This is my new project's first chapter. Earlier I had the first page, but the first chapter gets more into the social scene for a kid who finds he no longer has the credentials for the nerd niche and doesn't have the swag for anything else. I think of this as a working title, so feel free to add suggestions.
Super Hero Laundry List
Miss Farr was getting kind of animated. She’s got this red frizzy hair that shakes when she’s making a point and right then it was vibrating. We all watched her, even if we weren’t really paying attention, because her green eyes dart around the room lighting on math textbooks, cell phones and closed eyes. Her energy that day came for the You-Can-Be-Who-You-Want-To-Be-topic. She was going on about it.
I usually did the eye contact, head-nodding, fake listen for this speech. Every adult in my life gave it at some point. I figured out that it’s a big lie. If it was true, how come there were janitors, and McDonald’s employees? Did they say to themselves when they were kids, “Hey, my dream is mopping up all the urine that misses the target?” Personally, I had a few dreams already that hadn’t worked out. I wanted to be on the soccer team, but the coach cut me the third day of try-outs. I also wanted to be a superhero since I was six. I wanted to be able to shoot webs like Spider-Man swinging through skyscrapers, delivering justice for beautiful girls.
My parents were living proof that it was a lie. My mom wanted to work at a daycare, wiping snot off three-year-olds upper lips? My dad liked roofing? (This is rhetorical, but I realize you haven’t been up on a roof in the Philly summer. You sweat so much, carrying everything up a ladder, working with a torch, melting rubber on one hundred degree days.) Even Miss Farr, who we could all tell is really into her job, talked about how she was going to become a lawyer someday.
So like I said, I usually don’t listen to the You-Can-Be-Anything-You-Want-To-Be Speech. That day I listened because Miss Farr was talking about Hamlet. For some reason she thought that freshmen could understand Shakespeare, not to mention Hamlet, which she was always telling us was one of his hardest plays. She had these elaborate assignments were we interpreted scenes for homework and had other kids acted them out. At first I was mad, because it was really hard to understand, but then after a couple of weeks, I got into his story. He was basically like any other kid, caught in the middle of his parents’ dysfunctional relationship and weighted expectations. Imagine how heavy that shit is, “Revenge, Hamlet!” It sure makes getting As and Bs seem easy.Miss Farr said, “You know, Hamlet is an gifted young person. He could have done anything. He is respected by commoners like the guards, and also the nobles, like Horatio. Imagine a student at Central who’s cool with the jocks, the nerds, the white kids, the black kids, everyone. That’s the kind of guy Hamlet is.
“Every speech he makes shows that he is quicker witted than those around him. He’s an athlete; we learn about that later. So, I think when he says, “To be, or not to be” he’s not just contemplating existence, but whether it’s worth pursuing his dreams. He wanted to go back to school, but his mother asked him not to.
“I should say that I think saying you can live your dreams doesn’t mean you can be anyone, but it means you can be the best possible you and live the life you want to live. You are free, young Americans, to pursue your happiness. It’s going to take some courage. You’re going to have to decide to be, to be you.”
That sounded nice. The idea that I could be the next soccer superstar or president pissed me off. The idea that I could work and live the life I wanted, well, that’s a little better (like the super-hero option is out, but at least I can be happy). I’d like to live a good life. To me that’s doing a job that’s not roofing, something where it’s not just a hurting body. I’ve got a brain, right? I also would like to be spending more intimate time with girls.
Miss Farr went on, “Why isn’t Hamlet pursuing his dream, here, in Act II?”
Alexandra, next to me, raised her hand. Alexandra was hot with long brown hair and a thin French looking face. She wore nice clothes and she was very developed in the chestal area if you know what I mean. Mike and I, two weeks into the school year, were glad we knew each other. I walked behind Alexandra on the way to class, and everyone we passed said hi to her, including upperclassmen. When she spoke in class everyone, except Miss Farr (who listened equally to everyone) perked up.
Miss Farr looked for another hand, then called on her, “Alexandra?”
“Well, his mom wants him to stay home and the ghost wants him to get revenge.”
Mike said, “Good answer.” Alexandra ignored him.
“EXACTLY.” Miss Farr always greeted our right answers with great energy. Her frizzy red hair seemed to crackle with electric current. “Is this following his dream, living his life, BEING himself? What do you think?”
Mike raised his hand.
“Well, no. Alexandra pointed out that he’s staying for his parents. He actually wants to go to school.”
“VERY GOOD, Mike. I would like to say that this is Hamlet’s tragic flaw. He tries to fulfill expectations, rather than be himself. He chooses, in effect, not to be himself but to be who his parents want him to be. This makes his story a parallel to Ophelia’s.”
In case you haven’t figured this out yet, Mike was pretty into Alexandra. I felt bad for him. He had dumb taste, and he was my friend. Really, he was my only friend. The first day of school at the end of Miss Farr’s class, Mike leaned over to me and said, “Do you know where the lunch room is? I’ve got lunch next.”
I had lunch next too, and being a freshman in a new school, the thing I was most scared of was sitting alone. I said, “I don’t know. I’ve got lunch too. We can look together.”
There was relief on his face. He said, “I’m Mike.”
“I’m Douglas, but everyone calls me Doogie.”
