The Role of Others

By Liza E. Pincus

I couldn’t take it anymore. The remaining piece of my heart that had not yet sunk down to my stomach was at once pounding and crumbling. Not exactly ideal when attempting to eat a spicy tuna roll.

Eliza, Jaime and I are childhood best friends. I know I’m saying that with false bravado, but we met 10 years ago in Bunk 30 at our Jewish sleep away camp in the Poconos. And our trio has stayed alive through the middle school, high school, and now college years, through what are becoming less and less frequent sushi dinners like these.

But somehow, the rare occasion before my train was set to depart from Grand Central, not to mention the esteem in which I hold my two friends, could not measure up to what was happening, or rather what wasn’t happening, at the table next to ours:

He, a well-groomed, pastel, collared shirt and khakis, Wall Street (or maybe associate at a law firm? Yeah, associate at a law firm) kind of guy, looked to be about 28. She was thin, around his age, certainly attractive, probably worked in accounting. And they hadn’t said one word to each other since the moment they sat down to dinner.

Their silence was consuming me. At this point, I was less-than-half listening to whatever Eliza was saying about the student farm at Yale. I pushed my spicy tuna aside. I once heard somewhere that when male sports fanatics watch a game, they build up so much testosterone that by the time the game ends, they feel as if they’ve just played in it. That’s what watching this silent couple for half an hour was like.

I instantly became the woman—an identification made for the obvious reason that I am one, but also because, well, I’ve been on this date. Only once, but once was enough. “The silent date”: perhaps the single most painful memory I hold from the bad ending of a very good relationship.

I couldn’t hold it in any longer—I had to talk about it. And the moment I interrupted was the same moment Jaime started gushing about—you guessed it—her very new, very exciting relationship. He was the one, she had decided. In fact, they had talked about it. Jaime was in love; I was post-first relationship and a little negative about it all. Naturally, we all voiced very different opinions about the fate of our fellow diners.

At least my friends treated the matter with a level of vehemence that somewhat mirrored my utter indignation. And we all agreed on one crucial point: the young couple was doomed. They obviously had to break up. They couldn’t think of a single conversation topic, for God’s sake!

Perhaps a little too loudly, we analyzed their body language: “He’s leaning toward her aggressively and she’s shrinking back in her chair,” Eliza whispered. We hypothesized the problem: “Maybe she cheated on him?” Jaime asked, horrified. “Or, you know, maybe it’s just over,” I sighed. We invented the lives they would return to after dinner: “Ugh, they live together. She mumbled something about bringing home their leftovers; they totally live together. That makes this so much worse.”

The couple finally left the restaurant and we stopped feigning whispers. Our diagnoses varied, unsurprisingly, based on each of our current relationships with love.

Eliza and Jaime both urged immediate action, a quick tear of the band-aid. But I was more hesitant: “She’s scared.”

“I don’t care if she’s scared to speak up,” Eliza triumphed. “She has to do it.”

“Yeah, but if she speaks up, they’ll probably break up,” I countered.

“They should break up.”

“She knows that. But she doesn’t want to.”

“She should want to.”

“Yeah, but she doesn’t.”

I argued the point all the way back to Jaime’s apartment, until I was finally put in my place. Eliza announced that she had spent enough time talking about strangers. She had a point. But it wasn’t that simple—for any of us.

Jaime wanted, possibly needed, to believe that what we had just seen was a fluke. And I, albeit the self-appointed cynic in this particular group, similarly wanted to believe that each member of  the restaurant couple just hadn’t found the right person yet.

It wasn’t until weeks later, while I was relaying the story of the restaurant couple to a different set of friends, that I began to understand my overly intense reaction. I got to the part about the troublesome leftovers, and my friend started laughing: “Or maybe they were just having a bad night.”

Oh. I hadn’t thought of that.

At only 20, it’s not exactly surprising that my friends and I take so seriously the relationships we see happening around us (even if we have to invent most of the story). We don’t quite get it ourselves yet, so instead we turn an inner search outward. We rely on friends, family, books, movies, and even on total strangers to teach us about the existence, and more importantly, the sustainability of love. So I’ll probably keep sticking my nose in random couples’ business at restaurants. And though I know I won’t find any concrete answers, I hope I’ll keep believing.

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