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374: Somewhere Out There

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Prologue

Ira Glass

OK, so a couple of physicists walk into a bar. Just kidding. They're not at a bar. They're at a school. Scientists in training.

David Kestenbaum

I'm sure this story seems strange to you, but to me, it was just-- you know, this was just like another day in the physics world.

Ira Glass

David Kestenbaum used to live in physics world. These days he lives in our world. You can hear him in our world as part of NPR'S Planet Money team, reporting on economics. But at the time of the story, he was getting a PhD in high-energy particle physics at, um-- there's no way to avoid the name-droppy-ness of what I'm about to say-- at Harvard University. But to paraphrase Us Magazine, Harvard physicists, in certain ways around the office, they're just like us.

David Kestenbaum

There was always a time of day when someone made a pot of very strong coffee, and afterwards, everyone drank the coffee and then didn't quite want to work yet. And so we all stood around and talked about various things. You know, and there was a blackboard or a whiteboard or something there. And we were talking about how nobody really had girlfriends.

Ira Glass

So, this being physics world, the next logical thing to do was to employ the power of mathematics to estimate the likelihood of finding a girlfriend. And so they start jotting down a calculation.

David Kestenbaum

I guess it's sort of a variation on-- you know this thing called the Drake equation?

Ira Glass

No.

David Kestenbaum

That is a way to estimate how many planets are out there that have intelligent life on them.

Ira Glass

OK, so in this Drake equation, apparently you start with how many stars are in the universe. That is, all the places where there might be life. And then you subtract out all the stars that don't have planets around them, right? Because there can't be life there.

And then you subtract out all the planets that are too far from the sun or too close to the sun to support life. And so on and so on-- you get the idea-- until finally, you come up with the likelihood of a planet with life evolved to the point of intelligence. OK.

They ran the same kind of math now, except-- and I realize this is going to sound a little strange. It says they replaced intelligent life with girlfriends.

David Kestenbaum

So we started to do the calculation on the board. And, uh-- can you look up what the population in Boston is?

Ira Glass

Now David is asking me to look this up because at this point in our interview, I actually made him run the math for me, with real numbers that we got from the internet. So he started with the population of Boston, because he and his fellow physics students wanted girlfriends in Boston, where they all live. Population of Boston, I found online, was a little under 600,000.

David Kestenbaum

So you start with 600,000, which sounds great, except that half of them are guys, right? And I'm only interested in girls.

Ira Glass

OK, so it's 300,000.

David Kestenbaum

And then I want people-- let's be honest, probably within 10 years of my age or something, right?

Ira Glass

OK, so 10 years on either side, so that means--

David Kestenbaum

I'm actually looking at some numbers here. Looks like-- looks like if you go from 20 to 40, you're talking-- that's still like 35% of the population, a third or something.

Ira Glass

So that means that out of 300,000 women, that leaves 100,000 in his age range. These being doctoral students, they wanted girlfriends who were college grads. Well, OK, about 25% of Americans over 25 years old have graduated from college. That knocks out roughly 3/4 of these women.

David Kestenbaum

Ouch.

Ira Glass

So you're down to-- we were at 100,000. So you're down to 25,000.

David Kestenbaum

Then you start applying stuff like, you know, how often are they single?

Ira Glass

Yeah. Let's say half of them are single. So now you're down to 12,500.

David Kestenbaum

Yeah, see? It's getting scary now, right?

Ira Glass

And then of course you get to how many people are actually attractive to you. And even if you give a really high percentage, like one in five, OK, that knocks your pool of candidates down from 12,500 to 2,500.

David Kestenbaum

In the whole city of Boston, right?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

David Kestenbaum

That's just like a needle in a haystack.

Ira Glass

And that 2,500 is before you get to anything personal, like your religion or how you see the world. What's your sense of humor? So David and his fellow students are talking about this, these rather kind of depressing numbers. And one of the professors comes in.

David Kestenbaum

She's not married, either. And so we start to draw it for her, and then we started to say, well OK, half of them are men, so we'd circle half. And then we'd say, well, what's the age group you're interested in? And then we'd sort of circle a smaller subset. And then she had all these other requirements, like the guy had to be taller than her. And she's pretty tall.

[LAUGHTER]

That really limited things. And then she said he had to be smarter than her. You know, and she's a Harvard physics professor, so that was even smaller. And basically, we got down to there being nobody.

