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486: Valentine’s Day

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Prologue

Ira Glass

OK. So a couple of physicists walk into a bar. Just kidding, they're not at the 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 is just like another day [LAUGHS] in the physics world.

Ira Glass

David Kestenbaum used to live in the physics world. These days, he lives in our world. He's a journalist-producer here at our show. But at the time of this story, he was getting a PhD in high energy particle physics at-- there's no way to avoid the name droppiness 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's 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. But he say they replaced intelligent life with girlfriends.

David Kestenbaum

So I think we started to do the calculation on the board. And can you look up what the population of Boston is?

Ira Glass

Now Dave 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 lived. The 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. It 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 three-fourths 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 Dave and his fellow students are talking about this-- these rather kind of, you know, 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-- so 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. [LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

David Kestenbaum

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. [LAUGHS] Assume we have an infinite surface bound by something or whatever. It's like, assume there exists some girlfriend. There is totally that act of faith underneath it. Yeah.

But I had a more scientific view, which is that there are people out there, you know, who might be right for me. And not just one person. That seemed like some-- 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? And they probably do, right? What are the odds you're going to find them and the translator? You've got to believe there's more than one person.

Ira Glass

Well, today in our program we have stories of people who dare to believe that they have found that one person for them, even if it is just a pleasant lie, that there is just one person out there for each of us. They have chosen to believe that they need to look no further. And then they act on that belief, doing some things, I have to say, I bet you have never heard of people doing.

And they do these things because they just cannot stop themselves. Like every country song ever written would tell you, they have got no choice. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. We first broadcast today's episode in 2013. We're running it again today because Valentine's Day is coming around again.

The population of Boston has grown since 2013 when we first did this show. It's now almost 700,000. Meaning the odds of finding love there have gotten even worse, if you believe there's just one person for you. So what if that's true? Answers today. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Best Laid Plans

Ira Glass

Act One, The Best Laid Plans. Well, when you hear it the first couple did-- the thing that they decided to attempt-- I think one of the things that is the most incredible about it is the kind of couple they were when they did this, which is a really great couple.

Kurt Braunohler

We were always like the most solid of all the relationships of our friends and everything like that.

Ira Glass

Kurt Braunohler met his girlfriend on the third day of college. And, in all of the ways that we think of what makes a good relationship, I think that they were doing better than you, or me, or most people. They had a lot of fun together. They could talk about anything. They didn't really fight. Happy sex life.

Kurt Braunohler

We really just got along very well together. We traveled well together. You know, we were always the kind of-- we were the place that friends would come when they are having hard times and they would stay with us. And we were kind of-- it felt like very adult. Even when I was 23, I felt like, I'm kind of married, even though neither of us had ever, ever discussed getting married.

Ira Glass

So what happened?

Kurt Braunohler

Well, after we had both turned 30, one day I just kind of was thinking about why we had never talked about getting married. Like, we had never, ever talked about it seriously or otherwise. And whenever anyone would ask us, we would always just kind of brush it off and say, oh, well, we're going to-- we'll get married when we have kids. That's what we'd always say.

And I remember we were sitting in the living room and it was October. And I just said, hey, I want to talk. And I said, why-- you know, why do you think we haven't gotten married yet? Or even talked about it? And she just kind of looked at me and thought for a second. And then she said, well, I think that before we get married, we should probably sleep with other people.

And-- and that-- you would imagine that that would come back as a huge shock to me, like hit me hard. But for some reason, it kind of-- it made sense to me. I kind of was like, OK. Very calmly. And I guess the reason--

Ira Glass

Wait, wait. How did that make sense?

Kurt Braunohler

I've thought a lot about this. And I think that there's a few reasons. We both had this kind of arrogant notion of our relationship-- that it could survive literally anything. That we had been together-- we had known each other our whole adult lives. We were each other's worlds. So really I don't think we thought that we could destroy this thing.

Ira Glass

I talked to the girlfriend, who did not want to come on the radio. And she said basically she'd only had two boyfriends in her life-- her high school boyfriend, who was not a good boyfriend at all, and Kurt, who was great. But she met Kurt, she said, when she was 17. She was 30 when this happened. And she said that she felt like maybe she missed out on something in her 20s, experiences that other people had. And she didn't want to regret that.

A warning, I should say, before we go any further in this story. We're going to acknowledge the existence of sex between adults. Nothing explicit. Anyway, so they sat on the couch, and they talked this through.

Kurt Braunohler

The next part of that conversation was how-- the logistics. Do we break up? Do I move out? Do we just do this while we're living in the same house together? And we kind of came up with this idea of borrowing this Amish concept called rumspringa. And rumspringa in the Amish world is when you're 16, you're allowed to be not Amish for two years. And then when you turn 18, you decide whether or not you come back to the fold.

Ira Glass

Right. And during those two years, kids get drunk. They sleep around. They try drugs.

Kurt Braunohler

They do lots of meth.

