Sets, Subsets, and Strangers

by Sarah Liu, Cornell University

Posted in on Wednesday, Apr 30

A wave of laughter sweeps away my thought. My right arm pauses in mid-motion, coffee cup hovering a finger width away from my lips. I shift in my seat to peer at the culprits responsible for my forgotten math proof.

Five students sit in Libe Café’s black couches, three male and two female. A girl with long blond hair perches at the edge of her seat, gesticulating a piece of paper. The boy to her right flings his arms in the air, laughing as he throws himself back against the cushion. Another boy, across from the blond, bows mockingly in his chair. When he straightens, his body faces mine, and I note his green eyes, crinkled behind black-framed glasses, and his lips, curved into an open grin. The other girl’s forehead is hidden behind her palms, and her fingers are woven through her short hair. Her quivering shoulders, however, betray her. She leans right, bumping against the fifth boy of their group, who casually swings an arm around her shoulders and presses his lips against her pale fingers and black hair.

I snap my head back to the paper in front of me, a vague something wandering through my lower chest. To stave off further analysis, my right arm completes its journey to my mouth, and I greet the incoming coffee. The bitter liquid’s warmth fails to unblur the mess of equations before my eyes, though, and only accentuates the fuzzy emotion imparted by the group of strangers.

I rest my head against my hand, elbow perpendicular against the grey table. Reluctantly, I tilt my head until I see the five. Scattered amongst thick paper packets and open textbooks are coffee cups and empty wax wrappers. Draped across couches are the students, either peering at papers through half-closed lids or bent over textbooks. The blond leans into the boy on her right, pointing to something on her spiral notebook. He laughs and gently pushes her head away with his left hand, his fingers momentarily disappearing in her hair.

I close my eyes and nudge the ache inside myself, frowning as I run through a list of emotions. I look at the friends again and reluctantly identify the twinge: longing.
I fumble open my laptop lid, fingers skimming over square keys. Just a double click to open up Mozilla Firefox and a few strokes later, my Gmail inbox loads. I open the current thread between my high school friends and me, 63 emails long, and hit reply:
“Ithaca is friggin’ frigid. I still miss you guys. Intensely.”

I plug in my earphones, pull up iTunes, and play Augustana’s “Boston.” My friends and I declared the song ours during an all-night study session turned “Friends” marathon. I fidget, suddenly uncomfortable in Libe’s wooden chair. Instead, I want to be curled up on Lara’s yellow bean bag with its lopsided stitched-on smiley face. I’d take a nap, but there’s no DaEun in Ithaca to shake me awake. Only she would brave my half-conscious flails against cognizance and homework. I’d drink Red Bull to wake me up, but without Ada’s classic shudder of “Ugh! Sweaty socks!” the drink loses its potency. Even our song sounds flat, unaccompanied by the crackle of chips and our off-key warbles.
Expelling a sigh, I push my laptop away and stare again at my math proof: cardinality and set theory. The dissatisfaction in my throat refuses to be dislodged, though, and I blanch as a peculiar warmth pools behind my eyelids. The text before me blurs. Oh no, oh no. I stiffen on the edge of my seat, both hands squeezing the table’s rounded edge. Rapid blinks are to no avail, and I dash out of Libe Café, down to the women’s restroom.

A quick check: no other feet present. Deliberate steps carry me to the sink furthest from the door. I press both palms on the sink’s cracked surface, focusing on the coldness seeping from the porcelain into my skin. I raise my head until I’m staring into my eyes: small, the color of roast coffee and rimmed with red. I suck in a few shuddering breaths, pleading with my reflection to regain control.

“Snap out of it!”

I startle at the sound of my voice, its echoes vibrating against the mirrors. Casting about another glance to ensure my solitude, I say more firmly, “Snap out of it.”
“Nothing is wrong with my life.” I pause. “Well, except for this whole talking to myself deal,” I concede, desperately relieved that no one can overhear.

I think back two years to lunch with a co-worker the summer after my high school senior year. At In-N-Out, while waiting for our numbers to be called, he turned to me and punched my shoulder.

“You’re gonna be a college kid! Man, I wish I could go back to college. Best four years of my life.”

“Yeah? Everyone keeps telling me that!”

“It’s the truth. I met my best friends in college. You’re gonna love it.”

My lips twist as I remember my excitement. Cornell University with its streaming webcam, depicting moving figures, insignificant against the looming clock tower yet still swaggering as if to say, “Yeah, I belong here.” Cornell University with its Class of 2010 site, which I eagerly scrolled through to guess which faces would belong to my new best friends.

I toss my head, fingers sweeping my bangs to the side. No use in dwelling. I’d rather tackle the distinction between countable and uncountable infinity than this woolly constriction in my chest.

I stride back to my problem set, determined to prove that set A is a subset of set B. But they won’t stop laughing and my ears won’t stop listening and my chest won’t stop twisting and once more, I spring from my seat.

Eight steps, and I’m in line, but I don’t know what to get. My breathing is erratic, my fingers frenzied against my hip and my eyes roving through the shelves. Cereal? No. Croissant? Too dry. Apple? Brownie? No, no, no.

I spin out of line, startling the boy behind me. I turn red. Suddenly exhausted, I mumble “sorry” and shuffle back into hearing distance of the five.

Slumping in my chair, eyes unfocused, I prod this tangle of emotions. Better deal with it now, so I can get back to work. I tilt my head until I see the group again. Five people, a set of cardinality five. Are they a subset of a larger group or are they self-contained? No matter; within their group, at least, they belong. At Cornell, am I an element in any set of friends?

My breath hisses out between my teeth, and I bury my head in my hands. My fingers rake through my hair, my fists curl, and I gently tug, grounding myself in the strain against my scalp. I accept the terms of college, I chant to myself. I accept the terms consisting of a network of acquaintances ranging from the level of the awkward wave to the occasional dining partner, of a few classmates with a shared dislike of electromagnetism and maximum likelihood estimators – one-semester friendships formed out of a necessity to gripe and oh, we should hang out more often now that physics is over and oh, if only there was time! – and of ninety freshmen whom I watch through walls formed by my role as their resident advisor.

I glare at my half-finished problem set. How dare this group flaunt their shared jokes as if to inform my caffeinated self that sleep isn’t the only thing missing from my life? How dare they, with their easy familiarity, make me feel ashamed to be homesick because after nearly four semesters, Cornell still does not feel like home?

I open my eyes to empty couches, unused napkins, and three discarded coffee cups. They have left. The ball inside me loosens, and I’m surprised to discover a not unpleasant aftertaste. Lingering echoes of their laughter fade from my mind, leaving faint stirrings of… hope? I wiggle my cell phone from my jeans pocket. It rests momentarily, a warm weight against my palm, before I flip it open. My thumb slows its rhythmic tapping on the down arrow as I reach the H’s of my contact list, stopping at “Hannah.” A brief hesitation before the “Send” button yields to my finger, and
“Sara?” Her surprise is evident.

“Hey! Did I wake you up?”

“Oh definitely. I mean, it’s almost one! Don’t you know all engineers go to bed by midnight?”

We laugh.

“Yeah, especially when problem sets are due the next day,” I say.

“Haha. Next time the words, ‘hey, fluid mechanics sounds like it’ll be useful’ leaves my mouth, be a friend and just knock me unconscious until add-drop is over, k?”

“Gladly,” I say, inflecting a mock-ominous tone into my voice. Again, I hear laughter through the earpiece. “Hey. I was wondering, though, d’you wanna grab dinner sometime? I feel like I haven’t seen you in forever!”

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