To: J <>

From: Riley Burke

Subject: Isla Vista Won’t Stop Staring

Dear J, 

Very often while I walk across campus or near the bluffs or down Pardall, I am left wondering if there is something wrong with me. I wonder about a smudge on my shirt and I check again and again if it is stained and I somehow hadn’t noticed when I put it on. I wonder about a blemish on my face or some spinach between my teeth. That my hair is wrong or that somehow my very presence here, on this sidewalk, is some transgression — a great mistake. 

These are never the answers. I am good about flossing and I usually check for stains. Despite this, I still feel the eyes of Isla Vista meet my own every time I walk outside. 

See if you understand what I mean: walking to class, the gym, to a party, to the library, I find myself meeting the eyes of strangers more than I have anywhere else. And maybe it’s just me. But the more I’ve asked around, the less I think it’s my own thing and the more I think it’s a staple of the I.V. experience. 

When my friends from home visited me earlier this year, I asked, after a while, if they noticed it too — they did. I kept asking, I kept hearing the same answer. 

In I.V., we just seem to look at one another. When I spoke to a friend who graduated from Berkeley recently, she described to me a campus where people literally run into one another for lack of looking. Much different than the campus I experience here, where nearly every time l look up I make eye contact with someone. And maybe that makes sense. Berkeley’s reputation precedes itself. Same goes for our own. 

Our long history of partying may also include a long history of social-orientation. We care about the people around us in some way that other places don’t. Maybe it’s that we are only checking to see if we know the person walking by or that we’re wondering where a person got their top or their shoes. Maybe we hope the person we stare at will stare back, will smile and wave and interact. Maybe we’re just curious, looking to get a sense of the people who surround us. I don’t really know. Maybe there isn’t even a reason. 

No matter the cause, it’s strange. There is something about being observed. It’s embarrassing, it’s freeing, it’s a feeling of being known. I am reminded every day in I.V. that I am seen, that I exist in concrete terms and that as long as I am here I will meet the eyes of those who pass by and be reminded for a moment of this mutual acknowledgment. 

In an era defined by loneliness, social fragmentation, political polarization and digital dependency, it’s kind of refreshing. When someone looks at me or I look at someone, there is an undeniable connection, a togetherness in some form, if even for a meaningless second. 

Even if they really are just staring at the spinach stuck between my teeth. 


With love and looks,