Solve for X

January 19, 2018
By , Providence, RI

The light sifting through the bedroom windowsill is dying slowly as the little city outside descends into dusk. Though each minute steals more sun rays from Quinn’s room, he isn’t paying attention to any lights but the dim one radiating from the screen of his phone, four inches away from his face. A few feet in front of him, he has sprawled out a few notebooks, a graphing calculator, and a textbook as a feeble incentive to get to work. The day has been long; this morning, he opened his eyes to find his clock blaring out a time dangerously close to that at which the first bell at school rings, so he had to scramble to get ready and fly out of the door without eating breakfast, feeling uncomfortably weightless, distant, and entirely dizzy. Later, he had an essay to write on why the Reconstruction failed in Louisiana; he had to squint his eyes at small Spanish print which he didn’t understand for forty-five minutes while trying to decipher the conjugations and subjunctives into something, anything coherent. His volleyball coach demanded burpees on the pungent-smelling, uneven, rigid court for each serve that didn't make it over the net in the game yesterday, and now all Quinn wants to do is sink deeper and deeper into the Barstool Sports Instagram feed until it stops being funny or until his brain sizzles like a fried egg ready to be flipped. Whichever comes first, probably the latter. He has hours before he needs to sleep, so studying for his quiz on natural logarithms can wait. Right now, he needs distractions, and that’s what he will get as long as his phone is visible to him.

When he finally manages to tear his eyes from the glowing Pandora’s Box, it takes a little while for his vision to adjust. Quinn frowns, unable to make out the font of his precalculus textbook. The darkness has curled its way from the street outside into his bedroom, and now he sifts through it to flip up gently on the light switch a few feet away from where he has been sitting at his frenzy of a desk. Instantly, the room illuminates everything in it with a satisfying glow, highlighting the mess Quinn left this morning as he skated through his room, hastily grabbing all the things he needed for the day and stuffing them into his backpack. It is because he overslept… yes, that’s it. He didn't go to bed until 1:30 last night; his biology homework wasn’t going to do itself, after all, and he'd already dwindled away about three hours on Snapchat after he took his post-practice shower before getting started on his homework. So he had no choice but to go to bed late, but anyway, it had all tuned out okay, in the end… well, he got to school on time this morning, didn't he? Quinn shakes his head, believing it’ll be enough to silence the distracting thoughts.

“No more,” he mumbles under his breath. “Math now.” He stumbles back to his desk.

The truth is that logarithms are fairly basic if you understand all the rules and how to manipulate them and know what they mean. If you can twist the numbers around just right, they create a straightforward solution that you can plug right back in and check for validity. Quinn is going to coast through this quiz tomorrow; there’s no question. It’s so simple. He doesn’t bother going over the rules because he just knows—he’s done them a million times in class and a million more in the period before class when he realizes that he had homework he hasn’t yet done.

Quinn swigs confidently from his water bottle, his trepidation over his dilly-dalliances slowly draining from the base of his throat down, down, down past his stomach until he no longer feels it. A startling buzz is enough to anchor his attention now in the still silence that fills his mind and ears; he glances down onto his desk again, where a notification from Twitter reanimates the screen of his phone. It is instinct: he opens it, checks his recent messages, opens Instagram, sends pictures of himself over and over and over on Snapchat, not even pausing to process those who send him their own faces. There are no people, only streaks; no stories, only blatant yet obligatory calls for attention, begging to stand out while doing exactly what everyone else does. But still, there is something that draws him back; something, though he knows not what, tangles him into the vortex of sending and receiving, checking and responding, gazing emptily at the names that fill his screen. Somehow, someway, they are so much more worth his time than his math homework. They are everything. Those names are whom he sits with at lunch, who determines his circles at school, who laughs at his jokes, whose parties he can go to, whom he “talks” to, who pout into the camera while their clothes hang at dangerous depths to conceal the bare minimum. This little screen, hardly bigger than his hand, can do so much. It is the nuclear code of any high school student; with the push of a button, the snap of a picture, the send of a text, or the release of a private conversation is enough to cast eyes down in the hallway, send glares of daggers between friends, whisper slander, ruin secrets, and devastate self-image. It can explode, and no one can be spared from this bomb. But it can’t do Quinn’s homework for him. In fact, more often than not, it’s the culprit for the unanswered questions on worksheets and black stare on his face in class as the teachers lecture. Quinn knows this. Yet he Snaps on. And on and on and on.

When Quinn finally releases the phone from his clammy grip, it is because the battery has drained completely. Groggily, he glances at the time on his clock: 12:08 AM. He grimaces. How did that happen? He shrugs it off, but the unease drapes over him. He cannot shake it off, no matter how many times he rolls over in his sheets tonight. He spent six hours staring at himself, running his thumb up and down his phone screen, and he can’t even remember one particular thing that had made it worth it. He spent six hours staring at his phone, and he couldn’t even tell you what he had actually done online in all that time if you asked him. He has just been hypnotized, captivated, utterly entranced. It is unnerving, especially when he realizes that he does this almost every day. It doesn’t make sense.

Groaning, Quinn finally manages to find a comfortable dent in the pillow that removes some of the tension from his shoulders. But even as he falls asleep, a part of him remains taut, on edge, keeping an eye out for someone or something that might be cheating him somehow. His sleep is troubled tonight; he does not remember dreaming when he wakes up.

Quinn heaves himself behind the desk. It is his last period; he just has to finish this quiz and then, then he can finally rest. A sigh of relief escapes his lungs just as the his precalculus teacher, Ms. Rider, drops the paper onto his desk and swiftly brushes past him. Quinn flips the paper. His pulse immediately begins to go into overdrive when he sees the first problem, and then the next one, and the ones after that… oh my God, he totally forgot that the graphs were going to be on the quiz too; the material escapes him entirely. He gapes at the problem, thrown for a loop, his throat suddenly narrowing and drawing shallow breaths from him. It is warm, hot, stifling; the room’s temperature must have gone up fifteen degrees in thirty seconds.

The directions leer at him belligerently: Solve for x. If only it were that simple. If only he’d taken fifteen minutes actually to look at the study guide last night…. SOLVE FOR X. Solve it, Quinn. Solve for x.

The numbers do the tango on the paper. They spin and contort and mangle themselves together, but no matter how they are arranged, Quinn can make no sense of them. His mouth has gone dry, his sandpaper throat scratching every time he anxiously runs his tongue over his lips. His palms have grown so cold and clammy that his pencil keeps slipping every time he tries to write anything. He has absolutely no idea. Not a clue. That's why the paper is half empty when he hands it back to Ms. Rider, who raises a disapproving eyebrow at him. Quinn looks away and returns to his desk.

That night, when Quinn gets home from practice, he flops down onto his bed, tossing his English homework onto his desk with the intention of doing it as soon as he can get up from his inviting pillows. His eyelids flutter closed in exhaustion and frustration. He is more responsible than this, isn’t he? What was he thinking yesterday? Whatever, it doesn't matter anymore. Never again will he make such a stupid mistake. Not on his English test, which is tomorrow. No, Quinn says to himself, from here on out, I will be different. This is the beginning of a new me.

A vibration from his back pocket jerks him away from his motivational train of thought. His eyes scan the dark screen just as the text springs to life.

Riders quiz was brutal, amirite? It is from Chuck, his classmate. I tagged u in something on Instagram. U see?

Quinn grins and eagerly opens the Instagram app as the sunlight out on the street begins to drain, just like yesterday. So much for never again.

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