Question 18


Lawrence had arrived early, and Arthi decided to take advantage of this. She hovered briefly in the bar’s dimly-lit entrance, tied her ponytail higher up on her head, and pulled a notebook and pen out of her purse. She walked to their table holding the notebook aloft, as if prepared to write.

“Good evening sir, my name is Arthi and I’ll be hitting on you this evening, can I get you started with something to drink?”

“Oh my god, sit down.” But Lawrence was laughing, and he caught her arm briefly as she passed to take the empty seat, running his fingers along the inside of her wrist. “How are you?”

“Good. This is a really nice place.”

“I know, it’s stressful. I’m not dressed for this.”

“You look great. Very crisp shirt.”

“Thank you. I aim to be crispy.”

“This is a new dress, by the way.”

“Babe. At least give me the chance to forget to compliment you before scolding me.”

Arthi winked and picked up a menu. A tea candle in a mason jar was all that illuminated their table. Lawrence was wearing the round gold glasses that she liked, and the lenses caught the light.

“Have you already ordered?” Arthi put the menu down and began taking off her jacket.

“For both of us. I hope that was okay, I just figured you’d really want this lavender thing.”

“Oh, thank you! Perfectly figured.”

“Perfect figure. That dress! Boom, boom, boom!

“Alright, settle down.” Now they were both laughing, and a small knot Arthi hadn’t realized was in her stomach began to unravel. She felt relief each time it was easy with Lawrence – which was every time – and this only highlighted her need for reassurance that the ease was real. That she hadn’t constructed it herself, or willed it into being. “Did you have any trouble getting here?”

“It took me a little longer to leave the building, but traffic wasn’t terrible.”

“Oh, no.”

“No, nothing bad! A few students stayed back after the bell. The research paper is due next week, so… Couple of extension requests.”


“It’s always a little weird when there’s a line but they’re all there to ask the same question. I can’t really treat it case-by-case when everyone’s listening to each other.”

“Are you not still using the same extension policy for everyone?”

“I am, but it’s still unsettling to have an audience for that kind of thing. It just felt a bit overwhelming today.”

“That’s fair.” Arthi hesitated. The bar was steadily filling: a group of men in sleek peacoats filed past their table, en route to the C-shaped booth at the back of the room. “We don’t… I mean, if today was a long day for you – ”


“We don’t have to do the thing tonight. If you’re tired or not really feeling it.”

“No, I’m into it! It sounds interesting.”


“Yeah, definitely. I did take your advice and look at the questions ahead of time.”

“Oh, good. Not that we have to jump right in, I’m just checking in with you.”

“I mean, I’m down whenever you are. Unless you need a drink in your system first.”

“I just don’t want you to feel like you’re on the back foot or anything. Since I’ve already done this a bunch of times.”

“A bunch of times?”

“A few times. With a few people. Not all the way through, though.”

“Two back feet, then.”

Arthi picked up her water glass. She tried to keep her voice light. “And you made sure to look at question 18?”

“I did. I’m okay to do it if you are.”

“I’m okay.”

“Then I’m okay. 36 is an interesting number, though.”

“I guess it’s three sets of twelve? And each set of questions is supposed to get a bit deeper and more intense.”

“Fair enough.”

“Oh! And I’ll make sure to tell you if my answers have changed since I last did this, too.”


“Okay. Sorry. I just think this would be a fun thing to do, I don’t want you to think I’m trying to…force anything, or anything, and we can stop at any point. And I know the title makes it seem really high-stakes, but I think even the original study only reported like a 50-50 success rate, so it’s not like… Whew! I’m just saying that there’s no pressure.”

“No pressure to fall in love with you, you mean?”

“Don’t! You know what I mean.”

Lawrence reached across the table and took her water glass instead of his own, an intimacy they enjoyed after he’d accidentally done it on their first date. He smiled at her: that easy, easy smile. “There are fried green tomatoes on this menu. Just a point of info.”


The first time Arthi told anyone about her most terrible memory, she didn’t yet know that it would become her most terrible memory, and in fact she barely understood what had happened in the first place. All she knew was that in the weeks that followed, she couldn’t eat and couldn’t sleep. She lost thirty pounds in a month, and at one point was awake for fifty-five straight hours. Her hair began falling out, strands strewn across the shower floor like corn silk.

She went to Celia first, because Celia was pre-med and called her Little Bear and wore flannel pajama pants to class. It wasn’t like “telling someone,” to tell Celia. When Arthi went to Celia’s dorm room, first describing the symptoms, then the cause of the symptoms, Celia gave her a mug of tea with hot water from the Keurig. Then, Celia made her sit cross-legged on the floor, and offered her some language: a definition to consider. And then, Celia had to immediately take the mug away, as Arthi began to uncontrollably shake and convulse; they were both wearing shorts, and the water was boiling.

