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Authors: Christina Lauren

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BOOK: The Soulmate Equation
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Lisa seemed to read her mind. “Two hundred is a lot of genes, and the human genome is made up of at least twenty thousand. Of course, not all of these—maybe not even most—are involved in our emotional satisfaction. But Drs. Peña and Morris wanted to find every last one. They didn't just want to identify compatibility, they wanted to help you find your soulmate. Which is exactly why Dr. Peña collaborated with Caltech to develop a novel deep neural network.”

She let these words sink in as the slide became animated again,
diving into the double helix, highlighting base fragments as it whizzed along the length of the DNA strand.

“This project has encompassed personality tests, brain scans, longitudinal studies of relationship success, and—yes—well over one hundred thousand samples run through DNA sequencing and analysis.” She looked each of them dead in the eye. “The investors have put over thirty million dollars into the technology alone. The app developers have invested almost five million. Do I think we have a truly groundbreaking system?” She nodded. “Between us? In all honesty? I do.”

Swiping forward, she lifted her chin to the screen, where a woman stood alone against a stark white backdrop. “Here's how it works. We've developed a kit like many genetic profiling companies, which, very soon, customers will be able to order by mail. We have kits here for purchase, if you're interested.”

Jess could sense Fizzy itching to pull out her credit card. Lisa picked up a small box on the table; it was white, the simple DNADuo logo printed in rainbow colors. “Once we fully launch, clients will send in their sample for analysis by our DNADuo algorithm, which now combines findings from over thirty-five hundred genes. Once received, analysis takes only about three days for the results to load into your DNADuo app. While you wait, you can enter information about yourself in your profile—the same way that you would on other dating sites. Information about your age, location, profession—whatever you want people to know about you. Once your results are in, we'll share with you the compatibility scores based on the criteria you've chosen.”

Jess swallowed audibly. All of this sounded so… thorough.

The slide now showed two people standing side by side before the same empty backdrop. “Through rigorous analysis, we've created scoring bins. That is, we group the scores based on how tightly they correlate to relationship success. If you pull two random people off the street to see whether they're compatible, you're looking at a score on average between seven and twenty-four on our DNADuo algorithm. These scores are out of one hundred, so twenty-four isn't ideal, but it's not zero, either. We call these scores Base Matches.”

“Are there a lot of those?” Fizzy asked.

“Oh, yes,” Lisa said. “A large majority of random pairings tested against each other are Base Matches. Now”—she swiped forward, and the two people turned toward each other, smiling—“attraction is frequently reported between couples with scores of twenty-five to fifty, but when we follow them long-term, these individuals rarely find lasting emotional compatibility. We call these Silver Matches, and some of the individuals in our beta testing have chosen to explore these relationships.” Lisa shrugged, grinning, clearly breaking from script. “Good sex is good sex, right?”

Fizzy nodded enthusiastically, but Jess only gave a vague shrug. “What's your threshold for ‘rarely,' when you say they rarely find lasting compatibility?”

Lisa smiled. “Based on our initial studies, only one Silver Match in every three hundred lasts beyond the two-year threshold we consider long-term. But here's where it gets fun,” she said, straightening. A new couple appeared on the screen, holding hands as they walked forward together. “Gold Matches are couples with a score of
fifty to sixty-five. A third of Gold Matches will find a lasting relationship together. That number shoots up to two-thirds with a score of sixty-six to eighty—what we call a Platinum Match.”

“Wow,” Fizzy whispered, staring at the new couple laughing together over an intimate candlelit dinner. “That's a huge jump.”

Lisa nodded. “But three out of four couples find long-term love with scores of eighty to ninety,” she said. “And
those
are the matches we hope to eventually find for everyone in our database.” She swiped ahead to a couple getting married under a broad arch of flowers. “We call them Titanium.”

Admittedly, Jess had to hide her shock over that statistic. It was impressive. She still had about a million questions, though, and gestured to the couple in the wedding scenario; the woman was Asian, the man of Middle Eastern descent. “It seems from your marketing tools that DNADuo doesn't have an ethnicity bias.”

“Correct. It's about finding a soulmate based on a set of biological markers. While there are some genetic variants found across different ethnicities, this technology is about DNA-level compatibility, not symmetry. Not to put too technical a point on it, but in many cases, compatibility is stronger when the two individuals have different genetic markers, rather than the same. And keep in mind, the DNADuo can't take cultural influences into account, so the importance of all of this information has to be weighed by the client personally. Clients can indicate any and all desired criteria in their intake form—cultural background, religion, et cetera. The algorithm discounts any compatibility findings that don't fall within their prescribed criteria.”

