Chapter II - Wham
Orr would never know it, but his system of contextual units had already been discovered and given the rather droll moniker of the "Personal Understanding Numbers." These numbers had been invented for the sake of computer scientists (though their inventor expected them to also be useful for all scientists, and eventually for all people), who deal with vast numbers in the course of their professional lives, and it is often difficult to really put these numbers in perspective. 228 doesn't seem so much smaller than 258. They both seem so big, that the differences between them are harder to register. A little bit of context will reveal however, that if a computer can do a million things in a millisecond, it can do 228 things in under a second, and 258 things in just over nine years. And, though these sorts of calculations are used most often to frighten new students to the study of computer algorithms, the need for them reveals something important about the human brain: it isn't very good with big numbers. So, our stalwart inventor attempted to create a system that helped people understand the vastness of vast numbers: 258 operations would be: "258 operations that take-ten-years-to-compute!" (the exclamation point is compulsary for almost all Personal Understanding Numbers). While, 228 operations are: "228 operations that can-be-computed-in-under-a-second!"
While the system was less elegant than Orr's, and less expressive to boot (it was useful only for giving context to comparisons between different levels of really big numbers), it received an honor that Orr's never did: on April 28th, 2008, it received a Wikipedia entry. Of course, the entry was only three lines long, enough for a brief description and an example, was written by one of the inventor's friends as a birthday present, and was disputed and removed a month after its insertion, but even this slight honor surpasses the nothing that became of Orr's UTFRs. For, unfortunately, they (along with all things child-prodigy-related) got knocked out of Orr that day at school, only to be returned years later, as happy reminiscence about the innocent pleasures of childhood.
What happened was this: Sarah punched Tom in the face.
Or, contextually, Orr's-sister Sarah punched Orr's-best-friend Tom in the face.
It happened between the first and second periods, in the hall that led to the cafeteria, the gym, and the math classes. Orr was walking to gym class, where he would meet Tom for the first time (of five, including lunch) during the day, and as for any up-and-coming child prodigies, it was an unnecessary evil inflicted upon them by an ignorant and antiquated school system, bent on perpetuating mediocrity, and a constant dummy on which to lay their frustrated hormones. It brought them together by separating them both from everybody else. And, even in doing so, it enlisted them in the larger society of socially inept intellectuals, a society that they would never leave, one that would influence their value systems and their careers, their interests and their musical tastes, and one that, when they would later try to rebel against it, even the act of rebellion would be a true sign of their lifelong membership. People would call them "nerds" for liking math over exercise, or "geeks" for their glasses and cliche appreciation for science fiction, and in a few years, as the e-commerce began to thrive (and then collapse and then thrive again), those same people would covet the term "nerd," and expect to one day see Orr and Tom in the news, now billionaires.
But, today, before the jealousy and the the expected wealth, Orr was approaching gym class, but found the path more and more densely populated as he approached. By the time he was across the hall from the door to the gym, it was difficult to move. Of course, his curiosity now was piqued, and his desire to go to gym class diminished. So, he edged forward, creeping and pushing. His small, slender frame was perfect for weaving through crowds, and he reached the front (which was now dispersing), to see his gruff, malevolent sister bent over a figure, whose dark purple sandals, bone-thin ankles and white khaki shorts made his identity apparent to Orr in one one-hundredth of the time it takes a computer to do 228 operations.
He rushed forward, and tripped/collapsed/knelt to the ground.
He said, "Tom!" This was all he could manage at first.
His sister's head jerked up, and her large, eyelined eyes grew wider still.
She opened her mouth.
She closed her mouth.
Tom moved his head up and twisted his body to the side to face Orr, his back to Sarah. His cheeks were flushed, his glasses off, and his right cheekbone was bright red. There was a cut on the bridge of his nose, bleeding slightly. He smiled and raised his eyebrows, one slightly above the other.
Orr asked, "What happened?"
Tom started to answer, but before he could, Sarah blurted, "I gotta get to class," got up and left for the cafeteria, where she usually waited for third period to begin by playing card games with her friends.
Tom, without turning, yelled "Bye!" But, Sarah didn't answer.
Orr asked, "What happened?"
Tom said, "She surprises me every day." He smiled at Orr, "Your sister, I mean."
Orr nodded, though he did not understand.
Tom said, "What a rush." He laid back down, and said, "I have a confession."
Orr nodded again.
Tom said, "I just asked your sister out."
Orr's nodding had become monotonic: no amount of information, no matter how confusing, could induce it to slow or stop.
