It was dusk in Italy, and Alessandro* was driving fast through the Alps. The windows were open, and I trailed my hand in the wind, catching glances in the rearview mirror of my hair streaming out behind me. Alessandro kept looking over at me. He took my hand and threaded his fingers through mine. I was in love. I was very happy.
Doesn’t this sound like the beginning of a terrible romance novel? At one point, you guys, THIS WAS MY REAL LIFE. I was 20 and was studying abroad in Italy for my junior year of college; Alessandro was my boyfriend. He was 26 at the time, and I am not exaggerating even a tiny bit when I tell you he was the most handsome, most worldly, most charmingly perfect guy I’d ever met. I’d never loved a boy before, and I was HEAD OVER HEELS for him.
We were driving from Milan to the small town in the Alps that Alessandro had grown up in, where I was to meet his parents for the first time. The last bit of the sunset faded into darkness, and I got a little nervous—the mountain roads weren’t well-lit, and they were really narrow, with hairpin switchbacks. I gripped the handle of my door until my knuckles went white. Ale looked over at me and laughed.
“Are you scared? Don’t be scared,” he teased. “I could do this drive with my eyes closed, I’ve done it so many times.” To demonstrate, he covered his eyes with one hand and sped up. I shrieked. He laughed, delighted, uncovered his eyes, and grinned at me. “Baby!” he said. “You actually think I’m going to get us killed? Come on.” He patted my bare leg. I glared at him, then tried to relax. I wasn’t actually mad.
We drove for a long time in silence. We entered a giant tunnel, cut through the inside of a mountain. Orange lights flickered past us on either side.
“It’s funny how we trust one another,” Ale said, looking straight ahead as he drove.
“Hm?” I said, watching the endless orange lights.
“Not just us, but everyone,” he said. “Everyone everywhere, how we trust each other.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean people in the world, people in relationships. Like us. We date, we fuck, we see each other every day, we talk all the time, but…you don’t really know me, do you?”
“What?” I didn’t like this.
“I could be someone totally different than you think, baby.” He looked over at me and waggled his eyebrows like a cartoon wolf.
“Ha ha,” I said. “I know you.”
“You don’t, though!” Now he was serious. “You don’t, not really. We can’t ever really know each other. What if I was not at all the Ale you know? What if I was actually a totally different person? What would you do?”
“…Are you trying to tell me something?” I was uneasy. This tunnel was endless. How many tons of sheer rock hung over our heads at that moment? The road was gently curving to the right. Some of the orange lights were out, and in those spaces there was total blackness.
Alessandro was staring at me now. His face looked different in the weird light.
“How can you be so sure you know me?” he said. “How long have we been dating that you’re sure about me? You’re in a locked car, it’s night, you’re with a man, you don’t know where you are…”
“Jesus, Ale. Stop it.”
“No, I’m serious! I could be taking you anywhere.”
“STOP IT, Ale.”
“How do you know I’m not going to hurt you? How are you so sure you know me? I could literally do anything I wanted to with you right—”
“FUCKING STOP IT!!!” I screamed. We shot out of the end of the tunnel into the night air. Alessandro slowed down the second I screamed. I was crying. He looked surprised.
“Baby, I’m sorry,” he said. “I was just playing with you. Baby! I would never hurt you! You know that. I’m sorry.” He reached over to stroke my cheek. I took deep, shaky breaths. I loved him so much I forgave him immediately.
Alessandro and I did not stay together (and, P.S., wasn’t that an amazingly fucked up thing to do to a person?), but years later, I still sometimes think of what he was asking me that night. Can we ever really know someone? Can anyone ever really know us?
These questions pop into my head at the most random times. I’ll be hanging out with a friend, laughing hysterically together over a YouTube video or something, and suddenly I’ll think, Who even are you? You’re sitting right next to me, and I “know” you better than almost anyone does, but do we actually really know each other? Or I’ll be lying awake at night next to the person I’m dating, and I’ll look at their peaceful sleeping face and wonder, Who’s in there? Who is this person I share so much time with, share my body with, tell my secrets to? And I’ll suddenly feel completely freaked out, unable to sleep. How could I fall asleep next to someone I barely know at all?
DEEP THOUGHTS, NO? Being human is really weird! Take your family—who are these people you live in the same house with? Why do they feed you for free, and why are they raising you? If you’re living with your biological parents, yo, these people made you. They made your actual body. And when you came into their lives, you were magically yourself—not either one of them or even a frozen yogurt twist-cone of both of them, but you, a totally separate entity, from the time you were born. To take it a step weirder, the people who raised you had whole lives before you existed—lives you’ll never really know about, even if they tell you about them. If you have siblings, you share identical DNA with them, and yet they are magically, indisputably themselves. What do they think about all day? What is, say, your brother’s experience of the world? His life totally intertwined with yours, and you share so many of the same experiences, yet his point of view is completely separate. You can never really know what the world is like for him.
Not to mention your friends! Your friends are shadowy mysteries, whole separate beings who breathe the same air as you and yet live completely different inner lives. Consider how many thoughts you have every day. Multiply that by everyone in your friend circle, then multiply that by EVERYONE ON EARTH! Are we just the pieces of our personality we choose to show to other people? The dark parts, the boring parts, the secret and wholly private parts (private parts! ha)—even if we choose to reveal these parts of ourselves to someone else, does that mean they “know” us? What does it mean to know someone? IS IT EVEN POSSIBLE? ARE WE ALL UNKNOWABLE, DOOMED TO BE TRULY ALONE FOREVER? AHHHHHH!!!
I take comfort in the fact that there are other people who feel like this, too. Tons of movies deal with this exact subject. In 1996, before he had any idea he would ever run for president, Barack Obama talked to a New Yorker reporter about this very same sense of wonder. Of his wife, Michelle, he said:
There are times when we are lying in bed and I look over and sort of have a start. Because I realize here is this other person who is separate and different and has different memories and backgrounds and thoughts and feelings. It’s that tension between familiarity and mystery that makes for something strong, because, even as you build a life of trust and comfort and mutual support, you retain some sense of surprise or wonder about the other person.
Hey now! Don’t panic! People say that we’re born alone and we die alone, but in between, I think our hearts and brains connect with one another’s in fascinating ways. It’s true that everyone is a mystery in many senses, but I do think it’s possible to know someone. Maybe you won’t be privy to their every inner thought, but think about a close friend of yours—do you often have a good idea what she or he is thinking in a given situation? Can you share a look and burst out laughing from across a room? That’s beautiful, and I think moments like that are when our essentially lonely souls connect. I think this kind of knowing, while not technically complete, is profound, and it’s obviously possible—but only when you really love someone. Love them enough to want to know them.
The novelist Iris Murdoch once wrote, “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” I get that so hard. Because I’m in my own head 24/7, the only person I completely know is myself, and the thought that the people I love have equally complete and private inner existences that have nothing to do with me is a little scary, sure, but also fascinating, and, in a way, deeply romantic. Because if I don’t know the person sleeping next to me, why do I love them? That mystery, to me, is love. Love is wondering what the private chambers of their mind might hold. Love is loving every part of their inner lives that they choose to reveal, and respecting their decision not to reveal others. Love is the thrill of adding new pieces to the puzzle of them every day. Love is in knowing that you can’t know, but trying to anyway. ♦
* Not his real name.