"What mattered was not the truth of the words themselves but rather how they made you feel."
April 28, 2021

Image by DeclanTM via Creative Commons


During the worst between her and Marco, she spent upwards of two hours a night on the forum. She had stumbled upon it while Googling couples therapists and now she could not stop reading all the posts. A woman in Minnesota had caught her boyfriend stealing her dirty gym socks out of the laundry and he refused to tell her why. A man in New York suspected his wife was faking terminal cancer to cover up an affair with her oncologist. The forum’s front page billed itself as “a safe space to ask for advice on any and all relationships.” It had only two rules: no personally identifying information, and no judgment.

Part of the appeal was simply the voyeurism, the peephole into inner lives of unnamed strangers. But she also admired how tenacious the forum members were, sniffing out the underlying emotional scars in each post like a pack of drug hounds. There was no guarantee or even a suggestion of expertise on the community’s part — it was the internet, after all — and yet they always tried so hard to solve everyone’s problems. Their discussions could last for days, and often they would seek clarifications or further information from the original poster. Eventually, someone would offer a piece of advice and the rest of the forum would coalesce around it, spontaneous and unprompted. Take a chance, tell her you love her. Give him an ultimatum — the drinking or you. Yes, yes, yes, everyone else would agree. It reminded her of those choruses from the old Greek plays, talking in a single collective voice, buoyed by the authority of each other’s approval. In college, the theater majors would throw together performances for two dollars per ticket and she and Marco would sit in the back row with a cheap bottle of wine, applauding during the exciting scenes and making out through the boring ones.

She started to track the most prolific forum members, clicking on their profiles and trawling through the comments they had submitted over time. One always urged dumping the significant other, no matter how frivolous the alleged slight or dispute, and when she scrolled down to the bottom of his profile, she discovered a years-old post confessing that he had cheated on his wife and asking how to earn back her trust. Another user loved giving advice on how to propose; as she sorted through his comments, she found scattered references that he had once been engaged himself, before his fiancée passed away in a hit-and-run. A third commentator, a girl, responded to almost every post on the forum but for some reason commented exclusively through heart emojis. Red ones, pink ones, animated with a smiley face or a frowny face or an arrow. In the absence of words, those little cartoon hearts seemed to gain an added meaning, as if they were describing feelings or emotions that were otherwise inexpressible. She studied that nameless girl’s comments for an entire Saturday afternoon, telling herself in only half-jest that if she could just decipher this secret emoji language, she would finally understand what love meant and how to be good at it.

One evening Marco came home much later than he had promised, clearly tipsy. Halfway through their day-old takeout Chinese, he got a work email on his phone and without a word, stood up and left the table to call them back. She sat there alone for five minutes, counting in her head from one second all the way to 300 and listening to the black in her stomach rise and churn. Then she got up and the next thing she knew they were standing in the living room screaming at each other. Marco was still clutching his phone, and at one point he flailed his hands so wildly that the phone flew into a table lamp, shattering it. Upstairs, they could hear steps and then a door slamming. Their neighbors had long given up on noise complaints and now went for walks until things calmed down.

That night, while Marco thrashed dramatically on the couch, she sat up in bed and pawed through the forum. The adrenaline of their fight had smudged most of it out in her memory — she couldn’t seem to recall anything she had said, and even picturing how they had looked was difficult, as if she could only view herself through a telescope over a great distance. But there was something calming about reading through all these forum posts, something clarifying. The way other people laid out their issues cleanly between periods and paragraph breaks, the familiar flow and rhythm of the responses — problem, diagnosis, discussion, solution. And as she read, she could feel the pieces slowly unjumbling themselves in her mind. The telescope lens zoomed in. The audio popped back on. She clicked on Create Post, a button she had never clicked before, and started to type in the dialogue box.

Everyone else began their posts with a little background, so she did the same. “I am 24F and my SO is 25M. We’ve been together for six years and met in college.” She wrote their story — two first-years, in the same dorm, both sexiled by their roommates who wanted to get some. She had been sitting cross-legged on the floor outside her room when Marco, who had been aimlessly wandering the halls, came upon her and promptly sat down next to her.

