Quiz Bowl Antichrist
I am haunted at times by Sung Kim’s varsity jacket.
He had to lobby hard to get it. Nobody denied that he had talent--in fact, he was the star of our team. But for a member of our team to get a jacket was unprecedented. Our coach backed him completely, while the other coaches in the school nearly choked on their whistles when they first heard the plan. The principal had to be called in, and it wasn’t until our team made Nationals that Sung’s request was finally heeded. Four weeks before we left for Indianapolis, he became the first person in our school’s history to have a varsity jacket for quiz bowl.
I, for one, was mortified.
This mortification was a complete betrayal of our team, but if anyone was going to betray the quiz bowl team from the inside, it was going to be me. I was the alternate.
I had been drafted by the coach, who also happened to be my physics teacher, because while the five other members of the team could tell you the square root of the circumference of Saturn’s orbit around the sun in the year 2033, not a single one of them could tell you how many Brontë sisters there’d been. In fact, the only British writer they seemed familiar with was Monty Python--and there weren’t many quiz bowl questions about Monty Python. There was a gaping hole in their knowledge, and I was the best lit-boy plug the school had to offer. While I hadn’t read that many of the classics, I was extraordinarily aware of them. I was a walking CliffsNotes version of the CliffsNotes versions; even if I’d never touched Remembrance of Things Past or Cry, the Beloved Country or Middlemarch, I knew what they were about and who had written them. I could only name about ten elements on the periodic table, but that hardly mattered--my teammates had the whole thing memorized. They told jokes where “her neutrino!” was the punch line.
Sung was our fearless leader--fearless, that is, within the context of our practices and competitions. Put him back into the general population and he became just another math geek, too bland to be teased, too awkward to be resented. As soon as he got the varsity jacket, there was little question that it would never leave his back. All the varsity jackets in our school looked the same on the fronts--burgundy body, white sleeves, white R. But the backs were different--a picture of two guys wrestling for the wrestlers, a football for the football players, a breaststroker for the swimmers. For quiz bowl, they initially chose a faceless white kid at a podium, probably a leftover design from another school’s speech and debate team. It looked as if the symbol from the men’s room door was giving an inaugural address. Sung didn’t feel this conveyed the team aspect of quiz bowl, so he made them add four other faceless white kids at podiums. I was, presumably, one of those five. Because even though I was an alternate, they always rotated me in.
I had agreed to join the quiz bowl team for four reasons:
(1) I needed it for my college applications.
(2) I needed a good grade in Mr. Phillips’s physics class for my college applications, and I wasn’t going to get it from ordinary studying.
(3) I derived a perverse pleasure from being the only person in a competitive situation who knew that Jane Eyre was a character while Jane Austen was a writer.
(4) I had an unarticulated crush on Damien Bloom.
An unarticulated crush is very different from an unrequited one, because at least with an unrequited crush you know what the hell you’re doing, even if the other person isn’t doing it back. An unarticulated crush is harder to grapple with, because it’s a crush that you haven’t even admitted to yourself. The romantic forces are all there--you want to see him, you always notice him, you treat every word from him as if it weighs more than anyone else’s. But you don’t know why. You don’t know that you’re doing it. You’d follow him to the end of the earth without ever admitting that your feet were moving.
Damien was track-team popular and hung with the cross-country crowd. If he didn’t have any problem with Sung’s varsity jacket, it was probably because none of the other kids in our school defined him as a quiz bowl geek. If anything, his membership on the team was seen as a fluke. Whereas I, presumably, belonged there, along with Sung and Frances Oh (perfect SAT, tragic skin) and Wes Ward (250 IQ, 250 lbs) and Gordon White (calculator watch, matching glasses). My social status was about the same as that of a water fountain in the hall--people were happy enough I was there when they needed me, but they didn’t particularly want to talk to me. I wish I could say I was fine with this, and that I found what I needed in books or food or drugs or quiz bowl or other water fountain kids. But it sucked. I didn’t have the disposition to be slavishly devoted to popularity and the popular kids, but at the same time, I was pretty sure my friends were losers, and barely even friends.
