The Algorithm of Love

By

Placing one’s profile on an online dating site is best done slightly drunk.

 

It isn’t that I wanted to get on a dating site. This is the most impulsive decision I have made in my life, besides staying in love with a man for two decades when reason told me otherwise. A man who is to be my ex in a few months. But every impulse is regulated by reason. And right now, reason appears very legitimate and logical.

That Friday afternoon, thirty-six hours after the biopsy, Dr. Kaplan calls me with a brief announcement—the nodule on your right breast is benign. Have a good weekend.

The flat delivery of news that could have been earth-shattering is anti-climactic enough that even my exhale sounds contrived. I am still in my car, headed back home. I grip the steering wheel tightly so I don’t veer off Highway 101. The life I had doesn’t flash like I see in movies. The life I want is what stares ahead.

 

April, my friend, shows up Friday evening. She wants to celebrate my “perky breasts” since the biopsy results have ensured “perkiness” is possible in the future. That’s what she calls my bruised chest. I have skin glue covering up the right breast curve—it throbs with each movement I make when I wave my arms to talk. A writer and a yogi who grew up Napa Valley, April was named by her mother after a month in summer, but it was the month before she was born. Almost as if her mother forgot to tear off the sheet from the calendar when April, the month, passed, had contractions, out came April in May and was named for a month that really wasn’t hers. April has the laugh of an eternally happy person who is a contradiction. Her sources of hydration after a day of meditation, yoga, and writing are never-ending glasses of full-bodied cabernet sauvignons. She appears in my life, a long-lost friend, a few months before the mammogram experience, a few months into my divorce experience, almost as if Ma and Baba sent her to me. She arrives so I don’t turn crazy. Not yet, anyway.

That Friday evening, after three glasses of wine, she says: “C’mon, Ma-doo, you promised!”

Her voice holds the twinkle of humor, the I’m-serious-but-not-really-and-yet-I-am kind.

“What, what did I promise? It was a joke, April, that’s a joke.”

“No, the joke is that this nodule wasn’t there when you filed for divorce, was it?”

“That’s true,” I agree.

I was nodule- and cyst-free, two years ago when I walked into my very expensive lawyer’s offices. In that office that eventually took a year’s worth of my salary in biotech, I told the lawyer with feathered curls: “I’m ready. Ready to file the papers on an eleven-year marriage and an eighteen-year relationship.”

Playing with her sun-kissed, golden-brown hair, April presents her case, much like my Feathered Curls Lawyer with blonde hair extensions: “So, now you have a nodule. It’s great it isn’t cancer, right?”

“Uh-huh.”

“So, in a year, the stress congealed in you.”

I marvel at that word. Yes, the stress did congeal in me—not really stress; it was primarily grief, I think. The soon-to-be-ex, the only one I have ever loved. And then suddenly, silence. No communication, no email, no returning my voicemails. Just punitive silence. Later in the year, media and social-media-savvy writers will call this ghosting. Right now, in Lizard Ranch, my tiny rented cottage hidden behind a mansion on a three-acre property, four miles from the ocean, surrounded by pines, coyotes, right now, I wonder what he’s doing. Does he wonder about me as much as I do about him? He didn’t get a nodule that congealed in him. He comes from a family of people who die of old age. I come from high intelligence, great sense of humor and a lifespan cut short by stress, heart disease, and hypertension. A cancer scare is now added to that mix. Yes, the stress congealed in me, forming a soft, round, symmetrical nodule neatly tucked under my right nipple, a foreshadowing of what I was holding onto, as I went through life pretending to be strong.

April continues: “Madhu, c’mon, I’m on a site myself. Do I need it? No! But one needs to explore what’s out there. Be honest, sincere, and ask. Ask and you shall receive, woman!”

“Yes, but, c’mon, I—”

“Love those excuses, baby. Love them. Now get on this site.”

 

The first website I access that Friday talks about personality. You are a Director, a Negotiator, an Enabler, a Leader, a Doormat, a Follower… the list goes on.

