Are you familiar with "Rashomon"? It's a 1950 Japanese film but also a plot device where a bunch of characters provide their own different versions of the same incident. Think about it. You have a fight with your boyfriend. He tells you how cruel you've been, and you tell him he's been so distant it's unbearable.
Who's right? Both of you, of course. And neither of you. There's only one absolute truth -- which neither of you hold because neither of you are objective.
With everything, there are always these three elements.
- What actually occurred
- The story you tell yourself about what occurred
- The meaning you attach to the story you tell yourself about what occurred
Once you're aware of the illusion, life gets pretty interesting. Any kind of smug superiority you may hold about being "right" starts to fade away. Who can be right when there are so many versions of what actually occurred?
So I couldn't help but think about Rashomon when I found this old letter that a now very successful and always very good-looking guy who I went to college with gave me when I was a freshman at Northwestern.
Correction: He didn't give it to me, per se.
What went down in a way only adds to the embarrassment and mortification of the whole incident.
Here's what happened: Some of my friends were on a campus bus from the frats to the opposite end, and one of them mentioned something about me. I had been to one Cubs game with this guy who I will call "Adam." Maybe we hung out another time. I don't really remember. But apparently I made quite an impression. So Adam was on the train when he heard my friend saying something about me, Adam recognized her as one of my friends and said, "You know Mandy? Give this to her."
He then whipped out this:
I'll reprint it for you below (and yes, Adam knows I am writing this. Although he was mortified to read it years later, but I honestly think it's a bit adorable.) Be sure to really savor all the wonderfully dated '90s references, too.
"The Fool on the Hill"
I'm sure I'll often wonder why I even bothered to write this letter. Bet then again, what that we do really matters? This has been a confusing week of disheartening realizations and I feel as if I've been the recipient of ill will from a lot of people.
It started with finally figuring out that you could give less than a nanosecond of thought to the fact that I exist. Actually, you are probably languishing over the thought of having to interact with me again since you have my CDs and I have your coat. This is a bad time.
There was a quote in The Daily today that was tell-tale of your actions toward me over the past two and a half weeks: "(After we first hook up), when I see him I'll say 'hi'. Then if I'm not interested, I'll usually end up blowing him off." And girls wonder why I can be so insecure and self-deprecating! They do it to me. Everything will seem fine between us, then she'll simply act like I'm a stranger without elaboration. Case-in-point illustration: After we went out all seemed fine except maybe I'd been a little too bashful at times. I called you a couple of times a week, most of the time having to leave a message.
When I did get to you, you'd say you're behind on school or be doing something else. Hint taken. I know that if someone likes you -- extreme circumstances aside -- they're going to find a way to spend time with you. So I pretty much knew what the deal was, but I still felt like pursuing it a bit, getting no positive feedback. Your roommate acts like my friends and I are trash when we run into her at frat parties. Then two weeks to the day since I'd last seen you, I see you approaching with a group of about four other people. We make brief eye contact.
As I get ready to open my mouth to say hello, you turn to someone on the opposite side of me to say something. My mind is thrown into a whirlwind of rage and my body starts shaking. How could you act so differently from the mild-mannered, extremely mature and laid-back girl I met nearly a month before? What has changed? Have you met 6,000 new people and now have no need for me? Do you think I'm a dork and never want to see me again? Have I done you some grave injustice? Was I too obvious in my intentions? And If I was, what's wrong with that? Or am I the victim of some ignominious rumor? Or have I been type cast as if in high school? It sure as hell feels like I have. And now I'm sitting here listening to Abbey Road, one of your favorite CDs.
How am I going to ever listen to Pearl Jam or the Beatles in the same way ever again? Boy, you're gonna carry that weight a long time. You have such a powerful effect on me -- almost mesmerizing. Friends tell me to forget about you and move on. How can I or should it be that easy? When you really like someone, you can't lose sight of them that easily. And how painful it is when they're forcing you to try. I'm no simpleton. I'm not one who can lie down and simply go to sleep when I go to bed. My mind races constantly -- when I'm trying to sleep, listening to a lecture or staring dumbfoundedly at the object of my desire.
I feel like I've always got a headache, and I often have trouble thinking clearly and succinctly. And often I fail to organize what's important in life. But what does this have to do with the topic of the letter? I guess it's part of my subjective character synopsis. This letter may seem extremely self-pitying, but dammit, I deserve it. Please tell me if this makes any sense, if I'm misreading the situation, or if you want to keep blowing me off, that's your prerogative (didn't misuse that one). Silence speaks so much louder than words.
Pretty awesome, right? It's kind of the letter equivalent of the answering machine message in "Swingers." I love it.
When I emailed Adam this piece prior to running it, he wrote me the following, witty as ever: "I like it, even though I wish it never happened. But it did. And I like your analysis and message. I laugh at the headline thinking of that incarnation of myself as a 'man.' I was a scared 19-year-old with zero self-confidence. I love that dorm pic, btw. Mesmerizing!"
And here's where the Rashomon comes into play:
I remember zero ill will toward Adam. For whatever reason -- maybe because he liked me and didn't actually treat me like dirt? -- I wasn't into him at the time. I was of course obsessed with the guy who ignored me and would occasionally drunkenly come calling. Great judgment call there, Mandy.
But I look back at this letter now and it makes me think of other people who have told me how cold I have been or recounted word for word some cutting thing that I said that ruined their entire life. Thankfully, I'm super grateful that Adam and I are still friends today, and I think he probably realizes that I was just awkward in my own way except for me, it came across as bitchiness.
I suppose the main thing this letter shows me is that whatever conspiracy we are imagining about someone else -- it's wrong.
People simply aren't thinking about you.
Here I was hung up on some other guy at the time, and my aloofness made me seem "mesmerizing" (why the hell didn't I marry Adam right then? I love being called mesmerizing!).
So the next time you are hung up on a girl or a guy and you're tempted to write out a letter to carry around with you in case you run into the person you're hung up on -- don't do that. (Does anyone write letters anymore? Would I have been tagged in a Facebook status update if this happened 20 years later?)
Instead, look at it this way: Whoever you're hung up on is probably just hung up on someone else. It's really not that magical. We're inherently selfish creatures. Don't sweat it, and find a new obsession.
And if you do write a letter (or email or status update) that is pretty damn mortifying, just remember.
Whoever you wrote it to will probably look back on it many years down the line and treasure it more than she does a wedding album.
Find Mandy long-form at http://tinyurl.com/stadtmiller.