Written: November 23rd, 2007, 2:15 (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'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:
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.