Tom turned his head at Orr and grinned. "I never told you, but I've kind of liked her, you know, kind of a lot, since..." he paused and turned back to face the ceiling, "... for a long time."
Tom started tapping his sandals together. He said, "I wonder if I can get out of gym class." He smiled at Orr.
Orr smiled back, automatically, but the action finally ceased his nodding, which finally gave his brain a moment of peace with which to process its new pieces of knowledge. Unfortunately, as it struggled with the precarious word "like," and its incompatibility with the word "sister," the bell rang, splitting his ears and emptying his brain again.
Tom said, "I bet I can get you out too, for a little while at least. Let's go tell him that I have to go to the nurse."
Without waiting for a response, he pushed himself up to his side, and then to a seating position, rocked back-and-forth a bit, and then stood up, teetering.
He smiled at Orr again and said, "What a rush, huh?"
Then, he turned, walked to the gym door, opened it, and walked through, without looking back.
After a short period of shock, it took Orr only a few seconds to process the information presented before it, and he found himself, though still surprised, also rather indifferent. In fact, the whole situation, as it had unfolded itself to him, seemed so preposterous, that he felt almost as though he were at the beginning of an episodic show, and this episode's topic was "Tom loves Sarah," which had no precedent in previous episodes, and would be completely forgotten in next week's episode. Actually, the fact that this metaphor presented itself to Orr was, in itself, more interesting to him than what the metaphor represented. It occurred to him that, actually, he had seen an almost identical plot in any sitcom that had siblings in it. In fact, Orr couldn't think of any pair of television siblings, in which there had been no episode revealing the secret affection a best friend had for a sibling, or a sibling for a best friend. If anything disappointed Orr, it was this: his friend, for all his creativity and disdain for stereotypes, had proved to be an actor in one regardless. But, this too was no huge disappointment.
After leaving gym for the nurse's office, Tom had missed third period geometry as well (which he shared with Orr). And, their next opportunity to see each other was lunch. Here, to Orr's relief, Tom presented himself, holding himself proud, like a wounded hero.
The two friends regularly spent lunch with a group of eight other first-year students, of which only three were ones Orr considered close friends: Kelly (who was, due to her regular position as dungeon master, an unofficial leader and social organizer for the group), Arthur (who had recently proclaimed for himself the title of "Dewy," for his most beloved beverage, though the only nickname that had stuck for him was "Rat," for the rat tail he sported proudly in middle school and had cut without precedent over the previous summer), and Tiffany (who had gone to a different middle school, but had become fast friends with both Tom and Kelly at the beginning of the year, and was now an inseparable part of the group; she had, over the past month, acquired the nickname "Toff," as a combination of "Tiffany" and "Toffy," though the exact etymology deluded even the five of them).
Orr spent fourth period working on English reading and writing, which took place on the fourth floor, so by the time he arrived for lunch, the other eight were already midway through their lunches. As he approached, Tom looked up at him and grinned. His glasses were taped together at the bridge, and his right cheekbone was beginning to look purple.
Orr scooted into the seat next to him, and said, "How are you feeling?"
Tom said, "You should have seen the other guy!" and everybody laughed, Orr included. But, Tom did not, though his eyes twinkled with pride.
When the laughter subsided, and attention was returned to a long-standing conversation between Kelly and Toff about a new campaign on which Kelly had been working for the past two weeks, about how it was going, and when it would be ready, and so forth, Tom looked at each of them in turn, then leaned in and whispered to Orr, "But, seriously, could we talk later?"
Orr smiled, and whispered back, "Sure!" He felt prepared to handle any new twist of this episodic adventure and was excited to see it unfold.
Tom whispered, "Thanks," then, aloud, said, "But, I have to go. Bye, everyone." And, again without waiting, he took his half-eaten lunch, stuffed it back into its bag, threw the bag into his backpack, and sneaked out of the table, still holding the open backpack in both hands.
As he left, Toff said, "He's probably hoping to get his other cheek kissed too!" and Arthur howled with laughter.
Orr and Tom met each other in the computer lab after school, it being the easiest place to agree to meet, and also the location of Tom's last class. They often spent time after school playing on the computers, usually some form of online game (most popularly multiplayer tetris) that they couldn't play as easily at home due to their slow Internet connections. When Orr entered the lab, Tom was in one of the more distant clusters, alone in the lab. His fingers rested on the keyboard, as if ready to type, but he was looking down at the table, and as the door creaked shut, he looked up, smiled, and let his hands fall to his lap. His right eye was shut, and Orr thought at first that he was enacting an Eternal Wink Elongation (an invention of the two from the previous summer), but the smile that accompanied an Elongation, almost by necessity, was missing from Tom's face. Instead, it appeared gaunt, or rather, appeared to appear gaunt, like Jerry Seinfeld trying to pull off gauntness for a movie. Tom's face, with the wrinkles already forming around his eyes and bits of hair on his upper lip, and even the taped-up glasses, rebelled against gauntness, and yet even as its structure worked so hard to remain casual, the bruise on his cheek gave it the impression of a shadow, hiding his face, and his forehead was bright in the florescent light as if under investigation. He nodded at Orr, and moved his hands back onto the table.