[LAUGHTER]

She's alone.

Ira Glass

During this period of your life when you would think about these numbers, were you sure the entire time that there was somebody out there?

David Kestenbaum

Yeah. I don't know why. But you know, at the beginning of every mathematical proof, people often write, "Assume that there exists X." Assume we have an infinite surface bound by something, or whatever.

Ira Glass

Right.

David Kestenbaum

It's like, assume there exists some girlfriend. There's totally that act of faith underneath it, yeah. But I had a more scientific view, which is that there are people out there who might be right for me, not just one person. Like that seemed like in a silly novel or something. You know.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

David Kestenbaum

I don't believe there's just one. If there were just one person out there, good luck. They could speak Chinese, you know?

[LAUGHTER]

And they probably do, right? What are the odds you're going to find them and a translator? You got to believe there's more than one person.

Ira Glass

But if you do believe that there is more than one person for you, you really might want to keep that belief to yourself sometimes. This may be one of those ideas that you don't want to take out of the classroom and bring into the real world. Case in point.

Alex Blumberg

It was definitely early on in our relationship. And I think it was our first big fight.

Ira Glass

This is somebody else from the immediate word of our radio show-- Alex Blumberg, one of our producers. A while ago, he and his then future wife, Nazanin, were out on a date. And because they were newly in love, the topic of conversation was--

Alex Blumberg

How great it was that we were in love. [LAUGHS] And how happy we were to have found each other. And it felt so fated, you know?

And she asked, do you really think that we were the only one for each other? And I said, I don't know if you're the only one for me, but I think that you have to be at least one in 100,000, is what I said. Which I thought was-- in retrospect, now that I'm telling this story, that sounds really bad.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

I was kind of holding my tongue over here, actually. Yeah.

Alex Blumberg

At the time, I thought it was a romantic statement. Because one out of 100,000-- what is there, like 6 or 7 billion people on the planet?

Ira Glass

Sure.

Nazanin Rafsanjani

He picked 100,000, which probably doesn't make any scientific sense and also made me feel bad.

Ira Glass

So if Alex thought that saying that there are 100,000 other women that he could love was simply another way of saying how rare love is-- 100,000 seemed like a small number to Alex. Nazanin did not see it that way.

Nazanin Rafsanjani

I know it's ridiculous to think that there's one person out there for everybody, but it definitely feels that way, right? When you're, like, falling in love. And it's not like I actually expect him to believe it, but he wouldn't even say it. [LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

Wait, he wouldn't say--

Nazanin Rafsanjani

Like he wouldn't even just say I was the only person for him. Like he couldn't even--

Ira Glass

He had to get all scientific.

Nazanin Rafsanjani

Yeah, exactly. He had to get all scientific. Like he couldn't just lie for a second.

[LAUGHTER]

It's just like a fundamental difference, you know? Like to me, it makes me feel good to think that we're the only ones out there for each other. And to him, I think it makes him feel bad. I think it freaks him out. I think the idea that, like, I'm it, in the whole world, makes him feel really-- I don't know. It just seems impossible and stupid, and not-- and also, just like, it's a lot of pressure.

Ira Glass

Yeah. It's a lot of pressure. There's a saying that goes something like, "How terrible to love what can perish." You know?

Nazanin Rafsanjani

Right. Right. Exactly. But like, you know, there's like 100,000 people. It's not that terrible to love something that can perish. [LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. Today on our show, stories of people looking for and finding the one person out there who is just for them, even if it is just a pleasant lie that there is just one person out there for each of us. Stay with us.

Act One: It’s Not Over Til The Fat Man Sings

Sarah Koenig

This romance begins with a man named Bao Gong, a strong, masculine man. An incorruptible judge.

Bao Gong was a famous character in Beijing Opera. And In 1995, he was played, briefly, by a 6'3" 250-pound white guy from the Midwest named Eric Hayot.

Eric Hayot

And then there was the really-- there was this fast part where he's reading the scroll. It was like-- [SINGING]

Oh, now I'm not going to remember the rest. I don't know where it goes. I thought I could handle it. But it's something like that.