Ira Glass

They do lots of stuff.

Kurt Braunohler

So we were going to have-- we decided to have a rumspringa from our relationship. And that's the other crazy thing is that we decided that it-- 30 days was enough. Because probably within 30 days, sleeping with other people would get that all out of our system in 30 days.

Turns out it's really difficult to all of a sudden become single at 31, when you've never been single for your entire life. Because all of a sudden, I'm in New York City and I'm single, and I essentially have the emotional tools of a 17-year-old boy.

Ira Glass

Because the last time you'd dated was-- you were 17.

Kurt Braunohler

The last time I dated I was in a dorm room.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Kurt Braunohler

Also it wasn't that I was just-- it wasn't like I was single in New York City. Because being single in New York City is, I think, the majority of it is being just very lonely and being on your own, whereas this was very different. I was in a marathon. I was in a race. I was in-- I was in a 30-day race to sleep with as many people as I possibly could. Because after 30 days, I was going to go back and then get married. So--

Ira Glass

So there's a time clock ticking.

Kurt Braunohler

Every single-- it was almost to the minute where I'd just be like, if I wasn't out somewhere trying to meet someone, I was like, this is wasted time. I am wasting my time right now. And also because of the fact that we were both-- my girlfriend and I were both very competitive with each other, that we didn't speak during that 30 days.

But I think in both of our minds we had a competitive nature of being like, I need to sleep with more people than she does. And I think she felt the same way.

Ira Glass

That's true. She did feel that way. I asked her. So before they started the rumspringa, they took a last romantic trip together to New Orleans over New Year's. And they had a great time. And then on January 3, after they both cried a bit, Kurt moved out for a month. So, you know, suddenly single, 31, time clock ticking, where do you start, right?

Well, Kurt called this woman that he knew just a little bit and had a date on the very first or second night. He can't remember which it was. And at a dinner, he told her the entire situation. He laid the whole thing out, that he was seeing somebody. They were taking this break to sleep around. And this was a rule that he made for himself, that he was always going to be honest with any woman that he met during this month. He was going to be honest, upfront.

Kurt Braunohler

That-- and that's the weird thing. That's the thing that I still kind of-- when I think back on this time-- that I don't understand. Like, I don't understand how these women that I met during that time heard the story and were like, OK. Let's continue with this date.

Ira Glass

Well, what would they say?

Kurt Braunohler

I think most of them-- the overwhelming response was like, wow? And I can't believe you're telling me this.

Ira Glass

Kurt was staying on a futon on a friend's living room floor for the month in this apartment where there was no door between the living room and the bedroom where his friend was sleeping. And he brought this woman back on the first date. And they made out a little bit. And then they set another date.

Kurt Braunohler

I think it was probably for the next night or the night after. Something like that.

Ira Glass

And what happens?

Kurt Braunohler

What do you mean? What happens on the date?

Ira Glass

I guess I mean, do you sleep with her? Since the whole point of this story is you trying to sleep with women.

Kurt Braunohler

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Ira Glass

I mean, suddenly, I felt very, like, modest about asking. But, yeah, no. Did you sleep--

Kurt Braunohler

Yes. We ended up sleeping together.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Kurt Braunohler

Yeah. It was amazing. It was-- yeah. It totally turned my head around. It really did feel like having experiences like I would imagine I would have had as a teenager. You know? Where sex was this very powerful thing, and it kind of overwhelmed you.

Ira Glass

A day or two after that, he picks up a woman in a bar-- something he had never done before in his life. And he goes home with her. And from there, he's off and running. But, remember, he has the emotional tools of a 17-year-old.

Kurt Braunohler

I was emotionally getting involved with these women. And that was against one of our rules that we had come up with. My girlfriend and I had had a rule saying, no relationships. We don't get into relationships with people. We're just going to go out and sleep with people to see what it's like.

Ira Glass

Oh, I see. And then-- but you didn't actually know how to just go out and sleep with somebody without getting emotionally involved.

Kurt Braunohler

Not at all. I mean, the first date I went on, I immediately was, like, head over heels for her and I knew her for six hours. And I didn't know how to date. I didn't know how to date casually. So what I really was doing was just getting involved-- I was acting like a person who had been in a 13-year relationship with these women that I had just met.

Ira Glass

Like how does that mean? What do you mean?

Kurt Braunohler

Immediately holding hands. I remember that my impulse would be to say, "I love you," during sex. [LAUGHS] That would be my impulse because that's the only way I was used to having sex. And I remember the first time that I did end up having sex, I started to say, I love you, and then just kind of swallowed it and made it seem like I was coughing. [LAUGHS] And that wasn't-- and that didn't happen just once.

Ira Glass

Kurt says it was just a month of incredibly intense feelings. He'd feel this crazy elation or he would find himself walking down the street weeping. The girlfriend told me that she, meanwhile, was having escapades of her own. She'd be out all night, drinking and dancing, going to exclusive clubs with Mexican high rollers, doing crazy things with European tourists. It was just what she wanted actually.

