Chapter III - Language
People say that the World Trade Center bombings changed the world, instantly transmogrified it into an unwinnable and unlosable battle between the Western World and people willing to do anything to tear that world asunder. Entire societies found the event so awe-inspiring, so catastrophic, that they referred to the event only by the date on which is happened, as if nothing of import had ever happened or could ever happen in the future on that date. The eleventh of September was stamped, used up, in the same way that Pearl Harbor had been used up. The brand on it had become so overwhelmingly powerful that it had overtaken the actual thing. There is no eleventh of September any longer that does not, in some way, invoke the bombing. And, there is no Pearl Harbor anymore that does not, in some way, invoke the attack. History slowly comes to own larger and larger fragments of our lives, until all that remains are coalescing and overlapping pieces of cultural and personal memory. And, though slowly filling up one's brain with memories and associations with the past is a natural part of aging, losing 1/365 of your life to a single cultural term because of a society-wide lack of creativity is, at the very least, unfortunate.
And, in the end, despite all the fright and the expectations of immanent attacks, and despite the millions who had been personally affected by the attack, the largest effect on Orr was the loss of a day of normalcy in his life every year from the age of seventeen onward, a day that happened to be his birthday. And, even as he was sent to the office to a phone call from his mother, who screamed that his sister was all right and that she loved him desperately and that she had to go make more calls, even as he spent the day watching the news in each of his classes, and as he came home to see his 17th birthday party morph into a grim news marathon, even as he sat, tense, not knowing what kind of future he was entering, the last fraction of a child in him cursed history for having usurped a day that should have belonged to him. And, he knew, his dream of an Orr Wazkowitz Day celebrating his life and work was no longer feasible even in the magical world of his ideal future.
He, Tom, Kelly, Arthur, Toff, Tomer, Orr's parents, and five or six other students with whom Orr had become friends over the past few years, sat in the living room, watching television, and once in a great while, reluctantly grabbing a slice of pizza, looking around (mostly at Orr's parents) afraid of having made a faux pas. The news was boring. Everything to say had already been said. Every image to see had already been shown. Many times. But, watching television, steeping oneself in as much news as possible, seemed required of everybody. This is what people do during a tragedy; they stand vigil, and they wait. But, in every person sitting their, parents included, a little child, now long repressed, wanted nothing more than to go outside to play games, or read a novel, or at least watch something else, but all of them, Orr included, felt the same useless obligation to sit and feel glum.
Most of the children left right after dinner; they had planned to stay until late into the night, but those who could not yet drive had their parents surprise them by arriving early, and those who could had parents call and demand them home early. Only Tom, with his casual precision managed to convince his mother to let him stay. After the rest had left, she called Orr's house and asked to speak to Tom. Orr's mother answered, called for Tom, and then went with Orr's father into their bedroom, presumably to continue watching and consoling themselves in isolation.
Orr overheard Tom say, "Hi, Mom..."
And then, "Okay, yeah, I mean, all things considered..."
And then, "Yeah, just watching T.V., I guess..."
And then, "Oh, yeah, well, the thing is..."
And then, "No, I know, but Orr..."
And then, "I know, Mom."
And then, "I know, Mom."
And then, "But, today is Orr's birthday, and..."
And then, "I know, Mom."
And then, "But, think of how it must be for him..."
And then, "I don't think so, but still..."
And then, "Yeah, I mean, he only lost his birthday, but that's more than any of us lost."
And then, "Yeah, I'll be home tomorrow after school."
And then, "I love you too, Mom. Bye."
He came back into the living room, smiling for the first time that anybody, perhaps in the whole United States, had smiled since the early morning. Orr couldn't help but return the smile.
Tom said, "Mind if we turn this off and play some Honor Fighter?"
Not only did Orr not mind, but the thought of abandoning the television for virtual and simplistic worlds flushed him with the first pleasures of the day. But, the adult in him kept his smile minimal as he nodded, fished the couch for the remote, and on finding it, let it hang loosely in his hand for a few seconds. The reporters were showing the video of planes exploding into buildings again, and the ticker below was reporting death toll estimates.
He turned it off.
He said, "Okay, let's go!"
And, off they went, Orr dragging an extra chair behind him, to wait patiently for the computer to slowly boot, and then hunch over it for hours, each reserving a half of the keyboard to control their character. Honor Fighter is a game, needless to say, of honor and fighting. Players begin by choosing a fighter class, the default being, obviously, fighter, but other options existed, including archer, wizard, thief, and orc. Each character looked just about the same, a pink glob of pixels, but the archers had arrows pointing out of their glob, and orcs were a bit bigger, and thieves were dark green, and so forth. The players were all on a team, alone, against ever-growing hordes of other pink pixel globs, and red pixel globs, and blue pixel globs. The environment would change, depending on the level, but they were largely light-green expanses of (one might assume) lush grass on which the epic battles of two against ten, then thirty, then eight, and eventually five-hundred would take place. And, as with all old mass-battle games, the fights would proceed, one after another, only on very rare occasion accompanied by some dialogue or plot exposition to explain, first, why thousands of nameless soldiers were so obsessed with the destruction of two measly people who appeared to just be on a very long stroll, and second, why these two god-like people, who could destroy entire armies without so much as breaking a single sweat pixel, were so set on taking a stroll through the army-infested grasslands instead of, say, ending world hunger, or battling other gods for the privilege of ruling over all of humanity.
The pleasures of non-shareware, non-ancient games were largely unknown in Orr's household. Only Arthur kept up with the latest video game consoles, with their non-glob characters, their detailed storylines, and their well-crafted gameplay. The rest found excessive entertainment in being the god-like archer and thief (or orc and fighter), slowly becoming more and more invincible, yet never in any real danger of losing. And, this was the real difference between the regular nerds like Tom and Orr, and the hardcore gamer like Arthur: Arthur wanted challenges in games, so that as he played and had fun, he also improved his abilities and was eventually able to overcome those challenges. Online gaming, even in its humble roots in games like tetris, is the epitome of this idea, because a computer can almost always eventually be defeated (unless it's playing checkers or Othello), by learning the algorithm it follows, and the computers in games are always possible to defeat so that the game is not impossible, but other players, with their self-modifying neural pathways, always present new, and sometimes undefeatable, challenges. For Tom and Orr, on the other hand, as non-gamers on the periphery of the gamer subculture, the most interesting challenges were mathematical and engineering-related challenges, so a game was a way of passing time and socializing with friends, like watching a movie, but more intellectually and physically invigorating. And, like watching a movie, when playing the game became too difficult, or started to take too much time, they abandoned it.
So, while Arthur stayed home and perfected his sniping on 007 Golden Eye, so that, whenever any of his friends came over, they no longer wanted to play it with him, Tom and Orr replayed the same game they had beaten dozens of times before, and within two hours had defeated it again, stretched their sore backs, and turned the computer off to go to bed.
As they ambled upstairs, they smiled and chatted with each other about this or that deft arching or stabbing, and the rest of the world was nothing but a giant and formless glob.
Orr said, "That has got to be the fastest we've ever beaten it." He always said something like this, though it was rarely true.
Tom said, "Yeah, I still can't believe how quickly you got to level 10! Did you just not get hit by anything?"
Orr said, "Yeah, I guess not... I learned invisibility pretty quickly. I guess that's the trick."
Tom said, "Must be, but still... good job!"
Orr said, "Thanks, and you too!"
Tom grinned, "My aim's starting to improve a bit."
Orr said, "Starting?! You're a crack shot." This was not true. As Orr roamed around stabbing people through his invisibility, Tom would find himself in one sticky situation after another as his arrows only managed to draw attention. Their team was, however, successful; as Tom ran away, the enemies would be distracted and could easily be picked off by Orr. This situation did not seem to bother Tom very much because, as soon as he was not being chased by anybody any longer, he would, once again, try unsuccessfully to hit an enemy from amidst the mass, only to have the mass swarm after him.
The two friends flossed and brushed in comfortable silence, mulling over their relative successes.
Then, they took turns using the restroom, and Orr changed into his pajamas. They set up two sets of sheets on the floor, as per custom (they had argued so many times about who should sleep on the bed, each offering the privilege to the other, that they eventually agreed to just both sleep on the floor and be done with it), rummaged through the closet for blankets, and Orr took the one pillow (Tom claimed not to need one). Then, they turned off the light, and lay down to go to sleep.
As per custom, Orr said, "Good night."
But, not as per custom, Tom said, "You're a good friend, Orr."
Orr said, "You are too, Tom."
Tom said, "I'm sorry that your birthday was so chaotic."
Orr said, "It's okay. I still had fun." Saying it sounded strange, as the memories of the day returned to him from their brief slumber in his long-term memory, so he continued, "I mean, not fun... It was... It was good to have you here." This was not what he meant.
Tom said, "It was good to be here. And, despite the day, I did have some fun."
Orr said, "Yeah... yeah... I mean, I did too. I just meant, you know, after a day like this..." He sighed in the darkness.
Tom said, "Yeah. I guess it's kind of insensitive to talk about fun with so many people dead and so many others sad and afraid."
Orr said, "Yeah. Right. Exactly."
Neither spoke for some time. Someone creaked downstairs and roamed around the kitchen for a while, then creaked back up.