The hug afterward felt correct, in the sense that because they were both still cross-legged, it wasn’t as close as it should have been. Their arms created a globe-shaped gap between them, and so it became the case that they were quite literally “holding space,” their heads bowed and their foreheads touching and the Keurig still sputtering out water.


“Question 5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?”

“Oh, easy. Every day, and never.”

“Come on, you’ve not never sung to anyone else.”

“You hearing my terrible shower singing doesn’t count.”

“It absolutely does.”

“No. Okay. I think the last time I actually sang to someone else was in the car with Farrah last week. She gave me a ride home and Beyoncé was on the playlist. We were trying to see if we could sing the opening run in ‘Countdown,’ it was an absolute mess.”

“Fair enough. I like Farrah.”

“She adores you. She asked if it would be okay if she bought you a Christmas gift.”

“Why wouldn’t that be okay? Or. Sorry. What did you say?”

“No, you’re right, that’s exactly what I said. Maybe she thought that it was crossing a boundary? You being my one-and-only.”

“Oh, yikes.”

“It was sweet.”

“Actually, I get it. Some people are weird about other people buying gifts for their significant others, even when everyone was friends first. You remember Bianca and Keith.”

“I do remember Bianca and Keith.”

“In college, when the three of us were together, Bianca would sometimes ask Keith a question, and she always started the question with “Hey, hun.” For some reason, I’d hear it as “Hey, um.” Or, I don’t know, sometimes I would just answer the question. Fuck me, I guess. Anyway, if I answered the question instead of Keith, she’d get the shittiest look and yell “YOU’RE NOT HUN!” straight in my face.”

“That’s fucking terrible.”

“They thought it was hilarious. He did it too sometimes.”

“Also, I’m just telling you now, Farrah’s present is a Le Creuset honey pot. For your tea.”

“Man! Why would you tell me that?”

“You wouldn’t be able to hide your face if you opened it in front of her and didn’t like it. You’re very, very sweet about it, but she’d still know.”

“… Okay, fair enough. But that’s a great gift.”

“I told her that too.”

“So, the ‘Countdown’ run?”

“Can’t be done. Your turn.”


She’d unfortunately told Michelle before she’d realized that there was, in fact, a correct way to tell someone and one of several very incorrect ways to do so. She’d cast about for a meeting spot, decided on a busy dive bar near Boston Common that had fifty-cent wings on Thursdays, and ordered two aggressive blue cocktails and a plate for them to share. Illogically, she’d thought that a public place would make it hard for them to be heard by others, when she should have just asked to sit on a park bench or take a walk. She’d been halfway through her mechanical relay of the events, projecting her voice in order to be heard over the twanging of the Lynyrd Skynyrd song playing in the pub, when she’d looked up to see Michelle weeping.

Arthi had been briefly confused, then immediately left her chair and circled the table to crouch down next to Michelle; Michelle was half a foot shorter than her, and Arthi had to get down on her knees in order to meet her at eye level. “I’m sorry, Michelle, I’m so sorry.”

“Not you,” Michelle had sobbed, as a waitress approached their table, then hastily retreated. “You don’t deserve it, not you, you’re nice to everyone, and I had a feeling something was wrong, you weren’t talking to me…” The four–top next to them exploded in a roar of laughter, fists pounding on the table.

“I’m talking to you now, dear. I’m so sorry.”

Years later, Michelle would tell Arthi that it had been messed up for her to pick that location. “It was like crying at a carnival. We had buffalo sauce on our hands and I couldn’t even hug you.”


“Oh, the lavender is beautiful, try it.”

“Yes, please. Try mine too, I’m curious what you think.”

“Holy shit, that’s so sour! It’s kind of good, though.”

“It’s pure lemon. I don’t hate it. But it might take me two hours to drink it.”


“Lemon prologue. Question 10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?”

“Oh, lord. I mean, you’ve met my mother.”

“That’s a later question.”

“Then I’ll save the longer version. Okay. I guess I wish my parents had known that there wasn’t just one way of being a good kid? Like they raised us so diligently, with the violin lessons and the spelling bees and the SAT classes, and it was all with so much love, but they also raised us with the whole attitude of… of sex-is-bad and Ivy-or-bust and tattoos-will-send-you-to-hell.”

“They know about the banana leaf?”

“They do now. My mom saw the stem poking out under a sari blouse. Also, I’m thirty.”