Thus was an alliance formed against the dread dragon of appearing friendless on the first day of the school year.
On the surface, you wouldn’t think Mike and I would be friends. He’s a black kid from North Philly; I’m a white kid from Mayfair. Mike and I both had been the smart kids at our old schools. Being the smart kid at Fitzsimons or Mayfair was an alright identity. You helped people with homework, they respected your smarts and treated you like a normal human. You were the teacher’s favorite kid. The teacher tried to hide it, but you knew they loved you for answering questions when no-one else could or would. You weren’t going to be super cool, but you weren’t the biggest dork either.
Then we came to Central, which is an academic magnet school. The smartest kids from the whole city were there. Mike and I weren’t the smart kids anymore. We were just somewhere in the middle. Neither of us were jocks. I got cut from the soccer team , and Mike was built like a Lego man, thick around the middle with short square legs. Mike could make me laugh, but he didn’t have the confidence to go around making friends. We were intimidated by the pretty girls and loud upperclass boys.
Still, the friendship wasn’t instant. We knew nothing about one another that first day, except that we both didn’t have an friend for lunch. I ate the PB&J and chips my mom packed, while he ate a cafeteria sandwich.
I said, “You like it here?”
“It’s alright,” he said.
Yeah,” I said. Silence once again. We sat, our meals consumed, as serious and sad as Eastern Island Heads. “You play soccer,” I asked, hoping to find a fellow failed athlete.
“Man, I’m from North Philly. I don’t even know what that is.” North Philly is the hood, all black, and famed for basketball talent. As Mike explained, nobody there cared about soccer.
The silence returned, yawning out in front of us as vast as the Pacific Ocean that surrounds the Eastern Island heads.
“You play videogames,” Mike asked.
“Yeah, all the time.”
“Definitely. I love RPGs.”
Role Playing Games. The game for the kid with imagination set in fantastic worlds. In RPGs you start a little loser, and go on quests to gain skills, knowledge and treasure. By the end, you march through the landscape, monsters fleeing before you, peasants running up and thanking you. By confessing we played such games we had an instant link. Soon we were lost in a trip down memory lane. We had, in separate places, We had gotten the same silver bow and shot the same arrow in the same battle against Gannon. We had saved the same land and princess.
That Friday we walked up the hill together. I was planning my weekend in my head, the games I would play and how I would get my mom to leave me alone, while Mike fished in his bag for something. Loose crumpled papers flew out, and it seemed like fifty dirty t-shirts were in there too. “How’d your bag get so messy after one day?”
We were passing the other kids who were taking their time walking to the subway, hanging out. The girls, black, white, Puerto Rican, Asian, all looked hot in their tank tops and skirts. The boys yelled too loud, excited by the presence of the girls.
Mike, at my side, was not going to help me get to know any of these girls. His hair was a little ungroomed. His glasses were awkward and a little too heavy, his shirt a generic, worn, hoodless sweatshirt. His jeans were neither skinny, nor boot cut. They sagged around his butt, and bunched at his ankles like old man jeans.
He looked up at me from amidst the chaos of his bag and saw my look. “I’m not going to win any cool contests. Who cares?”
I felt stupid. I liked this kid and didn’t know anyone else and not being his friend just because I hoped to be cool later was foolish and mean. I didn’t have any options. I wasn’t about to be one of the other kids with or without Mike.
“What you looking for,” I asked.
“You got to check out this game.” He hooked a box from the half sheets and tee-shirts and handed it to me. On the cover four black kids stood battle ready, armed alternately with a blue fireball, a club, a bow, and a knife. Around them circled soldiers, monsters, and wizards. It was a game that promised the chance to play hero in a field of magic, an escape from getting cut in the first round during try-outs, from looking around and learning how far we were from cool.
“Can I borrow it?”
“No man. I love it too much.”
“Want to come to my house and play it?”
“You think that would be okay?”
“Yeah, just lemme call my mom.”
I called my mom; he called his, and we got on the 26 headed for Mayfair. My mom was super happy to see Mike, mostly because he was polite, “Hello, Mrs. Foley, thanks for having me,” but also because Mike meant that I had a friend at my new school. There were cookies, Famous Amos, out on the table with milk. I ate some and listened as Mike chatted to my mom about Central, our teachers, and how much he enjoyed the cookies.
I dragged him upstairs so we could start playing. The game was fun and I got pretty into it. We stopped for dinner (pizza), got permission for Mike to stay the night, and kept playing. My dad came home and shouted some stuff around one. “What I got to do to get some respect!” But that didn’t last long, and Mike pretended not to hear, and for that I was grateful. At two I went down to the kitchen and came back with a couple of cokes. Mike challenged me to drink the whole can without stopping or burping. I did, then unleashed a long, pleasantly horrid string of belches. We cracked up.
We kept playing the game- we had it on multi-player, and set at Clurikin, or easy, level. Mike said he was tired a couple of time, but I kept saying one more level. He wouldn’t let me skip the videos between levels, and at first this annoyed me but then I got into the story and wanted it to unravel all the way. We unfurled blue fire balls, charged and lanced the enemy, and in the end saved the kingdom. When we beat the game, daylight was showing through the window.