Register Sunday | June 24 | 2018

Afternoons in Exile

Summers for Jared Young mean basements, Slushies and comic books. That, and a broken heart.

When I was a kid, I spent summers with my father in the suburbs of Regina. I remember his basement with particular fondness. A small kitchen­ette, a pullout couch and wood pan­elling on the walls. The rabbit-eared television, when you flipped the dial fast, sounded like a dry-firing machine gun. I would hide down there in the dark, laying on my back, feet against the wall, reading comic books and sip­ping Slushies.

In the underground dimness, the ice in a Slushie maintained a state of solidity for an epic length of time. My comics—Amazing Spider-Man, West Coast Avengers, Uncanny X-Men—came from the 7-Eleven down the street. I didn’t just read them, though; I understood them as a vital element of a healthy boyhood, like team sports and learning to gut a fish.

I was twelve, that summer, and there was a kid around my age who lived next door. His name was M. and he was nerdy in every unfortunate way that nerdiness manifests itself: the braces, the glasses, the mop of perpetually dandruffed hair, the uncanny understanding of all things computer-related. My father was com­mitted to making us friends, and at every opportunity pushed us together.

DAD. Let’s go outside and throw the football.

ME. Okay.

(M. appears on the other side of the fence.)

DAD. Hey, look who it is!

M. You wanted to see me, Mr. Young?

DAD. Want to play catch?

M. I guess.

DAD. Well, have fun, guys!

ME. Where are you going?

DAD. Inside. Uh, my back hurts.

M. (after a few throws) Want to play Commander Keen instead? I got to level eight! There’s vol­canoes!

A friendship (of sorts) developed between M. and I. We would hang out in his basement and waste hours playing on the computer, sharing dirty jokes and trying to outdo one another with the embellished misadventures we’d cribbed from the friends of friends of friends.

As the summer progressed, M. must have sensed that I was growing bored with him. When the subject of girls inevitably came up, M. dangled a carrot, something to maintain the forward momentum of our friendship. He said he had this friend. She was female. They hung out, sometimes. They talked. She was totally cool, and had totally cool friends. He told me that, if I wanted, he could, you know, give her a call sometime. We could hang out with her.

I wanted to know, was she cute?

“She’s beautiful,” said M.

I knew about beautiful girls. I was very much aware they existed. After that, I thought often about M.’s friend (she had a name, I’m sure, but I’ve forgotten it). In my carefully plotted fantasies, she was a brunette, about my height, my size, possessed of a faceless sort of beauty; we lazed around in a basement somewhere (a place as generic and easily imagined as her beauty), curled up on a couch, watched a movie with the lights turned low.

That was the extent of my romantic fantasies. The frightening act of sex pared down to something I could handle: a couch, a girl, her warm hand in mine, the gentle weight of her head on my shoulder. Euphoria!

One evening, after much unsubtle egging, I got M. to pick up the phone and dial my dream girl’s number. We huddled around the telephone on the edge of the computer desk, and I listened as he punched the numbers and the connection clicked through.

“Hi … is, uh, [beautiful girl] there?”

Pause.

“Oh, hey! Sorry, I didn’t … ”

M. was by no means a persuasive speaker. In the dead air that separated his awkward questions and her monosyllabic replies, it appeared that the beautiful girl was eluding his grasp. He got desperate and used me as a selling point: “You should meet my new friend,” he said. “He’s just here for the summer.”

Silence.

“Yeah, but he totally wants to meet you.”

More silence.

M. thrust the phone in my direction. “Talk to her!” he hissed.

I reacted as if he were threatening me with a knife and backed out of the room; from the safety of the hallway, I gestured wildly for him to keep talking.

“Yeah, so,” M. said into the phone. “You, uh, been to the new mall in Southland?”

(He’d already asked that question.)

Somehow, miraculously, M.’s persistence paid off. Pity, perhaps, fogged the beautiful girl’s better judgment. In about an hour she would be walking with a friend to the 7-Eleven. If we wanted, we could meet them there. A conciliatory offer, to be sure, but we took it for a great victory, as if she were offering, outright, the dividends we imagined her company would tender.

The Big Moment. My preening and preparations were appropriately exces­sive: a copious amount of styling gel, single stray hairs glued down, hair parted with mathematical accuracy down the middle of my skull, bangs hanging in my eyes (a little bit myste­rious—Where’s this guy coming from? she’d wonder). For almost twenty minutes I stood in front of the bath­room mirror, testing various methods of expressing cool; from a misshapen lump of clay, I would mould myself into something dangerous. I could meet this girl, I could play it cool as ice, and she would think, Yes, this kid is cool as ice. No one in this city, in this province, could disprove my coolness by argu­ing that I’d peed my pants in the fifth grade, that I was bullied, once, by a kid two years younger than me.

Like true amateurs, M. and I left early so we wouldn’t be late. Out the door, down the street, through a tunnel of foliage, towering elms meeting high above our heads. Early evening, the sun was weak, the sidewalk speckled with drops of light; in the air, those true smells of summer: the soft mulch-stink of rain-soaked grass, the faint smell and taste of seared meat on a faraway barbecue. There is no portrait of my youth more washed out by optimism than this: for those few minutes I was a conqueror. All of it—the trees, the street, the houses, the entire neighbourhood—belonged to me.

And then it was over. At the 7-Eleven, it became immediately clear that M. was not friends enough with the beautiful girl for her to feel obliged to pay him (or me) any attention whatsoever.

“Hey,” M. said.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” the beautiful girl said.

“Hey,” her friend said.

And that was it. The beautiful girl and her beautiful friend looked us up and down, and with a turn of the shoulder, a minute shift in the language of their bodies, they dismissed us.

“Well, see ya,” the beautiful girl said.

It happened that quickly. They were, to my dismay, like all the other beautiful girls I had known: fantastically efficient with their cruelty.

M. and I retreated in stunned silence to the island of grass at the edge of the parking lot. The beautiful girl and her friend continued to loiter near the front door, sucking their Ring Pops. A car slowed down in front of them. Behind the wheel was an older kid, a smoker, a pubertal dynamo; he had stubble, he had muscles, he was sickly thin and handsome like a grown man, all jaw and eye wrinkles. The beautiful girls turned their shoulders, lifted their chins and somehow intangibly opened themselves to him.

M. and I fled in shame: down the street and around the corner, back down that green tunnel. The elms seemed brittle and ugly, and the whiff of wet grass was suffocated by the stink of exhaust from idling cars.

M. was the first to speak. “I hate guys like that. They think they’re so cool.”

I agreed. I hated them too. Secretly, though, I hoped to become one.

It is a hot summer day again, four­teen years later. Outside there are people on bikes, people strolling through the neighbourhood, aimlessly lounging, searching for something to do with this stunning afternoon. For me, though, it brings to mind the sickly sweet taste of melting Slushie, the texture of folded-back newsprint pages and the musty stink of an old house’s bowels.

I walk to the 7-Eleven, and the place smells exactly the same as my faraway memories: cool recycled air, the faint odour of Dr Pepper. The cups they provide for Slushies are considerably smaller now and more expensive. The latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man costs $4.25.

No basement where I live now. Just a first-floor bedroom that, with the shades drawn, with just a single small window shielded by creeping vines, is dark enough for me to find peace. I used to share this place with a beautiful girl, but she’s gone now. I’ve been dismissed once again. While the process among adults is much protracted, the warning signs are just the same: minute changes in body language, a shoulder slightly turned, eyes on the ground.

Single again, alone again. The pros­pect of finding someone seems, like it did when I was twelve, as make-believe as anything in a comic book. So I lay on the hardwood floor—on my back, feet against the wall—and read.