“I still would really love to get the hermit crab, I think.”

“I still love that for you. So much. But also, I don’t know if I have a right to answer this question? I don’t have kids, I don’t know if I’d do any better or do anything differently. Maybe we’re all using the version of ‘goodness’ that gives our kids the best chance of survival.”

“Okay, Darwin. You can recognize that your parents were doing their best and also acknowledge that things could have been better. There’s space for both.”

“Hm. I suppose. You?”

“I don’t think mine is fair.”

“You could stand to take the very good and thoughtful advice that you just gave me.”

“I think I just wish we’d spent more time together when I was little. Especially after Dad and everything. I know they had to work, and of course there was a lot of love in the house, and we did holidays and they came to all the tennis matches, but. I don’t know. It’s a boring and unfair answer.”

“It’s neither, dear.”

“Plus, who’s to say what I even would have remembered? Children are barely people until they’re like … eight.”

“That’s so old. What do you think toddlers are?”

“Sea sponges.”

“That’s awful. You have a niece.”

“And she is a sea sponge. And I love her.”


She’d told Justin on the way back from a 21st birthday party in a luxury apartment in Kendall Square. The host had sacrificed square footage for recessed lighting and floor-to-ceiling windows, and the apartment was filled nearly to the brim: people squeezed in corners, fogging up the glass with their breath and pressed against the kitchen counters. The ghoulish sounds of laughter and the repeated refrain of “Happy Fucking Birthday!” had eventually made Arthi so deeply sad that she’d begged Justin to leave the party early with her.

“As my friend,” she’d pleaded, already crying. “Please.” Justin had bid the guest of honor farewell on their behalf, and someone had wrapped a piece of birthday cake in a napkin and shoved it into Arthi’s hand.

They’d stopped walking halfway across the Harvard Bridge and sat down on the divider separating the sidewalk from the road, though her butt didn’t quite fit, though the steel chilled her skin through her pants. Arthi tearfully told him everything. In almost immediate response, he told her that he had failed his engineering capstone course and was in danger of potentially not graduating. Secret for a secret, contractual confession. He seemed to think he owed her this, because he couldn’t offer her any advice, or anything that would fix anything.

Arthi thinks he’d told her he was sorry. She thinks he’d told her he loved her and was there for her. All of the same better-than-nothing stuff. She clearly remembers that, after several minutes of shared grief, he’d abashedly asked her if she would be offended if he pissed into the Charles River. There had been shots at the party, he’d explained, he’d had a lot of beer. It was exactly what she’d needed at exactly that moment, and she’d exploded in giggles, laughing wetly through her tears.

It’s hardly romantic or beautiful, to think of it now. But to this day, one of the main images Arthi holds of Justin in her mind is the image of his back to her, denim utility jacket layered over gray hoodie, his groin angled between the bars of the Harvard Bridge. “You’re one of my best friends, Arthi,” he’d said into the silence, as she sat on the metal divider eating cake with her fingers. For some reason, Arthi had expected to hear the sound of urine hitting the Charles River, had felt vaguely let down when she obviously didn’t. “I love you to death.”


“Question 12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be? I’m cutting the last tomato in half for us.”

“Okay. Oh. If I could pick up any language immediately, and communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world. Even now I really wish I had a better ear for language.”

“Same. Pretty much none of my French stuck after high school.”

“Even being able to translate for others? That or …maybe teleportation. Except I don’t know if it’s better to be able to go wherever I want immediately but then not be able to speak to people, if there’s that language barrier. Seems to defeat the purpose a little bit.”

“I don’t know. Isn’t the point of world travel to ultimately be alone?”

“What? Why?”

“No, I just mean … You know how they say that we’re all made up of everyone we’ve ever met in our lives? Starting with our closest friends and our family, all the way to random strangers on the bus or people we talk to exactly once, or people we don’t see anymore? Isn’t traveling kind of the same way? Whether you talk to people or not? Isn’t that just a different version of being alone?”

“I suppose so. But to think of community as ultimately being loneliness is kind of sad.”

“Being alone and being lonely aren’t the same! I love being alone.”


“Oh no, not like that, honey.”

“I know, I know, I’m teasing. Your turn? …Take your time.”

“No, I already know it. It hasn’t changed from the last time I did it, I’m just thinking.”

“Of how to say it?”

“Not really. Okay. I’d love the power to heal.”

“Great. That’s a great answer, that’s so nice.”

“But I’m suddenly realizing that I don’t know what that means. Am I just healing physical injuries? Or can I also fix mental hurt, or emotional hurt? And do I need to be able to erase the memories, too?”

