October 15, 2020 | Narrative
one face, two face, three
on the loneliness of remembering people
I have always been good at putting faces and names together after meeting someone, even if it was only for a moment. Sometimes, I only have to see their face on Instagram for them to be forever etched into my brain—I have no clue how they sound, how they move, how they laugh: all I know is their name and an unmoving face. But it’s more than just faces and names. I remember their interests, their hobbies, their aspirations, everything. Sometimes it gets to the point where I feel like Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl. She kept a notebook on a kid who lived across the street from her home, detailing the random events of his life and learning everything about him. Of course, I have never done anything like that, and never will, but when somebody asks me if I know so-and-so and when I give them a specific response (“Ah, X? I saw them walk back to their room three Tuesdays ago at 10:13 a.m. They have a really hairy chest.”), it sure seems like I’m keeping (very specific) tabs on every person I’ve ever come to know.
If anything, I should feel grateful for my skill in remembering individuals. It makes it much easier to navigate new circles of people if I somehow encountered one of them already, in person or online. However, I often feel a vague sense of loneliness because many times, people don’t remember me. The numerous re-introductions I’ve gone through where I’ve been forced to pretend I don’t remember the person—a tactic I use so that they don’t paint me as some stalker, or so that I don’t embarrass them for not remembering that we already met—are extremely painful. They make me feel empty, like I’m being forced to mask my disappointment. And it’s been this way since I was a kid.
In middle school, I was incredibly shy. I fell right into the trope of “shy kid, big observer”: I often found myself sitting near a group of friends who weren’t my own during a class with assigned seats, listening in on their conversations without even meaning to. The gossip steadily streamed out of their mouths and into my ears: “Oh, her? Yeah, didn’t you hear! She gave head in the bathroom by the cafeteria.” Just one little snippet of conversation and then BAM! I would now forever know that this girl gave head in the cafeteria bathroom. And sure enough, if someone brought her up to me, I’d reply in the same blunt manner I always have when asked about a person: “Yeah, I know her. She gave head in the cafeteria bathroom.” But that girl never really knew me, and when finally I talked to her for the first time, I simply greeted her with a smile on my face, never hinting that I knew what she had done. Meanwhile, she looked at me, not knowing who I was at all—the usual scenario. I wasn’t loud or popular, so what did I expect? Still, I felt lonely after every interaction like this during middle school, and that sense of solitude increased every time I was referred to as “that girl” even after I had told them my name.
This changed a bit in high school. I continued to collect information unintentionally. All I had to do was walk the hallways, and suddenly I knew a dude’s name and who he was dating and what class he was skipping. I would sit in computer tech class, and the girl next to me would gossip with her friend; now I knew that her favorite Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee was caramel swirl. But what changed in high school was that in my classes, I had made myself known. No longer wanting to be the anonymous “that girl” to others while everyone else became somebody specific to me, I put my heart into participating fully in class. I made it a point to have everyone get to know me, instead of just getting to know them. I invested in developing personal relationships with my classmates and finding ways to curate our conversations to their interests so that they would enjoy talking to me, so that they would remember my name. I started with just a handful of friends, but my efforts to make myself known meant that I now had a multitude. Remembering so many faces and names and interests no longer resulted in loneliness, but in friendship. In each of my classes, I felt free to talk to people, no longer afraid of being rejected by my peers, or being asked for my name. Finally, the burden of pretending that I didn’t know my peers, simply because they didn’t know me, was lifted from my shoulders.
Then I came to Brown.
Needless to say, this facial recognition skill has been instrumental in shaping my college experience. But it also seems like I’ve regressed to my middle school status: I know tons of people, but people don’t know me. Navigating social settings is a breeze now, but it’s accompanied by that heavy thought in my head of they have no clue who I am, just like when I was 12 years old. It happened my first semester. In my history section filled with upperclassmen, I was always a little nervous, always a little sweaty, always second-guessing myself when I spoke because I didn’t know these people like I knew my high school classmates. I learned the names of my section peers, but there was always hesitation before one of them elaborated upon any point I made: “Yeah, so to go off of what—off of what she said…” I would shyly smile and look down at my notes, thinking, They don’t remember my name. Another time, we worked in pairs, and our professor called on us to share our thoughts. When he got to my group, he only called on the guy I was partnered with. There was a notable pause before the last-minute addition: “Oh, and E—Elliana.”
This happened again and again in my sections, no matter how much I talked. Recently, this guy who I’ve now been in three sections with didn’t even get my name right, and we’re on Zoom. My name is literally right there on the screen. This and every other similar incident annoyed me. I put in as much effort into participating in class as I did during high school, but I wasn’t met with the same results. The loneliness that I thought I had eliminated during high school has been ever present during my time at Brown, and it has only expanded since the dawn of COVID-19 and mask-wearing. Even when faces are obscured by masks, I can still recognize who they are, so it hurts when my attempt to wave is greeted by a stone-cold face looking past me—a sign that they either don’t remember who I am or are confused because of my mask. Either way, I feel like a loner when it happens. By this point, I shouldn’t expect much. I can put in every possible effort to make myself memorable, but that doesn’t mean that the other person will share my ability to remember their name and face and little tidbits about them. Either they aren’t the best at placing names to faces, or they simply don’t care. I can’t fault them for either.
But while my memory is often one-sided, I still love getting to know people. Being an encyclopedia of people I’ve met is incredibly fun. At the end of the day, people will or won’t remember me, and while this does often make me feel frustrated and lonely, I don’t mind it too much in comparison to what I do mind: stagnancy. I dislike conformity. Routine bores me. I want a constant stream of dynamic stories from people, especially now with COVID-19 eliminating almost any chance of social interaction with anyone I don’t already know. Hello. Hi. Here’s who I am. Goodbye. Glad to see you aga—Oh, hi, nice to meet you. The cycle continues. I brush my hair out of my eyes and smile. Nice to meet you (again).