That might be a winner, if I could just remember it.
But I couldn't. Instead I said, "Miscommunication. I think that's the biggest problem we face these days."
"Expand on that," a quiet female voice said. "Miscommunication between whom?"
I offered a list of miscommunicators that included governments and their subjects, men and women, and even—absurdly—animals and human beings. Sometime during my speech I realized I'd lost. I'd never lost at anything before, not even a spelling bee, and the feeling was like waking on the Moon after going to bed on Earth. No sounds, no light, no air, no gravity.
I returned to the waiting room ten minutes later. My rivals scanned my face for clues: how had my interview changed the odds for them? I gave them more information than they deserved, hoping to win their favor for the future. Someday one of them might run the country, and I wanted to be remembered as a good sport.
"You're safe," I told them all. "I screwed it up."
They couldn't help smiling. Then one girl hugged me. "You really shouldn't consider it a loss," she said. "You should feel honored you reached the final group." I returned the hug and left the building, unwilling to wait for the winners to be named. Later I found out that one of them was the girl who'd tried to boost my spirits, which made her gesture seem patronizing in retrospect. She knew she was bound for the sharp end of the pyramid, and was merely practicing her royal manners.
I was two weeks away from an interview for another scholarship, sponsored by the Keasbey Foundation, less coveted than the Rhodes but more exclusive (only a handful were given out each year). Yet my broken momentum had sapped my confidence, and I did nothing to prepare myself. I drifted through classes and lectures, astonished anew by how little four years of college had affected me. The great poems and novels mystified me still, even the few I'd managed to read, and my math skills, once adequate for the SATs, had shriveled to nothing through lack of use. The lone science class I'd been required to take, an introductory geology course, was graded pass/fail, and though I'd passed it (barely), I still wasn't sure what "igneous" meant.
All around me friends were securing places in grad schools and signing contracts with worldwide corporations, but I found myself without prospects, in a vacuum. I'd never bothered to contemplate the moment when the quest for trophies would end and the game of trading on them would begin. Once, I'd had nowhere to go but up. Now, it seemed, I had nowhere to go at all.
For my interview I drove down to Philadelphia with Princeton's other Keasbey nominee, the football team's starting quarterback. I'd never expected to meet him in this life. He was smaller than I thought he'd be, and a faster, more impressive talker. Under his short haircut he seemed sad, though, as if he, too, feared his life had already run its course. His car was old, not a quarterback's car at all, and I realized that he wasn't one anymore, except in memory. The season was over.