“So if I'm gay?”

“Sure.” Lisa didn't hesitate. “On your intake form, you can select to see female matches, male matches, nonbinary matches, or all of the above. As a company, we don't discriminate based on race, cultural identity, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, and the DNADuo doesn't, either. Only a handful of the compatibility sequence signatures are located on the X or Y chromosomes; certainly not enough to nullify the data set if a particular sexual genotype is excluded.”

Jess leaned back in her chair, admittedly—and unexpectedly—impressed.

“Sorry, one more question,” Fizzy said. “You said to consider the compatibility scores as one to one hundred… Have you ever seen a score higher than ninety?”

Lisa smiled genuinely. “Only three times.”

“And?” Jess's heart started slamming against her breastbone. Her brain imagined a different slot machine now, one with 3,500 rows, and a single pull that lined up nearly every single cherry.

For the first time since she walked into the room, Lisa let the hypercompetent surfer-executive façade drop. She looked young, and hopeful, and awestruck: “That's what gives me the most confidence in this company. Yes, three is a low number, but the couples who've tested above ninety are the three couples who've scored the highest on emotional stability, communication and collaboration, and sexual satisfaction. They're
Diamond
Matches. Do we want more of those? Of course. I mean, the DNADuo has been tested on one hundred and forty thousand people and fully validated in
nearly twenty thousand couples. That is an enormous study for a start-up of this size, but there are at least five million people on Hinge and an estimated fifty million people on Tinder. Until we can get the whole world of data in our server, we won't know how many Diamond Matches are really out there.”

FOUR

F
IZZY WAS CALLING.

Fizzy never called.

So even though it was 8:13, and Jess was supposed to have Juno at school in two minutes, and had yet to feed her child or have a single sip of coffee, and had a meeting downtown at 9:30, and was barely dressed, she answered.

“You never call,” Jess said.

“This app is insane,” Fizzy said.

Juno ran out, still in her pajamas. “I'm ready for breakfast!”

Tilting her phone away from her mouth, Jess whispered, “You need to wear actual clothing, my love.”

Her daughter groaned as she stomped back to her bedroom.

“I'm—” Fizzy said, and then paused. “Okay, good point. This shirt is pretty transparent.” Another pause. “Wait, how did you know what I'm wearing?”

“I was talking to my kid,” Jess said, laughing. “What is this about the app being insane? What app?”

“I've gotten twenty-three matches since my DNADuo results came in this morning.”

Jess did the quick mental math—it'd only been two days since their visit to the site. Either GeneticAlly was insanely efficient, or it wasn't running many samples these days. She had to admit, begrudgingly, that any company that invested in a unique neural network was taking its data seriously.

“Twenty-three?” She poured a cup of coffee, and Pigeon wound her way between Jess's legs, purring. Jess made the mistake of briefly looking down at the cat, and her cup overfilled, pooling coffee on the countertop. Cursing, she leaned over to open the front door, letting Pigeon out, then dug in a drawer for a dish towel. “That's a lot of soulmates.”

“I cast a pretty wide net,” Fizzy agreed. “I said anything above a score of thirteen.”

“Thirteen?”

“It's fun to just see what happens when you date guys with no expectations.”

Coffee dripped from the counter onto the floor, soaking through Jess's lucky socks. “
Goddammit
.”

“It's just a potentially terrible date, not plastic surgery.”

“I wasn't goddammitting you, I spilled coffee.”

“Think of it as a character study,” Fizzy waxed on. “What happens when you put two completely incompatible people together? Will they beat the odds? Or come out fighting… each other?” She paused, and Jess imagined her friend reaching for her notebook. A weird alert sounded in the background. “Twenty-four!”

Juno wandered into the kitchen dressed for school, but her hair remained a bird's nest. “Mama, can I have a smoothie?”

“Baby, go brush your hair.”

“I assume you were talking to Juno again,” Fizzy said distractedly.

“Can I, Mama?”

“I was,” Jess said to Fizzy, and then, “and yes, Junebug, I'll make one, but go brush your hair and your teeth, too, please.” Back in the kitchen, Jess glanced at the clock and groaned. She pulled a basket of strawberries from the fridge.

