To Be Greater Than
I feel as if I am done with the world. This world was not meant for me. I’m about to fail this math test. Stupid math. I mean: math for stupid people. I got into this prestigious university with the solemn promise that I would take and pass this math class for people who can scarcely add without counting on their fingers.
I look up and a man has locked onto me with his eyes. I faintly recognize him as a fellow mathematically disabled person from my class. He is sitting with a study group whose members are frantically cramming themselves full of last minute desperation. And formulas. This man is older than me, not that old but maybe too old for a new start, and while I might not be able to do algebra past a tenth grade level, at least I’m not this sad old man. I wonder what he’s doing here, and I wonder why he’s looking at me.
He smiles and nods and waves me over, hand flapping loosely in the air. I rise and move sideways, scuttling like a crab, to the other side of the massive, round study table.
“Can you help us with this one?” he says, looking at me with a painfully optimistic smile. I think he smells like leather, or sawdust and woodwork; I think it’s coming out of his pores.
His study mates all look at me with hopeful, shimmering eyes, clearly sold on a promise of some mythical mastery which I do not possess.
“Sure,” I say.
I say, “What’s giving you trouble?”
They show me the problem and I recognize it because I am in this class, but I don’t know how to solve it because, as I said, this is a test that I am going to fail.
“You’re right,” I say. “That is a tricky one.”
And guess what, I solve the thing. I break it down and explain it to them and they nod enthusiastically and make notes in their little notebooks. I solve this thing beautifully, with ease, a method they have never before seen because it is completely wrong.
“Thank you so much, Kevin,” says the man who smells like woodwork.
And I say, “No problem.” I say, “My pleasure.”
One of his study mates raises a hand hesitantly like the star-struck pupil of an idolized grandmaster and I look at him and I nod, radiating humility, and he says, “Can I ask you about another one?”
And the soul of Kevin is a generous one, so I connect to his dark eyes with my own glorious hazels and I say, “You bet.”
He shows me the problem and I don’t know if he is in my class because I don’t recognize it and I don’t recognize his face, but I solve it too and they are all happy. I stand up to leave the study room—the test is soon now, and I have to scan through my notes even though it won’t do me the slightest bit of good. As I leave they all wave and say, “Thank you, Kevin!” or “Thanks, Kevin,” but they don’t wish me luck on the test because they know that Kevin does not need luck. Kevin is a virtuoso of all mathematics, of numbers both real and imaginary.
My name is not Kevin.
* * *
I fail the test miserably. The following week the teacher is walking the rows of desks. She gives a small word of encouragement or congratulations to her students as she sets their tests, face down, on the desktops. When my test is set in front of me the teacher hesitates for a moment, her fingers pinning my exam to the wood. I look up at her and she can see in my eyes that I know what’s coming, so she smiles as if we share a great secret. She moves on, leaving me wondering about the strange moment, and across the room members of the study group are staring at me and smiling. Most of the students are flipping through their blue booklets, trying to see where they made mistakes or praying for an error in their favor on the part of the instructor, but I don’t even look at my terrible grade before slipping the exam into my small, fabric messenger bag. The teacher offers to review any problems that gave students difficulty and writes them in neat red marker on the clear plastic of the overhead projector. Other students make notes or compare their own work, but I sit quietly, politely, my hands clasped on the desk in front of me, and wait patiently. More than once the teacher looks at me and she smiles, but while I can see the darkness in her eyes, the probable loathing at my ineptitude, at my wasting her time, it is unclear to me how it is taken by the rest of the class. When the review session ends I’m the first one through the door.
Soon enough, Woodwork and his posse catch me up in the hallway. I think, The jig is up.
“Hello, Kevin,” he says, his nervousness hanging awkwardly in the age difference.
“Oh, hi,” I say. “How did it go?”
“I did okay.” He looks around at the others. “We did okay.”
“Great,” I say. “Fantastic.”
“How did you do?” And even before he finishes the sentence it looks like he can’t believe he is uttering it.
“Oh,” I say. I look away. Reddening; bashful. “I did all right.”
