Rules of my best friends.., p.7
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       Rules of My Best Friend's Body, p.7

           Matthue Roth
 
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  “I don’t know.” She kept looking at the water instead of at me, as if some glowing lady would rise up out of it and hand her a magical object to help her with her problems. A sword. A taser. A pregnancy test. My mind was racing. If she wanted to hide out alone in a cave, I would find her a cave. Or we could find a group of friends and go after him.

  “Arty!” she snapped.

  I looked up, stunned. Punched, almost.

  “I don’t know right now, okay? I’m still sort of in shock. I promise, as soon as I need anything, I’ll come find you. I’ll come running. Right now, I’m just dealing. Okay?”

  “Okay.”

  “You can help me deal, if you want. Stay here with me. Talk to me.”

  But what do you think about what I said? I wanted to ask. I couldn’t. Even I couldn’t be that tactless, not all the time. Not now.

  “Hey, guys!”

  Damon was on the far side of the pool, walking around toward us. “What happened to you today? You both missed the whole Holocaust Film class. I had to sit alone with all those suburban geeks from Bridleton. We watched the rest of Inglourious Basterds. You’ll never guess how it ends.”

  In no time Larissa was on her feet, blinking twice, clearing the tears and salt and redness from her eyes. She stood up straight, one arm slinking against the front of her hip and thigh, her chest perking up against that flat grey sweatshirt in indefatigable rebellion against her misery. It was all but impossible to tell that she was the same person who a moment ago had been slunked against a wall, on the verge of losing it. Now it must have appeared to Damon as though Larissa was the one comforting me.

  She reached down a hand—her palms, at least, were still sweaty—and helped me up.

  “Oh, noes, Damon,” she said to him. “How did it end?”

  “The Nazis lost World War II. I mean, spoiler alert! Just kidding. Well, not really kidding at all. Hey, if you guys are gonna cut class, the least you could do is tell me about it.”

  “We’re sorry, Damon,” said Larissa. She sounded, as only she could manage to sound, genuinely sorry, not fake at all. “We didn’t even realize we were doing it. We were just talking and before you know it, it had gotten to be—well, now.”

 

  “It’s okay. I’m not offended.”

  He was, of course, Nobody ever said they weren’t offended unless they really were. But of course he would be—he never understood Larissa and me, he was always trying to play catch-up, and this was one more thing between us that he would never understand. We rallied out the pool doors, passing, on the way, a man and woman both wearing Speedos who gasped in surprise to see us. Except for us, the pool was usually deserted at this time of the day. They were holding hands in a lusty pretense of amorousness, eyeing each other hungrily. They opened their mouths to say something, but we went too quickly for that to happen. We hustled out of there fast.

  Instead I caught the tail end of a meaningful, angry glare from Damon, a glare he must’ve been sending in my direction for a while. It might have been betrayal, that I should’ve been in class with him or at the very least invited him along—as though it was my fault—but, after playing it back in my head, Damon’s angry face didn’t look like that at all. It looked like jealousy.

  decoy

  My parents picked me up that day, both of them. I sat in the backseat. I was silent. That was nothing new.

  It wasn’t that I hated my parents, or that there was anything to hate them for. I was just preoccupied. I had all these thoughts in my head—big thoughts, grand thoughts, universe-expanding thoughts—and they would not know anything about them. Some were about girls. Others were about G-d, and what I was doing here on Earth in the first place, and whether there was any reason behind it. Most of these were things that my parents had probably never questioned in the first place. If they had, and their theories were anything like mine—

  • We have the imperative to fulfill every bodily desire, and so we should eat junk food all the time and have sex with anyone who wants to have sex with us.

  • It really is a jungle out there, and the biggest and strongest of us will inevitably rise to the top, so I should spend as much time isolated in my room as possible, hiding out, and bone up on my hacking skills, since they were the only conceivable weapon I was ever any good at using.

  • Maybe all that really mattered was what happened in our minds, and everything else was an illusion. So I should really just think a lot, and read a lot of books—in other words, exactly what I was already doing—and masturbate as often as I conceivably could.

  • And, okay, if there really was a G-d, or someone or something who created universe and engineered our biology to act this way, then why did we want sex so bad? Like, why did we want it more than we wanted to protect our friends or keep them safe? Why was sex so irrational? Why would G-d curse us with wanting it so bad?

  —I definitely didn’t want to know anything about it.

  I couldn’t stop thinking about what Larissa had told me. More than that, I couldn’t stop thinking about how it had happened. First I thought: Mitch raped her. And then: Mitch had sex with her. And then: Mitch got to have sex with her.

  I loved Larissa (loved? Yes, as a friend...that was okay, wasn’t it?). I’d thought (more times than I’d ever admit) about being with her, alright, about having her, being with her, not like that of course, but with many of the same specifics. Naked. Entwined. So close you could smell what each other ate for lunch.

