Summary: One day Arthur finds a quote scrawled on his desk. His competitive streak forces him to reply.
Notes: for lemniciate. I still do not understand the genesis of this fic. lemniciate originally gave me a Neruda quote as a prompt, and some how I came up with this craziness.
Arthur thinks the best carrel in the stacks is just off the long arm on 3M. It’s south facing and since he finds himself sitting there at all hours of the day, seven days a week, taking notes and trying to find citations, the near constant sunlight during the day is welcome. Also, it’s right next to a heating vent and only a mezzanine below the restroom. He likes it because the books in this part of the library aren’t as popular, so he’s rarely bothered by stacks workers or the random patron searching for a title. He did his reconnaissance very carefully, because he knew he would be stuck with his choice for the whole year. He prefers it over the little study closets that some of the floors have, even with it’s lack of privacy.
One day he finds a quote scrawled in pencil on what he’s come to think of his carrel. It is his for all intents and purposes. It’s got his books on the top shelf, and his name written on the neon pink paper the library uses for these things. And somebody has written on it. The handwriting is loopy and feminine, smudged a little bit like whoever wrote it had put their arm through it.
It reads, “Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.”
Arthur wrinkles his nose. Camus. A thoroughly banal argument, a vain and self-involved one at that. He erases it carefully with the Papermate white pearl eraser he always carries in his messenger bag and then pulls out Bounded Rationality and the Dockner text he’s working through. He has a lot of reading to get through and no time to wonder at who’s been graffiti-ing his carrel. He opens his book and thinks only about extensive forms and partition function.
When he stops work at two in the morning, his head hurts and his glasses are pinching the bridge of his nose. He sighs when he realizes he’s missed dinner and only the expensive twenty-four hour deli is still open. He starts organizing and putting his stuff away. As he clears his papers off the table he sees the blank space where the the little quote was scrawled on the desk. He has to root around in his bag for a couple moments before he finds 2B pencil he rarely ever uses these days. After thinking for a moment he writes:
“All artists today are expected to cultivate a little fashionable unhappiness.”
He smiles and then sweeps his bag up to go.
Arthur TAs for Professor Fox’s class on Game Theory & Political Science. It’s a mixed class. Some people are there because they need a QR and get swayed by the fact that the only math you need is high school algebra, and then there are the poly sci majors who’ve run out of options and first year econ majors who like the way Game Theory sounds. Thankfully very few freshman. Arthur’s section is just as much a mixed bag as the rest of the class.
It meets on Wednesdays at 4 PM in WLH like every other section on the planet. Trying to get to their room on the second floor is like storming the Bastille. In the first fifteen minutes they cover the usual stuff, troubles with the reading, questions about the homework, what the midterm is going to look like when he hears somebody banging up the stairs. It could be for anybody’s section, but Arthur knows it’s for his.
“Late again, Mr. Eames,” he says without looking at the door and taps his pen against the little roll sheet he’d made up. Although attendance is mandatory Arthur is not such a stickler that he cares to actually take roll, but he does hate the fact that Eames is perpetually late to everything, including lecture.
“I made it, didn’t I, Arthur,” Eames breathes and slides into a seat Emily Something left open for him. Eames smiles at her as he settles himself and she blushes. Arthur shakes his head. He gets it. Eames is on the soccer team, does theater on the side, and comes complete with a British accent.
“It’s impossible to take you seriously, Eames,” Arthur replies. Even when Arthur was still an undergrad he never encountered anybody like Eames.
He’d come right out with the fact that he didn’t give a shit on the first day of class when Arthur had asked everybody for their years, their residential college, and their majors. “I’m Eames, don’t bother with my name on the roll sheet, okay Arthur? I’m a senior doubling in IR and Cog Sci. I’m just taking this class for a lark.”
Arthur really wishes he’d try and participate, since he knows Eames must be smart. He’s doubling in two of the hardest majors offered. Arthur hates undergrads. Whatever, it’s no skin off his nose. He gets paid whether or not Eames gets anything out of the class, even if he completely flunks.
Today Eames surprises him by asking for his office hours at the end of the section.
“Why?” Arthur asks point-blank.
“Well, when I’m looking at the sociological aspects of the tribal migration of the--”
“You're serious,” Arthur says incredulous, cutting him off. He clears his throat. “Right, Monday, One to Three, in the McDougal center.”
