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Danny Wallace on the strangeness of texting with an unknown friend

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Danny Wallace
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Danny Wallace on the strangeness of texting with an unknown friend

While I can’t tell you what the word on everybody’s lips is – I am not some kind of social barometer, thank you very much – I can tell you what the word on mine is.

The word is Tyler.

I’ve just had a text message from Tyler. It says, “A belated Happy new year, mate!”

Well, better late than never, Tyler!

And instinctively I go to reply. And then I stare at the text for a moment.

Because who the hell is Tyler?

So I scroll back through our text conversations. They stretch back years.

“Happy birthday mate!” reads one.

“Thanks!” reads my reply.

“Hope you’re keeping well!” reads another.

“Cheers, you too!” comes my reply.

It seems maybe twice a year Tyler and I have a cordial exchange like this, and yet still the question remains: who am I texting?

I don’t know any Tylers. I can’t remember meeting a single one. Or a married one. And yet I must have not only met a Tyler but got on so well with him that we exchanged numbers and promised to keep in touch and now here we are.

Yet already I know that Tyler is a better person than me. For it is Tyler that wishes me happy Christmases. It is Tyler who goes out of his way to text me on my birthday. What do I do for Tyler? What good am I to him? Nothing and none.

He is a proud and noble Tyler. I am a mere Tylee.

Perhaps we all have a Tyler. Perhaps we all have the same one. Someone with whom we are engaged in a purely textual relationship.

But I feel guilty that I am carrying on this pretence when perhaps it is an association we should both let go. Because where is it headed? What future does it have?

Oh, Tyler, what have we become? Just another sad old couple with nothing to say to one another, relying on birthdays and Christmases to get us through. It’s like hanging on to a French pen pal from school, still writing them letters even though they’ve got a mortgage and real friends and a sister in La Rochelle called Crystal.

And by replying the way I do, am I not cruelly stringing Tyler along?

I see that at one point in our text history I attempted to garner a bit more information about Tyler, by replying with “New Sim! Who’s this?”, but all he did was reply “It’s Tyler!” and I wrote “Hi Tyler!” and then I was back to square one.

But for Tyler, that exchange was sweet confirmation that not only did I know who he was, but also that I was absolutely delighted to hear from him. That reply secured happy Christmases and birthday greetings for at least another 18 months. And fair play to him: he never tried to get to the next level. He never followed up with a “So how you been?” or a “How’s work?” to extend the conversation and force me to play-act a relationship. He knew our boundaries and I must respect him for that.

But I think on this occasion – this belated happy new year – I will not reply. After all, it was belated, which speaks of Tyler getting sloppy. Point is, I think we’ve taken our friendship as far as it is ever going to go, and sooner or later Tyler is going to have to face that hard fact just the same way as I’ve had to.

Tyler and I are not going to go glamping together. We’re not going to book a hot-air balloon ride over Tuscany. We will never name our children after one another, nor talk late into the night about what we really want from life, nor during an extended medical dilemma swap kidneys. I’m keeping mine, he’s keeping his. This is a text-based relationship that, just like those pen pals, has run out of letters.

And yet… do I not owe Tyler one last reply? I think so.

“Ta” I type.

Just that. Just “Ta”. No exclamation mark. No full stop. No reciprocation of wishes. Just “Ta”. I press Send, and I think I have now laid Tyler to rest. I am an ex-text-Tylee.

And in that miniscule moment of relief, something bursts my bubble.

It’s a bubble.

A little speech bubble has come up.

Tyler is typing a reply.

A goodbye, perhaps? A fond farewell? An admission that this relationship has run its course?

“So you been busy?” he writes. No. He’s extending. He senses my distance and it’s got him spooked.

I mustn’t reply. I mustn’t get dragged back in. But I have to.

I stare at his question and think about how to reply.

“Oh, you know me…” I type, knowing full well that actually, he doesn’t.

But knowing also that this is clearly a relationship that will outlast all others, and that Tyler must just be the only one I’ll ever truly be able to rely on for that kidney.

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