“Okay,” Fizzy said, “I have a lunch date today with Aiden B., a Base Match with a score of thirteen, and a dinner date tomorrow with Antonio R., also a Base Match, twenty-one.”

“Don't ever let anyone tell you you're not adventurous.”

“Mom,” Juno called from the bathroom. “Remember, don't let Pigeon out because the gardener is here today!”

Jess whirled around and stared out the front window, across the cat-less courtyard, and down the path to the open gate.

“Fizz, I've gotta jet.”

ONE EXPLODED BLENDER,
one four-block cat chase, two changes of clothes (Jess's), one impossibly double-knotted sneaker (Juno's), and one tardy drop-off later, Juno was at school and Jess was finally hustling her ass downtown. A huge meeting with Jennings Grocery that morning, two potential new clients in the afternoon, and then a school meeting at six. Marathon, but doable. But why was it the nature of the universe that on the day Jess was already running be
hind, there was an accident on the 5, a detour at her exit, and not a single parking space to be found? She passed row after row of luxury sedans and was beginning to wonder whether every rich person in San Diego was in the Gaslamp at the same time, but then,
huzzah
: her prayers were answered by a flash of reverse lights to her right. She rolled forward, flipping on her blinker. Relief pumped adrenaline through her bloodstream like there was an actual prize for parking, rather than an intense meeting with some clients she was fairly sure wanted to cherry-pick their data to match their annual projections.

But just as Jess moved her foot to the accelerator to pull in, a black sedan swerved around the bend from the next row over, gliding into the spot with an impressive
Fast & Furious
screech.

Smacking the steering wheel, Jess yelled an aggravated “Oh, come on!”

She threw her hands up passive-aggressively, hoping the driver saw and felt like an asshole for taking the spot from a woman who'd never done anything more selfish than eat the last Ding Dong and blame it on her grandfather. Exaggerations aside, Jess—always able to keep her cool behind the wheel—was on the verge of laying a heavy hand on her horn. But then the car door opened, and one impossibly long leg stretched out, wrapped in pressed charcoal trousers and capped by a shiny leather shoe. There was something about the shoulders that emerged, the poise… and then it hit her. Jess didn't need to see his face to know, because this wasn't just any black sedan, it was a black Audi.
His
black Audi.

River Peña stole her parking spot.

She leaned out her window, shouting, “Hey!” But he was already
walking briskly down the sidewalk and didn't bother to turn around.

Jess spotted another car backing out a few rows away, and winced at the audible squeal of her tires as she bolted around the turn. Ready to lay on her horn lest anyone dare take this spot, she pulled in, shoved her car into park, grabbed everything she needed, and shuffle-jogged in heels and her fitted skirt toward the entrance.

Nearly ten minutes late now, but last time Jennings had been running fifteen minutes behind, and she could already see the elevators on the other side of the glass doors. She just might make it…

And who was standing at the elevator but River Peña? Jess watched him reach forward, pressing the button.

The light above it blinked on, the doors slid open. He took a step forward, and Jess clutched her laptop to her chest, breaking into a sprint.

“Hold it, please!”

Turning, he glanced over his shoulder and then disappeared into the elevator.

“Motherfucker!” Jess mumbled.

Jennings Grocery headquarters was only three floors up, so instead of waiting, she took the stairs. Two at a time. Visibly out of breath when she jogged from the stairwell into the hallway, Jess immediately collided with a brick wall of a man. For the record, he smelled amazing. It was infuriating.

“Careful,” he murmured, eyes on his phone as he stepped around her, continuing down the hall.

But Jess had reached the boiling point: “Americano!”

Hesitating only briefly, he turned. His dark hair fell over one eye and he brushed it aside. “I'm sorry?”

“Apology not accepted. You took my parking spot.”

“I took your—?”

“And you didn't hold the elevator,” she said. “I'm running late, you saw me, and you didn't bother to hold the door.”

“I didn't
see
you.” He let out a short, incredulous laugh. “Maybe you should leave a little earlier next time.”

“Wow. You really are an asshole.”

He frowned, studying her. “Do we know each other?”

“Are you kidding?” She pointed to her chest. “Twiggs? Spit in a vial? Entirely average? Any of that ring a bell?”

Comprehension was a weather front that moved across his face. Surprise, recognition, embarrassment.

“I…” His eyes flickered over her and then down the hall as if there might be reinforcements coming at any moment. “You were… completely unrecognizable. I didn't know it was you.”