And these grown men glow. They bask and writhe in the presence of the humility of Kevin. And Kevin smiles upon them.
Woodwork takes a step back, unwilling to turn away from Kevin, and the others urge him forward again.
I smile my best prophet smile. Kevin, the Saint of Mathematics for Remedial Math.
“We were wondering if you might want to join our study group,” he says in wandering, halting language.
“When do you meet?” I say.
His eyes lose focus and he turns to his comrades desperately.
“Thursday!” they yell in disbelief.
“Thursday,” Woodwork says, laughing, shaking his head in self-admonishment.
“Well, Thursday is tough for me,” it’s when one of my favorite TV shows is on, “but I’ll try to make it.”
“Great,” Woodwork says. “Thank you.” He reaches out to shake my hand, to shake the hand of Kevin, but changes his mind and lets the hand drop. He looks at me peculiarly and then walks away.
When Thursday comes around, I have absolutely no desire to go and meet the study group, but knowing that Kevin would not let them down, that he would put himself out for their sakes, I set the TV show to record and head out. I have a stroke of genius on the way and pull my car into a shop and pick up a baker’s dozen for the group to share.
I find them in the study room where Woodwork first christened me Kevin. I’m greeted with great excitement, and, since I’m a few minutes late, I can tell that they have been waiting, nervously, to see if Kevin would arrive.
“Sorry,” I say, and hold up the box of donuts.
I can read their minds. They can’t believe this. They’re thinking, This is a man above. They’re thinking, This is Kevin.
It’s only once we are all eating donuts and getting seated around the table, setting out our notebooks, binders, and 500-page textbooks, that I realize the situation I’ve put myself in. How long before they realize that I am just as clueless as they are—more even. How long before they realize I am not Kevin.
The group is one of independent study, a support system where notes and answers can be compared, and the most difficult questions can be submitted for group discussion. So, I legitimately study and try not to look clueless. I try to look and study how Kevin would look and study. Deep concentration and focus, but graceful with a relaxed ease. Sometimes Kevin must work as hard as anyone else, but he always gets there in the end.
One of the studiers asks a question, to the group. I don’t know his name. Actually, I don’t know any of their names. The asker is stocky and has a perfectly square head with a nose that looks like it has been broken again and again—the nose is a doughy mashed mess. And the question is so stupid that even I know the answer; it’s painfully easy. I hear it, and I want to answer it to legitimize my claim to Kevin, and everyone else wants to answer it, but they are hesitating, looking at me—at Kevin—and I realize that this lump-faced meathead has given me a perfect gift. He has given me a way out.
“How do you think you should solve it?” I say.
He stares at me with his big, dull, stupid eyes. And Kevin feels bad for thinking of him in this way, of reducing him like that.
“What’s the first step?” I say.
The rest of the group understands. They know that this is the path to knowledge. If Kevin is going to teach, he must let you find your way. They share in this understanding and feel blessed, all except for the one stupid idiot I’m trying to use to cement my Kevin legitimacy. I’m going to speak, I’m going to give him the first step because I can’t stand the thickness of the air in this ridiculous room.
I shift to speak and at the same time Woodwork says, “Well, how did you…” and he hesitates and looks at Kevin and Kevin urges him on, bestowing a smile of understanding and a nod of encouragement. Woodwork says, “How did you solve question seven?”
Blockhead looks at his notebook and it’s clear that he is getting frustrated, that this kind of help has an expiration date after which he will become a rage animal. But this last tactic works. He smiles. He looks up and says, “Oh, I see.”
And Woodwork beams. There may never have been a prouder moment.
And mash-face says, “Thanks.” He thanks Woodwork and he turns to me and he says, “Thanks, Kevin.” I nod and hold up my hands solemnly, as if to say, It was all you, and I nod to Woodwork, and Kevin has brought peace upon the world.
