“Powerful . . . a poetic meditation on how love or attempts at loving can drive us to madness.”—The Boston Globe
 
“We learn about the cracks in Felix’s upbringing, the hurt from the breakup itself, and a pain that spans a lifetime, all through a sharp millennial voice.”—Time

A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: Time, Chicago Public Library, Electric Lit


When Camonghne Felix goes through a monumental breakup, culminating in a hospital stay, everything—from her early childhood trauma and mental health to her relationship with mathematics—shows up in the tapestry of her healing. In this exquisite and raw reflection, Felix repossesses herself through the exploration of history she’d left behind, using her childhood “dyscalculia”—a disorder that makes it difficult to learn math—as a metaphor for the consequences of her miscalculations in love. Through reckoning with this breakup and other adult gambles in intimacy, Felix asks the question: Who gets to assert their right to pain?
 
Dyscalculia negotiates the misalignments of perception and reality, love and harm, and the politics of heartbreak, both romantic and familial.
© Nicholas A. Nichols
Camonghne Felix, poet and essayist, is the author of Build Yourself a Boat, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in Poetry, shortlisted for the PEN/Open Book Award, and shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Awards. Her poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming from Academy of American Poets, Freeman’s, Harvard Review, LitHub, The New Yorker, PEN America, Poetry Magazine, and elsewhere. Her essays have been featured in Vanity Fair, New York, Teen Vogue, and other places. She is a contributing writer at The Cut. View titles by Camonghne Felix
As it turns out nature has a formula that tells us when it’s an entity’s time to die.

There’s even an equation for it, where size becomes rule and the laws of expiration must obey: take the mass of a system of organisms (a species of plant, all mammals); its metabolic rate (read: speed of entropy) is equal to its mass taken to three-fourths power.

Pythagoreans believed that numbers were an infinite, invisible, but radically real force in an ultimate but uncreated world of exponentially dynamic beings.

They believed that numbers, and to what rhythms we assign them, give birth to the ineffable, to the faithful. This is how we learn to hear beauty, how we come to know the nature of deficits, how we know what it means to be full, what it means to offer an abundance, and how to quantify the sin of greed.

This faith is what introduces the doctrines of Plato, and through Plato, Aristotle’s incarnations, and through that translation, western consciousness is born, and through western consciousness come these varying systems of order, these strange phenomena of persuasive appeal, then the Self gained a title, lending western civilization a way to feel, a way to comprehend the sequential mechanics of how each individual comes to know for certain their place and purpose in the world.

Of all artistic mediums, mine of choice is one of mathematical impulse, lyrics buoyed by the universal truth of the one and the two.

When I say I wanted to die, I do not mean it hyperbolically, metaphorically, or symbolically—I’m not trying to metaphorize an ache or insult the natural functioning of the mind. Memory makes me flawed in remembering, but this I can tell without mirage, without the phantasmagoria of misery.

One autonomous lonesome entity in a sea of other entities one day ventures out of its home, in which it dwells alone, and stumbles upon its ecological double. Bonded, the two leave their lonesome habitats and choose to reinhabit the orb of the living world as some new, mutated thing. One world, meeting another, entering another anew.

What two lovers do in the room of that third world is the math of it all.

I loved him, and it gave me a fever.

Aight, so boom:

The morning after his birthday, we lie lazy in the deep cusp of our bed, the sun’s tender touch grazing the fur of our bodies. I reach over to check the time on his phone instead of mine, mostly because his was closest, mainly because a pesky impulse primed me to look and I get giddy in my ancestors’ mischief. I press the phone’s home button to illuminate the screen, and as if summoned, one lone text flashes white across the face: “I’m so in love with you bby, I wish you were with me last night instead of her.”

At first, I smile easy at the warmth of it. I love to know the one I love is loved—a natural symptom of narcissism, or of gratitude. After a moment, a dawning flushes over me, the warm wisp of that easy morning suddenly plucked away, my pulse racing into disgust as I realize he lied, realizing I knew exactly who she was, the memory of a girl he’d curiously and opaquely befriended just a few months before projecting from my memory’s drunk archives. On my birthday she offered me a shot of a dry gin, the taste of her guilt like salt on my tongue.

I had asked him. I had asked him then, and he had lied.

Like an instant high, I feel myself losing my sense of time, colors ringing in my ears, the sun brighter than ever before. I shake him awake, shaking him, shaking him.

As he wakes, I see panic fill in on his brow. “Who?” he asks. “What? I’m in love with you, babe, c’mon!” except the tether is missing from his eye, he is lying again, right to my face, his betrothed, his promised one.

