omer bar-or · The Unnecessity Archive · Life as a Puzzle

  1. ←The Sudafed Freewriting Project
  2. Life as a Puzzle

  1. Chapter IV: First Impressions

    The day in early February that Orr received his acceptance letter from Columbia, Tom called him at home, for the first time in 2002.

    Orr's father knocked on his door to tell him that Tom had called, so Orr was prepared for the first question to follow, and he had anticipated the rest as well, though he had not found satisfactory answers to them yet.

    Orr said, "Hi, Tom!"

    Tom said, "Hey, Orr! Long time, huh?"

    Orr said, "Yeah."

    Tom said, "So, get any interesting mail today?"

    Orr said, "I did, in fact. I suppose you did as well."

    Tom said, "Yeah, and Toff too."

    Orr said, "Great. Congratulations. Anyone else?"

    Tom said, "A few days after the deadline, Kelly told me that she'd 'forgotten' to apply. And Arthur was only planning on applying to UNM, so he hasn't heard back yet... And, that about covers it."

    Orr said, "Yeah."

    For a moment, neither spoke, and Orr contemplated saying that he had to go.

    But, before he could, Tom said, "Listen... Orr..." But, he was silent again for another moment. "Listen... Are you okay? I mean, are we okay?"

    Orr had rehearsed several answers to this question. He gave the one closest to the truth, and yet vague enough to stifle any further conversation.

    He said, "Yeah, no. I mean, I'm just going through something right now."

    Tom said, "Yeah, I guess we figured. If you want any help going through it... you know all of your friends are dying for the opportunity."

    Orr said, "Sure, yeah. Thanks." His desire to get off the phone was growing exponentially.

    But, Tom persisted. Even his tone refused to waver. He said, "Seriously, Orr. We miss hanging out with you, and it's totally okay if you want to figure this out on your own, but just know that your friends are missing you."

    Orr said, "Yeah, I miss you guys too." This was only partly true, but Orr's egress reflex had overwhelmed any faculty of judgment he had.

    Tom said, "Good."

    There was a silent moment, and Orr pounced on it. He said, "Listen, Tom, I gotta get working on homework."

    Tom sighed and said, "Yeah, me too... Bye, Orr."

    Orr said "Bye."

    He was still eating lunch with the other four, but more and more he found himself getting into conversations with people he hardly new, engrossing conversations about the classes they were taking, the classes he was taking, and how deeply they enjoyed or despised those classes, conversations that lasted easily until the end of lunch, when everyone had to depart. The other four friends often played Erf or P&H, and always dealt Orr in, whether he requested it or not, and then skipped him whenever he wasn't paying attention, which was almost always the case. And, when the game was over, they would grab his untouched pile, mix it into the deck, and deal him a fresh hand.

    Otherwise, he had stopped seeing them entirely.

    Whenever he wasn't with his father, building, he was watching television, or reading online. He soon found Slashdot and became enamored of the often sarcastic, often inane, but usually counter-culture, always impassioned tones of the commenters. He started an account and was soon spouting in the same heated tones opinions he had only acquired from reading comments the week before. These sorts of comments and commenters, the disenchanted Slashdotters from yore had already been saying for years in exactly the same polemic tone as the fledglings, were the downfall of Slashdot and had ruined a once great ivory tower of nerddom.

    This was the state of Orr's life throughout the spring of 2002 and into the summer, when he a job as a discovered a job as a systems administrator for a tiny company (consisting of just two other people) looking to keep their costs down by hiring high school students. The company was centered around a speaker, who would travel across the country, attempting to convince other, larger companies, that he knew how to maximize their employees' utilities and happiness, but the only advice Orr ever heard him give was to hire high school students because they worked for less money but knew more about computers than their elders. Orr hated it, and spent any time that he did not have to fix the three office computers and two office printers (which broke several times a day), dreaming of the day he would leave.

