This was it, I was sure—the point where he’d ask for my advice. I could help him. I could prove myself worthy of his company.
But he let it drop. He didn’t want to talk about it. He wanted to watch the movie.
I realized he needed to reveal himself to me in his own time. I couldn’t rush it. I had to be patient. For the remaining commercial breaks, I made North Dakota jokes. He laughed at some of them, and even threw in a few of his own.
Sung came back when there were about fifteen minutes left in the movie. I could tell he wasn’t thrilled about me sitting on his bed, but I wasn’t about to move.
“Sung,” I told him, “if this whole quiz bowl thing doesn’t work out for you, I think you have a future in disco.”
“Shut up,” he grumbled, taking off the famous jacket and hanging it in the closet.
We watched the rest of the movie in silence, with Sung sitting on the edge of Damien’s bed. As soon as the credits were rolling, Sung announced it was time to go to sleep.
“But where are you sleeping?” I asked, spreading out on his sheets.
“That’s my bed,” he said.
I wanted to offer Sung a swap—he could stay with Wes and talk about polynomials all night, while I could stay with Damien. But clearly that wasn’t a real option.
Damien walked me to the door.
“Lay off the minibar,” he said. “We need you sober tomorrow.”
“I’ll try,” I replied. “But those little bottles are just so pretty.”
He chuckled and hit me lightly on the shoulder.
“Resist,” he commanded.
Again, I told him I’d try.
Wes was in bed and the lights were off when I got to my room, so I very quietly changed into my pajamas and brushed my teeth.
I was about to nod off in my bed when Wes’s voice asked, “Did you have fun?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Damien and I went to his room and watched The Departed. It was a good time. We looked for you, but you were already gone.”
“That social sucked.”
“It most certainly did.”
I closed my eyes.
“Good night,” Wes said softly, making it sound like a true wish. Nobody besides my parents had ever said it to me like this before.
“Good night,” I said back. Then I made sure he’d plugged the clock back in, and went to sleep.
The next morning, we kicked North Dakota’s ass. Then, for good measure, we erased Maryland from the boards and made Oklahoma cry.
It felt good.
“Don’t get too cocky,” Sung warned us, which was pretty precious, since Sung was the cockiest of us all. I half expected “We Are the Champions” to come blaring out of his ears every time we won a round.
Our fourth and last match of the day—the quarterfinals—was against the team from Clearwater, Florida, which had made it to the finals for each of the past ten years, winning four of those times. They were legendary, insofar as people like Sung had heard about them and studied their strategies, with some tapes Mr. Phillips had managed to get off Clearwater local access.
As usual, even though I was the alternate, I was put on the starting lineup. Because Clearwater was especially known for treating the canon like a cannon to demolish the other team.
“Bring it on,” I said.
It soon became clear who my counterpart on the Clearwater team was—a wispy girl with straight brown hair who could barely bother to put down her Muriel Spark in order to start playing. The first time she opened her mouth, she revealed their secret weapon:
She was British.
Frances looked momentarily frightened by this, but I took it in stride. When the girl lunged with Byron, I parried with Asimov. When she volleyed with Burgess, I pounced with Roth. Neither of us missed a question, so it became a test of buzzer willpower. I started to ring in a split-second before I knew the answer. And I always knew the answer.
Until I did the unthinkable.
I buzzed in for a science question.
Which Nobel prize winner later went on to write The Double Helix and Avoid Boring People?
I realized immediately it wasn’t Saul Bellow or Kenzaburo Oe.
As the judge said, “Do you have an answer?” the phrase TheDoubleHelix hit in my head.
“Crick!” I exclaimed.
The judge looked at me for a moment, then down at his card.
“That is incorrect. Clearwater, which Nobel prize winner later went on to write The Double Helix and Avoid Boring People?”
It was not the lit girl who buzzed in.
“James D. Watson,” one of the math boys answered snottily, the D sent as a particular fuck you to me.
“Sorry,” I whispered to my team.
“It’s okay,” Damien said.
“No worries,” Wes said.
Sung, I knew, wouldn’t be as forgiving.
I was now off my game and more cautious with the buzzer, so Brit girl got the best of me on Caliban and Vivienne Haigh-Wood. I managed to stick One Hundred Years of Solitude in edgewise, but that was scant comfort. I mean, who didn’t know One Hundred Years of Solitude?
