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No. 14 - The Lords of Summer
A Short Memoir
As a boy, I had a friend.
By virtue of being my only friend, he was also my best friend. We shared a first name, and almost every afternoon, although we’d spent all day at school together, we grabbed our phones and dialed each other’s landline numbers. Often we’d call at the same time, which prevented both of us from getting through, and to avoid this we turned our practice into a cowboy duel: who could dial the fastest? We knew everything about each other. Sometimes at school, when other children were around, I lightly bullied him: a couple of punches in the shoulder, because the only way to survive in the schoolyard was to show you weren’t the weakest, and because I knew he would never hit back. He never did. He was the wiser of us two Andreis.
Aside from our names, we also shared a love for Naruto. My friend was undoubtedly the bigger fan, and always, without fail, would have the latest fighting game in the series ready for us to play on his PS2. This was a big deal, as new console games were a rare luxury in the mid-2000s, when we had to wrestle them from parents who were barely scraping by as it was. We spent entire summers in his living room honing our fighting skills as we gorged ourselves on fresh strawberries his caretaker1 cut up for us like we were two young lords and she our subject, as Andrei beat me again and again, no matter which character or strategy I chose, no matter that the game’s hardest difficulty setting felt like child’s play to me. He was so good. I was jealous of this, of how effortless he made beating me look, and of so many other things about him—his straight blonde hair, his confidence. The way he could recite old poems from memory.
We spent most of our time inside like this with all the windows open, lounging on sofas or sprawled on the bare wooden floor with dust-smeared controllers glued to our hands. But the summer days were long then, and boredom a persistent stalker. Sometimes, the mellow afternoon light and the greenness of the fields surrounding the building would draw our languid bodies out from their caves.
He called those boundless fields the Stadium. A stadium for what exactly, I never found out. All Andrei could recall was that it had once been used professionally in some sport. Since we weren’t sporty types, the Stadium served more as landscape than playing field. Like the girls in My Neighbour Totoro, we explored the tall grass as we took lungfuls of air that felt clean and fresh after so much time spent inside. Mostly it was just the two of us, walking our sandalled feet to blisters, but at times we’d come upon another kid engaged in some solitary activity like skating or making soap bubbles. We’d wave at them and resume our wandering way.
I preferred to keep these interactions brief. My visits to Andrei were bound by a ticking clock—I lived far away so my father would have to drive to pick me up, and after six p.m. his willingness to leave the house dropped sharply. I didn’t want to waste that precious time with other people.
In this, though, Andrei and I differed. Unlike me, my best friend had other friends, and one day, he decided he wanted to introduce me to them.
Stories told of a band of kids from across the neighborhood who patrolled the fields like sky pirates their slice of the clouds, demanding that whoever chose to wade inside their territory abide by their rules. These were Andrei’s other friends.
From the start, his relationship with these kids struck me as odd. To me, he was a kindred spirit: a fellow traveller of fantastic, made-up worlds; a poet with a lot, often a bit too much, to say. To them, he was another person altogether. Mature, reserved. He never touched video games or played with action figures.
He explained this new status quo as he gave me my own instructions. Stand up straight, meet their eyes, and don’t let them in on our secret.
There was only one problem.
In my hands, I held a plastic bag filled with Ben 10 action figures, which Andrei had asked me to bring when I arrived that morning.
Realizing this, we froze.
There was no time to head back inside the apartment. Andrei lived on the third or fourth floor, and the band was already on its way. We’d have to improvise. And we’d need to think fast, and well. From the way Andrei had presented them, these kids were hawkish about any signs of childishness.
Briefly, I considered hiding the incriminating evidence behind some tall bushes, but that struck me as somehow too pathetic.
“Pretend they belong to your brother,” Andrei suggested.
“But I don’t have a brother,” I said naively, to which Andrei facepalmed himself.
“That doesn’t matter. Just pretend that you do.”
