Element

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FOUR

John’s dorm was, like the rest of his appearance, clean and balanced. The bed was made. The desk was organized. The walls were decorated with regularly spaced magazine cutouts. He’d been doing that for a couple years now. The cutouts on the walls were perfectly symmetrical. Once upon a time, he’d just torn pages out of magazines and been done with it. But more recently, he’d come to realize that straight lines looked better. On the wall behind him was a giant fabric union jack. He didn’t know why, but he was really fond of that flag. His bed was neat, though not obsessively so. Blue sheets, blue pillow cases, dark blue blanket. He’d wanted to get green sheets but he hadn’t been able to find any that looked decent with his comforter, which was covered with parallel, blue and white lines, of varying hue and width.

Thumbtacked to the wall above his desk was a big black hammer and sickle, overlaid on bright red. A little farther down were the letters CCCP. Farther up on the wall was a poster of Ernesto Guevara. And above his bed was a black and white photograph of Bobby Fischer playing Boris Spassky. It was an unintuitive mix of elements. And yet, remarkably, they all merged effectively. John, ever open to introspection, thought it was a good representation of his personality.

Behind John, facing the other way, was his roommate Aaron. Silver earphones in his ears, he was hunched over a laptop keyboard. It was one of the models RPI gave you when you were admitted. John’s was a little newer. He’d never much liked PC’s but it had been free and RPI cost him enough money already.

Aaron was a cool enough guy. Witty, generally hard working. Did a good Australian impression. All in all, good mojo. He was two years older too, which was useful on the weekends considering John was only nineteen. The older student was also usually friendly and seemed to genuinely respect his intelligence, which was quite nice. John, for his part, liked Aaron’s personality. Like John, Aaron wasn’t incredibly spontaneous, which had eliminated that as a potential source of conflict. John liked spontaneous people. They were fun to party with and talk to. But extended contact was tiresome. That was how his roommate freshman year had been. It had gotten annoying.

At the moment, John was reading geochemistry. He had the weekend to look at it but didn’t see the sense in waiting. That was another thing about John. He didn’t waste time. For the most part, he was pretty well focused. To be honest, this trait hadn’t been inborn. When he wanted to, John could be incredibly lazy. But he had learned the hard way that that just didn’t make good policy. So he tried to limit it to times following periods of heavy workload.

He had to read two chapters by next Monday and answer six problems. Fun. He wasn’t too worried about the problems though. The only thing was he anticipated they would take a while. But it being Friday, he had all of tomorrow to do it. Sunday was allotted to his other classes, for which John had to read a hundred pages. Again, fun.

He glanced at his watch. Eight thirty. Shit. He was supposed to go to a party tonight with his roommate and some friends around nine. He still hadn’t showered. He also hadn’t decided what he was going to wear. Lifting an arm, he smelled his left armpit. No odor of detectable concentration. He smelled his other one. He’d keep the shirt then. He’d wear blue jeans too. Okay, problem solved. He needed a shower though. Leaning back from his desk, he slapped the geochem book shut and stretched. Mmm. Glorious. He glanced over his shoulder. Aaron was getting up. John hopped out of his chair and walked over to his dresser. Boxers were in the middle drawer, pants on the bottom, shirts on top. He pulled open the lowest drawer and made a selection, Urban Pipeline. What next? Boxers. No rhyme or reason there. Whichever pair was on top. And the pick of the day was… Caddyshack. It’d do. There was a slam. With it, John knew his roommate had gone in the bathroom. Motherfucker. Now he had to wait.

He glanced at the wall clock. Eight thirty-four. John hated cutting things close. Granted, they typically wound up being that way. But regardless… He glanced out the window. It was raining. He walked closer to the window. Beneath the bulbs of the street lamps, he could see the individual raindrops. Barely perceptible streaks illuminated by gothic sodium light. Five stories below and to the right, a metallic gray Scion hovered by a dorm entrance, yellow hazard lights blinking, echoing sharp reflections on the wet parking lot. It wasn’t the ugliest SUV in the world but it was close. John saw a group of underclassmen get into the Scion. A row of crimson lights came on above the rear windscreen and a moment later, the SUV backed out, made a y-turn, and was gone. To be replaced by an ugly Ford pickup. John leaned back.