Orr shrugged off his backpack, let it collapse near the entrance to the room, and walked to Tom's cluster. The walk felt longer than normal. Neither of them was speaking.
Finally, as Orr sat down, Tom's face relaxed slightly, and he said, "What an awkward entrance!"
Orr grinned, and the sudden guard he had let up on seeing Tom, relaxed as well. He said, "You look awful, my friend."
Tom said, "Yeah, I've heard that before," and smiled.
Orr laughed. "Yeah, sure, like when Chrissy said it to me last year. Oh, and pretty much whenever Toff sees me."
All ice had melted into the fire of shared testosterone and old habit. And, the two friends continued bickering over which was the more monstrous, the more maladroit, the most despised, and the least intelligent, for several minutes more, until, after a brief silence, Tom said, all at once, "So, I've got a thing for your sister, and I'm sorry, but that's kind of how it's been for a while now, and I asked her out, but apparently that pissed her off, so I guess I'm back at square one, but I'm sorry if that's strange."
Then, he laughed, high-pitched and foreign. And, Orr laughed too, and it felt just as foreign to him.
Orr said, "It's really not a problem. I...," he tried to remember his reasoning from geography class, "... it really has nothing to do with me."
Tom's face again magically loosened its bolts, and he said, "Thank goodness. I was so worried after I blurted it out before gym."
Tom said, "I hadn't meant to say it, but... a punch to the face really knocks it out of you!" He grinned.
Orr said, "Honestly, it's all the same to me."
Tom said, "I'll try not to be too awkward when I go to your place too. It'll all be the same for you."
Orr said, "Sure. Yeah." He wasn't sure why they were still discussing this topic that now seemed finished. In fact, he was about to suggest a game of tetris before they left for home, when Tom continued.
Tom said, "I just... it's weird, you know?" Orr didn't know, but Tom continued, his eyes now on the table instead of Orr, "And, it's got to be even weirder for you, your two worlds coming together."
Orr said, "Wasn't there a Seinfeld about that?"
Tom said, "Yeah, sure," though in all actuality, there had not been, and it would have been quite to everyone's eventual satisfaction if the two had instead discussed this point. Instead, Tom continued, "But, this is too weird for a T.V. show, you know?"
Orr again did not know, but his brain had already thought about this issue, and his unrepressed reaction was to say, "Not really, though."
It felt casual as he said it, but Tom's head jerked up to look at him again, and part of Orr wanted to escape from the room back to normal conversation, but another part had begun to get frustrated at his friend for not listening to him.
Tom said, "What?"
Orr said, "Well, isn't this exactly what happens in TV shows? Best friend falls in love with sister."
Tom said, "Well, sure, generically, but you could say the same thing about any experience. A kid goes to school. Parents have children. People talk."
Orr said, "Yeah, but this is a lot more specific than 'People Talk.'"
Tom said, "So?"
Orr said, "So... It's just a bit cliche, I guess. Falling for your best friend's sister."
Tom said, "Are you suggesting that I shouldn't like your sister because it's cliche?"
"No, that's silly."
"But, it's still something to be wary of."
Tom frowned. "You really think so?"
"Yeah, cliches are the mark of a normal life. I mean, that's great for some people, but I don't - and I don't think that you do either - want a normal life."
"So I should choose who I have crushes on based on whether I want to live a cliche life?"
"No..." Now, it was Orr's turn to frown. "That's not fair."
Tom's face was red. The two had never spoken in this way to each other, and neither knew how to control themselves or each other. He stared straight into Orr's face and said, "You know, Orr. I'm sick of you always thinking of yourself. You're so obsessed with your own life, and you just forget that we want different things. I have a crush on a girl. I want it to feel special, so just leave me alone!"
Orr felt a surge of regret for having hurt his friend, who was breathing heavily and whose eyes were now reddening as he frowned at the wall behind Orr, but the regret was of no match for his conviction at being correct, misunderstood, and mislabeled by someone who was supposed to know him better than all others in the world. So, after a pause, he retorted, "Sure, I'm being so self-centered, as I sit here and tell you that I don't mind if you like my sister. That's really egotistical of me. I'm sorry."