    That day came in early August, to give Orr enough time to pack and ship various boxes of his belongings to New York (which turned out to be one box, filled with various journals, some books, and as many tools as his father was willing to have taken, that took Orr an afternoon to pack). And, not long afterwards (fifteen dames to be precise), Orr boarded a plane himself, a duffel bag filled with clothing stowed above him, and a new laptop, purchased half by his parents as a graduation present, and half by his earnings from the summer, sitting in front of him.

    In the back of the plane, though he never noticed them, and wouldn't learn about their presence for several months, Tom and Toff sat nervously, trying to play cards whenever the plane wasn't too bumpy.


  2. Orr's roommate was named Mike. He was a foot taller than Orr, slightly overweight (so that he weighed about twice as much as Orr did), and the child of a Chinese mother and African father; and, he had spent his whole life around New York, mostly close to the Pennsylvanian border. In short, his appearance and history were nothing like any of Orr's old friends', and Orr took an instant liking to him. Mike, too, for reasons that never became clear to Orr, had taken to Orr from their first, awkward "Uhh... hello..." on the first day. They went together to the first orientation events, from "Being the Best You" to "Outta Time: Optimal Time Management for an Optimal You," and when they found these events highly uninteresting (both had fallen asleep during the latter), they avoided the rest and took to roaming around the campus, entering buildings at random, and turning into random halls once inside, looking at fliers and posters and reading the miscellaneous personality and opinion advertisements that professors had taped onto, around, and (in one creative but inconvenient-looking case) in front of, their office doors.

    Mike was planning to major in political science, but his interests spanned the gamut of the social sciences, and his first semester schedule included a course each in sociology and anthropology. Orr, on the other hand, had planned to work his way through a mathematics and computer science major as quickly as possible so that he could spend a significant amount of time floating between higher-level courses, choosing the ones that sounded most interesting. He was set to take six courses, one in logic, one in upper-level calculus, two in intermediate computer science, one in linear algebra, and a general "Frontiers of Science" course which was required of all students and had a page-long topic list.

    The first days of Orr's life at Columbia were filled with his wanderings with Mike, occasional interesting-or-mandatory-sounding orientation events, and packed meals at the cafeteria, where the new students would put on broad smiles, greet each other and ask to sit down, have inane conversations about courses and home states, and eventually drift off back to their rooms. Orr most often sat with Mike, wherever he went, which was to a new table, with new people, every meal. The tables were always filled with students, and the cafeteria itself was so loud that conversations at one end of the table were inaudible at the other, so Orr's shyness, despite his best efforts, forced him, day after day, into a people-watching silence. He considered this fact of little consequence, and rather enjoyed listening to snippets of conversation and trying to spot faces that he recognized (even the two that he would most easily recognize, though on seeing them, he would sink as low as he could without invoking the curiosity of his neighbors). What struck Orr, and kept him happy despite his silence, was something he would later call the diversity of college. And, it is a general fact, nothing to do with diversity of skin color, or economic background, that depends on the particular location of the college one attends. What Orr found diverse about Columbia were not the people themselves (though they were), but the groups of people. Whereas high school was filled with groups, in which each person reflected the opinions, looks, and mannerisms of the group as a whole, in college (at least for a first-year), those groups have suddenly been thrust into one giant heap, and then reorganized into new groups every day. It was like staring at a quilt for every day of your life, until one day, and everday thereafter, you convince a blind person to take it all apart and sew it back together. And, more than anything else, it convinced Orr that he had arrived at the locus of change, the place where he could define himself however he wanted.

    Unfortunately, Orr's silence during the first days cost him in social capital in the weeks that followed. As it turned out, the inane conversations about courses and states were the bonds on which the first relationships of college were formed, many of them defining the next four years, and even the subsequent lives, of the people who made these bonds. He had become known to some as "Mike's quiet roommate.' There were two or three people in the school, other than Mike, Tom, and Toff, who knew him by name, and two or three other people who knew him by face. This fact, at first, did not bother Orr, as he was still unsure whether his redefinition would involve people, and if it did, which people and when. After a week, when the quilt had started to reform (though it would never do so as it had in high school), it became a habit of Orr's to tell himself, after every meal, that this moment in time was ideal for friendlessness, or for as few friends as possible, so that he could analyze objectively who he wanted to be, and arrive at an answer unblemished by the justification that accompanies any social sphere, even one with only a few members.

