Written: November 14th, 2007, 8:20 (UTC) By: omer
Note: this post is part of an ongoing novel. You should probably start at the beginning here.
The novel continues here.
Orr and Tom met each other in the computer lab after school, it being the easiest place to agree to meet, and also the location of Tom's last class. They often spent time after school playing on the computers, usually some form of online game (most popularly multiplayer tetris) that they couldn't play as easily at home due to their slow Internet connections. When Orr entered the lab, Tom was in one of the more distant clusters, alone in the lab. His fingers rested on the keyboard, as if ready to type, but he was looking down at the table, and as the door creaked shut, he looked up, smiled, and let his hands fall to his lap. His right eye was shut, and Orr thought at first that he was enacting an Eternal Wink Elongation (an invention of the two from the previous summer), but the smile that accompanied an Elongation, almost by necessity, was missing from Tom's face. Instead, it appeared gaunt, or rather, appeared to appear gaunt, like Jerry Seinfeld trying to pull off gauntness for a movie. Tom's face, with the wrinkles already forming around his eyes and bits of hair on his upper lip, and even the taped-up glasses, rebelled against gauntness, and yet even as its structure worked so hard to remain casual, the bruise on his cheek gave it the impression of a shadow, hiding his face, and his forehead was bright in the florescent light as if under investigation. He nodded at Orr, and moved his hands back onto the table.
Orr shrugged off his backpack, let it collapse near the entrance to the room, and walked to Tom's cluster. The walk felt longer than normal. Neither of them was speaking.
Finally, as Orr sat down, Tom's face relaxed slightly, and he said, "What an awkward entrance!"
Orr grinned, and the sudden guard he had let up on seeing Tom, relaxed as well. He said, "You look awful, my friend."
Tom said, "Yeah, I've heard that before," and smiled.
Orr laughed. "Yeah, sure, like when Chrissy said it to me last year. Oh, and pretty much whenever Toff sees me."
All ice had melted into the fire of shared testosterone and old habit. And, the two friends continued bickering over which was the more monstrous, the more maladroit, the most despised, and the least intelligent, for several minutes more, until, after a brief silence, Tom said, all at once, "So, I've got a thing for your sister, and I'm sorry, but that's kind of how it's been for a while now, and I asked her out, but apparently that pissed her off, so I guess I'm back at square one, but I'm sorry if that's strange."
Then, he laughed, high-pitched and foreign. And, Orr laughed too, and it felt just as foreign to him.
Orr said, "It's really not a problem. I...," he tried to remember his reasoning from geography class, "... it really has nothing to do with me."
Tom's face again magically loosened its bolts, and he said, "Thank goodness. I was so worried after I blurted it out before gym."
Tom said, "I hadn't meant to say it, but... a punch to the face really knocks it out of you!" He grinned.
Orr said, "Honestly, it's all the same to me."
Tom said, "I'll try not to be too awkward when I go to your place too. It'll all be the same for you."
Orr said, "Sure. Yeah." He wasn't sure why they were still discussing this topic that now seemed finished. In fact, he was about to suggest a game of tetris before they left for home, when Tom continued.
Tom said, "I just... it's weird, you know?" Orr didn't know, but Tom continued, his eyes now on the table instead of Orr, "And, it's got to be even weirder for you, your two worlds coming together."
Orr said, "Wasn't there a Seinfeld about that?"
Tom said, "Yeah, sure," though in all actuality, there had not been, and it would have been quite to everyone's eventual satisfaction if the two had instead discussed this point. Instead, Tom continued, "But, this is too weird for a T.V. show, you know?"
Orr again did not know, but his brain had already thought about this issue, and his unrepressed reaction was to say, "Not really, though."
It felt casual as he said it, but Tom's head jerked up to look at him again, and part of Orr wanted to escape from the room back to normal conversation, but another part had begun to get frustrated at his friend for not listening to him.
Tom said, "What?"
Orr said, "Well, isn't this exactly what happens in TV shows? Best friend falls in love with sister."
Tom said, "Well, sure, generically, but you could say the same thing about any experience. A kid goes to school. Parents have children. People talk."
Orr said, "Yeah, but this is a lot more specific than 'People Talk.'"
Tom said, "So?"
Orr said, "So... It's just a bit cliche, I guess. Falling for your best friend's sister."
Tom said, "Are you suggesting that I shouldn't like your sister because it's cliche?"
"No, that's silly."
"But, it's still something to be wary of."
Tom frowned. "You really think so?"
"Yeah, cliches are the mark of a normal life. I mean, that's great for some people, but I don't - and I don't think that you do either - want a normal life."
"So I should choose who I have crushes on based on whether I want to live a cliche life?"
"No..." Now, it was Orr's turn to frown. "That's not fair."
Tom's face was red. The two had never spoken in this way to each other, and neither knew how to control themselves or each other. He stared straight into Orr's face and said, "You know, Orr. I'm sick of you always thinking of yourself. You're so obsessed with your own life, and you just forget that we want different things. I have a crush on a girl. I want it to feel special, so just leave me alone!"