April settles into her chair. She watches me, her eyes amused, her long legs dangling off the arm rest.

“April, these personality tests mean nothing. I could be lying and they’ll match me with a serial killer.”

“How do you know?”

“I don’t.”

“Be truthful, and honest guys will reach out. Just don’t say you hate men, because there is no point in getting on a dating site to bash men, Madoo.”

The site she wants me to fill my profile on is for people looking for ‘meaningful relationships.’ So I talk what I know. Science.

“So this social anthropologist, Dr. Fisher came to the independent bookstore in Del Mar once—way before this eHarmony, Match, Bumble, JDate, Zoosk thing was popular. She ran MRIs of college kids in love and…”

“Those college kids fall in love all the time, don’t they?”

“Yup, they do. They are in love, in lust, all that. Their brain maps light up the frontal cortex.”

“So…?”

“Well, this scientist, she said, what happens in college usually, is that within a semester or two, the couples cheat, or fall out of love or find someone new or get bored or whatever. So they break up. The breaker and the breakee’s brains are again examined.”

“You mean, more MRI rays, eh? Those rays can’t be good for love or the brain, right?”

“Yes, but the fact is, the person who gets dumped usually hates the dumper. So, check this, the brain lights up the same way, the same frontal cortex that lit up when thinking of their new love. See?”

“Sure, Dr. Ghosh,” April yawns and continues, “So you hate that soon-to-be-ex of yours. I get it. We all know that. So what?”

“No, I don’t hate him at all! I just don’t—”

“Don’t dawdle, cute men are waiting for your exotic Asian face.”

Calling me exotic, or Asian, or American, will get me to do anything to prove her wrong, even things I don’t want to do, just to prove a point. But this time I go through the litany of excuses I’ve practiced ever since my soon-to-be-ex left me and when my friends nudged me to look at other men: I’m not exotic. Asian is not what people think when they see my face. I’m going through a divorce, not single yet. Also, I’m not interested in this dating game. This is way too American. I mean, this is too white.

“You’re American now, Madhu, don’t forget.”

Her eyes, though they smile—she’s relentless. I touch my throbbing breast, and the skin glue the technologist applied yesterday. I am alive, the injured tissue says.

 

April is trying to get me to start thinking of a life besides the one I had waiting for my soon-to-be-ex. If she’s on this site, it can’t be so awful. At least they’re not asking for my name. I mean, what will my sister think if she knew I was arranging myself a man?

In the darkness, the coyotes near San Elijo lagoon yip at each other to head on home. It’s late and the stars shine brightly on the patio where I sit with my laptop and wine.

 

 

According to cultural and social anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher, one falls in love with three feelings—one, when you have sex with someone new, you fall in love. Two, when you fall in love, then have sex. And three, when you feel a deep sense of connection, turning into romance, then sex.

Human beings have evolved such that while the sex drive is for humans to test a range of partners, once the right partner is linked, one then maintains that link via romantic love, or a monogamous relationship. This is essential for family, for stability and rearing children as a team.

Phase I of romance is when one can sweep aside the cons of the partner and only the pros are discussed. This is accompanied by energetic exchanges, possessiveness, separation anxiety, and physical reactions like elevated heartbeat, accelerated breathing, and a physical craving to be near the loved one. Phase I is obsessively thinking of one’s partner.

Using fMRI scanning of n=49 men and women, Dr. Fisher’s findings are listed below:

Seventeen participants fell in “romantic” love, fifteen had been dumped, and seventeen more were a group that is still in love after twenty-one years of being married.

The ones who are rejected after a one-night stand don’t get depressed. But the ones who fell in “romantic love” or were married for twenty-one years, and then got dumped—those are the ones who have feelings of depression, suicide, and/or homicide.

 

During the MRIs, Dr. Fisher found the region that lights up when a picture of the loved one is shown. It’s called the caudate nucleus in the brain, where dopamine is released. When someone in love receives a text, sees a photo or meets their lover, a chemical reaction occurs; dopamine or the “love potion” in their brain pushes them to be happy, exhilarated, and energized. The caudate nucleus lights up. Dr. Fisher observed that in the test groups. The caudate nucleus is a dense collection of dopamine receptors. When dopamine is released while thinking of or being with a loved one, then one is in love. Love accelerates those energizing emotions, making one bold, bright, attentive to one’s partner.