    As time wore on, however, he found his arguments less convincing. When Mike would leave for an evening of friends and Orr would stay back "to get started on work" or "to talk to a friend back home," he would become sullen, and spend most of the night losing at hearts online, listening to the music of instant messages arriving across the hall. Once, he sent an e-mail to Arthur that read:

    Hey, Dewy,

    How's NM?


    But, Arthur never responded.

    Orr's course-work started off slowly. He had been so accustomed to sitting in classes for hours, and though the two-hour spurts of classtime covered much more than any single hour on a subject did in high school, he still found his schedule overflowing with extra time to do his work. At first, he considered this fact a sign of his intelligence and natural ingenuity in mathematics, but upon observing Mike, who Orr considered a paragon of traditional college success, he saw that Mike spent only about half as much time on work as Orr. The rest was spent interacting with his newfound friends (and trying unsuccessfully to convince Orr to join him). In class, he would hear conversations between the students of similar exploits and adventures, followed almost instantaneously by complaints of how much work they were being assigned. Orr's conclusion, with a mixture of derision, elitism, and jealousy, was that, far from being the most intelligent in the class, he was simply the one willing to put in the most work. Or, more accurately, he was the one with thew fewest distractions.

    But, as soon as two weeks rolled by, and the deadline to drop courses passed, the courses each began to get more rigorous, and the other students (who had most likely predicted this event and spent time with friendsa ccordingly)spent less time roaming around Manhattan, and more time studying. Each course in isolation, Orr could handle, but together, the increase ate away at his sleep, until he was spending seventeen hours every day on classwork, and another two hours a day eating and traveling (on average, of course), which left him only five hours for sleep and relaxation.

    The topics started out interesting, especially logic, with its slow but deliberate movements that felt destined to build into something magnificent. But, as the courses began to overtake him, Orr lost his passion for the courses. He did homework like a machine, textbook out for reference, looking at each problem for a few minutes, then writing the solution as legibly as he could on a piece of paper and turning it in, hoping that he had not made any mistakes (which, invariably, he had). He sneaked food out of the dining hall during dinner in order to avoid going there for breakfast and lunch. His room became even more of a mess than it had at home, with clothes, papers, old apple cores, books, and the large box in which many of them had arrived, traveled around his side of the room sporadically, such that any tiny adventurer who happened upon the scene might have suspected that the various inanimate objects formed some sort of giant galaxy, or mammoth civilization, based on physical or spiritual laws beyond her understanding. (And, in fact, given that several of these discarded artifacts were, in fact, biodegradable and quietly began to mold and disappear, the probability of some such adventurer coming into existence was not altogether zero.) It was a blessing that Orr wouldn't appreciate for some time later that Mike did not complain once of the mess on the other half of the room, and eventually started spending most of his time at the library, or other clean, quiet places, studying, and he would only return after midnight to go to sleep.

    In this way, two months passed, both quickly and slowly. Each day would feel never-ending, until midnight, and midnight until 4:00am would pass with unbearable speed. And, in retrospect, all time looked compressed. At the end of the two months, he was shocked to discover that so much time had passed, but turned pale at the realization of how many such two-month increments were left before college was over.

    After two months, Orr's punishment to his body with lack of sleep and old cafeteria food had worn him down until he was even skinnier than he had been as a child, but nobody he knew ever saw him, and the change for him was gradual, so he never noticed. He had all but stopped communicating with anybody outside of class, and had stopped responding to his parents e-mails and phone calls for the past month, until finally, they stopped arriving.