But, just when Orr, thinking the conversation had dried up, was about to say "good night" again, Tom started again.
Tom said, "It's just... don't that many people die all the time? Aren't that many people sad all the time?"
Orr said, "Yeah, but this is different."
Tom said, "It is?"
Orr said, "Yeah," but even as he said it, he was no longer certain. The news correspondents had been entirely certain of this fact, but he was an intellectual, and a social dissident. Why had he trusted them so? "... Yeah, I guess... maybe not..."
Tom seemed to have been waiting for this moment because he started speaking as soon as Orr stopped. He said, "Yeah, and, everyone's completely terrorized by this whole thing, but wasn't that their point? I know it's scary and awful for lots of people, sure, but it's also like chess: if your opponent wants you to do something, you should try not to do it."
Orr said, "Yeah, but it's still pretty scary."
Tom said, "Yeah. We were all pretty worried about Sarah." It was the first time that he had mentioned her for over a year. "I can't imagine being a family-member of someone who died today, or somebody who's missing."
Orr said, "Yeah..." He imagined Sarah missing, or being dead, of consoling his parents and being expected to stay in-state for college.
Tom said, "But, that's just the thing: that's what isn't new. People everywhere live with dying and missing family."
Again, Orr wanted to say that today's event was different, but again he couldn't explain why.
And, before he could express doubt or even assent, Tom continued. His voice was softer, and almost a whisper. He said, "You know, I really don't think it would be that bad to live in New York." Orr heard him twist a little in his sheet, and Orr turned reflexively to see the source of the noise. In the shade-dimmed moon-light, he saw Tom turned directly facing him, half-sitting with his arm supporting the weight of his body. Orr, reflexively, mirrored him.
Orr said, "What's up?"
Tom said, "Well, today might not be the best day..."
Orr said, "No, my birthday's probably over..." He realized that this was probably not what Tom meant (and that it was probably not long after 10:00pm). "... and, uhh, well... Anyway, now's as good a time as any."
Tom again seemed ready with a response. He said, "Yeah, you're right. The thing is this... I think I'm applying to Columbia."
For all their talk of spending the rest of their lives together, neither had made especially concrete plans about any portion of that future. The sudden realization that he might not be spending his future with Tom after all hit him almost palpably, and emitted a shuddering "oh," as if from his whole body.
Tom, seemingly unaware of Orr's negative response but now with a slight tremble in his voice, continued, "Would... Could you see yourself there too?"
Orr, honestly, had never considered it. There were so many schools, and he was never sure where he fit or what his family could afford, that he mostly expected himself to stay to stay in New Mexico and attend UNM on in-state tuition. But, the almost-palpable release of what had hit him moments before emitted from him an excited and overly loud, "Yeah, I would love to go there!"
When he retained control of his body, he attempted to hedge his bets by saying, much more quietly, "I mean, if I can get in... and afford it... which are both unlikely."
But, it was too late.
Tom sat up straight and said, "No, we can totally make this happen. We can help on each other's applications. And, we'll study up for the SAT -- I don't know about you, but I think I'm going to take it next month, and we can take it together if you want, or not, you know -- but, we can study up for that, and if you do well, you'll get some killer recommendations. Mr. E loved you last year. And, then you could even get some scholarships!" He crossed his legs and started rocking back and forth.
Orr tried to imagine himself at Columbia. He could not, having no idea what Columbia actually looked like. Instead, he tried to imagine himself in New York, which is to say, in Times Square. Although he could imagine the metonymic square, he failed entirely to place himself in it. So, he continued with his reluctance. He said, "And, there's no way that my parents will let me go there..."
To this Tom appeared to have no answer, because he said, "Well, we'll just have to see, then!" and then more quietly, so that Orr could barely hear it, "... but, it'll work out..."
And, after that, neither of them spoke for such a long time that Orr eventually fell asleep to jittery and shadowing dreams that, though he could not remember them, left him jittery and unprepared for the jittery world into which he was entering.
Though it stemmed from his own reluctance, Orr's prediction about his parents' reaction to his consideration of Columbia as an alma mater was largely prophetic. He and Tom had filled out an online form two days later at school, such that when the requested information arrived in the form of a large envelope labeled, "COLUMBIA" in giant block letters, just below, in unmissable black, "Enclosed: The Information You Requested." His father happened upon it, demanding the bulk of the mailbox for itself, such that the daily issue of the family's accidental subscriptions to "Pizza Deals" (for "Ol' Famos Ragnarok or current resident") and "Housing Deals" (for "Future Home Owner") were forced to wait in a crumpled corner. If it had been a letter of ordinary size, he perhaps would have seen the name of the addressee and left it on the stairs, but the Columbia Information demands attention with its weight alone, and Orr's father was planning to be around as the thing was opened even before he saw what the thing was or to whom it was addressed. And, when he read the large black text, his curiosity and confusion both escalated.
Orr had spent just over an hour playing Hearts in the computer room with Kelly, Toff, and Tom before returning home, so he arrived a few minutes before dinner. (The timing of his arrival was not a coincidence. Over the years, he had maximized the amount of time he could spend at school with friends while still managing to catch a bus that would bring him home in time for dinner.) By then, his father and mother had both been glancing periodically at the package with its strange phrase, "You requested," in such big and black letters for just over an hour.
After taking off his shoes, abandoning his backpack at the foot of the stairs, and washing his hands, he came into the kitchen, prepared only for a feast, not a package. But, he saw it before anybody spoke, and in the second he had before his parents' dark stares manifested audibly, he prepared himself mentally for an adventure.
His father began: "Orr, what is this about you wanting to go to Columbia?"
This mild beginning eased Orr. He said, "Oh, Tom was really excited about it, so we both asked for more information."
His father said, "Oh, so you are not actually interested?"
This, of course, was a conniving trick, for it forced Orr to either lie or to disappoint his parents, which made him feel guilty, which made it seem (to all concerned) that he was in the wrong and thus should follow his parents' inevitable (and obvious) advice. But, Orr had been the target of this type of paradox before, and his answer (he hoped) would render it ineffective. He chose indecision. He said, "Well, I might read it over, just in case it turns out to somehow be the perfect school for me or something."
Orr's father appeared to be unaware of how to extract further information out him, but at his father's silence, his mother took her turn. She said, "So, you are suggesting, and correct me if I'm wrong here, but you're suggesting that you requested that this much paper be wasted on the off-chance that you might look at it, and the even more off-chance that the school will be perfect for you?"
This attack, both in form and in contact, surprised Orr. Though he was used to his mother's tactic of asking questions that bordered on derision, he had softened up in this argument with the easy questions his father had fed him, and had, admittedly, not anticipated the absurdity of his claim put in this way. He thought for a moment, not sure how he was going to respond. Finally, he hit upon, "Well, I guess I really should read it over, then, so as not to waste the paper." It was a lame response, and felt hollow as he said it. But, to wait any longer, staring dumbfounded at his parents, could be even more injurious to his cause.
His parents, of course, had not been fooled. And, within moments, his father, with a sigh and a scowl, said, "So, are you thinking seriously about this school or not?"
And, as always, his parents had now won. He had already played the indecision card, and here it would not apply anyway (for a person cannot easily be unsure about whether or not they are having a particular thought). So, after fixing his eyes down between the two adults, he said, "Yeah, I guess I'm thinking about it."
His father used this temporary victory to press on still further, saying, "And, you think you might attend this school?"
Orr said, "I might, yeah."
His father sighed, and his mother said, "I don't like this, Orr..."
Orr was mumbling now. "I know..."
His mother said, "I don't like that you didn't tell us, because that means that we all knew how we would react."
Orr said, "I know..."
His mother said, "It's so far away, Orr... and New York is so dangerous..."
Orr said, "I know..."
His mother said, "And, I don't know if we could handle having both children in the same place, so far away, if another terrorist attack hits."
And, suddenly, Orr had a new plan of attack. He said, "You don't want me to go in case of terrorists?"
His mother said, "It's a legitimate fear. It's something we all have to worry about now. And, terrorists will target Manhattan before they target Albuquerque."
Orr's voice was starting to rise, in tenor at least. "But, we can't let fear of terrorists keep us from living our lives, because then we live in terror, and they've won!"
His mother remained calm. "I'm not advocating fear-mongering, just making wise decisions. We have to be more careful now, not terrorized, but careful."
"No we shouldn't! It was awful, sure, but people die of awful things all the time, and in big numbers too."
"This is different."
If anything, his mother appeared to be growing more calm. "Those awful things that happen to lots of people, they're accidents, or they're acts of war that involve soldiers. This was a huge, purposeful attack on citizens. And, when there are people who kill arbitrary citizens in such large numbers, deciding to place oneself in a place more prone to attacks is a decision that affects your probability of staying alive."
Orr was shocked by the reasonableness of this argument. He had always considered his parents intelligent, but he secretly harbored the belief that he and Tom were more intelligent than their parents were, yet neither he nor Tom had considered such a simple argument. But, now he was too upset to adequately register his mother's intelligence, and lacking a proper response, he mumbled, "Let's figure it out later," snatched the guilty package from the clutches of the countertop, and stormed to his room, where he waited until his hunger drove him out. The table was empty but for a plate of scalloped potatoes and a note that read, "Sorry, Orr. Salad's in the fridge. Love, Mom."
