After I left my sleepy New Jersey town for the big city a decade ago, I believed I had closed the door on all of the men who stayed behind in my hometown. But I have waffled on a lot of the declarative statements I’ve made about my life over the years, which is why last Thanksgiving, after tipsily picking all of the marshmallows off of the sweet potatoes and eating them with a fork and knife, I found myself on the worst kind of Tinder — Hometown Tinder.
Hometown Tinder is what materializes after one too many nights of sleeping off a wine hangover solo in your childhood bed. One minute, you’re swiping through a bunch of anonymous faces, feeling sly as your family watches some Hallmark movie or another. And then BAM — here’s that guy you made out with in a closet at a house party after you smoked weed for the first time. And he’s wearing a MAGA hat. Somehow, inexplicably, you swipe right.
You might find yourself on Hometown Tinder because of the regressive emotional state that you can fall into upon visiting a place you used to live. You’re already sleeping among the ephemera of your childhood — brace-faced photos that still make you cringe; sports trophies you now realize were handed out to everyone in the county — maybe you’re even arguing with your mother about your hair, and your siblings about the remote. Why not swipe through an app and make a few more decisions as if compelled by a latent, still-15 part of your brain?
On Hometown Tinder, your standards are different — okay, let’s call a spade a spade: they’re lower — to counteract (if you’re me) the impossibly high standards you use to maintain an air of intriguing superiority in your regular life. You’d never date a dude with a bad haircut, or with whom you were a bad ideological fit, back in New York, but all of a sudden mister man with the mullet and his John Deere tractor is stirring something inside of you that you didn’t know existed. Or that, at the very least, you thought you had outgrown along with the posters on the wall and retainers you kept accidentally throwing away.
Like much of the act of returning to the place where you grew up, Tindering while there gives you a funhouse-mirror glimpse into what your world could be like if you had made different choices; for instance, if I had listened to my dad, given up my apartment in the city, and moved “back home.” Every person I went to high school with who stayed behind seems to be married and breeding. They have homes and pets that they’re responsible for. They drive sedans and meet their other townie pals for beers at the local pub. It seems nice. Back in New York, all I’ve got is a half-drunk bottle of wine in the fridge and a contact list full of men with “Bumble” input as their last name.
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It’s impossible not to wonder what would’ve happened if I picked that life, and Hometown Tinder is like the Rent-the-Runway, no-commitment way to try it on. Which I guess brings us back to why it’s terrible. It’s like looking at the existence you could have had if you’d not given in to the siren song of Manhattan (you could sub in whichever metropolis lured you and all of your expendable income away from whence you came). To make this holiday-appropriate, let’s say Hometown Tinder is like the Ghost of Sex-Lives Past.
So there I was last Thanksgiving, belly full of marshmallows, balancing a wine glass full of cab sav in my left hand while I thumbed over my dating app with my right. And after about 15 swipes, there he was. Tom*: the football star who, after we’d graduated, went on to coach my younger brother and make eyes at me in the stands.
You see, I was not very cool in high school. I ate lunch in the art room and choreographed school musicals. Tom absolutely did not notice me back then. But now, in the adult world, things were different. I lived in a studio apartment on the Upper East Side. I drank vodka on the rocks. I was sophisticated — I thought, through my cabernet haze — Football Tom is within reach! And with that, I swiped right, and Tinder let me know he thought I was hot, too. (Or that he right-swipes everyone; also a possibility.)
Once we matched, I had no idea what to do. I suddenly reverted back to high school me who had passed Tom in the hallway, only to blush and almost walk into a door. I was not, in fact, a sophisticated lady on holiday from the Island of Manhattan. I was still a bundle of nerves, and insecure. So I never did message Tom, and he never messaged me. And to this day, that whiff is my only attempt at HTT.
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But with the holidays approaching I feel it luring me back in once again. Each passing engagement season brings new couples whose meet-cute started on Tinder. Add to that the layer of instantaneous “back home” connection you can feel with people who grew up in your area, and it seems like a guaranteed love at first swipe. So I put the call out via a very scientific poll of my Instagram followers, and — well I was not flooded with Hometown Tinder love stories, let’s put it that way.
One woman who messaged me said she had matched with two ex-boyfriends and two guys she’d had crushes on in middle school when she hit up Tinder while home for Thanksgiving. All four messaged her, because she’s apparently Julia Roberts in a rom-com, but she never messaged them back. “It was incredible to the younger version of me,” she wrote. “I didn’t want them to ruin it.” And that right there is the realest, truest argument in favor of dabbling in HTT — especially if you’ve experienced a glow-up in your post-high school years. It’s the redemption story for the nerdy version of yourself that every rom-com promises you will get. It’s Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion on steroids. It’s the final payoff for the awkward, zit-faced, lunch-in-the-art-room you, clinging to the belief that if she just keeps on listening to My Chemical Romance, one day, someone will notice her. And wanna hook up.
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Only one person I spoke to actually wound up having a relationship as a result of their Hometown Tinder search, and things got pretty serious, but six months later he dumped her over the phone. It’s still Tinder, after all. Suspended disbelief is as much a part of the game when you’re in sweatpants on your parents’ couch as it is when you’re, well, in sweatpants on your own couch — you have to squint, and be optimistic, and a little wine-drunk never hurts.
But still, when I get home this Thanksgiving, when I can’t stand to hang out with my family members any longer, or I’ve had my fill of marshmallow-topped festive foods, I am pretty sure I know what I’ll do. I’ll pour myself a big glass of wine, sneak upstairs, and start swiping around on Tinder to see what locals it has in store. I’m sure it’ll be bleak in that certain way I remember from way back when before I left for the city. But just like the place where I grew up, this little slice of hell feels like home.
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