    Tom would later describe his first two months at Columbia as dream-like. After spending more and more of his time reading in high school, he had eventually decided to apply to Columbia for a degree in English. His goal was to apply the mathematical rigor he had learned in his youth to the much harder and more everyday problems of the messy literature he had spent the previous year devouring. He had said something of the sort on his application essay, and when he was accepted, a note came attached, asking for his permission to send the essay to one Professor Milly Isis Grane, who might be interested in taking Tom on as an advisee right away, given Professor Grane's legendary penchant for rigorous analysis. (The note, it would turn out, was by a spell-bound student of Professor Grane's and had sent similar notes to several other accepted applicants. She was later fired from her work study position in admissions after she forwarded all of the essays before waiting to hear a response from their writers.) Tom soon, though he had not yet answered the note, received an e-mail from this Professor Grane asking to meet with him when he arrived on campus.

    So, he showed up at her office the day of his arrival, still sweating from having lugged his belongings up to his room, and wearing a t-shirt Kelly had given him as a going-away present, which read, "Stake: it's what's foremost." They shook hands, and Tom explained his goal and his recent history with literature, and Milly (as she demanded to be called) recounted her own youth and undergraduate career, and the culmination was that she offered him an undergraduate research assistantship, to work with her and several graduate students on the place of computer science, mathematics, and logic in 20th century literature. It was, as Tom would later say, like being in a dream.

    With her guidance, he chose three official course and one 'fake' course that would give him time to conduct research. One of the courses, it turns out, were the same as Orr's: introductory logic. But, because the course was required in philosophy, and useful in many other disciplines, and because Orr was so distracted, first with his skill as a college-level genius, and then as a college-level drudge, he never saw Tom sitting in the back of the room, hiding in his coat. Tom, of course, saw Orr, but despite increasing concern about Orr's decreasing weight, Tom kept to himself, hoping (despite himself) that Orr would one day look back and restart their friendship.

  3. He and Toff spent much of their time together, because they felt so comfortable together and so uncomfortable around anybody else. And, when around other people, their comfort around each other would help temporarily expel their natural shyness, which in turn helped those others to similarly disrobe. At dinner, their table often became the most uproarious. And, soon, friends from previous dining excursions would invite them for new ones. It was widely held that they were the "best couple ever" (a claim whose implicit assumption he would correct whenever the term was used in front of him, but which spread widely and quickly regardless), and by the end of the first week, they were invited at least twice to every decently-sized party in the area.

    Though Toff expressed little interest in going to any parties, Tom convinced her that she should at least gain experience at one party before abandoning them entirely, and classes having not yet begun, this would be the ideal time to experiment. So, the first Saturday night, the two met a group of several other newly-made friends and drifted across uptown Manhattan to a street somewhere a few blocks from Columbia, where the first party of the night was located. Tom found, to his surprise, that he already recognized several people attending, and that they recognized him. So, he dragged Toff to th area most heavily-populated by people he knew and proceeded to enjoy himself excessively. People were sillier at parties, and the social atmosphere (along with, perhaps, the alcohol) helped people move beyond the standard superfluous introductions to deeper and more interesting topics, from favorite music to opinion's the the government's "War on Terror," especially its current manifestation in Iraq. Students spoke about why they chose to come to Columbia, but they also expounded on a how mixture of idealism and intelligence can revolutionize the world. Their arguments were flawed, and they jumped from topic to topic like lily pads, but Tom found the progression of topics fascinating in its own right (and the topics themselves doubly so), so he goaded them on, imploring them to continue talking whenever there was a moment's silence. And, it should be no surprise, given people's irrepressible desire to concentrate on themselves, that Tom became friends that night with fully half of the people at the party.

    Toff didn't speak a word, and at every half hour suggested that her experiment, though worthwhile at first, had lost steam, and she was ready to depart.Tom would nod understandingly and tell her that he only wanted to hear the rest of some anecdote, and then he would be ready to leave, only to discover that at the end of this anecdote, three new people would have relevant topics on which to expostulate.

    Finally, after two hours, Tom managed to extract himself from the conversations, and Toff led him out of the house. Unfortunately, since neither of them knew the area, and the best directions they could get were "down a ways, until you hit this big street, then left, and I think it's on your right," they were forced to remain at the party for another hour, until one of their friends agreed to walk them back, taking first a right, and then a left onto campus.

