I spent a good amount of time wondering if we could get married.
That would be ridiculous — he hardly knew my last name, where I lived, my favorite color or any other identifiable traits about me. All we knew about each other was whatever we could fit in the 50-minute window of conversations sitting in the back of a classroom during the fall 2019 semester.
While the odds of him reading this are close to none (I wouldn’t know — I never got to the point of knowing if he reads The Red & Black or telling him I worked here), he’s not the point. Because this isn’t about finding a long lost love or him showing up at my apartment door with a boombox and flowers to profess his love for my uncanny ability to sustain small talk.
This is about the interactions that were meant to be forged then broken for that spike of adrenaline in the four months it would last. The shared tables and neighboring desks, then a space for burgeoning friendships and hypothetical meet-cute scenarios, are now a breeding ground for COVID-19.
I’ve been thinking about these surface-level relationships that college is made of — the ones that have fallen victim to the pandemic. These are the encounters I have taken for granted. It’s the feeling of pinpointing a classroom crush on the first day of class, or it develops after they lend you a pen. It’s the hopeless romantic in you thinking maybe, just maybe, your life could be a Wattpad story. But this feeling doesn’t even have to come from a romantic crush.
This feeling can come from a platonic crush — the person who says a funny comment in class or compliments your hair on a bad day. These interactions thrive off the fruitful conversations in the three minutes between arriving at your seat and the start of class. These are friends with whom you talk weather and homework assignments. (Weekend plans come up too if we’re getting deep.) These aren’t coworkers, no, coworkers talk about life goals and aspirations. These are the friendly acquaintances we’ve lost to COVID-19.
The loss of these interactions isn't the end of the world — I think we've gotten close enough for our lifetimes. But worrying about these seemingly trivial relationships has been replaced by the life-and-death concerns of surviving through a pandemic.
What does this mean for a college student? The ones who social distance and choose not to swap spit and share air at parties and bars? It’s the loss of college stories to tell when we’re 45 years old and grasping onto that last sliver of youth. It’s losing that integral experience of learning to fake your way through small talk — a rite of passage to becoming an adult.
Don’t get me wrong — I am an introvert. I like being alone. I like eating alone and walking alone. At-home meetings and classes are a dream to me. When people ask, “How are online classes going?” I never knew how to respond. How can I tell people I genuinely enjoy being virtual, that I don’t particularly want to return to all in person?
But I had this realization in class fall semester when a classmate and I were having a genuinely nice conversation in a breakout room. As the 60-second timer of the breakout room closing made its slow, suspenseful descent, I thought, “I probably won’t speak to this person again.” And I didn’t.
I’ve tried to engage in small talk virtually, but there’s something sacrilegious about forcing a class of 30+ people to witness an already uncomfortable experience. Ironically, forced small talk cannot be manufactured. It has to happen organically out of a pure instinct for survival when we’re sharing a physical space and the tension of silence is palpable. It doesn’t happen when there’s a raging pandemic and all there is to talk about is said pandemic or when the mute button is an option.
Maybe I’m just not the type to shoot my shot over Zoom or make an effort to forge friendships through a breakout room, but I know I’m not alone in this feeling. Atlantic staff writer Amanda Mull (and University of Georgia alumna) wrote about the significance of acquaintances beyond your closest friends. There’s a segment dedicated to the loss of meaningless gossip in the This American Life episode “The Empty Chair.” These interactions, now obsolete, played an important part in all of our lives, no matter the age.
These interactions, and the elaborate hypothetical scenarios that came with them, kept us going to class each day.
This Valentine’s Day, I’m paying homage to these relationships — romantic and platonic. Rest in Peace (for now) to the study dates at the Main Library with people you’ll never see again or those awkward last goodbyes at the end of finals or that desk neighbor who you formed an unexpected connection with at the back of a classroom and all that’s left now is the fragile tether of a mutual Instagram follow.
But maybe before we graduate, if we’re lucky, we’ll get one more shot at the small talk, college acquaintances, classroom crushes and the underlying intimacy that we all took for granted.