And both of them told me that the weirdest thing about that time was that the person that they wanted to talk to most about what was going on and share it with was each other. But of course they weren't speaking. Kurt says that one of the most amazing things to him, that was kind of a revelation during that time, was something-- I've never actually heard anybody talk about it out loud, but I totally related to this-- was how quickly he would find himself in the home of a complete stranger.

Kurt Braunohler

Yeah. I'd never gotten to see other people's apartments so much. That's kind of what I was fascinating by, getting to see all these different people's apartments and seeing how everyone lives. And I loved that. I loved that part of it so much. You know, it's like-- I was like, look at this. Like, I'm seeing-- this is all your stuff. This is the stuff you keep on your bedside table.

And also having like really weird experiences I'd never had before, like, of like, women picking me up. I never experienced that before. I was so confused. Because it was a bartender. She was, like, a bartender. So she just kept giving me drinks, free drinks. And I was like, why is this person-- why is she giving me all these free drinks?

But it is fascinating to see if you stay at the bar until 4:00 in the morning, then all of a sudden-- I'd never been aware of it before. But then I started looking around me like, oh, all these people are like pairing off. Look at how this happens. Like I'd never been-- I've been at bars until 4:00 in the morning, but I was always-- it's all of a sudden like uncovering this whole level of single life in New York City that I had-- that I was just-- had not been aware of before.

Anyone in New York City I feel like can have sex any night of the week if they just follow two rules-- which is, stay at the bar until 4:00 in the morning and dramatically lower your standards. [LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

So after a month, Kurt and his girlfriend get together and talk. And they agree that a month was not enough for this. They said that it was just obvious the experiment hadn't run its course. They both wanted more time. So they decided on a second month, which then becomes third month. And for Kurt, as time went on, it got harder and harder to stick with the rule that they had made of not getting into any relationships. He's just muddling about, how to figure out how to do that.

In his head he would think, like, when is something actually a relationship?

Kurt Braunohler

And I think in my head I was like, three dates. Three dates makes a relationship. That's what I defined. And so then I would try to not see people for more than three times. That was increasingly difficult.

Ira Glass

It's difficult because he was giving women two opposite messages at the same time. He would tell them that he was just taking a month's break from his real relationship and this isn't serious. But then, he didn't hold back any of his feelings.

Kurt Braunohler

What I felt like kept happening was that I would act like I wanted to be their boyfriend, and then after three dates, would just abruptly end it with no explanation whatsoever. And definitely-- definitely people would yell at me and call me names. And I feel-- to this day, I feel horrible about that. Because I was just-- I was acting like a crazy person. I was acting like a person with absolutely no boundaries.

Ira Glass

So it was hard to stop himself while it was going on. And when we talked about it, Kurt's best explanation for that was--

Kurt Braunohler

Well, I once had a-- when I had a dog-- when I was a kid, I had a dog. And one day, the cat knocked a five pound bag of sugar off onto the floor. And my dog was about nine pounds. He was a toy poodle. And he ate all five pounds of sugar in one day. And then he was sick for, like, three days afterwards.

But I always think about that day for him, how amazing that day must have been, like, eating all that sugar, and eating it, and then going away from it for a little while, and being like, I can't stop. When is this going to happen again? And then he just started vomiting and vomiting for three straight days. And that's how I felt, you know? Like, I knew this was bad. But I was like, when is this ever going to happen again?

Ira Glass

I asked Kurt's girlfriend if all this happened to her during the rumspringa, too-- if it was hard just to have sex without emotion entering into it at all. And she said, absolutely not. Quote, "You mean the dudes that I meet at bars, or parties, whatever? Those people?" She said, "I didn't tell anyone anything about my background or the situation."

And I asked her, wait, so you wouldn't explain, I'm on a break from a relationship? She said, "No, because it sounds crazy." I told her that Kurt would reveal all of that, which she knew. And she said, yeah, yeah, Kurt's way too open. But, quote, "That openness probably just made him more appealing to the ladies."

By the end of three months, Kurt started to fall for this woman that he met in Australia. And this time, really actually fall for her in a real way. And this made him, of course, feel differently about his relationship with his girlfriend. So he flew back to the States, stayed at their old apartment, and because this is the most comfortable relationship that has ever existed between two people, of course, they dealt with it all right away. Very straightforward.

Kurt Braunohler

And we woke up in the morning and we went and got brunch. And we brought it to the park, the way we'd always used to do on Saturdays. And we just sat in the park and talked. And we broke up. And that's the thing. I can't I can't point to something that was bad about our relationship, except for knowing that I feel like it had run its course.

I mean, we organically got to the point where we both thought this was a good idea.

Ira Glass

This-- the rumspringa?

Kurt Braunohler

It's almost like we-- the relationship had an expiration date, but we didn't know about it. And then all of a sudden, we came up with this really complicated, crazy plan to put the test down at the right place where it would break. And it broke.

