The Lonelyhearts Study

Mating Rituals — Observer’s Log
Observer: Dr. Samuel Wellstone, Ph.D.
Coordinates: 39.9543° N, 75.1657° W

OBSERVER’S LOG: FEBRUARY 13, 20--, A.D.

Gladdingsly and I arrived at the Northeast field office today on the eve of one of our project’s most significant annual events: Valentine’s Day. In the past six years of our longitudinal study, this once-holy, now-commercial day has proven useful for instigating and revealing extreme subject behaviors. The chief researcher, noting how understaffed we were for an observation opportunity of this magnitude and acknowledging the depth of expertise I could lend, summoned me from headquarters immediately — a most fortuitous circumstance given my looming deadline to acquire additional funding for my correlative research, tentatively titled, “Algorithmic Pairing in the 21st Century.”

Less fortuitous, however, is the addition of an unwanted partner: Gladdingsly. Despite the lad’s probationary status after that unfortunate incident in the Sacramento arm of the study, he reportedly expressed such a fervent desire to redeem himself that the chief researcher took pity and decided to “grant him a second chance.” Why that second chance must be with me, I dare not ask, but I choose to attribute it to my unassailable reputation after forty-two years in the field (to say nothing of my need for someone younger and stronger to handle the job’s more physical demands).

Upon our arrival, we were quickly assigned to Subject #39, informally referred to as “Sally.” Sally, a female estimated to be thirty years old, 5’6”, ~140 pounds, is of the prime age and demographic to reflect present-day mating rituals. She has never been married, has borne no children, practices law at a prestigious firm, and engages in a wide variety of extracurricular activities, including but not limited to volunteering at the local library and attending weekly trivia nights with friends from college.

The other females in her age cohort are evenly divided between the mated and non-mated camps, though as they age the trend is shifting toward the mated side. Our subject splits her time equally between both groups and does not seem to modify her behavior significantly with either sub-community. Her social connections are strong. Occasionally, we see her assisting her mated companions with child care, day trips, or adult conversation; more often she will join her non-mated friends on evenings and weekends for social events that tend to involve wine.

Since the main study began tracking her twenty-four months ago, Sally has pursued mates with varying levels of energy at sporadic intervals, and to this point has not fallen outside the patterns of mating, cohabitation, and reproduction typical in modern society — except, that is, in one key area. For in an era when the relational climate is increasingly volatile, she is the rare unpaired female who has not yet sought the help of an algorithmic pairing.

Those subjects relying on algorithmic pairings are essentially moving toward a less personal, less community-based system where they can anonymously share information with a disinterested and automated third party which then ascertains through a mysterious but presumably rigorous and not-random process which participant might fit well with another. Yes, the connections happen electronically, but the actual dating — the time spent face to face learning the other person’s personality and preferences — does not. In our initial conversations about the trend, Gladdingsly fails to see my finer distinction on this matter and insists on calling it “online dating,” which I consider a faddish term.

What makes the timing of this assignment particularly thrilling for me is that Sally is unpaired on Valentine’s Day itself, a status that previous observation periods show prompts significant consternation. We shall watch her with great interest.

Gladdingsly is at my door, pointing out the time as if I do not own a clock. Will I be able to endure him? I must take it one day at a time. For now, bed.

OBSERVER’S LOG: FEBRUARY 14, 20--, A.D.

Success! As predicted, Sally exhibited extreme behavior today — so extreme, in fact, that she has handed us a remarkable chance to observe a subject who moves from no algorithm use to significant algorithmic use, all in under twenty-four hours.

Young Gladdingsly, who is more adept at climbing than I am in my dotage, chose to observe Sally from a tree three houses down from her front-facing bedroom window, where her desk is located. With the aid of binoculars, he was able to observe that, after protracted pacing throughout the evening, multiple bouts of muttering over her mobile device, and rapid consumption of five dark chocolate bars, Sally eventually stomped over to her desk and turned on her computer. Though he could not see her face as clearly once she was in front of the screen, my assistant noted a sustained period of hunched shoulders and frantic typing.

