799: The Lives of Others - This American Life (2024)

Lilly Sullivan

Act Two, Who is Sarah Blust? So maybe some of us spend a weird amount of energy thinking about people we barely know. But rarely then, do we go up to those same people and get to know them, and test the reality of whatever fantasy we have of them. But in our next story, that's exactly what happens. It comes from producer Alix Spiegel.

Alix Spiegel

This is a little weird. But it's going to be OK.

Sarah Blust

It's going to be OK.

Alix Spiegel

Yeah.

It's never easy for me to interview people I'm close to. So usually I try hard to avoid it. But a little while ago, I sat down with one of my dearest friends, Sarah Blust, to talk about something that happened to her when we were younger. A story that I've recently come to see in a totally new way, as not just a story about a strange thing that happened, but also as a good example of the way stories -- the ones we tell about ourselves and others we imagine -- can bend our lives in odd directions.

Alix Spiegel

I was thinking about how this is such a crazy story. But I never, ever thought of it as a story because I just experienced it as--

Sarah Blust

Our lives.

Alix Spiegel

--our lives. Yes.

I met Sarah my first year of college. We ate at the same place at Oberlin, a small house on campus called Keep. I was immediately drawn to Sarah, I think because I saw her as my opposite. To me, Sarah seemed like a red-headed gush of uncomplicated joy, music, and glitter, a free and easy person who was up for anything.

I saw myself as the mirror opposite. There was nothing free or easy about me. I was hell bent, so on a mission to remake myself that I was oblivious to many of the parts of college life that preoccupied my peers, including, as Sarah was maybe a little quick to point out, hygiene.

Sarah Blust

You wore the same thing every day.

Alix Spiegel

Did I, really?

Sarah Blust

Yeah.

Alix Spiegel

What did I wear?

Sarah Blust

You wore this brownish sweatshirt that had a lot of holes in it. And you always had a backpack that was full of books because you were always going to the library. And apparently I was always the one who was not square. I was hippie, whatever comes-- whatever happens, happens. I'll go with the flow. And then Alix was like, what the hell are you doing?

Alix Spiegel

I could not go with the flow, not even a little, because of violin. The short version is that for a variety of reasons, my mother decided, when I was five, that I would become a world-famous solo violinist. But inconveniently for me, world-famous solo violinist is a field which involves ridiculous amounts of practice, three to six hours a day on top of school and homework.

I quit as soon as I got to college. But the whole violin thing meant that a sizable portion of my childhood was spent alone, in a practice room, with, as my brother likes to joke, nothing but the cinder blocks for friends.

And then there was Sarah. The last of three sisters, she'd grown up surrounded by people, and so had this easy way with them. Sarah was the kind of person who would literally brighten at the sight of someone, almost no matter who that person was, I remember thinking. And it felt like fun just inevitably found her.

For example, there was a brief time, in our 30s, when we both lived in New York City. And I remember one random Tuesday, after work, I happened to meet up with Sarah for dinner. And I asked how her day was. Sarah explained what, for her, had been a fairly typical day.

And though I don't remember the details, I vividly remembered the sentence that went through my head immediately after hearing it. Why do I never end up on a pirate ship in the middle of the Hudson River? During that time period, a sentence like that probably went through my head two out of every five times I talked to Sarah. So I think that's all the Sarah Blust context you need to appreciate the story you're about to hear.

Sarah Blust

This particular story, I guess, starts at my 10-year reunion. Yeah.

Alix Spiegel

In 2004, about 10 years after we graduated, Sarah and a couple of her female friends decided to return to campus for their reunion. They weren't going in an overly-earnest, I miss my college kind of way. I think this was half ironic.

Sarah Blust

And I think somehow, one of us had found out about a party, a party that was being held by actual seniors. And we went.

Alix Spiegel

And you went in the spirit of what? Was: it like, we're clowning, we're crashing?

Sarah Blust

Yeah, I think it was total party crashing. It was also hilarious to be hanging out with, I guess what we thought of as kids, 10 years younger. But it felt so familiar. It's exactly what we wanted because it was like being at Oberlin again. It was that feel.

Alix Spiegel

So they make their way to this off-campus house where music is blaring and a large number of alcohol-drenched college students are littered across the lawn.

Sarah Blust

And I remember we hung out a lot in the backyard because we felt a little bit out of place. And then finally, we met-- I was hanging out in the house proper. And there was this really fun dance floor happening. I feel like-- it was almost like the crowds parted in a certain way. And this kid, this guy, comes over. And from what I remember, he basically ordered me to dance. It was like, dance floor, now.

