It was the summer Becca crash landed in the neighborhood that everything started change. All at once, the creek running the length of the cul-de-sac was shallower and the neighborhood itself smaller. Brian and I were both catching inches overnight then, waking up taller than we’d been the day before, but we weren’t at home in ourselves yet. Our bodies stretched themselves into unfamiliar shapes. We knew this was coming. There had been conversations with our parents and presentations in science class, but there were little things no one had told us. The sun set quicker and the streetlights popped on sooner and the sky didn’t feel quite as far away. No one warned us the world would shrink as we got older.
Our only escape was the old clubhouse, tucked away in the grove of trees lining the banks of the creek. This was where we’d spent so many summer afternoons, sword fighting with tree branches and dueling with trading cards. We’d scooped tadpoles and fossils from the creek bed. In this sanctuary of ours, we’d been ninjas sneaking into a samurai temple, pirates sacking Nassau port, and spacemen fighting off aliens. This place became our refuge, where we’d push curfew to its limit, then race one another up the cul-de-sac on our bikes, pedaling as fast and as hard as we could, hoping we’d take flight.
It was in the club house, one summer afternoon between the third and fourth grade, that Brian offered me the crown jewel of his Christmas stash: a plastic Millennium Falcon small enough to land in the palm of my hand. “I want you to keep this for me,” he said. “When we’re ready to get out of here, it’ll take us wherever we want to go.”
“Get out of here?” I asked.
“Yeah, someday, when we’re older.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I offered him my favorite thing in exchange: a blue shooter, painted like the earth, from the jar of marbles I kept under my bed. His face split open in one of his joyous smiles as he cradled it in his hands. Then came this look on his face, like there were fireflies catching fire behind his eyes. He slipped the marble in his pocket like a secret for safekeeping.
This was about as intimate as boyhood got. Trading our pocket talismans made for a sacred kind of bond, one that stayed intact right up until Becca arrived, as we slid from eleven to twelve without much thought.
It was the summer when all the verbs became nouns. Brian didn’t say, “I’m going to fly a spaceship to Mars,” anymore. Instead, he’d say, “I want to be an Astronaut.” I followed suit, swapping “I’m going to dig up dinosaur bones,” for “I want to be a Paleobiologist.” The future wasn’t so much a sketch anymore. There was ink on the page. We were well on our way to who we’d become.
Becca was riding her bike when we first saw her. The wind scraped fingers through her platinum hair. Her bare legs slunk out of her khaki shorts, a sight which made Brian say later he wondered if God made her from spare angel parts.
“It’s not like she’s made of Legos,” I told him when we were back at the clubhouse.
“I’m not saying she’s made of Legos,” he shot back. “I’m saying she’s made of spare agnel parts.”
“You know how dumb that sounds?”
“Shut up, it’s poetry.”
“Your poetry sucks.”
He’d stopped listening though. The look in his eye said he was somewhere else already.
And when he smiled, I knew what he was thinking, which is what happens when you’ve been friends as long as we had. You can read each other like a comic book, with all the pictures laid out in front of you. You don’t even need the words.
Brian and I had spent most of that summer getting ready for the world to arrive. Our daily activities took a turn towards the forbidden: we practiced slotting swear words into sentences, our lips crackling with obscenity. We split a beer from the fridge in Brian’s garage, but poured most of it in the mud when we couldn’t stand the taste. We gawked at a Victoria’s Secret magazine swiped from his mailbox, even though we were too young to know what to do with the pictures. All these things were proof of a world ahead of us, a world we couldn’t have imagined, but wanted to play around in.
That smile on Brian’s face told me that world we’d been longing for arrived the instant Becca came speeding by on her bike.
The next time she came by, Brian yelped after her. “Wanna see our hideout?” he half-shouted, half-whined. She stopped to look at him, then me, and nodded so hard I thought her head might pop off. She dropped her bike at the curb and followed us through the tree line.
This wasn’t the first time we’d shared our secret. When you’re a kid roaming the neighborhood, secrets spread like chickenpox. It was less than a week after Brian and I had claimed the old clubhouse as our own when Annie Miller and Kevin Pham and Richie Porter arrived through the tree line to ride the rope swing and swap Pokémon cards and set off fire crackers in the creek bed. Even Brian’s little brother, Zach, would come sometimes, although he was constantly nagging us to go play somewhere else, a textbook example of that kid who’s never content unless you’re doing what he wants on his terms. Despite sharing our hideout with all of them, there was an understanding the clubhouse belonged to us — Brian and me. We were Butch and Sundance, the nucleus at the center of the whole gang, the whole cul-de-sac, the whole neighborhood.
But Becca didn’t understand this.
