When I first laid eyes on James, he was fast asleep. We were in the high school auditorium, at assembly. James was wearing a green windbreaker, and stuffed in its mesh kangaroo pocket was a brand-new paperback copy of Moby Dick. Even though I went to one of the most competitive public high schools in New York City, the tomes the teachers handed out were almost always ugly hardcovers covered in pen marks. I’d spend an hour with an author trying to goad me into envisioning the Fertile Crescent, or polynomials, or the world’s invisible particles, or Gatsby’s wild parties, or the intricacies of a boneless moon jellyfish. Then I’d close the book and there, on the back cover, would be sketches of genitals like some kind of peevish reviewer’s lurid blurb.
James’s book, which rose and fell with his breathing, had no such marks. I hadn’t read Moby Dick, but my father said it was the greatest novel ever written—although he hadn’t finished it. “No time,” he claimed. He worked six- to seven-day weeks managing a series of laundromats in Astoria, where we lived. Even though my father was a laundromat guy, he said that if he’d been able to finish college, he’d have become an architect. “Do you think you’d want to do something like that yourself, sweetie?” he asked me once, hopefully, and I said yes. I didn’t really know what being an architect involved. However, I liked the idea of building something as much as pleasing my father.
At assembly, our principal began his weekly remarks by telling us that one of the high school’s alums had just won a Nobel Prize. Earlier that morning, my mother had shown me an article about it in the paper. “You see, Elena,” my mother had said, “what a good public magnet school can achieve?” I’d studied the alum’s inset picture: a seventy-year-old white-bearded physicist. I could imagine the odor of his breath—cornflakes mingling with spearmint, probably—but I couldn’t discern in the man’s face even the ghost of the teenager he’d once been.
“At this,” the principal said, scanning the auditorium as if he believed he could make eye contact with all seven hundred of us, “the first week of a new school year, I want to say with total confidence that any one of you could be destined for greatness.” He lifted his hands toward the vaulted ceiling. “You each contain a potential Nobel Prize winner that this school can help nurture and grow. I want you to think of that tiny winner as if he or she were a homunculus reaching with stunted fingers for the stars.”
At least that’s how I remember the speech now.
When the principal finished, and we half-heartedly applauded, James finally opened his eyes and looked right at me.
“What the hell is everyone clapping about?” he said.
Before I could figure out how to respond, April from AP World tapped my shoulder and began to stress about our upcoming quiz. “We’ve done only one day on Iran,” she said, “and Iraq barely came up in last night’s reading. It’s just supremely messed up if she’s planning to test us on stuff we haven’t covered in class. You know?”
I said I knew. Then I turned and James was gone.