    The next day, Tom apologized profusely to Toff for what he termed "the uncomfortableness" of the previous night, and with a feat that Tom would later call the best persuasive essay he'd never written, convinced her to try another party the following night, this one close by and unconventional in its intellectual atmosphere. It looked, reeked, and sounded exactly like the previous night, with the exception of the two hosts, who wore highly clever "Kiss Me, I'm Geeky" shirts. Toff apologized to Tom and left after ten minutes. He, on the other hand, stayed for another hour, then moved on to other parties and more people and, for the first time in his life, alcohol.

    The growing distance between Tom's mannerisms and Toff's was poised to quickly place emotional space between them that would eventually end their friendship, but the following day, courses started, and though Toff never joined Tom on his weekend-night excursions, they became partners in studiousness.

    In short, for two months, Tom lived an ideal life: during the week, he was paid to read interesting texts and papers about those texts that had come out in the past few years and were filled with interesting ideas about technology, language, and how the two interacted. And, sitting next to him was one of his best friends, always ready to relax for a while with a game or two. During the weekend, he was one of the most popular students in the fledgling class of 2006, roving from party to party, recognizing and being recognized, and having a wonderful time relaxing with buzzed, intellectual conversation.

    And, when the two months were up, he started to wonder if any two months had ever been better or ever would be better than those first ones as the beloved intellectual of Columbia.


    Toff would later describe her first two months as delusional, or more accurately, as under delusion. She built her entire world around a false presumption, and when it finally collapsed, he real undergraduate experience began. Or, at least, so she would say.

    Toff did not have a specific plan upon entering Columbia, and while Tom wooed his Professor Milly, her advisor, assigned arbitrarily to her in the music department, one professor Roy Suive Pinsky, attempted to help her choose a track to follow for her undergraduate career. Her obvious disregard for the study of music rendered his knowledge relatively useless, but he'd dined with several professors in other departments and knew some by name, so he would search for one, and read off her classes to see if Toff found any interesting. Finally, he hit on a professor he knew in philosophy, and started reciting classes, the first of which (graduate level, admittedly) was called, "Life as a Puzzle." As soon Professor Pinsky had read this title, Toff stood up and said, "Thank you, Professor. I think I just decided on a major." And, she proceeded to sign up for all of the introductory philosophy courses, including (incidentally) introductory logic.

    By the time that she had settled on a schedule, including logic, Greek philosophy, and two generic "art and society" types of courses, required for students to graduate. She was so excited to be taking at least one course with Tom, that when he finally emerged from his long discussion with Milly, Toff jumped on him and gave him a hug. When she let him go, he grinned at her and said, "Nice to see you too!" But, she made the mistake of asking him how the meeting had gone before telling him her news, and by the time he had finished talking about it, they had diverged to a new topic, which was interrupted by dinner.

    The following days were so hectic, and the weekend so think with the talk and drama of partying, that she had still not divulged her exciting secret on the first day of class. But, by then, she had gone over the conversation so many times in her head, and it had been so long, that she no longer felt capable of actually telling him. So, she took a seat a few rows behind him, half-awaiting and half-dreading the moment that he would look back and notice her. But, the only direction he looked other than the professor's was Orr's on the other side of the room and closer to the front.

    Though disappointed at first, she soon turned her invisibility into a game. When she and Tom began studying together, she left her logic homework in her dorm room, and did it on her own time, usually all at once during the weekends, while Tom went partying.

    The weekends were the hardest for her, because she had not yet managed to make any friends outside of the group with which Tom went out on weekends, and obviously, they were predisposed. So, she exchanged e-mails with Kelly, played a few online games, and worked on whatever homework and reading she had not finished during the week.

