Written: November 25th, 2007, 5:55 (UTC) By: omer
Note: this post is part of an ongoing novel. You should probably start at the beginning here.
The novel continues here.
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.
Chapter V: Luv - Art
To understand Orr's response upon seeing Toff, flushed, red-eyed, and sniffling, at his door, one has to understand that she was his second unusual visitor of the week. The first, sent by his parents (who were understandably worried by Orr's refusal to return their attempts at communication), was Sarah.
Sarah was a senior cultural studies major at NYU. It had been over two years since she last saw her family. She spent summers interning and winters with friends. But, she still kept a constant correspondence with her mother, duly informing her once every two weeks that, yes, everything was still going well with her. These calls would always happen on Sundays, which is why his mother's call on a Friday, a week before Toff's Catastrophic Friday, asking her to visit Orr, met with little reluctance. So, on the following Thursday, she did. Orr refused to answer his phone for fear of being distracted, and Mike could only answer when he was around, which was, due to his preferred locale for studying, not often. So, Sarah arrived at Columbia unbidden, and hoping to discover a means by which to determine where Orr lived. And, to her surprise, within minutes of her arrival on campus, as she took her bearings on the famous steps to the library, her brother's best friend Tom spotted her and helped her find a directory with Orr's address on it, and then told her how to reach Orr's building. She would later tell Orr, who (despite himself) was eager to hear about his longtime friend, that he looked "oddly flustered."
Though she thought it might be, it actually was not any kind of luck that Orr was at home, studying, when she arrived. The probability of that occurrence, as computed by Orr a year later, was approximately 0.68, and much of the other 0.32 was still spent in his room. To be safe, though, she had brought a book, ready to wait at his door until he arrived. And, as with Toff the next day, the continual influx and outflux of people through Orr's building's doors, and people's natural embarrassment at refusing to hold open the door for an unrecognized face that turned out to be a neighbor, removed any hindrance of being let in. So, as with Toff the next day, Orr had no premonition that he would be entertaining a visitor until she knocked on his door.