[Pt. 2] Ch. 54: [Interlude/Tess] “Arranged by your government – how interesting”
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Thursday, October 1st, evening
Tess’s Home

Tess had decided to check in with Mark before it got too late in the evening. Despite having suggested checking in like it was a perfectly natural thing, she found herself oddly uncomfortable calling the home of a boy she did not know well.

The phone rang a few times before someone picked it up. "Hello!" came a boy's voice, without further greeting. She didn't know Mark's voice that well, but it didn't sound the same.

"Hi, I'm trying to reach Mark Berg, is this the right number?" said Tess.

"Oh, yeah, he's here," said the voice.  "Hold on." She heard a soft thump as whoever it was set the handset down, and she heard the same voice at a distance say "Mark, it's for you."

Mark's response was inaudible, but his... roommate? ...picked up again and said, "Hold on, he's going to pick up in his room."

After about a minute, she heard another extension pick up, and then a voice that must have been Mark's said, "OK, I'm on," followed by the sound of an extension hanging up. After it had, he went on. "Hi Tess - that is you calling, right?"

"Yes," she said. "So, you have roommates? You said I wouldn't bother anyone by calling, so I may have jumped to the conclusion that you lived in one of the dorms near school."

"Nope, it's an apartment, and I've got a roommate," said Mark. "That was Joel."

Joel and Mark are roommates? Tess paused, considering how to delicately get more information. I guess it makes sense, they are the first American students I’ve heard of coming here. "Did the school set up private housing arrangements for you two?"

She hoped redirecting with a question tying it back to the school might elicit more details without seeming nosy. When Mark didn't respond at once, she went on, "Anyway, I'm sorry if I seem caught off guard. I was just calling to check if you'd had a chance to talk to Joel yet. You know, about that study help I might need?" Tess wanted to roll her eyes at the excuse, even if it had been her idea.

"Oh, yeah, I told him about it when he got back from soccer practice."

Tess breathed an inward sigh of relief that things were on track for Violet.  She scrambled to think of what to say next.  Should she drop the pretense and directly ask Mark more about his living situation? That seemed too blunt. Better to ease into it.

"Good, I'm glad you were able to mention it," she said, buying herself more time.  She tapped her fingers absently against her notebook as she considered the right approach. Maybe it would feel most natural to express polite interest first?

"So if you don't mind me asking..." Tess continued, "how did you and Joel end up where you are? I didn't realize international students could arrange their own housing." She kept her tone casual. That seemed reasonable enough.

"Oh, I guess didn't answer when you asked about whether the school arranged it. Sorry,” said Mark, and after a pause, “This was all set up by the American trade mission for us. I didn't even know the school had their own housing until after we got here."

Tess's curiosity was piqued even more by this new information. Their government set this up for them? He did say they were involved in selecting Joel, so this must come out of that... it added a whole extra layer of questions in her mind. However, she hesitated to bombard Mark with too many prying questions all at once.

"Arranged by your government - how interesting," Tess responded, hoping to subtly encourage Mark to elaborate. When he didn't immediately volunteer more, she debated asking another follow up question. She didn't want to come across as nosy, but the mystery was killing her!

Deciding against it, Tess continued, "Well anyway, I do appreciate you talking to Joel already. So Violet should be good to ask him tomorrow morning?"

"For sure," said Mark, and then after a moment's hesitation, "actually, before you go, I don't suppose you'd mind talking a little bit about the paper for our class?  I told Joel you'd asked for my help, like you suggested, but it think might actually be helpful for me to be able to talk about it with you about the paper. Ummm, if you don't mind?

Tess's eyes lit up at the request. While she still had questions about Joel and Mark's situation, she was unsure whether this was an opportunity to follow through on the pretense, or if Mark was genuinely interested. She thought of herself as a good judge of people, and quickly decided that he really was interested in talking about the class. "Of course I don't mind," she said. "How did you put it before, 'you're trying to do something nice for one of my friends?'"

That got a chuckle out of Mark, who then asked, "What did you end up picking for a subject?"

Tess explained that her paper was focused on the rise of the First Empire. As they discussed the assignment, she found it surprisingly engaging to dig into ideas with Mark. History was a clear interest of his, even if he sounded a bit anxious about writing. Worrying a little that she might lose track of time, before long she had to interrupt the conversation. "I'm sorry to cut this short, Mark, but I need to call Violet before it gets too late for her parents."

"No problem," he said, "and thanks! It was really good to get an idea of how someone else is approaching this. Wish Violet good luck for me."

"Of course," said Tess, “and you're welcome. Have a good night!”

Tess ended the call so she could let Violet know that she could approach Joel tomorrow as planned.