“You wanna know real life, kid?” a man once told me. “You gotta know yourself first.” He drank a bottle of booze from a paper bag, sitting on the backdoor steps of a five-star hotel. I wandered outside on my tenth birthday, needing air. Everyone in the convention hall was thirty-five and up. Not a single kid my age.
I wore a suit that squeezed my prepubescent frame too tight, and I tried to ignore the fact that just inside my mother with a swelling stomach pattered around her business partners. Even pregnant, she commanded every single person in that room with reticence and stoicism that I could easily mimic.
“I know who I am,” I told him. I was Connor Cobalt. The kid who always did right. The kid who always knew when to shut up and when to speak. I bit my tongue until it bled.
He eyed my suit and snorted. “You’re nothin’ but a monkey, kid. You wanna be those men in there.” He nodded to the door behind him. And then he leaned in close to me, as though to confess a secret, his vodka stench almost knocking me backwards. And yet, I still anticipated his words. “Then you gotta be better than them.”
The advice of an old drunkard stayed with me longer than anything my father ever said. Two years later, my mother sat me in our family parlor to deliver news that I would parallel with that memory. That shaped me in some catalytic way.
You see, a life can be broken down to years, months, memories and undulating moments. Three moments defined mine.
I was twelve. I spent holidays at Faust Boarding School for Young Boys, but on one fluke of a weekend, I decided to visit my mother’s house outside of Philadelphia.
She chose then to tell me. She didn’t set a date, plan the event, make it into something larger than she thought it was. She broke the news like she was firing an employee. Swift and construct.
“Your father and I are divorced.”
Divorced. As in past tense. Somewhere along the line, I had missed something dramatic in my own life. It had passed right under my f**king nose because my mother believed it meant very little. She made me believe it too.
Their separation was deemed amicable. They had grown apart. Katarina Cobalt had never let me into her life one-hundred percent. She let no one see beyond what she gave them. And it was in this moment that I learned that trick. I learned how to be strong and inhuman all at once.
I lost contact with Jim Elson, my father. I had no desire to rekindle a relationship with him. The truths that I kept close were only painful if I let them be, and I convinced myself fairly well that they were just facts. And I moved on.
I was sixteen. In the dim Faust study room, smoke clouding the air, two upperclassmen appraised a line of ten guys, stopping in front of each pledge.
Joining a secret society was the equivalent of being accepted to a lacrosse team. Dressed in preparatory slacks, blazers, and ties, the lot of us were supposed to grace the halls of Harvard and Yale and repeat the same mistakes all over again.
They asked each guy an identical question and each responded with a simple submissive yes and was told to drop to their knees. Then they set their sights on the next boy.
When they stopped in front of me, I stayed relatively composed. I tried mostly to hide a burgeoning, conceited smile. They looked like two apes pounding their chest and asking for a banana. The thing about me—I was not so willing to give just anyone my f**king banana. Every benefit should outweigh the cost.
“Connor Cobalt,” the blond said, leering. “Will you suck my cock?”
The question was supposed to show how willing we were to follow orders. And I honestly wasn’t sure how far they would go, all to prove this point.
What do I get out of it?
The prize would be a membership into a social clique. I believed I could obtain this a different way. I saw a path that no one else did.
“I think you have it backwards,” I told him, my smile peeking through. “You should suck my cock. You would enjoy it more.”
The pledges broke into laughter, and the blond stepped forward, his nose nearly touching mine. “What did you just say to me?”
“I thought I was perfectly clear the first time.” He was giving me the opportunity to bend down again. But if I wanted to be led by a group of testosterone poisoned monkeys, I would have joined the football team.
“Then let me reiterate.” I leaned forward, confidence seeping through every pore. My lips brushed his ear. He liked that more than he thought he would. “Suck. My. Cock.”
He pushed me back, bright red, and my eyebrow arched.
“Problem?” I asked him.
“Are you gay, Cobalt?”
“I only love myself. In that respect, maybe. And yet, I still won’t blow you.” With this, I left the secret society behind.
Eight of the ten pledges joined me.
I was nineteen. At the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League.
And I sprinted down the student center, slowing to a brisk walk as I reached the girls’ bathroom. I pushed open the door, and a brunette girl with four-inch heels and a conservative blue dress stood by the sink, scrubbing a stain with wet paper towels, her eyes bloodshot with anger and anxiety.
When she saw me enter, she directed all of her pent-up frustration at my incoming body. “This is the girls’ bathroom, Richard.” She used my first real name and tried to fling a paper towel at me. But it fluttered to the ground in defeat.
I wasn’t the one who spilt a can of Cherry Fizz on her dress. But in Rose Calloway’s mind, I might as well have been the offender. We crossed paths every year, my boarding school and her prep school competing at Model UN and honor societies.
I was supposed to be her Student Ambassador today—taking her on tour of campus before her interview with the Dean, which would decide whether or not she’d be in the Honor’s Program
“I’m aware,” I told her easily, more concerned by her state. She gripped the sink at one point, like she was about to scream.
“I’m going to kill Caroline. I’m going to rip out her hair one strand at a time and then steal all of her clothes.”
Her excessive exaggerations always reminded me of a rumor I’d heard around Faust. That during a health class at Dalton Academy, her prep school, she took her baby doll and stabbed the stuffing with a pair of scissors. Another person said she scribbled over the baby’s forehead and handed it to the teacher. The note: I won’t care for an inanimate object unless the boys do it too.
