Sam Elling was filling out his online dating profile and trying to decide whether to laugh or cry. On the one hand, he had just described himself as “quick to laugh” and had answered the question, “How macho do you consider yourself?” eight on a scale of ten. But on the other hand, the whole thing was really quite frustrating, and no one, he knew, ever admitted to anything less than an eight on the masculinity scale anyway. Sam was trying to come up with five things he couldn’t live without. He knew that many would-be daters cheekily wrote: air, food, water, shelter, plus something else vaguely amusing (He was thinking swiss cheese would be a clever addition to that list or possibly Vitamin D though since he was in Seattle, he seemed, in fact, to be living quite nicely without it). He could go the techie route: laptop, other laptop, tablet, wifi connection, iphone, but they’d think he was a computer geek. Never mind he was, he didn’t want them to know that right away. He could go the sentimental route: framed photo from parents’ wedding, grandfather’s lucky penny, program from his star-turn in his middle school production of Grease, acceptance letter to MIT, first mix tape ever made for him by a girl, but he suspected that would belie his reported macho factor. He could go the lactose route: swiss cheese again (he was clearly craving swiss cheese for no apparent reason) plus chocolate ice cream, cream cheese, Pagliacci’s pizza, and double tall lattes. It wasn’t really true though. He could live without those; he just wouldn’t like it very much.
The point was this exercise was five things: annoying, prying, cloying, embarrassing, and totally pointless. He didn’t have any hobbies because he worked all the time which was the reason why he couldn’t find a date. If he didn’t work all the time (or weren’t a software engineer and so also worked with some women), he would have time for hobbies he could list, but then he wouldn’t need to because he wouldn’t need online dating in order to meet people. Yes he was a computer geek, but he was also, he thought, smart and funny and reasonably good looking. He just didn’t have five hobbies or five witty things he couldn’t live without or five interesting things on his bedside table (truthful answer would have been: half-full water glass, quarter-full water glass, empty water glass, crumpled used kleenex, crumpled used kleenex) or five revealing hopes for the future (never to have to do this again, repeat times five). Nor did he care about anyone else’s reported hobbies or five requirements for life, bedside tables, or futures. He had already answered variations of these inane questions with another service, dated their dates, and saw what all of this nonsense came to. It came to nonsense. If you picked the ones who seemed pretty down to earth (books, writing implement, reading lamp, clock radio, cell phone), you got boring. If you picked the ones who seemed eccentric (yellow rain hat, Polaroid camera, lime seltzer, photo of Gertrude Stein, plastic model of Chairman Mao), you got really weird and full of themselves. If you picked the one who seemed like a good fit (laptop and honestly nothing else because that has all I need), you got a computer geek so much like your college roommate that you wondered if he’d had an unconvincing sex change operation without telling you. So you had your pick of boring, weird, or Trevor Anderson.
Five things Sam couldn’t live without: sarcasm, mockery, scorn, derision, cynicism.
That was not the whole picture of course. If it were, he wouldn’t be online dating. He would be holed up in a basement apartment somewhere contentedly crotchety on his own (xbox, wii, playstation, 42-inch plasma flatscreen, microwave nachos). Instead, he was putting himself out there again. Did this not indicate optimism re: love? (hope, good cheer, warmth, generosity, the promise of someone to kiss goodnight). Maybe, but it was way too cheesy to write on the stupid form.
The problem with the stupid form was this: it wasn’t just that people didn’t tell the truth -- though they didn’t -- it was that there was no way to tell the truth, even if you wanted to. Things on a bedside table do not reveal a soul. Hopes for the future cannot be distilled for forms or strangers. Fill-in-the-blank questions were fun but not really indicative of the long term future of a relationship. (They weren’t really that fun either.) Even the stuff with straightforward answers failed to reveal what you needed to know. For instance, he wanted to date a woman who could and would cook and enjoy it, but it couldn’t be because she was some kind of domestic goddess who required a clean house all the time (Sam was not neat), and it couldn’t be because she believed a woman’s place was in the home and she should cater to her man (Sam was a feminist), and it couldn’t be because she was one of those people who only eats organic, sustainable, locally grown, chemical-free, ecologically responsible, whole, raw, vegan food (see above re: Sam’s love of dairy). It had to be because Sam didn’t cook and she did and they both needed to eat, and he would take on some other household chore like dish washing or clothes folding or bathroom scrubbing in exchange. There was no place for all that on the form or even a place to indicate that he was the kind of man who considered such bizarre minutia relevant.
