Page 2 ability.
“Think of all you could do this summer, Colin. You could learn Sanskrit,” said his dad. “I know how you’ve been wanting to learn Sanskrit. 8 “Will you really be happy just driving around aimlessly? That doesn’t seem like you. Frankly, it seems like quitting. ”
“Quitting what, Dad?”
His dad paused. He always paused after a question, and then when h e did speak, it was in complete sentences without ums or likes or uhs—as if he’d memorized his response. “It pains me to say this, Colin, but if you wish to continue to grow intellectually, you need to work harder right now than you ever have before. Otherwise, you risk wasting your potential. ”
“Technically,” Colin answered, “I think I might have already wasted it. ” Maybe it was because Colin had never once in his life disappointed his parents: he did not drink or do drugs or smoke cigarettes or wear black eyeliner or stay out late or get bad grades or pierce his tongue or have the words “KATHERINE LUVA 4 LIFE” tattooed across his back. Or maybe they felt guilty, like somehow they’d failed him and brought him to this place. Or maybe they just wanted a few weeks alone to rekindle the romance. But five minutes after acknowledging his wasted potential, Colin Singleton was behind the wheel of his lengthy gray Oldsmobile known as Satan’s Hearse.
Inside the car, Hassan said, “Okay, now all we have to do is go to my house, pick up some clothes, and miraculously convince my parents to let me go on a road trip. ”
“You could say you have a summer job. At, like, a camp or something,” Colin offered.
“Right, except I’m not going to lie to my mom, because what kind of bastard lies to his own mother?”
“Well, although, someone else could lie to her. I could live with that. ”
“Fine,” said Colin. Five minutes later, they double-parked on a street in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood, and jumped out of the car together. Hassan burst into the house with Colin trailing. In the well-appointed living room, Hassan’s mom sat in an easy chair, sleeping.
“Hey, Mama,” said Hassan. “Wake up. ” She jolted awake, smiled, and g reeted both of the boys in Arabic. Colin answered in Arabic, saying, “My girlfriend dumped me and I’m really depressed, and so Hassan and I are going to go on a, a, uh, vacation where you drive. I don’t know the word in Arabic. ”
Mrs. Harbish shook her head and pursed her lips. “Don’t I tell you,” she said in accented English, “not to mess with girls? Hassan is a good boy, doesn’ t do this ‘dating. ’ And look how happy he is. You should learn from him. ”
“That’s what he’s going to teach me on this trip,” Colin said, although nothing could have been further from the truth. Hassan barreled back into the room carrying a half-zipped duffel bag overflowing with clothes. “Ohiboke, 9 Mama,” he said, leaning down to kiss her cheek.
Suddenly a pajama-clad Mr. Harbish entered the living room and in English said, “You’re not going anywhere. ”
“Oh, Dad. We have t o. Look at him. He’s all screwed up. ” Colin stared up at Mr. Harbish and tried to look as screwed up as he possibly could. “He’s going with or without me, but with me at least I can watch out for him. ”
“Colin is a good boy,” Mrs. Harbish said to her husband.
“I’ll call you every day,” Hassan added. “We won’t even be gone long. Just until he gets better. ”
Colin, now completely improvising, had an idea. “I’m going to get Hassan a job,” he said to Mr. Harbish. “I think we both need to learn the value of hard work. ”
Mr. Harbish grunted in agreement, then turned to Hassan. “You need to learn the value of not watching that awful Judge Judy, for starters. If you call me in a week and have a job, you can stay wherever you want as long as you want, as far as I’m concerned. ”
Hassan seemed not to notice the insults, only meekly mumbling, “Thanks, Dad. ” He kissed his mother on both cheeks and hurried out the door.
“What a dick,” Hassan said once they were safely inside the Hearse. “It’s one thing to accuse me of laziness. But to malign the good name of America’s greatest television judge—that’s below the belt. ”
Hassan fell asleep around one in the morning and Colin, half-drunk on well-creamed gas station coffee and the exhilarating loneliness of a freeway in nighttime, drove south on I-65 through Indianapolis. It was a warm night for early June, and since the AC in Satan’s Hearse hadn’t worked in this millennium, the windows were cracked open. And the beautiful thing about driving was that it stole just enough of his attention—car parked on the side, maybe a cop, slow to speed limit, time to pass this sixteen-wheeler, turn signal, check rearview, crane neck to check blind spot and yes, okay, left lane—to distract from the gnawing hole in his belly.
