Below is the first half of a short story I wrote recently. I’ll post the rest tomorrow. (Update: it’s here.) Let me know what you think!
Sitting down with my phone, I think: my chances are now about as good as they’ll ever be with Chris. There’s so much going for us. Similar taste in music (equal parts Baroque and Top-40); movies (anything with a good balance of comedy and drama, but nothing at either extreme); and activities (generally bookish, but also running). Such a good match.
I would generally be paranoid about thinking things like this, because you never know nowadays whether your thoughts are going to stay private or whether you’ll see them echoed back to you online, but now I’m letting myself hope openly about our connection. After all, I’ve been in love with him for, what, eight months now? “Love” might be a bit strong given that nothing has actually happened, but I’m not sure what else to call it when I get indigestion with anticipation of seeing him, try hard to figure out how to ask my friends about the status of his relationship, and start planning my whole life around how to accidentally run into him. Basically, it’s time to close this deal.
And tonight is my chance.
I’ve worried a lot about whether I’m really ready. It’s been just under a year since the divorce went final, and healing isn’t linear, blah blah blah. Even in the last few months, in the full swing of my crush on Chris, I’ve been surprised by sudden surges of emotion when I find a stray sock of my ex’s buried between the couch cushions, or when one of our old photos comes up on social media as a memory. Why do they think we want prompting with these memories, anyway? As if all memories are good.
But in spite of all that, I think I’m finally ready to get back into it. To love and be loved again, and for it to last this time, set in stone and without a doubt. Maybe I should be more nervous, given that it’s going to happen tonight, but honestly I’m just excited. I know the timing is right, as evidenced by the fact that I cannot get him out of my mind.
That, and obviously it’s not up to me anymore. Because now that the Sort is active, I’m going to be matched with somebody either way. I’m not a sort protestor, obviously. I believe in this system’s potential. I called my Congresspeople in support of the bill several times before it passed. It is a revolutionary good idea, and those don’t come around so often.
All that said, I definitely don’t agree with the people who’ve been saying we should just sit back and let it run its course. That reminds me of things like prayer, or energetic manifestation, or other nonsense. I believe in rational action, not faith. So even though yes I believe the system works, I can’t help but have done a bit of research about how it works.
Did I do this in an attempt to tip the odds in my favor with Chris? Officially, no. I mean, I know the odds are in our favor already, because we’re a great match objectively, but sometimes I can’t help myself. I love learning.
The details about how the app works are all classified, obviously, but if you know where to dig you can find tons of information on Reddit threads and on people’s blogs where they’ve analyzed the public data about the test-match outcomes and reverse-engineered the inputs. It’s more or less what you’d think: matches are primarily about preferences that are gathered from all the data that the government took over since they banned targeted ads. Stuff like cultural preferences, internet browsing history, deepest fears, driving speed, grocery purchases, texting style, sexual interests, religion, intelligence level, health data.
But also there are some interesting theories about age and location. The system tries to privilege nearby matches, but it’s not afraid to send you thousands of miles if that’s really the best match. And ages are generally close-ish, but it seems to have a slight preference for matching men with slightly older women. The theory is that it’s trying to adjust for the likelihood of men dying at an earlier age than women, so if it matches a couple up with an appropriate age disparity to start, they’ll be likelier to die around the same time. This has caused the obvious uptick in paranoid forum postings wherein men prepare each other to be matched with much-older women: if that happens, does it mean they have some kind of genetic illness they don’t yet know about, or just environmental factors probabilistically resulting in an untimely death.
That’s pretty morbid to think about: that tonight, when everyone will be sorted with their ideal match, some people will be getting an unsettling insight into their fate.
This thought process is getting me nervous again. But there’s no point in that. I’ve done my research; as best I can tell, Chris and I have decent odds. And there’s nothing for it but to wait until 8 tonight when the matches will be out.
Of course, before I can get my results, I have to take the plunge and actually activate the thing. I take a swig of Scotch and download the app. It’s nothing much to look at, super old-fashioned and 2D. Typical clunky government UX. I scan my fingerprints in and scroll through the legalese. I click several boxes to confirm that yes, I’m acknowledging my consent to the sort, and I agree that if I do not fully comply I will be liable for penalty payments, etc etc.
Eventually I get through all of that and it’s super anticlimactic: it just shows me a picture of myself, which is the backbone of the profile they made for me. I try to remember where the picture was taken; I’m not looking quite at the camera, so maybe I didn’t even know the person who took it and posted it, or maybe it was from CCTV, but it is really flattering, so kudos to the algorithm for that. I also skim my brief written profile. They’ve written it up exactly how I would have back in the bad old days of private dating apps, probably because a lot of it was scraped from those apps. That’s how I met the ex, back when it was all happenstance and blind hope. I read through the text with a little twinge of nostalgia mixed with embarrassment, although I know I can’t change my profile, and it doesn’t really matter to the algorithm anyway, it’s just there for flavor.
It’s 7:55. Just a few more minutes until the sort.
When my phone’s clock strikes 8, the app buzzes and makes a really goofy low-rent party sound effect, complete with computer-generated fireworks on the screen.
YOU HAVE A MATCH, it says.
My heart is thudding in a way that makes me almost wonder if something is wrong with me, and my palms are wet and my muscles all feel like I’ve been running. I take another sip of the Scotch and bring my index finger to the screen.
SWIPE HERE TO REVEAL, it says. It’s cute how they kept the swiping mechanism. Old times’ sake.
It will either be Chris, or it won’t. 50/50 odds, I think, a familiar joke. That gets me to smile, at least, and I swipe.
