The Elegant Balance of a True Friendship
Two mathematicians but they are more friends than colleagues. The older of the two, Henry, teaches to graduate students in Tokyo while Liam, fifteen years his junior, works as a consultant for a private contractor in Madison. Liam makes fun of Henry because his name pentadecimally has more letters than his in correlation with the gap in their ages, but no one but them finds it funny. The two have been sending each other letters every month for the past eighteen years, on the days or weeks of the calendar marked with a prime number as another inside joke.
What did the triangle tell the circle? Henry asks Liam in his last letter before Christmas, postmarked on the twenty-third day of the month.
What? Liam asks in his reply.
You’re pointless, Henry writes back two weeks later.
They have a tradition where they send a pen nib back and forth as part of their snail mail correspondence, to be used for when someone important in their field passes away. The rule is that whoever is in possession of the nib on the day of the news should write a few words after the deceased and reserve a memorial spot in either The Times or The Tribune, the only two international papers distributed to where each lives. They’ve only made use of the nib six times in eighteen years, the last dedicated to Henry’s professor from his doctorate, who had lent him the nib in the first place. As the recipient of the nib, Henry wrote a numerically melodic eulogy for the man, showing his gratitude and appreciation in iambic pentameter. When he later tried to describe the experience to Liam, he used such quaint words as exultant and qualmish, the kind of feelings only the people past a certain age like him would feel.
In one of his more recent letters to Liam, Henry writes, What’s one word that starts with an E and ends with an E and only has one letter in between?
Liam replies: Envelope. He knows this thanks to the video his son shared on Twitter a few months back, which is also probably where Henry saw it.
Two months later, following their longest lapse in communication, Henry asks again in another letter: What’s one word that starts with an E and ends with an E and only has one letter in between?
Envelope, Liam writes at first but then, keeping in mind his friend’s declining health, replaces his paper with new stationery to ask him, What?
You’re pointless, Henry replies.
The next morning, before Liam can make it to the post office, he receives a phone call from Henry’s stepdaughter in Tokyo. Her father has passed away in his sleep.
“Toward the end, he started naming his friends after the months they died in,” she tells him. “So I guess you can start calling him August from now on.”
Today, it’s Liam’s turn to feel qualmish. He feels as if his past and present are drifting apart in front of his eyes like the continents that have separated them for all these years. As Henry used to complain, numbers defined an invariable order of things, dictating in an industrial precision what came before and what came after, unlike people; with people, he would say, it was all so random, the young going before the old, the big turning small. It pulls him from both edges like the tug-of-war that’s been happening inside him since losing his younger brother as a kid to the sea.
That morning, the nib in his possession, Liam’s mind cooks with possibilities. These days, the nib is chewed on its back end, showing all the wear and tear of its travels. Following the advice he gives to clients, he waits for the right moment, which happens on the seventh day of the month. It’s one of the sparkly ones, as Henry used to call them, a sensation he hasn’t felt in so long, most definitely not after he took up this stupid job. He sits at his desk looking out to the sea and goes through all 206 letters Henry has sent him over the years. He makes a list of all the jokes his friend made, both good and bad. He cuts parts from each joke and stitches them together with some others that have irregularly stretched out over two decades of long-distance friendship. He shuffles them as if they are variables of a formula whose outcome is yet unknown.
On the seventeenth day of the next month, the opening line of Henry’s memorial in The Times reads, What does the triangle say to a word that starts with an E and ends with an E and has one daughter in between?
On the same day, Henry’s memorial in The Tribune opens with: What does a heartbroken circle tell August?
Liam runs the memorials every week, each time with a newly pastiched joke. To his surprise, some people write back to him—and sometimes, thanks to the irony of fate, on prime number days. It’s not only colleagues who get in touch with him but also underappreciated kids, underpaid husbands, and undervoiced housewives from around the world. Sometimes, they confuse the jokes and accidentally generate new ones between their lines, which makes the outcome even more interesting for Liam.
We need new words, reads the letter of a high-school teacher from Leeds, where Liam’s mother was from.
An infinite amount of them, Liam writes back. Not unlike numbers if you ask me.
Months later, the day before Henry’s first anniversary, Liam pens a new joke to his old friend and slides the nib into the envelope. He writes Henry’s address in Tokyo on the flip side and tosses the letter in the mailbox, hoping one day it will be his turn again.
Home he walks, five steps at a time.