New Year's Eve, 2019

by Autumn Chen profile

Part of Pageantverse
Slice of life
2022

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Spring Thing 2022: New Year's Eve, 2019, May 14, 2022

Reflexive introspection of the encounter: forced into self by being viewed by all the others who make you you, the you you have to bear time after time as all connections decay, and you no longer know how to breakthrough, worse, you no longer know if you should, if maybe beneath the dissemblance lies only its hollows: “Every social gathering is horrific in its own way. Over the years you have learned to adapt, to cope, to survive. The one which you are currently attending, however, threatens to ruin you.” Every encounter with the expectations of those who still, if only out of nostalgia, expect things of you, ritualized into a numbing ceremony where you mutter the expectations that become increasingly distant from your intimations.

Zhao Qiuyi, “a senior in college, a one-time honors student” returns “back home for winter break.” Having gone out into the world on her own, Qiuyi is now being parsed by those to whom she returns: what has she proven of herself, or if she has returned emptyhanded, isn’t that just who we’ve always kind of guessed her to be? “Which brings you to the truly agonizing part of this party. Everyone you grew up with between the ages of 10 and 18 are here. Your old friends and acquaintances, and their parents and siblings and everyone else. People you thought you had left behind, or had left you behind. It's as if every loose plot thread of your life has come together in this moment.” Qiuyi’s social anxiety doubles under the compounding of the mediated introspection anxiety which lurks within a lot of our illusions of familiarity. Not only are you awkwardly just trying to not seem awkward, but you’re also navigating a competitive socialscape, where everything threatens to be contingent upon some external set of values you have to conquer and ingest. You are an adult now, it’s time for the return on investment. “"So what are you doing after graduation?", Aubrey asks. / "Everyone's been asking that..." / Aubrey laughs. "Hey, it's an important question! It's your entire future! The rest of your life is on the line!" / "Yeah, but, it's just... kind of..."” Doesn’t it just kind of suck being young enough to have a future, the way it weighs on you, the way people appraise you each year, gauging how much ROI you might have? Isn’t there a beauty in reaching an age when nobody asks anymore, when you can wilt in peace with dignity? Where you can just be yourself, finally stripped of all external worth, doomed to at least this silence, more precious than a thousand beetley stares? “The conversation continues, with more detailed questions and comments. You smile and answer. Mom doesn't say much. It's as if she's presenting you to her friends, as if you're a project.” You have a responsible to everyone around you to be valuable, so that they won’t feel lied to for all of these years. All of us hurtling whiteknuckle to the grave hoping the ones we love have the answer, are an answer, can answer all the questions teeming in faster than you can pretend.

Your obligation is to risk manage your profile to promise future growth: “You can approach these gatherings mechanistically, orchestrating a series of events that will achieve all of your goals in an optimal fashion, while minimizing your exposure to awkwardness and food poisoning.” The nature of communal smalltalk, with its faux familiarity, offers many opportunities to believe in that familiarity, which is a trap, of course, behind which lies the fatal judgment; you really ought to emphasize distance, swallowed by your distance to the surface they glean. “How was university?” Rhetorical questions which, because they are rhetorical, a ceremony of friendliness, shiver the freezing feeling that your answer is not wanted, that any actual content between the two of you would stammer the show past its pretense, and there’d be the pause that everyone would sit through knowing you caused it. Somehow any authenticity just makes you lose, and everyone not only knows this, but assimilated it, they have made the show authentic in a way that, as you get older, seems increasingly somehow better than you.

All of your peers performing this display with dazzling skill that shames your awkwardness compounds into judgment. People with whom you are supposed to share a rapport, “But outside of some chance encounters, you never became close.” Why should anyone care about anyone outside of the propinquity that forces them to pretend it? “But at some point you stopped doing the same things she did, stopped discussing homework solutions after class, stopped doing the same events in Science Olympiad, even stopped talking to her at gatherings such as these. And the worst part of all, she didn't seem to notice.” The sadness of reunions: everyone, through their own choices, have left you here, in this undead past. You have become the person people smile overloudly at, “Haven’t seen you in ages!” with the incredulous tone that implies it must have been an accident, or, when their eyes glint in just the right way to flash honesty, your fault. Spending the next five minutes mumbling them through a reminder why you aren’t seen. And, of course, you’ve done exactly the same yourself: “Miri was probably your best friend in high school. But until today, it had been at least one year since your last perfunctory messages.” After all, what could possibly replace the false play of familiarity? What does actual familiarity look like? What do people even say to each other, you know, when the conversation isn’t forced? “What would you ever talk about? You can't think of anything to say. It's as if your brain's vocalization system is frozen in place, not an unfamiliar feeling, but never a pleasant one.” All the things you could ask, all the ways there could have been so much more between us, should have been, right? But what could you have said? Not like the dreamthings you say which shimmer with lost emotions, the Deep Question that gets the Deep Answer that forms the Deep Bond. Like actually sitting there, in that moment, ask. Who else could you have been, you who did not make things better? Is it any surprise you don’t just relent to the howl of white noise? “You've gone days, perhaps weeks without a real conversation. You don't really talk to people anymore.” Letting go, until you lose the habit altogether: “You smile, but you're not sure if it works.” And maybe, in some way, that is the final acquiescence to the inexorable: “You see the landscape of choice laid before you. An ocean of choice and possibility, concealing swirling eddies and whirlpools, mines, traps. Which choice will lead to life and which choice will lead to death? Trick question; they all lead to death, just sooner or later. Which choice leads to love and which choice leads to hate? / It's all a trick. Whichever choices you pick, you know that it's going to be the wrong choice.”

If that all seems a little teenage maudlin, then well, yes, of course, it’s hard not to put on a nurturing smile and nod Qiuyi on, go on, get out there, yes it’s a little uncomfortable and hostile but if you can just get out of your head for five seconds you can enjoy the company of others, not everything is a swirling sadness maelstrom about you, why not take the time to actually be interested in other people and learn from them, live with them, share this beautiful moment even if it doesn’t imply any others? Stop obsessing about why people hate you and just radiate the light innate to you, you miracle of this once then never. It’s easy at some level to tap your fingers with impatience and rattle off a thousand little lessons of perspective. But you know what? It really does feel like that, when you’re eighteen, nineteen, twenty. New Year’s Eve, 2019 captures exactly the melancholy anxiety spiral that led me, like Qiuyi, to bail out early or mumble my way head down through a deeply draining evening. Even before you get there, you’re spiraling into your own despairs, and it just gets worse from there. Self-fulfilling prophecies that nevertheless perfectly predict their fulfillment, your own lack of it.

Also, the absolute audacity of being the plus one who drops this line: “So, how about that election?”