The novel begins the morning after “noted child prodigy Colin Singleton” has graduated high school and been dumped for the nineteenth time by a girl named Katherine. Colin takes a bath and notices that he is too big for the bathtub. He feels like an adult pretending to be a kid. Colin reflects on a book he read when he was four about Archimedes, who shouted “Eureka” and ran through the streets when he discovered the phenomenon of water displacement. At the time, Colin asked his mother if he would ever have a “Eureka” moment. She assured him he would. The narrator notes, “But mothers lie. It’s in the job description.”
Colin’s graduation from high school marks a shift from childhood and the life he has always known to adulthood, where, sinking into the bathtub at his parents’ house, he feels out of place. Even Colin’s high school relationship has ended. Colin takes solace in the bathtub, which reminds him of childhood memories, and in his mother’s reassurance that he is a child prodigy destined for greatness. However, as the narrator notes, his mother’s words might have more to do with her love for her child than with any real greatness on Colin’s part.
Back in the present, Colin is too depressed to cry. He gets out of the bath and finds his parents sitting on his bed. Colin hopes that they are there to tell him Katherine XIX has called to ask for him to come back to her. He is a pessimistic person but optimistic when it comes to Katherines. “He always felt they would come back to him,” the narrator states.
Although Colin feels like he should be an adult because he has graduated high school, his relationship with his parents remains one in which they confront him in his bedroom and in which he hopes for their comfort. The way Colin talks about “Katherines” and the fact that Katherine XIX has a number after her name suggests that he has dated many women named Katherine.
Colin finds out that Katherine XIX has called, but only to report that she is worried about him. Colin’s parents hug him and ask him what happened. He tells them Katherine got tired of him. He feels that he will blow up, literally, if his parents don’t leave him alone. Colin’s father immediately follows up by saying that they need to assess Colin’s options for how to most productively spend his summer now that his time is freed up. His first suggestion is a summer class at Northwestern.
Colin’s parents want to be supportive, but his father in particular struggles to be supportive in the way Colin requests. Even though Colin explicitly states that he needs to be alone, his father begins encouraging his son to take summer classes. Colin’s father apparently has a vision of what his son can and should do with his life—a vision that Colin must contend with.
Colin asks for a day before discussing plans. His mother tells him that of course he can have a day and reassures him that he is “so so special.” Colin promptly goes to the bathroom and pukes. Thereafter, his parents finally leave him alone, and he spends the next fourteen hours going through his yearbook and thinking about how none of the people who signed it truly know or care about him.
That Colin vomits immediately after his mother tells him he is “special” shows that he is anxious about the moniker to the point of physical illness. There is a contrast between his mother, who sees him as special, and Colin’s yearbook signers, who represent, for Colin, the rest of the world, and who barely even register his existence.
The signature Colin pays greatest attention to over the course of the fourteen hours is the one from Katherine XIX. She signed the note, “yrs forever, K-a-t-h-e-r-i-n-e.” After staring at it a while, Colin decides the bed is “too comfortable for his state of mind” and moves to the floor. There, he makes anagrams of “yrs forever,” coming up with “sorry fever.” He dwells on this phrase and how it describes his current state. He feels an aching behind his solar plexus and is unable to cry because, “Crying adds something: crying is you, plus tears.” Colin feels instead that he is lacking something. This lack hurts more than any of the many times he has been beaten up.
Katherine XIX is one in a series of nineteen Katherines Colin has dated, but she occupies a huge amount of emotional space in his brain. Colin’s desire to make his body as uncomfortable as his mind shows that he wants his sorrow to be more real and tangible. Although Colin feels that Katherine XIX has taken a piece away from him, Colin’s feeling that he is lacking “something” suggests that he already thinks he might be missing something more complicated and intangible than Katherine XIX herself.