So what do you think?” Ethan asked, a brown dot of sauce on his chin. “Threesome or nah?”
I broke up with him over the phone the following week. I don’t really see us working out, I told him.
“Whatever, bye,” he said. His voice was swift, cool and neutral. Then he hung up.
Although his brevity stunned me, I was relieved by the ease of the conversation. We had been seeing each other for six months, and it all ended in a three-minute phone call.
But thinking this was true was a mistake, because Ethan did something I should have seen coming: He rejected my breakup.
“So that’s it?” Ethan snapped at me through the phone the following evening, a hint of panic in his voice. “You really don’t want to come over?”
As if our breakup never happened, he repeatedly texted me to come over throughout the day. When I didn’t respond, he called until I couldn’t ignore it anymore.
“Ethan,” I pleaded. I answered my phone only because I felt sorry about my abrupt departure. “Please stop calling.”
When I asked him to delete certain photos he had of me, he laughed. I hung up and cried.
That first week, he called me every night, and as many as 30 times in a single night. When I stopped answering, he barraged my inbox with text messages.
so these past six months were nothing to you?
i miss you bab
i mean baby
let me come over
Fortunately, my breakup with Ethan coincided with my decision to study abroad. For three months, I temporarily obtained a new number so Ethan couldn’t reach me. I never told him I was leaving, but when I flew home to California, he called me the first night I got back.
“It’s almost like he just kept calling you all this time,” my roommate said. She was concerned for me and had memorized physical descriptions of my alleged half-stalker, just in case he ever decided to show up at our front door. “He’s literally harassing you,” she said.
I assured her it wasn’t that serious, but I blocked Ethan’s number just in case.
Soon after, he began to reach out anonymously. The calls came 10, 15 at a time. I figured out the mechanics of it all: If an iPhone was on Do Not Disturb but the sender rang twice, the call would go through the second time. If a recipient blocked a number, the sender could still remain anonymous by prefacing the number with *67. But on airplane mode, the device would simply stop communicating with cell towers, barring all modes of communication.
I started switching my phone to airplane mode at night before bed. As time wore on, the calls started to dwindle. I forgot about Ethan and his little nighttime routine. I graduated from college and moved houses. I got a new job and started earning my own money. Two years went by, but on nights when I forgot to activate airplane mode, the calls still came.
Periodically during that two-year period, I found myself Googling words like “harassment,” and the terms and conditions that warranted actual violation. Was my form of oddly mild and nonphysical harassment enough to be considered actual harassment? I pondered this a lot, and still do to this day.
One week, Ethan called twice in one night. He called in smaller batches as time passed, but he still called. I remember jolting awake at 4 a.m. to my ringtone, the theme song from “The Office,” a jingle I now dreaded. I knew I had to answer. I picked up and listened to the grainy silence on the other end of the line, my heartbeat loud in the night.
“Hey there,” Ethan answered casually. “Wanna hang out?”
I wanted to scream. I despised his stupid voice and everything about his stupid life. That was when I realized I hated him, truly hated him, like I never hated anyone else before. But all my anger could manifest was a croak barely above a whisper: “Please stop.”
“But I miss you.”
“Thanks,” I said. We both fell silent, and it felt too intimate. “I’m going to go now.”
After I hung up, a string of texts arrived. I read them and felt disgusted, this time at myself.
hey remembr that vid u sent me
i still watch it
I finally sought help from local law enforcement. A police officer asked if I ever thought about changing my number. I explained to him that I’ve had my number since the eighth grade, and to change it would be inconvenient.
This was a half-truth. The real reason was that I didn’t want to adjust my life to suit someone else’s behavior. I shouldn’t have to change my number; he should stop calling me. I asked if he could call Ethan to threaten him with legal consequences instead.
“Are you afraid that he might use leverage over you to hurt you in any way?” the police officer asked me.
“No,” I lied. “I just hate putting my phone on airplane mode.”
When the officer called me back, he said he’d had a successful conversation with Ethan. I fantasized Ethan’s stomach dropping when the officer introduced himself. I imagined him getting scared — at first thinking the call was about drugs or his DUI, and growing even more scared when he realized it was because of me.
The officer assured me that if Ethan ever tried calling me again, it would end in court. But I was disappointed when he told me that Ethan sounded “understanding.”
I wanted to tell the officer that wasn’t true, but I realized that didn’t matter.
In truth, a part of me enjoyed being the one person who didn’t give Ethan what he demanded. A part of me wondered if that was the reason I didn’t inform the authorities sooner or change my number. I liked knowing that his calls would go unanswered and that no matter what, he couldn’t have me. And if he ever called again, he would be punished. In a way, it was my little taste of power.
I spent two years dodging Ethan’s calls and texts, playing defense, giving him time to settle down. I responded to his raging entitlement with empathy. I made excuses for him and questioned my own motives. All he did was call and send me messages. It shouldn’t have bothered me that much.
This was my understanding for two years. But if I had let him continue, when would it have stopped?
The internet blurs the line between what’s real and what’s not. We were never official, so what he did was never “serious.” We were never in a real relationship, so the harassment “wasn’t real” either. But you don’t have to know someone to take something from them. And in a world where digital dating has become the norm, you don’t have to touch them either.