For emphasis, he rolled his eyes and even snorted slightly, but the sight and sound were unperceived by Tom, who pushed back his chair and stood up in one motion, and then speed-walked out of the room, leaving behind his backpack, and a dumbfounded and guilt-ridden Orr.
Orr and Tom apologize profusely to each other later that day, as Orr returned Tom's forgotten backpack to him. Orr agreed to help Tom win over his sister, if there were any possibility of accomplishing such a task (which, the two agreed, chuckling) there really was not, and Tom acknowledged that he had been "acting weird," that day and promised to, as best as he could accomplish, return to normalcy. And, indeed, for over three years afterwards, not a single fight broke out between the two, and their friendship continued to coalesce and intensify, until high school itself came to be so intertwined with their friendship that any future they envisioned apart from each other, even for the four approaching years of college, was foreign, hostile, and ultimately doomed to a miserable outcome.
And yet, their argument left a strong impression on Orr. He and Tom had both so shunned the shallowness of society, deriding their classmates, whose passion for alcohol, sex, and noise left the two boys (and the rest of their friends) unimpressed by society's demand that they fit its mold. They had instead revered the slender intellectuals, the Galileos, Eulers, and Gausses of Western history. They pretended that they were Ramanujan, flying to Cambridge to push human knowledge to new depths. And, at first, it seemed like Tom had abandoned those dreams on a carnal whim.
Yet, the following weekend, when Tom came to spend the night at Orr's house and play Honor Fighter (an old shareware computer game that had recently become a favorite among Orr and Tom's clique) late into the night, he brought with him a recently salvaged SIAM Journal on Applied Mathematics from 1985, discarded in the mess of his attic by his father in a fit of cleaning out his bookcase years earlier. And, though they would ultimately only glance at the titles and try to read the first paragraph of the less confusing ones, it revealed that Tom had abandoned nothing in his complacence with cliche, only added a new layer of meaning to his world.
Orr found himself wondering if he really had been living a self-centered life, so obsessed with intellectualism that he had left even his friends behind and not even realized it. And, why had he been so certain that his world and the world of cliche were incompatible? He had opposed it vehemently, mocking the lives of the characters in the TV shows he watched, who always made the same mistakes, always learned the same morals, and were always interspersed with the same ridiculous attempts by greedy companies to prove that their products were better in every way than all of the products of the other greedy companies. Characters would learn to trust each other, to avoid drugs, that their families loved them, that the key to friendship was loyalty, that friends and family are the most important things in life, and that uncool people are really the coolest people around, and when they would vanish, people and disembodied voices would appear in their place claiming that one shouldn't trust the food one eats, that over-the-counter drugs were the keys to happiness, that love can be purchased at the super market or diamond store, that the key to car-purchasing was loyalty, and that loyal Ford drivers are the only really intelligent people in the world, and that the only way to be cool is to buy a new computer. Was it he, in the end, who was wrong, in his blind rejection of this ridiculous world? Did it have something to offer that Tom had found but from which he had turned away, too proud to even consider what might be useful about living that lifestyle?
These questions were the first existential questions that pressed on Orr with any urgency, and he lacked even the smallest tools for handling them. It is no surprise, then, that no words came to him, neither as answers, nor even as hints at directions to pursue for answers. Whenever he was reminded of the questions, they left him in a sullen mood, no further along than he had been before. He tried to avoid them, but for a budding mathematician and engineer to abandon a difficult question is akin to having an itch and deciding to ignore it: difficult and not achieved without significant sacrifice. Though he eventually met with success at quelling the questions, it cost him his belief in his own supreme intelligence and two week's worth of troubled nights.
And, even though the questions themselves eventually left him alone, they left him feeling static and abandoned by an ever-changing and ever-growing world, in which he could see his friends also changing and growing. And, it was this feeling that was at the root of the destruction of Orr's childhood over the next few months, and thus of his goal of being a child prodigy.
And, by the time that Sarah and flown to college in New York, where she had always planned to go, ever since finding affinity with the Gothic subculture and learning that a Gothic lifestyle could only be fully lived in a big city, when it became obvious even to Tom that the punch he had gotten from her was the closest contact the two of them would ever share and finally (and completely) stopped talking about her, and Orr's younger brother Tomer was preparing himself for the journey of high school that he had heard so much about from his elder siblings, Orr could barely even recall the fight between him and Tom. And, the monster in the corner of his room had become just another accepted relic of a time gone by that Orr looked at only when he wanted to reminisce.