5/29/20, 3:29 PM:
Grace (Across) >> Do you wanna do a crossword?
Coming back from a protest rn—in 20 min or so? << Sara (Down)
The epigraph to E.M. Forster’s Howards End reads, famously, “Only connect.” The book is concerned with the question of communion: Can language, music, or paint meaningfully bring two people closer together? I don’t know. Recently, I’ve learned a lot more about distance than I have about intimacy. Sara and I became friends two-and-a-half years ago. In the time since, we’ve shared walks in Riverside Park, trips to gardening stores, late-night subway rides, even later night conversations on dorm room floors, and many an excursion to Jin Ramen. Those experiences are impossible to replicate virtually; some kinds of interpersonal connection are only possible in a Cathedral Gardens double or over a warm bowl of noodles. I am certain, however, that words can still connect. I’ve seen it happen, one answer sliding against another in a grid, letters marching into place like chess pieces.
These days—and I say this in the 2020 sense, meaning over the last three or four global crises—Grace and I have moved our friendship out of dorm rooms and onto a new platform: the New Yorker collaborative crossword setting. Remember when crosswords were lonely? Nerdy? Prompted questions like “Why am I staring at my phone eating Hewitt pizza alone at 2 p.m. for the fourth time this week and what am I doing with my youth?” Not anymore. Though they have not managed to refashion crosswords into anything that might be termed “sexy” or “cool”, the fine folks at the New Yorker have managed to make them social. These days, that’s a miracle in its own right: When Grace and I open the page, our cursors come up next to each other on the grid. She’s still 1,300 miles away, but each of our isolations becomes a little less lonely.
Before March, I was only an occasional completor of crossword puzzles. I remember sitting in the Columbia music library last December, filled with caffeine, trying to work through layers of nerves and turning to the soothing power of clues and answers. Puzzles were solitary then, though my solving experiences rarely involved Hewitt pizza. Hunched over a desk with a stack of closed textbooks beside me, only I knew my solve time or whether I had looked up the title of Cher’s first film. Since this summer, more of my crossword experiences have been shared, usually with Sara. The ones I do alone now feel different. Without Sara on the phone, talking to me as we work, I’m not sure who to turn to when a clue references John Donne. Our collaboration creates moments of unity, but also little flashes of tension: Sometimes I’m ready to click “check grid”–which reveals your mistakes–and figure out which stupid square is incorrectly filled even as Sara, with admirable dignity, insists that we manually comb through the puzzle again before admitting defeat.
And then I just go to the square I think might be wrong and type in every letter in the alphabet in quick succession, hoping that Grace isn’t watching them change, but knowing that she is. When we do a crossword together, I feel like we’re recovering some slice of the continual puzzle of living in-person, the confusion and stumbles of real life experienced with someone else. I learn what Grace knows, I learn what I know; I test the bounds of something besides my internet speed. It’s not just that we get to talk while we puzzle, and for once not about ourselves or a global crisis: it’s that we are making something together. Each word she fills in is a block I can build off of; each phrase I screw up is something she must help me correct.
Crossword solving is a strange creative act. It feels more dignified than paint-by-numbers but it requires a similar capitulation to a master plan drawn by someone else. Even without the co-solving feature, the puzzle was really never solitary—I was working within the constructor’s vision, even when I couldn’t see it. The boxes, which seem to fill themselves as Sara works, unmistakably announce the presence of another person. The intersection of rows requires my attention to her work as we figure out how to do something together.
In the middle of my junior year of college, I began to think about building out my life like—you guessed it—solving a crossword. There are obvious differences: you cannot spend as much time as you want on life; things are not always literally, and rarely figuratively, black and white in life; there’s no one right answer for life; there’s a far lower rate of truly abysmal jokes in life. Unobvious similarities: the easiest way to go about figuring out what to do next is to evaluate what you already know for sure; the hardest parts are the pieces you know must be included but don’t seem to fit; both are sometimes confounding and also sometimes hysterical; there are no linear paths to the finish; both are better with company. Try as I might, I’ve had to take everything square by square.
Some afternoons, when the winter sun sets around 4 p.m., I look around my darkening room and feel alone. “Hey,” I text Sara, “wanna do a crossword?”
Enjoy leafing through our ninth issue!