    The work itself was a radical departure from what she had envisioned in her ideal "Life as a Puzzle" world (in which every philosophy class was really about some interesting logical puzzles and how to solve them), but she discovered an appreciation for it regardless. The Greek philosophy class was, in one sense, about how to make sense of the real world as if it were a giant puzzle, and though the Greeks' conclusions were at times ridiculous, and usually dated, Toff found the notion of taking the real world and mapping it onto a puzzle fascinating and spent some of her class periods attempting to develop puzzles about her life. One of her first was, "Given that Toff has N hours of homework to do every week, and M hours of class, and approximately one quarter of her homework must be done over the weekend, and she wakes up every weekday morning at 8:00am and weekend morning at 10:00am, what are the highest values of M and N for which she can, every day, be done with her homework by dinner (6:00pm) but still never get behind? The advanced puzzler should also consider O, any extra time spent, including time for breakfast and lunch and traveling between courses." Many of her riddles followed this strategy, more math problem than riddle, and always incorporating some aspect of her life.

    In all, she was quite satisfied by and thoroughly engaged with her academic work at Columbia, so her hardship came largely from her lack of interactions with anyone but Tom.

    Alone, this would not be much disappointment for her. She considered Tom the epitome of success and intelligence and loved having a portion of his life to herself. She envisioned them falling in love, having children, and living the intellectual dream: him a professor, and her a puzzle-maker or perhaps a professor too, happy children, happy marriage, happy world.

    She had been in love with Tom for years, after only knowing him for a few weeks during their first year of high school, when she was still newly moved to New Mexico, and Tom had been the first person to greet her warmly and remember her name afterwards. And, though she had no expectation that he felt anything for her in return, nor did she have any intention of revealing her feelings for him, seeing him disappear on the weekends, to live in a life that did not accord with her ideal of him confused her.

    She wondered for the first time, after a month in New York, whether she had moved their for him. Although she concluded that, regardless of her original reasoning, the school was a wonderful place to end up, the fear that she had moved across the country to chase after something that was drifting slowly away frightened her drastically.

    More complicated still, the party scene accustomed Tom to physical proximity, so not long after Toff's distress began, when the two would study together, he began to slowly recede the distance between them. At first, she worked to keep herself equidistant from him at all times, but as his seating choice coincided more and more with an area close to where she was ready to sit, she eventually convinced herself that perhaps Tom had finally overcome his shyness about feelings for her, and she soon worked equally hard to find a spot to sit near him.

    And, without warning, they were soon studying right next to each other, legs and hips touching, able to hear each other's breathing and see each other's lips as they followed the text. It was enough to distract Toff so much that her equation for M and N fell apart, and she had to stay up later to redo some of the studying that had simply escaped her while working with Tom.

    This progression lasted for another few weeks, until just before the midterms, when studying began to overwhelm all other activities, and Tom even stayed in on the weekends.

    In Greek philosophy, as a treat for her students, the professor assigned sections of The Symposium, which the class would analyze in more depth (along with The Republic) after midterms. One of the sections was Aristophanes's infamous claim that love is the reunification of two people into one androgynous giant who was originally cleaved in two for declaring war on the gods. Out of context, this argument appears ridiculous, but it has thoroughly pervaded our society, as evidenced by the even more infamous claim from Jerry Maquire: "You complete me." What finally set Toff over the edge was a line early in Aristophanes's monologue, that (regarding the giants), "Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods" (emphasis Toff's), or (in Toff's mind) that a couple united by love can be intellectually and emotionally challenging even to a Greek god. And, she imagined that, as two intellectual people individually, she and Tom stood the best chance of reaching an exponential growth in intelligence by being together.

    So, she decided to finally confront Tom regarding her feelings for him.

  4. It was a Friday afternoon, and Toff and Tom were studying until dinner, after which Tom's plan was to join a group of friends for a theme party organized by two cohabitating seniors in the logic course, celebrating the life and times of Lewis Carroll, and his many anthropomorphic creations. The two were, for all practical purposes, joined at the hip during their study session, and Toff found it excessively difficult to study her Greeks. There was a note in her pocket that she had been consciously and unconsciously planning for years.

    When dinner was nigh, Tom looked over at Toff and said, "Hey, listen. I know that you don't like parties and all, but this one is a logic one... you would be the queen of the rabbit hole!"

