Spencer could solve a Rubik’s cube behind his back in thirty seconds. At least that’s how I remember it. In high school, Spencer occupied a middle-low category: his company was neither sought nor avoided. But the cube caused a stir. Suddenly, people were surrounding him in the hallways, asking him to do it again, wondering if they could have a try. In class, we would hover around his desk to gape at his performance. He carried it with him everywhere, head down, fingers working. Even after the crowd had thinned, and we all fell back into step with the rhythms of our social hierarchy, the cube stayed with Spencer, like some confounding talisman whose secrets he enjoyed while the rest of us scratched our heads.
I hadn’t thought about Spencer in a long time. Not even the cold November afternoon I fell down a YouTube rabbit hole of speedcubing competition footage. Speedcubing is what it sounds like: a gathering of people — almost all tween boys — who compete to solve Rubik’s cubes as fast as they can. Competitors sit side by side at long tables, where volunteers deliver scrambled cubes hidden beneath cardboard covers. Judges remove the covers, giving cubers fifteen seconds to observe their cube, turning it in their hands, calculating their first moves. Then a breathless pause as they place the cube back down, put both hands flat on the table, and wait for the timer.
There’s a hypnotic mania to the spectacle of practiced hands speed-solving a Rubik’s cube. The fingers don’t so much move as react automatically to the scramble, launching out like slingshots, two paces ahead of the next step. Elite cubers can solve a classic 3X3 in ten seconds. Nine seconds. Eight seconds. The world record is 4.73. I watched hours of this despite knowing exactly what would happen each time: over and over, the cube is a blur until it’s perfect.
I was already a perfectionist by the time Spencer began to bring his cube to school. I would stay up through the night regularly before essay deadlines, agonizing for hours over the construction of a single sentence. Did the cadence sound right? Was its length in relation to the length of the other sentences in the paragraph pleasing, or repetitive? Was a particular word pretentious, or appropriately specific? I would imagine the inner monologues of my teachers as they read my work. What simple-minded reasoning, they would think. How unoriginal, embarrassing — actually the worst essay I’ve ever graded. Or, if I was feeling especially savage: How trite. My high grade point average was, I knew deep down, mostly the result of a new age of coddling and grade inflation in schools.
When non-perfectionists imagine perfectionists — especially young perfectionists — the vision rarely extends beyond the person in the context of schoolwork. Maybe they’ll picture a child who only colors inside the lines, or a student who fusses over the symmetry of the three-dimensional skin cell model they were assigned for science class. There’s even a charming quality to the imagined perfectionist — a meticulous, hard-working kid with great attention to detail, who surely will go far.
But real perfectionism doesn’t subside in between assignments. In truth, it’s a voice that lurks in the brain almost all the time, invisible to all but those who experience it. It amplifies memories of past criticism just as we sit to begin new projects. It tells us our faces look weird and asymmetrical in photos. It discourages us from taking on challenges, lest they reveal to the world what we already know about ourselves: that we are frauds, and that our accomplishments are a fluke of some mysterious calculus involving mimicry and luck.
It was this voice that whispered to me years ago, when, as a kid, I first discovered a Rubik’s cube in my father’s house. I picked it up, enticed by the playful colors. But soon it confused me. I didn’t understand how the tiles moved in relation to one another. I grew frustrated, then maddened, then anxious before putting it back down and never picking another one up again. You can’t do it because you are not smart enough, said the voice.
Which is why, perhaps, I found myself driving four hours north of my Brooklyn apartment to a speedcubing competition at University of Massachusetts Amherst this past December — to resolve unfinished business between me and the cube. Which might, by some extension of logic, resolve unfinished business between me and the voice. I wasn’t conscious of this at the time. All I knew was that I needed to witness speedcubing in person.
When I walked inside the high-ceilinged auditorium where the event was taking place, it was as though I’d entered one of the videos I’d watched. By and large, the cubers came up to my shoulders. The rattle of over a hundred cubes turning at once filled the room. Every few seconds, competitors dropped freshly solved cubes and slammed their hands down on table-timers in one frantic motion, their eyes snapping to the red digits on their clock. But they had to exert control. A trembling hand could jam a cube, causing it to explode into its individual tiles in the middle of a solve and sending its cuber into a fit of laughter or, more often, despair.
A mother with thinning brown hair saw me staring. She waved me over. Everyone, I would soon learn, wanted to teach non-cubers like me how to solve.
“I’m going to show you something really easy,” she told me. I forced a smile. Easy things were the worst type to fail. She took a cube from her purse and showed me the side with a white tile in the middle, explaining that the middle tile never moved, and therefore indicated what color that side was supposed to be. “I want you to just play around with it until you get a white cross on this side,” she instructed.
I took the cube. How could I get the white tile on the corner of the left side to the middle of the edge facing me? (This, I’d later learn, is impossible. Corner tiles are always corner tiles, and edge tiles are always edge tiles). I made tentative turns, stopping often. The mom busied herself watching her son compete, but I felt her eyes dart to me in intervals.