And, as Orr munched on the soggy lettuce, he wondered why he had so vehemently argued for the right to attend a school that he had so little interest in actually attending. But, soon, his feelings of frustration and impotence over his own fate led him to the thought that perhaps he really wanted to attend Columbia after all.
At school, Tom's easy success with Orr inspired him to try to convince as many of his friends as he could to join him in applying as well. As such, he had begun a massive, largely unnecessary, research project into famous Columbia alumni, as if their successes implied that Columbia was the only choice for an aspiring intellectual. He began with those who had excelled in the worlds of mathematics and technology, but slowly expanded to all scientific notables, and then, when his friends were not yet drooling over the prospect of attending such a mysterious and wonderful school, he would list off any notables in any field associated in any way with the university.
It began during the lunch on the day after Orr's fight with his tag-teaming parents, when Tom leaned into the table, with no precedent, and declared, "I have made a discovery."
Though Orr had made such claims throughout middle school, nobody had made (or even claimed to have made) any discoveries since then. So, of course, Orr, Toff, Arthur, Kelly, and the other five friends who happened to be within earshot, were intrigued. Tom looked at each one in the face in turn, not speaking.
Then, he continued, "It has long been well known that many of the brightest and most successful people in the world have thrived together in one paradise of thought." This claim, to Tom's apparent disappointment, lost several of the unnamed friends, and Kelly groaned. This fact was indeed well-known, for it had been made unsubstantiated daily for over a week, and occasionally twice or even three times for emphasis.
But, Tom ignored the waning interest, and stared still more-wide-eyed at his remaining audience, as if his enraptured wonder would morph their opinions and faces to match his, through the amazing power of osmosis.
He started again, more silently before, "But, I recently discovered through much excavation that none other than Louis Rossetto thrived in that wondrous place."
This was too much, apparently, for Kelly, and she said loudly, "Who?!"
Tom turned to her and smiled. "Though his name is not yet famous, he is. He is none other than the founder of Wired magazine," and suddenly his face lost its forced solemnity. "Wired!"
Though Tom's open excitement did keep his friends from antagonizing him, a reference to a magazine entrepreneur, no matter how popular or interesting the magazine, did not so shock and inspire them as to suddenly begin a crusade to travel to Columbia at all costs. But, Tom seemed to take the silence following his statement as an indication of relative success, because he soon brought out a pack of cards and asked if anyone was interested in a quick game of Erf. Everyone was.
But, despite the hushedly voiced hopes of his friends, Tom came the next day with another "discovery." This time it was Edwin Armstrong, who had invented the FM radio. And, after that, David Berlinski, a mathematician and writer of whom none of them had heard, but Tom said was "of great renown." Of course, in this case Tom was forced to concede, as the only piece they found by him online was a polemic article about evolution that, for the little sense they could make out of it, appeared entirely nonsensical. So, the next day, Tom had broadened his horizons. He dropped names of physicists who had won the Nobel Prize, and wouldn't you know it, but they went to Columbia, or taught at Columbia. Orr was surprised to have recognized one of the names (Enrico Fermi), but otherwise, the list of scientific Columbians was as arbitrary to the seventeen-year-olds as any other list, even with Tom's scientific-jargon-filled historical footnotes ("He discovered the tau lepton!" "He did groundbreaking research on neutrinos!" And so forth). And, even when Tom finally took his last extreme step and started naming any famous person who had set foot just once on Columbia's campus ("FDR!" "Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac!" "Langston Hughes!"), his friends retained their resolute indifference to his cause. Only Toff and Orr were willing to pay the application fees, and they had planned to do it even before Tom's rhetorical name-dropping. Kelly, Arthur, and most of Tom's other friends, still planned to stay in town and go to UNM, and those that did not had their own schools that they touted with as much confidence (if slightly less obvious rhetoric) as Tom pushed for Columbia.
But, Tom's Columbimania did have some unintended consequences, other than the lunchtime misery of his friends for two weeks. First, though Arthur was perhaps more irritated by Tom during this two-week period than anybody else, his years of gaming had given him the ability to see in any situation or event some sort of tool to help bring about a situation he desired. And, as it happens, he had been selected to direct the second-semester enactment of "Into The Woods" and was already devising strategies to stretch the play as far as he expected the school to allow. Tom's increasingly ridiculous, increasingly overblown statements of wonder at a new discovery, always delivered in complete seriousness, but Arthur in mind to get him to audition... whenever auditions were to be held.
Before approaching Tom about it, he ran the idea by Orr, Kelly, and Toff one day after school when Tom had left for the library to read up on the beat movement. They were, as usual, in the computer lab, playing hearts. And, they were passing left.
Arthur grinned at Orr to his left and said, "You're welcome." He had passed the two of clubs, the ace of clubs, and the queen of spades.
Orr grumbled, "Thanks..." and turned away, as though disgusted.
He grinned up at the group and saw Arthur still staring at him.
"Say," Athur said, "I was just thinking..."
Orr looked at him just as he began staring at his cards.
He said, "I wonder who has the two of clubs..." And, when Orr played, he continued, "I was thinking... Tom's not a bad actor."
Kelly's head sprung up from her cards. She had been acting since middle school, and though Arthur had landed the part of the director, nobody in the school had acted in as many plays as she had. She said, "Oh, yeah?"
Arthur said, "Yeah... It's your turn, Kelly." It was. "I mean, don't get me wrong." He tossed his picked a card purposefully out of his hand and dropped it into the pile, grabbed it, and threw a diamond down. "He's annoying as Hell... But, he's not a bad actor."
Kelly grinned at him. "You little shit. You're already recruiting for Spring?"
Arthur said, "It's your turn again." It was. "Yeah, well, think about it this way." Kelly had taken the cards, and she led with a spade. Arthur winked at Orr. "Imagine if he wasn't writing his own lines!"
At this comment, Kelly laughed outright. "It would be a welcome change."
Arthur said, "My thinking exactly." He took the trick and played another spade, then turned to Orr, and raising an eyebrow, said, "What do you think?"
Orr played the last spade protecting his queen. "I don't know. He's got a lot going on as it is. Have you heard? He's applying to Columbia."
Toff grinned at him, but Kelly and Arthur were all business now. Kelly said, "But, he'll be done applying by then."
Arthur said, "Yep, he'll be longing for a new obsession."
Kelly had dropped a diamond, leaving Toff to take the spade trick with her king. She led club. She said, "He's never been in the market for obsessions before."
Arthur dropped a heart, winked at Orr again, and said, "Yeah, but... I just mean... you think he'd be interested? Think it'd be worth asking him?"
Orr had taken the clubs and led heart. He had no clubs left, but hardly expected to see them played now that Arthur had shown a void. The cause seemed lost. He sat in silence for an entire round, pretending to be thinking about Arthur's question but really trying to decide if there was any way to stave off taking with the queen. Finally, as Arthur took the hearts with a king, Orr said, "Yeah, sure, I mean... It can't hurt to ask, right?"
Arthur grinned back and played a low spade. "Your turn."
Orr sighed dramatically as he played his queen. He said, "Good job, Arthur." And, Kelly added "Nice!" as she dropped the ace of hearts.
But, after Orr's play, Arthur had stopped paying attention to him. He was reclining in his chair (the four or five degrees it would let him) and staring at Toff, his eyebrows raised in polite curiosity.
She stared back at him, scowling, and without looking at her cards, took the right-most one out of her hand, and let drop the ace of spades.
The second unexpected repercussion from Tom's flamboyant interest in anything-Columbia was that, for presumably the first time in his life, he read poetry for the fun of it. More specifically, he read Allen Ginsberg's "America." And then everything else by Allen Ginsberg, and then On the Road and Gasoline. He read some of the poems to Orr, and when he procured an audio recording of Ginsberg reading some of his poems, he and Orr spent an evening listening to them. But, poetry confused Orr, and he had little interest in its vague abstractions. Brought up with the concrete beauty of math and the concrete elegance of engineering, he had a hard time recognizing abstract beauty and elegance. He would ask Tom, "How do you distinguish between a beautiful and a bad one?" To which Tom would respond, absent-mindedly, "The beauty is in the layering of meaning" or "The beauty is in its relevance to our lives" or something similar. And, though Orr did not understand, he tried to see layers wherever he could and tried to feel the hurried desperation of the poets, but mostly, on Tom's more poetic nights, or would wait what he thought was an appropriate amount of time, and then suggest politely that they play on the computer.
And, this strategy worked between the two for another two weeks, until the weekend of October 12th, when he suggested that they start reading Naked Lunch out loud. The prospect of a large reading project that would take place over several more weekends triggered in Orr a desperation wild enough to bring about the most effective possible retort, which, when he hit upon it, stunned him with its elegant simplicity.
He said, "I don't know, Tom... That's quire a project, and we should really start studying for the SAT if we're taking it in two weeks."
Tom peered out from over one of the two copies of Naked Lunch he had brought to Orr's house. He started to slowly lower the book, but said nothing.