  And then, because I have no control over my brain, the Larissa in my head who’d been crying in my shoulder turned into a slightly more naked form of Larissa crying on my shoulder, and I started thinking about the way her shirt shifted against her body, and I wanted to stop thinking like that but my mind just wouldn’t stop. The more I tried to force myself to stop, the more it just, I don’t know, kept going.

  I wanted her. I wanted to hold onto her, to protect her, to have her, to own her completely.

  And then I started to realize: I was not that different from Mitch Martin.

  My father, at a red light, changed the music from the evil soft-rock station they usually listened to (Celine Dion marathons every day) to the college station I’d recently discovered and which I was trying to evangelize to them. They didn’t play the loud punk stuff and the experimental noise that I was really discovering, but they played good, less-famous bands, and there was more variety. I wanted my parents to be like the kind of people who listened to this station. Like themselves, but a little more adventurous and a little more sophisticated. I thought it’d be good for them.

  Usually I forced them to put it on, or did it myself. Today my father turned to the new station himself. He flashed me a capitulating smile through the rearview.

  Most days I’d feel a sense of victory. Today I barely managed a weak smile before turning to stare into the car windows in the next lane. Victory couldn’t have been further from my thoughts.

  *

  That afternoon I lay outside in my parents’ yard. It was too cold for it, almost winter, but I did it anyway. Our house was right back against a factory where they made snack cakes, with a hundred whirring fans in the wall and rounded metal chimneys coming out of the roof. They looked like decapitated robots. It was such a shitty neighborhood, the Yards. My parents had both grown up here. So had their parents. It was where most Jewish immigrants had settled, straight off the boats. Housing was cheap and there were plenty of jobs in the shipyards. But somewhere along the way, most families had gotten out of here, scored better jobs, moved to the suburbs. Only some of us got stuck at this particular rung of the evolutionary ladder.

  Mitch and Larissa had both grown up in Bridleton, in the suburbs. It wasn’t so far from here, but it wasn’t so bad. There were parks, malls, better schools. Maybe it was better to come from here, not be incredibly privileged, and not have all that bad stuff happen? No. Living in the Yards was a completely different kind of torture.

  I lay there. The cold
from the grass crept through my clothes and into my back. I didn’t mind. I wanted to suffer a little.

  I crushed my nails into my palm and squeezed hard. I couldn’t see inside, but I could feel my flesh turning red, my skin blistering. I wanted the blood to come. I wanted to take today back. Everything I’d said, the supportive, smiling, utterly stupid and unhelpful yes-man I’d been. I wasn’t making anything better for Larissa. Telling her how I felt about her hadn’t evoked any response from her. I mean, given the circumstances, it was understandable—but then, why had I even done it? It was dumb. It was foolhardy. I’d leaped into a situation without a plan, putting the onus on her to reply, and now I was stranded.

  ME: I really like you.

  HER: Oh, so do I!

  Embrace. French kiss. Curtains.

  ME: I really like you.

  HER (sassy): What are you going to do about it?

  I pull her to me. French kiss. Curtains.

  ME: I really like you.

  HER: Oh, crap. Regrettably, I’m having an existential crisis. I might be gay, or possibly just asexual.

  Six months later we slip on some black ice in the middle of the street. Fall on top of each other. French kiss. Curtains.

  But, no. Instead of me waiting for the perfect opportunity, it had to be:

  HER: (Very obviously distracted by some sort of emotional event that she hasn’t mentioned anything about.)

  ME: I really like you.

  HER: I was raped.

  The Earth ruptures. The sky is streaked with blood. Onyx dragons fly out of the earthquake cracks in the land. Absolute apocalypse.

  I bit my lip, hard. This time I really did taste blood. I pulled my back away from the grass where it was getting warmer and rolled myself into a fetal position on the ground. I wanted to cry—not because it hurt, but because it didn’t hurt enough.

  normal

  The week began. It was a relief. Larissa texted me Are you okay? and all I could do was write back, are YOU okay? All day we sent each other these aimless, fluffy messages; we didn’t say anything in them. They weren’t aimless at all. The were just reassuring each other: we were still here.

  Then Monday night Damon came over to play video games. My parents wouldn’t let me buy a game system—they said that I didn’t need one, and I pressed them about whether they meant that it would distract me from my studies or that we couldn’t afford it, and they said, with a look of defeat, We just thought you were better than that.

  So Damon brought his game system over, and we plugged it into the big TV in my parents’ basement. It was really old, but huge. The only trouble was, the screen got staticky on the bottom, so on certain games, you were never sure how many points anyone had until the end of the level.

  Damon also brought nacho chips. As he ducked behind the TV to hook up the console, I popped open the bag and dug in. Damon and I had that kind of easy, you-don’t-have-to-ask friendship where we’d walk into each other’s houses without knocking. He spoke to me and I went straight onto autopilot, talking without thinking. I sometimes do that, like a knee-jerk reaction of my mouth, whenever what’s happening around me is light years away from what I really care about:

  DAMON: Hey, is it okay if I open the salsa and the cheese in the fridge?