    Toff, trembling, said, "Sure! That sounds like fun, but first..." She reached into her pocket and struggled with the note there, trying the whole time not to jostle the side of her body in contact with Tom. It came out in a crumpled mess, and she tried to refold it nicely before looking up at Tom again. Then, she said, "... solve this riddle."

    The riddle was this: "Words times letters is minutes over hours. Take an island and submerge the Northern half in water. Throw in a half a candy team. End it with salt's husband, and in the middle, pump in as many vowels as you can fit, making sure to include at least one mammal. Really, it's been true for a long time." It had been.

    Tom's lips followed the note, drawing into it, and his eyes squinted.

    Idiot!, thought Toff, what will you do while he figures it out? And, what if it takes a long time? Why can't you do things like a normal person?

    And, while she thought these questions, Tom continued to move his lips over the words, and to squint. He scratched a careless stubble on his chin. He shifted in his seat, releasing a blast of repressed heat through Toff's thigh. He grinned for a second, then continued to silently word his way through the riddle.

    Finally, he refolded the note and stood up. His voice sounded uncharacteristically gruff, or high, or something peculiar that Toff couldn't quite identify, as he said, "I'll have to figure this out later. But, we're meeting everyone for dinner in a few minutes." He grinned hurriedly at Toff, stuffed the note into his jeans pocket, and began collecting his books, spirals, and pens, without looking up.

    Toff, after some hesitation, her face red and body still ceaselessly shaking, gathered her materials as well.

    So, they dropped off their things in their respective rooms, each keeping the other company (as usual) on the treck across the building. But, (for once) neither speaking a word on the entire trek, and the usually minimal space between them started to grow. They then proceeded with ever-increasing distance, to the lobby, where, sure enough, James, Ann, Balina, and Thom were sitting on a couch, waiting and discussing possible costumes for the night's endeavors. As, Toff and Tom entered, Ann claimed that the rabbit costume was too obvious, and she thought that she could pull off a snark with some things in her closet. They expressed mock consternation and real glee at seeing Tom's and Toff's arrival. Balina jumped up and gave Tom a hug that knocked him off-balance, and Toff saw his hand deftly move to his jeans pocket and then out again in an instant.

    Balina, after a short hesitation, gave Toff a quick hug as well, and then the four proceeded to dinner, during which talk of the immanent party led to a memorized rendition of "Jabberwocky" by James, and from there to a round-robin-style discussion of favorite pieces of children's literature. Toff, for her part, contributed Watership Down and The Hobbit, both of which, though some (including Tom) had read and enjoyed them, everyone agreed counted more as young adult literature, and the rest stuck with their Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein.

    After the meal, the group went their separate ways to accumulate as much possible costume attire as possible and then congregate once more in Ann and Balina's room. Tom accompanied Toff to her room and asked to come in for a bit.

    After entering, he said, "So, I think I figured out your riddle."

    Toff blushed, but managed to flash a grin at Tom. She later remembered thinking, The past four years have been building up to this moment and squeezing her fingernails against her palm to remain balanced.

    Tom said, "It was a good one!"

    Toff smiled. She managed to mumble "Ank" in a too-large exhale of breath.

    Tom said, "Really clever!"

    And, at this point, he was stalling, and Toff knew what was coming. She leaned back against her bed/desk bunk, letting the corner of the desk press sharply into the small of her back. She tried to smile at Tom.

    Tom said, "And, I'm really flattered..."

    Toff nodded, now looking at the floor. Her skin felt like it was being levitated slightly away from her, like she had been cooking in a closed pot, and somebody had just taken off the lid.

    Tom said, "It's just... I'm in love with Orr's sister."

    Toff had been so ready for an excuse that she hardly noticed which one it was, and continued to nod. Tears were forming in her eyes, and her mouth was filling with mucus, but she focused as much of her concentration as she could on remaining as she was.

    Tom said, "I thought I was over her, I really did, or I wouldn't have led you on... but... I think I came to New York for her."

