The following events took place in the late afternoon of Tuesday, March 29, when syndicated The Phoenix journalist Jake Rothman met and had an exclusive, one-on-one conversation with your boyfriend.
SWARTHMORE, PA – “It’s more complicated than you think,” he says to me as he leads the way through the musky hall to your bedroom. It’s been almost a year since you asked him out, and you’re beginning to experience things the way you’ve always wanted to: your trust issues are in the rear window, present and visible only if you choose to look; his twilight enthusiasm is making you turned on just by the sight of your own body in the mirror; and sometimes you catch yourself daydreaming about what it’ll be like to hold his child. It’s a rose-colored tornado of a modern love story, and you’re in the middle, eyes closed, where the wind is silent and his body is holding yours.
I’m here to tell you to open your eyes. This tornado is a swirling, raging nightmare of sheets, data, graphs, standard deviations. And sitting on the outside, hunched over a Dell running seventeen Desmos exponential line graphs aiding him as he investigates whether taking a mid-afternoon nap will benefit enough of the world’s children to warrant it as the proper course of action, is your boyfriend.
He lies down on your bed, with his dry feet on your pillow. I ask him why we are meeting in your room and not his. He pretends not to hear me. An array of your polaroids are arranged above his head. You’re not in any of them. It’s not like you were the one holding the camera though, so you don’t know why you’re not in them.
Your boyfriend explains to me that he learned about Effective Altruism, a way of life in which one uses evidence to determine what actions best benefit others before then performing those actions, from a Facebook post. He read the post, loved it, then read it again. Thus, to borrow the words he’d whisper in your ear after climaxing and then heaving his sweaty body off of yours, “The rest is history.”
“Allow me to take you through my analytical, decision-making process.” He pulls out his iPad Pro with a large sticker on the back that reads “Quality-Adjusted Life Years? I hardly know her!,” unfolds its connected keyboard, unfastens his Apple Pencil, and swipes up, revealing a mess of charts.
He pauses, stifles a burp, and then continues: “Here, I can input any action I consider, and then the program will inform me whether it is the one action that will benefit others as much as humanly possible. Let us try it out. Name an action or two, something that you are thinking of doing later today, beyond this interview.” I pause and think about the rest of my day. I had been avoiding this kind of pre-planning, because ever since I’d lowered my Lexapro dosage back down to 10mg, the more I think about my day ahead, the more I lose sight of the present moment, and joy eludes me.
“I think that I will take a shower,” I tell him, “and then get some work done in Sci.” After plucking out one of his eyelashes and flicking it onto your carpet, he types vigorously. He presses enter, and a lighthouse foghorn blares. “Hm. Expected. That means, my friend, that that is, in fact, not what you should do tonight. This proposed future action is not the one that would benefit the most people.” I ask him, then, to have the machine tell me what I should do tonight. “The machine doesn’t work like that. I input everything I could see myself doing, one at a time, until the foghorn doesn’t blare.” I ask him if that has happened yet. “Well, no. It hasn’t.”
Then he talks about you. “I had put in different, situational forms of nice actions.” He describes to me all the kind activities he was thinking of doing for you that he typed into the machine, like reading you a bedtime story, or giving you a hickey so you can show your friends, or telling you he loves you. Each time, foghorn. “When I input if I should even say ‘hi’ when we see each other, the program said no.” According to your boyfriend, you’re just one person, and his priorities are grander, more “epic,” than just you. “It took me like a whole day to get over it, but I’m glad that I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that in order to be a good boyfriend, the best boyfriend, I have to be the absolute worst.”
To wrap up the interview, I ask him how this software works. He explains to me, “The program incorporates all the important causes of today, like furthering AI development, factory farming, deworming, delousing, and so on. It’s not cheap, either. So all of us who use it donate daily. As Mr. Musk so eloquently and rhythmically put, ‘Financial sacrifice to ensure substantial paradise.’”
I nod, close my notepad, and stand up. “Thank you for your time. Best of luck with all this.”
“Hold on,” he says. He types into the iPad Pro, inputting if he should say goodbye to me and walk me to the door. The foghorn blares. So he instead refastens the Apple Pencil, puts away the iPad Pro, nestles his feet in your pillow, and stares up at the ceiling, unblinking. He tries to stifle a burp, but it comes out anyway. I show myself the door.
I exit your dorm room and stand in the musky hallway. On the other end of the hall sits his room. I stare at his door and think about my day ahead, immediately getting the feeling that washes over me when I climb into bed at night, reflect on the day I just had, and feel dissatisfied. I don’t want to feel that way tonight. I walk to his door and open it using the All-Purpose Phoenix Journalist Key Card.
There is no furniture in his room. My feet slip out from under me and I fall to the ground. I can’t tell if there is carpet or wood paneling beneath me because the floor is coated in pictures, polaroids, all with their backs facing up. Flipping one over, I see it is a photo of you, just you. You’re standing in your fanciest clothes, right before Swat Formal 2022. Your arms are stretched out to your sides and curved, as if your friends are standing beside you, but you’re alone.
Each polaroid contains a snapshot of you, with the other people originally in the photo removed, or never there to begin with. As I crawl across the floor, peeling off the images, I see a timeline of you, smiling: a middle school play, first day of high school, senior prom, freshman year of college, quarantine, last spring break, your upcoming graduation. The closer I get to the window, the further into the future the photos progress. I see you on your first day at work, when you buy your home in the countryside, and when you get married. In each, you are smiling and alone. In one of the photos you are cradling some empty air.
I creep to the edge of the room, where floor meets wall and wall meets window. There is a single photo pasted above the window with its back exposed. I am about to peel it off the wall when I pause. I ask myself if this is what I should be doing. Who, other than me, would benefit from me removing this personal photo, as I stand in a bedroom I’ve selfishly snuck into? What good am I doing the world, your boyfriend, you?
But, now that I think about it, who fucking cares? It’s absurd to do something good for another person; how could anyone possibly be hubristic enough, like your boyfriend, to think they know what’s good for someone else? We should all do exactly what is best for ourselves, look out for ourselves, and give ourselves everything we could ever want. Who else knows us as well as we do?
I reach for the photo, tear it off the wall, and look at it. At this very moment, if I weren’t entranced by that photo, I’d have noticed you, through the window, as you walk from wherever you were to wherever you’re going, not thinking about much, but enjoying the setting sun and the way it lights up the ground ahead of you.