Sarah Koenig

Eric didn't really set out to sing the part of Bao Gong. He was 23 years old at the time and on an exchange program in Tianjin, learning Chinese. He took an opera class on a lark, and after a couple of months of baffling rehearsals, found himself on stage dressed in a heavy silken and velvet robe, head shaved, face completely covered in black, red, and white makeup, and hanging down like a thick curtain from his chin, a perfectly straight, two-foot-long black beard.

To prepare for this moment, Eric's teacher had given him a cassette tape of the part, singing the entire thing and even imitating the instruments so Eric would know his cues.

Eric Hayot

And I had no idea what those sounds referred to. I'd actually never heard the objects that made those sounds. And then on the tape, there'd be this-- "Tsung, xie, xie, tsung, xie, xie, tsung." And then I was supposed to start singing, right?

He would also sing, like, "Nong-er, ning-er, ning-er, nong. A-long, dong, dinger dong." And so all this stuff. And I was like, I don't know what that is, but OK. And I knew I wasn't supposed to sing it, right? But I kind of-- so then we walk in, and there's an instrument going-- not exactly "Nong-er, nong-er, ning-er, nong," but something like it.

[INSTRUMENT PLAYING]

Sarah Koenig

The sound was coming from a jing erhu, a two-stringed instrument that's played upright with a horsehair bow. And playing it across the rehearsal room from Eric that day was a 19-year-old musician named Yuanyuan Di.

Eric Hayot

I mean I remember-- I just could not stop looking at her. And it was incredibly intense. I remember, I couldn't stop staring at her. And I mean, this is a ridiculous thing to remember. Her back was very, very, very straight. Just something about her posture was incredibly compelling to me.

And she just looked very beautiful, and she was incredibly beautiful. And so I was sitting on the other side of the room, trying to figure out how I was going to get to meet her, knowing that my Chinese was not adequate to the task of actually having a conversation with her.

Sarah Koenig

I'm going to go ahead and kill the suspense right here and tell you that Eric gets the girl. So of course, they did meet. Yuanyuan's teacher introduced them. Here's Yuanyuan.

Yuanyuan Di

I'm not used to seeing such a tall and a big person in my life, so I felt a little intimidated by having to look up all the time. So yeah, it's the first time in talking to a foreign-looking and a foreign-speaking person. I was a little nervous, yeah.

Sarah Koenig

Somehow they agreed to meet outside rehearsal. Neither remembers much about that first encounter, except that it was pleasant and proper, and there was a dictionary in constant use. Their first real date was for lunch.

Yuanyuan invited him to a fancy restaurant. It was her first time ever eating at such an expensive place. They both tried hard to be sophisticated, but the culture divide nearly defeated them.

Eric Hayot

She was doing this very Chinese thing, which is to order crazy amounts of food, just crazy amounts of food. I mean, like 10 dishes for two people. I mean like an enormous amount of food. And also, the weirder and more exotic stuff is, the more kind of you're showing your hospitality.

Yuanyuan Di

And I ordered something, some kind of a bird, either a pigeon or even smaller bird, that is maybe deep-fried with every part on the table? And for Chinese people, lot of people do eat every part. The feet, the head, the eyes, and so on.

Eric Hayot

And so I was just eating stuff, and I had no idea what I was eating. And so at one point, I put this thing in my mouth.

Yuanyuan Di

And he just casually carry on the conversation and put the head into his mouth.

Eric Hayot

And I bite down, and it's hard. And I think, oh, no. Like, what is this thing? And then I thought, well maybe it's like an M&M, and if I suck on it, it'll disintegrate. You know, because I had no idea, right? So I kind of, you know-- [SUCKING NOISE]-- suck on it for a while.

Yuanyuan Di

I was thinking, wow, he must really like it. I don't eat head. I know my mom eats, but I absolutely hate it. I don't even want to look at it.

Eric Hayot

And so I'm like, oh, I'm going to have to take this out of my mouth. And you know, that's not great. And so I take it out of my mouth and I put it on the plate, and I point at the dish it came from. And I say to Yuanyuan, "What is that?" And she says, "Oh, it's blah, blah, blah," right? This word that I had never heard.

And I say, well, what's that? And she says the word or the thing that it is. And at precisely the instant which I grasped that word, I have this kind of total epiphanic clarity of the object on the plate in front of me, which is the head, with beak and eye, of a bird.

Right? Like this just terrifying thing that I had sucked on, let me just say. So like, whatever brains were in the bird, I ate those, right? And so, like, all of that came to me.