    Toff's whole body, her whole world, was concentrating on continuing to nod, to wait for Tom to leave, and then to explode, but for now, just to keep nodding, just to keep up that one monotonous movement, and leave the rest of the future to sort itself out when the movement finally broke down. But, Tom wouldn't leave. He kept talking.

    He said, "And, you know how hard that is for me to admit, since I justified coming here so much, but... I really think I came here for her." He said the last sentence conclusively, as if it had clarified everything, and the conversation could be satisfactorily concluded.

    Toff's well finally overflowed, and the force of her first sob knocked her head into the bed frame behind her. So, she pushed forward and collapsed onto the floor.

    The sound of the sob, or the sight of his friend collapsing, must have knocked Tom out of his monologous reverie, because he crashed to the floor right after she did, holding her arm, asking if she was all right, and apologizing, all at once, so that what Toff heard between sobs was first "areyouohmansorry," repeated in various word-orders for eight sobs, and then "Oh Toff," repeated ad nauseam, for so many sobs one could not count, until it felt like part of the sob to Toff; Tom pronouncing her name was part of what had to be expunged.

    They sat there forever. Their friends must have gotten bored waiting and tried to find them, but having only ever been to Tom's room, none of them knew how to find Toff or Tom, and must have just left. She wished that Tom would just go with them so that she could move on, beyond this eternity of physical and emotional wretchedness, beyond the embarrassment of having the man who had just rejected her see her cry, beyond her whole life onto something new and manageable. But, she could not bring herself to speak.

    Tom continued to say "Oh Toff," like an automaton stuck in a dead state, even after Toff's sobs had downgraded into whimpers. And, when she finally got up in search of a box of tissues to smear across whatever remained of her nose after it had been consumed by deluge, he got up too, still holding her arm, still saying "Oh Toff, Oh Toff."

    Only after she had destroyed five tissues did she manage to look up at Tom and speak to him. And, when she looked up at him, his state finally changed, and he let his mouth close.

    She said, "Get out."

    She wanted to point at the door, to emphasize the point, but it had taken her so much concentration to move across the room, to use the tissues, and then to speak, that her brain refused to be further taxed for the moment. So, she contented herself to look cross.

    Tom said, "I'm sorry, Toff."

    Now, it was easier. Toff said, "Get out."

    Tom said, "I'm really sorry."

    Power was returning to her body, and there was conviction when she said, "Get out!" and even pressed her arm against Tom's hand to nudged him toward the door.

    Tom said, "What can I do?" Tom likely kicked himself later for phrasing the question in that way.

    As it was, Toff's answer was easy, and loud. "Get out!" And now, she really shoved Tom away from her.

    Tom nearly fell, and finally succumbed. He said, "Okay. I'm going. Can I call you later?"

    Toff nodded, not ascent, but acceptance. If it meant that Tom would leave, she would avoid the phone for a few days. Let her roommate answer it.

    Tom nodded too, said "I'm sorry" one more time, and then let himself out.

    The silence left by the door's closing was overwhelming, and it almost broke Toff down again. She started pacing around the room, the scenes of the night replaying in her head. She tried to suppress them, but a sick part of her forced them to replay again and again in her mind's eye, rejoicing in the sheer overwhelming emotion of her misery. She could hear her desk clock's individual ticks, pushing further and further away what seemed like an integral part of her life.

    When she could no longer bear to pace, she tried to study, pushing open her logic textbook (the least emotional and least reminiscent of Tom because she had always studied it in isolation, and collapsing into her desk chair. But, the absurd symbols, with their complete lack of relevance to the real world, turned out to only distract her for a few seconds, and her mind soon drifted to Tom, not even to a real thought, just to him, and the symbols instantly swirled into an indescribable Rorschach inkblot. And, she abandoned studying as impossible.

    And, as she got up, unsure how to make it through the night, she realized that she desperately needed company, company of someone who knew her well and who was not Tom.

    Now, with a manageable goal, she donned a coat, left her miserable room, descended the stairs, and requested a school directory from the front desk.

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