The data logs he later pulled revealed that she was typing out all her wishes and habits, in line with other algorithm-supported profiles we have seen. This also fits Gladdingsly’s concurrent visual observation that, “She seemed to be in a state of hyper-concentration as she redacted and revised her life story, chewing her bottom lip adorably.” (Note: Strike his subjective analysis from the official log later.)

After forty-five minutes of this behavior, Sally clicked her mouse, raised her hands above her head, and exhaled. Then she turned off the device and went to bed where, Gladdingsly reports, she slept soundly.

“Honestly, Sam,” he said to me over a late dinner, “I’m surprised it took her this long. Good to see her getting with the program. She picked a good profile picture, too. Her smile is gorgeous.”

Note: Remind Gladdingsly to address his superiors with their proper titles.

OBSERVER’S LOG: FEBRUARY 21, 20--, A.D.

Finally, an uptick in activity. Gladdingsly ran into my room at 0700 today, breathless, energized, with small bits of tree branch stuck in his hair.

“Sam — I mean, Dr. Wellstone — the algorithm has facilitated a match for Sally. She made an appointment to meet a potential mate at the coffeeshop chain closest to her house tomorrow, 1800. Gerry was able to pull the other subject’s file for me. Here you are.”

Sally, it turns out, will be spending one-on-one time with Subject #165, informally referred to as “Hank.” Hank is estimated to be thirty-three years old, 6’2” tall, ~190 pounds. He is disposed, his file says, to wear jeans and button-down shirts, though he prefers sweatshirts in his downtime. The researcher assigned to him reports that he enjoys playing soccer on the weekends and then going with his teammates to various drinking establishments. He works as a project manager at a mid-level agency, a job that offers a comfortable wage and middling satisfaction. The researcher also reports that Sally appears to be his only algorithm-facilitated lead at the moment, though he regularly uses his mobile device to scan other profiles.

Gladdingsly frowned after reading the report. “I will bet you ten bucks, Dr. Wellstone, that he will turn out to be what a peer might refer to as ‘a total douchebro.’”

“I don’t know what that means, Gladdingsly, but both the betting and the language strike me as unprofessional. Do try to conduct yourself with propriety.”

We spent the rest of the day preparing for tomorrow’s coffee meeting. More to come.

OBSERVER’S LOG: FEBRUARY 22, 20--, A.D.

Coffeeshop meetings have long intrigued me as a researcher due to the odd gray zone they occupy in the present-day relational climate. They are a “third place” (another imprecise term, in my opinion) where the broader community gathers to relax and work in a communal space, yet very little communing happens outside whatever group one arrives with, even though new and potentially viable mates sit within arm’s reach. Yet when an anonymous algorithm connects a pair, they by and large elect to meet at — where else? — a coffeeshop. I yearn to understand.

Today’s meeting with Sally and Hank did little to illuminate that particular conundrum, but it was productive in its own right. They ordered from the counter, each paying for their own drink — Sally, chai tea latte; Hank, iced coffee — and elected to sit at a small bistro table near the window. Gladdingsly and I hid in the corner behind the CD rack and watched them over open newspapers. My assistant got especially into his disguise today, with heavy black-framed glasses, fedora, and trench coat, even though we were indoors. He further strained the credulity of his getup by dropping the newspaper on the floor every time Hank inched his wobbly chair closer to the café table and leaned in toward Sally.

Due to the coffeeshop’s din, the microphone we’d hidden in the plant along the window ledge didn’t catch the pair’s complete conversation, but we each heard enough through our headphones (“earbuds,” Gladdingsly calls them, a charming term) to piece the gist of it together. I recorded inquiries regarding occupations, weekend activities, and cuisine preferences, while Gladdingsly captured snippets about family life and recent movie attendance. Body cues indicated a base level of mutual interest; both leaned forward over the table for the majority of the conversation, and we counted at minimum 13 tucks of hair behind the ear on Sally’s end. At one point, when discussing gym habits, Hank sat up straighter and rolled his shoulders back. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he pounded his chest,” Gladdingsly murmured to me, folding his own scrawny arms. I pretended not to hear him and instead focused on what Hank was saying about a new independent film showing only at an exclusive cinema downtown.