And I freak out. Just saying over and over, in a really high-pitched, kind of squealy, frightened voice, "Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god," in English.

Yuanyuan Di

"Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god," many, many times, repeatedly, one after the other. And his hands just sprung up in the air and down. And I didn't know what was happening. I was just thinking, why was he so dramatically upset with the bird head?

I had no idea. So if you don't eat it, you just don't put it in your mouth. But why so scared?

Sarah Koenig

They had a couple more dates, even though they both knew it couldn't possibly go anywhere. Eric was leaving China in two weeks. They spent a day in Beijing, where he almost lost her in a crowded train station. And she invited him to an opera performance. But Tianjin flooded that day, and it took him hours to reach her, slogging through the filthy water in bare feet.

Eric Hayot

And I remember, at the time, that she was not nearly impressed enough by my having walked through the flood. I remember thinking-- like, she saw me, and she was like, oh, hey, how are you doing? And I'd been trying for literally two hours to get to her, right? And she was just like, oh, good to see you.

But that desperation of, like, needing to find the person. I remember that twice, really intensely, both on the day of the flood and the day of the train station, just the sense that you have to find this person. And you know, that kind of is overwhelming.

I'm teaching Proust this week, and so there's this moment in Proust where Swann is falling in love with Odette. But the way he realizes that he's falling in love with her is he goes to the party that he's supposed to meet her at, and she's already gone. And then he drives his carriage through Paris, and he's going in and out of all these restaurants, and stuff. And it's all about how the act of looking for her causes him, in some sense, not only to recognize that he's in love with her, but also actually to kind of really fall in love with her.

Sarah Koenig

Eric wasn't in love with Yuanyuan, exactly, but he was in serious crush. And then he went home to America and more or less let it go. She wrote a letter and he answered it, and she wrote again, and he never even read the second letter. It was just too much work deciphering the Chinese. So that was that.

Yuanyuan went off to conservatory in Beijing to study the jing erhu and opera, and didn't think too much about Eric, either. After all, they hadn't kissed or anything. Hadn't even held hands.

But two years later, in 1997, Eric decided to go back to China to study, this time for a year. He started thinking about Yuanyuan again.

Eric Hayot

I certainly had kind of dreamed, imagined, fantasized, whatever, about getting together with her. I also knew that, you know, it was two years, and that we hadn't talked.

Sarah Koenig

Did you feel like you even knew her, considering the language barrier and the cultural barrier? Do you know what I mean? Did you feel like you had a sense of who she was, even?

Eric Hayot

You know, that's a really good question. You know, I don't know. No. I mean, I guess looking back now, no, right? I don't think that-- if you'd asked me that at the time, I would have denied it vociferously.

But I mean, what could I know? I mean, what did I know? I knew her smile. I knew, like, the angle of her back. But I honestly hadn't really thought it out too much. I was pretty focused on finding her and hadn't really thought past the finding her.

And so I had her phone number. So I called that number, and I got a "this number's been disconnected" message. Right? Though I barely understood, so I had to actually call three or four times to listen to the message, the person speaking.

And so then I was lost, right? I had no way to find her. And so I guess I decided I would go and look for her.

Sarah Koenig

This is an insanely ambitious proposition. Beijing is a city of roughly 15 million people. There are probably more than 100 universities there. And all Eric's got is her name, her picture, and the fact that she plays the jing erhu. There's no phone book, no internet. But he doesn't think any of that matters.

So a few days after he arrives in Beijing, he simply asks around for the name of a university with a good music department. Then he gets in a cab, shows the driver the address. His Chinese is terrible at this point, but he remembers the word for office, and so finds his way to the music department and asks about Yuanyuan Di. A nice older lady informs him that Yuanyuan isn't a student there, but why doesn't he try another place, an opera school?

So he gets in another cab, which gets lost and then finally finds it. And Eric goes to the office of the second music school. It's a middle and high school, but Eric doesn't know that.

Eric Hayot

And I start explaining, you know, who I am. So I'm like, excuse me, I'm sorry to bother you. And there's like four or five people there, and they're all smoking. They're all drinking tea. It's kind of classic Chinese afternoon, no one's working, kind of thing. And one person's kind of dealing with me, but everyone's just totally paying attention, because it's weird.

