At six in the morning on a Monday I helped Meredith out of my shower. She’d climbed in it, fully-dressed, while I was on the train back from work. This was after forcing her way into my apartment and giving my roommate a panic attack. She left a gross brown slurry in the shower, what was leftover of a Kirkland paper bag. Meredith and I know each other from high school, where we were dumb punks together. She didn’t go to college when I did, but we stayed friends and roomed together after I dropped out. So I sat her down at the kitchen table with a towel around her shoulders even while she grabbed my collar and breathed Kirkland breath in my face, saying: “and I was so sure about this one, finally someone who wasn’t a total jerkoff. I’m basically a BuzzFeed article: My Boyfriend Left Me For A Japanese Video Game!”

American cultural history has a weird relationship with desire, love, and intimacy. In colonial American, romantic companionship focused on single men finding women who would help work the land and produce children to do the same. By the mid-1800s the gender ratio in the West was so skewed masculine, men took out ads like this one, from an Arkansas newspaper: “Any gal that got a bed, calico dress, coffee pot and skillet, knows how to cut out britches and can make a hunting skirt, knows how to take care of children can have my services til death do us part.” This practical notion of intimacy still controls, partly, how we approach dating today: a romantic partner is desirable in terms of the value they add to you, the Lone Frontiersperson.

People are like things, in this American way, things of value, like a homestead. The anthropologist Arjun Appadurai coined the phrase “things-in-motion,” which refers to the social lives of objects and the ways in which they display agency, through networks of historical meaning and organizing, structural forms. In this way, what we desire in a romantic partner is a thing-ness, so Meredith’s boyfriend dumping her for a video game is a product of a desire informed by American histories and Japanese structural form. Meredith’s heartbreak and Kirkland vodka breath is a desire born of Disney and frontier culture.

I first met Meredith’s boyfriend, Chase, maybe eight, nine months beforehand, at a bar, for dinner. They’d already been dating a couple months and Meredith wanted to introduce him to the family, so to speak. He was nice, as far as I remember, polite and WASPy with a normal haircut, and slacks. We talked about his Associate’s Degree in computer science and how he liked working for the city government. He thought it was neat that I worked late-night at a sushi bar, because the conveyor belts the sushi got sent out on were more efficient than a bunch of waiters. At some point he got up and Meredith leaned over the table to say: “so, what do you think?”

She’s always been self-conscious about her relationships. Like most of us, she carried around the fear of being a disappointment to society, her mom, her younger self. Not going to college, or dropping out, and not being particularly good at anything; it’s that kind of emptiness that appears when you realize you’re “just living” – whatever that means. I saw a Louis C.K. interview on Conan where he talked about his “little empty.” The little empty comes from our social-animal need for community and that late-capitalist need to buy shit to fit in to one. Meredith said that her little empty made her think of Disney Princesses and Nicholas Sparks novels, despite her best intentions. This has historically hamstrung her in relationships, most people being casually cruel without realizing it. So I told her I liked him, because what else does someone say in that situation? He wasn’t ugly or mean.

She told me they met online. She didn’t think he would be anything special, but things accumulate between two people that aren’t casually mean: dates, gifts, and affections. When they moved in together she stopped being able to picture the future. Before, she could imagine where she’d be at next week, what’d be different next month or year. Now she couldn’t imagine anything else than the day she’d just lived, together with Chase, on and on. And she said she’d never been happier.

In Japan, the image of the “salaryman” defines approaches to romance, desire, and intimacy. The salaryman devotes himself to a company to support his family, a selfless masculine provider. He then demands, though, a household allegiance to himself as its financial center, where a relationship is a social obligation, not a value transaction. To avoid this, the deviant otaku choose to delve into fantasy worlds of cartoons, comic books, and video games. The dating-simulation genre of video games serve to protect these deviants from ostracization as shojo, basically the adult version of calling someone a “virgin” – a sexually inexperienced and effeminate consumer – by giving them their own relationships to actualize through. This is why many dating simulation games are set in high schools – their target audience is often the high schooler himself, or a recent graduate.