After seventy-five minutes of steady chit-chat, the meeting ended, and each party went his or her separate way after a hug. Gladdingsly, who had had his stopwatch out since minute sixty-one, calculated that the embrace lasted seventeen seconds and included both arms of both parties — a lingering length that prior studies have shown bodes well for a second meeting.

Gladdingsly and I spent a good two hours after the encounter analyzing how this algorithmic pairing differed in practice from a human-facilitated one, and at this moment we have not identified any glaring anomalies, other than the fact that Sally chose a public place in broad daylight to meet Hank, a male she did not already know in some capacity. We intend to increase our observation periods over the next few weeks to track this course. As such, Gladdingsly has offered to stay in the tree full-time, which I wholly support.

OBSERVER’S LOG: FEBRUARY 27, 20--, A.D.

The courting rituals continued this evening with a bar meeting. Two days ago, Sally suggested a local establishment via a message on her mobile device (Gladdingsly uses “text” as a shorthand, but I find the word too broad), and within three hours Hank replied in agreement. The evening seemed to go smoothly, with Gladdingsly counting six hair flips from Sally and two beverages consumed, and noting three knee-touches from Hank and four beverages consumed.

A positive sign: Hank genteelly kissed Sally on the cheek before they parted ways. I noticed that Gladdingsly recorded the event in the official log as “weak peck administered, probably with too much saliva. Also, I’m pretty sure he tried to touch her butt. Not cool.”

Note: Discuss the difference between subjective and objective analysis with Gladdingsly.

OBSERVER’S LOG: MARCH 3, 20--, A.D.

Other positive patterns that indicate mutual interest: The time between dates is shortening, and Sally and Hank have alternated date initiation. Despite the evidence contained in prior literature, however, Gladdingsly refuses to acknowledge any potential trends. When pressed, he explained, “Because the number of dates isn’t the sole variable. I’m looking at conversation patterns as well, and the flow of their communication is such that she has more substance and he’s trying to keep up with her. Like at the last date when she shared how she earned her scuba certification over a two-week trip to Mexico. It gave Hank the perfect opportunity to ask a strong follow-up question. Instead, he nodded and ordered another beer. Like you’re always saying, Dr. Wellstone — good research is an artful combination of quantitative and qualitative data.”

While I appreciated Gladdingsly’s level of recall, I did not appreciate being contradicted without enough hard evidence in hand. So we spent the evening closely observing Hank and Sally on tonight’s date at a local eating establishment, followed by a movie at the same independent cinema Hank had previously mentioned. The event went by without incident. In what some subjects elsewhere in the study have referred to as an “outdated custom,” but others have called “a deal breaker” when absent, Hank elected to pay for all of the evening’s activities. Of further note:

  • Conversation appeared consistent throughout dinner, though, I must admit, not entirely balanced, per Gladdingsly’s earlier observations.
  • Touching during the movie (a psychological thriller) included general cuddling, an amount of physical activity commensurate with this stage of familiarity. At one point, when Hank moved to put his arm around Sally’s shoulders, Gladdingsly muttered, “Typical,” causing the patrons in the row between us and the subjects to turn around and glare.
  • After the movie, the pair said good-bye with a prolonged kiss that appeared to involve tongues. Gladdingsly typed this part of the report with such verve that he almost jammed the keyboard. In my clinical estimation, the kiss portends well for future outings. Gladdingsly has reaffirmed his commitment to keep a very close eye on Sally from his tree.

OBSERVER’S LOG: MARCH 7, 20--, A.D.

Major step forward today in the algorithmic pairing: Sally hosted Hank at her house. For dinner. And overnight.

We had a sense this step might be coming, as Gladdingsly had noted an increased amount of device activity on Sally’s end in the days following the dinner/movie outing. According to his report from two days ago, Sally appeared more agitated than normal when trying to compose a message on her mobile device late that evening. First, she called a close friend (conveniently, subject #75) to discuss the merits and drawbacks of extending a dinner invitation in the first place. Then, she wrote in her journal for a bit, bent over the page and quickly scribbling across it. Lastly, after hemming and hawing for thirty-two minutes with a great deal of active digitation, she ultimately sent the message, then sat on the edge of her bed and stared at her phone for another twenty-seven minutes until she suddenly shook her head, threw the device on her nightstand in disgust, and prepared for bed.