And I have the photo, and I have Yuanyuan's name. And I'm explaining that I met this young woman a couple years ago in Tianjin, and I was singing Chinese opera. And like, oh, you sing Chinese opera? I was like, well, a little bit, and I'm not very good at it. And they all laugh. And this is like part of my trick.

Sarah Koenig

Eric's trick, what he was banking on, was his erstwhile stardom. Two years earlier, when he had sung the part of Bao Gong, the famous judge, he had become momentarily famous. He was all over the radio and on TV, talking and singing. Even Yuanyuan's grandparents had seen his picture in the papers.

So when faced with any difficult situation in China, he knew he had this secret power, which he could deploy at will. Apparently, Chinese people really like seeing foreigners do Chinese stuff. Kung fu, calligraphy--

Eric Hayot

And they really, really like seeing foreigners sing Chinese songs, to the point that there was a show on television every year called Foreigners Sing Chinese Songs.

Sarah Koenig

Like a special?

Eric Hayot

Like a special, yeah. Like the once-a-year special, Foreigners Sing Chinese Songs. And, you know, there's no equivalent of that in the United States. And so there's this fascination, and the fascination is two-fold, right? The fascination, first, comes from a sense of a kind of cultural inferiority, especially at the time, which any Western investment in things Chinese was taken to be a sign of respect.

And then, but also very clearly a sense of, like, watch the monkey sing a song. I mean, you know, it doesn't matter how well the monkey sings. Because if the monkey's singing a song, that's already impressive, because it's a monkey and it's a song, right?

So knowing what I did about how much Chinese love Peking opera, and these people I'd never seen-- so I figured if I could make this happen. And I end up singing for them.

Sarah Koenig

Again, here's that fast part.

Eric Hayot

[SINGING OPERA]

Sarah Koenig

It works. Everybody claps. Everyone's happy. He ends up hanging out with the staff for two hours. And finally, someone calls someone else, and it turns out Yuanyuan's former teacher happens to be at the high school that day.

And all of a sudden, Eric gets news. Yuanyuan has graduated from the conservatory, which anyway is in a different building, a half hour away. But he's got her beeper number. And then it takes three days where to figure out how to beep her properly.

And meanwhile, Yuanyuan has stopped responding to the beep. She thinks maybe a friend is playing a trick on her. But finally, they connect on the phone. Yuanyuan is stunned.

Yuanyuan Di

He said his name. I thought, couldn't be. But how could he know my phone number? How could he even call me? That's impossible.

I tried to ask all these questions, but he clearly lost almost all his Chinese language. So he couldn't really explain things. So he said, could you meet me? I said yes, when? He said, tomorrow? I said, sure.

Sarah Koenig

She's more than an hour late, and sure he'll be gone by the time she arrives. But he isn't. He's sitting there, waiting.

He looks different to her. He's got hair on his head and his face. And she looks different to him, too. Not as luminous as she'd been in his imagination. But they have a nice walk, and now that he's got a whole year in China, they start spending time together. A lot of time.

And as the weeks go by, Eric is trying to figure out how to kiss her-- Surprisingly difficult.

Eric Hayot

She just did not help me, like, at all. I mean like at all, at all. And so I would try to do these things that were like-- OK, so this is a perfect example of why things were confusing.

So we're walking down a street. I nudge her with my shoulder, the way that you do, like, when you're flirting with someone, right? She-- I only find this out later, because we talked about it. She thinks, oh, like, he's kind of a clumsy walker. I should move further away from him. I nudge her again. She thinks, oh, maybe he's trying to tell me I should walk on the other side of him, and she switches sides.

So she's, like, totally incapable of reading the codes. I mean, just like last week, we were watching a movie where some guy nudged some woman, and I was like, hey, see that? See that? That's how it works. That's how you know, right? But she had just no capacity.

Yuanyuan Di

I sensed that he wanted to kiss me, but I was not ready, or shy, or just tried to shy away. So I just tried to pretend I didn't pick up the signal, I guess.

Sarah Koenig

Had you kissed another boy before then?

Yuanyuan Di

No.

Sarah Koenig

So that was your first kiss.

Yuanyuan Di

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

Eventually Yuanyuan heard all the details of how Eric tracked her down. He was hoping she would think it was romantic, how he searched for her, and her alone, in a city of so many millions. Nope.