So, Orr pressed on. He said, "I mean, you might be able to get into Columbia without studying, but I definitely can't. Remember the PSAT?" When taking the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test, Orr had confused the words "synonym" and "antonym," and thus managed to get over half of the questions wrong. In fact, it was fortunate that his vocabulary was so small, for if it were any larger, he would have recognized more of the words and confidently chosen the opposite of his goal. As it was, he occasionally inadvertently chose the word that meant the opposite of what he thought it meant and thus got the question correct.
Tom had let Naked Lunch fall to his lap now, and he said, "Hey, I need to study as much as you do. You're right!" He piled the Naked Lunches next to the silver-cubed monster and said, "How about we go online and see if we can get some test prep stuff from there. Then, we can look for some real guides at the library tomorrow."
Though the prospect of a large project to learn words seemed to him almost as unappealing as a large project to read a book aloud, the infinitesimal difference was enough for him to thank his good luck and ingenuity. Plus, he thought, I have to study this stuff anyway, no matter where I end up going. So, he smiled resolutely at Tom, sighed dramatically as he got up and said, "We can skip 'synonym' and 'antonym' by the way. I think I have those down."
Tom grinned and led the way down to the computer room, where they waited silently for the computer to turn on.
And, once it was on, they started the Internet connection process, and Orr disappeared for a few seconds to grab another chair. When he returned, Tom was sitting in front of the computer, a spot usually reserved for Orr, rubbing his fingers along the keyboard.
Orr brought the chair next to him and said, "You wanna drive?"
Tom grinned at him. He said, "I think I know what to search for."
And, in fact, he did. After the connection reached its crescendo and inevitable denouement, he opened Internet Explorer, ambled to Google, and searched for "learning SAT words for math geeks."
And, near the bottom of the first page, they found an ideal result: "How to: the Geek's Guide to Studying for the SAT." It was a detailed guide, split into two sections, a rather terse section on studying for the math section "when you know it all already," just to get the best score possible, and a much more detailed teaching the Greek and Latin prefixes and suffixes, and eventually entire words, in terms of equations and geometrical figures. For example, the a three-line tag under the title "SAT Language for the Nescient Geek" revealed the equation: "ScientL ~ Science, Conscience, Prescient, ... ~ Having to do with knowledge; NeL ~ Negative, Negation,... ~ Not; Ne+Scient = Not + Knowing = Ignorant." Just below the tag-equation were two giant circles, sitting side-by-side and together taking up most of the width of the page. One was labeled "Science" and the other "Math." And, inside each were several other circles, some sitting inside others, all labeled, either in the circle itself or with an arrow pointing from above or below, with a subfield of either science or math: chemistry, geology, geometry, and within geometry, trigonometry, graphing, topology, and so forth. Orr had heard of many of them and knew what those meant, but some, like "homeomorphisms" were new to him. Below these layered circles was bold black rectangle, reading (in white text): "Use what you know," after which each of the scientific and mathematical words was defined and then broken down (in equation form) into its constituent parts. (Orr: "Geometry has to do with the earth?!" Tom: "Chemistry is an Egyptian word?!") And, to their (or at least Orr's) surprise, the two were thoroughly enjoying a website about the English language. And, they continued their bemused amusement for another two hours before finally admitting that their brains had absorbed as much as they could in that night and decided to spend the rest of the night playing Honor Fighter.
"The Geek's Guide to Studying for the SAT" (and more specifically "SAT Language for the Nescient Geek") became Tom's and Orr's main material for studying. They went to the library the following day and found two heavily-penned Princeton Review preparation guides from 1990 and checked them out. But, they found that only half of it was devoted to language, and of that, much was spent on long prefix, suffix, and word lists, supplemented by periodic quizzes and the occasional reminder that now might be a good time to take one of their sample tests in the back of the book. It reeked of the confining atmosphere of school, especially when compared with the nontraditional, intellectual, and targeted nature of the Geek's Guide. And, though the Geek's Guide was less thorough in its lexicon (even on the subject of prefixes and suffixes) than the its discarded counterpart, it mimicked many of the sections in the latter, replacing quizzes with riddles, and tests with complex sets of equations, some mathematical, some linguistic, "mixing pleasure with pain."
The Geek's Guide was just one of many small-time websites made by freelance web-developers during their free time, who maintained their websites with only a small loss by using Google AdWords, who were filled with dreams, philosophies, and project ideas, some good and some bad, and who remembered the days prior to the 2000 recession with a mixture of dreaminess and horror. Such websites would crop up and vanish regularly, as their developers dreamed them up and then tired of maintaining them when they failed to take off, and a new dream presented itself, one that (this time) would replicate or surpass the successes of the recession's survivors: eBay, Amazon, Google, and so forth. In fact, a month after taking the SAT, Orr tried to show the website to Tomer for him to reference the following year, but it had already vanished into an "Under Construction" sign with the canonical construction worker and a single line of plain text below, that read, "See my other work here." And, when Tomer checked again the following October, hoping to replicate or surpass the successes of his brother, he, as he later told Orr, "finally learned how to meet singles in my area."
Luckily, before the website imploded, Tom and Orr managed to spread news of its existence to their friends, and gained an enthusiastic convert in Toff, and even reluctant ones in Kelly and Arthur (whose dabbling in the humanities and the sciences had left them feeling equally comfortable, and uncomfortable, in both). In fact, Toff found it even more fascinating and wonderful than Tom and Orr did and started spending much of her programming class exploring the various nooks of the website, including links to other geeky language sites and sites devoted entirely to riddles. She would write down the riddles and the language games (if you have "Two + Two = Four" and each letter stands for a different numeral, which letters stand for which numerals to make the equation true? There is a synonym for "heap" that is thirteen letters long and has and has as its fifth through eighth letters an anagram for a famous city; which city is it? ... and so forth) and then work on them while pretending to take notes during class. Needless to say, her grades began to stumble, but as they turned downward, her interest and skill with riddles began to skyrocket. She started to bring crosswords to school, and after a month stopped using a pencil. And, before the end of the semester, her grades reached a nadir and began a quick ascent, though to all outward appearances, she was paying less attention than ever.
The day, in early November, of the SAT, which all five friends had decided to take together, she pulled Orr and Tom away from the two others (who were, at any rate, locked in a debate about whether emulators were worth the trouble), and, without saying a word, gave them each a long hug and then passed them each a small slip of paper. She then walked between them back to the others and, loudly, "Frankly, I don't see what all the fuss is about." And, instantly the two were upon her with heated polemics (for if there is one thing that unites enemies it is someone who says that their struggle is unworthy), leaving Tom and Orr to stare at each other and at her and then down at the pieces of paper in her hand.
Orr said, "We should have asked her what the papers were for."
Tom said, "At which juncture? When she was squeezing the life out of us or when she was walking away?"
Orr said, "Either."
Tom said, "I don't think she really wanted to talk."
Orr said, "Still. I could have used an explanation."
Tom said, "We always have our scraps of paper." He rolled his eyes and grinned.
Orr said, "Yeah..." and stuffed his in his jeans pocket, "... in a few hours. For now..." he fished in the same pocket, first pulling out the scrap, then pulled an entire sheet out, filled with the prefixes with which he was still struggling. He then stuffed the scrap back into the pocket.
Tom said, "What does quotidian mean?"
Orr said, "Oh, God... It's not 'quotable'; I know that much."
Tom said, "Think math... Or, think what Toff's scrap isn't."
And, at once, Orr could see the place on the website, even part of the environment he was in (right next to the door, at the computer facing it, in the computer lab). "Quot" was like "quotient" and "idian" was like "day"... and there it was, as if illuminated on the computer in his imagination: "daily, normal."
Orr grinned at Tom and said, "Good one." And then looked down at his page just to be safe, and there was the equation he had scrawled hurriedly the previous night: "QuotL ~ quotient ~ as many as (5 / 2 means 'how many 2s are in 5?'); idian/sag ~ dieL = day; quot+idian=as many as there are days = daily ~ commonplace." And, next to it, Orr had written, "idian/sag?" since he had still not made sense of that piece of the mathematical definition.
He flipped the page over and began scanning its back side, which consisted of the two great circles of math and science, and as many of the word and definitions as Orr could fit. Though, by now, he knew almost all of the words, so studying it did not help with last-minute cramming, it helped him transform a small chunk of his nervousness into self-confidence. My vocabulary, he thought to himself, has accumulated exponentially. He undertook to use even more esoteric vernacular. This test will be as... He paused. Tom was acting cyclically: glancing at a crumpled page in his hand, muttering to himself, glancing back down, grinning, and repeating. Easy, thought Orr... What's a synonym for "easy"? And, very slowly, some words started popping into his head, first completely useless (pizza!), but slowly closer and closer, and just as the word "facile" began to form in his brain accompanied by dizzy elation, an adult called out for everyone to be quiet and that they would be signing in and showing ID and then entering the room to take their test. The students silenced at once and began shuffling, like metals attracted to a magnet, to a desk, where a man sat with a clipboard and a scowl.
After the test, Arthur drove the rest to the Double Rainbow Bakery and Cafe (a small, college-student-filled cafe a few blocks East from the University of New Mexico that served mostly pastries, coffee, and atmosphere, but had won Arthur over for its Mexican food), where they had planned to spend a lunch chatting about the heroics and tragedies of the test. When they arrived, Arthur started with a blow-by-blow description of how he had run out of time on both sections, but thought that he'd matched his prediction of 1100 perfectly. "If we were playing 'Oh Hell!'," he said, "You would all be in some serious shit."