“I have Inhorn’s cult & politics in the contemporary Mideast then,” Eames replies.
“Well, I take lunch in HGS, you think you could make it?”
Eames grins. “Of course, Arthur, wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Arthur notices that Eames always has to say his name. Like Arthur’s going to forget he’s talking to him. He snorts and says he’ll see him on Monday.
When he gets back to his carrel that evening after a long discussion with one of his advisers he finds another pencil marked quote in the same loopy feminine handwriting. He didn’t expect a response. He wonders at the girl who is scribbling on the desk of his carrel.
He notices that just above the new quote it says “Lawrence Durrell, Justine. Do I get a prize?”
For all Arthur knows the girl plugged what he wrote into her iphone and came up with the answer, but the quote that follows suggests otherwise. It’s too obscure to be pulled off the internet. Although Arthur knows it's Edwin Way Teale.
“Better a thousand times even a swiftly fading, ephemeral moment of life than the epoch-long unconsciousness of the stone.”
Arthur has to think a long time before he writes, “No prize, ‘When I speak to you about myself, I’m speaking to you about yourself. How is it that you don’t see that?’”
On Monday during lunch, Eames sits down across from him with a tray loaded with food and large cup of something suspiciously green looking. When he sees Arthur’s gaze he smiles. “Orange juice and Powerade.”
“That’s really quite offensive,” Arthur replies, setting his book aside. “What can I do for you?”
Eames’ question is actually easily answered. It’s for his senior thesis. Eames’ explains it’s the second one he’s writing of the year. First semester he tackled the cog sci, and now he’s finishing up the next one for international relations, something about post-imperialism, tribal migrations, and boundaries. But now that the question is answered, they’ve got the entire rest of lunch just sitting there. He wouldn’t ask Eames to leave and sit somewhere else, but he’s not sure he knows what else to say to him. In the end Eames does enough talking for the both of them.
“You’re really young, you know that?” Eames says.
Arthur blinks at him. “I’m twenty-five.”
“So you’ve just been going to school continuously for time and eternity?”
Arthur laughs. “I guess I don’t ever intend to leave. Hopefully once I write my doctoral thesis and publish enough, I’ll be able to get a job at a university.”
“Where’d you do your undergrad?”
“MIT,” Arthur replies and wipes his mouth. “Why all the questions?”
Eames looks terribly impressed, which is exactly why Arthur doesn’t just drop that bomb readily. “Just wondering. I’d have liked to have a go at grad school.”
“What are you doing instead?” Arthur asks. Eames sounds very definite.
He smiles like he was waiting for Arthur to ask that question. “I took a job at the FCO, the British foreign office?” He waits for Arthur’s nod before continuing. “It starts upon graduation. My original posting was in Kinshasa, because I have French and a little Lingala, and then they moved me to the embassy in Bujumbura--that’s Burundi.”
“I know where Bujumbura is,” Arthur replies patiently.
“Right, well, I thought it would be fine. They speak French in Burundi, so I thought that’s all right, I’ll be able to get around. But now they’ve got me posted to Angola where they speak Portuguese and Bantu. I’m going to become one of those poor wankers who never leaves the embassy.”
“I hear Angola is beautiful though,” Arthur smiles at Eames’ mournful expression.
“It’s true, I’m looking forward to going to Baia Azul. Maybe I can find some local skirt who speaks English and will show me around.”
Arthur snorts. “Or you could get yourself a Portuguese phrasebook.”
“I like my idea better.”
When he goes back to the carrel that night his quote is still penciled into the wood. He finds himself bizarrely disappointed, like this meant something more to him than it did to this mystery woman who liked to deface his desk.
“Arthur, I think you’re getting a little obsessed,” Cobb says over dinner at his place. Mal comes out of the kitchen with Coq Au Vin and sets it down in front of them. “God save you, woman.”
Mal slaps Cobb’s hand away from stealing a carrot and says, “Nonsense, it’s a bit of intrigue. Who wouldn’t find that interesting?”
Cobb rolls his eyes.
Arthur accepts the piece of chicken Mal cuts for him with a smile. “Thanks, Mal, looks amazing.”
