Written: November 29th, 2007, 10:40 (UTC) By: omer
Note: this post is part of an ongoing novel. You should probably start at the beginning here.
The novel continues here.
Toff smiled and said, "Drink your lunch while it's hot." And, her smile grew into a grin.
Orr tried various techniques to drink his food with comfort, first holding the bowl on his lap (too hot), then carrying the spoon precariously from bowl to mouth (spelling half along the way to half-stifled laughter from Toff, who-to her credit-tried to look gravely serious whenever Orr's head made the slow journey around his neck to look over at her). Finally, he settled on having the entire tray on his lap and leaning down to the brimming spoonfuls he lifted from it. The liquid scorched down his throat and, at first, made him dizzier than before, but after a minute or two, his consciousness came into sharper focus, as if a neuro-optometrist was testing corrective lenses for his cortex.
After a third of the bowl was swallowed or irretrievably lost, Orr had regained enough clarity to thank Toff for her generosity.
Toff had consumed her salad and was staring at the far wall, neither frowning nor smiling. And, when Orr said, "Thanks, Toff," her body momentarily jolted and then stiffened, but when she looked over at Orr, she was smiling brightly again.
She said, "Any time, Orr." And, after a pause, she added, "Oh, speaking of which, I came by bearing a riddle for you."
As she fished in her pockets, Orr thought, She's going to say that she likes me! and instantly, two thoughts competed for attention in his murky head. The first was the image of her from her Catastrophic Friday, looking so defeated after Tom's rejection of her, and this image was accompanied by a mixture of pity and something else, a sort of mysterious rising. The second thought was much clearer and more shameful. It was, She's coming to me only because Tom turned her down. Well, he probably turned her down for a reason..., and so forth.
Toff finally pulled a scrap out of her pocket, and she handed it proudly to Orr. To his surprise, relief, and disappointment, its meaning was quite clear and quite relegated to the realm of friendship. It read, "(Orr + needs) * a = friend?"
After Orr read the riddle and looked up at Toff confused, she said, "It's a numerography puzzle. A unique digit for each letter, where the resulting numbers satisfy the equation. Oh, and ignore the question mark when calculating." She took a breath. "Anyway, that's not the point. The point..." She took another breath. "... Not to be presumptuous, but you looked a little lonely when we last saw each other, and I've really missed hanging out with you, so... Wanna start hanging out again?"
Under normal circumstances, Orr would have said, "No," or more likely, he would have said, "yes," and then kicked himself mentally for it using some thought starting with "this is your problem" as his boot. He would have had homework and social independence on his mind. Now, however, his mind could hold very little at once, and without the great edifice of his pride, worrying, and belief-system, spending time with Toff seemed like a great idea.
So, he said, "I think I'll have to solve the riddle later, but I'd love to start hanging out!"
She said, "I was hoping you'd say that. When you solve that riddle, there's another..." She managed to extract it from her pocket with relative speed, and handed him, "what * r = ufree?" As she handed it to him, she said, "Again, ignore the question mark." She was bright and grinning, and her hair was partly pink.
Orr smiled back. He said, "I have to warn you, though. I'm a bit busy."
Toff said, "That's okay. I'm resolved to be a thorough, though enjoyable, distraction, especially as you regain your health."
This was okay by Orr.
It's rare that there is a genuine moment during which a person suddenly changes her mind, moving from one belief to its polar opposite. More often, the germ of disbelief grows steadily into incredulity, and finally conversion, all on the cusp of unconsciousness, only rarely burgeoning into consciousness. And, Orr was no exception. He had known that he was unhappy but simply ignored his unhappiness as unimportant for the grand scope of his goals. But this unhappiness had been a virus, spreading slowly and unbeknownst to the conscious part of his brain. And, though the virus that afflicted his body was short-lived, the damage that the time he spent with Toff did to his brain was irreversible. And, by the time that Sarah visited for her now-weekly inspection (a week late), he readily admitted to her that he had been working too hard and would avoid taking so many classes in the future. He also said that he was learning to relax, and to accept non-perfect grades for the sake of his health. And, he meant every word of it, though very few of those words were actually true. Sarah took him out to dinner to celebrate his newfound release (and for her to relish what seemed to her the results of a particularly good bit of big-sistery).
Orr's midterm grades had been about as low as he had feared, and thus rather lower than he had hoped. And, it was this event, more than anything, that spurred a sudden (and temporary), "be my grades what they may!" mentality in him. But, Toff's presence in his life had its contribution, and (if nothing else) she filled the gap left by his reduction in study time and left him little desire to return to old habits.
The two mostly ate, played card games, and studied together. When they studied, Orr found Toff's method for thinking about problems, as soon as he became accustomed to it, useful at least as a supplement to his current method. And, when they studied different subjects, he still found it pleasant to have another body in the room. And, she also forced him to take the occasional break.
Their first meals together after Orr's one-day partial-recovery had Toff doing most of the talking, both because she was struggling to make sense of the events of her Catastrophic Friday and its repercussions, and because Orr was still unaccustomed to having social experiences in a college context.