My face grew hot. I wanted to retreat back to my role as observer. It felt good to watch people solve — a comforting swing of tension and relief. Perfection was redundant and attainable here, available for mass consumption. Perfection was the default setting, speed the only variable.
“I think I need a hint,” I confessed. She walked me through a few steps until the white cross appeared, while I did my best to appear to pay attention. I thanked her and broke away, making my way to the other end of the room. Next to me, another mom filmed her son.
“When he was little and we would take walks around our neighborhood, I would see a fence,” she said. “He would see diamonds.”
The word diamond rung in my ear. I brought the image of one to mind: symmetrical and pleasing. There was something diamond-like about a Rubik’s cube — an object that guaranteed a way to erase all traces of its rough, unfinished state. It was a problem that could always be fixed, no matter how scrambled. Yet something about its solved state didn’t satisfy the people here. A cube solved in nine seconds was perfect. But a cube solved in eight was more perfect.
I noticed a boy with floppy dark hair in a red sweater. He was in eighth grade, small and super articulate, competing for the first time. He had a plucky confidence that stood out among the crowd — everything about him said power, except his size. I asked him what it felt like when he solved.
“Sometimes, it’s really relaxed,” he said. Then, motioning to the competition tables: “Not when I’m up there. That’s like, the opposite of relaxed.”
At the tables, cubers seemed to exist in their own universes, shielded by an impenetrable focus. Daniel Rose Levine, a ninth grader who would win the 3x3 event by the end of the nine-hour day, sat among them.
“We’re friends,” the eighth grader said of Daniel, almost protectively. Daniel had a thin frame made thinner by the over-sized hoodie he’d gotten from a national competition. He spoke in a low hush — a shy quality that seemed incongruous with his tendency to make unwavering, intense eye contact. He’d attended over thirty cubing competitions all over the United States, and was accompanied by his father, who carried printouts of his world rankings.
“I’m not really thinking when I do it,” Daniel told me, describing what it felt like to solve. Throughout the day, many cubers would say something similar. Speedcubing was automatic, vaguely soothing. But no, not particularly mysterious. Solving a cube was, for the most part, a straightforward matter of memorizing steps and recognizing patterns.
Still, some subsets of speedcubing were shrouded in mystery for the non-cuber onlooker. Today, Daniel had signed up to compete in something called the “multi-blind” event for the first time. I followed him to the room where it would take place. In contrast to the auditorium, the multi-blind room was deathly silent, the atmosphere abuzz with an almost palpable concentration. About ten competitors sat around a table. They looked older than the general group, in their late teens and early twenties. Some wore industrial-grade headphones to mute any trace of sound. They had exactly one hour in the room, during which they could memorize and solve as many cubes as they wanted — all differently scrambled — while blindfolded.
They stared at their cubes, memorizing. One man gestured wildly, like he was counting something invisible in the air. But most either hardly moved or spoke soundlessly to themselves, closing their eyes for long periods, incantation-like. Then, one by one, they lowered their blindfolds over their eyes, picked up a cube, and started to solve. At the end of the table closest to me, one competitor had laid out thirteen cubes. I watched him, transfixed. His hands trembled slightly while he turned the sides of the cube. The pace was slower in here, more methodical. Something very different was happening in the brains of these competitors than the ones racing in the other room. They were visualizing, breathing evenly. Every time the cuber with thirteen set a solved cube aside, it was oriented the same way: orange side facing me, white side facing up. On the seventh cube, an aberration: two blue corners on a white side. The rest were perfect. Perfect. Perfect again.
It occurred to me then that maybe, I had been asking the wrong question when I asked what it felt like to solve the Rubik’s cube. Because here is what I wanted to know: what does it feel like to make the world perfect?
Several weeks passed after the UMass event before I bought my own cube. It was nearing Christmas, and I’d accompanied my mother to run last-minute errands at an office supply store. What follows is true: as I stood in line for the register, I noticed exactly one Rubik’s cube sitting in a bin among other trinkets — one of those traps placed near the cashier to lure impulsive buyers or small children. I picked it up, and, seeing no others, placed it on the conveyor belt when I reached the front.
The cashier looked at the cube. “Christmas gift?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “It’s for me.”
The ending of this story is not that after five hours of watching and rewatching instructional YouTube videos, I can now solve a Rubik’s cube in two minutes and sixteen seconds — a glacial time, but a time nonetheless.
The ending is fragmented and retroactive — a way to re-categorize every archived failure in my memory as a three-minute solve instead of a two-minute solve. It’s the painful discovery that the solved cube isn’t really perfect, and never has been. Each success is its own kryptonite, setting a new hurdle to overcome. Solving the cube was, oddly, a way for me to mourn the meaning I had attached to it. What remains is a toy on my shelf, and a two-minute, sixteen-second time to beat.