I was traveling recently, checking out the new city I’ll be moving to in a few weeks, and in a little coffee house and reading the local alt newspaper. There were three girls sitting next to me on the settee, drinking coffee, chatting and studying.
‘I think,’ one of them said, ‘we should just go on a hunger strike until she breaks up with him.’
That was when I started listening to their conversation.
‘He’s not that bad,’ one of the other girls protested.
‘He is that bad,’ the first girl said, standing her ground. ‘When I think about him I just get mad. I seriously think we should tell her that we are going on a hunger strike until she agrees to break up with him.’
‘Come on,’ the other girl said, in what I considered to be a rhetorical failure.
‘It’s not just him, either,’ the hunger strike advocate continued. ‘She becomes a different person when she’s around him.’
This went on for some time. When their conversation ran out of steam, I decided to join.
‘Would you like to hear,’ I asked, ‘a decidedly cynical take on your problem?’
The three girls all looked at me, two of them apparently interested in what I might have to say, the third one, who had said nothing this far into their conversation, suspect of the intrusion.
‘Yeah,’ the hunger strike advocate said.
‘How old are you?’ I asked. They were 19, 19 and 20.
‘When I was your age,’ I said, ‘I had a few friends who sound like your friend. They started going out with someone and they changed everything about themselves: what they believed and how they acted. They got way too serious about people who were—frankly—jerks. Do I have it about right?’
The hunger strike advocate nodded, listening.
‘After a few years I found out that, even if they broke up with the jerk, they would just find another jerk to be around and eventually they would marry one of the jerks.’
‘I’ve already decided,’ she said, ‘that if they get married, I’m giving them a business card for a divorce lawyer as a wedding gift.’
‘Oh, they’re already engaged?’
‘No, but if they get engaged, that’s what I’m going to give them.’
‘Well, unfortunately—for me anyway, I’m not saying that this is necessarily true for you,’ I said, ‘but for me, they end up marrying the jerk-either this one or another one-and in four or five years you’ll visit them and they will have so completely disappeared into the jerk that you won’t see anything resembling your friend. You’ll end the visit wondering why you were ever friends with her in the first place.’
‘But when she’s around us she is so cool and great, it’s just around him that she changes.’
‘It isn’t him that changes her,’ I said. ‘She changes to be like you when she’s around you. You don’t notice because you’re flattered by it. But she needs more than you can offer. She needs to disappear completely into someone—that’s why her boyfriend outranks you with her insecurity chameleon routine.’
None of them said anything. The hunger strike advocate looked at her knees for a moment.
‘I wouldn’t give up,’ I said, ‘even a midnight snack hoping I could prevent it from happening.’
There was a bit of silence and then she said, most sincerely, ‘thanks.’
‘I wouldn’t thank me,’ I said, ‘what I’ve told you is terribly cynical, perhaps even cruel.’
‘I’ll say,’ said the girl who had so far been silent.
None of us said anything for a while and I felt awkward and a bit ashamed of myself. I stood up slowly, none of us speaking, and walked out of the coffee shop.