Two hours later, well after Gladdingsly thought Sally was asleep, the screen lit up. Sally bolted straight up and grabbed the device to read. Though Gladdingsly could not see the screen, he described Sally’s reaction to it as “excited” and “so cute” — which, when I pressed him for more exact language, he explained as “pumping her arms in the air and jumping around the room until she tripped over her desk chair in the dark.”

Since then, Sally has been more hurried than usual, pulling cookbooks from her kitchen shelves and buying exotic groceries from World Mart. So, I was hardly surprised when tonight at 1802, Gladdingsly barreled into my lab with sap stains on his jacket and yelled, “It’s go time!”

We grabbed our recording instruments and headed into the field. In the deepening dusk, I could see lights perking up in windows as other nearby households arrived home. At Sally’s dwelling, however, all window openings were already ablaze, with more lamps and candles lit within than I would have thought possible for a single-unit dwelling. Gladdingsly and I crouched at the base of our usual tree to avoid the radial projection, intense enough to reveal us even at forty feet out. We watched her rush back and forth across the open frames in a frantic puppet show, exhibiting all the actions associated with ritual feasts, and we could hear her pots and pans clattering and her kitchen knife thwacking.

Gladdingsly couldn’t tear his attention away from the scene. “Do you truly believe this is all for Hank? What has he done to deserve this? Is this because he wears tight polo shirts?”

Sensing a teachable moment, I drew myself up as far as the surrounding hedges and my knees would allow, and said, “Have we gathered all available evidence yet?”

“No.”

“Then perhaps continued silence and observation would prove more effective in arriving at an explanation than unproductive blathering and—”

“Look!”

I followed the sightline of his quivering finger. Coming from the east was Hank. Gladdingsly whooshed out a long, noisy, strangled breath that threatened to turn into a giveaway whistle. I jabbed him in the ribs with my elbow. He coughed, sputtered, and fell silent again. (Note: Apologize to Gladdingsly for possible injury.) With our binoculars fixed, we watched Hank progress quickly and definitely toward Sally’s abode.

When he arrived at her door, we saw him pause, draw a deep breath, and crack his neck. We strained to read his expression in the dark, but all we could make out through our lenses was the direction of his gaze: straight into the window next to the door, where Sally had paused, back to him, bowl on hip, to give her concoction a final stir.

“Douchebro didn’t bring a bottle of wine or flowers,” Gladdingsly hissed in my ear, startling me. “As I suspected, his game is limited.”

I was on the verge of admitting my assistant might be right when Hank suddenly jerked as if he’d just remembered a meeting, glanced frantically around his feet, and grasped at the nearest tuft of decorative foliage from the outside landscaping bed. (Which, given that we are barely into March, was a sorry collection of desiccated stems.) Clutching the pilfered plants, he straightened up and rapped on the door. Sally, still standing by the window, dropped the bowl. We heard the smash (and her shrill, unladylike oaths) even at our distant perch.

Seven minutes passed. Then, Sally opened the door. Her apron was now off and her hair was smoothed back. The pair spent the better part of two minutes greeting one another with a passionate and protracted kissing session where each was so tightly wound around the other that we lost track of their outlines in the dark. When they finally pulled apart, Hank extended the foliage to her (which she accepted with great effusion, if not mild confusion), and together they entered for dinner.

At this point, Gladdingsly (whom I hope becomes more self-possessed if he manages to advance in his career) was hopping beside me like a dog waiting by a back door after a snow storm. “An evening hosted at a private home. A meeting that requires additional time commitment and relative vulnerability for the participants. An opportunity to be alone for an extended period of time. They are so textbook it makes me wanna—”

I clamped my hand over his mouth. I knew what he was referring to, of course: At some point in the evening, Sally and Hank were likely to copulate.