And yet, a man has needs. And not the ones you think. Well, those too, but they weren’t foremost on Sam’s mind. Foremost on Sam’s mind was it would be nice to have someone to go out to dinner with on Friday nights and to wake up with on Saturday mornings and to go with him to museums and movies and plays and parties and restaurants and ballgames and on long weekends away, day hikes, ski trips, parental visits, wine tastings, and work functions. It was this last which were especially pressing for Sam who worked at the online dating company whose form was causing him so much grief. It employed many swank and high powered people -- most of them male -- who brought many swank and high powered people -- most of them female -- to their many swank and high powered black tie galas. Sam did not own a tie of any color until he got this job, was himself neither swank nor high powered, and felt strongly that a job as a software engineer in a three-walled cubicle surrounded by other software engineers with their obscure math t-shirts and Star Trek action figures and seven sided Rubik’s Cubes should have absolved him from these sorts of work pressures. But the lawyers and VPs and CFOs and VIPs and investors wrecked the curve, and besides, it was an online dating company -- showing up to these functions solo was a bad career move. Sam spent these evenings in his too-stiff tuxedo making awkward private jokes with his awkward single software engineering compatriots, sipping free vodka tonics and worrying that he’d never find true love.
In high school in Baltimore when Holly Palentine saw through his geeky exterior to the cool heart that beat beneath and agreed first to dance with him at Homecoming and then to let him take her to dinner and a movie and then to hanging out in his basement most afternoons after school making out, Sam had assumed he would marry his high school sweetheart. He remembered dancing close with her at the Spring Formal and imagining what they’d look like on their wedding day. Then she sent him a letter from the Girl Scout camp where she was a counselor asking if they could still be friends. Still? Sam hadn’t realized this had ever been in question. In college at MIT, he had tried late night hookups in the dorm and girls who flirted with him at parties and falling madly in love with the barista at Shot Through the Heart (though he had not tried talking to her) and a year-and-a-half real adult relationship with Della Bassette, who then graduated and left for three years of volunteer corps in Zimbabwe, and another year- and-a-half of true rock-solid start-thinking-about-engagement-rings love with Jenny O’Dowd who really did love him and wanted to be with him forever except she accidentally also hooked up with his roommate the semester before graduation. Twice. Then Sam tried being alone, being alone far less likely to result in the crushing of his soul and atom-splitting of his heart. He tried not caring and not risking and not looking, hanging out with guy friends, solo vacations, self-growth, and canceling cable. None of that worked either. Not being in love did mean he was less likely to get hurt. But he honestly didn’t see the point.
He didn’t see the point not because he was one of those people who always, always had to be paired up and not because he didn’t think of himself as whole without a partner and not because otherwise it was too hard to have sex but because when he wasn’t spending time with people he loved, Sam found he was spending a lot of time with people he didn’t. His work colleagues were fine at work, but they didn’t have much to talk about when they went out afterwards. Happy hour with friends he’d lost touch with since college reminded him why he’d lost touch with them. Small talk at parties held by friends of friends meant a lot of pretending to think interesting a lot of things he didn’t think were interesting.
When he left the East Coast for Seattle, Sam tried internet dating and couldn’t believe he’d been alive for thirty-two-and-a-half years and never thought to before. Sam believed in computers and programming, in codeable information, in algorithms and numbers and logic. His father was also a software engineer as well as a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University, so Sam was raised to believe. Computers were his religion. Everyone else pitched online dating as the only option after not meeting anyone in the vast ocean of college. But Sam liked online dating because it took away the mystery. Maybe you met someone and liked her and she liked you and you hit it off and you started dating and that went pretty well and you got closer and closer, shared more and more, starting building lives around each other, fell deeply in love, and still she slept with your roommate when you went home for the weekend. Computers would never allow for such outlying variance.
