The novel continues here.
The knock at the door startled his monotony. He was ill-suited for the surprise, and it gave him a slight headache, which was not ideal for studying. He would have to take some aspirin. Oh well.
He leaned down to one of the drawers near his legs, and pulled out the Aspirin. On the far end of the desk was a bottle of water. He moved it and the aspirin close by so that he wouldn't have to reach far when he decided to take it. Then, he returned to his homework.
The knock at the door repeated itself, and now Orr was angry (though a little voice had sprung up, sputtering from lack of use, and accusing him of being ridiculous if he expected an unanswered knock not to repeat). So, he donned the biggest scowl he could manage, stomped the ten feet to the door, and pulled it open in a huff.
And, there stood his sister. He had not seen her in a few years, for she had refused to return home after her first year, always finding some internship over the summers, and some road trip or friend's house over the winter. In the mean time, she had dyed her hair green; her lipstick had gone from black to neon green; and her eyeliner had gone from black to even blacker. But, what surprised Orr the most about his sister was something he couldn't identify exactly in any single feature. She looked older. Her shoulders had stopped drooping, and her features had sunk slightly. She was squinting.
Orr was impressed with the sight in front of him, but Sarah obviously was not. She said, "God, Orr. You look awful."
Orr was convinced that such carping about his physical appearance should be taken as a compliment to his devotion to his scholarly pursuits. He said, "Yeah, well..."
Sarah strode into the room, forcing Orr back. She said, "Really, Orr. Whatever you're doing. Stop. You look like a zombie."
These claims struck Orr as rather presumptuous, and more importantly, he knew that he had chosen the correct path for himself, and he was taking intellectual classes (e.g., logic) that could here come to his aid in proving it.
He said, "I'm fine. Just studying a lot."
Sarah said, "Like what? Twenty hours a day?"
Classes included, this was not far from the truth, but Sarah's disbelief suggested to Orr that he not mention it.
Instead, he said, "It's just for this semester." This was a lie. Against his advisor's repeated requests, he was planning six more courses for the following semester, all in upper-level mathematics and computer science.
Sarah, still incredulous, said, "The semester's only half over! And, at this rate, you'll be dead by Christmas!"
Orr said, "I really feel fine." This claim struck him as even more ingenuous as the last (for the last could be true, in some unforeseeable future, while this claim was simply not true: he did not really feel anything at all at the moment). But, it also seemed a rather normal response to the question, the sort of thing that would convince Sarah to depart.
It did not. On seeing the room, in one of its messiest contortions, and in a moment guessing (and, with rather little evidence, Orr felt) which side belonged to him, she said, "God, Orr. No wonder Mom sent me here."
Orr wanted to get upset about this revelation, like they do in popular culture ("Mom sent you?! Get out! Get out!" then soft music and a lesson is learned, and the damage is reversible), but he simply didn't have the energy. As a compromise, he sat down rather hard and hurt his butt.
Silence ensued for longer than Orr would have liked. This conversation was costing him sleep. But, lacking something proper to say, he couldn't think of any way to move the conversation forward.
When Sarah did finally speak, she said, "I'm not leaving until we talk about this."
Orr said, "Okay," and pulled into his desk. As he poured his eyes over the mess in front of him, trying to reconstruct where he had been, he said, "Feel free to use Mike's chair. He gets home late."
Sarah, apparently, preferred to stand. Or, at least, Orr didn't hear her sit down. But, he did feel a tingling on the back of the neck, a guess that she was staring at him, demanding that he turn around. Every time the words on the page started to make sense, the tickle would return; soon, he began to predict it's arrival, and the attempted prediction was another distraction, until all he could think about was the tickling and how much it distracted him, and he had not even managed to successfully read the prompt to his sample midterm problem before he turned around again.
Sarah's arms were crossed, but otherwise, she hadn't moved.
Lacking anything else to say, knowing that he had only one option left, Orr said, "Okay. Fine. How do we fix my problems?"
Sarah smiled her conniving smile, moving only half her mouth. "Don't you know anything? First, admit that you have a problem."
Orr said, "And, what's my problem?"
Sarah said, "Okay, first, figure out what your problem is."
Orr said, "Okay. What is it?" He was trying to play along, trying to get Sarah to leave, but it was failing abominably.
Sarah said, "How should I know? You're messy... and a mess."
Orr said, "Fine. I'm messy. My problem is that I'm messy."
Sarah said, "And a mess."
Orr said, "And a mess. I'll clean up, myself and my room."
Sarah shook her head. She said, "You don't understand."
He didn't. He said, "I don't."
She said, "Messiness isn't a problem... Well, it is, and you were always so messy, but, anyway, that's not the problem."
Orr still didn't understand. He said, "I still don't understand."
Sarah said, "Why are you messy? Why are you a mess?"
Orr said, "Because I'm too busy to clean."
Sarah said, "Aha!"
Apparently, they were making progress. This was news to Orr.
Sarah continued, "And, why are you so busy?"
Orr said, "Because I do a lot of work."
Sarah said, "Great. So, your problem is that you do too much work."
Orr corrected her: "I don't do enough work, actually."