Orr felt a surge of regret for having hurt his friend, who was breathing heavily and whose eyes were now reddening as he frowned at the wall behind Orr, but the regret was of no match for his conviction at being correct, misunderstood, and mislabeled by someone who was supposed to know him better than all others in the world. So, after a pause, he retorted, "Sure, I'm being so self-centered, as I sit here and tell you that I don't mind if you like my sister. That's really egotistical of me. I'm sorry."
For emphasis, he rolled his eyes and even snorted slightly, but the sight and sound were unperceived by Tom, who pushed back his chair and stood up in one motion, and then speed-walked out of the room, leaving behind his backpack, and a dumbfounded and guilt-ridden Orr.
Orr and Tom apologize profusely to each other later that day, as Orr returned Tom's forgotten backpack to him. Orr agreed to help Tom win over his sister, if there were any possibility of accomplishing such a task (which, the two agreed, chuckling) there really was not, and Tom acknowledged that he had been "acting weird," that day and promised to, as best as he could accomplish, return to normalcy. And, indeed, for over three years afterwards, not a single fight broke out between the two, and their friendship continued to coalesce and intensify, until high school itself came to be so intertwined with their friendship that any future they envisioned apart from each other, even for the four approaching years of college, was foreign, hostile, and ultimately doomed to a miserable outcome.
And yet, their argument left a strong impression on Orr. He and Tom had both so shunned the shallowness of society, deriding their classmates, whose passion for alcohol, sex, and noise left the two boys (and the rest of their friends) unimpressed by society's demand that they fit its mold. They had instead revered the slender intellectuals, the Galileos, Eulers, and Gausses of Western history. They pretended that they were Ramanujan, flying to Cambridge to push human knowledge to new depths. And, at first, it seemed like Tom had abandoned those dreams on a carnal whim.
Yet, the following weekend, when Tom came to spend the night at Orr's house and play Honor Fighter (an old shareware computer game that had recently become a favorite among Orr and Tom's clique) late into the night, he brought with him a recently salvaged SIAM Journal on Applied Mathematics from 1985, discarded in the mess of his attic by his father in a fit of cleaning out his bookcase years earlier. And, though they would ultimately only glance at the titles and try to read the first paragraph of the less confusing ones, it revealed that Tom had abandoned nothing in his complacence with cliche, only added a new layer of meaning to his world.
Orr found himself wondering if he really had been living a self-centered life, so obsessed with intellectualism that he had left even his friends behind and not even realized it. And, why had he been so certain that his world and the world of cliche were incompatible? He had opposed it vehemently, mocking the lives of the characters in the TV shows he watched, who always made the same mistakes, always learned the same morals, and were always interspersed with the same ridiculous attempts by greedy companies to prove that their products were better in every way than all of the products of the other greedy companies. Characters would learn to trust each other, to avoid drugs, that their families loved them, that the key to friendship was loyalty, that friends and family are the most important things in life, and that uncool people are really the coolest people around, and when they would vanish, people and disembodied voices would appear in their place claiming that one shouldn't trust the food one eats, that over-the-counter drugs were the keys to happiness, that love can be purchased at the super market or diamond store, that the key to car-purchasing was loyalty, and that loyal Ford drivers are the only really intelligent people in the world, and that the only way to be cool is to buy a new computer. Was it he, in the end, who was wrong, in his blind rejection of this ridiculous world? Did it have something to offer that Tom had found but from which he had turned away, too proud to even consider what might be useful about living that lifestyle?
These questions were the first existential questions that pressed on Orr with any urgency, and he lacked even the smallest tools for handling them. It is no surprise, then, that no words came to him, neither as answers, nor even as hints at directions to pursue for answers. Whenever he was reminded of the questions, they left him in a sullen mood, no further along than he had been before. He tried to avoid them, but for a budding mathematician and engineer to abandon a difficult question is akin to having an itch and deciding to ignore it: difficult and not achieved without significant sacrifice. Though he eventually met with success at quelling the questions, it cost him his belief in his own supreme intelligence and two week's worth of troubled nights.
And, even though the questions themselves eventually left him alone, they left him feeling static and abandoned by an ever-changing and ever-growing world, in which he could see his friends also changing and growing. And, it was this feeling that was at the root of the destruction of Orr's childhood over the next few months, and thus of his goal of being a child prodigy.
And, by the time that Sarah and flown to college in New York, where she had always planned to go, ever since finding affinity with the Gothic subculture and learning that a Gothic lifestyle could only be fully lived in a big city, when it became obvious even to Tom that the punch he had gotten from her was the closest contact the two of them would ever share and finally (and completely) stopped talking about her, and Orr's younger brother Tomer was preparing himself for the journey of high school that he had heard so much about from his elder siblings, Orr could barely even recall the fight between him and Tom. And, the monster in the corner of his room had become just another accepted relic of a time gone by that Orr looked at only when he wanted to reminisce.