“Oh my God, Colin. Please. We graduated. We’re happy. Celebrate!”
“What, are you afraid to say it?”
“I love you.”
She would never—not ever—tell him those words in that order ever again.
“Can sushi be anagrammed?” she asked.
“Uh, sis,” he answered immediately.
“Sis is three letters; sushi is five,” she said.
“No. ‘Uh, sis.’ The uh and the sis. There are others, but they don’t make grammatical sense.”
She smiled. “Do you ever get tired of me asking?”
“No. No. I never get tired of anything you do,” he said, and then he wanted to say he was sorry, but just that sometimes he felt un-understandable and sometimes he worried when they bickered and she went a while without saying she loved him, but he restrained himself. “Anyway, I like that sushi becomes ‘uh, sis.’ Imagine a situation.”
“Imagine a situation” was a game she’d invented where Colin found the anagrams and then Katherine imagined an anagrammatic situation.
“Okay,” she said. “Okay. So a guy goes out fishing on the pier, and he catches a carp, and of course it’s all riddled with pesticides and sewage and all the nasty Lake Michigan shit, but he takes it home anyway because he figures if you fry a carp long enough, it won’t matter. He cleans it, fillets it, and then the phone rings, so he leaves it on the kitchen counter. He talks on the phone for a bit, and then he comes back into the kitchen and sees that his little sister has a big hunk of raw Lake Michigan carp in her hand, and she’s chewing, and she looks up at her brother and says, “Sushi!” And he says, “Uh, sis . . .”
They laughed. He had never loved her so much as he did then.
Later, after they tiptoed into the apartment and Colin walked upstairs to tell his mom he was home, leaving out the possibly relevant information that he wasn’t alone, and after they’d climbed into bed downstairs, and after she pulled off his shirt and he hers, and after they kissed until his lips were numb except for tingling, she said, “Do you really feel sad about graduating?”
“I don’t know. If I’d done it differently—if I’d gone to college at ten or whatever—there’s no way of knowing if my life would be better. We probably wouldn’t be together. I wouldn’t have known Hassan. And a lot of prodigies who push and push and push and end up even more fugged up than me. But a few of them end up like John Locke20 or Mozart or whatever. And my chances at Mozartdom are done.”
“Col, you’re seventeen.” She sighed again. She sighed a lot, but nothing could be wrong, because it felt so good to have her nestled up against him, her head on his shoulder, his hand brushing the soft blond hair from her face. He looked down and could see the strap of her purple bra.
“It’s the tortoise and the hare, though, K.19 I learn faster than other people, but they keep learning. I’ve slowed down, and now they’re coming. I know I’m seventeen. But I’m past my prime.” She laughed. “Seriously. There are studies about this shit. Prodigies tend to hit their peak at, like twelve or thirteen. What have I done? I won a fugging game show a year ago? That’s my indelible mark on human history?”
She sat up, looking down at him. He thought of her other sighs, the better and different ones of his body moving against hers. For a long time she stared at him, and then she bit her lower lip and said, “Colin, maybe the problem is us.”
“Oh. Shit,” he said. And so it began.
The end occurred mostly in her whispers and his silence—because he couldn’t whisper and they didn’t want to wake Colin’s parents. They succeeded in staying quiet, in part because it felt like the air had been shocked out of him. Paradoxically, he felt as if his getting dumped was the only thing happening on the entire dark and silent planet, and also as if it weren’t happening at all. He felt himself drifting away from the one-sided whispered conversation, wondering if maybe everything big and heartbreaking and incomprehensible is a paradox.
He was a dying man staring down on the surgeons trying to save him. With an almost comfortable distance from the thing itself as it really was, Colin thought about the dork mantra: sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. What a dirty lie. This, right here, was the true abdominal snowman: it felt like something freezing in his stomach.
“I love you so much and I just want you to love me like I love you,” he said as softly as he could.
“You don’t need a girlfriend, Colin. You need a robot who says nothing but ‘I love you.’” And it felt like being stoned and sticked from the inside, a fluttering and then a sharp pain in his lower rib cage, and then he felt for the first time that a piece of his gut had been wrenched out of him.