When we arrived at the clubhouse with her in tow, she slunk down onto the stump where I usually sat. Brian sat on the stump across from her, their bare knees not quite touching. I leaned against the door frame like I’d seen a cowboy do in a movie once. The leaves rustled in the afternoon breeze and the water trickled in the creek bed and those were the only sounds because none of us knew what to say.
Becca studied her surroundings like she expected a pop quiz. Her eyes fingered everything — the fossils on the shelves, the jar of marbles on the table, the pictures tacked up on the walls. She turned and looked at me and smiled so big, I could see all her teeth, perfect and while like breath mints. My face got hot.
“What do you guys do here?” she asked, crossing her legs, one knee over the other like the girls in the magazines. Her shirt was just tight enough to tug at my attention, even though I wasn’t practiced in that kind of imagining yet.
“You know,” Brian said. “Hang out…play…”
“But what do you do?”
Brian looked at me, panic vibrating through him. But there was nothing to say to her. There was no translating our unspoken language for this girl — a creature unlike anything either of us had encountered or made up, with her platinum hair and tight t-shirt and sleepy gaze that made my heart thunder when she aimed it at me. There were no words to make her understand all the magic that made boyhood. If you tried to shape it into a sentence, that magic disappeared.
“It’s not like you’d understand,” I said, crossing my arms. Her nose crinkled like she smelled something funny. Then her eyes rolled and so did my stomach.
She didn’t come back the next afternoon.
“What’re we doing?” Brian asked on a day not long after. I was trekking through the mud along the creek bed and running my fingers over the rocks in search of fossils. Brian stood on the grass, up away from the mess. Every so often, he’d toss a rock down into the water, almost as if to see what happened when the stone broke the surface of the water with a splooshy ka-thunk noise.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“What’s the point? What’re we doing this for?”
“Not like it used to be.”
He seemed taller when I looked up at him. We’d laughed about all those inches we were collecting, but this was the first time he seemed at home in his newfound height, like he wanted to take it out for a spin. I guess that’s why he wasn’t at the creek the next day. Or the day after that.
After the third day, I went looking for him. There’s only so much fun you can have by yourself at that age. Brian’s mom said he wasn’t home — he’d gone off riding his bike — but Zach was around if I needed someone to play with. There was that tone in her voice that adults use sometimes, where they make it sound like you really don’t have a choice. Not that there was much else to do anyway. Annie was at Girl Scout Camp, Kevin was on vacation in Myrtle Beach, and Richie was grounded for blowing up his sister’s bike with a cherry bomb. Zach was the only one left.
He was on the swings in the back yard when I found him, slotting his fist into his mouth one finger at a time.
“Wanna do something?” I asked.
Zach nodded and slobbered a whole mess of words I couldn’t make out.
August had cast hundred-degree spell that day. The heat sprawled over the neighborhood in soupy haze. Zach was all about Four Square that summer, so we didn’t wander father than the driveway. He passed me a red rubber ball. I passed it back. We skidded along the chalk lines scrawled on the blacktop, the ball moving between us with the monotony of hands on a clock.
“Let’s go to the creek,” I said, but the suggestion made him seize up. He clung tight to the ball and said he’d only play Four Square. I spent twenty minutes of coaxing the ball out of his arms before we resumed the game. He was stupid. He was annoying. He was all I had.
As the afternoon skated into evening, Brian appeared on his bike. Becca rode beside him, in those khaki shorts and a swim top. Beach towels hung from their shoulders and laugher ricocheted from her lips to his and back.
Liz Gower and Danielle Harrison followed on their bikes. Summer had had its way with both of them, their hair lighter and their skin darker. Like both me and Brian, they’d stretched and changed since school let out, but in different places. The new shape of their bodies made them dangerous and I could tell right away, they knew it.
Brian and his new posse dropped their bikes on the end of the driveway and waltzed into the house through the garage, without a word or a glance in my direction.
“Let’s go to the creek,” I begged Zach, but just like before, he clung to the ball like gravity had gone to lunch and it was the only thing keeping his feet on the ground.
“No,” he said. “I don’t want to…”
Brian and the girls emerged from the house, armed with popsicles to ward off the heat. They stood around in the garage and stole the occasion look at Zach and me. Becca and Liz and Danielle giggled, their laughs popping like bottle rockets, but Brian didn’t make a sound.
In a burst of anger and jealousy and embarrassment, I pried the ball from Zach’s arms and threw it against the blacktop so hard, it leapt back and hit him in the chest like a meteor making a crater to call home. He stumbled backwards, all discombobulated. I leapt and put him in a headlock, which turned out to be the worst mistake of my life.
Somehow, I’d missed that Zach spent Tuesday afternoons taking karate lessons in the strip mall with the Blockbuster and the Chinese buffet. Those slobbery fists of his has been certified as weapons, an untapped arsenal known few on the cul-de-sac knew existed. And it was one of those slobbery fists that landed in the center of my face with all the force of a cosmic event. Blood exploded from my nose. Blunt force rearranged my teeth. Tears came all by themselves, spontaneous and uninvited. I had nothing to do with them, apart from the fact they were pouring out of my face.
