Absolute Zero (Fiction)

By: Max Marinelli (Editor ‘22)

Some people see the beauty in this world through painting, some through music, nature, or movies, but I’m not some people. The first time I truly saw, not just with my eyes but with the entirety of my senses, I had just looked down from the number line engirdling my pale yellow kindergarten classroom on a chilly morning in early December. Ms. M’s class, which had previously presented itself to be a dull, piss-colored prison coated with chalk dust and pencil shavings, suddenly stretched out before me into the abysmal profundity of infinity.

Mathematics, as an obsession, was nothing new to my five-year-old self; I had always been fascinated with distance, volume, strength, mass—anything quantifiable. The order of the planets and their distances from the sun, an ingrained list since age three; metric-to-customary unit conversion, a nervous habit as the biting of nails or the twiddling of thumbs is to other children; an urge to gauge—and, to my mother’s disdain, shout out from my seat in the shopping cart she helmed—the height, weight, and age of the other patrons at the grocery store, an irresistible instinct.

The grocery store was a computational paradise. My mathematician uncle had taught me about Fibonacci on Christmas Eve the year before I started school, and his sequence encompassed my Mom and me as we trundled down the aisles: the splitting of bananas (3 sections), the Fibonacci spirals found in the minuscule seeds of the sunflowers we bought at the grocery’s flower shop (55 spirals), the diagonals of a pineapple (21; 8 in one direction, 13 in the other). I spent half an hour counting those sunflower seeds, not to mention the time I lazed away calculating the price of an arbitrary mass of sanguine strawberries while wheeling through the produce section, of a block of cheddar cheese or a cut of honey-baked ham while passing by the deli. My mathematical prowess was not completely lost on my Mom, though, as I was busied with the task of determining the greatest deal the store had to offer on cereal and paper towels.

I averted my eyes from the number line down to Ms. M, who was busy chalking up a simple addition problem: 16 + 11. Seeing that there were six other unsolved equations up on the board, I briskly began to jot down 27 in my notebook when I noticed something odd enveloping my pencil… 645. The paper was covered in little figures as well… -8. I dropped my pencil, but as I turned to pick it up, I noticed something outside: the final, wilted leaves of fall, 16; the clouded, blue-black sky 2; the chilled breath of the crossing guard walking by upon leaving his post, -2. Even Ms. M appeared to have been stamped. For the first time in my short existence on this ancient, perfectly-positioned planet, just about 91.7 million miles from the beautiful yellow dwarf star we call the sun, I opened my eyes. Assigning a value to everyday objects, and even living things, had never before crossed my perpetually developing mind: now it had blown up my world in a supernova of numerals, both negative and positive.

Today marks 12.5 years, or about 652 weeks, or 4563 days, or—well, you get the point—since that fateful day. I’ve since discovered that each variety of almost all inanimate objects and non-animalistic organisms have the same number; that is to say, grapes are always 268 (so are raisins), bricks are 256 (dirt, mud, and clay follow suit), and water is 5 (meaning, in case you still haven’t caught on, that snow, ice, and steam are also 5). And pie is, as you may have guessed, my favorite dessert.

The complicated part about seeing through numerals, if the rest hadn’t already confused you, is that animals don’t actually show up with a factory-assigned number; once a person or pet develops their number, they’ve essentially cemented their place in the rare collection of those I truly care about. These numbers never go away, either. My childhood best friend, Jordan, who moved across the country to live with his dad when we were 10, moved back last year, and he still festooned his number, 77, when we walked into the same English class on the first day of junior year. For some reason, other people always get multiples of 11. My Mom: 11, Dad: 22, younger brother: 33, younger sister: 44. I didn’t find out until I went to the bathroom after recess and looked in the mirror, on that cold December day, that I had been branded with an exception to my rule, 1. All of this, by the summer before senior year, was old news.

I mean, I assumed that I would have grown out of this “phase,” if you can call it that, by now, but things had still gone relatively well for me. Throughout high school, I never needed to lift a finger in order to ace any science, math, or language course: language may seem misaligned with my skill set, but my knack for pattern recognition had overridden my poor ability to roll my “R’s” in Spanish class. I managed to excel in nearly any subject I took on, and although history hadn’t been a favorite, my school allowed me to drop it after two full-year courses. There was one roadblock, though—an impasse, as you would likely want me to call it, Mr. Davis—English class. That’s why I’m writing this instead of seeing a movie with my girlfriend or driving down to the shore to get drunk with my friends on someone’s grandparents’ balcony: because, according to my final grade of 65%, I was unable to effectively write a personal essay. As you know, sir, you offered me the 5% extra credit that I would need to avoid summer school, so I’m trying not to disappoint.

My girlfriend is the main reason I’m even attempting to expel all of this bullsh*t, though, if I’m supposed to be honest. She’s the only other person, besides soon-to-be-you, who knows about the whole numeral fiasco. This girl… she has no number. She’s told me that she loves me, and I’ve told her that I love her—and I do love her, as much as I understand that I can, but she still has no visible number. That’s where the real problems start. It’s perfectly clear to me that I can just go to summer school, pass English there with infinitesimal effort, and still go to a local community college for two years before transferring to somewhere my parents had always dreamed I’d go. Then there’s her. She wants me to go to undergrad with her, and all of the schools she’s applying to are A-list universities; make more sense why these places can’t see that I went to summer school on my transcript?

When I first sat down to write this, the prospect of writing anything real was slim to none. The chance—or, to put it into more mathematical terms, probability—that I would even try to follow my girlfriend to university was almost 0. Then I realized, that’s her number… 0. The multiple of every number, she must have been 0; for once, the answer to the hardest question in my young life was, well, absolutely nothing. At that point, I traded my pencil in for my car keys and promptly sped over to her house. Nearly thrusting the door off its hinges, I busted into her living room, and there she was, waiting for me on the couch. Highlighting the catalyst of my future, I saw, was absolute nothingness. My discovery was supercalifragilistic. The inspiration I had been looking for this whole year to write this damn essay, to take the leap and commit to a girl with no number, flooded over me. I pecked her on the cheek and rushed back home. Believe it or not, I actually wrote this concluding paragraph before I wrote the buildup, sort of like eating pumpkin pie before you even carve the turkey on Thanksgiving: you know you might not have a taste for the salty dryness of the meat after experiencing the sweetness of the pie, but you do it anyway, because sometimes the destination really is more important than the journey. Oh, and in case you were still wondering: yes, I see a non-repeating, non-terminating string of numbers when I look at a pie, but maybe someday I’ll just see crust and filling—frankly, I don’t know how to feel about that.

© 1845-2020, Focus, the official newspaper of Friends' Central Upper School

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