The second time I met Meredith’s boyfriend we went to the bars with the rest of our friends. He mingled pretty well at the first couple, but by the third he would drift off while you were talking to him. Like he suddenly remembered something more important he should’ve been doing. At the time I thought it was funny how stiff he was. His body language was all wrong, like he couldn’t keep a natural posture and talk at the same time. I know Meredith pulled over our friend Jeremy, though, at some point, because Jeremy and I ended up talking about it after Chase and Meredith had gone home. He said that Meredith was nearly in tears telling him about how Chase wanted to go home, but she didn’t want to because this was the most he’d talked to her, and anyone else, in weeks, even though they shared an apartment. All Chase did when he was home was play some Japanese dating game. He would play it while they were in bed together and before going to work. Jeremy said she described it as having another, needier roommate, or a baby made of metal and Apple-branded plastics. And sometimes he’d tell her to stop asking him to do things, that sometimes he “just needed to be in charge.”

The technical definition of a dating simulation game, known also as a romantic simulation game, can involve several technical elements such as a time limit, statistics of looks and charm which can be boosted through exercise, or an “attraction meter” which can increase or decrease based on the player’s decisions. Girl’s Garden, published in 1984, is considered the first dating game. The story revolves around a

“simple country girl” named Papri as she attempts to retain the love of her boyfriend. Many aren’t so Puritan; there’s a game called “Cross Days” where you play with a literal cock controller and which outs you as a “pervert” if you try to pirate it. The one Chase played was called Love 1943, and the player-character had to seduce one of six high school girls, each of which was named after a major Axis or Allied nation in World War II. Germany gave me the heebie-jeebies.

Maybe a month or so ago Meredith was a bridesmaid. Up until this point she’d been pretty calm, but her voice broke when she mentioned the wedding. I want to be respectful, so I didn’t say anything when she put her head down. While she blows her nose, I asked her if it was okay if I checked my phone – it was almost nine and I hadn’t touched it since getting off work. When she looked like she was ready to talk again, I started a voice memo and put my phone face-down so she wouldn’t notice. I guess it was out of morbid curiosity, and for posterity’s sake, for what would become of their relationship.

“… Sharon, we work together, she asked me to be her bridesmaid. And I’ve never done anything like that before, nobody in my family was getting married when I was a kid. I never got to be the flower girl with the basket that walks down the aisle, throwing flowers. I mean I wasn’t so, you know, girly as a kid, but what kid doesn’t want to be the center of attention like that, especially when that’s all we saw on TV and movies and YouTube, you know? So I said yes, of course, it’s like an honor and all that. Chase is supposed to go too, though, and at this point we’re barely speaking other than the couple moments where I can make him put down the computer. So I ask him to leave his laptop at the apartment, we’re gonna be staying in a hotel for the wedding and it was only for one night anyway. He looks me in my eyes and says: sure thing, babe, that’s fine. Which was such a relief at the time. At the wedding, then, I have to stand on this podium in the chapel, totally still, watching my friend’s fiancé walk up the aisle. And when Sharon comes out, in this nice blue dress, with her dad at her arm, I guess I suddenly realize that I don’t know where I am. Not that I don’t know I’m in some chapel somewhere in Illinois; I don’t feel like I’m at a wedding. Everything there was so classic Disney, Anglo-Saxon, everything you or I wanted as a little kid. Like playing dress-up. It’s what I guess I wanted even as an adult, in that childish part that still believes life can be the sparkly fantasy you have in your head. But I realize I don’t know what a wedding is, but this ridiculous event that she took out a ten thousand dollar loan on definitely isn’t it. And I guess at this moment I didn’t even really know what a marriage is – I was just totally bowled over by how artificial everything felt, like she was building this elaborate Disney lie around this day that didn’t really mean anything. What really matters is waking up next to the same face day after day, over and over again. Not this cut-the-cake, fancy-dress, Daddy-gives-away-his-girl chivalrous façade. After the wedding, Chase says he’s tired, so he’ll go back to the hotel with some of the other guys there. This is fine, I’ll spend time with my friends and try not to think about how I got disillusioned with like the institution of marriage as if I was still sixteen and just read the SCUM Manifesto again. I go back to the hotel at maybe eight or nine, and I figure Chase is at the bar, watching tv, or asleep. I don’t see him at the bar, so I go up to our room, and he’s a pretty light sleeper so I try to open the door quietly, in case he is asleep. But of course not, he’s got the laptop he promised not to bring, playing this cartoon, Japanese dating game where every woman has ridiculous fake tits because, for whatever reason, dating a real human isn’t good enough. I just explode at him. I look him in the eyes and say, with dead earnestness, you’re drooling over a cartoon woman. And he says I know, but her skin is so nice. What the fuck – her skin? This is your, like, justification? So I say back the most obvious thing I could think of: it’s because she’s electronic, Chase. And he says yeah, exactly.”