Ira Glass

His old girlfriend said something similar. She said she'd probably wanted out of the relationship before the rumspringa, but she was just too scared to admit it to herself. The rumspringa gave them a way to break up. Kurt says he would not want to do a rumspringa again. But he came out of this experience believing that it is important to force things to a decision with someone, and that it's healthy for any relationship to be evaluated now and then.

Kurt Braunohler

I do have a theory now. I do have a theory about if I do get married in the future. What I think I would want to do is have an agreement that, at the end of seven years, we have to get remarried in order for the marriage to continue. But at the end of seven years, it ends. And we can agree to get remarried or not get remarried.

Ira Glass

Why?

Kurt Braunohler

Because then I get-- I think you get to choose. And I think it makes the relationship-- would make the relationship stronger.

Ira Glass

I don't know what I think of that because I think, actually, one of the things that's a comfort in marriage is that there isn't a door at seven years. And so if something is messed up in the short term, there's a comfort of knowing, like, well, we made this commitment. And so we're just going to work this out. Like, if even if tonight we're not getting along or there's something between us that doesn't feel right, you have the comfort of knowing, like, we've got time.

We're going to figure this out. And that makes it so much easier. Because you do go through, like, times when you hate each other's guts. You know what I mean? Like--

Kurt Braunohler

Of course you do. Yeah.

Ira Glass

And the no escape clause, weirdly, is a bigger comfort to being married than I ever would have thought, before I got married.

Kurt Braunohler

Really?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Kurt Braunohler

I never thought of it that way.

Ira Glass

Yeah. It's--

Kurt Braunohler

I like thinking about it that way. You just see so many examples of where that-- of people-- where people don't think that way.

Ira Glass

Both Kurt and his girlfriend feel like the rumspringa got them where they needed to go as a couple, even if that place was different than they intended when they began the whole thing. Sometimes what you need to do next as a couple you can't even tell what it should be. And the best you can do is hold your breath, make a guess, and jump.

It's actually been a few years since we first broadcast this story. Today's show is a rerun. Kurt and his girlfriend are now both happily married to other people, and each separately have children. Things worked out fine. Kurt's on the TV show Black Monday and does stand up around the country, including this weekend at the Crocodile in Seattle. His tour schedule is at kurtbraunohler.com.

[MUSIC - "30 DAYS" BY RUN DMC]

Coming up, love stories between a kid and someone who is not a kid, and a duck and someone who is not a duck, and Mike Birbiglia and someone who is not Mike Birbiglia. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: 21 Chump Street

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, for Valentine's Day, stories about people who believe in love, who believe they have found someone for them, and who take action. We have arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, 21 Chump Street.

A couple of years ago, at three high schools in Palm Beach County, Florida, a bunch of young police officers were sent undercover to pose as students. These were recent graduates of the police cadet program, and they blended right in. They went to classes, they ate in the cafeteria. They hung out on the basketball court during recess. They had fake Facebook accounts, of course. They even took the state's standardized test, the FCAT.

Police officers were there undercover because parents and principals had complained about drugs being sold at the schools. Only the principals at the schools knew of their presence. No teachers knew it. No parents knew it. Now, maybe it is hard to imagine a love story coming out of this situation, but one did. A love story where somebody went out of his way, and took action at a key moment for love.

We've told this story twice on our program. Once we turned it into a musical, once as straight reporting. That's what you're about to hear-- the straight reporting version. Robbie Brown was a reporter with the New York Times when he first looked into this.

Robbie Brown

The plan was called Operation D-Minus. And one of the schools included in the plan was Park Vista Community High School, where a kid named Justin LaBoy, an 18-year-old honor roll student, was in the last semester of his senior year. And Justin could hardly believe his luck when a very pretty new girl-- everyone had noticed her-- showed up in not just one, but two of his classes.

Justin Laboy

The name that she used was Naomi. I think it was Naomi Rodriguez. And she sat in front of me, but then I sat next to her. So I started talking to her. Oh, hey. My name is Justin, you know? Oh, I'm Naomi. I'm from New York. This and that. Oh, really? Me too. And I had a hat that said New York on it, too, because I was trying to show her that I wasn't lying or faking it.

She said she was from Queens. I'm from the Bronx. And she was Puerto Rican and Dominican. And that's what caught me even more. I was like, oh, man. OK. And then I was Puerto Rican, and I was talking to her a little Spanish. And she talked to me a little Spanish. And then we just-- I just got really close to her. I got attached real quick. I was like, wow, look at this, you know?

Robbie Brown

What did she look like?

Justin Laboy

She was about 5'4, black straight hair, light skinned. She was mature in the body-wise. So I mean, that caught a lot of people's attention. But the things that she did that I thought that made her a real student was that she would sleep in class. She wouldn't do her homework. I would have to wake her up all the time. Be like, hey, listen. Wake up. You're going to get in trouble. Hey, oh, you didn't do your homework? OK, I'll let you copy my homework. OK.

