All My Little Words is The Argus’ new love-centric column. We publish personal essays, poems, and other creative written work that focuses on themes of love, loss, labor, and loneliness—romantic and not! To submit an article, please send 1000-1500 words to email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com.
On one night this past February, a sinkhole appeared on the south end of High Street, right across from Earth House. It was big enough for people to fall into, and as sinkholes can grow when left alone, the crater warranted immediate patchwork, despite the chilly temperatures of the season. A few friends and I were ambling by during a night out when a show had just ended at Earth House. We joined the group of students who had congregated outside, huddled in small clusters for warmth, looking onward at the bizarre cavity in the pavement that had seemingly emerged out of nowhere.
While my friends had tucked themselves into a pocket in the mass of bodies, I found myself standing next to a boy in a denim jacket, and his friend. The three of us made small talk about the sinkhole while we watched construction workers in orange vests tend to it.
“Odds you ask if you can jump in,” I said to no one in particular.
Denim jacket boy responded with some figure. I counted down. We said some same number. Then, he smiled knowingly and sauntered over to the men in the vests, uttering something inaudible to us as he gestured downward at the sinkhole. The men shook their heads, unamused. The friend and I looked on curiously as denim jacket boy continued to engage them in what appeared to have become an earnest conversation. We wondered what he could be saying. He walked back over and the three of us chatted for a few more moments.
“I didn’t get your name!” I said after some time.
My friends had gone home and Will and his friend wanted to continue their night on Fountain. Thinking it unwise to tag along with strangers and feeling my own energy wane, I strolled around the corner to my house and went to bed. The thought of my two sinkhole friends didn’t cross my mind for months.
When Wescam season finally reared its head on campus in late April, I was more wary than enthusiastic. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Wescam is a Wesleyan-driven hookup app, which works like Tinder minus the photos and bio, with an added layer of anonymity. Each user’s identity, which is only revealed when two people request each other, is hidden with a Pokémon name. At the time, I had no list of potential people to add, was fresh out of a complicated partial relationship, and thought I wanted to be alone. But I decided to activate my account anyway. Then, I thought of Will.
I remember how the conversation between us flowed smoothly and without much effort, even though he was a complete stranger. I thought about the lighthearted energy he emanated in those few minutes we spent together—how he gladly accepted my challenge with all its silly spontaneity. I’d been hoping I’d run into him again, and though we’d matched on Tinder, neither of us tried to contact the other.
Staring at my phone screen, I vacillated between the pros and cons of sending the Wescam. He’s a stranger, I thought, but why shouldn’t I? He’ll only know who I am if he guesses and matches me. That’s the magical component of apps like Tinder, Bumble, and Wescam. The potential for rejection is dulled because your identity is only revealed to those who swipe right. People become cards to be played, and you never have to show your own hand—that is, so long as they don’t. I have since figured that such a setup feels safe for me.
Will responded quickly after I added him. He asked where we’d met, and I mentioned the conversation we’d shared outside of Earth House. We don’t really know each other, I reiterated, realizing he’d probably never guess who I was. I didn’t mention the sinkhole.
But even with those paltry clues, Will matched me by scrolling through past Tinder matches, and a few nights later, we spotted each other at a concert. As it was finishing up, we greeted each other awkwardly and proceeded to flit in and out of some Fountain houses. This bonding felt forced, though: We both knew we weren’t actually two friends checking out some parties together, but merely two strangers stripping off the respectable amount of time spent together before ending up in someone’s bedroom.
And in a bedroom we did end up, a space that first exacerbated the inorganic dance that we’d been engaging in all night, but then eased it. By the next morning, interacting with Will felt as natural as it did across the street from the sinkhole—as easy as falling right in. I finally used Wescam for its intended purpose, I thought to myself, as I closed his front door behind me. I figured that was that.
It certainly could have been, and maybe should have, given that it was the end of the school year, and though Will and I lived in the same city, he was set on moving to D.C. for work a week after graduation. It would have made sense to keep each other at a distance, to just be friends, or perhaps, to make an arrangement that was solely limited to sex. But it isn’t always easy to think methodically, especially when getting to know someone intimately comes with so much color and novelty.