To keep his mind occupied, he thought of other holes in other stomachs. He thought of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, assassinated in 1914. As he looked down at the bloody hole in his middle, the Archduke had said, “It is nothing. ” He was mistaken. There’s no doubt that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand mattered, although he was neither a prodigy nor a genius: his assassination sparked World War I—so his death led to 8,528,831 others.
Colin missed her. Missing her kept him awake more than the coffee, and when Hassan had asked to drive an hour back, Colin had said no, because the driving kept him going—stay under seventy; God, my heart racing; I hate the taste of coffee; so wired though; okay, and clear of the truck; okay yes; right lane; and now just my own headlights against the darkness. It kept the loneliness of crushlessness from being entirely crushing. Driving was a kind of thinking, the only kind he could then tolerate. But still, the thought lurked out there, just beyond the reach of his headlights: he’d been dumped. By a girl named Katherine. For the nineteenth time.
When it comes to girls (and in Colin’s case, it so often did), everyone has a type. Colin Singleton’s type was not physical but linguistic: he liked Katherines. And not Katies or Kats or Kitties or Cathys or Rynns or Trinas or Kays or Kates or, God forbid, Catherines. K-A-T-H-E-R-I-N-E. He had dated nineteen girls. All of them had been named Katherine. And all of them—every single solitary one—had dumped him.
Colin believed that the world contained exactly two kinds of people: Dumpers and Dumpees. A lot of people will claim to be both, but those people miss the point entirely: You are predisposed to either one fate or the other. Dumpers may not always be the heartbreakers, and the Dumpees may not always be the heartbroken. But everyone has a tendency. 10
Perhaps, then, Colin ought to have grown accustomed to it, to the rise and fall of relationships. Dating, after all, only ends one way: poorly. If you think about it, and Colin often did, all romantic relationships end in either (1) b reakup, (2) divorce, or (3) death. But Katherine XIX had been different—or had seemed different, anyway. She had loved him, and he had loved her back, ferociously. And he still did—he found himself working the words through his mind as he drove: I love you, Katherine. The name sounded different in his mouth when spoken to her; it became not the name with which he had been so long obsessed, but a word that described only her, a word that smelled like lilacs, that captured the blue of her eyes and the length of her eyelashes.
As the wind rushed in through the cracked windows, Colin thought of Dumpers and Dumpees and of the Archduke. In the back Hassan grunted and sniffled as if he were dreaming he was a German shepherd, and Colin felt the ceaseless burning in his gut, thinking, This is all so CHILDISH. PATHETIC. YOU’RE EMBARRASSING. GET OVER IT GET OVER IT GET OVER IT. But he did not quite know what “it” was.
Katherine I: The Beginning (of the Beginning)
Colin’s parents never considered him to be anything but normal until one June morning. Twenty-five-month-old Colin sat in a high chair, eating a breakfast of indeterminate vegetative origin while his father read the Chicago Tribune across their small kitchen table. Colin was skinny for his age, but tall, with tight brown curls that erupted from his head with an Einsteinian unpredict
“Three deed on West Side,” Colin said after swallowing a bite. “No want more greenies,” he added, referring to his food.
“What’d ya say, bud?”
“Three deed on West Side. I want french fries please thank you. ” 11
Colin’s dad flipped the paper around and stared at the large headline above the fold on the front page. This was Colin’s first memory: his dad slowly lowering the paper and smiling at him. His dad’s eyes were wide with surprise and pleasure, and his smile was uncontainable. “CINDY! THE BOY IS READING THE PAPER!” he shouted.
His parents were the sort of parents who really, really enjoyed reading. His mom taught French at the prestigious and expensive Kalman School downtown, and his dad was a sociology professor at Northwestern University, just north of the city. So after three died on the West Side, Colin’s parents began to read with him, everywhere and always—primarily in English but also from French-language picture books.
Four months later, Colin’s parents sent him to a preschool for gifted children. The preschool said that Colin was too advanced for their school and anyway, they didn’t accept children who weren’t yet fully potty-trained. They sent Colin to a psychologist at the University of Chicago.