Mal and Cobb have been forcing Arthur to come over since his first year. They were afraid he wasn’t eating enough. And it’s true, that first year, holed up in the Hall of Graduate Studies, he barely ate beyond lunch and the weekly wine and cheese parties that were just an excuse to drink cheap wine. He met them at some grad event early in the year and they probably saved Arthur from becoming another academic casualty. It was just after they’d gotten married and Arthur had been talking about french cinema with someone when Mal butted in with a comment on the use of irony that Arthur doesn’t remember now. Mal had just started her masters in architecture and Cobb was teaching a couple of small undergrad classes. Now she’s almost ready to graduate and they’re expecting their first child. He knows they won’t stay. They’re talking about moving west to California. It makes him unexpectedly sad.
“So Arthur,” Mal asks, sitting down at the head of the table, her eyes sparkling, “what do you think she’ll say next?”
He’s not expecting anything when he returns the next day after class so he’s pleasantly surprised when the loopy hand has replaced his jagged scrawl.
It reads: “Touche. Victor Hugo or John Hall Wheelock’s quote of it in ‘The Poem in the Nuclear Age?’”
Arthur snorts. The quote that his friend has left today is short, merely: “Mieux vaut l'exubérance que le goût.” Exuberance is better than taste, he translates in his head. He wonders how his graffiti artist knows he speaks French and then realizes that Epistémologie de la stratégie en économie sits on his little shelf right next to the Aoki and the Arbuthnot.
Flaubert. His graffiti artist must be another PhD candidate or at the very least a literature major. He’s never met an undergrad who had much time for reading. That is the exact excuse they use too. “I read so much for class, can’t possibly get it all done, how would I read for fun?” Arthur’s reply is if they cared, they’d make time.
This time when he goes he leaves Nietzsche’s “When one is young, one venerates and despises without that art of nuances which constitutes the best gain of life.”
Eames actually contributes during section. Arthur’s eyes nearly fall out of his head when he sees Eames’ hand go up. He’s spent the past several weeks watching Eames out of the corner of his eye waiting for him to tilt his chair back so far he tips over. “Yes, Mr. Eames? Would you like to use the bathroom?”
The entire class laughs.
Eames’ leans his chin on his fist. “No, Arthur, I do not have to avail myself of the toilet at the present moment.” He pauses and then says, “I was just wondering in Nash equilibrium are we talking about the best cumulative payoff? Like the way Anglo-American and De Beers operates in the diamond trade?”
“You mean, competing businesses forming, essentially, a cartel, where all parties maximize profits?”
“It’s a good question,” he replies and launches into discussion of strategy profiles and fixed frequencies.
After that it’s a long time before he gets back to his carrel. The midterm is approaching fast. He spends every last moment scheduling students in for office hours and trying to figure out when he and the other TAs are going to be able to hold a review session. He grows daily more anxious about being apart from his own work.
The new penciled quote annoys him. The writer has changed tack and rather than responding to Arthur’s last quote, has left, “Fear, born of the stern matron Responsibility, sits on one’s shoulders like some heavy imp of darkness, and one is preoccupied and cantankerous.”
Underneath it says “Slow down, Arthur.”
Arthur doesn’t know why it surprises him that the mystery student knows him or at least his name. His name is written on the carrel after all. But it suggests that this person has observed him. He briefly toys with the idea that its one of Cobb’s undergrads, Ariadne maybe. She’s been to dinner a few times, and after he’d helped her with some of her calculus, she’d asked him on a coffee date. But Arthur was pretty sure that was just coffee, and besides, Ariadne was far too straightforward to go about scrawling quotes on his workspace. In fact when he thinks about it, none of his friends would do something like this. Frankly and he doesn’t mean it as an insult, but none of his friends are well-read enough to pull something like this off. He only knows a few comp lit PhDs and they’re all far too busy puttering over renaissance poetry and arguing over how they’re the most mistreated grad students on campus.
And he has to admit it bothers him that he doesn’t know the quote. He spends most of his time thinking who he’s seen on this floor of the library and wondering why they’re spying on him. It’s futile, he only remembers a few access services employees shelving or doing call slips for books. By the time he’s ready to leave, he’s more stressed than when he arrived. Arthur’s return sallies have always been somewhat admonishing and sarcastic, the one he leaves this time is positively biting.