Because I mean, I take my classes, you know, seriously, you know? But with her? It was different. I was just like, oh, man. You know, wow, you know. She's cute. I could talk to her, you know? I'll get in trouble once in a while. They'd be like, Justin, stop talking. I'd be like, OK.

Robbie Brown

Justin's a good looking guy, popular and well-liked. He'd had girlfriends before, but nothing that lasted. Nothing that seemed worth holding on to. But Naomi seemed different. She was a good listener. She didn't seem to gossip or play games. She seemed very adult.

Justin Laboy

It's the maturity level that I really cared for. And-- OK, I told her a lot of my feelings. You know, I told her how I felt for her. I mean, I'm not the type of person to open up to you unless we have a really good relationship. And [LAUGHS] I was just opening up so much. And I told her about all my whole life story, about my parents. I told the problems I had.

Robbie Brown

What was it about her that made you trust her? That made you feel like you could open up to her?

Justin Laboy

She had told me that she lived-- she came up here with her mother, that they was having problems in New York. So you know, they came over here to Florida to settle down, to have a better life. And little stuff like that, to telling people, I believe that, oh, wow. You know, OK, since you're telling me stuff like this, then I could tell you about my life. Yeah. You know, I'm having hard troubles with this person right here. Or I'm having trouble with my parents, or stuff-- little stuff like that makes people bond together, you know?

Robbie Brown

Justin believed he was seeing signs that Naomi was starting to like him-- like him, like him. They walked together in the halls. They would text during class. He says she even let him kiss her on the cheek. And he serenaded her in front of their entire class.

Justin Laboy

I'd be like, oh, I'm going to sing you a song. She'd be like, oh, OK. And then I'll just start singing. And then I'll get all blushed up. I'll be like, ah, man, what am I doing? OK. Let me continue. I'll start rapping to her, and I'll start singing. And I mean, I even danced, too. So I danced for her, and I did--

Robbie Brown

You really liked this girl.

Justin Laboy

Man, it tore me apart. I was like, oh my god.

Robbie Brown

So you felt like all the signs-- all the signs were good.

Justin Laboy

Oh, of course. I felt all the signs were good because I never got a diss-- a non-sign. So, therefore, I was just like, OK. Everything's good. You know, I know I'm taking it slow. You know, I know I'm taking it good. You know, usually it doesn't take me that long to get a girlfriend when I start talking to them.

So when it took me-- I found it kind of odd that, you know, I was like, wow, you know, I'm such a great dude, and, you know, we're hanging out, you know? What's the next step, you know? I don't care about sex, or anything. I just want to know if you're going to be mine.

Robbie Brown

So she was playing kind of hard to get?

Justin Laboy

Yes. Yes. I mean, me, I love that. So it attracted me even more. I was like, oh, my-- I love girls that guys can't have. So I'm like, oh, this is awesome.

Robbie Brown

And in hindsight, she was probably playing hard to get for a different reason.

Justin Laboy

Yes, for a different reason, you know?

Robbie Brown

All of this built up, inevitably, to Justin asking Naomi to prom.

Justin Laboy

Yeah. You know, she's a senior. I'm a senior. Our last year. I don't know where we're going to be after this. So let me just step up, and be a man, and do what I got do. So I went up to her in class and I was like, listen, you know, I know you don't know anybody in this school that much. And I don't want to go with anybody in the school. And you know, I feel really attracted to you. Would you like to come with me to prom?

Oh, that sounds nice. OK. Excuse me, let me think about it. I was blushing red. I was like, oh, my god. What if she says no? What if she says yes? And after she gave me the OK, yeah, you know, around the more of a yes side, I was-- OK. I was good. Good.

Naomi

You know, prom was coming up and-- I mean, I guess he needed a date. [LAUGHS]

Robbie Brown

I interviewed the undercover officer who played Naomi. She's a 25-year-old new recruit with the Palm Beach school's police force. She wouldn't give me her real name, and only agreed to a phone interview, if her supervising sergeant could listen in. She wouldn't talk to me about any specific cases or kids at the school, including Justin. But she did confirm that she was asked to prom. She doesn't remember it quite the way Justin does, though. Mainly, she says she didn't say yes.

Naomi

I told him I wasn't going, just because-- since this is not where I spent the last three years of high school, I didn't really want to go to the prom. And I had to pay for the ticket and everything else, so I was like, nah, it's too much money for me. And he bought it. [LAUGHS]

Robbie Brown

Justin and Naomi didn't end up going to prom, of course, partly because of what happened next. One day at the beginning of April, after Naomi had been at school for about three months, she and Justin had a conversation about drugs.