Two things happen at once. First, the crash: it’s not Chris. The buzzing in my body goes dead. Okay, rationally I knew the odds were extremely low that we’d be sorted together. It should almost never happen that it’s someone you know, because what are the odds that you already just happen to know the objectively ideal person? But still, it feels like a punch in the gut. I try not to think about him looking at his own phone in his own apartment right now, sorted with someone else. Is he disappointed, too? Or happy?
But simultaneously with all of that, somehow, there’s a thrill building in me. Because the person I’m now holding in my hand has the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen, dark brown set in warm brown skin, crinkled in a genuine smile that hits me right in my ribs. That’s the first thing I notice. He’s looking right into the camera, which means that the best picture of him was one that he knew was being taken, which says some interesting things about him. He’s my age, and he’s only 200 or so miles away. I scroll down to his profile. It’s full of emojis, which is such a throwback that I make a face, but maybe he didn’t date online for a long time before the sort started so this data is old. The text makes me smile. He’s written a little mini-story about what we’ll do on our first date, which pulls in details about the music he likes (jazz, interesting) and that he’s good at cooking.
I’m still reading his story when a message from him pops up over his profile.
Alexander Muñoz: Hi Cara! This is Alex. I hope you’re having a great night! There’s just one question to ask…Does pineapple belong on pizza?
I laugh, crumpling my face.
Cara Williamson: Hi, Alex! Definitely yes. I would say I hope that’s not a dealbreaker, except we’re stuck together either way, aren’t we?
His message comes back shortly.
A: Haha, you get right to the point. I like that. Although, of course I like it. That’s kind of the point of us getting matched. And yes, I’m glad we won’t have to fight about pineapple!
C: Sorry, Alex, I didn’t mean to rain on your parade. I guess this is all so new and I didn’t know what to expect. I figured it would be a lot different than online dating. Like, maybe people didn’t flirt by text anymore. I’m sorry, I guess I’m nervous.
Something is happening in my belly while I watch him type at the other end of the phone. What does it look like in his room right now? Is he smiling, like I am?
A: We have a lot to talk about. Shall we meet halfway tomorrow?
C: Wow, you don’t waste time.
A: Word on the street is that we’re perfect for each other. I don’t want to wait 🙂
As I go to sleep that night, I’m actually glowing. I’m set. I’m good. I like certainty; this is true. My ex always said it was a flaw about me. He was wrong. Look, I’m introspective enough to know that all that mental preparation about Chris—that was just my need for certainty talking. But now I have it, and it looks like the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen.
The next day, I’m surprised that it feels so much like it used to feel to get ready to meet up for the first time with someone when you didn’t know it was literally destined to last forever. I try to work and exercise in the morning like usual, but I’m really distracted. Eventually I give up and take a long shower, do my hair properly (am I pretending to be someone who does her hair? Why?) and put on my current favorite outfit. By 3, I’m on the road and my car is driving me to the appointed place. I alternately nap and read while it drives. Eventually the car turns the indoor lights on and says we’ve arrived. The place is just a roadside chain restaurant. I head inside and tell the hostess his name. She shows me to a booth. I’m early.
Right on schedule, I see him open the front door. His movements are all quick. He looks excited. He has flowers. I can’t help but grin. We make eye contact and wave. He rushes over and gives me a hug, hands me the flowers.
“It’s so nice to meet you,” we say basically in unison, and then we both go “You, too,” and then we laugh at this harder than we need to.
The waitress comes by to take our drink orders before we can talk more, which gives me a second to relax. Then when our conversation starts back up, it feels just like an old-fashioned first date: he asks me about myself, even stuff that was on my profile or that he must have been easily able to glean from my govdata. What I do for a living, where I grew up, my parents and siblings. I decide not to point out that he doesn’t have to do this. We split onion rings.
Eventually, I can’t help myself. “Alex, I feel like I need to say it: I was married before, and our divorce went through about a year ago.”
I’m blushing, awkward. I definitely shouldn’t have brought this up right now, like this. “Yeah, I guess—I wasn’t sure I was ready.”
He’s looking at me like he’s really listening.
“So I guess I’m just saying, this is kind of weird for me. It’s all really new.”
He smiles, and it makes me feel exactly like it feels to sit close to a campfire. “Let me know if I can do anything to make you more comfortable,” he says earnestly.
“Oh, God, no, you’re being so great. I guess, I’m just surprised it feels so much like how dating used to feel. I didn’t expect my government-issued soulmate to be so…” And I’m blushing too much to say what I’m thinking, which is: perfect.
He reaches out a hand across the table, offering it for comfort, and it’s the kindest thing anyone’s ever done to me in a single moment. I take it. It feels completely right. “I want you to always feel comfortable to tell me how it’s going for you, and I’ll do the same, okay?”
“I know it’s weird for all of us. It’s all brand new. But you and me, Cara, I promise: there’s no need to be nervous. We have all the time in the world, literally,” he says. And of course he’s right: this is supposed to last until we both die.
So we talk about our pasts. It turns out that he was actually still in a relationship as of yesterday when the sort went active, but clearly he and his girlfriend weren’t as good a match as he and I are, because the sort chose us. This is the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard, and it takes me a few minutes for it to sink in for me that that means he essentially went through a surprise breakup last night at 8.
“Are you okay?” I ask. “Were you two…I mean, was she…”
He smiles gently and thinks for a minute. “She was great. We had a wonderful time together. But when we both got sorted last night, and it wasn’t each other that the system chose, we both knew it must mean there was something even better for us out there. I’ll miss her, of course, but God, meeting you makes up for everything.”
That, right there, is Alex all over. He’s a calm little nugget of thoughtful sweetness. He, unlike me, doesn’t seem to grasp at certainty like a life vest. He just goes with it.
I’m in love with him so fast. Because the system works, folks.
(Stay tuned for tomorrow, when I’ll post the conclusion!)