love on the grid

understanding relationships by the numbers

Last night’s dinner was a towering mound of buttery pasta covered in homemade sweet ragu. There is no better expression of love than a homecooked meal, I believe, and the good friends who were part of my rotating cooking club really outdid themselves. The noodles were rich and the sauce meaty in a way that satisfied some primal understanding of comfort. A hot bowl of food is a beautiful thing.

I scarfed it down in silence, taking delirious, indulgent bites. Immediately after, as my well-fed friends broke off into happy chatter, I brought out my laptop.

Pasta makes me brave. I pulled up a spreadsheet that I regarded with pride and a bit of apprehension. To myself, I call it “My List.” Formally, the file is titled “A Way of Looking at Things.” Its job is to reduce the nebulous mess of my young romantic life down to numbers, rows, and columns.

Objective sexual history lives alongside a subjective and neurotic emotional history, both ironed out into facts and figures. Relationships are compressed into impact metrics: love in degrees, pain in degrees. Tally it up and the numbers tell you a story: times of good sex and mutual respect, times when I found myself less than graceful, summer flings, and date-things.

When I feel overwhelmed, I return to this table and plot my thoughts. The goal is to acknowledge every kind of truth. I note deeds as well as desires. Everything falls somewhere on the scale: Six is finger-fucking in the eerie glow of a sun lamp, four is an epistolary relationship and online strip chess, one is two seats away—an obsession, unrealized.

The file is saved on my Google drive so that in the event that I get mugged walking home, the digital history of everyone I’ve ever wanted would live.

A.W.—who is good for me. E.S.—whose mouth tasted like cigarettes and mentos. D.S.—who was custard eyes and balloon hands. A.Z. and C.D.—who didn’t know about each other. A.R.—who I met at my art show. B.S.—who grew tomatoes, and who could build anything. P.O.—a sociopath in cashmere. S.P.—a smooth-talking failed experiment. In the last row the numbers are added up. Every time I look at them, I feel like I am learning to count.

I am twenty-one years old. I have chosen to record thirteen people. Seven of them I have kissed—kisses are a category of their own because I am sentimental. I have had sex with three people. I have loved four. I have cohabited with one. And it feels weird to keep score, but I have been hurt six times.

My first sexual experience was reading Madame Bovary. My shortest relationship lasted one week; we broke up because I was too shy to sit with him in the school cafeteria. My longest relationship was two and a half years; we had planned a whole possible life, and both felt robbed of it when we broke up.

The spreadsheet is beautiful, detailed, and honest. I created it as a way to discontinue destructive trends after a particularly ugly breakup. Each person gets a column. At the top of their column is their photograph, cropped from the clavicles up, usually with an expression I most clearly remember them by. A. with his grin and bike helmet, J. in a concerto-ready suit and tie, E. with a smirk, slightly unshaven, D. looking remarkably earnest.

As soon as I put them beside each other, trends started to appear. If you have never given thought to cross-analyzing your “conquests” but have found yourself gnawing at sex, relationship, or self discovery questions, I highly recommend making such a list.

Superficially, I have no obvious type. The people I’ve dated differ geographically, socioeconomically, generationally. What was spooky, however, was that identical features—eyes, mouths, cheekbones, foreheads—cropped up everywhere, sometimes with years in between. The spreadsheet also showed that from 2012 through 2013, I was stuck in a rut. My relationships grew increasingly unhealthy from one to the next, and my partners, increasingly haughty, distant, and self-absorbed. There were other trends too: artsy guys with epic fros, red-lipped women who played the guitar, and of course, my farmer phase—masculine, warm, all-American men who drove pick-up trucks and frustrated me with their lack of communication.

The spreadsheet also showed that when I felt most uncertain about myself, I sought out overachieving partners. All of them were male: a guy who spoke seven languages and participated in South American revolutions, a guy who possessed encyclopedic knowledge of music and books, a guy who invented the sexy douchebag thing and wore beautiful sweaters. I longed to be independent, sophisticated, and smart to the point of being invincible—and sought to date people who resembled that, hoping their qualities would cross over through the transfer of heat. It was an embarrassing habit, but the spreadsheet ultimately helped me identify the pattern and break it. Instead of dating what I wanted to be, I had to resolve my issues and work to become those things myself.

Last night was the kind of night I needed pasta to get through. Sufficiently fed, I made a small note in the spreadsheet, in the far right column: A. and I broke up.

One to zero. Relationships are mean binaries. We spent a little over a year together, grew so much, had so much fun. Love is a ten; pain, about a six, actually. I was relieved that it didn’t hurt so much. What I wanted for us was to avoid the too familiar breakup scenario—self-doubt, shock, and desperation. Our parting felt deliberate and reasonable—even compassionate. It ended so well—not as part of a toxic empty trend, but as testament to a wonderful, rich relationship. We grew apart.

I looked at the spreadsheet. I have recovered from many separations more painful, but have met few better people. I tally my gratitude.