Justin Laboy

She asked me if I smoked. And I told her, no, I do not smoke. But if you need anything, I'll be more than happy to help you out. So you know, like I said, I'm not a drug dealer. I don't-- it's hard for me to get drugs at all. So it's not like she told me this day, and then I got it for her the very next day. You know, it took me a while, you know?

She would text me, and I would text her. She would be like, do you have it yet? No, I don't have it at the moment right now. And she'll be at school, hey, do you have that yet? No, I don't have it right now. I'm sorry. You know, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm really trying like my hardest to get it. And I can't get it, you know, because I like the girl, so--

Robbie Brown

What are you thinking as you're trying to get this pot to sell to her?

Justin Laboy

I'm thinking, what the heck am I doing? [LAUGHS] Like I never-- I never done this in this school before. So I'm really scared and skeptical about it, too, at the same point. And I'm like, oh, man. OK. OK. So I'm asking my homeboy. And my friend's like, no, I don't know-- I don't know because I don't hang out with guys like that.

Robbie Brown

Maybe Justin didn't know guys like that and maybe he did. The police say he told Naomi he smoked pot. Justin says he was just trying to seem cool to impress her. But what's certain is he did find somebody who would sell to him-- a person his cousin knew, he says. So a couple days after they first talked about it, Justin brought a rolled up baggie of marijuana to school for Naomi.

Justin Laboy

And I was petrified. I was like, oh, my god. I'm actually going to do this. So we was in class. And I sat right next to her, and she was like, hey, do you have that? And I was like, you know what? Yeah, I do. And I was like, OK, we're going to wait in a few. We're going to wait a few. Because I'm not going to be like, oh, hey, give it to her in her hand, slide it to her.

But she was like, OK. Put it in my purse. OK. She put her purse on top of my desk. And then I put-- slid it right in there She goes, OK. Now take the money. I was like, no, I don't need the money. It's OK. Just have it. You can take it. She goes, no, please. Take the money. You know, you make me feel bad.

So 10 minutes passed, and then we're still arguing about it. I'm like, please. No, I don't want the money, you know? And she goes, no, just take the money. Take the money. Please, take the money. It would make me feel better. I'm just like, OK, you know what? Just so you could just shut up, I'll take the money, you know? Don't worry, you know? You're making me feel bad now that I'm taking money from you.

Robbie Brown

How much money?

Justin Laboy

$25.

Robbie Brown

And this was at school?

Justin Laboy

Yes.

Robbie Brown

Justin would later find out it's a felony in Florida to sell marijuana. And the penalty is even harsher for selling it on school property. In other words, Justin had made an irreversibly bad decision. The worst decision of his life, he says. And since he was over 18, he was legally an adult when he made it.

Finally, in May, the police did a big sweep. They arrested 31 people at several schools, almost all of them students who had sold small amounts of marijuana. Justin was one of them.

Justin Laboy

And they said that I had sold to the undercover cop. And I'm-- I'm weirded out. I'm like, whoa, who did I ever sell to? And then it just popped into my head that the only person that I ever did give anything to was this female. And I was just-- I was shocked. I was-- I-- my emotions were running. And I was just like, oh, my god. This is so mean. This is all messed up. How can she do this, you know?

I mean, if it was a guy doing this, if a guy ever tried to come up to me like this, I would have put him-- put my hand in his face, straight up and said, no. Get out of my face. Please, get out of my face. I don't associate with that, you know? But it's just the female-- it's a different feeling that you get for female than you would when you have your homeboy, or a guy come up to you and ask you a question like that. Oh, hey. Do you smoke? No, no, I don't. Get out of here.

It was a different feeling that when you get from a girl you like, you know, you're not going to turn down your-- the person that you want to be with.

Robbie Brown

When I talked to the officer who plays Naomi, she said she had no regrets about her undercover work. She's a cop, and she sees it the way a cop does.

Naomi

These kids need to wake up. They need to realize they can't be doing this.

Robbie Brown

And using undercover officers has gotten results. The police in Palm Beach County tried the same tactics again at another group of schools last semester. So far, they've arrested more than 80 people. All have plead guilty to charges ranging from selling cocaine and pills to bringing weapons on school property.

Justin took a plea deal-- three years probation in exchange for pleading guilty to the felony charge. His lawyer told him that if he went to trial, it would be his word against Naomi's. And they disagreed about the drug deal. He says she kept asking him to sell her marijuana. She says he brought it up first. He says she insisted he take money for it. She says he just took the money without prompting.

Either way, the police had Justin's text messages telling Naomi he would get marijuana for her. So Justin's lawyer advised him, just take the plea. But before the deal came through, he spent more than a week in jail, going over and over in his mind what had happened, and still thinking in spite of himself about Naomi.

Justin Laboy

I would have a good time when I would be with her. And I would be with her, like, all the time. And that's why when all this collapsed and caved in, I felt-- I felt so like-- it just hurt.

Robbie Brown

Have you had any contact with Naomi--

Justin Laboy

No, not--

Robbie Brown

--since you were arrested?

