A long time ago, I conducted two social experiments. Or, “social installations” or “social provocations” perhaps, as the goals were not clearly defined.
1. A Little Shy Creature
Toward the end of my 8th grade, on one of the days when there were no classes, but a bunch of people would be at school for the final exams and what not, I showed up there as a Little Shy Creature. I was dressed in my Mom’s hand-me-downs: black corduroy pants, black turtleneck, light blue cotton jacket, a black beret. Nobody knew those clothes, because we couldn’t dress like that to school, and Mom just started letting me wear those anyway. I covered my hair and face somehow. I wondered if I could go incognito for a few hours.
Sashka met me outside, and we walked to the school building and down the stairs and corridors together. Whenever we ran into the people we knew, she would introduce me as a Little Shy Creature. The Little Shy Creature was somewhat friendly, but too shy to talk. It met many people that day. Mostly, older kids, I think, but many of them knew me somewhat as myself.
A few tried to guess the Little Shy Creature’s true identity. Some would follow us, curious, to the next conversation. The most popular guess toward the end of the day was that the Little Shy Creature was my friend. In the 3-4 hours I was there, nobody guessed it was I, not with any certainty, and I didn’t tell – not even later. Being incognito was nice. Invisible, but not quite. It surprises me now that nobody recognized me from gait or shape though. Does that differentiation come later in life?
When I was perhaps in my second year of college, I asked several friends who meant the most to me to ignore me for about a week. Katerina, Tosha, Max, and a few others were on the list of those I disconnected from.
I only vaguely remember my motivation, but I feel the urge to do something similar now, and it feels familiar. So I will try to guess what that was. I get entangled in anticipation of happy moments. Too commonplace and yet to magical to ask for them, lest the spell breaks. Too insignificant to recognize significance or my feelings about those connections, moments and people.
Playing bridge on the train: who will be there? Will I partner with Tosha? Will we do well or will I screw up? Or, perhaps, I will run into Max and we’ll get off the train early, in Old Peterhof, and walk fast, to get on campus just on time? Who will get drawn to Katerina as we wait in line to get coffee during the break? What interesting conversations will they have that I can eavesdrop on?
All that while maintaining casual facade, not even acknowledging to myself how much this all means to me, let alone acknowledging to others. I get entangled in anticipation so much that I lose track of who I am: all I feel is anticipation of others’ fleeting company. And so I disconnect to find my ground.
I didn’t find who I was, or what I wanted, or how I felt. I gained some quiet. It was lonely and a little sad, but peaceful.
I broke stuff: after I resumed talking with Tosha and whoever else I disconnected from in the bridge crowd, I never played again; after years of playing; not once since. Even though Tosha and I remained friends, some unspoken tenderness between us perished. Max and I had a number of walks since, some quite epic, nothing broke there. During the week when I asked to be ignored, Katerina would look at me apprehensively if we ran into each other and dash away, as if uncertain about what she was supposed to be doing (just pretend I’m not there – how hard is that, right?). Poor Katya, always so open and straightforward, how could she pretend, when there I was. Our friendship grew over the years that followed, my games notwithstanding.
I am still looking, inside and outside, for a happy firm ground alternative to the entangled place and the peaceful but lonely place. As myself.