For the life of her, Jess couldn't figure out if that was a sick burn or a backhanded compliment.

“I'm sorry, I don't recall your name, Ms.…?” he asked evenly.

“You've never known it.”

And there was the look that delighted her—the one that said he was barely tolerating the conversation. Breaking eye contact, he finally glanced down at his watch. “You said something about running late?”

Shit!

Jess pushed past him, jogging ten feet down the hall to Suite 303, the offices of Jennings Grocery.

THIRTY-ONE PERCENT OF
California households are run by single parents, but Jess would never have guessed that from the people streaming into the Alice Birney Elementary Science-Art Fair meeting. Being a solo parent at a school event was like being a single person at a couples' party. Minus the wine. If Nana or Pops wasn't with her, Jess was made intensely aware that the other parents had no idea how to interact with a single mom. The longest conversation she'd had with someone there had been at the first-grade holiday recital when a mom had asked if Jess's husband was going to be sitting in the empty seat next to her. When she'd said, “No husband, free chair,” the other woman smiled awkwardly for a few beats before rolling on breathlessly for five minutes about how sorry she was that she didn't know any nice single men.

But for the first time at one of these events, she realized as she walked into the hall, Jess was relieved to be alone; she wouldn't have to small-talk. She wasn't sure she'd be able to do that tonight; every meeting she'd had today had been a dead end. Well, except the Jennings Grocery meeting. That was a complete disaster.

One of the biggest sins in statistics is cherry-picking—choosing which data sets to include in analysis after the study is finished. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to drop outliers: the data isn't collected correctly, etc. But if a data point affects both results and assumptions, it must be included. And just as Jess suspected, Jennings Grocery didn't just want to exclude a few data points in the set they sent her; they wanted to eliminate enormous territories
entirely in their report to shareholders, because the numbers didn't fit their projected sales targets.

She refused—even though she'd spent four months meticulously designing the analysis, writing the code, building the program. During the meeting, the executives had exchanged extended periods of silent eye contact, and eventually shooed Jess out of the room, saying they'd be in touch.

Was it stupid to be so inflexible with her biggest account? She couldn't shake a sense of panic. If she lost Jennings, she would lose a third of her income for the year. Juno might need braces, and she'd be driving in eight years. What if she wanted to start doing dance competitions? What if she got sick? Nana and Pops weren't getting any younger, either.

Movement in her peripheral vision pulled her attention, and Jess watched Juno's second-grade teacher, Mrs. Klein, and the principal, Mr. Walker, come to the front of the room. Mrs. Klein was dressed as some hybrid of a scientist and artist: lab coat, goggles, beret, paint palette. Mr. Walker was dressed as, Jess supposed, a kid: baggy shorts, knee-high socks, and a Padres baseball cap. They sat in chairs facing the assembled parents.

The principal-child crossed his arms and pouted dramatically, and the room fell to a hush. “I don't even get what a science-art fair is. Do I
have
to do it?”

“You don't
have
to do the science-art fair,” Mrs. Klein said, hamming it up for the crowd, “you
GET
to do the science-art fair!”

The room rippled with polite laughter, and the rest of the second-grade team passed out handouts with information as the little play went on. Jess scanned the stapled pages, skimming instructions for
helping the children find an art project that was based in some area of science: plant life, animal life, engineering, chemistry. A papier-mâché plant with various structures labeled. A painting of a dog skeleton. A house made out of Popsicle sticks. It was one of the things that Jess loved about this little school—the creative curriculum, the emphasis on integrated learning—but with the murmuring voices rising from the crowd, she was pulled out of her little bubble. In the seats all around her, heads came together in excited conversation. Husband-and-wife teams brainstormed fun projects for their kids, and the dread in Jess's stomach curdled with loneliness. She was flanked by an empty seat on each side, a little buffer zone to protect the other parents from the infection of singlehood.

Mood still low despite—she had to admit—some pretty solid jokes from Mr. Walker and Mrs. Klein, Jess practically crawled across the parking lot. Her car was parked next to a pearl-white Porsche that made her red 2008 Corolla look like an old roller skate missing its mate. Jess couldn't feel ashamed of the clunker, though; this car had driven her home from the maternity ward and then to her college graduation only a month later. It took them on various outings for Try Something New Sundays and road trips to Disneyland and—

BOOK: The Soulmate Equation
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