Breathing gets difficult then, and with all the ringing in my ears, thinking is an odd task. Something takes over and I lean into my autopilot, calling Her from his phone before I even know who I’m calling. She answers, and I demand precision: I want to know what, I want to know for how long.

(Okay, tea: Apparently, he had been planning on leaving me. Apparently, she had been planning on waiting it out. That whole sad time, I had been planning on becoming his wife, so none of the data aligned, the margins too muddy to reconcile.)

There’s silence. Then the crushing wail of a million mournings. Then a collapse. From a view above the room, I watch myself melt into a foolish rage as I’m being let in on a secret that had canceled me out, that made me the woman unwanted. All of a sudden, I am a child again, up in a flame I can’t stop, an anger I can’t manage.

I wanted him and I wanted him to be sorry and I wanted to be a woman who could go glamorously unaffected by such blatant ignorance, because how dare he eclipse me, make me ugly, how dare she even f***ing breathe. I wanted Her ruined. I wanted Her flattened.

And I wanted to f***ing die.

A fractal is a never-ending pattern—infinitely complex. It’s a simple equation processed over and over again, reproducing itself in perpetuity, hiding around and inside of us, like Russian dolls, like a forest bordered by and stuffed full with trees, like a river that splits and meets itself in another river, like a stamp, like your DNA, like your brain, like your lungs, like their functions.

Where any death, even the tiniest one, is the result of a patterned agitation.

It’s hurricane season. We’re standing in the warm, wet Brooklyn breeze and sharing a lucky cigarette just weeks before our final dance begins, the starry lid of the sky winking down above us.

“Tinder is so weird,” he tells me. “I keep starting conversations with people I can’t finish.”

It’s like that! I tell him. Thank god we don’t actually have to date.

He chuckles, taking a deep inhale on his drag of the cigarette.

I ask him: Have you met anyone?

I reassure him: It’s okay if you have.

“No, of course not,” he says. “You know I can’t see anything but you.”

The nobody of Certeau’s Everyman is truly common twice: once in madness, again in death.

He is leaving the home we share for the last time, and I resist this event horizon with everything I’ve got, tripping as I fumble after the tail of his shirt, arms stretched long, reaching and reaching for any inch of him, him reaching for the exit, my eyes begging for him in the heavy silence of this scandalous peepshow as my two good friends look away like onlookers to a drunken scuffle, embarrassed and slightly afraid. I pull him with me into the bathroom for a bit of humble privacy, begging just talk to me, please. I walk him backwards into the windowless washroom, begging, begging, please, please don’t go, please look at me, I love you so much. He lifts me by the waist, eyes as flat as the bottom of a steel pan, sits me on the bathroom sink, and enters me, one hand wrapped around my neck, one hand muffling my mouth. After three strokes he pushes himself away from me, his breathless release breaking suspension. I fall to the vinyl floor where I crumble into fetal and stay. From this corner of the universe, this single panel of cold tiled floor, I look up and the final scene begins to roll: the camera pans to the bent back of this man who once loved me pulling his pants up over his hips, then shows booted feet as he steps over me, then over the bathroom’s threshold and into the corridor, then pans to his fist as it grips the knob of the front door. Finally we see his face, brown and weathered and strange. He looks down at me through a shroud of tearful, dolorous pity. He whispers, “I really am sorry, I’m so sorry,” and goes.

On the other side of the freeway, traffic stalls to better observe the three-car pileup clogging the middle of the road. We slow down to get a close glimpse at the mangled metal, the twisted roofs punctuating each other with new angles and sharp lines. From where we sit, a mere twenty feet away, heads craning out of our windows, it is impossible still to know who holds ultimate fault in this tragedy, who to send the bill to. All the cars are the same color, same size, same make, 1997 white Acuras—in the end, the fault could belong to any one of them: the one distracted by her girlfriend’s rage text on the way home; the one playfully racing with the station wagon in the lane next to him; the one jerking off behind the wheel. Any one of them could be the fatal other, the one with the confession to make upon meeting their maker, but regardless, in the end, even the one least responsible for the final output had the choice of the input in hand. From over here, all of the victims are villains, and all of the villains are dead.
“Powerful . . . a poetic meditation on how love or attempts at loving can drive us to madness— [Dyscalculia is] the perfect antidote to the pressure, societal or personal, to perform love or even lust . . . Felix’s voice is confident and uninhibited, so direct and full of candor . . . Felix captures the essence of emotional unraveling with raw, heartbreaking beauty . . . Dyscalculia describes emotional miscalculation with precision.”—Boston Globe