“I love him, I know he’s the one, but lately all we seem to do is fight. It’s endless. Tonight it was because he got up from dinner to do work and left me by myself, without saying anything, even though he knows I hate that. He always does things like that on purpose just to needle me.”

She paused. That last sentence was unfair to Marco, she knew it was. She had done things too, hadn’t she? Snarky remarks in front of work colleagues, overt flirting with someone at a party to make him jealous. Nobody was perfect. But she was writing about this particular fight, not all their other ones. She plunged on.

“I went to find him and told him that he had to hang up. He told me that I was interrupting something important and to go away. And then, to be honest, I’m not sure who started yelling first. Maybe it was both of us at the same time. And once we start it becomes impossible to stop. It’s like we’re trying to prove something to each other.”

Hours vanished as the words came in a flood. Soon she was going back and editing out entire sections for the sake of brevity. She whispered each sentence out loud as she typed them, checking how they would sound to all the forum members she had silently stalked over the past weeks and months. Whether she sounded too histrionic — or conversely, not enough, because it was always the most provocative and emotional posts that caught the forum’s attention. Finally, somewhere around 2 am, she scrolled down to the bright blue Send Post button and hovered her cursor over it, her finger twitching and curling in the air above her mouse. She tapped down in a spasm, like a bird’s beak, and just like that the post was gone, it was off, skimming across the cable wires or the telephone poles or however the internet worked. She closed her laptop and shoved it away, suddenly afraid of it. She slid under the covers and turned away from it and waited to fall asleep.

The next morning, as she logged back in, she decided the whole thing had been a mistake. But overnight her post had soared to the top of the forum, flooded with responses. They expressed their sympathies, commended her for her honesty and willingness to fight for her relationship. In real time she watched them carry out the same procedure she had seen so many times before, pulling apart her post, searching for psychological clues or problematic behaviors. Did she have daddy issues? Was Marco a commitment-phobe? At one point, a commentator mentioned that her post reminded him of a rough patch with his husband, years ago, and the entire conversation got sidetracked as others shared memories of their own worst arguments with their partners, an impromptu group therapy session.

The consensus, once reached, was straightforward. The two of them were always fighting because, at this point, it was the only way they meaningfully communicated with each other. Exactly why this had happened was not important — what mattered was finding their way back to a normal, healthy routine for connecting and showing affection. Their last fight was over a meal, one commentator observed, so what if the OP makes a special home-cooked dinner and surprises her SO with it? Yes, others agreed, that’s a wonderful idea. The dinner can be a peace offering, a reset button, and they can use it to begin an honest conversation with each other. They urged her to do this right away, while the wounds of the fight were still fresh. Heart Emoji Girl signaled her approval with 13 hearts.

That afternoon, she browsed through dozens of recipes online and eventually settled on a main course of mushroom risotto. Her first official date with Marco had been Italian, at a little restaurant with white tablecloths and real candles, less than three blocks from campus. As she cooked, she found herself writing out in her head the update she would post later, telling everyone she had taken their advice. She would recite the dishes she made and even add links to all the recipes. She would title it her Making-Up Menu. Her Fix-Your-Relationship Feast. Her Communicate-Clearly Cornucopia.

She did her best to replicate the table from that first date, pulling out their sole tablecloth from the back of the closet and using their leftover candles from the last time the building’s power had gone out. The car pulled up to the driveway as she was setting out the wine glasses. Marco appeared in the dining room and froze, eyes wide in the glow of the candlelight. Oh Jesus, he said. Then his face crumpled and he covered it with both hands. I can’t take this anymore, he said in a muffled voice. I’m sorry. I can’t do it.

They sat at the table while her risotto grew cold. In halting, stumbling words, Marco told her there was someone else, and instantly a memory came to her, like a rush of cold air. Two years ago, Marco’s work Christmas party. A woman with waist-length raven hair, striding across the room and hugging both of them as if they were a trio of old best friends. Even now the name came instantly.

Lara, she said, looking at Marco.

Marco looked back at her.

Of course, she said, staring down at her untouched plate. She was whispering, mostly to herself. Of course.

It just happened, Marco said. He shook his head over and over. I swear to God, I don’t know how. We were both so stressed and at the office late, and it kind of just happened.