“Have you so much time to spare from your own affairs that you can attend to another man’s with which you have no concern?”
When he tells Mal about it over a brunch of french toast and fruit at Bella’s she says, “Oh, Arthur.”
Cobb’s still trying to park the geriatric station wagon and he’s glad because suddenly he feels mildly ashamed.
“Perhaps I overreacted,” he says, stirring his cappuccino.
She doesn’t belabor the point which is one of the things he loves about her. She just changes the subject and asks Arthur if he wants to see the latest ultrasound.
“Have you picked a name yet?”
“Yes,” she smiles,”I just have to badger Dom into agreeing.”
Cobb reappears at that exact moment and sighs heavily. “We are not naming our first born Philippa. We’d be setting her up for a lifetime of pretentiousness. I don’t see what’s wrong with Annie.”
Mal mouths ‘everything’ at Arthur and Arthur has to hold back a laugh.
“By the way, that quote you’ve been angsting about?” Cobb says as he sits down. “It’s William McFee. I had to read some of his stuff in middle school. Harbors of Memory or something.”
Arthur has never heard of it.
When he goes back to his carrel the next day he’s not quite sure what he expects. Some harsh invective from Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, or Soame Jenyns. Instead he finds a drawn smiley face and then a little message.
“I think the fact that you took that Terrence quote from The Self-Tormenter says rather more than the quote itself.”
Arthur, now with the clarity of distance, and having gotten at least two weeks ahead on his work, smiles. He rolls his eyes at the quote that follows. “Men will confess to treason, murder, arson, false teeth, or a wig. How many of them will own up to a lack of humor?” He only knows it because one of his teachers in high school loved that specific Frank Moore Colby quote. It seems his mystery person has an unending list of obscure axioms to sling at Arthur.
He writes Moliere’s quote: “A wise man is superior to any insults which can be put upon him, and the best reply to unseemly behavior is patience and moderation.” He leaves after that. Ariadne had texted him about some advance screening being held in the Humanities Center and for once he decides he’s going to go. The quote has nothing to do with it.
On Monday right at noon Eames’ slides a tray once again packed with food and his strange concoction of powerade and orange juice onto the table across from Arthur. Arthur looks up from his Paul Auster novel with raised brows. “Hello?”
“Hello indeed,” Eames replies. “Red, white, and blue burgers today, love it.”
Arthur stares at him. “Did you...have more questions?”
“No no,” Eames says breezily, “I just figure you’re here, I’m here, why not?”
Arthur looks down at his book and then back up at Eames. He sets it to the side after a long moment.
“So what was MIT like?” Eames asks.
Arthur blinks. “Well...I suppose we were bored a lot. We spent a lot of time playing pranks on Harvard students and coming up with stuff to keep us occupied. Like my roommate found this old couch that they were getting rid of in one of the lounges and he attached wheels to it and a navigation system and he would drive it up and down the hallways with voice command.”
“You would say that,” Arthur says with a laugh. He changes the subject. “What’s home like?”
“London, you mean?”
Arthur inclines his head. Eames pauses over his burger, eyes going far away. “I went off to boarding school in Surrey when I was eleven.” He smiles and Arthur doesn’t know him well enough to say whether or not that’s bitterness or irony informing the curves of his smile. “My father was completely gutted. He wanted me to go to St. Paul’s as my family’s done for the last eleventy billion generations.”
Arthur gets the sense that Eames could’ve gone to St. Pauls if he’d wanted. There’s something in his voice that reminds Arthur of stubborn recalcitrance aimed vengefully at parents.“What’s wrong with where you went?”
“Royal Grammar School? Nothing. Well, it’s a bit boring perhaps. Hard to get up to much trouble in Guildford. And the girls at GCS don’t put out for anything.” He dips a french fry in barbecue sauce and shoves it into his mouth, grinning brightly. “You have that look on your face like I’ve just said something really crass again.”
“You have,” Arthur replies dryly.
“If that’s crass, Arthur, then you’re a prude.”
“Or perhaps I don’t want to be able to form any conjecture about your sexual exploits.”
“Who wouldn’t want that?”