For here is another curious phenomenon of present-day mating rituals, in that a significant amount of copulation happens throughout the non-mated community. This frequent and persistent activity seems to happen with or without stated commitment; in fact, our longitudinal data indicate that frequency levels are inversely proportional to commitment levels. That said, heightened levels of copulation, such as on holidays and in colder weather, do not appear to markedly increase community members’ long-term happiness. In comparison, the paired couples — whom researchers regularly observe sitting outside on their porches staring at sunsets and munching peanuts — appear blissful and content. Of all the unexpected correlations observed so far in the wider study, these are the most inexplicable. We intend to probe further into what we have tentatively titled the “Copulation < Nuts Paradigm.”

One hand still over Gladdingsly’s mouth, I waved with the other. “Will you please be quiet? We have a job to do. Come.”

With our notebooks tucked in our back pockets, we crept low over the pavement toward the house and tossed ourselves (well, Gladdingsly did anyway) the final few feet to end up below the window, backs against the wall. From within, we could hear very little happening. Just an occasional pleasantry, punctuated by dish clatter, followed by the kind of silence that screams for someone to think of something to say. We turned slowly, grasped the sill with the barest parts of our fingertips, and raised our eyes to the window.

Sally and Hank were sitting at the kitchen table, on which was spread a veritable feast of local delicacies — certainly more than any normal family unit of six would put out for everyday supper. Hank had piled his plate high, serving heaped on top of serving, and was scraping it all directly into his mouth. Sally, in contrast, had a small bite of each item balanced around the edge of her plate, and once every minute or so would poke a different foodstuff and sigh as if all she ever wanted in the world were being denied her. Hank did not appear to notice. Beside me, Gladdingsly’s stomach growled.

“Look how bored she is,” he said. “And annoyed. I don’t blame her. I’d be, too! All that time cooking a lovely meal, and this ignoramus doesn’t even say please or thanks.”

“She could be on a diet, Gladdingsly. Or over-tired from her exertions. Or any other number of internal states that you have precious little direct evidence of, so I suggest you keep your speculations to yourself and instead observe what’s unassailable.”

My reproof silenced him, and over the next twenty minutes, Hank and Sally’s conversation failed to approach the levels of prior dates, which, Gladdingsly was quick to say in an exaggerated stage whisper, “wasn’t all that great anyway.” When the meal was done — or, more accurately, Hank had eaten enough to push a small bump out from his stomach — Sally started to collect the dishes. As she stretched across the table to pick up Hank’s plate, he reached out suddenly and touched the back of her hand. Both froze. (My years of observations reveal that despite the high rate of copulation among the non-mated, smaller acts of affection often cause panic and consternation, perhaps because the intent of such acts is less clear and, in their way, much more intimate.) The pair did not look at each other, only at the dish resting beneath their hands. Then the moment broke, and Sally grasped the plate and brought it over to the sink along the opposite wall, where we could see only her back. An enormous pile of pots, pans, and utensils was already balanced at the edge, threatening to collapse.

We watched Hank pound his palm into his forehead and grimace. His eyes traced Sally’s movements as she began rinsing her dishes and loading them into the dishwasher. When she turned forty-five degrees to the right to insert them, she caught his eyes fixed on her backside, and blushed to the roots of her considerable hair. She swiveled back to the running water in the sink, and thus did not see or hear him push away from the table and approach her from behind.

Before she realized his nearness, he had already reached around to shut off the faucet. His other arm encircled her waist, and he pulled her around in one deft pull so they were chest to chest perpendicular to the counter. Gladdingsly stiffened and started to stand up. I yanked him back down. Hank was already initiating strong physical contact with Sally, to which she was responding with great energy and apparent enthusiasm. Gladdingsly began capping and uncapping his pen in rapid succession.

Within minutes, it was evident that the subjects were deep in the throes of pre-copulation activity, with enough groping and grasping to fill several pages in our field notes. Gladdingsly has captured the full details in the official log, so I will refrain from them here, except to say that they predictably heightened over the next three hours of observation while I lost feeling in my ankles and Gladdingsly turned a violent shade of red visible even in the dark. Let me simply note here, for my future reference and study: “Copulation > Dishes Paradigm.”