I fidgeted. Not because I didn’t think his plan would work, but because its success depended on something I wasn’t very confident would work in our favor: my own ability to lie. To say I was a bad liar would imply I’d had enough experience to come to that conclusion. In truth, I don’t think I’d ever told a big lie before.
The bushes rustled and three dark shapes emerged, lollygagging their way towards us.
I weighed my options. I was angry at my friend for forcing this situation on me. On the other hand, I wanted nothing less than to ruin his reputation.
Andrei shot me a glance that said, Trust me.
When the boys reached us, I was surprised to see they weren’t much older than we were. A rose-cheeked boy walked in front, flanked by a pair of raven-haired lunkheads with nondescript features. His own hair resembled a freshly cut field of wheat.
I’d considered him the second he came out of the bushes, but now I was sure. As he lifted his head and squinted at us, I realized who this boy was. Years before, we had briefly studied karate together. Judging by the way he held himself, he must have stuck with it long after I had quit. Karate had made him serious and composed; it had bestowed on him the sort of gravitas Andrei and I had only seen in adults.
His name was Nicolae.
“Yo,” Nicolae said, by way of greeting. His hands remained at his sides. It felt like we were already wasting his time.
We said our hellos, and my friend was given a quick nod of recognition. Andrei started to introduce me, but Nicolae stopped him and pointed a finger at the bag.
“Watchu got there?” he asked.
I opened it with clammy hands. “Just a bunch of shitty toys of my brother’s.”
“You got a brother?” At this his eyes bore deep into mine.
“Yes, I do.”
“And why’d you bring ’em here, if they’re not yours?”
Andrei and I glanced at each other. “We love to make fun of my brother. He’s got all these action figures, ahem, toys lying around the house, and all he does is play with them all day. He’s such a loser.”
The bag contained three figurines, chief among them Diamondhead—a huge, muscular guy supposedly made of diamond, with protective spikes jutting out from his back. I loved him because it seemed nothing could hurt him.
Nicolae took stock of the bag’s contents, like a customs officer hunting for smuggled goods.
My heart was pounding like a witch drum. The golden-haired enforcer lifted his gaze and looked me up and down for the first time. I didn’t know it then, but this was how it would feel to be a student taking an oral exam.
“He is,” he finally said, handing control of the bag back to me.
We chatted for a bit, and I tried a few tense jokes which went mostly ignored. The more time we spent with them, the more it seemed like what my friend had with these guys wasn’t real. I understood the need to belong—that’s why I’d chosen to help him that day—but I didn’t get why anyone would want to be friends with someone who didn’t allow them to be themselves. With me, Andrei was lively, and funny, and creative, and kind. He was the first boy I’d ever heard saying how much he loved to read. That day, he was holding so much of himself back. He’d smile, half-heartedly, at some passing remark of Nicolae’s, content to speak only when spoken to. I couldn’t wait for them to go.
When at last they left, the sun had sunk below the horizon, and the shadows were starting to reclaim the land. My father would arrive shortly; I couldn’t help feeling the whole day had been a waste.
We didn’t bother going back inside. Finding a comfortable place in the grass, we sat watching the darkening sky. We didn’t speak much, and whatever we did say felt stilted, forced. Like our conversation was corrupted by the shadow of those boys. As my eyes followed the gentle light bleeding into the fields, I got the sense that something had been lost that day.
Pretty soon, though I didn’t know it yet, my friend would transfer to another school. We’d cross paths a few times over the years, but things would never be the same. Even so, as I finish typing these words, I find myself missing him. We last saw each other three or four years ago, after he messaged me out of the blue, and as we walked the same green fields again, their vastness diminished by buildings—brand new apartment blocks complete with asphalted alleyways and tiny parks for children, I couldn’t help but think of all we destroy in order to survive.
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I use the word caretaker for lack of a better term. She was a sort of nanny for older children, employed by Andrei’s parents to keep the house in order while they were at work. Their son loved her like a grandmother.