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The Love Algorithm That Doesn't Exist

I have become an expert at finding patterns and reading self-help books. But they still don't give me the answers I'm looking for.

Crush City is a biweekly column following the romantic misadventures of New York City high school junior Anna Koppelman. Her conquests include studying her crush in geometry instead of isosceles triangles and making a secret Pinterest board for the wedding she is definitely going to have with her older brother’s friend. Anna may not be talking to any of her exes, but she’s happy to write about them.

Wes, with his high cheekbones and oversize coat, is just close enough to grab my hand and interlock it with his, but he doesn’t. He asks me, in a drawn-out attempt at small talk, if I like being healthy. I nod and add that I also like eating ice cream. I picture the chia pudding I eat every morning at 10 a.m. The strip of Starbursts I secretly keep in my locker, unwrapping them inside the door. Hiding as I place a pink one in my mouth. I just don’t know from who. How lonely 8th Street felt in that moment. So many street lights blaring red.

When I was in seventh grade, I read a self-help book pretty much every weekend. It was almost like a routine. Like all the drama and unwanted emotions in my life could be wrapped up and fixed with whatever was prescribed to me in the Seven Habits of a Highly Effective Teen or How to Win Friends and Influence People for Teen Girls. There was a lot I wanted to change and a lot of people telling me how I could.

I once sat in between the bookshelves of the school library and texted my ex-boyfriend, begging him to tell me what it was I did to get him to like me. He told me that it wasn’t an algorithm. I asked him to just tell me the truth. He told me that it couldn’t be simmered down to 10 steps the way I wanted it to be. No rules, not guidelines, no-self help book. I told him I missed the way it felt, warm, whenever he held my hand. He told me he had a girlfriend. I slid down next to the books.

James has curly hair and sits next to me every day in geometry. He wears chunky knit sweaters. He’ll watch me as I try to solve problems in my notebook. Slowly leaning over to offer me his help, he speaks softly to me, attempting to explain. When he notices the dazed glaze of misunderstanding on my face, he will chuckle. “Just put your hands out and maybe the spirits will give you the right answers.” I’ll laugh and roll my eyes a little, and then, not so subtly, I’ll copy his answers onto my sheet.

He has green eyes that I’m sure would say a lot if I brought myself to look into them. He carries a stack of cards to practice magic tricks with. I always seem to find him in the hallway, shuffling. I look at him sometimes, when he is writing down notes. How his hand could graze against mine. If only I moved mine closer. I bet he is the kind of guy that calls a girl on the phone, who would talk to her sweetly until she drifts off to sleep. He is in the percussion ensemble, which I’m pretty sure is the only way to make being a drummer nerdy. I listened as he played, the awkward clunk of instruments against each other. He kept the beat. Repeating.

I have never been one to go for the bad boys. Beer bottles and Harley-Davidson tattoos never excited me as much as they scared me. Instead, I have a thing for boys who talk down to me. Who ask me why I feel like my life is worthy enough to write about. Who ask me to rate how I look on a scale of 1 to 10. Who ask me if I like being healthy. If you make fun of the way I spell and make a sly comment about the fact that I do improv, I’ll become convinced that we are soul mates.

When my ex-boyfriend texted that he had a new girlfriend, I told him I was happy for him. He told me her name was Lucy and that they made out under a bridge next to his house. I told him that I was happy for him. To send me photos of her. That I was content — perfectly OK. Just being a part of his life was enough for me. After he met her family, he sent me a photo of him with her grandma. I was just so happy for him. When they broke up, he called me crying. He had never felt this type of pain before. I told him I was there for him as I let my head rest against the pillows of my bed.

When Wes and I finally sat down to eat, I ordered a kale salad with pumpkin seeds and grilled chicken, as if to prove a point. He offered me his French fries. I told him I was OK. When the check arrived, he didn’t offer to pay. We split it. We walked around for a while. Somehow, I still wanted him to kiss me. He didn’t.

These self-help books all tell you the same thing. We all have patterns we need to fix. Evaluate your life. What are you doing wrong? *Insert catchphrase* can help you change that — can change everything. You practice the mantras it prescribes, and for about two weeks, everything becomes organized and you feel better — until you need a new mantra and a new catchphrase. I have become a professional at finding patterns. I like the same kind of boys with hidden smiles and shaggy hair.

I texted with my ex-boyfriend until I decided to stop responding. The other night I woke up from my phone buzzing. A month had gone by since we last spoke. He wanted to know why. I never told him that it hurt me, all those pictures, run-on stories, the girls he kissed. That happiness is an easy response to give someone over a screen. I held on to his new love stories as some kind of last effort to be in one again. He told me I made him think about things. It was time he did that on his own.

I see James sitting at a lunch table. Tray in my hand, I make my way over to him. He is sitting with a girl from my art class and a few friends of mine. When I sit down, he looks at me. I look back. We smile. The girl from my art class asks him why he looks so uncomfortable. He tells her that he isn’t. I giggle. The conversation changes. Our eyes meet.

As I walk to get on the N train, I stop at a CVS. I buy a pack of chocolate-covered peppermint Peeps. I take a bite of one of them before throwing the rest out. I do not know anyone who likes the process of being healthy. Just people who are.

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