Modern love plus online anonymity is a recipe for romantic disaster in this lighthearted new romance from the author of The Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love.
How bad can one little virtual lie be?
NYU freshman Mariam Vakilian hasn’t dated anyone in five months, not since her high school sweetheart Caleb broke up with her. So, when she decides to take advantage of an expiring coupon and try out a new virtual reality dating service, it’s sort of a big deal.
It’s an even bigger deal when it chooses as one of her three matches none other than Caleb himself. That has to be a sign, right?
Except that her other match, Jeremy, just happens to be her new best friend IRL.
Mariam’s heart is telling her one thing, but the app is telling her another. So, which should she trust? Is all fair in modern love?
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HIS SELFIE MADE ME DO it.
Yes, I had the 40 percent off coupon from the orientation fair. Yes, it was almost about to expire. Yes, my roommate, Hedy, had made a casual comment just the day before about how I never seemed to leave our room. And if I wanted to, I could use any of those as excuses for why I found myself sitting in the waiting room of HEAVR, about to place my love life in the hands of some virtual gods.
But if I did, I’d be lying.
Just that morning, Caleb had posted a grinning photo with a few of his college buddies, in mid-shrug—the kind of “casual” shot it probably took at least fifteen takes to get right—looking so carefree that it had sent my heart into a tailspin. There were a couple of girls in the picture too. I didn’t know if any of them meant anything more to him, but it almost didn’t matter. My ex-boyfriend, love of my life, breaker of my heart, was having the college life I should have been, and looking damn good doing it.
Seeing that post had made me . . . angry. Mostly at myself. Why had I been shutting myself up in my dorm room, doing a months-long performance of the breakup mope, speaking to hardly anyone outside of my roommate? Why, especially, when Caleb was having fun.
My eyes had swept across a stack of papers that was occupying a corner of my desk. At the top was the HEAVR coupon that had been gathering dust for two months. Within moments I had navigated over to their site and filled out their sign-up questionnaire—forced to glance one more time at Caleb’s selfie while I dutifully linked out to my social media profiles like it asked. Then I walked myself to HEAVR’s headquarters. I didn’t have an appointment, so now I was forced to sit in their yellow-and-magenta waiting room, staring at the “Happily Ever After Guaranteed” trademark that was plastered all over it, and trying to avoid the idle time that might make me rethink this idea. Because there was the part of me that didn’t want Caleb to be responsible for my decisions anymore. And there was the part of me that felt like love hurt too much to be worth even trying for again. And, of course, who could forget the part of me that believed in the meet-cute and wanted it to be for real, not orchestrated by a machine.
But the overwhelming majority of me kept thinking: Why not? Sure, it was easy to make fun of a dating app whose name was synonymous with vomiting and to laugh at those SNL sketches mocking the very idea of VR love. But I was certainly not going to meet anyone holed away in my dorm room. Why not let a machine give it a go in an attempt to find my HEA—my happily ever after? HEAVR’s matchmaking skills were supposed to be second to none, and for a little bit extra, they’d even throw in the meet-cute. I’d splurged.
I smiled brightly at the woman in the lab coat as I got up and followed her down a hallway. No sense in not being extra friendly to someone who potentially held my entire romantic future in the palm of her hand.
She led me into a small room that was painted a cheerful shade of yellow.
A black leather dentist’s chair sat in the middle, complete with a tray nearby that held a sort of helmet/goggle hybrid, two sleek charcoal gloves, and a thin black vest.
“Have a seat, Ms. Vakilian. My name is Joan, and I will be your guide, or as we like to call it at HEAVR, your twenty-first-century Cupid.” She said that last part with a tight smile, which led me to picture her having a long conversation with her boss about just how idiotic she thought that trademarked moniker was. Joan didn’t seem like the type who suffered fools or foolish slogans. “Let me get caught up on your order.”
She looked down at her tablet and read, giving me a chance to observe my “Cupid,” who, in lieu of a diaper, was dressed in a smart navy skirt suit underneath the pale yellow lab coat, which had the letters HEAVR and her name stitched in dark magenta on the lapel. She wore a shade of lipstick that matched the magenta perfectly, and because her skin was a similar olive shade to my own, I found myself wondering if I could pull off the color too. Joan’s hair, however, was put back in the sort of high, professional ponytail that had always confounded me—no matter what I did, my ponytails seemed to escape their confines in unruly strands that gave me a “gym look,” which wasn’t super helpful when I was trying to interview for my work-study job or, say, attempting to look cute in case I accidentally ran into Caleb back home.