“Stunning . . . gorgeous.”—BookRiot, 10 Riveting New Nonfiction Books to Read in February 2023

“We learn about the cracks in Felix’s upbringing, the hurt from the breakup itself, and a pain that spans a lifetime, all through a sharp millennial voice.”—TIME, Here Are the 12 New Books You Should Read in February

“[An] extraordinary volume reckoning with intimacy, healing, perception, love and loss.”—Ms. Magazine, Most Anticipated Feminist Reads of 2023

“If you’re into poetic, rigorous personal narratives (think Elissa Washuta and Ocean Vuong), you’ll want this one on your list.”—Literary Hub, Most Anticipated Books of 2023

“Enchanting . . . Leaping seamlessly between the abstraction of formulas and the honest, verbose mess of a break-up, Dyscalculia pushes the metaphor of loss as a math problem in imaginative new directions.”—Bustle, The Most Anticipated Books of 2023

“I’m not sure I’ve ever read something that’s so ferocious and measured as Dyscalculia.”—Purse Book

Dyscalculia is a frank exploration of pleasure, heartbreak, and reclamation. It makes a case for softness, for lostness, for black girlhood, that rejects containment and asks instead for care.”—Raven Leilani, author of Luster

Dyscalculia took my breath, grabbed my heart, and made me see. It brought me back to every heartbreak I’ve ever endured, and I marveled at Camonghne Felix’s deep knowing and even deeper articulation of the pain of loss . . . This book is a gift and a miracle.”—Deesha Philyaw, author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

“I am deeply shaken by the profound singularity of Dyscalculia. Felix manages to cast, and really conjure, a new portal into the agony of miscalculating love and the pain one can experience in loving relationships.”—Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy

“Devoured it in one sitting–[I was] riveted, propelled, rearranged.”Leslie Jamison

“Felix’s narrative is as much about the wounds and scars of what it means to love as it is about self-preservation as a political act for Black women.”—Public Books

“Visceral and radiant, this soul-searching self-interrogation resonates.”Publishers Weekly

“A wildly smart, singular redemption story that is greater than the sum of its parts.”Kirkus Reviews

About

“Powerful . . . a poetic meditation on how love or attempts at loving can drive us to madness.”—The Boston Globe
 
“We learn about the cracks in Felix’s upbringing, the hurt from the breakup itself, and a pain that spans a lifetime, all through a sharp millennial voice.”—Time

A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: Time, Chicago Public Library, Electric Lit


When Camonghne Felix goes through a monumental breakup, culminating in a hospital stay, everything—from her early childhood trauma and mental health to her relationship with mathematics—shows up in the tapestry of her healing. In this exquisite and raw reflection, Felix repossesses herself through the exploration of history she’d left behind, using her childhood “dyscalculia”—a disorder that makes it difficult to learn math—as a metaphor for the consequences of her miscalculations in love. Through reckoning with this breakup and other adult gambles in intimacy, Felix asks the question: Who gets to assert their right to pain?
 
Dyscalculia negotiates the misalignments of perception and reality, love and harm, and the politics of heartbreak, both romantic and familial.

Author

© Nicholas A. Nichols
Camonghne Felix, poet and essayist, is the author of Build Yourself a Boat, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in Poetry, shortlisted for the PEN/Open Book Award, and shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Awards. Her poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming from Academy of American Poets, Freeman’s, Harvard Review, LitHub, The New Yorker, PEN America, Poetry Magazine, and elsewhere. Her essays have been featured in Vanity Fair, New York, Teen Vogue, and other places. She is a contributing writer at The Cut. View titles by Camonghne Felix

Excerpt

As it turns out nature has a formula that tells us when it’s an entity’s time to die.

There’s even an equation for it, where size becomes rule and the laws of expiration must obey: take the mass of a system of organisms (a species of plant, all mammals); its metabolic rate (read: speed of entropy) is equal to its mass taken to three-fourths power.

Pythagoreans believed that numbers were an infinite, invisible, but radically real force in an ultimate but uncreated world of exponentially dynamic beings.

They believed that numbers, and to what rhythms we assign them, give birth to the ineffable, to the faithful. This is how we learn to hear beauty, how we come to know the nature of deficits, how we know what it means to be full, what it means to offer an abundance, and how to quantify the sin of greed.

