Cotter was sometimes infuriating. His inaptitude for interpersonal contact was almost endearing, and when he, a 230 pound carved juggernaut, came to me with flushed ears to ask how he should approach a girl in one of his classes, you could love him for his incapacities.
He didn't understand how a conversation worked, though. Cotter felt no obligation to continuity, in much the same way he would never see the need for inflection. (Several of us would end up pleading with him to experiment with pitch when we got tired of being unable to distinguish his questions from statements.) Sometimes he would respond in form, but when asking about his weekend we were just as likely to hear, "Yeah. You know. [pause] So I was in the desert about two years ago, right..." And these stories almost always ended with him either beating the pulp out of someone of trailing off altogether with no decipherable conclusion.
There was a night. One of the singular nights that stuck in my memory of college, most of which I can only recall fragments of like hazy blips on a vaseline covered radar screen. I had a final exam the next day for a class that I had attended only once or twice, and possessed no pre-disposition for. (Undoubtedly one of the few science or math classes inflicted on me during my enrollment.) I returned from a reluctant visit to the University library, a visit in which I opened my books and notes and then stared vacantly at chittering sorority girls for twenty minutes, only to depart feeling stupid and horny. Cotter was doing crunches in the hallway when I returned, expunging a dramatic grunt with every contraction. After months of subconscious practice, I had mastered affecting a look of defeatism, one which would announce as expertly as a bullhorn to every person and small bird and wastecan I crossed paths with that "The World is Against Me and You Could Never Understand." Cotter recognized this look and confronted me from his strained fetal position on the ground.
"What's the matter. 'Guh!' You look like you ate 'Guh!' something funny. 'Guh!' You didn't go to that Greek 'Guh! place, did you."
I sat down against my door and told Cotter about the class and the test and the decision I had made on the walk home, that to spend the night drinking, fail the test magnificently, and divert my subsequent energies away from school and onto becoming KITT, the talking car from 'Knight Rider.'
"Stand up." Cotter stopped his crunches and got up; still sitting down he towered a good four feet over.
"Why?" I asked, becoming suddenly nervous.
"Just stand up."
I did, and he grabbed me by the throat, pressing me against the wall between my room and Greg's, an engineering student who had gone home to Connecticut for the week - all his finals having been taken and soundly passed.
I was lifted slightly off the floor. Cotter pressed his thumb and forefinger into the soft underneath my jaw, rolling them in slow, tiny circles. The pain was immediate and spectacular. My air was chopped; I began choking and sputtering loudly.
"Stop. And listen." He was smiling - he was always smiling, actually, and though it had seemed unnerving before, now it was terrifying. I quieted down, pulling a vinegar breath roughly through clenched teeth.
"You can pass that test. Stop being a little bitch. Stop whining. You're practically excited to go in there and fail, and that makes me sick. You're smarter than this, man. So stop being a little bitch."
He let go, and I crumpled to the ground, gasping for air. "Now go get your notes out." It was staggering to me how casual he was being about all of this. He went into his room, only to return three breaths later with his reading glasses on. "Let's go!" My head was thrumming and I was still winded but I managed to get my bag and sit on my bed.
Cotter stayed up all night helping me study for that test. Quizzing me, drilling me, he branded a semester's worth of someone else's notes onto every one of my synapses. When I got tired, he put James Brown on the stereo. Day broke over the hills of Pittsburgh, slowly pissing sunlight into everyone's eyelids and cereal bowls. He had spent eight hours helping me to memorize stuff we both knew would be deleted from my mental hard drive by the following weekend. It was the most consecutive amount of time I would ever spend with Cotter, and by sunrise, with him rubbing his eyes and my brain practically buzzing within its stripped and nodding shell, I felt bonded to this awkward behemoth. I straightened my wrinkled shirt and gathered myself to leave for the exam.
"Alright, man. I'm goin' to bed." I looked at Cotter and he was exhausted. I placed my hand on his shoulder. "Look, man. What you did for me tonight was great. I can't thank you enough, even if you roughed me up a bit." I paused. "I'm really lucky to have a friend like you."
Cotter tilted his head upwards, toward the ceiling. "Yeah. You know." His arm moved erratically, reaching for the doorknob to his room. "I used that move on the boyfriend of this girl I fucked in Ohio. He charged as I was leaving her house in the morning, and I ended up throating him against her shed. It was dynamite, man. T N fuckin' T. You believe that."
It was walking to that test, (one of only a few I would end up acing in college) that I realized I would never be able to view Cotter as human. He was incapable of connecting with people. Interacting with Cotter was like chasing little filings around a desktop with the opposite end of a magnet. Sure he could laugh, and he could have fun. And he had human moments, frenetic emotional lightning-strikes like that night he helped me study. And he could relate to people in his own fashion, but it was more like curiosity than understanding. I knew he could never form attachments. And I suspected that while we might be able to love him for his incapacities, he would never be able to love us back.
Ultimately, it was my own curiosity as to how a person could grow into Cotter's alien, detached existence - to how a family could let it happen - that would drive me into Serendipity's slender arms, along with those of a crying girl who I would love the moment I met.