 

I fill out the forms.

– Am a writer and a scientist.
– Looking for someone with a sense of humor.
– Not looking for long walks on the beach.
– Looking for someone who would like to travel.
– Someone who likes movies, and books.
– A man who would like to share a laugh, a good wine, watch a movie (or two).

I am lying. I married the first man I ever went out with. I was with him for two decades. I don’t date. I am a long-distance-marathoner of relationships and my record is a dismal zero out of one. I am lying when I say I want a relationship.

 

From the brain scans of people who have just fallen madly in love, Dr. Fisher determines the differences between male and female brains.

In general, males’ visual stimuli integration part of the brain is lit up when they fall in love. Women, on the other hand, have brain areas related to memory lit up. Why the difference? It is the classic men-look-at-girls-as-they-walk-by and women-remember-the-wonderful-things-men-do-for-them syndrome.

The first time I met my ex, he was wearing a large T-shirt, gray and orange horizontal stripes, and sweatpants. He had pulled one of the legs up, so he looked like he had just woken up from his sleep. I wore my very 90s jeans with paint splotches that felt extremely cool and hip to me. I stuck my hand out and said, “Your roommates told me you and I will get along well. I’m Madhu.” I said this with a confidence I didn’t feel.

He smiled, and his dark eyes bored into me, curious. He didn’t let go of my hand. “Is that right?” he said, and his low voice played a Bollywood song in my heart, my gut, my head.

I fell in love with my now-soon-to-be-ex in that instant and I am still trying to dig myself out of that hole. That is my memory of the first time I met him. When we were lovers, then husband and wife, I would ask him over and over, to talk about the first time he saw me. Each time he said, “I don’t remember, Madhu, not much. Except that you wore those hideous jeans. Hope you threw them away.”

That is the men-look-at-girls-as-they-walk-by and women-remember-the-wonderful-things-men-do-for-them syndrome. Or at least that was my experience.

 

The lane of love is narrow—there is room only for one.

– Kabir

I pull out the extra comforter and pillows for April. Weekends with wine means she’s not driving back through winding roads in the forest that separates my cottage from the Pacific Ocean.

Her enthusiasm is contagious. All she can tell me is how wonderful San Diego men will be knocking on my door to talk to me. My phone buzzes. It’s almost midnight. Who?

Someone likes my profile. It says so.

“What does it say?” she asks, her long legs stretched over the chair arm rests.

“That this fellow likes what I say, but that I need to post some photos.”

“Yes, and you should, Madoo. What’s wrong with you?”

“Yes, but c’mon, I work in cancer—”

“Blah, blah, blah. You’re a high-flying executive. We get it. You’re looking for a date, that’s all. How does it matter? Just put your mug on, willya?”

So I do. Me staring at the phone. Me looking serious. Me smiling like I have a secret.

 

When we both wake up next morning, my silenced phone is blinking.

The screen lights up with winks, likes, views, second views. Men from the neighborhood. Men across the country. Men up at 2 a.m. Lonely. On the site. Looking. Looking. Winks. Views. Likes. Second views. This isn’t what I thought dating was going to be. My right breast is still sore, throbbing from the angry manipulations of medical professionals earlier in the week. I close the app.

In the kitchen, April sets the water to boil for coffee. She curses.

I glance through my profile. Here are the messages: I can pronounce your name if you tell me what it is, dear. Love your profile pic. Wink! Wink!

The men are all in their cars (theirs, I presume). Seat belts are secured for most of the men pictured with their children. Some are social smokers—I don’t know what that means; you’re either a smoker or you’re not. Most have dark glasses on, even inside their homes, and their profile pictures have them in manly poses—near a boat, weight lifting, staring into the ocean with glasses on. Most of their profiles indicate a high school diploma or college attendance—and state that they would love to take their potential mates on a sunset dinner with wine and then hopefully progress to “the next level.”