Yuanyuan Di

First thing came to mind was crazy. I wouldn't do the same. Yeah. I thought, why would you go through all this trouble? Because people are everywhere. Why do you want to go through the trouble just to find one particular person?

If this is a-- reverse the story, I was in Eric's position, I wouldn't do the same at all. Still, it's kind of a puzzle to me. [LAUGHS] I wouldn't go to a huge city trying to track down one person. I just think that's too much work. He's more romantic than I am. I'm more practical.

Sarah Koenig

More practical, and also more Chinese.

Yuanyuan Di

I think there's a saying in Chinese. It's [CHINESE]. It means what is meant to be is meant to be. You don't have to look really hard, especially when it comes to relationships. There's a specific time and location that are meant for the two of you to meet to get together, and you just have to wait for your turn. And that's something you cannot request, basically.

Sarah Koenig

After Eric left China that year, Yuanyuan came to the States on a 90-day fiancee visa, meaning if they didn't get married within 90 days, she'd have to leave, and probably not be able to return. So they did get married. But neither of them was really ready at the time.

And in the first few years, Eric says it was really hard. The novelty had worn off, and the framework of their entire relationship was an ocean away. And now here they were, realizing they didn't actually know each other all that well. During that time, they often found themselves telling people the story of how they met and fell in love.

Eric Hayot

And I think we lived on that, and it helped us. And it helped us be brave. You know, and reinforced to us, to each other, this sense of the magic of our relationship, and the sort of fairytale nature of it. And I think that we needed that more. Right? Like you think, like, oh, you know, a story that starts that way, how could it end up badly?

Sarah Koenig

After going through those rough years, when they even considered splitting up, the story of how they met came to feel less and less important, and they didn't talk about it as much. Now they have a different story.

Eric Hayot

Which is the story of struggle, and pain passed through and fought through and overcome. And you know, that's a story that you don't tell in public. Because no one ever asks, how did you two stay together? Everyone always asks, how did you two meet?

Sarah Koenig

Minus the singing, and the long black beard, and the jing erhu, and the beeper, and all the rest of it, Eric and Yuanyuan had to make that same transition that all couples do, from the crazy-in-love stage to the other thing. The hard part of love. And it's when you're in that struggle that you most need the story of how you're meant to be. Because the alternative, that the person you're with could be any one of hundreds or thousands of other people-- well, if that's true, then why even try?

Ira Glass

Sarah Koenig is one of the producers of our show. Coming up-- OK, if you found the one, the one for you, the one you've been looking for, how can you still be number two? Answers in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three: My Girlfriend's Boyfriend

Mike Birbiglia

When I was a senior in high school, I had my first girlfriend, Amanda. And this was a big deal for me, because it was that first time you fall in love, where you're like, oh, there is someone for me. You know, this is it. I've found her.

And she was great. She was so beautiful, and she played tennis, and she wrote for the newspaper, and she was a bad girl. And I was a kind of dorky nerd, kind of an outcast. This was at a boarding school that I didn't board at. I was only there because my family lived nearby.

And she had major street cred. She had been expelled from her previous school for dealing acid. I remember at one point, she said it was totally messed up, because it was actually this other girl who was dealing acid, and I was framed. And I was like, awesome.

I thought it was one of those things where we were opposites, and we knew it, and that made it more exciting. Like, where she wanted to be a writer and in student government, and I wanted to know what it was like to be cool.

Well, I find that when you fall in love, you tend to overlook certain red flags. One of them was that she was a liar. And I don't mean that in an offensive way. At boarding school, lying is something of a way of life.

I remember, there was this one guy in my class. He was a legendary liar. His name was Keith Robbins. And he used to lick his fingers like a bookie. He would go, "Yeah. Yeah. Nice. Nice. Nice."

And he would lie about things that weren't important. Like he'd be like, "Yeah. Yeah. Nice. My uncle's Tony Robbins, motivational speaker. Yeah. Nice." And I found out later that that wasn't even true. But even if it were, it wouldn't be that impressive, you know? And so you didn't bother protesting it. You'd just go, "Oh, OK, Keith."

The other red flag was that Amanda used to say really mean stuff to me, and then she'd say, "Only kidding." She'd be like, "You're not good at anything. Only kidding." "Nobody likes you at all. Only kidding."

