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 front—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 breast-stroker 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 did get 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 a 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 SATs, tragic skin) and Wes Ward (250 IQ, 250 lbs) and Gordon White (calculator watch, matching glasses). My social status was about the same as a water fountain in the hall—people were happy enough I was there when they needed me, but otherwise they walked on by. 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. And at the same time, I was pretty sure my friends were losers, and barely even friends.

When we won the 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 at home to tell her. A photographer from the local paper came to take our picture and I tried to hide behind Wes 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 really 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 for such a pathetic cause.

Sung, of course, wanted all of 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 said, “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:

I had an unarticulated crush on Damien Bloom. (These things don’t change.)

I really, really liked beating 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 beating 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 an English 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, where 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. Because around him, I wanted to be the 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, me finding out all about him, 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 quiz bowl dictator. If I’d thought he was serious about it before, he was beyond all 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 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 said. And I’d run for class.

It did, at least, give me something to talk to Damien about 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, though, wore me down. Sung got increasingly angry as I was increasingly unable to give him a straight answer.


“Vaginas and Virginity.”


“His manservant Retardio, for forgetting to change the Brita filter!”


“She turns into a fish and marries Nemo!”

“Fuck you!”

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. Which is not easy for an Asian American math geek to do.

“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 both flustered and angry, Frances looked flustered, Gordon looked angry, and Wes looked hungry.

“Everyone needs to take this very seriously,” Mr. Phillips pronounced.

“Because there are small, defenseless ponies who will be killed if we don’t make the final four!” I added.

“Do you not want to go?” 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 the room with Wes, the gargantuan hobbit.

On the way out, I swear Sung was gloating.