At the end of the study session, the successful study session of melodious harmony, Woodwork approaches me and says in a hushed voice, “Kevin? Would you like to come to my house for dinner tomorrow?” which is, of course, the last thing on Earth I want to do, but Kevin is nobler and even though this seems like a devious method by which to cut out the rest of the group so Woodwork can have Kevin all to himself, I accept. I hesitate, with eyes for the group, but say, “Sure.”
His eyes sparkle. He’s practically floating, and he hands me a piece of sweaty paper with his address, scuttles from the room like a bashful teenager, and the rest of the group is jealous. The rest of the group wishes they thought of it first.
And Kevin smiles and waves, even his wave is humble, from the hip, and as I walk out thinking about this wasted time, Kevin is wondering about the expectations for attending a dinner where one is the guest of honor, but it’s obvious really: I’m Kevin and Kevin would wear a nice clean shirt with buttons and bring a bottle of wine, the best he can afford.
* * *
When I get to his house and Woodwork opens the door, he looks pleased at my pressed shirt and the wine, as if it were something he didn’t know he desired, something that now, in front of him, has become perfect, Kevinly perfect. But as the two of us stand here, in his foyer, it seems like something is up. He’s nervous, fingers picking at one another, and though it seems like this could just be the nervousness associated with having Kevin in his house, there is definitely something else going on. I can smell cooked meat and air fresheners—summer sunshine. In my dark center I wonder what is about to take place—is this an ambush? Is the study group waiting in the other room to beat me to death with their 500-page textbooks? But I must focus on the greater: I am Kevin, I am Kevin.
He gives me a tour of the house’s lower level and introduces me to his wife, Melody, which suits her absolutely. She is remarkably beautiful, shockingly. I wonder how this match came to be, that perhaps there is some hidden magic in Woodwork’s rough hands, but the Kevin in me admonishes these unkind thoughts. Melody graciously offers me a drink, “Kevin? Something to drink?” and I request water because it feels right. Kevin is a teetotaler. Kevin’s body is a temple. This answer generates smiles from both Woodwork and Melody, accompanied by a shared look that I find highly suspect. Woodwork and I sit in chairs of supple leather (I wonder how he can afford these) while Melody leaves for the kitchen. We chat about math class and the university in careful generalizations, and Woodwork keeps checking his watch—it’s freaking me out. Kevin is freaked out.
Minutes draw out torturously and I wonder what I’m doing here. I’m trying to find and retrace the thread that led to this moment. It’s elusive. Woodwork checks his watch for the nth time and I’m feeling ready to bolt, but before a suitable excuse presents itself (homework? the oven’s on? shit my pants?) the door through which Kevin entered opens and closes. I can hear heavy boots in the foyer, military curb-stompers, likely worn by a man with sledge-fists. I look at Woodwork. He smiles and winks. I’m fucked.
There is a thudding sound, my executioner setting down his bag of hammers, and into the room walks younger, clone replica of Melody.
“Ah, finally,” says Woodwork, who looks at me as though he has given something away, when it’s only the look that’s done it. He stands, awkwardly, so I do as well.
“Kevin,” he says, and steps beside the young woman, holds her shoulders with his hands, “this is my daughter, Colette.”
And I can’t breathe. She’s taken my breath—my mind also. I think it’s such an unusual name for her, Colette, and her long black hair shines like brushed silk and her sharp brown eyes consume me, the world, everything.
Colette smiles pleasantly, but her head tips at an angle, like she’s heard a distant sound carried by the wind. “Hi,” she says.
“Hello,” I say.
I say, “Nice to meet you.”
And I’m trying to be cool, cool like Kevin, Kevin Cool. She doesn’t look completely horrified by the situation her parents have thrust her into. She is the picture of gracious charm. And I’m trying to decide whether it’s Kevin or I who has fallen in love with her, but I can’t tell—it might be both.
Woodwork says, “I have to check on something,” and hurries from the room.
Colette and I sit and study one another in slightly awkward, though still somewhat pleasant, silence. She seems to be battling something internally, but makes a decision.
“I should tell you. I have a boyfriend.”
“He sounds terrible,” I say, and the words come from me, but they’re so smooth they must be Kevin’s.