People thought she was nuts—in a genius “I will devour your soul” kind of way.
I thought she was f**king fascinating.
She slammed her palms on the counter. “She spilt soda on me. I’d rather she punched me in the face. At least I have makeup.”
“I have a solution.”
She raised a hand to me. “This is an ego-free bathroom.”
“Then what the f**k are you doing here?” I asked her with the tilt of my head.
She glared, and I neared her anyway, about to help. She shoved my chest in anger.
I hardly even moved. “That was a little infantile, even for you.”
“It’s sabotage,” she said with blazing eyes, pointing a finger at me. “Academic gluttony. I hate cheaters, and she’s cheated me out of Penn.”
“You’ve already been accepted,” I reminded her.
“Would you go to a college without being admitted to the Honor’s Program?”
I said nothing. She knew my answer.
I tossed the sodden towels in the nearby trash, and my actions started loosening her shoulders as she watched me closely. Then I began to shrug off my red blazer.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“This is what help looks like.”
She shook her head. “I don’t want to be indebted to you.” She pointed another finger at me and stepped back. “I know how you work. I get it. You do things for students and they have to pay you back in some sick way.” Opportunity cost. Benefits. Deals. They were the foundation of my life.
“I’m not prostituting people.” I held out my blazer. “There’s not a string attached to this. I’m not expecting anything in return. Take it.”
She just kept shaking her head at me.
My hand fell. “What?”
“Why do you act like that around Caroline?” she suddenly asked.
I read into her question. I heard: Why do you like her? Caroline was a typical WASP girl. She always looked at me with predatory gaze, silently asking: What use will you be to me? Will I marry you some day and take all your f**king money?
But Rose Calloway was different. She was fashionable. But not a sorority girl. She was a genius on paper. But not a team player. She was quick to loathe others. But not against loving.
She was a complicated equation that didn’t need to be solved.
I didn’t even have time to respond. That’s how fast Rose moved in her state of irritation. She set her hands on her h*ps and mimicked me from earlier that day. “You ride well, Caroline. I saw you at the equestrian event last week. How’s your mother?”
“I was being kind.”
“You’re different around certain people,” she told me. “I’ve known you long enough from academic conferences to see it. You act one way with them and another with me. How do I know who the real Connor Cobalt is?”
You never will. “I’m as real with you as I can be.”
“That’s complete bullshit,” she cursed.
“I can’t be you,” I told her. “You leave a trail of bodies with your glares. People are afraid to approach you, Rose. That’s a problem.”
“At least I know who I am.”
We had somehow drawn towards each other. I towered over her, taller than most men and built like an athlete. I never hunched. Never recoiled. I wore my height with pride.
She raised her chin to combat me. I pushed her to be the best that she could be.
“I know exactly who I am,” I said with every ounce of confidence I possessed. “What unsettles you, Rose, is that you have no idea what kind of guy that is.” I stepped closer and she stiffened. “If people stare at me and see my problems, then I’m useless to them. So I give them exactly what they want. I am whomever or whatever they need.” I held out my blazer again. “And you need a f**king jacket.”
She reluctantly took the blazer but hesitated. “I can’t be you,” she said. “I can’t internalize all of my feelings. I don’t understand how you can do that.”
Our eyes met for an extended moment. There was so much between us that I wasn’t ready to uncover right then. I wasn’t prepared for the deep conversations that she would force me to have.
Rose Calloway couldn’t stand me because of what I was—a guy who wanted to reach the top. The irony was that she wanted the same thing. She just wasn’t willing to do what I was to get there.
She slipped on my blazer that dwarfed her frame. “What part of you do you show me?” she asked.
“The best part.”
She rolled her eyes. “If you have nothing real to say, Richard, then why speak at all?”
I couldn’t form the words to reply with what she wanted. I spent years building barriers and defenses. I could take care of a woman better than any other guy could. But my mother never taught me how to love. She taught me about stocks and history and different languages. She made me intelligent.
She made me logical and factual.
I knew sex. I knew affection. But love? That was an illogical concept, something as fictional as the Bible, Katarina Cobalt would say. When I was a child, I thought love belonged in fantasy with witches and monsters. It couldn’t exist in real life, and if it did, it was just like religion—only there to make people feel good.
That was fake to me.
And I nearly rolled my eyes. There you go, Connor. That’s something f**king real. That’s something from the heart.
“Rose,” I began. And she turned to look at me. And her gaze was like the depths of hell. Ice cold. Bitter. Tumultuous and pained. I wanted to bear it all. But I couldn’t show her all the cards I held to do so. I couldn’t let her in. I’d lose the game first. And it had only just begun. “You’re going to do great.”
And that was it.
She was gone.
Through a friend of a friend, I learned that Rose Calloway was accepted to the Honor’s Program. I learned that she denied the request to attend Penn. For whatever reason, she chose Princeton, our rival college.
Six months later, I started to date Caroline Haverford. Not long after that, she became my girlfriend.
It was a life that I saw coming.
It was one that I was prepared for.
There was nothing spontaneous or alluring about it.
At nineteen, everything was just practical.
Five Years Later
[ 1 ]
You know the stories where the strong, brawny man struts into a room with his head high, his chest puffed, and his stocky shoulders pulled back—he’s the king of the jungle, the big man on campus, the one who quivers girls’ knees. He carries an air of unwarranted superiority for the pure fact that he has a dick, and he knows it. He expects the girl to go tongue-tied and agree to his every demand.