“I’m always good when I get to see you, Starnes,” she said, hugging him. His eyes lit up, and then Lindsey introduced him to Colin and Hassan. When the old man noticed Colin staring, Starnes explained, “Cancer. Now, y’all come in and sit. ”
The house smelled like musty old couches and unfinished wood. It smelled, Colin thought, like cobwebs or hazy memories. It
smelled like K-19’s basement. And the smell brought him back so viscerally, to a time when she loved him—or he at least felt like she did—that his gut ached anew. He closed his eyes tight for a second and waited for the feeling to pass, but it wouldn’t. For Colin, nothing ever passed.
The Beginning (of the End)
Katherine XIX wasn’t quite yet the XIX when they hung out alone together for the third time. Although the signs seemed positive, he couldn’t bring himself to ask her if she wanted to date him, and he certainly couldn’t just lean in and kiss her. Colin frequently faltered when it came to the step of actual kissing. He had a theory on this subject, actually, entitled the Rejection Minimization Theorem (RMT):
The act of leaning in to kiss someone, or asking to kiss them, is fraught with the possibility of rejection, so the person least likely to get rejected should do the leaning in or the asking. And that person, at least in high-school heterosexual relationships, is definitely the girl. Think about it: boys, basically, want to kiss girls. Guys want to make out. Always. Hassan aside, there’s rarely a time when a boy is thinking, “Eh, I think I’d rather not kiss a girl today. ” Maybe if a guy is actually, literally on fire, he won’t be thinking about hooking up. But that’s about it. Whereas girls are very fickle about the business of kissing. Sometimes they want to make out; sometimes they don’t. They’re an impenetrable fortress of unknowability, really.
Ergo: girls should always make the first move, because (a) they are, on the whole, less likely to be rejected than guys, and (b) that way, girls will never get kissed unless they want to be kissed.
Unfortunately for Colin, there is nothing logical about kissing, and so his theory never worked. But because he always waited so incredibly long to kiss a girl, he rarely faced rejection.
He called the future Katherine XIX that Friday after school and asked her out for coffee the next day, and she said yes. It was the same coffee shop where they’d had their first two meetings—perfectly pleasant events filled with so much sexual tension that he couldn’t help but get a little bit turned on just from her casually touching his hand. He would put his hands up on the table, in fact, because he wanted them within her reach.
The coffee shop was a few miles from Katherine’s house and four buildings down from Colin’s. Called Café Sel Marie, it served some of the best coffee in Chicago, which didn’t matter at all to Colin, because Colin didn’t like coffee. He liked the idea of coffee quite a lot—a warm drink that gave you energy and had been for centuries associated with sophisticates and intellectuals. But coffee itself tasted to him like caffeinated stomach bile. So he did an end-around on the unfortunate taste by drowning his java in cream, for which Katherine gently teased him that afternoon. It rather goes without saying that Katherine drank her coffee black. Katherines do, generally. They like their coffee like they like their ex-boyfriends: bitter.
Hours later, after four cups of coffee between them, she wanted to show him a movie. “It’s called The Royal Tenenbaums,” she said. “It’s about a family of prodigies. ”
Colin and Katherine took the Brown Line southeast toward Wrigleyville, and then walked five blocks to her house, a narrow, two-story building. Katherine led him down to her basement. Floored with wavy linoleum tiles, the damp, dank place featured an old couch, no windows, and very low ceilings (they were 6’3‘ to Colin’s 6’1‘). It made for a poor living area, but it was an awesome theater. It was so dark that you could sink into the couch and disappear into the movie.
Colin liked the movie pretty well; he laughed a lot, anyway, and he found comfort in a world where all the characters who had been smart child ren grew up to be really fascinating, unique adults (even if they were all s c rewed up). When it was over, Katherine and Colin sat in the dark together. The basement was the only genuinely dark place Colin had ever seen in Chicago—day and night, orange-gray light seeped through any place with windows.
“I just love the sound track,” Katherine said. “It has such a cool feel. ”
“Yeah,” Colin said. “And I liked the characters. I even liked the horrible dad a little. ”
“Right, me too,” Katherine said. He could see her blond hair and the outline of her face but little else. His hand, which had been holding hers since about thirty minutes into the movie, was cramped and sweaty, but he didn’t want to be the one to pull away. She went on, “I mean, he’s selfish, but everyone is selfish. ”
“Right,” Colin said.
“So is that what it’s like? To be a, uh, prodigy or whatever?”
“Um, not really. All the prodigies in that movie were really hot, for instance,” he joked, and she laughed and said, “So are all the ones I know,” and then he exhaled sharply and looked up at her and almost—but no. He wasn’t sure and couldn’t handle the thought of rejection. “Anyway, plus in that movie it’s like they are all just born talented. I’m not like that, you know. I mean, I’ve worked at least ten hours a day, every day, since I was three,” he said, with no small measure of pride. He did think of it as work—the reading and the practicing of languages and pronunciation, the recitation of facts, the careful examination of every text laid before him.
“So what are you good at, exactly, anyway? I mean, I know you’re good at everything, but what are you so good at besides languages?”
“I’m good with codes and stuff. And I’m good at, like, linguistic tricks like anagramming. That’s my favorite thing, really. I can anagram anything. ” He’d never before told a Katherine about his anagramming. He’d always figured it would bore them.
“Night, nay,” he answered quickly, and she laughed and then said, “Katherine Carter. ”
He wanted so much to put his hand around the nape of her neck and pull her into him and taste her mouth, full and soft in the darkness. But not yet. He wasn’t sure. His heart pounded. “Um, okay. Her karate cretin—um, oh. I like this one: their arcane trek. ”
She laughed and pulled her hand away and placed it flat against his knee. Her fingers were soft. He could suddenly smell her over the dank basement. She smelled like lilacs, and then he knew that it was almost time. But he didn’t dare look at her, not yet. He just watched the blank TV screen. He wanted to draw out the moment before the moment—because as good as kissing feels, nothing feels as good as the anticipation of it.
“How do you do that?” she asked.
“Practice, mostly. I’ve been doing it a long time. I see the letters and pull out a good word first—like, karate, or arcane—and then I try to use the remaining letters to make—oh God, this is boring,” he said, hoping it wasn’t.
“No it’s not. ”
“I just try to make grammatical sense with the remaining letters. Anyway, it’s just a trick. ”
“Okay, so anagrams. That’s one. Got any other charming talents?” she asked, and now he felt confident.