another case of friends but only before he likes you.
Mike was just from California, but his accent always sounded Southern to me. I knew him before his voice deepened, so my memory has assigned to him a high, musical boy-voice that takes homey liberties with the a’s and ah’s. I couldn’t say he was a talkative or quiet type, but his manner of speaking was so distinct—and indicative of the rest of him, really—that it continually threw me. He lived in southern California with his tanned, powdered mother, and came to Washington state every summer for years to stay with his aunt, uncle, and grandmother. His grandmother owned the house next to mine, and I met her grandson the first summer I moved there, the summer I turned nine.
When we first began to play together he told me straight out that he harbored more than a little resentment toward me for having moved in. My house had been built on land that once accommodated a nice little forest of shrubs and trees that he had enjoyed, and he argued that my backyard was really his property, since he’d been there first. Though a painstaking series of talks, we reached an agreement with regard to an absolute property line. There was a cedar tree, around the trunk of which Mike could hug his arms, that curved curiously like a coiling snake. We decided to share it.
Every day I’d wait for my doorbell to ring, so that I could open the door and pretend to be surprised when it was him. Regardless of what I was doing when he appeared, I’d drop it. Our exchange was always the same. He’d say, “Can you play?” And I’d always say, “Yeah, sure,” and then I’d dive back into my house to retrieve my shoes from the garage and pull them on as fast as I could so that I wouldn’t keep him waiting. I never invited him in. It didn’t occur to me at first, and then later, when we were older and he’d begun to call me three times a day, the thought made me uncomfortable.
Growing up, we all have teachers. Mike taught me how to drink Cokes. My house was at the base of a slope at the end of a cul-de-sac. He commanded me one day to find some pop, so I brought two cans from my kitchen and gave him one. He took it knowingly, and I followed him up the gentle hill, imitating him as he shook his can. When we reached the asphalt summit, he said, “Watch this,” and, kneeling down in the road, flung the can from his square, tan fingertips. In absolute awe of his ingenuity, I watched as the can bumped clumsily down the middle of the street, taking on the impressions of loose gravel, eventually veering off into the curb and skidding the rest of the way, end over end, spraying Coke from pinhole leaks. We passed through whole afternoons and twelve-packs of Coke this way, racing each other down the hill, scooping up the dented cans, and drinking from the leaks, spraying each other and shouting laughter.
He and I were masters of endless, useless, slightly destructive occupations. For awhile, our favorite game was to tramp through the bushes and trees surrounding our suburban homes, hitting things and beating down the vegetation. I had a stick that I always used and then hid in my yard for later, until my father found it and took it for kindling. (He did it deliberately to discourage me from my plant-thrashing pastimes, I’m sure.) Mike’s instrument was more brutal, a length of old pipe that he’d found. It was the hollow diameter of the bunched tips of my small fingers, and the length of his arm. When he swung it around he had all the playful abandon expected of a boy his age, and through I knew he’d never hit me with it on purpose I stayed a good many paces away from him and his pipe.
When this forest exploration lost interest, and Mike lost his weapon to his fretful aunt’s junk heap, we turned our energies to the wall of boulders that anchored a steep hill on the east side of the cul-de-sac. We threw rocks at the wall of boulders for days, jumping out of the way as sharp shards of stone ricocheted back like bullets, then gathering the glittering, rust-colored pieces into coveted piles. I gave him an entire package of cherry bubblegum, one piece at a time, in exchange for his prettiest rocks.
He may have been only my age or a few months older, but he duped and charmed me innumerable times out of candies culled from my cupboards, or shells I had saved from the beach. I think I might have done anything for him, until something in his demeanor changed one summer, and I began to think he might do anything for me. It was alright if he wanted to bring me boxes of jelly beans, I could handle that, but the gift of a plastic pumpkin necklace at the end of the summer for an early Halloween present was simply beyond my understanding. I think the precise moment when I ceased to be a planet to his sun was when he stared at me very long one evening, and said, “You have such pretty brown eyes.”
I went very remote and silent. He got angry with me when I didn’t respond the way he thought I should have. Though he asked on subsequent nights, I never could tell him what he did wrong. I still saw him a few times each summer until we were perhaps fourteen, but I never told him, because I didn’t know.