She tried to get out as quickly and painlessly as possible, but after she begged curfew, he began to cry. She held his head against her collarbone. And even though he felt pitiful and ridiculous, he didn’t want it to end, because he knew the absence of her would hurt more than any breakup ever could.
But she left anyway, and he was alone in his room, searching out anagrams for mymissingpiece in a vain attempt to fall asleep.
It alWays happened like this: he would look and look for the keys to Satan’s Hearse and then finally he’d just give up and say, “Fine. I’ll take the fugging bus,” and on his way out the door, he’d see the keys. Keys show up when you reconcile yourself to the bus; Katherines appear when you start to disbelieve the world contains another Katherine; and, sure enough, the Eureka moment arrived just as he began to accept it would never come.
He felt the thrill of it surge through him, his eyes blinking fast as he fought to remember the idea in its completeness. Lying there on his back in the sticky, thick air, the Eureka moment felt like a thousand orgasms all at once, except not as messy.
“Eureka?” Hassan asked, the excitement evident in his voice. He’d been waiting for it, too.
“I need to write this down,” Colin said. He sat up. His head hurt like hell, but he reached into his pocket and pulled out the little notebook he kept at all times, and a #2 pencil, which was broken in the middle from his fall, but still wrote okay. He sketched:
Where x = time, and y = happiness, y = 0 beginning of relationship and breakup, y negative = breakup by m, and y positive = breakup by f: my relationship with K-19.
He was still sketching when he heard Lindsey Lee Wells coming and opened his eyes to see her wearing a fresh T-shirt (it read GUTSHOT!) and toting a first-aid box with an honest-to-God red cross on it.
She knelt beside him and pulled the T-shirt off his head slowly, and then she said, “This is going to sting,” and dug into the cut with a long Q-tip soaked in what seemed to be cayenne pepper sauce.
“FUG!” shouted Colin, wincing, and he looked up and saw her round, brown eyes blinking away sweat as she worked.
“I know. I’m sorry. Okay, done. You don’t need stitches, but you’re going to have a little scar, I bet. Is that okay?”
“What’s another scar?” he said absentmindedly as she pulled a wide gauze bandage taut against his forehead. “I feel like someone punched me in the brain.”
“ Possible concussion,” Lindsey noted. “What day is it? Where are you?”
“It’s Tuesday, and I’m in Tennessee.”
“Who was the junior senator from New Hampshire in 1873?” asked Hassan.
“Bainbridge Wadleigh,” answered Colin. “I don’t think I have a concussion.”
“Is that for real?” asked Lindsey. “I mean, did you really know that?” Colin nodded slowly. “Yeah,” he said. “I know all the senators. Also, that’s an easy one to remember—because I always think about how much your parents have to fugging hate you to name you Bainbridge Wadleigh.”
“Seriously,” said Hassan. “I mean, you’ve already got the last name Wadleigh. That’s a bad sitch, just to be a Wadleigh. But then you take that Wadleigh and you raise it to the power of Bainbridge—no wonder the poor bastard never became president.”
Lindsey added, “Well but then again, a guy named Millard Fillmore became president. No loving mother would ever make a Fillmore a Millard, either.” She fell into conversation with them so quickly and so naturally that Colin was already revising his Celebrity Living theorem. He’d always thought people in Nowhere, Tennessee, would be, well, d umber than Lindsey Lee Wells.
Hassan sat down next to Colin and grabbed the notebook from him. He held it above his head to block the sun, which had darted out from behind a cloud to further bake the cracked orange dirt.
Hassan only glanced at the paper before saying, “You just got me all riled up and your big revelation is that you like getting dumped? Shit, Colin, I could have told you that. In fact, I have.”
“Love is graphable!” Colin said defensively.
“Wait.” Hassan looked down at the paper again, and then back to Colin. “Universally? You’re claiming this will work for anyone?”
