I began learning uncontrollably through osmosis. I knew the founding date of the Yuezhi Empire and the anatomy of a red-lipped batfish. I could list the stars comprising Ursa Major from my sister’s astronomy textbook. I slept on a Gabriel Mistral book to see if my gift transcended language barriers and woke up speaking my name with rolling R’s. My head became heavy with information, and I stopped falling asleep on my textbooks in class to keep from learning. But nothing eased the pain but aspirin.
On Saturdays, the neighborhood kids met the Trivia Man in the park. He was wrinkly and owl-eyed behind thick-rimmed glasses – like Orville Redenbacher – and rode a bike with a rolling cooler attached to its rear. He’d tip his bowler hat and begin. What’s the capital of Montana? Who won the first Triple Crown? What is an example of a palindrome? For every correct answer, he gave an ice cream sandwich from his cooler, sweet and dripping in the heat.
What is the most common language spoke in Switzerland? he asked.
I raised my hand.
The contestants laughed. Swiss isn’t a language, idiot, someone said. I received no ice cream.
That night, I checked out a tourist guide to Switzerland from the library and read until I fell asleep, using the book as a pillow. I dreamt of Geneva, the Matterhorn, and fondue.
The smart kids sat in the front while the Trivia Man quizzed us and waited for a chance to prove their superiority. I sat in the back.
How do you calculate the length of a pyramid?
I raised my hand before I could recall an answer. My face turned red and hot as kids stared. Again, I got no ice cream.
I took a nap on a geometry textbook, then went to bed with trigonometry for good measure. Numbers bobbed through my head and shapes formed in the darkness when I blinked.
The Trivia Man tipped his hat.
What empire saw the invention of the aqueduct?
I had no answers.
I was tired of feeling stupid. I went to my father’s office and grabbed a stack of his encyclopedias. For the next week I slept from A to N, the words diffusing into me – aardvarks and baseball and devaluation and the Japanese empire. I was full on knowledge. My temples trembled, throbbed.
But on Saturday, the Trivia Man asked about John O’Hara, xylophones, Zimbabwe. I told my mom I was feeling ill and slept the entire day, O through Z.
By the next week’s trivia, my head pounded to the beat of my steps. I wore sunglasses to blunt the sun, which caught my eyes like needles. The Trivia Man tipped his hat.
What research effort created the atomic bomb?
“The Manhattan Project,” I said.
What is the Spanish word for love?
What year did the Titanic sink?
April 15, 1912.
I licked my ice cream. It was bland, and it dripped down my arms and stained my pants.
By the time I got home, white patches fizzled in my periphery. The sweets stirred in my stomach. Parabolas and the Incans ricocheted against my head like racket balls.
“I don’t feel good,” I told my mom.
She brought me to bed. I laid my head on her as she stroked my hair.
Do you know how much I love you?
I didn’t have that answer inside me.
I fell asleep on her chest. I dreamt of my mother in pigtails, then graduation robes, then a wedding dress, touching her stomach to feel me kick, holding my father’s hands on her hips, then pushing him away. I saw her check my father’s phone when he showered and stare into the darkness instead of sleeping. My insides became raw and hollowed, like my mother.
When I awoke, I held her tight and pretended to sleep until the pain forced my eyes open.
I thought of Better Homes and Gardens, tulips, pollination, bee extinction. I ran downstairs and searched for school supplies in the basement. Cellar, wine, Italy, Mussolini. I threw a fresh notebook onto the concrete. Cement, sediment, volcanoes, Kick ‘em Jenny. I laid my body on the floor. Castlewood, Blarney Stone, The Troubles, Bloody Sunday.
Finally, I began to drift into sleep. Darkness approached as thoughts seeped onto the empty page.