All of them have winked at me. A wink, according to this site, is how a member expresses interest in another. This is worse than a job interview. This is a shark fest.

I look at April’s profile on her phone. “So, what’s the oh-shit comment for?”

“Apparently I forgot to check my phone last night. So this guy texted me five times. Wink wink, and then I love yoga, and love that you love yoga. Third message after an hour: You’re a tease, why don’t you reply. Fourth one: How dare you pretend you want a man when you’re obviously a lesbo? And the fifth one this morning: Well, you lost a good catch. I waited the whole night for your text back, you obviously don’t know the value of a good man and deserve to remain single forever. Good bye.”

“Wait, wait… who is this guy?”

We look at the profile—a middle-aged man, benign-looking, bearded, no information on whether he has a job, a home, or a car, possibly children, or has attended college. There is no mention of whether he reads, likes books, movies, travel, or anything that doesn’t have to do with copulation.

April elaborates: “Okay, attended college could mean he went to community college classes in growing weed at home. One never knows…”

“So, now he’s mad at you? Wait… he’s on my profile, too.”

We scramble to swipe my screen. Yes, the same man, has viewed my idiotic profile, and left snarky comments. The same beard, side-pose, only face showing, so one doesn’t know whether he has a body or half or a whole one. He looks harmless enough, except the texts he’s sent my friend are borderline stalker behavior.

The Bearded One winks again. At me.

“Oh dear,” I say.

 

If the brain lights up seeing a loved one, this Bearded One certainly wasn’t that. Not for April, not for me. Did my brain light up as much as my tumor stayed dark? And is that what I am looking for? This feels like a chore, an exercise. Completely mechanical and algorithmic. None of these algorithms even talk about the heart—just as none of the tumor treatments addressed my soul.

 

Knowing that the tumor in my breast isn’t malignant makes me question what kind of existence these sites ask us to live. Or really, what kind of existence I am asking myself to live.

Maybe I need debauchery. Maybe debauchery, for me, is signing up on a dating site. Maybe that risky lifestyle of getting on a dating site for less than twenty-four hours is something I can permit myself.

I didn’t get on that site because I was lonely. I got onto it to celebrate the postponement of my inevitable death. To celebrate that I was alive. To show gratitude.

But this wasn’t the right reason. Not any of them. Never the right reason.

When April heads inside to rinse our coffee mugs, I delete my profile, and all the details on whether a man should know how to pronounce my name. I am not ready.

These men aren’t making the caudate nucleus light up in my brain. The cool morning breeze sways the pines behind my home. The shivering leaves rustle up a joy in my heart for being alive. I never needed dating to celebrate.

The dating app blinks me a question: Are you sure you want to lose out on the man of your dreams? Lose out on a lifetime of love? Are you sure?

“Yes, I am,” I whisper, pressing the delete button.

This is too much. This is too early. I am alive again. The Dermabond holding my right breast tissue stretches with me, a soft sigh. I just received the postponement of an inevitable death sentence. Let me breathe that news in.

I inhale the crisp San Diego air. The pines softly concurs. The brain can relax for now. The algorithm of love can wait to compute.

***

Rumpus original art by L.T. Horowitz. Images of questionnaire and brain provided by author.


Madhushree Ghosh works in cancer diagnostics in San Diego, California. Her Pushcart-nominated work has been published in the New York Times, Catapult (forthcoming), Atlas Obscura, The Surfer's Journal, The Missouri Review, Panorama, The Chicago Review, Garnet News, Hippocampus magazine, and others. An Oakley Hall scholar, Madhushree’s award-winning plays have been performed at San Diego Actors Alliance festivals, and a frequent invited speaker on Women in Science forums, she has also served as Gastronomy Editor, Panorama. Her current work-in-progress is her narrative nonfiction book on outlier women, titled, "Hatke Women: Fierce Outliers". She can be reached at @WriteMadhushree. More from this author →