He heard running water coming from the bathroom. He sighed, hopping onto his bed. He was off it again, a moment later. Okay… get out the bathroom… There was a knock on the door. John breathed in and walked towards it. There was another set of knocks.

He opened the door. Mike Hitckam. Strange last name. John didn’t like it. Beside him was Anthony something or other, Aaron’s friend from high school.

“Hey, Johnny.”

“Hey.”

“How’s it goin?”

John laughed. “Fine.” John stepped back so they could come in.

“Nice room,” Mike said.

“Thanks.”

Anthony walked over to John’s desk. “Is this your Soviet Union poster?”

John nodded. “Yeah.”

“I knew it. John just can’t stand the sweet air of freedom,” Michael said.

John laughed. “Yeah, I know. I miss the good old days. You remember don’t you? Khrushchev, the Berlin Wall?”

“Right right.”

“So, where exactly are we going tonight?”

“You know Maple?” John looked at him.

“John Maple? The other John from the Thanksgiving party?”

Suddenly he remembered. “Oh, right, him.”

“Yeah, his place.” It had been a cool party, John remembered. There had been a lot of people.

“Will there be females?” Anthony asked.

“According to John, yes. Note, I prefaced it with, according to John.” Anthony nodded. “So suffice it to say, I don’t know. Let’s hope so. Aaron’s in the bathroom?” John looked at him.

“No, that’s my boyfriend.” Long pause. Sudden, knowing smile. John blinked. Mike walked out of the room and pounded on the bathroom door. BLAM BLAM BLAM!

“AARON!”

“WHAT?”

“HURRY UP!” Pause.

“BITE ME!”

“NO THANK YOU!”

“Tell him I want to take a shower.”

“JOHN SAYS HE NEEDS TO TAKE A SHOWER!”

“WHAT?”

“JOHN SAYS HE NEEDS TO TAKE A SHOWER!”

Pause. “WHAT?” They all laughed.

“Goddammit.”

“YOU MOTHERFUCKER! JOHN NEEDS TO TAKE A SHOWER!”

“OH OKAY!” Mike came back in.

“Anyway…”

“Right…” Anthony said.

“So John, how many classes are you taking this semester?”

“Just five. Nothing too heavy duty.”

“That’s good.”

“How about you?”

“Five.”

“Anything hard?”

“Nah. I’m a senior. I don’t take hard classes.”

“Right.” The sound of running water stopped. Finally. John walked over to his open dresser drawer and lifted out the Urban Pipelines. There were random clicks from the bathroom. They might have been a shaving cream can being manipulated or deodorant, or a soap dish being closed. Shuffling noises. The door opened. John brushed past Aaron. Not wasting any time, John transferred his soap dish to the tub, stripped, took off his glasses and stepped inside. The tub was cold and wet under his feet. He turned on the faucet. Lucky for him, the water in the pipes was still warm. He hit the button for the shower and warm water struck him. He stepped back a little bit. The water wasn’t quite as hot as he would’ve liked. He closed his eyes and breathed in. He looked at his watch. Eight forty-seven. Not long.

Never enough time for a shower. He turned around and let the water hit his back. Long pause. Okay. Let’s go. John reached into the soap dish and pulled out a bar of soap. He cleaned himself quickly and then shut the water off, listening to it as it drained down through the pipes. Pulling back the shower curtain, he stepped onto the linoleum floor and dried himself off. He pulled on his clothes, folded his towels, checked himself in the mirror and opened the door again. Cold air breathed over his ears with a whoosh.

Aaron was stuffing vodka into a backpack. John went to his dresser and got his wallet and keys. He then went to his desk and picked up his cell phone. Socks. Shoes. Jacket. Anthony rose out of Aaron’s chair. And they were off. They walked to the elevator and pressed the button. The doors opened immediately. They stepped inside and the doors closed. John looked up at the red LED display near the ceiling. Four. Three. Two. One. The sound of machinery died down.

The doors opened and John walked out. They walked through the front door of the dorm and emerged in a parking lot. John looked back at his dorm window and saw his Union Jack displayed proudly. He looked ahead, the rain an uncomfortable mist on his face.

The walk to Maple’s dorm took five minutes. He was in another upperclassman dorm. Mike took out his cell phone and placed a call. A moment went by.

Muffled, “Hello?”

“Hey, we’re in front. Let us in.”