  ME (distracted): I don’t mind.

  DAMON: Is it okay if I finish the last Pepsi too?

  ME: I don’t mind.

  DAMON: Is it okay if I play first?

  ME: I don’t mind.

  He didn’t take it personally. He was used to me and my brain.

  Damon and I had been like this forever. We were the only two geeks in the Yards; we grew up on a steady diet of TV (almost always, public television and cartoons) and football (neither of us knew how to play, making us the only two guys in the entire Yards who didn’t, so we always hid out in school during games). The social hierarchy of the Yards dictated an economy of kill or be killed. For most of my life, Damon was the only guy who it was safe to be a guy with.

  First up was a game called GizmoNo. You were this tiny furry creature called a gizmo, possibly an alien, possibly just a weird little animated avatar. Officially, the object of the game was to collect gadgets of some sort, and at the same time, you had to try and not get yourself turned into a scaly goblin—which happened when you did any one of a zillion random and stupid things. Shortly after buying the game, though, Damon and I discovered that it was way more fun to turn into a goblin right away. Then you could spend the rest of the game ripping apart the gadgets, eating other furry creatures, and generally wreaking havoc. Remarkably, once you turned into a goblin, your points actually started subtracting. When you dropped below zero, you started earning negative points. You probably weren’t supposed to play this way, but our games often turned into a competition between Damon and I to get the absolute lowest score possible.

  Damon started playing alone, then once I’d eaten my fill of chips—less than a quarter of the bag—I plugged in and we went multiplayer.

  It started innocent enough, with both of us finding treasures (him: an old telephone, me: a wind-up toy bird) and trashing them. Damon’s goblin tore the plastic buttons off the phone, one at a time. He tossed each button in the air, caught it in his mouth, and devoured it.

  Meanwhile, my goblin ripped out the gears from beneath the wind-up bird’s wings. I carried them over to the balcony and hurled the gears at other, more law-abiding gizmos below.

  “Hey,” said Damon, in real life. He flashed me a disgruntled look. “What are you doing that for?”

  “Why, what’s wrong?” I said. My goblin hopped down from the railing, still balancing the gears in one hand like a stack of pizzas. I twisted my controller and sent one gear flying into the air like a frisbee. It sailed up through the room. Then it crashed straight into a golden clockwork chandelier, shattering upon impact into a million pieces. It sent shards of glass raining down on both of us. My score was rocketing up by the negative thousands.

  “You’re being destructive,” said Damon. His demon pulled away, leaping for higher ground.

  “Isn’t that the point?”

  “Not at the expense of other players! Did you see what happened when all that glass hit me? It took away like half my life points.”

  “I didn’t do that! You lost them when you fell off that slot machine two worlds ago.”

  “Are you crazy? That fall barely took off two hearts.”

  “It did not, it took off a lot more.”

  “Two hearts. One and a half, maybe. Hey, what were you and Larissa talking about the other day in Hebrew School?”

  “Which time?”

  My face drained of color. The controller shook in my hands.

  “Last time. You guys were talking about something, then you shut up as soon as I came along.”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.

  “Whatever,” Damon said. Now he was standing atop a mountain of broken computers, televisions, cell phones, and kitchen appliances. In game parlance, it was called the Trash Volcano. It was famous, inside the game, anyway. You could always go there and dig around the edges to find a power-up or a trinket to lure away goblins with.

  But you had to be careful. One uncertain step, or if you attempted to move the wrong piece of electrojunk, and the entire mountain could come crashing down on top of you.

  And Damon had scaled almost to the top.

  “What are you doing?” I said slowly. The mere act of prodding through the Trash Volcano was dangerous. Setting foot on it was ridiculously risky. Damon had excellent command of the controller, and his avatar’s dexterity was ranked near the highest, but this was pure suicide. “You can’t just jump up there and—”

  He jumped.

  There was a low rumble, louder and heavier and angrier than anything I’d ever heard come out of the TV. The ground shook. Fragments of trash bashed against each other. The entire volcano shuddered against itself. You could see its intricate maze of rubbish
distending, unfastening. The entire thing was wonderful and terrible to watch. I had to admit, the animation was pretty great.

  And, as I watched, the Trash Volcano crumbled and collapsed. At the very bottom was my poor tiny avatar.

  It’s impossible to describe how it felt. One minute I was there, on the screen, my body controlled by a bunch of buttons, existing in a world vivid and meticulously rendered and two-dimensional. The next, I was sitting in a living room that smelled like air conditioner and Fritos, holding a piece of plastic in my hand and those buttons just did nothing. A bright green lizardlike speck flashed at bottom of the television screen, swallowed up by the wave of detritus.

 
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