Justin Laboy

Not at all.

Robbie Brown

Have you tried to send her any messages?

Justin Laboy

No. I don't have any contact with her whatsoever. If I would, I would love to have a conversation with her. You know? And no disrespect, or anything.

Robbie Brown

What would you tell her?

Justin Laboy

I would tell her, what the heck did she do? [LAUGHS]

Robbie Brown

Justin had planned to go into the Air Force after high school. He said he wanted to make something out of his life. Now with a felony conviction, the armed forces, any part of it, was off the table. Justin is applying to community college. He says now the whole thing seems kind of unbelievable. He was an honor roll student, a first time offender, with no criminal record. And of all the high schools, in all the towns in all the world, she walked into his.

Ira Glass

Robbie Brown, these days he works at Bloomberg Media. Regular listeners to our program know the composer Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a mini musical based on the story that you just heard. And it's really something. A video of it is at our website, ThisAmericanLife.org.

Act Three: Cold Stone Dreamery

Ira Glass

Act Three, Cold Stone Dreamery. This next story, like that last one we just heard, is about a guy who yearns for someone-- yearns-- and this someone is not giving him much back. This story is from Ben Loory.

Ben Loory

A duck fell in love with a rock. It was a large rock-- about the size of a duck, actually, that was situated off the bank of the river, a little past the old elm. Every day after lunch, the duck would saunter off to admire the rock for a while.

Where are you going? said the other ducks. Nowhere, said the duck. Just around.

But the other ducks knew exactly where he was going and they all laughed at him behind his back. Stupid duck is in love with a rock, they snickered. Wonder what kind of ducklings they will have.

But there was one duck-- a girl duck-- who did not laugh. She had known the strange duck for a long time and had always found him to be a good and decent bird. She felt sorry for him. It was hard luck to fall in love with a rock. She wanted to help, but what could she do?

She trailed after the duck and watched him woo the rock from behind a tree. I love you, the duck was saying. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you more than the stars in the sky. I love you more than the fish in the river. I love you more than-- more than-- and there he stopped, for he could think of nothing else that existed.

Life itself? said the girl duck from behind the tree. She hadn't meant to pipe up. The words just sort of leaped out of her. The duck spun around to look at her. He was terrified.

It's OK, said the girl duck, waddling out from behind the tree. I know you're in love with the rock. In fact, everyone knows.

They do? said the duck. Yes, said the girl duck. Yes, they do. The duck sighed and sat down on the ground. If he had had hands, he would have buried his head in them. What am I going to do? he said. What am I going to do?

Do? the girl duck said. How can it go on like this? said the duck. I love a thing that cannot speak, cannot move, cannot-- I don't even know how it feels about me.

The girl duck looked at the rock. She didn't know what to say. I know, said the duck, you think I'm crazy. You think it's just a rock. But it isn't just a rock. It's different. It's very different. He looked at the rock. But something has to happen, he said, and soon, because my heart will break if this goes on much longer.

That night, the girl duck had a hard time sleeping. She kept paddling around in circles, thinking about the rock, and the duck, and his heart that might break. She thought long and hard, and before morning, she had an idea. She went and woke up the strange duck.

Things happen when they must, she said, as if it were an extremely meaningful statement. So? said the duck. So I have a plan, said the girl duck. And I think that it will work.

Well, what is it? said the duck, nearly bursting with excitement. We will need help, said the girl duck. And it will take some time. And also, we will need a cliff.

Two days later they set out. It took four ducks to carry the rock. They worked in teams and traded off every 15 minutes. Everyone joined in, even though they had laughed, for ducks are all brothers when it comes right down to it.

The cliff is over that hill and then quite a ways to the south, said the most elderly duck. I remember flying over it when I was a fledgling. It looked like the edge of the world. The ducks trudged on under their rocky weight for hours. For hours, and then for days. At night they camped under hedges and strange trees, and ate beetles and frogs.

Do you think it will be much farther? said one of the ducks. Maybe, said the old duck. My memory is not so good anymore.

On the sixth day, the ducks began to tire. I don't believe there is a cliff, said one of them. Me neither, said another. I think the old duck is crazy. My back hurts, said a third duck. I want to go home. Me too, said a fourth. In fact, I'm going to.

And then all the ducks began to turn for home. The rock fell to the forest floor and lay there. The strange duck looked imploringly at the girl duck. Don't worry, she said. I won't leave you. They watched all the other ducks flee homeward, and then they hoisted the rock onto their backs and trudged on.

What do you think will happen when we throw it off the cliffs? said the duck. I don't know, said the girl duck. I just know it will be something.

Finally, they came to the edge of the cliff. The drop off was so great they couldn't see the ground. Just great, white clouds spread out before them like an endless, rolling cotton blanket.

It looks so soft, said the duck. Yes, it does, said the girl duck. Are you ready? The duck looked at the rock. This is it, my love, he said. The moment of truth. And whatever happens, please remember, always remember, I love you.