“Oh okay. Be right there.” John looked at the other three students. Aaron looked at his feet. Only a few seconds passed before Maple appeared on the other side of the door. Certainly too fast to have taken the elevator. John wondered if he’d run. The door opened and they came in out of the rain.

Maple’s dorm was much like John’s, rather generous. It wasn’t nearly as neat though. The bedroom floor was carpeted like John’s and there were two beds, above desks. Standard configuration. John tightened his wrist-watch which was refusing to stay in one place and glanced down at its screen. Exactly nine. Super. Attached to the room was a common area in which sat a rather outrageous gas plasma screen, a sofa, which was a pleasing dark green, two padded chairs, along with a couple wooden chairs, a short, black table, which John suspected would be perfect for poker, and a door leading into a bedroom. That door was slightly ajar. John looked it over a bunch of times to get the lay of the place. Each time he did, he noticed something new. For example, the Brazilian flag was draped over the sofa. It was hard to tell from a distance of ten feet but it looked like it was a blanket. If he could remember, he promised himself to make a point to examine it later.

The walls were thankfully a little more creatively decorated than the common practice of taping up posters of hot, nearly naked women. That was tacky. Looking up, he noticed something interesting. Someone had placed some kind of colored gel above and below one of the fluorescent lights and the effect was to render one half of the room in an odd shade of orange while painting the ceiling above in an eerie blue. John liked it. Didn’t like the potential fire hazard but whatever. From the other side of the common room, he picked up the distant scent of marijuana, just an instant before the cracked door to the bedroom on that side snapped shut. John smiled momentarily. On one wall was a poster for Slipknot, which was, for lack of a better term, disturbing. On another wall was a painting by Picasso. John checked the label near the bottom left. One. All right then.

John tried to recall what Maple’s major was. Biomedical engineering maybe. That sounded right. He looked like an engineer. Had that cocky, overconfident swagger. John hoped they’d get along after prolonged contact. In the past he’d had a couple of bad run-ins with engineers. Since then, he’d wondered if the conflict between them had been borne from his own shortcomings or from theirs. Insufficient information. He creased his brow. God, he wished his brain would turn off sometimes. All the analysis was… tiring. Constant. Never stopped. He turned to the others. His headache returned briefly, but then was gone again, thankfully.

Aaron and Anthony were chatting about something pointless. John was tempted to hang back a few feet but then straightened his shoulders and came up so that he was even with Anthony’s shoulder. Maple directed his eyes towards him and gave him a respectful nod. Diplomatic relations established. Maple offered a hand and John took it with a friendly smile. Maple seemed all right.

“John Maple,” he said.

“John Marshall.”

“Another John. Nice to meet you. Do you go to this school?”

“Yessir. I live across the quad. We’ve met before.”

“Oh right! Cool cool. Well make yourself at home, man. You want a beer?”

“Sure.” John gave a sigh of relief. This was going well. He quickly glanced at the others. Reaching to his collar, he picked at the zipper of his jacket. Maple glanced at him and offered to hang it up for him. John was impressed by this. This guy was all right. With his jacket off, he felt a lot cooler. He looked around some more while he waited for his beer. To his left, there was an IKEA bookshelf with engineering textbooks near the bottom and LP’s above them. On top was a solved Rubik’s Cube on a display stand and a black pot with bamboo planted in it. People with money frequently seemed to have a peculiar neatness, John noted.

Which reminded him. He’d read an interesting article maybe a year ago about a study that suggested that people who had messy desks were actually more productive than really neat people, who wasted time trying to keep things looking pretty. Sounded plausible. If true, he was screwed. Part of him wished he’d taken a cognitive sci. class or two. It would be interesting to be able to apply it to cyberneti… the beer arrived. John nodded graciously and extracted one from the pile of six Maple was cradling in his arms.

Holy crap it was cold. Aaron and Anthony took one and finally Mike scooped one out for himself. John tapped his on the top and popped it open. The sound always seemed overly theatrical. He took a sip. Good stuff. The cold added bite. He sat down on the sofa and looked up at the others. Maple reached down to a remote control on the table and pressed a button. The TV snapped on with all the responsiveness of a British Special Air Service commando. That was another thing about people with money. Their toys were nice. As the others settled in, he went to the preview channel to see what was on. Dick Van Dyke, Golden Girls, iCarly, Spongebob. Celebrity Poker, Seinfeld, Angela Waters, Weapons At War. On and on. Angela Waters Angela Waters Angela Waters. Four seven. Bweep. Angela Waters. Hellz yeah…

Angela Waters was a funny stand up comedian. A little fucked up, but funny. The night wore on. When Angela Waters went off, they searched for another show. Gazing up from the preview channel, Maple looked at John and asked if he liked Sacha Baron Cohen. John nodded. Maple set it to that station.

