“I don’t want to flatter myself,” said Katherine I in between sips of coffee at Café Sel Marie, “but it does feel a little special, that it all began with me. ”
“Well,” said Colin, who was drinking milk with a shot of coffee in it, “there’s three ways to look at it. Either (1) it’s a massive coincidence that all the girls I ever liked happen to share the same nine letters, or (2) I just happen to think it a particularly beautiful name, or (3) I never got over our two-and-a-half-minute relationship. ”
“You were very cute then, you know,” she said. She blew on the coffee through pursed lips. “I remember thinking that. You were dork chic before dork chic was chic. ”
“I’m leaning toward explanation 3 at the moment. ” He smiled. Dishes clattered around them. The place was crowded. He could see into the kitchen, where their waiter was smoking a long, thin cigarette.
“I think maybe you try to be odd on purpose. I think you like that. It makes you you and not someone else. ”
“You sound like your father,” he said, referencing Krazy Keith.
“I’ve found you insanely attractive since I saw you when I was freaking out about my French test,” she answered. She didn’t blink, didn’t let go of his stare. Those eyes as blue as the sky ought to be. And then she smiled. “Do I sound like my father now?”
“Yeah, weirdly enough. He also sucks at French. ” She laughed. Colin saw the waiter put out his cigarette, and then he came over to their table and asked if they wanted anything more. Katherine I said no, and then she turned to Colin and said, “Do you know anything about Pythagoras?”
And Colin said, “I know his Theorem. ”
And she said, “No, I mean the guy. He was weird. He thought everything could be expressed numerically, that—like—math could unlock the world. I mean, everything. ”
“What, like, even love?” Colin asked, only vaguely annoyed that she knew something he didn’t.
“Particularly love,” Katherine I said. “And you’ve taught me enough French for me to say: 10-5 space 16-5-14-19-5 space 17-21-5 space 10-5 space 20-1-9-13-5. ” For a long moment Colin stared at her wordlessly. He cracked the code pretty quickly, but he stayed silent, trying to figure out when she’d come up with it, when she’d memorized it. Even he couldn’t have translated French letters to Arabic numerals that quickly. Je pense que je t’aime, she’d said numerically—“I think that I like you. ” Or, “I think that I love you. ” The French verb aimer has two meanings. And that’s why he liked her, and loved her. She spoke to him in a language that, no matter how hard you studied it, could not be completely understood.
He stayed quiet until he had a fully formulated response, one that would keep her interest alive without quite satiating it. Colin Singleton, let it be said, couldn’t play the ninth inning of a relationship to save his life, but he could damn well score in the first.
“You’re just saying that because I’m on a TV show that no one watches,” he said.
“Or maybe,” he said, “you’re saying it because you’re flattered I’ve spent eight years of my life chasing after the nine letters in your name. ”
“Maybe,” she allowed. And then Colin’s phone rang. His mom. Their sneak-out was over. But by then it was too late. In his mind, Katherine I was already becoming Katherine XIX. She would soon retake the throne that, all along, had rightfully been hers.
“The thing about your stories,” Lindsey was saying in the darkness as they approached the forest in front of them, “is that they still don’t have any morals, and you can’t do a good girl voice, and you don’t really talk enough about everyone else—the story’s still about you. But anyway, I can imagine this Katherine now, a little bit. She’s clever. And she’s just a little mean to you. I think you get off on that. Most guys do. That’s how I got Colin, really. Katrina was hotter and wanted him worse. They’d been dating for a while when he fell for me. But she was too easy. I know she’s my friend and possibly Hassan’s girlfriend and whatever, but Katrina’s easier than a four-piece jigsaw puzzle. ”
Colin laughed, and Lindsey went on talking. “Getting people to like you is so easy, really. It’s a wonder more people don’t do it. ”
“It’s not so easy for me. ”
“Whatever, I like you, and I never really like anybody. Hassan likes you, and I can tell that he never really likes anybody, either. You just need more people who don’t like people. ”
“You don’t ever really like anybody?”
They passed into the woods, following a narrow, periodically invisible trail. Lindsey motioned toward the trees and said, “You sure shot the holy hell out of this forest, Smartypants. Wouldn’t that be something if you bagged a hog. ”
“I don’t really want to kill a pig,” Colin noted. He had read Charlotte’s Web, see. Then he repeated himself. “You don’t ever really like anybody?”
“Well, that’s an exaggeration, I guess,” she answered. “It’s just that I learned a while ago that the best way to get people to like you is not to like them too much. ”
“Well, but you care about a lot of people. The oldsters?” Colin offered.
“Well, the oldsters are different,” she said, and then stopped walking and turned around to Colin, who was already out of breath as he struggled up the hill behind her. “The thing about the oldsters, I think, is that they never screwed with me, so I don’t worry about them. So yeah, oldsters and babies are the exceptions. ”
They walked in silence for a long time through dense, flat brush with thin trees rising straight and high all around them. The trail became increasingly steep, zigzagging up the hill, until they finally came to a rocky outcropping perhaps fifteen feet high, and Lindsey Lee Wells said, “Now comes the rock climbing. ”
Colin looked up at the craggy face of the stone. There are probably people who can successfully negotiate their way up that rock, he thought, but I am not one of them. “No way,” he said. She turned back toward him, her cheeks flushed and glistening with sweat. “I’m kidding. ” She scampered up a wet, mossy boulder, and Colin followed. Immediately, he saw a narrow, chest-high crack covered over by a spiderweb. “See, I’m taking you here because you’re the only guy I know who’s skinny enough. Squeeze on through,” she said.