Alix Spiegel

Now this is Sarah Blust, we're talking about.

Sarah Blust

I was not one to say no. So--

Alix Spiegel

Besides, this guy, whoever he was, was attractive.

Sarah Blust

He was really cute. And he had dark hair and pretty eyes, and little shorter than me. And definitely a senior.

Alix Spiegel

What do you mean, definitely a senior?

Sarah Blust

Well, he was certainly a college student. And I think at that point, I was feeling so different because I'd been living in New York City for 10 years and had charted my own way.

Alix Spiegel

I don't want you to get the wrong idea about Sarah. She's not the kind of person who typically flirts with random college seniors. Today, she's the director of two sexual and reproductive health clinics in New York. And she was well on her way to becoming the director of two reproductive health clinics by the time of the reunion. So she wasn't exactly itching to take a college kid seriously.

Sarah Blust

But wow, he was really super nice. And it's really, really fun. So yeah, so we danced, and danced. And then it was getting to that awkward part of the party, where the beer is gone.

Alix Spiegel

Fortunately Dan-- that was the guy's actual name, Dan-- had the foresight to stow an emergency six pack in his room.

Sarah Blust

And so we ended up going up to his room and hanging out. And--

Alix Spiegel

Discreet fade to black.

[LAUGHTER]

Alix Spiegel

OK, so then what happened?

Sarah Blust

So then the morning came. It was brutal. I was totally hung over. And we couldn't dally because his parents were about to arrive because it was his graduation. So we're getting it all together preparing to get out the house.

And yeah, and then at a certain point he said, so Sarah, what's your last name, which was kind of funny because we had spent all this time together. But right, he was Dan. I was Sarah. We didn't know anything else, really, about each other.

And so I said Blust. Sarah Blust. And he like completely flips. He completely flips out. And I just remember him-- he did this thing when he jumped out of bed. And he was like, oh, my god, oh, my god, oh, my god.

I thought, did I just sleep with my brother?

[LAUGHS]

I'm like, am I related because he hears my last name and he freaks out. So I'm like, what is going on?

Dan

It felt like the room had tilted, like just the world had just tilted all of a sudden.

Alix Spiegel

This, of course, is Dan, the cute, kind senior who lured my friend, Sarah, to his room with promises of Pabst Blue Ribbon. He confirms that when he first heard the name Sarah Blust, he pretty much lost his mind and started screaming at the top of his lungs.

Dan

And I'm like, Sarah, you're not going to believe this. You're not going to believe this. I have to tell you this story, the story within the story.

Alix Spiegel

Dan's story starts at Keep Cottage, the same place I met Sarah my first year at Oberlin. Dan, as a freshman, had lived there too. And he says one day, he was hanging out in the lounge, on the ground floor.

Dan

And there were bookshelves. And on the bookshelves were old photo albums, old books, old textbooks that people had left behind.

Alix Spiegel

So Dan picks up one of the photo albums.

Dan

These were all people who had lived in Keep before, some time in the distant past. And I was just flipping through and just looking at them, and just started to wonder what their lives were like. Did they do the same thing that I was doing then, like sitting in the lounge and waiting for people to come and distract them?

Alix Spiegel

All those other lives-- what were those other people like?

Dan

There was one photograph that stuck out to me. And I can't say-- I never really could put my finger on why that particular photo stuck out to me. But it was a girl, looking a little bit, maybe, dazed, in the foreground, and a guy, sitting on a bed, not looking at the camera, in the background. And I said, I want to know who this person is. I wonder what her life was like.

Alix Spiegel

Luckily, the photo contained additional information. There was a name on the back.

Dan

Sarah Blust.

So I pulled the photograph out of the photo album. I brought it upstairs. And I sat down at my computer. And instead of doing my homework, I wrote a brief, short story, a one-page story, about the person in the photograph.

Alix Spiegel

I know this sounds a little unusual. It is a little unusual. But Dan made up a whole fictional story about a redhead named Sarah Blust, someone with two sisters, like the real Sarah Blust, who, like the real Sarah, goes to college and maybe smokes a little too much weed.

Now Dan hadn't seen this story since graduation. But we were actually able to retrieve a copy from the carcass of his 20-year-old candy-blue Apple computer, due to the superhuman efforts of a San Francisco-based computer expert named Mitch. Thanks, Mitch.