This faith is what introduces the doctrines of Plato, and through Plato, Aristotle’s incarnations, and through that translation, western consciousness is born, and through western consciousness come these varying systems of order, these strange phenomena of persuasive appeal, then the Self gained a title, lending western civilization a way to feel, a way to comprehend the sequential mechanics of how each individual comes to know for certain their place and purpose in the world.

Of all artistic mediums, mine of choice is one of mathematical impulse, lyrics buoyed by the universal truth of the one and the two.

When I say I wanted to die, I do not mean it hyperbolically, metaphorically, or symbolically—I’m not trying to metaphorize an ache or insult the natural functioning of the mind. Memory makes me flawed in remembering, but this I can tell without mirage, without the phantasmagoria of misery.

One autonomous lonesome entity in a sea of other entities one day ventures out of its home, in which it dwells alone, and stumbles upon its ecological double. Bonded, the two leave their lonesome habitats and choose to reinhabit the orb of the living world as some new, mutated thing. One world, meeting another, entering another anew.

What two lovers do in the room of that third world is the math of it all.

I loved him, and it gave me a fever.

Aight, so boom:

The morning after his birthday, we lie lazy in the deep cusp of our bed, the sun’s tender touch grazing the fur of our bodies. I reach over to check the time on his phone instead of mine, mostly because his was closest, mainly because a pesky impulse primed me to look and I get giddy in my ancestors’ mischief. I press the phone’s home button to illuminate the screen, and as if summoned, one lone text flashes white across the face: “I’m so in love with you bby, I wish you were with me last night instead of her.”

At first, I smile easy at the warmth of it. I love to know the one I love is loved—a natural symptom of narcissism, or of gratitude. After a moment, a dawning flushes over me, the warm wisp of that easy morning suddenly plucked away, my pulse racing into disgust as I realize he lied, realizing I knew exactly who she was, the memory of a girl he’d curiously and opaquely befriended just a few months before projecting from my memory’s drunk archives. On my birthday she offered me a shot of a dry gin, the taste of her guilt like salt on my tongue.

I had asked him. I had asked him then, and he had lied.

Like an instant high, I feel myself losing my sense of time, colors ringing in my ears, the sun brighter than ever before. I shake him awake, shaking him, shaking him.

As he wakes, I see panic fill in on his brow. “Who?” he asks. “What? I’m in love with you, babe, c’mon!” except the tether is missing from his eye, he is lying again, right to my face, his betrothed, his promised one.

Breathing gets difficult then, and with all the ringing in my ears, thinking is an odd task. Something takes over and I lean into my autopilot, calling Her from his phone before I even know who I’m calling. She answers, and I demand precision: I want to know what, I want to know for how long.

(Okay, tea: Apparently, he had been planning on leaving me. Apparently, she had been planning on waiting it out. That whole sad time, I had been planning on becoming his wife, so none of the data aligned, the margins too muddy to reconcile.)

There’s silence. Then the crushing wail of a million mournings. Then a collapse. From a view above the room, I watch myself melt into a foolish rage as I’m being let in on a secret that had canceled me out, that made me the woman unwanted. All of a sudden, I am a child again, up in a flame I can’t stop, an anger I can’t manage.

I wanted him and I wanted him to be sorry and I wanted to be a woman who could go glamorously unaffected by such blatant ignorance, because how dare he eclipse me, make me ugly, how dare she even f***ing breathe. I wanted Her ruined. I wanted Her flattened.

And I wanted to f***ing die.

A fractal is a never-ending pattern—infinitely complex. It’s a simple equation processed over and over again, reproducing itself in perpetuity, hiding around and inside of us, like Russian dolls, like a forest bordered by and stuffed full with trees, like a river that splits and meets itself in another river, like a stamp, like your DNA, like your brain, like your lungs, like their functions.

Where any death, even the tiniest one, is the result of a patterned agitation.

It’s hurricane season. We’re standing in the warm, wet Brooklyn breeze and sharing a lucky cigarette just weeks before our final dance begins, the starry lid of the sky winking down above us.

“Tinder is so weird,” he tells me. “I keep starting conversations with people I can’t finish.”

It’s like that! I tell him. Thank god we don’t actually have to date.

He chuckles, taking a deep inhale on his drag of the cigarette.

I ask him: Have you met anyone?

I reassure him: It’s okay if you have.

“No, of course not,” he says. “You know I can’t see anything but you.”

The nobody of Certeau’s Everyman is truly common twice: once in madness, again in death.

