This essay is a selected submission from Street's Love Issue personal narrative contest. Read some of our other favorite pieces here and look out for new pieces as we publish them throughout the week!
“It’s a tough call but I must say Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem is my favorite.”
I was at the high school American Invitational Mathematics Examination (AIME) and the dark–haired, dimpled boy across from me had introduced himself as Jay and asked me about my favorite math theorems.
“I like that one too!” I chimed. I had no idea who or what Godel was.
In the months after when I started to eat lunch with Jay, we discussed the AIME answers although we had signed contracts not to. I never considered Jay a math nerd—no, he was something more than that. He radiated a love for calculus and topology in a way that made mathematics sound like the newest video game or fashion trend.
“Mathematics is so boring, there’s no story there,” I’d complain. Jay would talk about how math really was a story—you find a problem and you solve it—the adventure that you go through to prove it is the journey. As friends, we went to science exhibits together and competed in science fairs. I didn’t understand half of what he said half the time, but he cared a lot.
He calculated how much time he spent with me to make sure it was enough. He made a science board about me as a birthday joke and asked me out at an astronomy observatory with a bunch of math puns, saying he couldn’t wait to intersect with me. Now, I cringe when I think about it, but, in the moment, it was cute. He wrote up a funny program for me to play on my TI-84 Calculator—a calculator I later lost in Math 312 in college.
I tried to feign interest in mathematics—I really did. I even read papers about Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. I applied to Penn for Engineering, thinking that the word “Systems” would somehow make me more intelligent and Jay–like. Jay would send me practice math sets in the wee hours of the night and he would later help me with the ones I didn’t understand. When it came time to apply to college, Jay had an issue. He grew up in India and his writing skills weren’t as finely skilled as his math ones. As a loyal girlfriend, I wrote his Common Application essay. Although I had won a lot of awards, I stepped away from creative writing when I started working intensely on studying math. Jay got into most of the Ivy League schools but ended up at MIT.
In college, I sent Jay pictures of books I had found in the library of DRL. It didn’t matter how nerdy it was. We were in our own world, where we discussed machine learning and watched AlphaGo documentaries together through Skype. Later, I started looking for someone at Penn who was as smart as Jay, but I either didn’t spend enough time in the engineering quad or asking boys for their favorite math theory was a flawed strategy.
“The problem with math puns is that all calculus jokes are derivative, trigonometry jokes are too graphic, but I guess the occasional statistic joke is an outlier,” I blurted out once. No laughs followed. I still talked to Jay every night during the first semester of school.
Jay had a mandatory writing course in college, and I wrote every single one of his essays for that class, making sure there were some errors in every paragraph for believability. Sometimes, I wrote his essays before starting on my own homework. In return, he helped me with my math problem sets. On my birthday, Jay sent me a nice long message on Messenger:
“To be honest, I really enjoyed spending time with you and cared about you a lot. But I don’t find our conversations that intriguing anymore. We are too different.”
Too different? Did he mean that I wasn’t smart? I was baffled. The Jay I was speaking to seemed miles away from the Jay I knew in high school. The funny, humble, and skinny boy with large glasses was now a distant stranger. Sensing my discomfort, Jay messaged, “It’s okay. I can pay you for writing my essays.”
As if I could care less about the money. This boy, who I risked plagiarism for, who I spent hundreds—if not thousands—of hours of my life with, the one who got me interested in math, the one who encouraged me throughout the past few years, was saying I wasn’t interesting? Intelligent?
Of course, there were a couple months of crying but eventually I accepted the money, started my own essay editing service—if people were going to take advantage of me, why not profit? I transferred out of Engineering, slowly realizing that it didn’t mean I was incompetent and dumb, but just that systems science & engineering may not have been my calling.
This past Valentine’s Day, I received a newly–minted TI–84 calculator in the mailbox, with it a note: “Maybe your love for me is incomplete, but keep loving Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem.”
Because of Jay, I’m a little faster at derivatives and a little slower at falling for a cute boy. I also hate math puns now, even though math is the only subject that “counts.” Maybe math—or love—isn’t about calculations. Maybe that’s where Jay went wrong. The hours we spent together, the nights we reveled in math—those were memories—more abstract than numeric.
Lisa Zou is a sophomore from Phoenix, AZ.