He then turned to Kelly and said, "How about you? Gonna beat me again?" (She had scored 1110 on the PSAT, just above Arthur's 1100.)
Kelly looked up from her menu. "Me?"
Arthur said, "Who else?"
Kelly thought about this and then pushed her head back into the menu. "Okay."
Arthur said, "Okay?"
Kelly said, "Yeah, okay. I did okay. I did fine. I did well. I did okay. Let me choose some food, okay? I'm starving."
Arthur tried again with Tom, but with no more success. Tom was too busy twisting his fork in circles on top of his napkin to sacrifice more than a syllable's response at a time. Toff was preoccupied examining a spiral notebook that she had extracted from some unknown pocket or crevice in her clothes, though Orr thought he saw her glancing up occasionally at him at Tom, and her face was almost as pale as Tom's, a skill hard to emulate.
So, finally, Arthur turned to Orr, and he and Orr chatted happily about the test, how Orr had actually spotted the word "quotidian" and was so excited that he forgot the definition, how Arthur had recognized the term "neophyte" from "Diablo" and almost laughed in triumph, only to realize that he didn't actually know what the word meant other than, perhaps, "soon-to-be-dead target," and so forth. The whole time, Tom and Kelly managed to distract themselves with menus, utensils, and food until the meal was over. And Toff, in the end, didn't order anything, but sat and doodled in her spiral, and though she glanced up occasionally, whenever Orr (or anybody else) looked over at her, she would look up at the ceiling, holding a pen to her chin, and after a moment, continue to doodle.
And, by the time he dropped them off, even Arthur had lost his chipper mood had dissolved into melancholic silence. And, Orr wondered whether he should be more nervous. But, for better or worse, he wasn't.
That night, Orr's mother and father prepared a dinner of rice topped with a peanut curry sauce with gezer khai (peeled carrots sprinkled with honey and lemon juice) for dessert; both of these dishes held high positions on Orr's list of favorite dishes. And, afterwards, the family was set to spend a Trivial Pursuit night together, a game that the family had continuously played on every vacation and some of the longer weekends, and though they had only managed to complete three games during the entirety of family history (all won, as it happens, by Sarah), the fits of laughter in the early part of the game, as everybody realized that nobody in their family had any trivial knowledge whatsoever, left a pleasant recollection for them, and they were always excited to start a new game.
Such accommodations were not abnormal at the end of any important event in the life of a member of the Wazkowitz family, where the importance of the event was determined by Orr's mother and was based solely on the probability that the event would contribute to a child's going to college or an adult's getting a promotion. In other words, Orr's mother had an idealistic vision of the future for every person in her family, and whenever an event contributed to, or a chance event damaged, bringing that ideal into fruition, she would use whatever treats were in her power to give as congratulations or comfort.
So, it was of no surprise to Orr when he was called down for dinner that the sweet aroma of curry filled the air. What did surprise him was that, just as he arrived downstairs, the doorbell rang. His mother jumped too and hurried to the door. Visitors were such a rare occurrence at Orr's house that Orr's natural instinct was to run upstairs and return only when whatever the solicitor was selling had been suitably refused and the door had once more been suitably shut. But, as an almost-adult member of the family, he felt obligated to remain, in the background, along with his father, a fitting family (sans Tomer, who was still in his own room, presumably watching television). But, when Orr's mother opened the door, Orr saw a visage he recognized, if only vaguely and from an unknown event in his past. She was an elderly woman with silvering hair, a pair of slim glasses, and a oversized pink coat. Over her shoulder, a large purple purse swayed like a bloated pendulum.
Orr's mother said, "Joan! So glad you could make it..." but the name did not aid in Orr's attempted recollections.
The stranger, named Joan assumably, said, "Gili! You witch! You put a spell on me every time I see you!" She peered through the screen door, "Doron... a pleasure as always. And, Orr, what a young man you've become!"
Orr and his father both smiled and mumbled hellos.
Joan said, "Say, Gili. I hope I'm not prying here, but... there is a boy on a bicycle on your driveway." She looked directly at Orr, who fidgeted. "Are you expecting company?"
Obviously, she was not prying, and Orr could see his mother's back stiffen.
She called out uncertainly, "Hello?"
The reply, slightly distracted, slightly high-pitched, slightly tense, and entirely Tom's, was, "Oh, hello!"
Orr's mother's back relaxed again. "Tom? Is that you? Why are you in front of our house?"
Tom called, "Yes, yes. Oh, sorry." And with that entirely unenlightening explanation, he appeared, still seated on his bike. He was wearing a gray hoodie and looked, despite his glasses, a bit of a hoodlum.
Orr's mother said, "Well... umm... Hi, Tom. Why don't you come inside? It's the same price." Then, after a moment, she stiffened again, "Oh, and Joan, of course. I apologize for having not invited you in already. But, please." She opened the screen door, which Joan accepted with a smile and, on entering, offered to the dismounted Tom.
Tom grinned and raised both of his eyebrows at Orr as he entered. "Howdy, Orr!"
Orr's mother had regained her composure. She said, "If our two guests aren't adverse to it, please remove your shoes, and then, Orr, dinner will be a few minutes late today, so why don't you go upstairs with Tom, and Joan, Doron and I would be happy to entertain you in the kitchen, especially if we could offer you something to drink while we wait for dinner."
As Tom and Joan began obeying their orders, Orr's father, finally seeming to comprehended the gist of what had transpired until now, said, "Say, Tom. Does your family know you're here? And, have you eaten?"
Tom said, "No to both. I didn't think I'd be gone for very long." He looked at Orr and grinned again. "Obviously, I was mistaken."
Orr's father nodded and muttered something about calling. Tom and Orr, in the meantime, had begun their ascent of the stairs in silence.
When they reached the summit, Tom said, matter-of-factly, "Kind of funny, finding your friend on your driveway."
Orr said, "Yeah, I hear you."
Tom said, "Your mother took it rather well, I think."
Orr nodded and said, "Yeah."
They reached Orr's room, and Tom closed the door behind him.
He said, "I take it, then, that you haven't looked at Toff's note yet."
Orr had completely forgotten about the scrap in his pocket. He took it out now and read it. In a meticulous and almost illegible cursive, Toff had written: "Yang : buy a cab, own blank : this Sunday." After reading it, with the aid of his finger and a good deal of guesswork, he looked up at Tom, who was grinning at him, expectantly.
Orr said, "This explains... nothing."
Tom's crest fell. He said, "Really?"
Orr said, "Yeah. You want to see it?"
Tom said, "I suppose that's allowed."
Orr offered him the slip of paper, and Tom went through the same process as Orr, using his finger and also mouthing words like "cab" and "blank." His face scrunched into a prunier and prunier look of confusion as he read. When he finished, he pulled a similar strip of paper out of his hoodie's pocket and compared the two. Orr stared at Tom, then at his feet, and finally at his desk, with its mess of papers on it from the previous night's studying.
Finally, Tom said, "Huh."
Orr said, "Huh?"
Tom said, "Huh... I can't understand it at all."
Orr said, "Oh..."
Tom said, "Want to see mine?" He offered it to Orr before the latter could respond, and Orr took it.
Tom's strip of paper, in the same meticulous illegible style, read, "Yin : a friend rode : 6:00pm."
Orr said, "Ahh..."
Tom said, "Now you see why I rode here at 6:00. I assumed your clue would lead you outside at the same time."
Orr raised his eyebrows, confused. He was slowly recovering from the surprise of seeing his friend so soon and in such an unexpected manner, but he thought that he could finally get out a full sentence, so he said, "You've been waiting here for half an hour?"
Tom grinned and said, "Well, I didn't want to disturb anybody."
Orr said, "And, your parents?"
Tom said, "... were gone. I only read the note at about 5:45, so I didn't have much time to think. I figured that I'd be back before they were."
Orr said, "Right..."
And, before they could discuss the topic in any more depth, a rattle at the door and an inaudible grunt from Orr's father marked that it was time for dinner.
So, the two friends washed their hands and descended, wordlessly. Orr's brain had finally finished processing the events and was now working feverishly to figure out Toff's riddle. "Yin" and "yang," in isolation, made sense: the two messages were related to each other, probably opposites. The rest was inscrutable. She hoped that Tom would ride to Orr's house at 6:30pm, and then that Orr would... buy a cab... on Sunday. And, if he did so, he would own something (presumably a cab). Yet, this interpretation, in its scatter and nonsensical conclusions, seemed suboptimal.
Two adjacent empty chairs waited for Tom and Orr, across from Tomer and Joan. The rest were filled with the other diners, most of whom had already served themselves some rice and curry. Tomer had also served himself gezer khai.
After the two boys sat down, Orr's father (to their left) offered them the rice pot and a potholder, and when they had finished with that, he gave them the curry sauce as well, which they both added with zest. The smell of curry was almost overwhelming, and Orr's hunger began to accelerate.
But, before they could begin eating, Orr's mother said, "So, Orr, I suppose I should tell you that Joan is a professor at UNM... She's in the math department there, right Joan?"
Joan, who was in the middle of a bite nodded vigorously and when she had finished eating said, "Indeed! It's a wonderful department, Orr. Very interesting research."