Today the quote in the carrel is a couple of lines from an Emily Dickinson poem. “Hope is a strange invention--/ A Patent of the Heart--/ In unremitting action / Yet Never wearing out--”
It doesn’t fit the jokey back and forth they’ve been having again. Arthur doesn’t know what to make of it. He scrubs it off his desk with the white pearl eraser carefully. They’ve been doing this for so long that the patch of wood on the desk is lighter than the rest. It sounds like his scribbler is trying to tell him something, but he doesn’t know what. He thinks for a long time and finally settles on a proverb.
“It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”
On Thursday night he runs into Eames on the street after dinner at Miya’s with Ariadne. He’s with a group of guys from the soccer team. They’re all in high spirits, ostensibly on their way to a pre-game or a party.
“Hullo, Arthur,” Eames says spotting him. The guys around him grind to a halt, stopping to talk and laugh, almost as if they aren’t there.
“Hey,” Arthur replies. Ariadne shoots him a questioning look.
“Hey Ariadne,” Eames says.
Arthur looks back and forth between them. “You know each other?”
“He’s in my college,” Ariadne offers. “You’re friends with Yusuf, right?”
Eames nods. There’s something strange on his face. Arthur runs a hand over his hair and then shoves them both in his pockets.
“Well, see you--”
“Monday,” Eames finishes for him, inviting himself to Arthur’s Monday lunch again. Arthur realizes he really doesn’t mind.
“Monday then,” he says. And then he asks Ariadne, “Have you decided, The Anchor or Rudy’s?”
She shrugs. “Rudy’s is closer. Also frites!”
When he gets to his carrel on Sunday to catch up on some reading he’s been avoiding out of sheer frustration there’s no new quote. He shrugs. It happens. At four in the afternoon he goes upstairs to the bathroom and when he comes back down not even ten minutes later, his quote has been scrubbed away and there’s a new one its place. His first thought is that his mystery woman has gone on a poetical bent. His second is sheer disbelief that someone, anyone, maybe especially this person would write him such a thing. He is not a romantic and yet he finds himself blushing hot as he stares at the words carefully traced out onto his desk.
“You swallowed everything, like distance.
Like the sea, like time. In you everything sank!
It was the happy hour of assault and the kiss.
The hour of the spell that blazed like a lighthouse.”
He doesn’t understand. And Pablo Neruda at that. When he calls Mal to tell her about it, she says point blank, “You’re surprised?”
“Yes, of course!”
“But Arthur, obviously this girl is interested in you, she’s been writing you anonymous messages in a carrel.”
“But they’re just pithy quotes back in forth demonstrating how we’re so pretentious and well read.”
“Then she knows you well.”
“I think you just insulted me.”
“In a loving sort of way.”
He hears Cobb say in the background, “Arthur thinks he isn’t pretentious? He dresses like he’s a character on Mad Men.”
“I do not,” he replies.
She laughs. “If you say so, ma petite.”
When Eames slides into the chair across from Arthur he’s in good spirits. “They changed my posting again!”
“You seem excited.”
“It’s to Mombasa,” Eames shakes his head. “It’s beautiful and English is one of the official languages, so I have time to learn Swahili.”
“You’re going to learn Swahili?”
“Yes I am, Swahili is badass!” He jerks suddenly and says, “Sorry, phone vibrating, felt it through the chair.” He starts rooting through his backpack, dumping stuff on top of the table. A notebook labeled stuff in black permanent pen, a macbook air, a wallet, an ipod, a book, a string of Trojans, and finally the phone.
Eames answers it while Arthur peers at the book. Pablo Neruda. He tilts the cover toward him. Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Eames hangs up, and Arthur looks up from the book.
“You like Neruda?” Eames asks just as Arthur takes a bite of his salad.
He holds up a finger so he can finish chewing and says, “I have no real thoughts on him. I was just reading the ‘Song of Despair’ recently.”
Arthur shrugs, shoves another bit of salad into his mouth, and then changes the subject when he finishes chewing.
He doesn’t erase the quote and he doesn’t add anything new. When he goes back to his carrel he covers it with his books, but he can't help thinking about it right there, penciled words pressed to the bottom of his book. He doesn’t answer because he doesn’t know who on earth is quoting him love poems. And even he can't find it in himself to find a quote that says...uh thank you, weirdo, so he leaves it alone.
He heads home that night feeling frustrated with himself.