Ugh. Why did all thought roads lead back to him?
“Okay, so let’s recap.” Joan looked up from her tablet with a bright smile. “You’re looking for an eighteen-to-twenty-three-year-old male, open to any ethnicity, race, or creed. And location . . . you didn’t fill this one out. Do you want strictly local?”
I hesitated. Logically, I should say yes. But on the other hand, wasn’t the beauty of living in this day and age and with this service at my disposal that I could say no? That I could date someone from anywhere in the world (or, well, the seventeen countries that HEAVR currently existed in, anyway)? Why not take advantage? And besides, it would really stick it to Caleb if I somehow found a long-distance soul mate after all.
“No,” I said. “Open to anywhere.”
“That’s fine,” Joan said with a practiced but nevertheless soothing smile. “And that’s it in terms of preliminary information we need from you. The rest will be done with this.” She tapped on the tray. “So let’s just get this on first.” She opened up the vest, inviting me to put my arms through. It was lightweight for something that surely contained a lot of tech in between its seams. Joan came around to Velcro the front together. “Great. Now sit back and put your feet up.”
I leaned back in the buttery chair, which, despite its comfort, made me feel like I was about to get a root canal.
“It won’t hurt, I promise,” Joan said, almost as if she could read my thoughts. “Let’s get these on.” She handed me the gloves as soon as I was settled.
I slipped them on. They were made of some sort of sleek synthetic fiber and they felt slightly more substantial than regular gloves, but maybe that was only because I knew they were haptic and designed to register my motions.
“Okay, and in a moment, you’re going to place this over your head.” She picked up the goggles. “Before you do, you have a choice of locale for your initial questionnaire. Some of our most popular choices are tropical island, outer space, Parisian café, or—thanks to our new partnership with the Tolkien estate—Middle Earth. Any of those do anything for you?”
“Um. How about tropical island?” Out of nerves, I went with the first option she had mentioned, but it sounded appealing enough.
“Perfect,” Joan said. “Once you put these on, you won’t be able to hear or see me anymore. But if you need anything while on your island, just tap your left pointer finger and thumb together and I’ll be able to punch in to guide you. Otherwise, use your pointer finger to pick your choices. And everything else should be pretty self-explanatory. We’re going to be asking you ten questions to select your matches, okay?”
“And here we go.” Joan handed the goggles over and I slipped them over my head. For a second I was in a dark, silent world until Joan must have flipped a switch or something and suddenly there were crystal seas ahead of me, a sandy beach below, and a low sun above. The sounds of lapping water and seagulls filled my ears, and I could even feel the heat of the day surrounding me.
The water sparkled as a perky female voice came through on the headphones attached to my goggles.
“Hello, Mariam, and welcome to the beginning of your HEA. Please answer the following ten questions as honestly and quickly as you can. It’s best to go with your gut answers.”
I took in a deep, shaky breath. Which the machine apparently felt.
“Don’t be nervous! Think of me as your friend. You can call me Agatha. And the questions will be very easy, I promise.”
Agatha? That name didn’t sound like it matched the chipper voice, which I assumed was intended to resemble a girlfriend playing matchmaker. Agatha was more like a grandma who’d disastrously set you up with her bridge partner’s secretly racist grandson. Maybe the system’s OS needed some updating in terms of hip names. Something like Juniper or Brooklyn.
“Ready? Let’s get started!”
Glittery blue letters appeared in the air in front of me, corresponding with the question Agatha read aloud.
Which one of these locations is the most romantic?
A. a beautiful forest clearing under a starry night
B. an intimate candlelit restaurant
C. a centuries-old city with cobblestone streets
D. a comfy couch and fuzzy socks
I hesitated for a second before I remembered the machine—or rather, Agatha’s—instructions. Right, my gut.
I put my hand in front of me and chose option C.
“Wonderful. Question two:”
You’re on a desert island with a small knapsack. Which one of these items are you most likely to find in there?
B. a book
C. a knife
D. hand sanitizer
The real answer was D, but I was worried about being typecast as a neat freak. I had a small thing about germs, sure, but it wasn’t like I was going to take a potential boyfriend to task for not being vigilantly antiseptic.
