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We were going at our Korean takeout with chopsticks, my boyfriend and I, when he looked up at me and exclaimed, ‘I have it – I know how attraction works!’
Although just then I wanted nothing more than to curl up next to him and fall asleep while watching The Apartment – you know, the 1960s romantic comedy starring Jack Lemmon and a butch-looking Shirley MacLaine – I considered indulging him. [private]But of course it was not my decision to make. He prattled on, not registering the look on my face that plainly said, ‘You don’t need to tell me; I’m a woman.’
‘The beauty of it is it has nothing to do with circumstance or luck. Attraction is not something you can decide to feel, though a relationship is something you may choose not to have,’ he said, slapping the table for emphasis. ‘Suppose we construct a graph. Plot the x-axis along degree of privacy from extreme emotional taking on the left to emotional giving on the right. We can only be attracted to someone who exists to our left on the scale at any given moment because humans only value those who are a little more mysterious, emotionally unattainable. For this intrigue value to have lasted between two people on, say, their eighth date, they need to be close enough to each other on the x-axis to keep each other guessing. For person B to consider A attractive, A needs to make B feel as if A is to B’s left, and vice versa. It’s subtle, but there should always be a healthy amount of uncertainty about exactly how much the other person likes you. So always open up to the person slowly, let the person put in the effort to unravel you.’
‘Yes,’ I said patiently. ‘Will you fetch us a blanket, darling, please?’
‘You aren’t listening,’ he said, getting up. His voice boomed from the bedroom. ‘Now plot the y-axis along self-esteem; it correlates positively with maturity. If you think about it, every other factor you can think of strongly correlates to either of these two parameters; for example, getting fired from your job messes with your self-esteem, and could set off a chain of events that makes you needier, in general a less attractive person, at least temporarily.’
‘You spend too much time intellectualising the obvious. You should try feeling a little,’ I said.
His face remained serious. ‘People with high self-esteem make a point of ignoring someone who has hurt them; those with low self-esteem try to make that person jealous. Now the intersection of the axes gives us four quadrants, each of which contains one of four basic types of human behaviour. Our mood and the specific relationship – with sibling, friend, lover, whoever – impact which quadrant we occupy at any given time, but we also have a steady state of being: the integral of reactions over each little moment.’
I nudged us towards the couch as he continued, unmindful. ‘The first quadrant is largely the residence of the emotionally healthy, although there is such a thing as extreme giving and dangerously high self-esteem. But these folks know how to share, to communicate effectively; to be happy, with or without each other. This is the place every relationship should be in, but unfortunately most relationships function in the domain of the dysfunctional – the other three quadrants.”
I squeezed his arm under the blanket. He stroked my hair absently and said, “The second quadrant – if we do this clockwise – consists of givers with low self-esteem: needy people who constantly demand something in lieu of their giving. It only works out if their partner’s steady state also exists here. Do you realise that the phrase “opposites attract” is only partly true? All kinds of people attract each other, but for a relationship to function, you will both need to simultaneously co-habit any of these four quadrants!’
‘I know,’ I said. ‘But it almost never happens. We can’t escape our past. Our parents inflict the initial damage, and if we escape them, if by chance they happen to be good to us – like my parents were to me – our lovers will screw us up.’
He digested that slowly, perhaps suspicious of embedded barbs.
‘Yes,’ he said and continued:
‘Meanwhile the third quadrant is full of attention-seekers, again, either permanent or in the moment – takers with low self-esteem who seek affection from others on a continual basis because they cannot be happy with what they have. They are provoked easily but slow to acknowledge their faults; they cannot allow themselves to feel for anyone else for fear of becoming vulnerable. As for the fourth quadrant, it is the refuge of narcissists, people who are emotionally remote. They want love strictly on their own terms, and they will push people away, cut them off if the slightest demand is made.’
‘Like Zooey Deschanel’s character from (500) Days of Summer.’
He laughed. ‘That movie is for kids in middle school. I love how you get me.’
‘I love you,’ I said, a little sadly.
‘Let’s watch The Apartment,’ he said. ‘Shirley MacLaine is so hot.’[/private]
Vijay Parthasarathy was raised in India where he worked as a journalist for several years, before leaving to get a PhD at the University of Texas at Austin. While his current specialisation is in cultural globalisation, he has a first degree in Physics from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai and a MA in Creative Writing from UEA. His fiction has appeared in the Penguin Book of New Writing from India.