OBSERVER’S LOG: MARCH 8, 20--, A.D.

I slept well last night, though my ankles protest today. Having tracked the pair throughout the night via his tree post, Gladdingsly reported that Hank left the house at 1047, without breakfast, wearing the same outfit he had arrived in the previous evening. After Hank’s departure, Sally did not engage in any productive activity for the remainder of the day, choosing instead to spend it in front of her television in her preferred pair of flannel pants. Gladdingsly said little beyond this, and retired to his bunk right after supper.

These most recent observations give me pause. In light of the study-wide data thus far, a higher-functioning couple will tend to linger after their first conjugal visit — sometimes by copulating again in the morning, or even sometimes just sharing a homemade breakfast or casual brunch. Of course, those same studies also show varying rates of relationship growth, so no path is prescribed. As such, I will refrain from drawing conclusions quite yet.

OBSERVER’S LOG: MARCH 13, 20--, A.D.

Our communication records indicate that the subjects are exchanging regular messages, but Gladdingsly, whose mood has brightened a bit, says that no further in-person activity has taken place. He even went so far as to demonstrate his knowledge of previous studies, citing the absence of Burmbauer’s “Nesting Scenario” — a common situation in which new couples manage to integrate their lives to the point of spending entire days together until one or both are regularly packing weekend bags and copying household keys — as a sign of waning interest. Though I hate to entertain the notion (given that the study would benefit more from seeing an algorithmic pair cycle through an entire relationship rather than reach a premature end), Gladdingsly’s point is well-taken. We continue to monitor the situation.

OBSERVER’S LOG: MARCH 15, 20--, A.D.

After a series of unfortunate events this week, the chances of a positive outcome in Sally and Hank’s nascent relationship are rapidly diminishing — and with it, my hope for the substantial long-term results that would guarantee continued funding.

First, Sally’s behavior has become increasingly unstable. Though she is adhering to her professional work schedule, her sleep patterns have become more like waking patterns, filled with fretful tossing and turning, frequent device checking, and ice cream binging in the pre-dawn hours. Gladdingsly persists in telling me “there’s no way she likes him that much,” but I don’t have many numbers that adequately demonstrate how the heart is a tricky organ. Thus we cannot deduce if her dissatisfaction is linked to a) a lack of repeat copulation, b) a lack of clear communication, c) a lack of Hank, or d) a combination of all three that underscores any personal concerns she might have about remaining unmated for the remainder of her life.

Second, Hank’s researcher reported that her subject was recently on another coffee date with a different subject, this time #131. We tried to retrieve #131’s records yesterday, but her researcher had been called unexpectedly to the Denver office, so — without informing me of his plans — Gladdingsly took the evening off from observing Sally and trailed Hank instead. His discovery: Hank had progressed much more quickly with this new pairing than he had with Sally, and was already copulating with #131 at her apartment, multiple times over.

But the third and most disruptive event is that while in the midst of this fact-finding mission, Gladdingsly was seen.

It happened late in the evening as Gladdingsly clung to the drainpipe outside #131’s bedroom. In the course of his note-taking, my assistant became so absorbed in his work that he failed to conceal himself properly. So when he glanced up from his clipboard after a rigorous jot, he found himself staring straight down into the eyes of an elderly female neighbor who was out walking her Pomeranian and who now stood frozen, mouth agape at the sight of a young man hanging from a drainpipe. (Which, I concede upon further reflection, could be perceived as strange or off-putting.)

They locked eyes for a full minute, as measured by Gladdingsly’s stopwatch, before the lady screamed loud enough to wake the dead and summoned the authorities to apprehend him, which they did, requiring me to post bail, which I have.

I am now feeling the effects of this depressing, stressful day, and am about to turn in for the night. In the interest of time:

  • Attraction between the subjects post-copulation has become irrevocably imbalanced.
  • Observation of the algorithm-facilitated pairing has been potentially compromised by external discovery.
  • Bail was not a pre-approved expense.