“What did I say, Mariam?” Agatha’s voice held a laugh in it now as it gently chided. “Your first instinct, remember?”
My finger shook a bit as I reluctantly chose D. I suddenly had the strange feeling that Agatha not only knew when I was nervous (as a result of having my heart rate monitored with the vest, I supposed), but could predict which answer I was going to pick. But that was impossible, right? Agatha couldn’t genuinely read my thoughts.
Oh God. I realized I was starting to think of Agatha as a “she.”
“Let’s go with an easier question, Mariam. To relax you. Remember, there is no wrong answer. And at the end, you will have three initial matches to choose from. If none of them work out, you get a free do-over. It’s part of the HEAVR guarantee!”
I could practically hear the toothpaste-commercial smile in Agatha’s voice.
If you could paint your bedroom any of these hues, and you only had five seconds to choose, which one would you pick?
Four swatches appeared in front of me, and above them, a countdown clock ticking down from five.
The first was a light mauve, the second a sky blue, the third an olive green, and the fourth a mid-range gray.
I barely had time to register that they were cool tones, the only colors I personally would ever choose to paint a room. It was only a flit of a thought that I might have, in fact, actually lived in a room with each of those paint colors at some point in my life. Whenever we moved, my parents would allow me the small luxury of painting my new room whatever color I wanted. I guessed it was their way of giving me a modicum of control over my life, however superficial. It was only the last three years of high school, the three years with Caleb, that I’d ever stayed in one room for such an extended amount of time. The mauve room.
The countdown was at one when I numbly picked out the first option, the color I’d stared at when I’d lost my heart and, eventually, my virginity to the boy who didn’t even have the decency to give it back. My heart, that is, not my virginity. That one’s pretty nonrefundable.
“Great. I think we’re going to keep the countdown clock going. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t feel relaxed when picking out your answers. Okay?”
Um, yeah sure. Easy for you to say, Agatha. What’s a clock to someone who’s composed of ones and zeros?
How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Per day?
Wait, what? How was this related . . .
A. five tons
B. three trees
C. seventeen sticks
D. more than a squirrel could squirrel away
Ummm . . .
I read the question over again, but the countdown clock was already down to two by the time I finished. I instinctively fell back on my multiple-choice training from years of standard education: when in doubt, pick C.
“The next few questions are going to seem less straightforward. Remember not to think too hard about them, and most important, don’t consider how they may or may not affect the outcome today. Trust our methods, Mariam. They work. Okay?”
I assumed the question was rhetorical, so I was surprised when Agatha said, “Just nod if you feel comfortable with that.”
Nod? So there must be some sensors in the headset too . . . sensors that could read my mind?
I nodded instinctively, even as the rest of me started to feel distinctly uncomfortable with this situation. Which of course made me feel worse, since it immediately conjured up one of the only fights Caleb and I had ever had. The one where he had called me a sheep who blindly followed instructions.
But anyway, either Agatha—or the machine; it was better if I thought of it as a MACHINE—knew that I was on the verge of possibly bailing, or it was always programmed to make the last six questions as rapid-fire as possible.
Agatha’s voice became brisk and businesslike, and even though the countdown clock never veered from starting at five, I couldn’t help but feel that it was counting down faster with each successive question.
What is man’s greatest invention?
B. the wheel
C. the Internet
D. it hasn’t been invented yet
Maybe it was the influence of my environmentalist parents, but I had a relatively easy time with that one. I chose A.
Which Shakespearean name would you give to a naked mole rat, if you ever had the opportunity to name one?
For reference, Aga . . . or rather, the machine provided an image of a naked mole rat, which unfortunately for my wizened eleventh-grade English teacher, immediately reminded me of my wizened eleventh-grade English teacher.
I chose B only because I thought I remembered Banquo being a murdered ghost and there was something decrepit about the creature in front of me.
Which of the following pronouns is the most musical?
Wait, was “several” a pronoun? Was this a trick question?
The countdown clock now came with a ticking noise that I was positive hadn’t been there before. I chose A before a zero flashed across my screen and Tom Cruise arced through the sky, framed by a fiery explosion.