All three girls shrieked with fits of laughter, which only made the blood flow faster and the tears come quicker. I dashed towards my bike, laid out on the lawn, but was blind to the kickball in the grass, lying in wait after it had rebounded off Zach. My feet tumbled into the ball and down I went — hard.
The girls laughed even more. So hard, in fact, they spun out into fits of wheezing and coughing. Danielle’s face phased through shades of red and purple. Liz took hits of the inhaler she kept in her jean cutoffs. Becca squealed so loud, she’d summoned tears of her own.
And Brian — he laughed too, not even trying to hide it anymore.
I scooped up my bike and pedaled home as fast and as hard as I could, hoping if ever there was a moment to take flight and leave the whole neighborhood behind, this was it — but no such luck.
The days passed in decades because kid times takes too long, especially with no one around to share it. Two centuries went by before Brian showed up at the clubhouse, where I’d holed up to savor those last few days of summer.
“Here. It’s yours,” he said with his hand outstretched and my earth marble nestled in his palm.
I told him I didn’t want it. I told him it was his.
All he said was, “Fine.” Then he cocked back his arm and hurled the marble into the creek.
“What the fuck?” I screamed, no electric novelty in my word choice, only fire-breathing. I don’t recall clenching my fists. It just happened without the seconds needed to tie one moment to the next. Brian was shrugging and summoning excuses one minutes and I was sinking fists into him the next.
It didn’t look or feel like the fights on TV. It was uglier, less coordinated — more like wrestling than karate. Despite all the years we’d spent pretending, we weren’t ninjas or pirates or spacemen. We were just dumb kids with no sense of how to pilot our bodies, no idea how to make our arms and legs do what we wanted. All was had were fists to throw and legs to flail. Our faces flushed with tears and screams sounded in our throats. It was all the violence that accompanies the unmeshing of orbits.
He punched me in the ear.
I kicked him the in stomach.
He bit my hand.
I clawed his face.
He tackled me.
I shoved him.
He fell backwards and the creek took him.
When the colossal splash was over, everything was still and silent. I understood then there’s no sound once you’ve crossed into someplace new, someplace you can never come back from. Brian clawed his way out of the water and up the muddy bank. Mud stuck to his clothes and his clothes stuck to his skin. There was no light left in his eyes. The fireflies were gone.
“Becca was right about you,” he said. Then he stomped up the hill and disappeared through the trees. That was that.
We didn’t speak when school started. Or any time after that. He sat with Brianna on the school bus and they made a show of holding hands. Before September ended, Richie Porter told me Brian and Becca were boyfriend and girlfriend. I guess Brian’s mom had driven them to the movies. I asked who was the boyfriend and who was the girlfriend, which made Richie snort when he laughed.
Somehow this made it back to Becca, which meant the story about Zach kicking my ass spread through the school faster than strep throat or pink eye. It became an anecdote told at every lunch table, so when I went shopping for somewhere to sit, I was always met with, “Aren’t you the guy who gotten beaten up by a fourth grader?” The timing was unfortunate, as this was around the time the orthodontist fitted me for braces to fix all the damage Zach’s slobbery fists had done. My wired smile became a brand, a reminder to anyone I spoke to that I’d taken a beating from a kid half my size. That story was stuck to me, like gum that’s worked its way into the creases on the bottom of your shoe.
I went back to the club house only once after that, around the start of October. The blue in the sky was thicker against all the red and orange leaves. Everything was where Brian and I had left it — the fossils, the jar of marbles, the pictures tacked up on the walls.
I pulled his Millennium Falcon from my pocket and remembered how I didn’t understand what he meant when he talked about getting out. It all felt like such a long time ago. And it was, because kid time plays by its own rules. Brian has said we’d need it, this little spaceship that, with a dash of imagining, could take us wherever we wanted to go. He’d found his own way out though. So I hurled the space ship into the creek. The water took it gladly and trickled towards the storm drain. I waited until the blue in the sky sank into navy and the dark filled the trees, then marched up out of the woods.
There aren’t many moments you know you’re doing something for the last time. Riding my ride up the cul-de-sac was one of those few exceptions. I knew something was over, but like so many things about childhood, there weren’t words for it.
I pedaled slow so I could savor it all — the yawning dusk, the streetlights popping on all at once, the autumn chill rattling of the leaves. It was too late though. I lifted up off the ground and took flight without meaning to. It was all I’d wanted for so long. But after all those years of longing to take off, of pedaling so fast and so hard, I found flying didn’t suit me.
As I felt myself break gravity and hover above the asphalt, above the cul-de-sac, above the neighborhood, all I wanted was to feel the ground beneath my feet.
But no such luck.