OBSERVER’S LOG: MARCH 16, 20--, A.D.

Am unsure what to record right now, not because the facts aren’t clear, but because I can’t accept the facts for what they are.

Gladdingsly came into my office just an hour ago, unscheduled and unannounced, with a most peculiar flush coloring his skin, a grin looping across his face, and a manila envelope clutched in his hand.

“Dr. Wellstone, do you have a minute?”

I said nothing, only gestured to the chair on the other side of my desk. (I have not forgiven him for the bail incident.) He sat.

“Sir, I need to recuse myself from the study. And not because I was arrested yesterday, though I see how you could consider that a violation of my work probation.”

I still said nothing, only crossed my arms and raised my chin. Gladdingsly swallowed and charged ahead.

“As bad as the arrest was, the truth is, I have already involved myself in the study beyond the point where I can remain objective. You see, Sa— Dr. Wellstone, there comes a point in every researcher’s life — well, really every person’s life — when he has to examine his life and follow his heart. I reached this point yesterday when I was waiting for the bail to clear and thinking about all that’s happened lately, and I realized that what I really want to explore is far beyond the parameters of our study. Which means it’s time for me to go.”

I now said something. Loudly. “What in God’s name are you talking about, Gladdingsly?”

He glanced at his feet, then the ceiling, then my pencil holder. His words dropped with thoughtful precision. “You can only study something from afar for so long before you start wanting it to know you as well as you know it. So, I am going to ask Sally out on a date.”

I sat there, dumbfounded. Mistaking my silence for intentional listening, Gladdingsly continued in a tumble of grateful release: “I know, Sam, it seems crazy. I’ve been watching her from a tree, for crying out loud! But everything she does, everything she says, makes me want to get to know her better. As a real person. Not a numbered subject. I don’t want to observe love from a distance anymore. I don’t want to measure it or log it. I want to feel it. Really feel it. And maybe have her feel it, too.”

He pushed the manila envelope, wrinkled from his sweaty grip, across the desk.

“Here you go. All my field notes on Sally since the start of this observation period. If you all are willing to give me a seco— I mean, third chance, I’d love to discuss maybe being reassigned to a different subject. Preferably a male, for obvious reasons. But if that’s not feasible, I understand.”

He stood up and extended his hand. “No matter what happens, it’s been an honor working with you, Sa— Dr. Wellstone. I hope the team figures love out soon, for everyone’s sake.”

My tongue was still tied. Gladdingsly nodded his head, clapped his hands, and moved to the door. At the jamb, he turned around one more time. “By the way…her name is Laura.”

His grin widened, then he strode away whistling. Whistling! When the last note faded from the echoing corridor, my eyes refocused on the envelope before me. I ripped it open, and out spilled sheet upon sheet of neatly typed notes detailing Sally’s (Laura’s!) every movement, from meal intakes to bathroom visits to favorite circumstances for nail polish reapplication. The organization and level of detail was breathtaking — a level of skill and insight that no one at headquarters, and certainly not I, had ever suspected of him.

One line across the top of the seventh page, dated two weeks ago, caught my eye: “Tonight she told a friend over the phone, ‘I love new relationships because that’s when you are your best self. But I love old relationships more because that’s when you are your real self.’” And beneath that Gladdingsly had jotted, “Copulation < Being Yourself Paradigm.”

Note: Consider whether Gladdingsly’s defection counts as a successful offshoot of the algorithmic pairing, or if it is by virtue of autonomous action a human-facilitated pairing. In either event, I might be able to leverage unusual circumstances into case for full and continued funding. Assign subject number and researcher to Gladdingsly by end of day today. Will begin tracking process tomorrow.


Julia Rocchi writes prose, poetry, and prayers. She holds an MA in Writing (Fiction) from Johns Hopkins University. Most recently, Julia won first place in the Saturday Evening Post’s 2018 Great American Fiction Contest. Her work has also appeared in Mulberry Fork Review, Ekphrastic Review, and others. Julia blogs about young adult spirituality at www.juliarocchi.com and lives in Arlington, Virginia, with her husband.