The next time Agatha’s voice came through, she definitely sounded more like an army commander than a gossipy confidante. Suddenly this matchmaking experience was starting to feel closer to a first-person shooter than a dating app.
If you were a spy, which country would you want to work for?
Wait, what? Was this some sort of patriot test? Was the government listening in on this?
Normally I wasn’t super anxious about stuff like this—it wasn’t like I had ever fantasized about living off the grid or anything—but I’d also never pointedly been asked which country I was loyal to before.
I chose A, feeling a little like I was betraying my parents and heritage by not choosing B. But I didn’t want to get in trouble, and I was almost positive it was the answer Agatha wanted to hear. (And fine, whatever. I needed to accept that I thought of the machine as a person now. You win, Agatha.)
What’s your favorite kind of sky?
Agatha’s voice was gentle and dreamy again as she read the choices.
A. starry and infinite
B. blue with fluffy white clouds
C. streaked with a pink-and-orange sunset
D. pregnant with billowing gray thunderclouds
That seemed more like it in terms of matchmaking questions.
I’d always liked the rain, and the anticipation of rain even more. My older sister, Mina, used to roll her eyes and call me faux goth back when I was in middle school. But thunder and rain had never seemed dark to me. They seemed like a chance for renewal, like they could clean the slate in preparation for something new, something different. My whole life I’d felt like I was waiting for one good rainstorm to come and bring with it the start of my real life, where my insecurities would be washed away and replaced with total confidence in who I really was and what I really wanted. Whatever those were. (Obviously this storm would also give me true purpose, too, you know? What good were metaphorical rainstorms otherwise?)
Incidentally, Caleb had loved thunderstorms too. On one of our most romantic dates we’d gotten caught in one, but instead of running to his car, he’d pulled me into an embrace and kissed me for what felt like three gloriously drenched hours.
“Last question! You’re doing so great, Mariam.”
Agatha’s voice was that of an enthusiastic life coach now.
If life was a report card, and you had to pick only one of these subjects to ace, which would it be?
A. romantic love
D. inner peace
I froze. How could I choose among those? I wanted them all. Didn’t everybody?
“Don’t worry, Mariam. That’s not to say you wouldn’t do well in those other subjects too.”
“Think of it as one of them being A-plus and the rest at least solid Bs.”
The countdown clock had started again, and I read over the four answers once more. Finally I picked the one that embodied what I was doing here in the first place, even though I wasn’t sure if it was quite the right one.
As soon as my finger touched A, the glittery blue letters exploded into confetti in the cloudless sky.
“Congratulations! You have completed our matchmaking questionnaire. Just give me a few minutes and I will find you your top three matches.”
I let out a big breath. That was way more stressful than I’d anticipated. I could use a big iced coffee on this fake beach right about now.
A part of me expected Agatha to chime in after hearing that thought, and maybe even make a cup appear in front of me, but the scenery remained the same, with nothing but birdcalls in the air.
I waited, wondering if whatever heating lamp they were using in the room to emulate the warmth of the beach could actually give me a tan.
Then I wondered if they had modeled this beach on a real beach or if some graphic designer had just sketched it out from her own imagination.
Then I thought it was a bit incongruous that I could hear what sounded like fifty flocks of seagulls and not see a single one.
Finally I wondered where the hell Agatha was, because it felt like it had been more than a few minutes. Maybe someone else here needed a countdown clock.
“Hello again! I’m back with your perfect matches.”
Yeah, great. Get on with it, Aggie.
“I am pleased to announce that each of your three matches falls in the ninetieth percentile, with your top match being at ninety-eight percent! That is a rarity. Only about four percent of our matches ever score quite that high.”
That was a lot of percentages being thrown around. I couldn’t help but feel that Agatha was stalling. She probably lived for this reveal.
Except she doesn’t live at all, Mariam. Once again, she is a MACHINE.
I really needed to get my results and get off this damn fake beach. This whole thing was clearly getting to me.
“And here he is. Your top match: Jeremy D.”
A smiling face appeared in front of me, with two smaller faces flanking it on either side. Jeremy had brown eyes, black hair, great cheekbones. Definitely cute.
But I didn’t get to examine him too closely. Because something familiar tugged at me from my peripheral vision, causing me to instinctively turn my head.
My third option, coming in at 91 percent compatibility as the shining blue letters below his beaming smile told me, was Caleb.