She laughs—real laughter, real surprise—and says, “Actually, his name is Kevin, too.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“Because what? All Kevins are beneath you?”
“That’s right. I am the pinnacle of all Kevins.” The words are alien in their confidence, in their ability to sound poised and certain. And, because I have not said them, because they are Kevin’s words, they are not the words of an asshole.
She smiles at me, but her eyes are weaponized, bore with the precision of a deep intellect she doesn’t bother to disguise. And I wither away in cowardice, melting to a single atom, while Kevin the Magnificent holds her gaze.
Throughout the very pleasant dinner I start to feel that life can be very good to me as Kevin. For some reason, Kevin gives to the world. And the world gives back. I imagine the future, two futures stretching out before me—I’ve never imagined it this way. I’ve only ever been able to imagine one future, a future of extending, expanding, and eternal darkness where I toil away and march toward death in apathy-fueled misery, counting the days, ticking them off like I’m collecting them for some unknown reason, like I can cash them in for a new life at the end of this wretched one, even though I’m just making marks on the cinderblocks of the cell that I’ve built for myself. I don’t know where this dark, lancing anger and self-loathing came from. This misanthropic, cave-dwelling existence. What life could I have? What a life I could have! I have let Kevin into my life, into my heart, and I want to be him. Kevin full-time.
By the end of the dinner, Kevin has charmed them—I have charmed them. And they’ve charmed me. Melody shakes my hand gently and, she can’t help herself, gives me a hug. Matthew, my mathematical companion whose aroma and essence has developed complexity in his home, shakes my hand firmly, but not too firmly, not a challenge but a passing of the torch as it were, and there’s a twinkle in his eye like he’d marry me himself right now if he could.
Colette walks me to the door. We stand, facing each other, unsure of what to do, unsure of what to say. I take a pen from my pocket and write my phone number on my hand. Then I press the palm of my hand against the back of hers until the ink transfers from the heat and in her eyes I can tell that she sees me, the one true Kevin. She steps forward as if to kiss me, but she just presses her finger against my cheek, turning me in the direction of the door. She does it with a smile, and I am fully reborn.
* * *
Two days later I’m with the study group and Colette has just texted me that she wants to see me tonight. It’s difficult to stay focused after that, but I stay on task. A few minutes later, Kevin walks into the room. I couldn’t picture him before now, but the instant I see him I know him. There is a resemblance between us—similar jawline, similar hair color and cut—but he does not wear glasses as I do, and it’s quite possibly here that the error was made, the study group thinking, he doesn’t look quite like Kevin, but it’s probably just the glasses. And they all know, before Kevin says a single word they know, and I don’t even have to look at their faces because I can feel it—it’s vibrating through the air. Everything just hangs, suspended, and time slows to a strange viscous flow and I’m thinking that it is totally worth it, no matter the ramifications—the fallout—because I have given them this perfect moment of unreality that most won’t experience in an entire lifetime.
“Hey guys,” Kevin says, this real Kevin, and his voice is that of someone with a broken heart. This is the voice of a man who has just been destroyed by Colette. The dark, disappearing center of me revels in it, but the new layer—the Kevin—feels sorry for him, wants to comfort him. But this “real” Kevin has missed several classes, possibly even the last test, besmirching the name of Kevin.
I straighten up in my chair, fearless in the face of the gallows, and say, “Hey.”
I say, “What’s up?”
Kevin nods in response, this lesser Kevin, and hesitates just inside the doorway of the room, looking from man-to-man.
And Matthew looks at me with an expression I cannot decipher, meets my eyes, those of the truest Kevin, and then looks between me and the lesser Kevin several times. Finally, he says, “Hello.” And then he motions toward me with a hand, palm upturned, presenting, and states, “This is Kevin.”
No one protests.
The man says, “Hey,” and then, prompted by the resulting silence, leaves.
I turn to look at Matthew and he is smiling.
And the lump-faced blockhead, a tortured soul named Jeremy, disciple of Kevin, says, “Can I ask about this one?”