This isn’t an interview, but it feels like one. There are exactly 36 questions and I am stuck at the top of the list.
“It can be anyone,” he says. “Really.”
Saturday night, roughly 10 pm: for reasons I no longer recall, I hadn’t slept the night before, so I’m running mostly on adrenaline while slowly spinning myself back and forth on a rolling office chair, getting increasingly stressed about answering the following question: “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?”
I have a psychologist named Arthur Aron to thank for this situation—or more directly, a New York Times piece by Mandy Len Catron that made the social media rounds in early January. The headline “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This,” is pure clickbait: we all secretly long to know the hidden formulas, the underlying truths of the human psyche, the “life hacks” that would tell us how to unlock our emotions rather than how to open a bottle with no bottle opener. Naturally, this ends up as fodder for a Tiger Admirers post, our local pit of post-adolescent angst.
On a whim I comment something to the effect of “if anyone wants to try this, hmu,” which is both a joke and not a joke. And then, out of the cybervoid, I receive a Facebook message.
I wander across the darkened, deserted South Lawn and he lets me into Guyot, which is eerily, luminously silent. Standing there holding some vaguely sad sushi from late meal, I’m momentarily stunned by the instinctive attraction I feel. Two profile pictures will never be able to communicate how it feels to be around someone in person. And this is such a college thing to do! I am so proud of me! I am spontaneous and cool and I do weird things like psychology experiments with seniors I’ve never met late at night in buildings that hold dinosaur fossils!
About eight minutes later, I feel that anything I have to say on the subject of dinner party guests will be either unoriginal, or too original and therefore pretentious. I’m trying to project a certain image of myself, despite knowing that the whole point of this exercise is to shatter that façade. (Elsewhere in my brain, I ponder the remoteness of a dinner party, conceptually—to me, they exist as aspirations for when I’m thirty and have my own apartment in which I keep copious amounts of red wine, string up fairy lights, and have my crazy intelligent beautiful friends over.) Eventually I say Jane Austen. He says Bill Gates; I feel absurd for worrying about being unoriginal.
The first set of questions reminds me of pair discussions in Spanish class, how after you answer the prompt, there’s nothing to add but “…y tu?”, and the way you always get through the questions much faster than you probably should.
In her article, Mandy Len Catron writes that one of the most intriguing parts was what they had to say about each other. We begin with commonalities and observations. I’m not sure whether to be proud or perturbed to be instantly categorized as nerdy. I say we’re both glad to be up here, away from the presence of everyone else on campus, and he gives me this slight tilt of the head that I don’t quite know how to interpret.
We are in the middle of the list; some questions are becoming easier to answer, others not. Some I easily fling out from the heart: I’m looking for someone to share a road trip with. “Oh,” he says. “That’s a good one.”
My most treasured memory (question 17) is with my former partner, a phrase I speak with a twinge of hesitation. (I’m just obfuscating the term ex-boyfriend.) When I mention him, I feel the distance between us, all 5000+ miles across the many Midwest states I’ve never visited.
He doesn’t want to tell me about his most terrible memory (question 18), so I don’t dig deep enough to discover mine.
Question 24 is how do you feel about your relationship with your mother and I think that this is complex but ultimately simple and that my answer is making sense, but to talk about my mother means I start to talk about my father and about the three of us and suddenly I realize I’m trembling, not just my fingers or hands but my whole body, from the core. I feel I could cry, and if I did, it wouldn’t be noisy sobbing but an inward collapse, like taking a sheet of pristine tissue paper and crumpling it in your fist. I find I have no desire to be elsewhere. Once I start talking, it sets off a flood of things that are not quite right and never have been.
The way he talks about his family forces me to lean in and really listen. He says later, as a (mandatory) compliment, that I’m emotionally sensitive, and that it feels like I care, which is because I do, I really do. I find myself deeply saddened by what I can hear between the lines, and I’m not passing judgment, but I am piecing together how the people in his past and present have shaped the person in front of me. I wonder how long it would take me to understand these things if we had been normal acquaintances.
A new question burgeons in the meantime: if the brain learns new material by attaching new things to that which it already knows, do we “learn” new people the same way? I begin to see him as an amalgamation of traits of others I have known. He has the peculiar charisma of a sophomore year crush, the sincerity and listening ability of a good friend from home whose calls I keep forgetting to return, and the general bearing of my social studies teacher from senior year. I tell him these things knowing they might mean nothing.
The end is meant to be the most challenging, I suppose, but I find it the easiest, and the most entertaining. What did you do tonight? Not much, just stared into someone’s eyes for four straight minutes. His are dark blue and inordinately beautiful. I don’t know what I’m thinking about. I am very conscious of my breath, and the way I feel my lips curving up at the corners. I think there is something being communicated, and then I stop thinking. I do not feel like a college student, or even like a person who has a name, address, or socioeconomic bracket. I do feel human, and feminine, and powerful.
“So, are you in love with me now?” he asks. Someone had to.
“Not yet,” I answer faux-archly, thinking but literally what would you do if I said yes?
The truth is that I kind of am. Or was, at least for four minutes. It’s a shorter time than some songs last, and yet without a doubt it’s the most vulnerable I have been in a long while. As we walk up-campus, we pass these uproariously drunk people coming back from (going to?) the street. On a different night, I might have been one of them.
“I’ll see you around?” he says.
“Yeah!” I say in this really cheery tone of voice, ready to be by myself. Halfway up the entryway stairs, I decide that, “No, you won’t ‘see me around.’ You’ll see me if you want to see me.”
My roommates want to know where the heck I have been and I can’t feign nonchalance because I’m smiling so much. “It was…..good, it ….was really interesting?” I offer lamely before ascending to my bunk, my life feeling even more surreal than before.
I wake up the next morning and have to re-convince myself that our conversation happened. As I orient myself to consciousness, he is the first thing that comes into my mind and I’m hit with an unidentifiable wave of something, a strange twisting emotion that makes me bury my face in my pillow in an attempt to banish this excess of energy. I stare at myself in the mirror while brushing my teeth and try to find myself from a year ago in my reflection.
If you’re looking for the tldr, here it is: in the end it doesn’t go anywhere, and that’s okay. My mom once told me that she used to have relationships because they made for really good stories, and I think about how fabulous a story this would have made. Remember that article in the NYT five years ago about falling in love through a psychology study?
If the point of the experiment is to determine whether it might be easier to fall in love than we suspect, just through doing this, I don’t have an answer. What I do know is this: there is now someone out there who knows a collection of 36 true things about me, a version of myself that is more complete than what I try to show the world on a daily basis. For me, this was not about falling in love, but rather about jointly creating a space in which to be open, and to re-evaluate the ways in which I view myself and other people.
For a while, I think I can never repeat this again because my answers will be stale but I realize this is not so, for just as my responses would have been drastically different a few years ago, they will have evolved in new and surprising ways just a few years from now.
There will be other stories.