Clearwater had a one-question lead with three questions left. And it ended up that the last questions were about math, history, and geography. So I sat back while Sung rocked the relative areas of a rhombus and a circle, Wes sent a little love General Omar Bradley’s way, and Frances wrapped it up with Tashkent, which I had not known to be the capital of Uzbekistan, its name translating as “Stone City.”
Usually we burst out of our chairs when we won, but this match had been so exhausting that we could only feel relieved. We shook the other team’s hands—Brit girl’s hand felt like it was made of paper, which I found weird.
After Clearwater had left the room, Sung called an emergency team meeting.
“That was too close,” he said. Not “congratulations” or “nice work.”
No, Sung was pissed.
He talked about the need to be more aggressive on the buzzer, but also to exercise care. He said we should always play to our strengths. To make a blunder was to destroy the fabric of our entire team.
“I get it, I get it,” I said.
“No,” Sung told me, “I don’t think you do.”
“Sung,” Mr. Phillips cautioned.
“I think he needs to hear this,” Sung insisted. “From the very start of the year, he has refused to be a team player. And what we saw today was nothing short of an insurrection. He broke the unwritten rules.”
“He is standing right here,” I pointed out. “Just come right out and say it.”
“YOU ARE NOT TO ANSWER SCIENCE QUESTIONS!” Sung yelled. “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?”
“Hey—” Damien started to interrupt.
I held up my hand. “No, it’s okay. Sung needs to get this out of his system.”
“You are the alternate,” Sung went on.
“You don’t seem to mind it when I’m answering questions, Sung.”
“We only have you here because we have to!”
“That’s enough,” Mr. Phillips said decisively.
“No, it’s not enough,” I said. “I’m sick of you all acting like I’m this English freak raining on your little math–science parade. Sung seems to think my contribution to this team is a little less than everyone else’s.”
“Anyone can memorize book titles!” Sung shouted.
“Oh, please. Like I care what you think? You don’t even know the difference between Keats and Byron.”
“The difference between Keats and Byron doesn’t matter!”
“None of this matters!” I shouted back. “Don’t you get it, Sung? NONE OF THIS MATTERS. Yes, you have knowledge—but you’re not doing anything with it. You’re reciting it. You’re not out curing cancer—you’re listing the names of the people who’ve tried to cure cancer. This whole thing is a joke, Captain. It’s trivial. Which is why everyone laughs at us.”
“You think we’re all trivial?” Sung challenged.
“No,” I said. “I think you’re trivial with your quiz bowl obsession. The rest of us have other things going on. We have lives.”
“You’re the one who’s not a part of our team! You’re the outcast!”
“If that’s so true, Sung, then why are you the only one of us wearing a fucking varsity jacket? Why don’t you think anyone else wanted to be seen in one? It’s not just me, Sung. It’s all of us.”
“Enough!” Mr. Phillips yelled.
Sung looked like he wanted to kill me. And at the same time, I knew he’d never look at that damn jacket the same way again.
“Why don’t we all take a break over dinner,” Mr. Phillips went on, “then regroup in my room at eight for a scrimmage before the semifinals tomorrow morning. I don’t know who we’re facing, but we’re going to need to be a team to face them.”
What we did next wasn’t very teamlike: Mr. Phillips, a brooding Sung, Frances, and Gordon went one way for dinner, while Wes, Damien, and I went another way.
“There’s a Steak ’n Shake a few blocks away,” Wes told us. Clearly, he’d done his research.
“Sounds good,” Damien said.
I, brooding as well, followed.
“It was a question about books,” I said once we’d left the hotel. “I didn’t realize it was a science question.”
“Crick wasn’t that far off,” Wes pointed out.
“Yeah, but I still fucked it up.”
“And we still won,” Damien said.
Yeah, I knew that.
But I wasn’t feeling it.
Damien and Wes saw I was down and tried to cheer me up. Not just by getting my burger and shake for me, but by sitting across from me and treating me like a friend.
“God, there are a lot of fat people in Indiana!” Wes exclaimed.
“They’re probably looking at you and saying the same thing,” Damien replied.