When we won at States, Sung, Damien, Frances, Wes, and Gordon celebrated like they’d just gotten full scholarships to MIT. Mr. Phillips was in tears when he called his wife to tell her. A photographer from the local paper came to school to take our picture a few days later, and I tried to hide behind the others as much as possible. Sung had his jacket by that time, its white sleeves glistening like they’d been made from unicorn horns. After the article appeared, a couple of people congratulated me in the hall. But most kids snickered or didn’t care. We had a crash-course candy sale to pay for our trip to Indianapolis, and I stole money from my parents’ wallets and dipped into my savings in order to buy my whole portion outright, shoving the crap candy bars in our basement instead of having to ask my fellow students to pony up.
Sung, of course, wanted us to get matching varsity jackets to wear to Nationals. Damien already had a varsity jacket for cross-country that he never wore, so he was out. Frances, Wes, and Gordon said they were using all their money on the tickets and other things for Indianapolis. I simply said no. And when Sung asked me if I was sure, I told him, “You can’t possibly expect me to wear that.” Everybody got quiet for a second, but Sung didn’t seem fazed. He just launched us into yet another practice.
If there were four reasons that I’d joined the quiz bowl team, there were two reasons that I stayed on:
(1) I had an unarticulated crush on Damien Bloom. (These things don’t change.)
(2) I really, really liked defeating people.
Note: I am not saying I really, really liked winning. Winning is a more abstract concept, and in quiz bowl, winning usually meant having to come back in the next round and do it all again. No, I liked defeating people. I liked seeing the look on the other team’s faces when I got a question they couldn’t answer. I loved their geektastic disappointment when they realized they weren’t good enough to rank up. I loved using trivia to make people doubt themselves. I never, ever missed a literature question--I was a fucking juggernaut of authors and oeuvres. And I never, ever attempted to answer any of the math, science, or history questions. Nobody expected me to. Thus, I would always win.
The hardest were the scrimmages, when we would split into teams of three and take each other on. I didn’t have any problem answering the questions correctly--I just had to make sure not to gloat. The only thing keeping me in check was Damien. Around him, I wanted to be a good guy.
If I had any enthusiasm for Indianapolis, it was because I assumed Damien and I would be rooming together. I imagined us talking all night, bonding to the point of knowledge. I could see us laughing together about the quiz bowl kids from other states who were surrounding us in their quiz bowl varsity jackets. We’d smuggle in some beers, watch bad TV, and become so comfortable with each other that I would finally feel the world was comfortable, too. This was strictly a separate-beds fantasy . . . but it was a separate-from-the-world fantasy, too. That was what I wanted.
The closer we got to Indianapolis, the more I found myself looking forward to it, and the more Sung became a dictator. If I’d thought he was serious about quiz bowl before, he was beyond any frame of reference now. He wanted to practice every day after school for six hours--pizza was brought in--and even when he saw us in the halls, he threw questions our way. At first I tried to ignore him, but that only made him YELL HIS QUESTIONS IN A LOUD, OVERLY ARTICULATED VOICE. Now anyone within four hallways of our own could hear the guy in the quiz bowl varsity jacket shout, “WHO WAS THE LAST AMERICAN NOVELIST TO WIN THE NOBEL PRIZE FOR LITERATURE?”
And I’d say, much lower, “James Patterson.”
Sung would blanch and whisper, “Wrong.”
“Toni Morrison,” I’d correct. “I’m just playing with ya.”
“That’s not funny,” he’d say. And I’d run for class.
It did, at least, give me a reason to talk to Damien at lunch. I accidentally-on-purpose ended up behind him on the cafeteria line.
“Is Sung driving you crazy, too?” I asked. “With his pop quizzes?”
Damien smiled. “Nah. It’s just Sung being Sung. You’ve gotta respect that.”
As far as I could tell, the only reason to respect that was because Damien was respecting it. Which, at that moment, was reason enough.
The afternoon hallway quizzing wore me down, though. Sung got increasingly angry as I was increasingly unable to give him a straight answer.
“WHAT WAS JANE AUSTEN’S LAST FINISHED NOVEL?”
“Vaginas and Virginity.”
“WHO IS THE LAST PERSON IAGO KILLS IN OTHELLO?”