Online dating had yet to work for Sam. But it did pay well. And that came in a close second as it turned out. One too-pretty-to-go-to-work morning in June, Sam’s whole team got a sheepish text from their boss. “Fair warning,” Jamie wrote. “BB’s agenda for OOF today: Quantify the Human Heart.” Jamie referred to the company’s enormously important CEO, his boss’s boss, as BB. Sam loved him for this. BB had recently decreed that each team would begin every morning with a stand-up meeting, the idea being that the company wasn’t wasting its brilliant programmers’ time with a real meeting but only a brief encounter in the hallway. Generally, this meant it was the length of an actual meeting but without the comfort of chairs and a danish. Jamie therefore called it OOF, theoretically for On Our Feet though actually for how those feet felt at the end of the meeting. Sam loved Jamie for this too. Also because he wasn’t a super stickler for punctuality which gave Sam time to run back inside his apartment and change into more comfortable shoes.
“So here’s the story,” Jamie began when Sam got there. “BB thinks we need a better bottom line. Some online matchmaking sites promise the most ‘fun’ dates. Some boast ‘highest percentage of marriages.’ BB wants to up the ante. Too many dates end in failure. Too many marriages end in divorce. What’s better than dating and better than marriage?”
“Friends with benefits?” guessed Nigel from Australia.
“Soulmates,” said Jamie. “BB wants an algorithm that will find your soulmate. Therefore I turn to you. Love is a tricky thing. All that human variable. The soul is not logical. The heart wants what the heart wants. Hard to nail down. Hard to quantify and program. But we are computer programmers, and this is our job. So we must. Tell me how.”
“Increase the odds of getting laid,” said Nigel. “Looser dates lead to more and earlier hooking up. The farther you go on a first date, the more information you have about sexual compatibility.”
“Won’t work,” objected Rajiv from New Delhi. “Dating sucks.” On this, the software engineers, save Nigel, were in agreement.
“It’s not fun,” said Gaurav from Mumbai.
“It’s very awkward,” said Arnab from Assam.
“And it’s all lies,” said Jayaraj from Chennai. Five Indian states Sam had become an expert on since beginning work as a software engineer: Delhi, Assam, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal. “You are so much worse on a date than you are in real life,” Jayaraj continued. “You can’t string two sentences together without sounding like some kind of idiot. You stammer and bring up awkward topics and embarrass yourself a lot. You’re not really like that in real life.”
“Or you present yourself as better than you really are,” Sam added, “which is also a lie. You get all dressed up and do your hair and put on makeup when really you’re going to walk around the house in yoga clothes and a scrunchie all day.”
“Makeup?” Jamie raised an eyebrow at him. “Scrunchie?” wondered Jayaraj.
“We need a third party,” offered Arnab, “like the Hindu astrologers who know everyone in the village for generations and thus make marriages at birth that last till death.”
“Many cultures have matchmakers. Japanese nakodos. Jewish shadchens.” Gaurav had been an anthropology major at UC Santa Cruz. “There are eons of precedent. They realize a truth.”
“Which is?” asked Jamie.
“Who people think they are and what people think they want is not really who they are or what they want,” said Gaurav sagely. “Wise and sometimes magical elders set you up based on who you really are and who would be good for you instead.”
“I have no magical elders,” said Jamie.
“No, you have something better,” said Sam. “Computer programmers. We could dig a little deeper into the data users provide. See what it says about them rather than what they say about themselves.”
Everyone’s feet were getting tired, so digging deeper seemed worth a shot. “Accusing our customers of lying,” Jamie said. “I’m sure BB will love it.”
Sam stopped for coffee on the way back to his desk. (Five places within 700 feet of Sam’s desk to get a world-class double tall latte: the espresso stand on the second floor, the espresso stand on the fourteenth floor, the cafeteria, the coffee shop in the lobby of the Fifth Avenue entrance, the coffee shop in the lobby of the Fourth Avenue entrance. Sam loved Seattle.) Then he sat down and considered where, if not on online dating forms, people revealed the truth about themselves. He sent Jamie an email. “Can I have access to clients’ financial records?”
Jamie wrote back right away. “Accusing our customers of lying and invading their privacy. BB’s going to love that too.”