Anyway, the main focus of Dan's story is Sarah's involvement with this fictional guy named Matt. Throughout the story, Sarah and Matt circle each other, drawn, but not quite sure what to make of the strange connection they feel. And in the end, they don't end up together. In Dan's imagination, it's this made-up character, Matt, who takes the photo that he found. Here's the last paragraph.

Dan

"Two weeks before the school year broke into summer vacation, Matt came and knocked on Sarah's door in Keep. He brought with him this picture, and gave it to her. That day, he told her that he really cared about her and wanted to see her more often. She held on to the picture all summer, keeping it as a memento of Matt and her tragic love. She did not realize this picture was in storage when she moved out. She now and then thinks of Matt on her way to work or when playing with the kids. She wonders where this picture is. Little does she know, it is on the wall of Keep Cottage."

[LAUGHS]

Oh, my god. That is insane.

Alix Spiegel

Had you ever done anything like that before? Or was there something in this person, in this photo?

Dan

Hmm. At the time, it really felt like a random act, like I was just doing something to amuse myself at random.

Alix Spiegel

And Dan didn't just write a story about Sarah Blust. He also posted said story, of Sara Blust, with her photo, on the door of his room, where it stayed until the end of the school year, at which point, Dan says, it went into a trash can. And he never, ever thought of it again.

Dan

At all, until commencement week, when I met Sarah Blust, who was standing in my room.

Sarah Blust

I was like, you are f*cking kidding me.

[LAUGHS]

I did not believe a word he was saying. But--

Alix Spiegel

Did you actually not believe a word he was saying?

Sarah Blust

I could believe it but it just-- I wasn't believing it. I was believing it and not at the same time, if that's possible. And he said no, it's real. And he pulls out his laptop. And he opens it up. And he points to this file that has my name on it.

And I almost lost my mind. How is it possible that you meet someone for the first time, and they have a story about you, a file with your name on it?

Alix Spiegel

On their computer.

Sarah Blust

On their computer. What is that?

Alix Spiegel

Now I want to pause for a second because what I'm interested in is the stories people tell themselves. So I want to map their stories at each stage. For Dan, what had happened between him and Sarah the night before his graduation was very unambiguous. This was solid, one-night-stand territory. Yes, he had asked for Sarah's last name. But it wasn't for particularly sentimental reasons.

Alix Spiegel

Was it just like, I have to be a gentleman, I should know both of the names of the women I sleep with? Or was it, I'm going to stalk her so last names would be helpful.

Dan

I thought, maybe we can hang out again and--

Alix Spiegel

Maybe you can get lucky twice.

Dan

Exactly.

Alix Spiegel

Sarah felt the exact same way. She thought, very reasonably, that Dan was incredibly young and had a lot of growing to do. So thank you, no thank you.

Dan had post-graduation plans. The kind of post-graduation plans parents approve of, about maybe going to medical school and becoming a doctor, and-- oh, yeah, that's right. He had a gig starting in the fall.

Dan

Well, I was going to go into the Peace Corps and do public-health work. I had been assigned to go to Central Asia.

Alix Spiegel

Were you excited about that plan?

Dan

I was. I was very excited about that plan.

Alix Spiegel

But on the car ride home, Dan started thinking about what had happened. Objectively, it was just crazy. Dan only had scraps of information about this person, Sarah Blust, this person he had first imagined when he was a freshman, staring at her photo.

He knew that she was in public health, as was he, she was a good dancer, as was he. And he took these scraps, and as we inevitably do, started weaving them into a story, a new story, one with an impressive series of coincidences that, when you stepped back, did look a lot like fate.

Dan

I remember there was this-- I remember that the sun was setting. And I was driving into the sunset. And the thought just entered-- occurred to me. I was like, I'm going the wrong way. I need to drop out of the Peace Corps and move to New York.

Alix Spiegel

I have to go and see this woman?

Dan

Yeah.

Alix Spiegel

Now I don't want to seem like I'm judging Dan for changing the whole course of his life based on what was really pretty slim evidence plus one coincidence. I understand the lure of the story he was taken with. And I, myself, obsessively tell stories as a way to navigate the world. I'm the queen of hopeful projection.

This strange, feverish storytelling started when I was young, a habit I picked up in the practice room as a way to escape. I would walk in little circles and make up stories about myself and other people. In college, I did this almost every day. I'd walk in little circles for hours, usually until my legs ached.

