I walk into the Kendall Square Landmark movie theater. A young couple waits in line, holding hands. Two elderly women clutch the staircase banister for support. A mom tries to shepherd her two small children—they seem uncooperative. I hold out my phone to the theater attendant. He scans the digital barcode. “Theater four,” he says. I thank him and make my way past theaters one, two, and three. I stop to buy a small popcorn, light butter. When I get to theater four, I enter and survey the room for a seat. I pick one towards the back, middle of the row, and sit on a questionably-clean, formerly-red, faux-velvet chair. I start to eat my popcorn. Reaching into my bag, I take out my phone and put it on Do Not Disturb.
In high school, my classmates and I were required to take the Myers-Briggs personality test. The survey asks an assortment of multiple choice questions about personal habits and responses to hypothetical situations. The test is long, but in spite of all your work, it reduces you to four letters. Each one describes a part of your personality. At age 16, I was not surprised by the first letter of my defining quartet: an overbearing “E,” for extrovert. I had a lively bunch of friends, never thought twice about leading classroom discussions, and ate lunch with the same, dependable group every day. “Annie’s an extrovert? Shocking,” my friends laughed after we got our results.
Though at school and on weekends, I thrived while constantly surrounded by people, there was something I did not realize about myself: I actually spent a lot of time alone. My siblings, all much older than me, had moved out, and my parents worked late most nights. Each day after school, I had time for recovery, time at home to regroup. I read books, marathoned “The West Wing,” and hung out with my Labradoodle. These moments were indispensable for my sanity. For several hours each day, I didn’t have to be funny or sociable or “on.” Those moments were mine.
When I came to college, I was excited for more opportunities to socialize. It would be like a sleepover with my best friends, but all the time! After just a week at Harvard, though, I was exhausted and anxious. I didn’t understand why. I even tried to convince myself that my symptoms were caused by an iron deficiency. A few weeks later, my roommate managed to convince me to take a run along the Charles, as she did every morning. The term “running” might be too generous—athleticism is not my strong suit. But, during that “run,” I felt like I could breathe again.
Halfway through my second year at Harvard, I now question the accuracy of my overbearing “E.” I no longer treat school like one big social event. Instead, I try to carve out moments to emulate the part of high school I enjoyed less: my time alone. I plug in my headphones and walk aimlessly along Memorial Drive. The cool wind blows through my hair as Mick Jagger croons in my ear. I sit at coffee shops, reading the New York Times on my laptop. Sometimes, I just people-watch.
Today, as the lights in the cinema dim, I put my feet up on the empty chair in front of me. Conversation among the other movie-goers lulls to a hush. I breathe in the familiar smell of imitation butter and listen to the animated clip telling us to turn off our cell phones. The voiceover makes some more announcements, then the FBI warning dissolves into the opening of the feature film.
“We hope you enjoy the movie,” he says.