First sure-fire proof Sam had that users were lying about themselves: Everyone everywhere was always having a fit over internet privacy concerns, but promise to find them love or at least sex, and they signed access to their financial records, credit card statements, email accounts, and everything else over to Sam just because he asked nicely. There he saw them not as they represented themselves but as they really were. He saw that they said their five favorite foods were organic blueberries, wheatgrass smoothies, red quinoa, tempeh reubens, and beluga caviar, but they spent an average of $47.40 a month last year at the 7-11. He saw that the five things they listed on their nightstand were all foreign film DVDs, but they saw Shrek Forever After in 3-D twice in theaters and spent the week of the foreign film festival hanging out with their old college roommates at a dude ranch in Wyoming. He noted that they said they liked to write poetry and short stories and even included a quote from Ulysses in their profile, but Sam analyzed their emails and knew they were in the bottom 12% of adjective users and had no idea how to use a semi-colon. Everyone lied. It wasn’t malicious or even on purpose usually. They weren’t so much misrepresenting themselves as just plain wrong. How they saw themselves and how they really were turned out to be pretty far apart.
Sam was a romantic, yes, but he was also a software engineer, and since he was better at the latter, he played to his strengths. For two weeks straight, he worked obsessively on an algorithm that figured out who you really were. It ignored the form you filled out yourself in favor of reading your spending reports and bank statements and emails. It read your chat histories and text messages, your posts and status updates. It read your blog and what you posted on other people’s blogs. It looked at what you bought online, what you read online, what you studiously avoided online. It ignored who you said you were and who you said you wanted in favor of who you really were and who you really wanted. Sam mixed the ancient traditions of the matchmakers plus the truths users revealed but did not admit about themselves combined with the power of modern data processors and made the algorithm that changed the dating world. He cracked the code to your heart. His teammates were impressed. Jamie was pleased. But BB was thrilled with the algorithm, especially once he saw the proof of concept demos and how incredibly, unbelievably well it would work.
“We’ll get you down to just one date!” BB enthused. “That’s all it will take. Talk about killer apps!”
The Girl Next Door
The next step for Sam, of course, was to try it himself. He wanted to know if it worked. He wanted to prove that it worked. But mostly, he wanted it to work. He wanted it to search the world and point, to reach down like the finger of God and say, “Her.” How good was this algorithm? First time out, it set Sam up with Meredith Maxwell. She worked next door. In the marketing department. Of Sam’s own company. For their first date, they met for lunch in the cafeteria at work. She was leaning against the doorframe grinning at him when he got off the elevator, grinning helplessly himself.
“Meredith Maxwell,” she said, shaking Sam’s hand. “My friends mostly call me Max.”
“Not Merde?” Sam asked, incredulous, appalled with himself, even as he was doing so.
Who makes a joke like that -- pretentious and scatological and FRENCH -- as a first impression? Sam was awkward and off-putting and a little gross.
Incredibly, Meredith Maxwell laughed. “Je crois que tu es le premier.”
It was as if a miracle had occurred. She thought it was funny. She thought Sam was funny. But it wasn’t a miracle. It was computer science.
“So where did you learn French?” Sam recovered after they were seated in an out-of-the- way corner with their cafeteria trays.
“I spent a year abroad in college in Bruges. I also learned Flemish.”
“That must come in handy,” said Sam.
“Less than you’d think. The only people I speak Flemish to are my dogs.”
“You have dogs?”
“Snowy and Milou.”
“You named your dogs after a Belgian comic book.”
“Well, a Belgian comic book and its English translation,” said Meredith Maxwell.
Sam was wildly impressed with himself. Though she’d offered nothing in her dating profile about the names of her dogs and Sam nothing of his childhood obsession with Tintin, somehow he’d written an algorithm that knew anyway. He was some kind of genius. Meredith Maxwell, meanwhile, was beautiful and funny and evidently smart, 34-years-old (Sam liked older women, even if they were only seven months older), a world traveler, a polyglot, a dog lover, an enjoyer of cafeteria-style strawberry ice cream, and possessor of skin that smelled like the sea.
“This was fun,” said Meredith as they bussed their trays. But she didn’t sound sure.
“Should we do it again?” said Sam.