The final red flag was that she told me not to tell anyone she was my girlfriend. She had another boyfriend at home that she was in the process of breaking up with. And it was over, but if it got back to him, you know, it would be bad.

So she would go home every weekend and visit him. And at one point she said she had to go home more frequently because his parents were sick, so she had to console him in that. And I thought, well, you know, the guy's parents are dying, so I ought to be understanding.

I also put up with it because I couldn't believe how lucky I was just to be with her. Like in retrospect, I understand how selfish she was. But at the time, I didn't know that.

When you're in a relationship with someone who's selfish, what keeps you in it is the fact that when they shine on you, it's like this souped-up shine. And you feel like you're in the club, and you don't even know what the club is. You just know you want to stay in it.

We'd been going out two months, and we went on Christmas break. And she invited me to meet her parents in New Hampshire. And this was very exciting. This was going to be my big moment. It would vindicate me and legitimize me as the main boyfriend.

And so I drive my mom's Volvo station wagon from Massachusetts to New Hampshire. And I meet her parents, and it's going really well. And then this guy shows up, and his name is Scott. And then the three of us are hanging out. And it dawns on me that I'm hanging out with my girlfriend's boyfriend.

And it's going OK? He seemed like a good guy. He was an all-state wrestler. And he was remarkably nice. I could totally see what she saw in him.

And there was some consolation, because every time he would go to the bathroom or go into the other room, she would be very affectionate towards me. She'd kiss my neck, or say something in her sweet voice. But then there was a moment where I was in the bathroom. And I thought, what's happening in the other room?

The date took a strange turn when Scott suggests that we go hang out at his house. And so we go, and I meet his parents. And it's a very strange thing, meeting your girlfriend's boyfriend's parents for the first time. Part of you is angry, for obvious reasons, and then part of you still wants to make a good impression. As a side note, they seemed in perfect health.

I drive home, defeated. And I sort of knew that at this point, this was her life, and I was like her secret life, like on Maury Povich. So I was like, this is it. I'm gonna stick up for myself. It's either him or me. And I convinced myself that given that choice, she would go with me, because what we had was so special.

So when we got back to school, I called her and I said, "We need to talk. Let's meet at the hockey game." And she says, "Great." So I go to the hockey game, and she's not there. Hockey game ends, still no sign. I have that pit in my stomach, you know, like, this was going to be my moment. And I was going to tell her that she had to pick me, or that's it.

And so I start walking around the school, to the library, the cafeteria, the places she might be. And I ask people where she is, and finally someone says, "I saw her with Keith Robbins down at the tennis courts." I remembered earlier that day at lunch, Keith had said to me, "I'm sleeping with your girlfriend. You know that, right?"

And I thought, well, first of all, I hadn't even slept with my girlfriend, so that would be insane. And second of all, he's a liar, so he must be lying. I remember I said to him, yeah, I know.

But at this moment, it dawns on me that Keith was her new second boyfriend, and I was done. And it was that horrible lonely feeling where you're walking around someplace, and there are people all around, and there's only one person you want to be with, no matter how mean they've been to you. I just wanted to hear that "Only kidding."

I remember people were coming up to me, and I couldn't even hear them. I couldn't even tell them what had happened. Because even though I was being dropped, the relationship itself was based on a secret.

And that spring, I graduated. Keith was expelled for making fake IDs in his dorm room. He had built a life-sized license from Arkansas that people stuck their face in. And he would photo it and then laminate it. He later took a job at Goldman Sachs. That detail seems made-up. It's actually true.

And Amanda was expelled the next year for dealing Ritalin. At boarding school, you can't go to the graduation if you're expelled. It's one of the shames of being expelled. And it's very strict. And I found out later that Amanda actually did show up to the graduation in a disguise. She wore a wig and sunglasses.

My friends laughed about this, the way that friends do to make you feel better when you've had your heart broken. But I could relate to her doing that. Because sometimes when you want to be in a place so badly, you'll do anything.

Ira Glass

Mike Birbiglia. That story is part of a book that he's putting together called Sleepwalk With Me: And Other Stories.

[MUSIC - "(I'D GO THE) WHOLE WIDE WORLD" BY WRECKLESS ERIC]

Credits

Eric Hayot

And then on the tape, there'd be this-- "Tsung, xie, xie, tsung, xie, xie, tsung."

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.