And so the periodically incontinent prodigy ended up in a small, windowless office on the South Side, talking to a woman with horn-rimmed glasses, who asked Colin to find patterns in strings of letters and numbers. She asked him to flip polygons. She asked him which picture did not fit with the rest of the pictures. She asked him an endless string of wonderful questions, and Colin loved her for it. Up until that time, most of the questions Colin had been asked centered around whether or not he had pissed himself, or whether he could please eat one more bite of the miserable greenies.
After an hour of questions, the woman said, “I want to thank you for your extraordinary patience, Colin. You’re a very special person. ”
You’re a very special person. Colin would hear this a lot, and yet—somehow—he could never hear it enough.
The horn-rimmed-glasses woman brought his mom into the office. As the professor told Mrs. Singleton that Colin was brilliant, was a very special boy, Colin played with wooden alphabet blocks. He gave himself a splinter rearranging p-o-t-s into s-t-o-p—the first anagram he remembered making.
The professor told Mrs. Singleton that Colin’s gifts must be encouraged but not pushed, and she warned, “You shouldn’t have unreasonable expectations. Children like Colin process information very quickly. They show a remarkable ability to focus on tasks. But he’s no more likely to win a Nobel Prize than any other reasonably intelligent child. ”
That night at home his father brought him a new book—The Missing Piece by Shel Silverstein. Colin sat down on the couch beside his dad and his small hands flipped through the big pages as he read it quickly, pausing only to ask whether “lookin’ ” was the same as “looking. ” Colin emphatically pushed the book cover shut when he finished reading.
“Did you like it?” his dad asked.
“Yup,” Colin said. He liked all books, because he liked the mere act of reading, the magic of turning scratches on a page into words inside his head.
“What was it about?” his dad asked.
Colin placed the book in his dad’s lap and said, “This circle is missing a piece. The missing piece is shaped like a pizza. ”
“Like a pizza or a pizza slice?” Smiling, his dad placed his big hands on top of Colin’s head.
“Right, Daddy. A slice. So the circle goes looking for his piece. He finds a lot of wrong pieces. Then he finds the right piece. But then he leaves it behind. Then it ends. ”
“Do you sometimes feel like a circle missing a piece?” his dad wondered.
“Daddy, I am not a circle. I am a boy. ”
And his dad’s smile faded just a bit—the prodigy could read, but he could not see. And if only Colin had known that he was missing a piece, that his inability to see himself in the story of a circle was an unfixable problem, he might have known that the rest of the world would catch up with him as time passed. To borrow from another story he memorized but didn’t really get: if only he’d known that the story of the tortoise and the hare is about more than a tortoise and a hare, he might have saved himself considerable trouble.
Three years later, he enrolled in first grade—for free, because his mom taught there—at the Kalman School, merely one year younger than most of his classmates. His dad pushed him to study more and harder, but he wasn’t the kind of prodigy who goes to college at eleven. Both Colin’s parents believed in keeping him on a semi-normal educational track for the sake of what they referred to as his “sociological well-being. ”
But his sociological being was never all that well. Colin didn’t excel at making friends. He and his classmates just didn’t enjoy similar activities. His favorite thing to do during recess, for instance, was to pretend to be a robot. He’d walk up to Robert Caseman with a knees-locked gait, his arms swinging stiffly. In a monotone voice, Colin would say, “I AM A ROBOT. I CAN ANSWER ANY QUESTION. DO YOU WANT TO KNOW WHO THE FOURTEENTH PRESIDENT WAS?”
“Okay,” said Robert. “My question is, Why are you such a tard, Colon Cancer?” Even though Colin’s name was pronounced like call in, Robert Caseman’s favorite game in first grade was calling Colin “Colon Cancer” until Colin cried, which usually didn’t take very long, because Colin was what his mother called “sensitive. ” He just wanted to play robot, for God’s sake. Was that so wrong?
In second grade, Robert Caseman and his ilk matured a bit. Finally recognizing that words can never hurt, but sticks and stones can sure break bones, they invented the Abdominal Snowman. 12 They would order him to lie on the ground (and for some reason he’d agree), and then four guys would take a limb apiece and pull. It was a kind of drawing-and-quartering, but with seven-year-olds tugging it wasn’t fatal, just embarrassing and dumb. It made him feel like no one liked him, which, in fact, no one did. His single consolation was that one day, he would matter. He’d be famous. And none of them ever would. That’s why, his mom said, they made fun of him in the first place. “They’re just jealous,” she said. But Colin knew better. They weren’t jealous. He just wasn’t likable. Sometimes it’s that simple.