Professor Fox has the students do a writing exercise that day in class, diagramming out a hypothetical scenario. At the end of class he has them turn them in. “The TAs and I will decide if they should be graded or not,” he says as they’re packing up to go. Everybody is frozen in terror. He smiles. “Maybe extra credit.” The students cheer.
Arthur is distracted, accepting papers from the students as they bustle out and trying to answer a girl's question on whether she can make up section during his time slot. “I don’t see why not, but check with your TA first, okay?” he says as Eames walks up. He smiles at Eames over her head.
She looks almost embarrassingly grateful. “All right, thanks, Arthur, maybe see you Wednesday?”
He nods. “Sounds good.” He clears his throat. “Mr. Eames?” he holds his hand out for Eames’ paper.
Eames gives it to him wordlessly and Arthur looks down at it entirely in passing. The handwriting jumps out at him immediately. It’s loopy and feminine, like somebody who had to practice penmanship for many hours. It’s the first assignment that Eames’ has submitted that isn’t type-written. Arthur didn’t even grade his midterm because Eames sat it with another TA after he had an away game.
He looks up at Eames who smiles only slightly. Suddenly it all makes sense. Eames knows French, he had the Neruda book, how did Arthur miss it? “Were you...were you...playing with me?” he asks very softly.
“Arthur, what?” his mouth drops open. “Are you joking?”
“I assure you I’m quite serious,” Arthur replies, hands dropping to his sides.
“As am I,” Eames says furiously, “that first quote, the Camus, was about you!”
“But I don’t...” Arthur replies and breaks off.
Eames shakes his head and blows out a breath. “Yes, so I realize.” He swings his bag up over his shoulder and turns toward the door.
“Eames,” Arthur calls after him, but Eames doesn’t stop. Arthur drops the papers into a chair and chases after him. “Eames,” he says again when he’s through the door, but Eames is already halfway down the stairs.
“Would you stop!” he shouts into the stairwell and everybody including Eames jolts to a halt. Eames looks up at him, his eyebrows drawn low over his eyes. “That’s not what I meant, you disgustingly romantic British...fool!”
“What--” Eames shouts back and then seems to notice everybody staring at them. “Well? Jog on!” he say to the assembled crowd pointedly. He leans back against the wall and waits for them to filter out. Arthur smiles weakly at the people who give him sidelong glances as they pass. He can't help fidgeting. When everybody has finally disappeared into their classes, Eames says with a level tone, “What, pray, did you mean, Arthur?”
“Why do you say my name like that?” Arthur replies. “I just...nobody has ever...I don’t have a lot of time to...and you are...”
Eames face slowly resolves into a smile. “Are you saying you like me, Arthur?”
“No, I most certainly am--” he cuts himself off. He doesn’t have to worry about self-preservation here. He wasn’t writing Neruda all over people’s desks. He sighs. “Yes.”
Eames starts running back up the stairs two at a time. Arthur has to cover his burning face with his hand and then Eames is standing next to him. He takes Arthur’s hand, the one that was so recently holding his assignment, and thumbs the back.
Arthur snorts. "'Had we but world enough, and time, this coyness, lady, were no crime.'"
Eames opens his mouth to say something derisive, but Arthur leans in to kiss him before he can. Eames smiles against his mouth and Arthur tightens a hand in his shirt to drag him closer.
A voice interrupts them. “I take it Eames will be sitting the final with one of the other TAs?”
Arthur pulls away from Eames who doesn’t let go of his hand. Professor Fox stands in the doorway of his empty class, Arthur’s bag and assignments at the end of one outstretched arm. Arthur blushes again.
“I--yes.” He accepts his stuff from Professor Fox and waves weakly as he passes them on the stairwell, heading for his next appointment.
“Ah, God, that was so unprofessional!”
Eames looks entirely unrepentant. “So is writing all over your desk.”
“I didn’t start that!”
Eames rolls his eyes. “Would you like to get coffee?”
“Blue State?” Arthur offers. “You can let go of my hand now.”
Eames ignores his request. “They have really great grilled cheese.”
And they all lived happily ever after.
Somehow this became a secret love song to my university library, which I worked in all four years of college. WHOOPS. I apologize if there were any hyper-specific references in here that didn’t make sense.