Orr had, during the break in speech, managed to shove a very large spoonful into his mouth, so he simply nodded and looked around for a pitcher of water, which he soon spotted next to Tom and nudged him for it.
Joan smiled politely at the spectacle, while, next to her, Orr's mother's scowl made the women look like distorted mirror images of each other.
Joan said, "I understand that you're matriculating next fall?"
A month prior, Orr would not have recognized the word, but he spent less than a second pridefully congratulating himself on the recognition of the word "matrix" inside of it, before the situation in its full complication dawned on him: his parents invite someone to talk to him about UNM. Normally, Orr would have accepted this situation broodingly, but with Tom next to him, he felt obligated to mention Columbia as another school to which he was applying. He realized also that he should have realized this fact as soon as his mother had mentioned Joan's affiliation with UNM, or even beforehand, at the unexpected invitation of a guest to a celebration dinner. Orr also noticed, and with a growing sense of helplessness, that several seconds of silence had elapsed in silence as he, apparently, attempted to answer a simple yes-or-no question.
In short, things were not very good. Orr tried to discover a solution to this dilemma, but as soon as he attempted to access the problem-solving section of his brain, the words "buy a cab!" flashed through his head, and after that, nothing.
Orr looked around him, at his mother's scowl and Tom's perplexed stare with, as always, a glint in his eye. Finally, and lamely, Orr said, "Yeah... Err... I mean... I want to... but... I'm also applying elsewhere." He glanced at his mother, but her scowl was unchanged.
To his surprise, Joan chuckled. She said, "It's funny how hard a simple-sounding question can be. As you'll learn if you pursue mathematics, this is usually the result of the poorness of the question, not the lack of intelligence of the answerer. So, I apologize. To which schools are you applying?" When she finished speaking, she grinned, showing yellowed and crooked teeth, then took a larger bite of rice than even Orr had.
Also to his surprise, Orr found himself enjoying the company of this strange woman and wishing that his friend were not present so that he could freely ask about and in turn consider attending UNM.
But, as things stood, another question had been posed to him, and no less troublesome than the first. He tried his usual tactic: "Well, I'm not sure. I'm still narrowing down choices." He took another large bite, now to buy himself some time for the question he knew to be coming next.
Joan said, "And which choices have thus far staved off elimination?"
There were three, the two obvious ones, and another rather different school of which Orr had never heard before receiving a letter from them consisting of nothing but a return envelope and a piece of paper with two giant, empty squares, one labeled "Who you are," the other labeled "Who you want to be," and a large arrow in between them labeled "Colorado College." He had filled out the form, mostly as an exercise to test his increasing vocabulary, and added the school to his queue he wanted to eventually research to see if they were worth application fees.
His method was simply to put all curious-sounding schools onto a queue, exploring each in turn, and if they still enticed his curiosity or appeared worthwhile, he would add them once more to the end. And, to his surprise, The Colorado College, with its simplistic name and liberal-arts focus, outlasted every other member of the queue (which were too good, too hot, too sports-oriented, too far away, or too unlucky at catching Orr on a disgruntled day), save the two givens. Though, really, he told himself he would only go there if he could not go to the other.
But, again, he had remained quiet for too long, and again his mother's scowl was growing so fierce that it almost made her chair, and perhaps the entire house, shake with her effort to will him to answer.
So, he answered, in an order he thought might dissatisfy everyone the least due to its absurdity: "I'm applying to a school called the Colorado College, to UNM, and to Columbia."
After saying this, Orr leaned his body in, blocking out both Tom and his parents from view. All he could see were Tomer and Joan, Tomer alternating between glances around the room and mindless shoveling of food into his mouth, and Joan smiling as widely as ever at Orr and munching contentedly at her food.
"Oh," she said with a full mouth. "Lovely!"
During the silence that followed, as she swallowed some food, Orr heard something from his right, where both Tom and his mother sat, and before he could make it out, he moved his arm up to lean on the table and, accidentally, cover his right ear.
After she finished the process of swallowing, Joan continued, "Colorado College is next to the Garden of the Gods, is it not?"
Orr had remembered seeing the term somewhere, though he had no idea what it was. So, he hedged his bets and said, "Yeah... I think so."
Joan let her spoon-hand rest on the table and wistfully said, "Lovely area, a grand view of Pike's Peak too, if I remember correctly."
This statement piqued Orr's curiosity.
He said, "You've been there?"
Joan smiled again, more widely than Orr had thought possible; her wrinkles transformed and moved like lines on being manipulated on a graph, and her eyes glistened in the light. She said, "Oh, yes. Many times, it turns out. You see, my daughter attended it years ago."
Orr said, "Oh, really?! And, did she like it?"
Joan said, "Oh, I'm afraid not. She rather loathed it. Such utter misery befell her there that she had to depart after a year. She moved on to The St. Tymia of Shiviry College in St. Paul, where all of the mistakes of the Colorado College were amended, and she righted herself almost immediately."
Orr had, in his perusal of advertisements and statistics, never heard such a story, about any school, and it emitted a stunned "Really!" from him.
Joan said, "Indeed. St. Tymia is a good school. If your mother were not so set on your sitting through my classes, I would suggest you look into it."
Orr couldn't think how to respond to this statement. He had never considered St. Tymia, though he recognized the name. With so many possible schools, he simply had not had the time. So, he pondered adding (for the first time in a week) a new school to his now-defunct queue and managed to say only, "Hmm..."
So distracted was he that he let his arm slip from his ear that was muffling any sounds coming from beside him well enough that he could ignore them. But, without his hand on his ear, and with nothing more to say to Joan, he heard Tom loudly proclaim, "St. Tymia! Another distant but good school!"
Orr looked over to apologize for having not looked at it previously (though he had never heard Tom speak of it either), but Tom was not speaking to him. Nor, indeed, to Joan. He was staring straight into Orr's mother's eyes, which were, in turn, directly focussed on him, and her scowl had redoubled. Tomer would later tell Orr that the two had stared so fiercely at each other for the entire conversation between he and Joan, after Tom had made a remark that the schools Orr listed were in opposite order, and Orr's mother had told him that if he uttered anything so ridiculous again, she would send him home. Tom's statement about St. Tymia was the first that had been uttered by either of the two since then.
But, Orr's mother ensured that it was not the last.
In a low, hard, over-articulate voice, which for the first time in Orr's memory, was punctuated by an Israeli accent, she said, "Thomas S. Mately, you have been a good friend to Orr, but your influence on him is too strong, and I will not have you steal his ability to make his own decisions out of your fear of loneliness!"
Tom's retort was delivered in the same cool tone as Orr's mother's (sans accent) and as he delivered it, his eyes retained their focus on Orr's mother, without so much as blinking, as far as Orr could tell. But, his face was horrifying. It had lost its usual flexibility and natural inclination to a smile, and Tom's eyebrows (or, at least, the one that Orr could see), which usually danced around between joy, delighted heckling, and mock confusion, were arched and sat so close to his eyes that they were in line with his small glasses.
Tom said, "I may be afraid of loneliness, but at least my fear has given Orr an opportunity to attend a great school with a track record of developing gifted minds like Orr's, rather than limiting him to, and I'm sorry Joan, a mediocre state university." He said the last portion in the same tone as the rest, without a hint of apology, and neither his eyes nor his face turned to Joan as he apologized to her.
Orr chanced a look at Joan. She was serving herself some gezer khai, keeping both eyes on the serving spoon, and smiling as always.
Orr's mother said, "You're clever, Tom, but do not make the mistake of thinking that understanding the motives of a parent is equivalent to parenting. If Orr makes it apparent to me that he believes, like you said, that his flourishing depends on attending Columbia, I will support his decision with my entire despairing heart, but right now, and correct me, Orr, if I am mistaken, but right now I believe that Orr is only applying to Columbia because of you, Tom." Just as when Tom apologized to Joan, when Orr's mother addressed Orr, she didn't look at him or even reveal that she was no longer speaking directly to Tom in any of her mannerisms.
But at the end of this speech, Tom suddenly smiled and turned to look at Orr. Orr's mother turned to him as well. And, Orr realized that, for the second time in the night, he had been placed into a trap unwittingly and did not even have time to think of a way to extricate himself.
So, he looked from his mother to his best friend, hoping to find in their looks some way to not choose between them, but in their eyes he only saw the same expectation that he himself felt.
So, he did the best he could to compromise: he got equally angry at both.
He said, "I don't know!"
Neither his mother nor Tom found this argument compelling and continued to look at him. So, he repeated it: "I don't know!"
Tom said, "But, I thought you were as excited as I am for Columbia!"
Directly after which, Orr's mother said, "And, we agreed that New York is too dangerous!"
And, Tom said, "But, we dreamed of being the next Louis Rossetto and Enrico Fermi!" He was looking at Orr's mother again, and she at him.
Orr's mother said, "And, you can be the same people but attend UNM for a fraction of the price and live in a much pleasanter city!"
Tom had begun a retort that started with Fermi's name, but Orr interrupted him.