And the two ducks hurled the rock off the cliff together. At first, the rock simply fell, like a rock one might say, like a stone. But then something began to happen. It began to slow. It began to grow. It began to change. It narrowed. It elongated. And it also spread sideways.

It's becoming a bird, the girl duck said. And it was. It was becoming a beautiful gray bird-- really not that unlike a duck. Its wings began to move slowly up and down, up and down, and it dove down, and then coasted up. It looked back over its shoulder at the two ducks on the cliff, and it called out just once-- goodbye.

And then it was going, going, getting smaller and smaller, flying off over the blanket across the sky. When they reached the pond, the other ducks gathered around and clamored to hear what had happened. The duck and the girl duck glanced at each other. Nothing, said the girl duck. It fell.

In the days that followed, the duck stayed to himself. The girl duck went and swam around in circles. She thought about that rocky bird flying off into the sky. She saw it over and over in her mind. And then one day, not too many days later, she looked and saw the duck come swimming up. He was carrying a small salamander in his bill.

For me? the girl duck said. And the duck smiled.

Ira Glass

Ben Loory, reading a story from his book, Stories for Nighttime and Some For the Day.

Act Four: My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend

Ira Glass

Act Four, My Girlfriend's Boyfriend. Comedian Mike Birbiglia has this story of some of the extreme things that some of us put up with when we believe that we have found the one person in the world for us. He recorded this in front of a live audience and-- quick warning-- there's not really any sexual, prurient content in the story. But Mike does refer to the fact that sex exists and happens between people.

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-- that first time you fall in love, where you're like, oh, there is someone for me. This is it! Like, I found her!

And she was great. She was so beautiful, and she played tennis, and she wrote for the newspaper, and she was a-- 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.

[LAUGHTER]

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.

[LAUGHTER]

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

[LAUGHTER]

Well, I find that when you fall in love, you tend to overlook certain red flags.

[LAUGHTER]

One of them was that she was a liar.

[LAUGHTER]

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 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. And he'd go, yeah, yeah. Nice. Nice. Nice.

[LAUGHTER]

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.

[LAUGHTER]

And I found out later that that wasn't even true. But even if it were, it wouldn't be that impressive, you know, I--

[LAUGHTER]

So you didn't bother protesting it. You'd just go, oh, OK, Keith. You know? The other red flag was that Amanda used to say really mean stuff to me. And then she'd say, only kidding.

[LAUGHTER]

She'd be like, you're not good at anything. Only kidding.

[LAUGHTER]

Nobody likes you at all. Only kidding.

[LAUGHTER]

The final red flag was that she told me not to tell anyone she was my girlfriend.

[LAUGHTER]

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'd 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.

[LAUGHTER]

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 you 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 is very exciting. This is 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.

[LAUGHTER]

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.

[LAUGHTER]

And it's going OK.

[LAUGHTER]

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.

[LAUGHTER]

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--

[LAUGHTER]

--and I thought, what's happening in the other room? The day took a strange turn when Scott suggests that we go hang out at his house. And so we go and I meet his parents. It's a very strange thing, meeting your girlfriend's boyfriend's parents for the first time.

[LAUGHTER]

Part of you is angry, for obvious reasons. And then part of you still wants to make a good impression.

[LAUGHTER]

As a side note, they seemed in perfect health.

[LAUGHTER]

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.

[LAUGHTER]

So I was like, this is it. You know, I'm going to 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.

And so I go to the hockey game and she's not there. Hockey game ends, still no sign. I had 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, or the cafeteria-- the places she might be.

And I asked 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?

[LAUGHTER]

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 some place, 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.

[LAUGHTER]

He had built a life-sized license from Arkansas that people stuck their face in.

[LAUGHTER]

And he would photo it, and then laminate it. He later took a job at Goldman Sachs.

[LAUGHTER]

That detail seems made up. It's actually true.

[LAUGHTER]

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 the 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.

[APPLAUSE]

Mike Birbiglia, his one-man show, The New One, just finished its run on Broadway. He has a podcast called The Old Ones. It's available whenever you get your podcasts.

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Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Jonathan Menjivar, with help from Elna Baker, Phia Bennin, and Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Cornfield, Sarah Koenig, Jane Marie, Miki Meek, Stowe Nelson, Lisa Pollak, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Matt Tierney, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer for today's show is Julie Snyder. Music help from Damien Graef, Jessica Hopper, and Rob Geddis.

Special thanks today to Justin Collins, Julia McCullough, Amy Silverman, Joshua Kendell, Meg, Jonathan Mitchell, Michael Spivak, Eli Donda, Seth Parrish, Robin Weiss, and Stephanie Brill.

Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org, where you can listen to our archive of over 600 episodes for absolutely free. This American Life is distributed to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know that show, Cheers? He has this weird theory about the mailman.

Torey Malatia

I don't believe there is a Cliff.

Ira Glass

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

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