After a time, the TV became less interesting and as the lights were dimmed slightly, they segued into drinking games. Asshole. Fuck the dealer. Common household names. The purpose was to avoid drinking. The purpose was to get drunk. There was no beer pong but John didn’t particularly mind. He’d been to many frat parties and knew all about beer pong. Lots of people loved it. John didn’t. He wouldn’t’ve minded a game of poker though. John liked to play poker. With any luck, there was a poker set here somewhere. He considered bringing it up for a while before blurting out an inquiry, rather unexpectedly.

“Does anyone here play poker?”

“Yeah, I have a set here somewhere,” Maple said. “Let me think. Where could it be?” Someone pointed out that this was his dorm. “I know that. Hmmm be right back.” Then he did something that surprised John. He winked at him. It happened so quickly, he wasn’t able to think up an appropriate response. Pondering it afterward, he began to wonder if Maple was attracted to him. Hardly an uncommon phenomenon. His androgynous features, attractive face, and distinctive eyes brought a great deal of attention to him. While he found the attention exciting on one level, it had primarily fostered a tendency for him to be shy around overly friendly people. He wanted to be respected for his personality, not his looks.

As he took a sip from his beer, the door to the side of the common room opened gingerly and in walked two male undergraduates, one tall, one less tall. Both seemed good natured.

The two undergrads looked the gathering over nonthreateningly. They introduced themselves as Miles and Sebby and soon they were all allies. How nice. He wasn’t sure why exactly but all of a sudden, Aaron tapped John on the arm.

“Are you drunk?” John looked at him and shook his head.

Mike smiled. “Johnny’s drunk?”

John sighed. He looked up. Miles and Sebby had found perches in the corner of the room and were leaning against the wall to watch them play, by all appearances, uninterested in the main conversation.

“I’m fine. I barely had any.”

“How many have you had?” Mike asked. John concentrated for a moment and did a mental estimation. A true calculation was a little too difficult right now.

“Maybe three or four.”

“Oh, that’s not much.”

“No.” The game of asshole went on until they had all but forgotten about Maple. At last, out of the blue, he returned with a silver case held closed by two latches on the top. The outside was dinged. It had seen some use, it seemed. John’s eyes perked up. Maple shoved the cards to one side and set down the poker set. His fingers went to the latches and he clamshelled the case open.

“Does everyone know how to play Hold’em?” Four nods, one shake. Two no responses. John wondered if the smokers planned to stay. The game began slowly so the newbie’s could get a logical grasp for it. It really wasn’t that complicated a game, rule wise. Conceptually though, it was incredibly useful, John felt. His parents had once commented that it was basically a game of luck. But John knew better than that. The game was equal parts probability computation and behavior analysis. You had to estimate how good your hand was, with respect to everyone else’s, by observing their behavior and trying to establish a pattern based on experience. You also had to predict what the odds were that useful cards would emerge down the river. Again, it seemed relatively simple. But this was deceptive.

The real benefit to the game was to convey an appreciation for the necessity of accepting risk. Which wasn’t to say you should play recklessly. That might work for a while, until people figured out what you were doing. No, the purpose of the game was to develop your faculties for understanding risk. What was a good one, what was a bad one. What was even money. What was worth taking, what wasn’t. John had a saying, if you could master poker, you could master life. He firmly believed it.

If you wanted to get ahead in life, you had to take calculated chances. You had to bet big. You had to know when to fold. You had to know when to be dispassionate, you had to know when to look happy, know when to look sad, know when to express no emotion at all, and know when you were out of your league. John wasn’t bad at the game. At all. In a short time, he was definitely the big stack. It was the same with every other practical task he tackled in life. Identify, assess, neutralize. Completely. It might have sounded a bit cold, but it was quite effective. And it was a competition.