Sarah thought about this claim. She said, "Forget that. Let's stick with you do too much work. Why do you do so much work?"
Orr said, "Because there is so much work to do."
Sarah said, "How much work?"
Orr said, "You said twenty hours."
Sarah said, "And...?
Orr said, "And, I didn't say anything. I was still pretty upset about wasting my time. Speaking of which," his voice weakend, but he continued, "I should get back..."
Sarah said, "Not yet. How much do you study?"
Orr gave up. "About 18 hours a day, including classes."
Sarah said, "Aha! Now, we've hit the problem. You should work less."
Orr said, "But, I have more work to do."
Sarah said, "There's no way that Columbia is so hard that you have to study 18 hours a day to do everything."
And now, he got it. She was trying to get him to admit to taking too many courses. Instead, Orr said, "Well, I do. Maybe I'm just not smart enough for this school."
Sarah laughed at this claim. She said, "Orr, you may not know this yet, but NYU and Columbia mix. I know Columbia kids. You're smarter than they are."
Orr smiled briefly. Now that he was perpetually behind, he was no longer being complimented by professors or fellow students, and it had been a while since he had heard such words. But, he disagreed with them. He said, "I disagree."
Sarah said, "So, you know the people I met better than I do?"
Orr said, "Well, if they're in any of my classes, yeah. And, I'm in a lot of classes, so there's a good chance that they're in one." He had gotten carried away. He had lost sight of the goal of getting Sarah to leave, and he had given a hint. Hopefully, Sarah would not notice.
Sarah did notice. "How many classes are you taking?"
Orr waited. Now, he was in trouble. But, there was no getting around it. So, he said, as confidently as he could, "Six."
Sarah laughed again and she walked to Orr and grabbed his shoulders. She said, "I think I've found our problem."
Orr said, "Oh yeah?"
Sarah said, "Yeah. Six is too many. You should be taking four, especially first semester of your first year." She thought. "Your advisor is a piece of shit."
Orr said, "She advised me to drop two, but it's too late."
Sarah said, "So, you've thought about dropping classes?"
He had. "No."
Sarah said, "Fine. Well..." She thought more. "... It may be too late to drop, but it's not too late to fail."
Now, Orr laughed. It was shallow, though, from his throat. He worried for a moment that he had forgotten how to laugh, but he did not have time for such trifling issues at the moment. He said, "You want me to fail my classes?"
Sarah said, "Failing two classes is better than killing yourself."
Orr said, "I'm not killing myself, and failing two classes is pretty bad."
Sarah said, "Is it?"
An image of Tom flashed through Orr's mind. "It hurts my chances of going to grad school. And, it's not good for my scholarship."
Sarah said, "Fine, then, get Ds."
Orr laughed the shallow laugh again. He didn't know what to say, but he knew that a laugh by itself was implicit agreement.
Sarah let go of Orr's shoulders. She said, "Good. Problem solved. I'm coming back in a week to see how you're failing's going. I want to see your room clean, and a smile on your lips." She started walking toward the door.
The prospect of Sarah leaving was quite enticing, but Orr's incredulousness overcame him. He said, "You want me to fail my classes and smile about it?"
Sarah turned around and said, "I want you to have fun before you kill yourself."
Orr sighed. There was no winning. This semester was about learning to lose. He said, "Fine. I'll see what I can do."
Sarah turned to leave again and said, "Oh, and make some fucking friends."
The door closed and Orr turned back to his work. Before his brain went back to its regularized machinery, he let out one snort and said aloud, "Yeah, like I'm going to find a friend."
Sarah had been listening at the door. She called, "God provides, Orr. You'll see."
And, she left.
The next day, when Orr's concentration was once again overcome by a knock at the door, this one more unmistakably quieter than his sister's, he remembered her claim about God and thought that she'd set him up with some Jew from Columbia. But, he was more prepared, now, for visitors, and opened the door with relative ease.
It is entirely possible that Toff had never looked so pitiable in her life, even as an infant. In other words, she looked the exact opposite of Sarah. Her shoulders had sagged halfway to her breasts. Her head rested on neck, and even as she looked up at him, she did so only with her eyes. Her eyes were bloodshot and puffy. Her nose still running, and bright red at the tip. Her ponytail had come partly undone, and one of her shoes was untied. She stood at Orr's door, shuddering, periodically looking up at him, then a moment later, down to the floor, then slowly up at him again.
And yet, all Orr could think to say was, "If I believed in God, I'd be pissed right now."
Toff completely failed to understand, but assumed, presumably at the word "pissed," that her hoped-for sanctuary was inaccessible. She turned to leave.
Orr, only now realizing that his statement was intended to his sister, not Toff, corrected himself by saying, "Sorry, come in!"
Toff turned back, almost mechanically, and mumbled "Thanks," without looking up, as she walked by. She sat in Orr's chair and looked at his paper-strewn desk. She said, "Problem five gave me some trouble too."
Orr's puzzlement and atrophied social skills denied him the ability to answer this confusing statement.
Luckily, after a short pause, Toff continued. "The trick is actually something we proved in class, like a month ago." She turned and looked up at Orr, straight into his eyes. "Can I talk to you for a second?"