“I don’t think so. Not remembering bad things that happen to us isn’t always the best.”

“Here we disagree.”


“I just …nothing. I guess I’m the kind of person who tends to loop things over and over. The bad stuff in particular.”

“That makes sense. I just think it’s hard to protect ourselves if we forget all of the times that we’ve gotten hurt. Or whatever.”

“But that’s not always in our control. You can do everything right and still get hurt.”

“That’s true.”

“Maybe this is what people mean when they talk about selective memory.”

“Maybe. Do you want another drink?”

“Not yet.”

“I think if you want to help heal people, and the person who is hurt is able to tell you what they need to feel healed, you should be able to have the power to give that to them. I think that would be within the bounds of the ability.”

“Okay. I like that, thank you.”


She hated the trend she’d observed, but it had to be said. All of the cis-straight men she’d told had reacted in the same way: how can this happen, not someone I know, you read about this kind of thing all the time but you never think it’ll happen to you, I’ll kill him right now, where is he?

She’d told Zubin in an empty classroom, and by pure instinct he’d immediately started looking around with his hands in fists, as if prepared to start a fight. She’d told her cousin on a drive to Connecticut, and watched as his knuckles went white on the steering wheel, watched as he swerved the car slightly. She’d told Bryan on a wintry walk back from Chipotle, as they cradled their burritos against the wind, and his face had gone from shocked to furious to resigned over the course of fifteen minutes. After some silence, and after he’d hugged her tightly and stroked her hair, he’d asked her: “You said no, right? Like you actually said the word no?”

She’d replied, and then he’d said, “Good. Otherwise it wouldn’t count.”

Of course, every woman and nonbinary person she’d told was able to respond with a story of their own. This felt good when it did, and terrible when it didn’t.

She told Olivia after a choir practice, lied unconvincingly to their friends and said they needed to go over “alto shit.” Ollie had listened, her eyes welling – she’d always been a frustratingly beautiful crier – and then responded in kind. They’d been sitting side-by-side in auditorium chairs, staring at the empty stage instead of looking at each other. Ollie had rubbed Arthi’s shoulder, Arthi had squeezed Ollie’s knee. The next day, they’d gone out to brunch in Central Square, and Arthi had felt grateful when Ollie hadn’t offered to pay.


“Question 16. What do you value most in a friendship?”

“I feel like several versions of this question show up across the 36.”

“Yeah, true. Feel free to repeat yourself later. Or stretch your answer out.”

“Okay. Maybe…I’m grateful when my friends see me the way I wish I could always see myself? But they do it without putting me on a pedestal, and we can still call each other out on our bullshit? I don’t know how else to phrase that.”

“I think that’s pretty well-phrased.”

“It’s like. They see the good and they see the bad, and they accept the quirks and hold us to high standards because they know we can meet them? But they love us through it all?”

“I like that. The second part is key.”

“Which part?”

“Just the piece of loving someone even when they’re not ‘at their best’ yet. Before they win the medals, not after.”

“Oh, we’ve met some very curatorial folks. Like Beena, Beena liked you a lot more when she found out you went to Yale for undergrad.”

“Man. Do you still talk to Beena?”

“Fuck no. Actually, sometimes. Our moms talk.”

“Was she at the Diwali party?”

“Probably, but purely in terms of awareness and neural processing we ourselves were barely at the Diwali party.”

“The spiked lassi was brutal.”

“We should make it. I have the ingredients. Okay, go.”

“ … Consistency? Or is stability maybe the better word? I guess I’ve been in friendships where I’ve had to wonder in the back of my mind what ‘version’ of the person I was going to get that day. I’m not talking about people having off days or going through shit or being sad. I’m not talking about fair-weather friendship. But I guess … I guess I don’t want to wonder if my friends are going to be nice to me or not. That sounds so sad.”

“It does, but that’s not on you. It sounds like we want the same thing, actually.”


“It matters to us, how people respond to us. To all of us.”


The 36 questions was her way of easing herself into finally telling Lawrence. She’d casually floated it as a potential date-night activity, her heart pounding, knowing he’d be game. She’d wanted to make sure it was after a few months had passed, after they’d already been regularly having sex; she specifically wanted to be able to build the physical part of their relationship on her own terms. Past partners seemed reluctant to treat her with anything other than baby-bird tenderness if she told them too prematurely.

“You’ll always be safe with me,” a cellist had crooned several years back, moments after she’d asked him to slap her in the face.

Arthi had no reason to believe Lawrence would respond badly, based on the way he’d reacted to articles and the news and the marches and some of the books they’d read together. She also had no reason to believe he would respond badly, based purely on who he was. And yet.