After that there wasn’t much left to discuss. She ate dinner alone while he wandered through the apartment packing a duffel bag. When she was done, she dumped her plate and glass in the sink and changed into pajamas and retreated into the bedroom with her laptop.

Already there were a dozen comments on her post begging for updates. They were worried she wasn’t going to do it, that she wouldn’t listen to them. She clicked on Create Post again and started to type. She told them she had taken their advice and listed out the wine and dishes, just like she planned. “I was setting the table and lighting the candles when my SO came home — it was perfect timing. He came in and saw the table and stopped dead, like someone had smacked him. He opened his mouth, closed it, and then he just burst into tears.

“I have to admit I was crying too, at that point. I was so nervous. My SO said something but I couldn’t make it out, so I asked him to repeat it, and he looked up at me and blubbered out, ‘I love you so much.’ He came over and hugged me and just cried on my shoulder. He told me that he had started to worry about our relationship, that he wondered whether we could make it. And I told him I had been feeling the exact same way.”

It was the same as last night, the words flowing faster and faster, a snowball gaining mass and speed as it rolled down a hill.

“After that we sat and talked through all our anxieties, everything. It reminded me of back in college. We’d stay up all night in his dorm room with music playing and talk about anything we wanted until the sun came in through his window. By the time we actually got to dinner it was cold and dry but I couldn’t have cared less. I just sat there watching him eat and smiling like a goofball, so happy that it was him, of all the people in the world, across the table from me.”

Marco appeared in the doorway clutching his bag, still dressed in his work clothes. He had not even loosened the knot in his tie. Okay, I guess I’m leaving now, he said. Unless you’re willing to talk some more?

She kept typing.

He looked down, fiddled with the cuff of his silk shirt. Well, can I at least call you tomorrow?

Don’t bother, she said.

She clicked Send Post right around the time she heard the front door close. This time she didn’t hesitate and she didn’t push her computer away. Instead she sat up in the dark, clicking refresh and watching for each new response. A woman in Seattle said she was so thrilled for them and suggested saving the wine cork from their dinner as a keepsake. A man from Texas said the risotto looked delicious and he was cooking it tomorrow for his wife and daughter. At three in the morning Heart Emoji Girl gave her 27 hearts, in a kaleidoscope of colors. She curled up on her side and let the soft warm weight of their comments pile on her like a heavy quilt. Her computer pinged, letting her know someone had sent her a personal message. It was Heart Emoji Girl again — and it contained words, actual words.

“um hi, this might be weird, but i just wanted to let you know that i was really touched by your story. my bf is in grad school in MI so weve been long-distance for two years now and money is tight and we cant fly out to see each other and it really really really sucks. but when i read stories like yours it gives me hope that if we push through these hard times, it will all be worth it in the end. so, thank you.”

She read the message twice, whispering the words slowly, as if Heart Emoji Girl was speaking directly to her through the screen. For a brief moment she looked up and saw the shadowy outline of another girl, on the other side of her bed, facing her in the dark like a mirror image and hunched over her own laptop. Then she bent forward and clicked the Respond button. She told Heart Emoji Girl that she had made it all up, they had never sat down to dinner, and in fact Marco’s plate was still sitting out on the dining table. That he was currently in a hotel room, probably texting Lara to come over and spend the night. That she had called him an egomaniac and a sociopath and told him to seek psychiatric help.

When she was finished she scrolled down to click Send Response but her finger stuck in the air over the button and would go no further. She stared at the screen. Why did she feel such a need to send this? Because Heart Emoji Girl deserved the honest truth. But what did true even mean in an online place like this? If she left her post as is and never said anything, it would become the truth for all the people who had read it, sanctified by each of their comments. And perhaps, she thought now — perhaps everyone else on this forum was the same as her, telling and reacting to stories that never happened, and by sending this message for the sake of so-called honesty she would in fact be violating some communal unspoken pact. What mattered was not the truth of the words themselves but rather how they made you feel. Wait a little longer — he’ll come back. Abandon her — she deserves it. Don’t give up — he will change for you.



Daniel Kuo

Daniel Kuo is a Chinese American writer living in Berkeley, California. His fiction has received a prize in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. He is also an attorney, and enjoys baking, board games, bad puns and imaginary worlds. "Relationship Advice" is his debut published short story.