An anonymous group portrait at the second-ever Secret dinner party

Nellie Bowles

An anonymous group portrait at the second-ever Secret dinner party

Culture


Secret dinner party, said the intriguing post on Secret, an anonymous sharing app.

Invitations were application only, the host wrote in the comments. As instructed, I used an anonymous account to submit my best secret to a Google doc.

A few days later, I got an email with the details:

secret dinner invite

Five nights later, on an overcast Monday evening, I drove to downtown Oakland. The block was mostly low-lying buildings and empty lots, except for my destination, a large apartment complex. A printed note on the door read: “You know who you are. Welcome.”

The call-in buttons on the intercom weren’t working. I saw an alley across the street, and imagined that would probably be where I would be killed. I called the dinner host. He came down the elevator, introduced himself as Kai, and welcomed me inside, saying I was the first to arrive. He wore a crisply ironed gray linen vest, a tie and raw denim jeans, and he cradled a chihuahua named Nymeria in his arm like a football. I offered him my lemon bars, and he escorted me to his apartment, which was lightly cluttered with bikes and athletic footwear.

“We all end up in these silos of an expected life. I know who I am around the people I know, but anonymously? What can I be anonymously?” Kai said, talking as he finished preparations for dinner (beef stew, black rice, mint and strawberries for muddling with vodka). “I want a place where I can be raw again. Where I can be honest. Where it doesn’t always have to be vacation pictures and ‘Look how great I am.’ I find situations where I make my own luck. I bought a share of Microsoft, and told people I co-owned a business with Bill Gates. My daddy didn’t go to Yale. I find situations where I can punch above my weight.”

All of this before we had even had a drink.

We moved to the apartment building’s common area, a large, clean, modern loft that Kai had reserved for his Secret dinner. There were tables and couches and a spot on the wall with wires sticking out where a TV probably had been. Of the nine guests milling around, seven were women in their mid-twenties to late-thirties. I introduced myself as a reporter, and one woman asked if this was an official Secret marketing event (it was not). Several guests commented on the fact that it was funny that we all wanted to meet strangers but, then again, we probably weren’t that far from being friends.

secret dinner party

Nellie Bowles

“Listen, we wouldn’t have seen the Secret if we weren’t either friends, or friends of friends,” said Simona, who wore a blazer over her startup T-shirt, and called Secret her “bathroom habit.”

“Look me up on Facebook,” Simona said. And indeed, it turned out that we had eight mutual friends — I had even dated one of them for a summer.

A woman named Elizabeth, who works in tech PR, told the story of throwing the first-ever Secret dinner a month ago: She started by “collecting interesting people off different threads.”

Not everyone was enthusiastic about the idea at first. Elizabeth reached out to one woman who had posted that she had grown up in the ghetto, and was now making six figures. “I think [the invitation] freaked her out. She said, ‘Who the hell are you, this sounds scary,’” Elizabeth recalled. She also liked someone’s post about the inappropriate overuse of Purell (he showed up, along with half a dozen others). A tradition of sorts was born.

We pushed two round rolling tables together to make a communal table, topped with plates in a hodgepodge of patterns. And as the group at this second-ever Secret dinner started eating, they settled into a conversation with a unique rhythm.

Guests spoke in short bytes, and then responded to each other with affirmations. Topics changed quickly and organically. It was trusting, and it was jarring. It was as though the Secret app had exploded into a living room.

The conversation started on the notion of love.

“The most successful online dating I’ve ever done is when I posted to Craigslist and offered someone to be my plus-one to a Louis C.K. concert and gave them my OkCupid handle,” Kai began. “But I think they just wanted me for the ticket.”

secret dinner party

Nellie Bowles

“I end up falling in love with profiles, not people,” said a woman named Ina, who wore wire-rim glasses and a jacket that she kept wrapped tightly around her. “I’ve had relationships with OkCupid profiles.”

“I had an online profile that was too good,” said Laura, who wore a peacock-feather headband, a long, black ball gown, and had brought along a black poodle named Byron. “So all I was was a disappointment, over and over again.”

Kai fed his chihuahua tiny chunks of steak under the table.

One person spoke at a time. They weren’t shy. Someone started debating a doomed character from the science-fiction book “Flowers for Algernon.”

“Why did he do that?” Ina asked. “He estranged himself from the one he loved.”

“You’re saying love is irrational? That people in emotional relationships behave in suboptimal ways? Hold on, let me post that on Secret,” Kai said, sarcastically.

“What we consider irrational about love is really Stockholm Syndrome,” said a woman named Fern, who wore a red braid across her forehead.

“Do you have a low-entropy life?” Laura asked Ina. “I’m an engineer, so I can tell you’re one too.”

“Because I’m Asian and wearing glasses?” Ina asked, palpably offended.

Dinner was finished by around 9 pm, but there was plenty of wine left. The conversation turned to family.

“I know exactly how fast welts heal because of my family,” Kai said. “The ROI on family is just not there for me.”

Simona nodded. “This summer, my mom and I worked on our relationship like no other — we watched ‘Brave,’ we went to therapy, we smoked pot. We used to fight. Once she said, ‘None of this would have happened if you hadn’t gotten an eating disorder.’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t have gotten an eating disorder if you weren’t such a controlling bitch.’”

“Well, now that we’re sharing secrets,” Laura said, speaking the subtext of the entire evening. “I’ve never had a personal relationship with my father in my life. It’s been so conflict-free, I have to invoke conflict to start a relationship.”

“My brother steals from me, and he’s an effing M.D.,” Kai chimed in.

“The past and future could exist now,” Fern said, though I’d lost track of how the conversation got there.

Ina responded, apparently still miffed about being called an “engineer”: “Those papers [about past-future convergence] are written by a bunch of humanities majors who know nothing.”

“What do you want from your parents?” Fern asked Kai.

“All I want with my parents is peace. There’s a global maximum that can’t be reached, but there’s also a local maximum that can,” Kai said. “We have to optimize the code for peace.”

A few hours later, people stood up to leave. A few of them helped clear the table. They hugged. They exchanged real-world contact information. A woman named Lulu, who wore an oversized American Apparel T-shirt and had been pretty quiet all night, leaned against the wall for a minute and stared at the ceiling.

“It’s a little weighty for a Monday night,” Lulu said.




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