She’d asked him ahead of time to let her know if he wanted to skip question 18. “I don’t want to make you live something horrible all over again. Especially not on a fucking date.”

Per usual, Lawrence’s reply had been easy. “I think you might already know mine. But if you don’t want to do it, we don’t have to.”

“Okay. Well, think about it anyway.”

He’d created the safety for her bravery. He’d given her multiple outs. He would understand, if she said no.


They’d finished their fried green tomatoes, their cocktails, the lobster roll that they’d cut in half and shared. At some point, the candle in the mason jar had gone out. Lawrence had just finished telling Arthi about his most terrible memory. He’d described the sight of his father in the Six Flags wave pool. He’d described being thirteen years old and thinking that his dad was waving at him from the back of the crowd. He’d described waving back and shouting “Hi, Dad!”, unaware that his father was drowning, unaware that his father’s raised hands were of an entirely different nature than the raised hands of the other amusement park-goers, who cheered and lifted their arms as the pool pulsed and churned. He’d described the wave pool shutting off, his mother screaming, the lifeguard administering CPR, his father’s pineapple-patterned swim trunks, all the people watching with their hands over their mouths.

“That wasn’t when he died, obviously, but he could have. And the whole time I really thought he was going to. Maybe this is awful, or fucked up, or something, but… somehow, spending that much time being absolutely certain that my dad was going to die, or was in the process of dying, was so much more terrifying than his actual death. Also, I was a kid then. We think about this as something to eventually have to deal with as adults, you know? Actually, that’s what it was. Oh god, I remember now. The entire time the lifeguard was doing chest compressions and giving mouth-to-mouth, my mind kept repeating the phrase ‘I’m not ready.’”


“Now I definitely need another drink.”

“Did you ever tell him this?”

“Eventually. A shortened version. Though to be fair, I don’t think I fully realized some of my feelings about it until later.”

“I get that. Thank you for sharing that.”

“Thank you for listening.”


Lawrence was waiting for her to speak. He kept glancing down as he waited, gold glasses glinting. When Arthi looked down to see why, she realized it was because she was wringing her cloth napkin in her hands, as if trying to tear it in half. The number of patrons in the bar had reduced significantly; two white women were huddled over a phone at the table next to them, squealing at a series of photos. One of them whisper-shouted: “So much better than the all-matching, right?”

Arthi dropped her napkin on the table.

If it truly was her most terrible memory, wasn’t naming it as such a kind of preemptive survival? Wasn’t it in essence saying: “This is the worst it will ever be”?


“Thank you for trusting me with this.”

“Thank you for letting me talk about it.”

“How does it feel to have told me?”

“ …I don’t know. I can’t tell. I’ve never not known how I felt. Oh no, I’m sorry.”

“Please don’t be sorry, there’s nothing to apologize for. Here, take this.”

“I don’t know why I’m crying, I’ve talked about this before. Each time I think it’s going to be at least a little bit easier, and then it never really is.”

“It’s okay. Whatever you’re feeling just… feel it.”

“I definitely just ruined my eyeliner.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll tell you if you start to raccoon.”

“I guess… I feel different ways. It somehow always feels like a lie to not tell people, even people I barely know, and then it feels like I don’t get to be myself ever again after I do tell people. But I’m also not myself until I tell people, either. If that makes sense.”

“That makes perfect sense. And you don’t have to tell anyone anything you don’t want to.”

“I know. I wanted to tell you, I’m not telling you this because I feel like I have to.”

“Oh god, no, I didn’t mean that you shouldn’t have, I’m so sorry if it sounded that way.”

“No, no, you’re fine. I’m sorry. Did I wait too long to tell you?”

“I mean, I can’t imagine there’s any right or wrong time, just your own time. And really, it means a lot that you trusted me with this.”

“God. May I? We can share it, I think this specific question absolutely calls for alcohol.”

“It’s another sour one, somehow.”

“Fuck! What are we doing wrong today?”

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. How do you feel?”

“I feel… good. Thank you.”

“Of course.”

“Okay. Um. Question 19, I guess?”

“Sure. If you’re okay to do it?”

“Yeah, I’m alright.”

“Okay. Do you want to just keep it? There’s only a few sips left.”

“ …I actually really do, thank you.”

“Here. Whenever you’re ready.”



My mouth, a mussel: soft wet bundles of clam-flesh, pearl atop the body of the oyster, alien-textured shell of jawbone and hard palate closing around it all, in a shape like clasped palms.

A Mourner's Thesaurus

Whole, adj. Synonyms: entire, complete, full. Without you, I would have never been me.