“Right. Because relationships are so predictable, right? Well, I’m finding a way to predict them. Take any two people, and even if they’ve never met each other, the formula will show who’s going to break up with whom if they ever date, and approximately how long the relationship will last.”
“Impossible,” Hassan said.
“No, it’s not, because you can see into the future if you have a basic understanding of how people are likely to act.”
Hassan’s long and slow exhalation broke into a whisper. “Yeah. Okay. That’s interesting.” Hassan could give Colin no higher compliment.
Lindsey Lee Wells reached down and grabbed the notebook from Hassan. She read it slowly. Finally, she said, “What the hell is K-19?”
Colin put a hand down in the caked-dry earth and pushed himself up. “The what’s a who,” he answered. “Katherine XIX. I’ve dated nineteen girls named Katherine.”
Lindsey Lee Wells and Colin stared at each other dead in the eye for a very long time, until finally her smile collapsed into a gentle laugh. “What?” Colin asked.
She shook her head but couldn’t stop laughing. “Nothin’,” she said. “Let’s go see the Archduke.”
“No, tell me,” he said insistently. He didn’t like secrets kept from him. Being on the outside of something annoyed him—more than it should have, really.
“It’s nothing. Just—I’ve only dated one boy.”
“Why’s that funny?” Colin asked.
“It’s funny,” she explained, “because his name is Colin.”
The Middle (of the Beginning)
By third grade, his failure to achieve “sociological well-being” had become so obvious to everyone that Colin attended regular school at Kalman only three hours a day. The rest of his day was spent with his lifelong tutor, Keith Carter, who drove a Volvo with the license plate KRAZZZY. Keith was one of those guys who never grew out of his ponytail. He also maintained (or, as the case was, failed to maintain) a thick, broad mustache that extended to his lower lip when his mouth was closed, which was very rarely the case. Keith enjoyed talking, and his favorite audience was Colin Singleton.
Keith was a friend of Colin’s dad and a psychology professor. His interest in Colin wasn’t exactly unselfish—over the years, Keith would publish a number of articles about Colin’s prodigy. Colin liked being so special that scholars would take note of him. And also, Krazy Keith was the closest thing Colin had to a best friend. Every day, Keith drove down into the city and he and Colin went to a broom-closet-of-an-office on the third floor of the Kalman School. Colin pretty much got to read whatever he wanted in silence for the next four hours, with Keith occasionally breaking in to discuss something, and then on Fridays they’d spend the day talking about what Colin had learned. Colin liked it a great deal better than regular school. For one thing, Keith never gave him an Abdominal Snowman.
Krazy Keith had a daughter, Katherine, who was Colin’s year in school but eight months older in actual life. She went to a school north of the city, but every so often Colin’s parents would have Krazy Keith and his wife and Katherine over to dinner to discuss Colin’s “progress” and the like. And then after those dinners, the parents would sit in the living room laughing louder as time passed, Keith shouting that he couldn’t possibly drive home, that he needed a cup of coffee after all that wine—your home is an Alamo for oenophiles, he’d cry.
One night in November of his third-grade year, after it got cold but before his mom put up the holiday decorations, Katherine came over. After a dinner of lemon chicken and brown rice, Colin and Katherine went into the living room, where Colin lay across the couch and studied Latin. He had just recently learned that President Garfield, who was not even particularly noted for his intelligence, had been able to write simultaneously in Latin and Greek—Latin with his left hand and Greek with his right. Colin intended to match this feat.21 Katherine, a tiny blond with both her father’s ponytail and his fascination with prodigies, sat watching him quietly. Colin was aware of her, but it did not distract him, because people often watched him when he studied, like there was some secret in his approach to academia. The secret, in truth, was that he just spent more time studying, and paid more attention, than everyone else.
“How come you learned Latin already?”
“I study hard,” he answered.
“Why?” she asked, coming over to sit by his feet on the couch.
“I like it.”
“Why?” she asked.
He paused for a moment. Unfamiliar with the “why game,” he took her questions seriously. “I like it because it makes me different and better. And because I’m quite good at it.”