Please let me be your guinea pig.
I am volunteering for service as a test subject in your program. I recognize that this may be a problem, given that no one outside of your university is supposed to know your project exists, and especially given that I am a man with a criminal record. I am not a spy or saboteur; I know what you’re doing only because your theories are correct. The process you have envisioned will work, though imperfectly.
How do I know? Because I’ve been there, Dr. Rafsanjani. I’ve done that. Indeed, in a sense, my entire life, from the age of fifteen onwards, has been a byproduct of your experiment.
I was fifteen years old, sitting in John’s garage, watching him drive nails through a piece of particle board. John was perfect. Green eyes flecked with gold, thick, wavy black hair, and cheekbones you could cut glass with. But John’s romantic interests lay elsewhere, and with the opposite gender. So: best friends. I kept him close, if not as close as I’d have liked.
And John was perfect in the technical sense as well. At school, at work, at play, his every action was sure and capable. Even his carpentry was perfect: I watched him set each tenpenny nail precisely in its place, and then drive it through the quarter-inch of wood with a single, surgical tap of the hammer, leaving the head flush with the wood’s surface and the point extruded.
Even his attitude had been perfect, at one point. He’d been the consummate overachiever throughout middle school. And then, almost from the moment he’d seen her, at the start of our freshman year, he had devolved into a completely different person. He shunned sports and activities. He made no attempt to make new friends; our old social circle disintegrated. He was as kind to me as ever, but he had no apparent interest in or time for the rest of the world. Instead, I watched him while away the hours in his garage, hammering out strange, ugly objects, equally inartistic and non-functional. Such as today’s project. I’d dubbed it “Spiny Norman, the Roadkill Hedgehog,” which had earned me a laugh, and a fond grin that had almost stopped my heart.
“So,” I said to him, trying to strike another spark. “All-school assembly on Monday. Our big moment. Class of the year!” The high school John and I attended conducted a year-long competition between the four classes in which we earned points for various activities and accomplishments—class GPA, attendance, the canned food drive and so forth. The winning class got a day off in May. A victory for the seniors was usually a given. That year, the impossible had happened. We won it. We, the freshmen.
In August, the three hundred members of the freshman class had stumbled through the doors not knowing which way was up or even how to open our lockers. Then Dani Tannig had entered our lives, swooping in from some tiny private middle school, a tornado of positivity. By September, she was our class President. By November, we were a well-oiled machine, everybody’s unique talents identified and catalogued. We moved steadily up in the class rankings. With March came Spring Olympics, and when the duct tape fastening Emma Czerznowski to the gymnasium wall came undone and the senior tumbled to the floor, leaving only our own Ashley Jackson still attached, our section of the bleachers dissolved into pandemonium; we had done the impossible. I remembered jumping up and down like a meth-addicted kangaroo, and turning to John to celebrate—only to see him staring silently at Dani in the front row as the other class officers dogpiled on top of her. He had been an island of stillness amidst our storm of joy, with that sad little half-smile on his face. It was the expression he always seemed to wear when looking at Dani.
And John spent a lot of time looking at Dani.
“Never been done before,” I said to him, as he sat cross-legged on the cement, placing another nail. “We made history!”
“Yep,” he muttered. THUNK went the hammer.
I opened my mouth again to speak, but hesitated. I knew I ought to avoid the subject; it was too painful for me to think about. Yet I had to probe at it, the way your tongue prods at a sore tooth, or the way you pick at a scab. “Big moment for Daniiiii…” I drew my voice out suggestively. He paused for a moment, then glanced up at me. No resentment. Just that sad half-smile.
“Hey, don’t blame me,” I said. “You could be with her, if you’d only put yourself out there. Just…be the guy you were in middle school! Star quarterback, straight A’s. Guys wanted to be you, girls loved you. She’d love you, if you gave her the chance. Just…” My free hand flailed aimlessly at the air.
“Engage again. Be part of the world.” He finished my sentence for me, using exactly the words I’d been about to use. It’s scary, how often he does that, I thought. It’s part of the connection we share. It’s proof that we’re meant to be together.
I turned to him, and found those impossibly green eyes locked on mine. “Been there, Eddie,” he said tonelessly. “Done that.”
I shook my head. “Love sucks,” I said, my voice dripping with a fifteen-year-old’s profound wisdom.
But John was already face-down in his project again, picking out another nail. “Not so, buddy,” he replied. “One perfect love lasts a thousand lifetimes. Love comes to those who deserve it. And love is worth the wait.” He glanced up at me. “You deserve love, Eddie. And it will come for you, in time. I promise.”
I felt a shiver run up my spine. “But…” I stammered. “…how can you say that, and then act like this? You’re just gonna moon over her? You’re just gonna stew in a corner, like you have been all year?” I felt the blood rushing to my cheeks. I was mad at him, angry that he was being less than himself, angry that he was cheating the world of the amazing person I knew him to be. “You’re gonna do nothing?”
He sat there, his face a blank slate. “I,” he responded, “am going to do nothing effectively.”