Orr said, "Well, if you two are done talking about what I want, I'll go!" The two turned to face him, but their scowls made it apparent that his tone won him gratitude with neither his mother nor Tom. On the other hand, his anger was helping him to feel less helpless, so he continued. "The fact is, you're both so obsessed with convincing me one way or the other that I have no idea how to make the choice!" He was on a roll now, and he didn't want to lose it, so he continued, though he didn't have anything else to say. "It's ridiculous! You have me so afraid of disappointing you both that I'm going to make a decision that affects my entire life based on that instead of what's best for me! But, that's ridiculous!" And, with that, he ran out of breath.
The next voice to speak was one that Orr did not at first recognize as Joan's, since it had lost its levity and had increased almost imperceptibly in volume, just enough to command everyone's attention.
She said, "Fah! What a dreary meal! I feel as though I have entered a bad television show. Calm down, all of you. We have the same interest here, namely the same goal of helping Orr make the best decision for himself, and so we only stand to benefit by working together. Not every child demands academic excellence, like you do, Tom. Nor does every child benefit from remaining near his family, Gili. Moreover, it is entirely possible that we are ruining our dinner over a moot point, for Orr has neither applied nor been accepted by either of these schools yet. And, indeed," her eyes began twinkling again, "he may yet apply to and choose to attend my suggestion instead of either of yours."
Nobody spoke for a few seconds, so Joan continued, "Now, I am here to have a pleasant evening and, if it pleases Orr, to talk about what our department is like at UNM. I would be happy to humor young Tom's questions as well. But, if this ridiculous melodramatic fight persists any longer, I'm afraid that I have better things to do with our time."
And, with that, she served herself another helping of gezer khai and began munching. Tomer, sitting next to her, was beaming at the absurdity of the spectacle, and Orr's father had shrunk so far into himself in an attempt not to be noticed and inculpated that his shoulders were were touching his ears.
Orr's mother suddenly laughed, and the sound sent a shiver through Orr's spine. But, in a second Tom had joined her, and that was all the impetus that Tomer needed to join in, so he did. Though Orr's father didn't laugh, his head did emerge from its shoulder-nest, and he smiled, a smile that was matched by Joan, who was eating her carrots with vigor. Even Orr smiled, despite the nagging remnants of his anger attempting to forbid him the pleasure, and finished his dinner while trying (and failing) to think of a useful question to ask of the one person he knew who could describe UNM to him.
Tom, on the other hand, had taken her inclusion of him to heart, and asked her a myriad of questions, from the research at the university to her favorite courses to teach. She spent so much time talking that, after an hour, when Tom's parents called demanding their in-deep-trouble son finally home, Joan had still not finished the second helping of carrots, and Tom had not even begun his first.
When Orr finally settled into his comfortable bed, however, after a disappointing game of Trivial Pursuit, in which Joan had won in three rounds (before anybody else had managed to acquire a single pie slice), one statement from the evening refused to abandon his thoughts: Joan had accused them of acting as though in a television show. The comment sounded eerily reminiscent of something else in Orr's past, but the exact event eluded him, for the event had transpired several years ago.
And, yet, it would not leave him alone either. Joan's face and voice repeated in his head, refusing to let him sleep. An itch had formed on the inside of his head, as if a weak alien were attempting to crawl out from his brain.
It was only as he turned onto his side and stared at the corner of his room, with the alien-nest glistening in rusty green and orange and brown from street and moonlight, that the monster's construction, the subsequent inventions, and the culmination of the fight with Tom, managed to claw their way out of his neocortex and demand Orr's full attention.
He had, of course, accused Tom of exactly the same fault that Joan had accused the entire spectacle of the night. And, he realized, with a growing sense of that special kind of horror that can only arrive during late night introspection after an emotionally difficult day, that his attempts to become an adult had come to dominate his life, that there was nothing left of the child who had once constructed a monster to impress the world with his genius. This fact horrified Orr because it occurred to him that his current lifestyle, with its obsessions about the best college, with the time he had wasted both worrying and studying for a meaningless test, time that he could have spent constructing, researching, even sitting in on courses at UNM, and with (as his mother had put it) his inability to make decisions for himself while around Tom. In short, he slowly realized that his youthful self, of just more than three years prior, would have been disgusted with this new version, and Orr found himself in full agreement.
He lay in bed for a long time, disgusted with himself, yet relishing the realization that had prompted the disgust. If college is the ultimate opportunity to redefine oneself, then Orr had discovered his own desire to redefine himself at the ideal moment. Within half a year, he could become whoever he wanted to be and then be confronted with an entirely new environment, devoid of friends' and family's expectations of who he should be and why. He decided that he would add St. Tymia to his queue and apply to Colorado College despite Joan's warning, and he might even reconsider another school or two, just for the opportunity to go somewhere and to be someone entirely new.
But, not exactly new, a recursive call to his former self, but with new parameters: an adult version of his childhood, with all the benefits of the former in place of the self-centered naivete of the latter.
With these excited thoughts, Orr decided to revisit his rusting monster, disassemble it, and built something afresh, not something grand or beautiful, but a refresher into the mechanics of creative construction. So, he sprung out of bed and crept downstairs, avoiding as best he could, the creaking stairs, to grab a screw driver from the garage. On reentering the house, he (invariably) crashed his shoulder into a door, which cludded with the wall before he could stop it. But, after he stood frozen (like an about-to-be-retired thief who has just triggered an alarm) for a full minute, listening for some sort of sound from above him, he closed the door silently and continued up the stairs, with the path back to his room creaking its laughter at him.
He closed the door to his room with a sigh or relief, and took to applying the screw driver to the rigid structure in the corner. His movements at first were clumsy, and the whole mess almost imploded after he had been working for ten minutes, but his old concentration soon returned to him, and within two hours of silent work, the beast was no more.
He was sweating coolly, partly from the careful but steady force he had to apply to the screws to remove them from their longstanding home, partly from the acrobatic feats he had to perform to hold the relevant pieces of the structure to keep it from crashing as he undid some crucial clasp, but mostly (or so it felt to Orr as he sat back to survey his work) as a bodily catharsis, an effusion of his former self, first onto his skin and from there evaporating into the air and disappearing forever.
After a short break, he set to work, at first randomly, screwing two long pieces together, and then a short piece to one of them, more long pieces, more short pieces. Many of the pieces had been bent from one experiment or another, or simply from having sat around in an unfortunately location for many years and been subjected to unknown pressures from accidental feet, baskets, and books, so after an hour, the thing Orr was constructing had begun to resemble an ellipsoid with a hemorrhoid on one end.
But, Orr found this new incomplete monstrosity far more fascinating than the old. He chanced a look at the clock, saw that it was 4:00am, and decided that he should work for another hour, not because he was tired, but only because he suspected that if he did not sleep, he would lose the entire following day.
Before Orr set back to work, he let the mutated ellipsoid rest horizontally, and pondered what he might make of it. It looked, he thought, remarkably like the beginnings of an oversized chubby beagle, with a mess of metal inside of its stomach. So, he decided that the next step was to give it legs and to turn its hemorrhoid into a head. It was on these projects that he spent the next hour, and he even managed to construct a makeshift small tail out of legos. For the nose, he used the inch by inch by inch silver cube that he had constructed with his father so long before.
At finishing and stepping back to get a grand view of the rusting masterpiece, he suppressed a triumphant and delighted giggle. The dog looked like a giant Aibo had been stripped of his electronics and left outside for too long. He stood three feet tall and seven long, teetered uncontrollably on uneven feet, and looked ready to collapse at any moment, but his mouth had been fashioned into an unwavering smile, and Orr's face mimicked it, feeling (for the first time in at least two years) the unbridled, unguarded happiness of youth.
The shock of this delight expelled any weariness that had crept up into Orr's consciousness over the previous hour. But, he still thought that it would be a poor idea to continue working, so he crept downstairs to play online until he fell asleep. He briefly considered looking into St. Tymia, but decided that this night should be left unsullied of such contaminations.
He turned on the computer and then went to close the door to the computer room, hoping not to awaken his parents with the buzzing of the modem as he connected. He then sat shivering in the early morning cold, waiting for the computer to start. And, after it did, waiting for it to connect.
Without thinking, he started up AOL Instant Messenger, though he had no expectation that anybody would be online. He then opened Internet Explorer and went to Yahoo! games, figuring that he would play some hearts before going to sleep. As Yahoo! games loaded, though, a flash at the bottom of the screen alerted Orr that somebody had sent him a message. Given the hour, Orr assumed it was spam, and waited until he had started the process of loading the hearts Applet before he checking into the matter more deeply.
It was Tom.
SimpleTom: I was hoping that you'd get online.
SimpleTom: I didn't expect it, of course, but I had hoped.
Orr, shocked as he was to find Tom online, forgot momentarily that he was a new person and wondered with a sudden rush if Tom had taken on a new project and was about to enlist Orr. But, it was only a moment, and he had soon regained control over himself. So, he wrote...
DivisOrr: Hey, Tom.
... and nothing more.
SimpleTom: Sorry about dinner. You know that I'd really like you to come to Columbia, but I'd be happiest if you did what was best for you... right?
DivisOrr: Oh, yeah. Obviously. I'm still thinking about where I should go.