Ryan Gosling starred in Lars and the Real Girl (2007), with this really killer mustache, as the titular Lars, who lives in the garage of the house willed to his brother after their dad dies. Lars is also in a long-term relationship with a blow-up sex doll named Bianca, who he believes is a real woman. To be sensitive of his feelings after the passing of his dad, everyone else in their town treats her like a real woman too.

Two millennia before, Ovid described the Cypriot sculptor Pygmalion, whose carving of a woman was so immaculate that he lost interest in all earthly women and fell in love with it immediately. This was weird, even then, but he still burnt offerings to Aphrodite at her temple to give him “the living likeness of my ivory girl.” He comes home and kisses his statue on the lips, right when he gets back, but the lips of the statue are warm. He then, of course, kisses the statue again, who comes to life as a real, flesh-and-bone human woman. What I’m trying to say here is that the organizational, structural form of desire and objecthood made space for whatever creepy things Chase had in mind.

“So, last night was Thursday Night Chinese Take-Out Night, and we were supposed to meet at the restaurant to pick up our food and go somewhere else to eat it, what we usually do. I’d convinced him to do this after he broke his promise about the laptop. Things, I thought, were looking up. But he wasn’t at the restaurant when I got there, so I texted him, waited five minutes, and then called him, which went straight to voicemail. I waited another thirty minutes and he never showed. So I caught the train home, where I’m thinking about the wedding, about how this thing that I’m supposed to want, this impossible not-marriage marriage, is so completely artificial and without like any referent in my life that it feels like I don’t want it for myself. I want it for my little empty, who screams for someone to hold her. So I walk in to my apartment that I’ve shared with this man for almost a year and I feel like a total stranger. Because there he is, my boyfriend, who I love, and who I barely speak to, with his dick in his hand on the couch we picked out together, his face red and making direct eye contact with the golden cartoon face on his laptop screen. There’s a tinny Japanese voice but I can’t hear anything, or at least I can’t process anything. I grab the laptop and I knew I had to smash it. Like that smashing it would be the climax of some fantasy movie, where I dispel the evil magic keeping us apart. My boyfriend, who I’m trying to ‘save’, and who is supposed to love me, has his dick out and is screaming for me to ‘put Germany down! Put Germany down!’ I felt like I’d forgotten his name in that moment, that I couldn’t recognize him. I couldn’t recognize anything in the room. I put down the laptop, because it didn’t really matter. He was in love with the passive artificial womanhood of the thing, nothing to do with any human woman or me. I asked him why he didn’t show up, and he told me I never let him find the restaurant. I told him that I always ask him where he wants to go and he tells me to pick. He says back: yeah but then you actually choose. So I went to Costco. Like what the fuck else was I gonna do.”

As I write this, I realize that recording her wasn’t being a very nice friend. In fact, I’m treating her emotional trauma as probably just another “thing-in-motion.” Her experience is another thing to be exploited by and for desire, the desire for narrative or a bigger point than just a man with his dick out telling a woman holding a laptop to “put Germany down!”