Last weekend, my roommate and I went to a Halloween party. (Before you ask, no unfortunately neither one of us went as an awesome Southerner. She was a hastily thrown together but no less charming Rosie the Riveter, and I, in what I thought to be a stunningly punny moment of inspiration, was a dust bunny.) The party was thrown by some old college acquaintances, and so, as might be expected, there was a lot of reuniting. The Williamsburg living room was crowded with familiar faces — a firefighter who was in my senior English class, a slice of pizza I used to see in the dining hall, a zombie bride whose blood-streaked face conjured up hazy memories of sophomore year frat parties. There were also more concrete connections: Both my roommate and I worked on the arts and culture magazine while in school, and several of our former comrades-in-journalism were in attendance at this spooky soiree. It had been a while since we’d seen many of them, and it was while chatting with an overall-ed fellow former editor that I made an observation.
There’s a predictability to these conversations, catching up with old friends, in particular those with whom you used to spend a large chunk of your time, through some shared activity or another, but with whom time and space has exposed the tenuousness of your relationship, the old intimacy falling away as the pizza and beer of late production nights no longer bring you into the same orbit. The conversation usually unfolds in three parts, each delineated by a question:
1. Oh my god, how are you?!
2. Where in the city are you?
3. What are you doing?
With the optional addendum:
4. Do you still see [insert friends in common here]?
There’s a back and forth as you exchange pleasantries (I’m great! How are you?), details (I’m in this neighborhood, working at this place, doing this thing), and a general consensus that we’re all doing just dandy. We love our neighborhoods, our jobs are good (if nothing else merely by the fact of their existence), and it is so, so good to see each other. We should get a drink sometime! We’ll text each other! Time for another beer.
In most situations, this conversation runs about ten minutes. Just long enough to nail down the concrete essentials, but not so long as to veer into that awkward territory where we realize we no longer have anything in common to talk about and must resort to nostalgic reminiscence or gossip about other old cohorts. On this occasion, my roommate ducked out at the breaking point, off on a self-proclaimed quest for another drink. I, however, stayed. My red plastic cup still contained a good inch of bourbon, and my friend had half of beer to go and a mother who used to be a journalist, so we continued chatting.
Which is when I uncovered the phenomenon of the 10 Minute Rule.
You see, there’s a funny thing that happens once you get past the initial ten minutes of pleasantries and surface details. As the conversation wears on (and the drinks go down the hatch), suddenly, both parties find themselves worming their way around to a complete 180 of their previously gushing enthusiasm for pretty much every aspect of their lives. The neighborhoods we said we loved because of the cute hippie moms and the new coffee shops are admittedly over-priced, pretentious, and subject to a vicious invasion of gentrifying hipsters, like Kudzu but with handlebar mustaches. The job that was “great” with an exclamation point is, now that we think about it, actually merely good, or even just ok, followed by a trailing ellipsis that alludes to a demotion all the way down to stressful and unfulfilling. This is when the truth comes out — the office politics, the obnoxious schedules, the long hours and menial tasks and the realization that we are young women in old boys’ clubs that our liberal arts educations led us to believe were on their way to extinction. Our commutes are long, our rent is high, we are suffering from a severe dearth of “business” attire, and lack the funds to make up the deficit. Finally, if both parties are not originally from New York, 90% of the time I find that the conversation, which started off so swimmingly in the “isn’t it so great, I’m here, you’re here, everybody’s here!” vein, lands at the whispered conclusion that we don’t actually like being here that much at all.
This is a phenomenon I’ve noticed particularly in New York. Maybe it’s because of the pressure of residing in the self-proclaimed “Greatest City on Earth” that we feel an inordinate need to live up to the hype, to love it here as much as the pop songs tell us we should. But I think the principle is universal. We all construct narratives of how we want our lives to be perceived, whether through the witticisms we tweet, the photos we carefully crop, filter, and caption, or the schtick we rattle off every time we get one of those standard “tell me about your life” questions. Unless we know the person very well, the picture we present is likely to be photoshopped, blurring out the homesickness and the romantic frustration, the hundredth cover letter we sent off that got no response and the cereal we ate for dinner every night this week. We crop out the anxiety, the loneliness, the niggling fear that maybe this isn’t the place for us, and the gut-wrenching terror that if this isn’t the place, if we can’t “make it in New York,” then we have somehow failed, proving ourselves to be weaker than our lives of academic and extracurricular success have presumed us to be. We’ve been told of our greatness our whole lives, preached to about talent and following our dreams and achieving success, and yet now we teeter on the precipice of our futures, simultaneously impatient for the glamorous lives we were promised to start, and terrified that the dream we said we wanted, the box we checked somewhere on the line, maybe isn’t what we want at all. The bigger problem isn’t achieving our goals: It’s figuring out what in the world those goals are in the first place.
But these are not 10 minute topics. They’re barely topics for the whispered conversations we have with ourselves, when the lights are off and sleep refuses to come. These come after, when the pleasantries have ticked past and we are finally able to admit that things are not so pleasant after all. We are all lonely and confused and scared. But if you stand there for more than 10 minutes and really listen, you’ll realize none of us are alone.