There was a pause. Orr felt uncomfortable, like he was being forced back into a world into which he no longer belonged, and it was all the worse because Tom was being so understanding. He briefly imagined Tom, and his mother, as demons wearing business suits, smiling politely, and leading him to his death. He knew the image was unfair, and he told himself that it was a joke, but at another level, he started to wonder if he didn't in fact believe it, and if it wasn't partly true.
As he reflected on this issue, Tom had continued...
SimpleTom: So, I think I've figured out Toff's riddle.
SimpleTom: If I'm right, we have dinner plans tomorrow.
SimpleTom: It's an anagram, or part of it is, at any rate. The rest is simply part in one and part in the other.
It was at this point, Orr had returned from his thoughts, but before he finished reading these messages, much less respond with a simple "Oh yeah?", Tom divulged his entire reasoning process.
SimpleTom: See, "Yin" and "Yang" imply a lot of different things, and I had figured that it just meant that your message had to do with mine, but in this case it means that one cannot make sense without the other. Yours defines mine, and mine yours, so the messages in isolation are meaningless. From there, it was just a matter of throwing the two in together and seeing what I could build.
SimpleTom: And, what I could build, it turns out, was the 'Yin Yang: Double Rainbow Bakery and Cafe: this Sunday 6:00pm.'
SimpleTom: How fun!
SimpleTom: Don't you think?
This was too much for Orr. Each message, as it arrived, demanded his screen's attention and moved him away from the previous messages. And, his feeling of being forced into a world in which he no longer belonged had grown into a dizziness. And, though he read the messages from Tom, he eventually stopped making sense of them and just read the words, one after another, wondering how to extract himself out of this conversation. Finally, after "What do you think?" had survived as the newest message for an three octants. Orr wrote...
DivisOrr: Good! Listen, I'm pretty tired. So, I'm going to head out.
In a moment, Tom responded again:
SimpleTom: Okay. See you tomorrow for dinner! ;)
Orr logged off, disconnected, and turned of the computer, all in a daze. Tiredness engulfed him like a wave, and he stumbled, creaking all the way back to his room, where he collapsed onto the bed and slept until noon.
When he awoke, the first thing he saw was the cube-nosed beagle, smiling at him, and Orr smiled back, disoriented. The dog continued to smile, and so did Orr. He felt refreshed, and at the same time somehow not altogether in the right place. He was not accustomed to, upon returning to a conscious state, seeing the sun at its zenith. The light in Orr's room was unexpected and alien. But, instead of disturbing Orr, the strange lighting added to his feeling of newness.
I'm ready to face Tom, he thought. And Mom too. He smiled, and so did the beagle. They smiled together.
Then, he got up, and the world was complex once more. So, he resolved with a sigh, I'll just have to simplify it.
He spent the day looking at his four possible schools, eventually deciding to apply to them all and choose between them only if he had to. He then evened out the beagle's legs and gave him a more nest-like belly.
He was still involved in this activity at 5:00pm, when someone rang the doorbell. Orr ignored the sound until his father called up that Tom was waiting for him and something about dinner plans.
Orr vaguely recalled the conversation about dinner, like failing a test he'd dreamed of failing the night before. But, he was hardly prepared, and his parents (who had not heard anything about it) were definitely not. That, combined with the still fresh wounds from the previous day, made for a tense exit for Tom and Orr.
The two friends took a bus into the heart of Albuquerque and from there walked to Double Rainbow. Tom was grinning for about three quarters of the bus ride, and kept wondering aloud if Toff would expect them to arrive, whether they would find another clue upon arriving, whether it was possible that he had misunderstood the riddle, and so forth. He only stopped talking, and stopped grinning, when he saw that Orr was not responding. Orr, for his part, discovered the negative effect that two days of self-reflection can have on one's ability to socialize. Every time a response to one of Tom's casual blathering arrived in Orr's head, it would be sentenced to death by an unyielding jury, claiming first that the response did not well-represent that Orr had decided to change, and then that the response was too obviously a product of Orr's change and would set Tom's curiosity upon him, an event of which, for all of his internal claims of readiness, he was still quite frightened. So, not a single word escaped Orr's lips for the entire conversation, and eventually Tom discovered that his musings were unechoed by his friend and fell to silence.
By the time that the two had reached their destination and discovered Toff, waiting anxiously on a bench at the entrance, it had been a quarter of an hour since either had spoken, and the silence had weighed on both of their spirits. So, the first words from Toff on seeing them were, "You didn't have to come, you know!"
Dinner consisted of three sandwiches, shared between the friends on an erratic rotation. After a few minutes of brooding silence, Toff coaxed Tom out of his shell, and the two discussed the details of the riddle and even of the SAT. Toff beamed when Tom claimed that the riddle had taken him "ages" to solve, and blushed when Tom said that he thought it had been quite the clever riddle. Orr continued in his melancholy, and though he at first wanted to join into the conversation, this desire soon melted into a combination of unconscious jealousy and conscious refusal of this cliche flirtatious lifestyle that distracted one from the intellectual pursuits that would benefit humankind.
This, his internal voice moaned, is not for me.
So, he sat, eying his other two friends, trying not to seem antagonizing, but failing entirely. For their part, after Toff attempted unsuccessfully to converse with Orr ("What did you think of the riddle, Orr?" "It was okay." And later: "I'm sure you and Orr rocked the SAT. You guys had the Guide memorized!" "I guess." After that, Toff abandoned the attempt.), they ignored him entirely, and neither of the two even looked at him for the majority of the meal.
When the meal finally drew to a close, after Toff had scrounged some crumpled bills out of her small, brown, plastic-jewel-seamed purse with a patch of a dragon on one side and one advertising Dungeon on the other, Tom and Orr stood up, but Toff continued scrounging in her purse, not looking up at either Tom or Orr. They waited and, for the first time in an hour, made eye contact. Tom smiled briefly and made his eyes gigantic. Then he turned back to Toff. She was wrestling with a wad of paper, folded thoroughly but still barely fitting into the purse. Orr looked away from the other two and around the cafe. The lighting was insufficient for this hour of night, and two of the employees were having a fight in the kitchen, thinking that nobody could see them, or not caring. The only students who had come here were couples wanting to find some quick food before other plans, both trying to eat as quickly as they could without offending the other person. Two college-aged men sat in the corner, people watching, and holding hands under the table. When their eyes fell on Orr, looking at them, their hands parted briefly, but after a second, drifted back together.
Toff had won her battle with the purse and was standing, grinning, and holding out two packets of paper, one to Orr and one to Tom. Both were folded and crumpled and did not hold much chance of being legible.
Tom grinned and said, "Another riddle already?"
Toff's smile faltered briefly, but soon resumed.
She said, "I'm afraid not. Not yet. It's better, though."
Tom began his own wrestling job to uncrumple the page without tearing it, and Orr, glancing at him, decided that he should be doing the same, and did.
As the pages gave way, though, Toff burst out with the secret she had been concealing. She said, "They're guides! Some kids who got into Columbia figured out what they had in common and posted them online. Some stuff is obvious, like high grades, but there's advice on writing essays too. See, this way..." She took a deep breath and looked at Orr and Tom for a second each, a coy smile on her lips, "We'll all get in and get to stay together."
Tom laughed and grabbed Toff into a hug. Orr couldn't help smiling too, and though a large part of him could think of nothing better than escaping from his friends to start afresh, another part forced its way briefly into his consciousness, claiming that nothing would ever be as important in his life than friendships like these, before he could stuff it down and suitably ignore it once more.
Tom's and Orr's relationship for the next few months was tenuous. They laughed and spent time together after school, but Orr spent his weekends tinkering with his childhood tools, and when they bored him, he started exploring his parents' tools and would spend weekends doing household repairs with his father. Orr applied to four schools: St. Tymia, Colorado College, UNM, and Columbia. He applied to the last, though he had little intention of going, in order to satisfy Toff and Tom, and because he had resolved to leave all decision-making for after the application period.
As the second semester began, Orr's projects with his father began to grow more complex. One weekend, the two purchased a soldering kit, a small chip, a display, many wires, and an internal clock, and built a working, though extremely fragile clock. For the next two weeks, they worked on a radio, and the month after that on a four-bit full-adder, a circuit that can add binary numbers of up to four digits. As Orr worked on these projects, Tom tried out for Arthur's play and received the small part of Cinderella's Prince's steward, but found that he still had to attend just about every rehearsal, along with Arthur and Kelly (who played Cinderella). Arthur set up meetings and rehearsals unabatingly throughout the semester so this his racy interpretation of the play would not appear to be hacked together and thus, hopefully, not offend the administration too much (which, in the end, it did and was canceled after the first dress rehearsal). So, Orr and Toff were often left alone after school. At first, they would play games together, like checkers and chess, but eventually Orr suggested that they move to playing online games, and eventually that they could play different games from each other, and finally, one day, he said that he had to go home early, and from then on, he went straight home after school.
Before his acceptance letters arrived, Orr had made his decisions. He would choose St. Tymia or Colorado College above either of the others, in order to escape the world that had entrapped him, and if neither school accepted him, he would go to UNM. Columbia, he decided, was a school for the likes of Tom, for intelligent people willing to be swallowed by the monster of society and lead normal, albeit intellectual, lives.
Unfortunately, for reasons that only a truly bureaucratic brain can understand, Columbia turned out to be the only school that sent Orr an acceptance letter.