Romantic Functions



For a while, I wrote you letters on loose-leaf paper, torn out of notebooks for class. My handwriting was terrible, but I liked to write by hand. You were the only person I have ever mailed handwritten letters. The idea of doing so seemed romantic to me. It was like people used to do — before technology facilitated keeping up with those far away, making it easier and therefore less worthwhile. My words spilled out of the margins. Small. Slanted, slightly, to the right. Each “e” looked like an “a” or an “o” or sometimes, even, an “s.” I wrote quickly, scribbling my thoughts onto each page without fully processing them. I wouldn’t read over the letters I wrote you before I folded them into envelopes and sent them your way.

I would never write letters to anyone now — or maybe, I haven’t found someone who could inspire me to do that. We met in April — maybe, it was March. I can’t remember anymore. We exchanged letters that entire summer — even though I was in China, where the postal service is far more unreliable, for part of it. The last time I sent you a letter was that November.


Everyone else had already gone to bed, but we stayed up, sitting on the stoop in front of your apartment. It had started to drizzle, lightly. This was not my first time in Missouri, but it was my first time visiting St. Louis. I didn’t like it very much. I could never picture myself living in a city so cold and gray, when it was already April and meant to be warm — unless it was New York City, where the constant excitement would probably make up for the terrible weather. You promised that St. Louis was usually nicer during the spring.

“Have you ever seen Lost in Translation?” I asked.

A few weeks prior, I had discovered Sofia Coppola, and I skipped school to watch all her essential films in a single afternoon. The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, and Lost in Translation. I liked her because female directors are few and far in between, and there was a time I wanted to direct films, but I have wanted to do many things that I would never seriously consider pursuing. I liked Lost in Translation the most because I had felt recently how powerful ennui could be — how a sense of purposelessness could make completing any task overwhelming to the point of impossible.

Of course you had seen Lost in Translation. Who hadn’t seen Lost in Translation?


“You are beautiful,” you said.

I laughed and said I didn’t believe you.

“You must have a boyfriend, right?”

I shrugged.

It was almost four, and the sky was a lighter shade of black. Somewhere, birds began to chirp in unison. I was tired, but I knew I couldn’t fall asleep — I was in that limbo state of exhaustion where my thoughts raced but I just wanted my mind to stop running. I asked if we could move from the stoop to find a place where we could watch the approaching sunrise.

In the back of your apartment building, there was a stairwell that led to the roof. You had long legs and climbed steps two at a time. I trailed behind you, breathing heavily by the time we reached the fifth floor. The door to outside was locked, but you tried it a few more times than necessary before throwing your hands up and turning to me.

“We’re out of luck, kid,” you said. I hated that you had a habit of calling me “kid” because you were only a couple years older than me. We had known each other for three days, almost four, and you had probably called me “kid” in passing a couple hundred times. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stand that if I spent more time around you.

We walked back down to the third floor, where your apartment was. This time, I was in front, running down the steps with my flats in my hand because they had started to hurt my feet. Your roommates were fast asleep, I think; their bedroom doors were closed. You had a futon in the middle of your living room — college students have an interesting sense of interior décor — and we lay side-by-side, under a thin blanket. Neither of us touched the other, but we lay so close that I could feel your breaths ripple my hair. Light started to filter through the blinds in your apartment, but I fell asleep before I could catch the sunrise.


When we stopped exchanging handwritten letters, we exchanged emails for a while. Email still felt like such an antiquated medium as to be exciting — unlike texts or Facebook messages, which were stifling in their instant gratification. You have to answer texts and Facebook messages almost immediately; that’s just how they work. You can let emails sit and stew in your inbox for weeks at a time before responding. That’s acceptable.

You signed your emails “yours.” I signed mine “love.”

My inbox holds several thousand unread emails. Usually, I open, read, and respond to the ones that are salient — filing them away in neat, little folders for posterity. I never open the junk emails, the spam, the messages from Nigerian princes, or the weight-loss guarantees. I found an email you’d sent two and a half years ago that I had never opened.

You were taking a physics class at the time — when we talked more regularly, I would marvel at your ability to grasp concepts that never made any sense to me. You’d scanned and sent me a page from your class notebook. In the note accompanying the page, you explained that you had been learning about string theory — which had the potential to explain all the intricacies of the universe at large. But, most importantly, you could apply it to our reality. You’d drawn a series of graphs, using the string theory formulas you’d learned in class to crudely model our relationship.

There were four graphs and four different pairs of functions. One function represented me. The other represented you. Each graph modeled a different potential for the intersection of these two functions. You said, in your note, that you liked the third model the best — where the two functions intersected erratically but still semi-frequently.

As I examined the page, I noticed the fourth and final model in the bottom right-hand corner. Underneath, you’d scrawled, “However, the two only ever intersect once, even though they become infinitesimally close. They never quite intersect again.”

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