“His manservant Bastardio, for forgetting to change the Brita filter!”
“WHAT IS THE ENDING OF HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN’S ‘THE LITTLE MERMAID’?”
“She turns into a fish and marries Nemo!”
These were remarkable words to hear coming from Sung’s mouth.
He went on.
“Are you trying to sabotage us? Do you WANT to LOSE?”
The other kids in the hall were loving this--a full-blown quiz bowl spat.
“Are you breaking up with me?” I joked.
Sung turned bright, bright red.
“I’ll see you at practice!” he managed to get out. Then he turned around and I could see the five quiz bowlers on the back of his jacket, their blank faces not-quite-glaring at me as he stormed away.
When I arrived ten minutes late to our final pre-Indianapolis practice, Mr. Phillips looked concerned, Damien looked indifferent, Sung looked flustered and angry, Frances looked flustered, Gordon looked angry, and Wes looked distracted by whatever game he was playing on his phone.
“Everyone needs to take this very seriously,” Mr. Phillips pronounced.
“Because there are small, defenseless koalas who will be killed if we don’t make the final four!” I added.
“Do you want to stay here?” Sung asked, looking like I’d just stuck a magnet in his hard drive. “Is that what this is about?”
“No,” I said calmly, “I’m just joking. If you can’t joke about quiz bowl, what can you joke about? It’s like mime in that respect.”
“C’mon, Alec,” Damien said. “Sung just wants us to win.”
“No,” I said. “Sung only wants us to win. There’s a difference.”
Damien and the others looked at me blankly. This was not, I remembered, a word-choice crowd.
Still, Damien had gotten the message across: Lay off. So I did, for the rest of the practice. And I didn’t get a single question wrong. I even could name four Pearl S. Buck books besides The Good Earth--which is the English-geek equivalent of knowing how to make an atomic bomb, in that it’s both difficult and totally uncool.
And how was I rewarded for this display of extraneous knowledge? At the end of the practice, as we were leaving, Mr. Phillips offhandedly told us our room assignments. Sung would be the one who got to room with Damien. And I would have to share a room with Wes, who liked to watch Lord of the Rings battle scenes to prepare for competition.
On the way out, I swear Sung was gloating.
If it had been up to Sung, we would have had the cheerleading squad seeing us off at the airport. I could see it now:
Two-four-six-eight, how do mollusks procreate?
One-two-three-four, name the birthplace of Niels Bohr!
Then, before we left, as a special treat, Sung would calculate the mass and volume of their pom-poms. Each of the girls would dream of being the one to wear Sung’s letter jacket when he came back home, because that would make her the most popular girl in the entire sch--
“Alec, we’re boarding.” Damien interrupted my sarcastic reverie. The karma gods had at least seated us next to each other on the plane. Unfortunately, they then swung around (as karma gods tend to do, the jerks) and made him fall asleep the moment after takeoff. It wasn’t until we were well into our descent that he opened his eyes and looked at me.
“Nervous?” he asked.
“It hasn’t even occurred to me to be nervous,” I answered honestly. “I mean, we don’t have to win for it to look good on our transcripts. I’m already concocting this story where I overcome a bad case of consumption, the disapproval of my parents, a terrifying history of crashing in small planes, and a twenty-four-hour speech impediment in order to compete in this tournament. As long as you overcome adversity, they don’t really care if you win. Unless it’s, like, a real sport.”
“Dude,” he said, “you read way too much.”
“But clearly you don’t know your science enough to move across the aisle the minute I reveal my consumptive state.”
“Oh,” he said, leaning a little closer, “I can catch consumption just from sitting next to you?”
“Again,” I said, not leaning away, “medicine is your area of expertise. In novels, you damn well can catch consumption from sitting next to someone. You were doomed from the moment you met me.”
I wasn’t quick enough to keep the conversation going. Damien bent down to take an issue of Men’s Health out of his bag. And he wasn’t even reading it for the pictures.
I pretended to have a hacking cough for the remaining ten minutes of the flight. The other people around me were annoyed, but I could tell that Damien was amused. It was our joke now.
Copyright © 2019 by David Levithan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.