“Maybe off campus?” Sam observed that this was not a no but was also not an of-course- don’t-be-absurd-yes. Was this thing not as good as he thought? Was it good on paper (well, in code) but not in fact? Or more appalling still: was she his perfect match, the one soul in all the world who fit with his, the boiling down of all humanity to his Platonic partner...and she liked him sort of okay? He scrambled to think up impressive first dates. Was he insane? The cafeteria at work wasn’t a good first impression. This one shouldn’t count. He needed a do- over. “Let’s go somewhere special for dinner.”
“Okay,” she agreed.
“Um...Canlis? Campagne? Rover’s?” Sam named expensive restaurants aimlessly. He’d never been to any of them. “We could take the Clipper over to Victoria? Canada’s very romantic.”
“Boats make me throw up,” she said.
“That restaurant at the top of the Space Needle?”
“Do you like baseball?” she said.
Sam stopped breathing. Was this a trick question? “I like baseball.”
“How about dinner at the ballpark? Saturday night? Hotdogs and a game? Might be more fun.”
The ballgame was fun. So was dinner out, somewhat more casual than Sam had suggested in the first place but still what passed for fancy in Seattle. So was the play Meredith picked out for them to see and her interrogation of him afterwards which was like an English exam but with more pressure (the stakes being higher after all). So was the Korean horror film at the three dollar movies, and so was the day hike at Hurricane Ridge. But it still hadn’t clicked right away. Or maybe it was the opposite.
“I can’t help but notice,” Meredith observed after all day hiking, after separate showers and towel dried hair and red wine and candles and carry-out Thai on the floor of her living room, “that you haven’t kissed me yet.”
“I haven’t?” said Sam. “Nope.”
“What a strange oversight. Why do you think?”
“Could be you don’t like me,” Meredith suggested.
“I don’t think that’s it,” said Sam.
“Could be you like me but think I’m hideous.”
“I don’t think that’s it either,” said Sam, scooting a little closer towards her across the floor.
“Could be that you’re a lousy computer programmer and this algorithm doesn’t work and we’re totally mismatched, a crappy couple, star-crossed, ill-fated, with no chemistry.”
“I am a brilliant computer programer,” said Sam.
“Maybe you’re scared,” said Meredith.
“Not much chance of that. Maybe you’re scared.”
“Me?” she said.
“Yes you,” said Sam, scooting a little bit closer still. “Maybe you’re too scared to kiss me. Maybe you’re lily-livered.”
“What does that even mean?” she said. “Like your liver is flowery? Like a little girl? Like all the toxins it filters out of your blood are flora?”
“It’s from humors. You know, bile, blood, phlegm,” Sam murmured romantically. “You lack enough to color your liver, so it’s all white and pale and cowardly, hanging out down there in your digestive tract talking you out of kissing me.”
“You know a lot of things Sam,” she said.
“Is that a bad thing?” he asked, coming upright. He’d been leaning so far towards her, eyes half closed, he felt almost dizzy. Or maybe that wasn’t why.
She considered. “I do like my men smart, but perhaps the less talk of phlegm right before our first kiss, the better.”
“I didn’t know it would be right before our first kiss,” Sam said.
“Well then I guess you don’t know everything after all.”
Did she kiss him then or did he kiss her? Or were they so close by that point that the next inhale pulled their mouths together, that the ferocious beating of Sam’s heart rocked him actually into her? Or was it fate or compatibility or chemistry or computer science? Sam forgot to care. Sam forgot to think about it. Sam forgot to think about anything at all.
They kissed for a while then they stopped kissing for a while and just sat and breathed together. Meredith’s apartment was decorated with model airplanes hanging all over the ceiling. The shadows they flickered in the candlelight made Sam feel like he was flying. Or maybe that wasn’t why. Then Meredith said, “Well that was nice. What took you so long?”
Sam tried to say lightly, “What took you so long?” He tried to work “lily-livered” back into conversation while his heart rate came down. Instead he accidentally answered honestly. “I think...I’m pretty sure this will be my last first kiss. Ever. I wanted to savor it.”
“How’d it go?” asked Meredith.
“I forget,” said Sam, and she smiled, but that was accidentally honest as well. “Let me try again.”
Goodbye for Now
- Genres: Fiction
- hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: Doubleday
- ISBN-10: 0385536186
- ISBN-13: 9780385536189