But, Orr did not mind letting Toff do most of the talking. He was still more excited to consume his meal than experiment in meaty discourse, and Toff, having developed a fondness for the abstractions and eloquent, loquacious oratory style of the Greek philosophers along with the systematic thinking of formal logic, attempted to apply both with equal measure to her analysis of her life up to that point and beyond. She also quickly developed as an orator, shifting her tone, speeding up and slowing down her pace, and generally acting a lot like (Orr would later learn) her Greek philosophy professor when he read a dialogue in its original Greek.
As an example of her monologues, the week following Orr's collapse, as he was beginning to receive his six just-about-average grades, Toff said, "The thing is this: throughout our youth we're shown movies with lessons like, 'Love will prevail' and 'when you are in love, you'll know it,' and love stories are these elaborate sequences of meaningful events after some chance encounter, so we expect love to look like that, and we fulfill our own prophecies. After any potentially romantic chance encounter, we throw as much meaning as we can at every future encounter we have with a person, and convince ourselves that, even though they aren't acting to script, love will prevail in the end." (At this point Orr had nodded and said, perhaps, "Yeah.") "But, what makes love complicated isn't that it is the destiny of every person to find their soulmate, or that 'relationships are hard,' as the sitcoms are so fond of telling us, but that love is a two-pronged phenomenon, biological and social. And, it's equally important in both regards. It has to do with you and the other person and, to an extent, everyone else who cares. That's what makes it so hard to understand. But, people are so obsessed with thinking about it as this indefinable, incomprehensible, fairy-tale that they refuse to think whenever they hear their heartstrings a'playing and then get confused when their stupid decisions have ruined their once pristine relationship."
Or, another time the following weekend, she said, "My coming here was a mistake. No, I'm really happy I did, but I came for the wrong reasons. It was bad judgment. If we generalize, the problem is that people can philosophize all they want and lecture their friends until they die, but as soon as they are confronted with a desire of their own that conflicts with their years of philosophizing and lecturing, they'll find an absurd justification for it in a heartbeat. 'Oh, I'm going to Columbia because it's such a good school!' In retrospect, I don't think I've ever been as dishonest with myself. I just wish I knew how to prevent myself from being dishonest with myself again... but we both know that, even if I come up with a way, when it comes down to it, I'll find some reason that this way doesn't apply in this-and-this situation, and it's not really dishonesty, and on and on and on..."
At first, Toff's monologues were largely internal. After a long silence, she would start muttering to herself, and seeing that Orr was listening, begin to project more loudly. After a week, she was speaking so loudly that the students in tables around her could hear her two, and though many would stiffen at many things she said, and some would open their mouths angrily, nobody spoke for fear that she would stop. It was unclear that she noticed that anybody but Orr was listening, since her audience was mostly marked by an increasing silence in the tables around her, and the same faces appearing day after day in the same spots, in slowly increasing numbers.
Then, after almost two weeks of monologues interspersed with slight mumbles of appreciation from Orr, one day, Toff came to lunch with a form labeled, "Extracurricular Declaration Form." She was, as was usual, smiling at Orr, but her smile was larger than usual, almost toothy.
Orr was already sitting down, as were many of the other students who had been happening upon Toff and Orr at the dining hall lately. She said, "Hey, Orr. I got an idea yesterday."
Her eyes were glowing. Orr felt a tension in his esophagus. "Yeah?" he said.
She looked around at the other tables. Two were nearly full of students painstakingly staring at their plates. Toff said, as if to Orr, but still looking around, "I'm going to start a philosophical discussion group, centered... unless it gets boring... around the subject of love."
Indeed, as she spoke, Orr managed to read the form, and she had already come up with a name for the group: "Love Minus Art." (She would later explain that the name was part mathematical equation, part group description with "art" meaning "deception," and part (she thought) equation for success in love.) She winked at Orr, and again, for a moment, looked like Tom... with half-pink hair. Then she said, "If you're interested, Orr, feel free to join, and I hope anyone else interested will wander over (or see the sign-up sheet just outside the dining hall and sign it there). It'll be a couple times a week while we're eating, kind of like you and I have been doing lately, but with more people speaking." And, with that, she sat down, handed the form to Orr, and began munching on a salad.
Orr pulled out a pen and signed the form immediately. A small voice yelled, "You don't have time for this! You need to study more..." but it was quelled by the still raging, "Grades don't matter! Do what teaches you the most, like listening to Toff!" and something else that Orr didn't have the vocabulary to describe.
But, throughout the meal, not a single other name joined his. Toff was unusually quiet. She did, at one point, complain at some length about the how important the concept of the heart, a V topped by a sideways 3, was to her, even though it was an arbitrary symbol that represented the sexual parts of a woman more than anything, but her heart wasn't into it, and she kept glancing around and then hunching over her food to crunch on some lettuce silently.
And, her mood only improved (though it improved drastically) the following day when she saw that the sign-up sheet at the entrance to the dining hall had been signed by no fewer than ten scribbling hands. (And, not a single one of the names was "Tom.")