This is a kind of love story. The sentence for this installment is the following:
“The love of your life will appear before you unexpectedly.”
On what turned out to be March 16, 2006, I was sitting in Goodrich Hall in Williamstown, Massachusetts, doing the New York Times crossword with my crossword friends. It was a Thursday, which was my favorite day to the crossword: maximum cleverness (rather than the blunter difficulties of Friday’s or Saturday’s puzzle), along with its being readily accessible at Goodrich, which is where my crossword friends and I got lunch. Sunday’s puzzle, though it often has the same measure of cleverness as a good Thursday, runs on a little long, like a joke that has gone through two too many iterations of its setup. Also, when I was in college, I usually had a hangover on Sunday, plus they didn’t deliver the Sunday paper to Goodrich, so I’d have to go to the library and make a copy: a big production. Anyway I was doing what I would eventually rediscover to have been the March 16, 2006 crossword with my crossword friends and at one point I cracked the theme of the long clues. The gimmick of the long clues in this puzzle, by Ben Tausig, was brilliant. I swacked at the table, I honked, I was rendered nonverbal. I happened to have arrived at the gimmick ahead of most of my friends, and so I stared with dumb anticipation of them coming along to getting it and enjoying this tremendous piece of verbal cleverness with me. And I that’s the day that I met what I would refer to, with wavering degrees of specificity over the next eight years and five months, as my favorite crossword.
Sometime in early 2013, I was texting one of the people with whom I used to do the crossword at Goodrich, and reiterating my new complaint, which was that everyday was like Sunday, in the sense that I was everyday forced to go to the library at my new school, and make a copy of the crossword. No more the free deliveries of the headstrong middle-aughts, when print media were in a richer form of denial about their demise. Sometimes the Times didn’t show up to the library at all, and where was I then? My crossword friend obliged me with her father’s Times password, and I exulted in it, dutifully logging in and printing out the crossword every morning (I didn’t do the online version, to avoid interfering with my friend’s father’s filling in the crossword himself, and later, at this friend’s wedding, I found myself standing next to the father, whom I had not met, and only just barely restrained myself from telling him all of this). That’s how I did the crossword until June, 2014, when I was going away to a summer program in Ithaca New York to study literary theory, and where I feared I might not have access to a printer; and then I finally got my own subscription, and took up doing the crossword online, without the possibility of ruining things for any friends’ fathers.
During these renewed months of diurnal crossword completion, another thing I would not do, I am sorry to say, is shut up about them, and about the ghost of my favorite crossword in particular. On a certain level, doing the crossword is a way to emphatically be by yourself. There’s a reason that on The Office it’s standoffish Stanley, rather than any of the more gregarious characters, whose thing is that he does crossword puzzles. The famous supposed reason for even reading fiction — that it encourages empathy — is in most senses vacated from any kind of word puzzle: in spite of the grid, it’s difficult to “only connect” with 12 Across. Nevertheless, what I wanted to impress — on my scattered crossword friends over gchat and text, on my poor mother and brothers and sister mostly in person — was a kind of at least promise of communal appreciation of the things that words can do — and the things that, more granularly, letters can do, when they are just slight detached from semantics and left to float a little on their own. I adored not just my half-remembered favorite crossword, but others — the one with the eclipses, the one with the cyclone, the one with the Moby-Dick theme that I paid an entire six dollars for at a gas station in North Carolina — and I really wanted, somehow, to make my adoration shared. Despite this, the main thing that people — correctly! — said to my accounts of crosswords overcome were either a polite “that’s clever” or, on the part of my mother, a semi-outraged “why would they think you should know that?” My mother’s question crystallized, I think, a part of the contingency of community that the “fiendish” instances of crosswords promise. There really is no reason that I should have known that 13 of the squares should have two letters in them, and that each of the two letter squares would contain the state abbreviations of the original colonies. But someone thought that some people might know, and I was one of them. There is a sense in which the shared contingent community that that hope to be understood and to understand is a very low wattage instance of love.
In addition to the relief that I would not accidentally spoil my friend’s father’s crossword, and that I was now supporting The New York Times in its various missions to inform and entertain, I was now able, starting in June 2014, to wade around into the puzzle’s back catalog; and part of what that meant was that I was able to begin a hunt for my adored favorite crossword. I remembered the following about it: (1) the gimmick, which I am not going to spoil here, but which I am only too happy to talk about when asked; (2) that it occurred during the academic-year months of the four years I was in college; and (3) that it ran on a Thursday. A part of me thought that I might start in 2003, and march through the Thursdays (skipping summers) until I found it, but I decided that — unlike the rest of this project — such diligence was insane. So instead I would pick a month and year at random and, usually once every two days, if I had already done most recent crossword and failed to slake my appetite for gridded wordplay, do another one. I bounded around like that for a few months, and one day I went to the P.F. Chang’s in Natick, Massachusetts, which is inside of a mall, and ate the Spring Rolls and Street Noodles and got a fortune cookie, the slip of paper inside of which said on it “The love of your life will appear before you unexpectedly.” This was something about which to think on the hot drive home, on a night in August, from the Natick P.F. Chang’s where I had just eaten dinner by myself.
Based on the narrative contour of this story so far, I cannot act like it is a big reveal that, later that night — a Tuesday — after I barreled through the day’s crossword, and a random Thursday from my college years, I, like Charlie Bucket deciding to buy ooooone more Wonka Bar, decided that my course preparation could continue to wait, and that I clicked on the crossword for March 16, 2006, and the down fills led to me seeing that 17 Across began YGO, a very rare trigram to begin a word, and I squelped a little noise as I remembered the first of the themed clues from my favorite crossword and realized what I had just come across, and blissfully completed the fill, grinning dumbly and looking around with a simultaneously word-derived and wordless kind of joy. Whether or not the fortune cookie’s prophecy had been, so quickly, fulfilled, is something on which I continue, years later, to think.