Nice things

I’m at a party, and I’ve made eye contact with someone I haven’t seen in a while.

“Monica!” he exclaims when I come closer, and opens his arms up for a hug.

I say his name back warmly, and reciprocate. Hmm, I appreciate his hugs. It’s been a while.

He pulls back, keeping us at close range. “You smell pretty,” he says, sort of helplessly but also firmly, like it’s what he’s thinking right now and he’s going to own it.

He holds eye contact and I smile at him. It’s sweet, I think—the phrasing doesn’t quite make sense, he was probably going for “you smell nice” and “you look pretty” and flustered himself into a blend, but he’s not taking it back.

“I’ve missed you too,” I say. He asks me what I’ve been up to, and I start on my prepared story for the night.

At one point he’s just responded with something, and we’re holding eye contact, and he does a sort of shoulder-shiver, an exaggerated expression of feeling communicated through his body. He half-smiles, then makes a funny tongue movement like he’s rolling a candy around in his cheek.

“Mouth movements, too?” I ask, because that’s new. I’m used to his shoulder-shivers and even full-body ones; I make them too, when I’m in a certain state of mind and feeling overwhelmed. This guy is particularly good at translating those sorts of shivery feelings into physical manifestations, and it feels honest and not like a performance and like it’s just something that happens to him.

“No,” he says, struggling to find the word, “it’s a dental thing…”

“Retainer,” I supply, and he nods.

He kind of shakes his head, smiling again. Hums, slides himself into: “I find you attractive.”

Again, like a statement of fact, like it’s what’s on his mind. I keep eye contact, smile. “You’re welcome to come over whenever you want,” I tell him. I pause. “Though I’ve been issuing that invitation for forever.”

He sighs. “Yeah, you haven’t reached object permanence for me.”

I frown; is he referring to the infant psychology studies, in which young babies don’t believe that an object exists when it’s not in their field of view? It’s a great set of studies—if you show a baby an object, make it disappear behind an obstacle, and then bring the object back, babies will be just as surprised if it’s the same object compared to if it’s a new object. We aren’t born with the understanding that objects continue to exist if we can’t see them; we have to learn it over time.

“You mean I don’t exist normally?” I ask him, because that’s a pretty weird framing to bring to bear on the quotidian question of why he hasn’t visited.

“Yeah. You’re here when I see you at parties. Not sure what’s going on with that.”

I raise my eyebrows. (Haven’t managed just the one.) “Well, I am only going to be here for the next two and a half years.”

We talk briefly about my upcoming move to Princeton in two and a half years, and what he’s been thinking about concerning transportation between different areas of the Bay, and move on from there.

We’re parting when it comes up again. “I’ll figure out the object impermanence eventually, in the next ten years or so,” he tells me, smiling.

“Better figure it out faster than that,” I say.

He laughs sheepishly, goes in for the final hug. “Yeah, I might have to sit down and figure out what’s going on underneath.” He’s referring to the kind of introspective practice we’re both familiar with, where one takes a puzzling aversion, tries to identify the associated emotions, and separate out and sort through the feelings for what are the base fears and reluctance underneath. This process usually unearths interesting and seemingly irrelevant lower-level emotions. I had been doing it really briefly on my bike ride over, and discovered that the reason I was feeling low-level and uncaring wasn’t that I was actually low-energy. Rather, I was using the uncaring feeling as a cover for the fact that I was feeling a little anxious and worried that I was going to be disappointed by this party. It’s a simple link in retrospect, but then again, I really could have been feeling low-energy. I find the practice of acknowledging emotions underneath—just acknowledging them, not even doing anything with them—can make me and most people feel surprisingly better.

“Mmm,” I acknowledge into his shoulder, then let go.

“See you later!”

Returning smile, then he’s out the door.

“He said WHAT?” One of my housemates asks, appalled. “He just said that you smelled pretty and that you’re attractive? He just said it? I don’t approve of that.”

I’m leaning against the counter, laughing a little. I’ve just been recounting the highlights of this episode in the kitchen, and have not been doing it in a way that effectively portrays the underlying feelings of the event. Apparently smiling besottedly and saying “So I was at this party yesterday, and ran into a guy I’ve been with a couple of times, and he told me I smelled pretty and also that I was attractive,” is not the way to effectively communicate why this was okay.

“He sounds like a creeper,” she continues on. “You smell pretty? What is that? And so boldly telling you to your face you’re attractive! I would drop him immediately, that’s rude.”

There’s really nothing else I can be but actively amused. “Okay, I see your point,” I tell her. “And yeah, I totally agree with you with someone I just met, or if they were being aggressive about it. But he knew it was mutual attraction.” And he was also doing it a way where it felt like he was being vulnerable and not expecting anything of me, not like he was dumping something my lap and leaving me to deal with his emotions. I don’t actually know the details of this difference, but there… is one? There’s a set of feelings I can get in response to a statement like this which feels a lot like obligation, guilt, feeling overwhelmed, and feeling pushed. And at the opposite end it just feels warm and special. I think it has something to do with expectations, and existing common knowledge, and… maybe a lot to do with the feeling I get about whether everyone’s going to be okay no matter what is said. When this sort of thing goes well (and I’ve delivered this sort of sentence to other people, too) it seems to work best when it’s delivered in a tone of: “take it or leave it, these are my feelings, I’m going to be disappointed but just fine if they’re not returned, but I already know we both enjoy each other’s company and there’s nothing bad on the line here.”

“He said you had OBJECT IMPERMANENCE?” my housemate screeches, when I get to that part and explain the baby studies. “That’s incredibly inconsiderate. I’m way too feminist for this. He sounds like a jerk.”

“Uh,” I say, because, “um, I mean, he didn’t—”

“That sounds horrible. Why are you hanging out with this guy?”

I shake my head, smiling helplessly. “I mean, we know each other, and what he said is still appropriate within the community that we’re in. If someone I didn’t know said this to me, I’d agree, but it was actually fine.”

She shakes her head in return. We discuss whether we want guys to be chivalrous or not and whether they should get women flowers. (She says yes to gallantry—“it shows they’re educated”—and “I like when men get me flowers, but not roses. So cliché.”) (I say: “No gallantry, and I don’t want anyone to buy me flowers. Have you let the guys know that you want flowers but not roses? You should probably tell them that, so they know. People have different opinions on this sort of thing.”)

Different strokes work for different folk, I guess? I’m just kind of smiling at the screen here—not much to be done about the conflict here, and a lot of it depends on how I tell the story, and how we interpret others, and what our shared values are. (My housemate and I have many shared values, and our expectations of how they should be expressed are occasionally different.)

Well, as long as everyone feels safe and happy in their interactions, then external judgment doesn’t actually matter, does it? That’s the overall feeling I’ve been aiming for for a while now, and while I’m not quite there yet (I still have this strong belief that there’s an external “right” that exists, and not just every one of us carrying around subjective values) I’m getting closer, with regards to situations that are purely about subjective enjoyment for the players involved.

Seems right to me. Happy holidays, everyone!

Monica

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