But Drew’s true love had been physics. He’d sit in the library, teaching me everything he knew on the subject under a bronze lamp. It had been more than enough to get me through my classes, but he’d never stopped pushing into that world, the one where the smallest things combined to explain all the big ones. “Jane, hand me some licorice. It’s getting serious in here,” he’d said once, opening a Stephen Hawking book and reading from it from memory.
We spent all our lunches together. “Drew, you haven’t estimated the proper density of your cauliflower stew, hence the overflow,” I’d told him, wiping the mess off his leg.
He’d grinned. “Well, Jane, cauliflower’s tricky. It’s pretty enough to be ornamental, healthy enough to be stewed, and white enough to be very lonely in its existence as a vegetable.”
“Like that’s much different from you…”
That had been the first time I’d heard him laugh. It was an awkward sound, like dragging a stool over a kitchen floor while dropping a tray of glasses. The sound repeated three times before he caught his breath. I remember looking at the glances we were getting: a mixture of genuine concern for the health of this boy, fear that some kind of animal had come to lunch, and annoyance that St.Ives had encountered another mechanical disruption of its ventilation system, one that would that would lead to further diminishment in heating levels for the cold night ahead.
I’d invited him over to the girls’ dorm that day, where he’d met my roommate Giselle. Drew had stuck out his hand. “Hello, pleasure, nice to meet you, haven’t we met before, weren’t we in the same class, we did a project together, we’re working on an assignment right now!, have you got your part done yet?, yes let’s set a time to work together tomorrow.”
Giselle had shrugged and given me a look. “Drew, fix a heater for us?” She’d pointed at the space heater in the corner. Drew had ambled over, plugged it in, and opened it up to inspect its innards. After much mumbling, he’d asked for a screwdriver.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I’d told him. “It’s plugged in.”
“Watch,” he’d said. The screwdriver had gone in, bit by bit. I first realized Drew was being electrocuted because his ears were quivering and there are appeared to be sparks coming off his glasses. Jaw clenched, his hair began to rise: all those ginger curls waking up from their long slumber, coming to attention as they took stock of the situation and prepared for the battle ahead. The bayonets were raised, the mortars prepared, and Drew’s hair became a field of pointed needles.
“Don’t touch him!” Giselle had warned, as I’d jumped forward to help. I’d grabbed a pillow instead and smashed him with it, knocking him away from the heater.
“Fixed,” he’d said, lying in a heap, the screwdriver stuck to his flesh.
“You electrocuted yourself,” I’d noted, as Giselle jumped up and down on her bed in panic.
“Drew, we have to go to the nurse…”
“Nope. Fixed. Fixed fixed fixed.”
And he’d been right. The space heater hummed away after that, as though it had never gone through a long history of fits and electrical vulnerabilities, never given up the fight as the outside temperatures dropped and it was required to shoulder the load. By the time I’d left St. Ives, that heater was still working, and I often wondered if its inheritors could have suspected the means by which it had been rescued from the threshold of obsolescence.
Drew had been fine. He’d done it intentionally, he’d explained, because he’d felt bad for forgetting that he knew who Giselle was. When my roommate left the room later, I’d leaned over and given Drew a kiss. It does bother me that it was the only one we ever had.
Near Christmas, Drew’s mother Matilda came to St. Ives and took us out for lunch. It had been snowing, and the world was white. We’d sat in a café, drinking cappuccinos, and eating stale biscotti caked in icing sugar and lemony cranberries.
“Are you two dating?” she’d asked. Mrs. Ramos hadn’t eaten a thing the whole time and had barely sipped her coffee.
“That’s a funny question,” I’d said. “What did Drew tell you?”
“Nothing. That’s why I’m asking, dear.”
“Answer is yes.”
She’d leaned back. Drew, if he’d heard the exchange, didn’t seem the least bit interested in it. “Well,” she’d continued, “that is a surprise.”
“Oh, why’s that, Mrs. Ramos?”
For a moment, she’d closed her eyes. I’d started counting, slow in that river-spun way, getting into double digits before I’d suspected that she might have fallen asleep right in front of me. But then she’d opened her eyes. “You’re so pretty, dear. Honestly, you are wonderfully gorgeous, and Drew… he’s never shown any interest in anything other than books before. It all seems so unexpected.”
“You’re telling me!” I’d said, trying to ensure that she wouldn’t have another mini-nap. “But that’s the way it is.”
This time, her eyes had stayed fully open. I’d almost counted to double figures in that river-spun way before the inevitable blink had finally come. “Things are so different than when I was young.”
“They sure are, Mrs. Ramos.”
“I suppose, dear, that that is a good thing,” she’d said.
I’d nodded, giving Drew a flick to concur. He’d come out of his cappuccino with bubbles on his front-most curls. Mrs. Ramos and I had reached over at the same time to clean him, which had baffled Drew enough to start paying attention.
“Well dear,” Matilda had said to me. “It was really nice to meet you. I don’t think I’ve had so pleasant a time in a long while. Hopefully I will be able to see you again, but I hold out not a lot of hope of that, for you see, I have a rather advanced form of illness. Incurable, they tell me, as though the doctors can rightly assign such an absolute statement to what is inevitably a probability proposition. Farewell. Thank you for the cappuccinos. And for all the bread crumbs along the path that I’ve followed. I just want you to know that the most significant stop along that road has been this boy right here, my son. I want you to know that.”
I’d risen and shaken her hand. And for whatever reason, I’d just left, going to the front door. I’d waited for Drew there, watching him say a few words to his mother before the staring, stark trim of her body had suddenly gelatinized and swamped over him in a hug that took Drew a few moments to return. When Drew had reached me, he’d stared at the floor, as though he didn’t want me to see what he was feeling; and behind him, at the table, Mrs. Ramos was as straight as a board, a pencil-yellow figure with the eraser worn to bronze, the lead chiseled to nothing.