Like Dan, I was extrapolating from what really happened to what I hoped would happen in the future. Say I'd have some small encounter. Maybe a teacher would offer a kind word. Maybe a boy would nod in my direction. And my imagination would take it from there, build a whole life on those scraps. In my mind, I'd visualize the look of the teacher as they offered me the selective internship that would lead to a dazzling career in public policy or law or, for a very brief period during my senior year, silk screening.

Of course, I always kept this little-circles habit secret from everyone. I was aware it was not normal behavior. The one person who knew about it was Sarah. When we lived together in college, she accidentally discovered it.

Sarah Blust

I was probably reading a book or doing some homework. And I heard this creak, creak, creak. And it was just over and over and over and over again. And it took me a while to realize what it was. And then I realized it was you.

Alix Spiegel

But Sarah didn't seem to mind, didn't seem to think I was a freak at all. In fact, the opposite.

Sarah Blust

I don't know, personally, I found it really endearing. Yeah.

Alix Spiegel

Thing is, as I've gotten older, I've grown more wary of this kind of storytelling, conscious of how often the stories we tell ourselves lead us down the wrong path.

Dan

I remember that the sun was setting. And I was driving into the sunset. And the thought just entered-- occurred to me. I was like, I'm going the wrong way.

Alix Spiegel

What happened with Dan and Sarah, the wild serendipity of it, gave it the silhouette of one of the most popular stories in American life, the fated love story. I think the fated love story, and the idea that romantic love is the one relationship that can fulfill you, has a unique weight and primacy. It's the kind of story that displaces other stories, easily sweeps them aside, which is what happened with Dan.

He dropped out of the Peace Corps, drove to New York, and instead of working in public health, got a job at the Stereo Exchange in Manhattan. On his way to this unglamorous new life, he wrote Sarah an email, framing his new plan in the most casual, non-threatening, just happened to be dropping everything and moving to your city way possible.

Sarah responded with, whoa, that's a lot. Not sure about that. Dan then responded, understand. Seems reasonable. I'm aware I don't really know you. All I'm saying is that we should go on some dates. See what happens.

Sarah told me about all of this at the time. And honestly, I was pro. She'd had a string of boyfriends who didn't seem like good partner material. And I could tell right away that Dan was solid, which from the perspective of the anxious friend, was a relief. Sarah also saw that Dan was a good guy with good values. And she thought he was fun. But she obviously had real reservations.

Sarah Blust

I liked him a lot. I felt like there was this really incredible connection. But I was also terrified that I had this responsibility for changing someone's life so drastically.

Alix Spiegel

Did it feel like he was actually seeing you? Or did you feel like, you don't even know who I-- this is just a projection?

Sarah Blust

I think it was both. I think it was both. Yeah, I think I thought that he didn't really know what he was getting into.

Alix Spiegel

Particularly, what he was getting into in one significant way. Sarah was past 30 and was very clear she wanted children.

Sarah Blust

I was in this moment of thinking about kids, I suppose. And so I had-- I couldn't believe that I could enter into a relationship with someone just coming out of college. But there was a real understanding that the two of us had with each other.

Alix Spiegel

Dan hadn't been planning on having kids so early. But he had been planning on having kids. And he felt like the most important thing was to find the right partner. And if that turned out to be Sarah, he was game. So they decided to go on some dates.

Their first was a bar in Red Hook that Sarah picked. Then there was the date at the roller rink, where Dan broke out what they both agree were truly killer moves. They had this comfortable vibe. And it was really easy to talk. Really, there was just one problem with this whole situation for Dan.

You see, Sarah Blust, like the rest of us, was nursing her own romantic story. And the other person she was imagining didn't look anything like Dan because her hopes centered so squarely on music.

Music has always been critical to Sarah. She plays the drums, but also guitar, and sings. In fact, music is what brought us together. Our first year of college, we founded an alternative girl band called Succubus, which played all four years. After college, Sarah went on to other bands, many, because music just lights Sarah up.

Alix Spiegel

In your mind, at that time, what was the romantic fantasy that you were imagining?

Sarah Blust

Oh, it was so sparkly. Being in a band with someone that I loved and play amazing music, and that we would just have this incredible, creative life together.

Alix Spiegel

This, of course, is a common romantic fantasy which, like Dan's, "we are fated for each other" fantasy, doesn't always work out well. Unfortunately, for Dan's version of the fantasy, one day, several months after his arrival, Sarah Blust went to a concert, the show of a moderately famous indie band she'd long admired. And the drummer became quite smitten with Sarah, as she was with him.