As he played, he sobered up a tiny bit. Ironically, his performance began to decline. He left the table to seek out another beer and came back a moment later. They played on. Two players were out in half an hour. Clearly weren’t trying hard. If experienced, it was hard to lose that quickly. It was fun to see how other people played. How they tried to mislead you. How they thought. It was fascinating. But as the game wore on, people clearly began to get tired of it, especially when someone knocked on the door and it turned out to be two girls. John looked them over.

They were cute. Seemed above averagely intelligent. A definite aphrodisiac. John liked nerds. They were more interesting. By this point, the sheer absurdity of his chip lead had discouraged the remaining three players from investing any real effort into the game and as a result John wasn’t sure what to do. He could play as hard as before, win. Maybe impress the girls with that. But if he overdid it, he’d become boring. He could throw the game. Start going all in a bunch of times. Not really pay attention. He didn’t favor that approach. He was an all or nothing person. If he played, he wanted to play. And then the others got up from the table, and the matter was abruptly settled. He’d won by default.

After basking in his victory for a few moments, he began to put the chips back into the chip case. When he was done, he sat back on the sofa and took a sip from his beer. Tucking his legs beneath him, he diverted his attention to the TV as it chattered away, listening to it more than watching it. He quickly noticed that he could make the words as clear or as opaque as he wanted. This he found amusing. The conversations going on in the room, however, seemed temporarily beyond his accessibility…

After a time, one of the girls took off her jacket and sat down on the sofa. Don’t look at her just yet. Wait for it…

“Hi, what’s your name?” John looked at her and smiled sheepishly.

“John. What’s your name?”

“Dianne.” She held out her hand. “Nice to meet you.” John shook it courteously. He looked at her face. Symmetrical, attractive, nearly blemishless. Glasses. A little geeky. More of a dork than a nerd. Nerds were a little more confident. Dorks always had that vague aura of insecurity. Like they were always under some kind of subliminal torment. Something else was there. Something they were afraid of sharing with anybody. And he found that engaging. He decided to give her a glimmer, in a few minutes. Rushing things would only make him look easy. No. For the moment, he decided to keep it neutral. Maybe get something intelligent out of her. There was NOTHING John found more frustrating than shallow conversation. He hated it. HATED it. He hoped she was a science major.

“Do you go here?” she asked. John said yes.

“I assume you do as well.” She smiled. All too easy. “What’s your major?”

“Chemistry.” Zing.

“Interesting. I was thinking of studying that years ago but didn’t.” Her face changed. Subtle. She caught it before it fully bloomed. She wants to know if I’m a loser.

“What do you study now?”

“Geophysics and computer science, with a minor in Chinese.” Double blink. Ooo. You thought I was gonna to say environmental science, didn’t you?

“That sounds tough.” John had yet to come up with a good response to that. He couldn’t wait too long.

“It’s hard.” She seemed pleased with that.

“So what year are you?”

“I’m a junior. About to graduate.” That got her attention.

“With two majors?” John laughed. “Oh my God! Kathleen!” The other girl looked up from the group she was mingling with. She mouthed ‘what?’ “Come here a sec.” The other girl seemed to sigh inwardly and walked over. It was at that moment that John realized that Dianne had been drinking. Not as much as him. But something. She was more intelligent than this normally. The other girl walked over. “This is John. He’s a, what did you say, a geology, no geophysics, computer science double major. And… he’s minoring in Chinese. AND… he’s a junior and about to graduate.” John couldn’t help but be amused by the other girl’s expression. She was more attractive than Dianne. He had three of a kind, all aces. He could go all in without a care in the world, with odds like that. Of course, not really. With a great hand, the point was to make it seem poor. Or... something. He guessed the poker analogy kind’ve broke down at this point.

Okay. So, he was now sandwiched between two girls, one hot, one hotter. Neither one going anywhere. He was going to get laid tonight. He’d just met them. Knew nothing about them. Their histories. Kathy had been drinking too. She wasn’t a science major though. John was disappointed by that. But whatev. He took a sip from his beer and made small talk. It probably didn’t even matter what he said. He could get deep into chemical principles, which he actually wanted to do. But that would alienate the newcomer. And that wasn’t what he wanted.

He made passing references to topics he thought Dianne might be interested in, to keep her engaged, while at the same time, letting Kathy talk about her love of art. She obviously was the friend from another school who was visiting.

Why, John, why? Good question. Long since stopped expecting an answer.

There was another knock on the door. And that was when it all went to hell.

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