In the month between that first Wescam meeting and Will’s move to D.C., we became well acquainted with each other’s friends, met each other’s families, and, perhaps most curiously, lived together for two weeks. But we didn’t quite fall in love, even though people thought we did. Instead, we danced across the gray area between strangers and lovers, the surface area of which shrank to a line.
I remember lying in bed with Will one morning during senior week, after he’d just received an orientation email from his boss, asking him to take a personality test. “Do I actually have to do this?” he laughed, “This is like 20 pages!” But we decided to go through the questions together, and I found myself being able to select some of his answers before he did.
It surprised me how much I learned about Will in two weeks: He once ate 72 shrimp at Red Lobster during the chain’s Endless Shrimp event. In elementary school, he was such a behavioral menace that he received a gold star for every class he wasn’t kicked out of. He was often told that he wasn’t smart, and for that reason, he possesses a hidden internal drive to prioritize his career, which would seemingly clash with his silly, reckless spontaneity. I could recite these facts as if I were speaking about myself.
That same week I also realized how much I didn’t know. During a barbecue with his housemates and family, he and a friend were discussing their dads, who had attended Wesleyan together some decades before. “Is your dad going to be here for graduation as well?” I asked him, as I took a bite from my hotdog. No one answered my question, and only later I found out why.
Two straight weeks of living with someone will unveil aspects of their character that manifest in unexpected ways: You learn the rhythms that their breaths assume as they drift off to sleep, the circumstances that make them crave solitude—the way their fears figure in their most idiosyncratic mannerisms and drive their aspirations for the future. It’s often difficult to make sense of all this with respect to our closest friends, and it’s something altogether different to know such intimate details about a stranger. I suppose it’s worth asking, then, at what point does a stranger cease to be strange, and what does it mean to know someone?
In Simon Van Booy’s collection of short stories, “The Secret Lives of People in Love,” a character reflects upon an instance when a woman tells him, “Love is when a person introduces you to yourself for the first time.” It’s one of my favorite attempts of interpreting an emotion so ill-defined, a process so sensationalized and mass-produced yet frustratingly personal—and I think Van Booy gets close to hitting the mark. But when does a stranger become familiar enough to unveil parts of you that even you hadn’t known of prior? Where does love figure in strangeness and strangeness in love?
It wasn’t until Will came home for the Fourth of July that we discussed our nebulous relationship. During his time away, we had spoken at length on most days and were both confused at the lack of clarity that had festered between us for weeks.
“Do you want to sit down?” I asked, as we walked along the water in Battery Park.
“No,” he responded nervously, almost childlike. “If we sit, I’ll fidget.”
During that conversation, Will told me about how he’d had trouble expressing himself since his dad died. How he and his brother weren’t given space to grieve, and how hard it was to share what he was feeling with me in that moment. “I feel like because of that, only like two of my friends really know me well,” he said, the most somber I’d ever seen him.
“I guess you don’t really know me either,” I said quietly.
But it was only after that discussion, where we chose to end things, when I felt like I finally, actually, understood Will as a person. His eagerness to share quirky anecdotes—his silliness—covered a part of him that was darker and more reflective than what met the eye. This side was normally tucked away, and I’m still surprised to have been introduced to it.
It’s strange that we can be so familiar with someone’s antics and mannerisms, but not necessarily be privy to the memories and experiences that shape them. This leads us to yet another question: Can we weigh the significance of the former against the latter? And would that quantification matter in determining whether we truly know someone? After all, it is often what we don’t yet know about others that forges the intrigue that makes us want to be around them.
Sinkholes, like black holes and dark tunnels, are sources of wonder because, upon first glance, we don’t know where they lead. Often, they appear without warning, and though we seek to fill and fix them, the cause of a sinkhole, even once repaired, can remain a mystery. What’s more, no one knows what’s at the bottom of one—not until they jump in. And for whatever reason, we seldom take that plunge.
Viviane Eng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.