Sarah Blust

And he pulled me in to a community that I was in awe of, I guess. I was really starstruck.

Alix Spiegel

Poor Dan didn't stand a chance. He was science, not music. And the new guy, the drummer, in addition to being closer in age to Sarah, he was just as enthusiastic about their coming future.

Sarah Blust

He was very much like, we're going to make this happen. He lived in Philadelphia at the time.

Alix Spiegel

Did he moved to New York to be with you too?

Sarah Blust

Yes.

Alix Spiegel

Oh, my god. Are you f*cking kidding me?

Sarah Blust

No. He moved to New York. And he moved in with me.

Alix Spiegel

Oh, sh*t. I totally somehow missed that. Wait a second. So you had two people moved to New York for you?

Sarah Blust

I guess so.

Alix Spiegel

How come nobody ever moves to New York for me?

[LAUGHTER]

Put it another way, why do I never end up on a pirate ship in the middle of the Hudson River?

In the interest of journalistic transparency, I will tell you that I was extremely and correctly anti drummer from the beginning. I was firmly team Dan. I made this case to Sarah repeatedly, as is my practice. But in that moment, she was too taken by the story that she carried in her head.

Sarah Blust

--kind of musician partner that I was supposed to be with, that was just getting in the way of me appreciating Dan. Yeah. I guess I just wasn't feeling it. I guess I just wasn't feeling it.

Dan

I just remember there was a fading out. I think she had a boy-- she got a-- had a boyfriend. That made it pretty clear.

Alix Spiegel

After about a year of hanging out on the sidelines, Dan gave up and moved on. Eventually he did become a doctor. Today he's a professor of medicine. He specializes in HIV and AIDS.

20 years on, it's clear that the story he constructed on his ride home from college wasn't true. But he says, in that story, he discovered a useful lesson that he carried forward, and that shaped, he says, his behavior when he finally met his wife.

Dan

I think part of what I had learned from my experience with Sarah was that you can build this whole fantasy world about someone, have these romantic ideas. And then reality can be very different. And I think that was something I had learned, and learned to be cautious of in myself.

Alix Spiegel

Do you have any regrets?

Dan

No.

Alix Spiegel

Do you ever think of Sarah? Do you ever think, oh, maybe that could have worked under slightly different circ*mstances?

Dan

Not really, not since I met my wife.

Alix Spiegel

As for Sarah, like Dan, she's married and has a beautiful kid, with the same red hair and joy as his mother. But she'll tell you, straight up, that there were moments during her single life when she really regretted that she didn't see the great person standing in front of her.

She says she saw Dan as this 23-year-old kid, but now feels like he was actually probably more mature than she was. In fact, she's kind of like the Sarah Blust in the story that Dan wrote before they met. That Sarah Blust didn't end up with the guy from Keep, but every once in a while, remembers him.

Alix Spiegel

What's the thing that you learned from this? Or what is the-- yeah.

[LAUGHTER]

Sarah Blust

Well, I think that when you're presented, in life, with something that seems like a gift, even if you have other preconceived notions, maybe you're wrong. The story that I was telling myself about who my perfect partner should be or would be, that wasn't really a story that was helpful to me.

Alix Spiegel

I guess that's the cue for sad music to play. But on the other hand, isn't that also a story that might not be true? Maybe if Sarah had chosen Dan, I'd be here telling you a different version, one where Dan, confronted with the reality of actual babies in his 20s, bolts the scene. That's the whole damn thing about stories though, isn't it? You can never tell if one is true or not. And there's always a new one beckoning.

But here's the thing. I am the one who is telling this story. So I can tell it however I want. And I don't want to end it with a sad soundtrack because as Sarah would tell you, she doesn't feel sad. Sarah's soundtrack is punk and pop and marching bands and lullabies and sure, some sad core. But every life has some sad core.

Speaking of music, I'll leave you with this, a song from the back catalog of Succubus, the band Sarah and I started our freshman year. She played the drums with her eyes closed. I played a green electric guitar. Together, we blazed a trail of punk-rock glory across North Central Ohio.

Lilly Sullivan

Alix Spiegel, she's a producer on our show.

Coming up, strangers come into your house, look at all your stuff, size you up. They think they know you. How close can they get? That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

799: The Lives of Others - This American Life (2024)

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