He is leaving the home we share for the last time, and I resist this event horizon with everything I’ve got, tripping as I fumble after the tail of his shirt, arms stretched long, reaching and reaching for any inch of him, him reaching for the exit, my eyes begging for him in the heavy silence of this scandalous peepshow as my two good friends look away like onlookers to a drunken scuffle, embarrassed and slightly afraid. I pull him with me into the bathroom for a bit of humble privacy, begging just talk to me, please. I walk him backwards into the windowless washroom, begging, begging, please, please don’t go, please look at me, I love you so much. He lifts me by the waist, eyes as flat as the bottom of a steel pan, sits me on the bathroom sink, and enters me, one hand wrapped around my neck, one hand muffling my mouth. After three strokes he pushes himself away from me, his breathless release breaking suspension. I fall to the vinyl floor where I crumble into fetal and stay. From this corner of the universe, this single panel of cold tiled floor, I look up and the final scene begins to roll: the camera pans to the bent back of this man who once loved me pulling his pants up over his hips, then shows booted feet as he steps over me, then over the bathroom’s threshold and into the corridor, then pans to his fist as it grips the knob of the front door. Finally we see his face, brown and weathered and strange. He looks down at me through a shroud of tearful, dolorous pity. He whispers, “I really am sorry, I’m so sorry,” and goes.

On the other side of the freeway, traffic stalls to better observe the three-car pileup clogging the middle of the road. We slow down to get a close glimpse at the mangled metal, the twisted roofs punctuating each other with new angles and sharp lines. From where we sit, a mere twenty feet away, heads craning out of our windows, it is impossible still to know who holds ultimate fault in this tragedy, who to send the bill to. All the cars are the same color, same size, same make, 1997 white Acuras—in the end, the fault could belong to any one of them: the one distracted by her girlfriend’s rage text on the way home; the one playfully racing with the station wagon in the lane next to him; the one jerking off behind the wheel. Any one of them could be the fatal other, the one with the confession to make upon meeting their maker, but regardless, in the end, even the one least responsible for the final output had the choice of the input in hand. From over here, all of the victims are villains, and all of the villains are dead.

Praise

“Powerful . . . a poetic meditation on how love or attempts at loving can drive us to madness— [Dyscalculia is] the perfect antidote to the pressure, societal or personal, to perform love or even lust . . . Felix’s voice is confident and uninhibited, so direct and full of candor . . . Felix captures the essence of emotional unraveling with raw, heartbreaking beauty . . . Dyscalculia describes emotional miscalculation with precision.”—Boston Globe

“Stunning . . . gorgeous.”—BookRiot, 10 Riveting New Nonfiction Books to Read in February 2023

“We learn about the cracks in Felix’s upbringing, the hurt from the breakup itself, and a pain that spans a lifetime, all through a sharp millennial voice.”—TIME, Here Are the 12 New Books You Should Read in February

“[An] extraordinary volume reckoning with intimacy, healing, perception, love and loss.”—Ms. Magazine, Most Anticipated Feminist Reads of 2023

“If you’re into poetic, rigorous personal narratives (think Elissa Washuta and Ocean Vuong), you’ll want this one on your list.”—Literary Hub, Most Anticipated Books of 2023

“Enchanting . . . Leaping seamlessly between the abstraction of formulas and the honest, verbose mess of a break-up, Dyscalculia pushes the metaphor of loss as a math problem in imaginative new directions.”—Bustle, The Most Anticipated Books of 2023

“I’m not sure I’ve ever read something that’s so ferocious and measured as Dyscalculia.”—Purse Book

Dyscalculia is a frank exploration of pleasure, heartbreak, and reclamation. It makes a case for softness, for lostness, for black girlhood, that rejects containment and asks instead for care.”—Raven Leilani, author of Luster

Dyscalculia took my breath, grabbed my heart, and made me see. It brought me back to every heartbreak I’ve ever endured, and I marveled at Camonghne Felix’s deep knowing and even deeper articulation of the pain of loss . . . This book is a gift and a miracle.”—Deesha Philyaw, author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

“I am deeply shaken by the profound singularity of Dyscalculia. Felix manages to cast, and really conjure, a new portal into the agony of miscalculating love and the pain one can experience in loving relationships.”—Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy

“Devoured it in one sitting–[I was] riveted, propelled, rearranged.”Leslie Jamison

“Felix’s narrative is as much about the wounds and scars of what it means to love as it is about self-preservation as a political act for Black women.”—Public Books

“Visceral and radiant, this soul-searching self-interrogation resonates.”Publishers Weekly

“A wildly smart, singular redemption story that is greater than the sum of its parts.”Kirkus Reviews

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