I was at Mike’s house as usual. No little brothers and sisters there. Much quieter than my house with Jeffy constantly wanting attention and Sue and Bec wanting me at their tea parties. I’m sort of a pushover, never wanting to disappoint or say no to much of anything they want. I’m their older brother, but I have my own life. Such as it is.
I was lying on Mike’s bed; he was at his desk. His room was tiny. A narrow twin bed along one wall; a dresser, a small desk with his laptop on it on the facing wall and a lamp by the bed with a bookcase next to that. Yet the room felt comfortable. Mike wasn’t messy. Messy wouldn’t have worked in that room. Three of his walls were painted a light blue, the fourth a darker, complementary blue, and he had a poster of the US Men’s Soccer Team on one wall. The floor was vinyl tile and had a worn, blue-and-white throw rug covering the area between his bed and desk.
Mike himself was a sturdy, blond 15-year-old stud. He was my best friend, and I didn’t consider him a stud. That was his description of himself. His description was probably correct; I just didn’t look at him that way. Friend, not stud.
He turned away from the computer and said, “There’s a new Spider-Man movie at the Cineplex. Wanna go see it? I could talk Maryann into it, and wherever you go, Jessica will follow.” He rolled his eyes. He wasn’t jealous. He just didn’t have a high opinion of how attached Jessica was to me, but it would have been more true to say I followed her. Jessica was not a follower. The problem was, his opinion of her wasn’t that far off base. She was my girlfriend, but I wasn’t crazy about her. But, well, I had the same problem with her that I had with my sibs. Too much was too much, yet I hated to disappoint anyone.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Don’t really feel like hanging out with her today.”
He gave me a quick glance, then said, “How ’bout the park? See if a game’s on.”
“Now that’s more like it. Yeah, let’s.”
We were both soccer players, and both of us were going to be on the varsity squad even though we’d only be sophomores when summer vacation was over. We’d been playing club soccer together in the city’s youth program since we were in fourth grade. We’d been friends even longer. I was a midfielder; he was a right-side defender or sweeper. And we were decent players; we had to be for the coach to tell us we’d be playing on the varsity team this year. He said we’d probably be starting. Very few sophs made varsity, and almost none started. Sometimes, wings who were really fast and could control the ball well could make varsity, but it was unheard of for a midfielder or defender. A midfielder has to see the entire defense and read where the opportunities are while being capable enough to hold onto the ball and advance it without giving it up too soon and, critically, to pass accurately. I needed to be able to take the ball away from the opponent’s midfielder, too, when he was bringing it up the field. I could and often did. I was proud of my tackling.
We loved playing games in the park over the summer. There were usually kids there playing, and as we knew most of them who congregated at our local park, we could usually get in any game that was going on. Didn’t matter if they were older or younger. We’d just adjust our game to whatever the number of players was and their skill levels.
We both stripped down and put on our gear. I kept an extra set of mine at his house. This wouldn’t be the first or last time we’d go from Mike’s to the park. We usually turned our backs to each other when putting on our jockstraps, even though we’d showered together and seen each other in locker rooms often enough. Somehow, the dynamics were different when we were alone in his bedroom. Neither of us was gay, but nudity was still not something we were comfortable with alone in his bedroom. I guess we were much like most fifteen-year-old boys in that regard.
As we were leaving, I called out, “We’re headed over to the park, Mrs. C.”
“Thanks, David. Have a good time.”
Mike rolled his eyes. He thought I was too considerate, too nice, too concerned about doing the right thing, and was always on me for being so polite to his parents. He said I set a bad example for him. I thought he was funny because he was the same way with my parents, just to a lesser degree, but he didn’t want anyone to know it. He called me a do-gooder. I called him a faker.
There was a game going, six on six, and the boys were happy to see us. Actually there were eleven boys and one girl playing. Her name was Nicki, and she was on the girls’ varsity. I grinned seeing her there. I knew Nicki. She was a rougher player than many of the boys, and she loved having her way with those who didn’t want to engage with her. She wasn’t mean; she simply played hard. Rough and tough and giving no quarter. But clean. More or less.
Mike said to me, “I’ll be on Nicki’s team. You can guard her.”
I laughed. Typical of him. Mike liked to take the easy path, no matter what he was doing. Confrontations weren’t his style. Why challenge Nicki and her flying elbows when he could be passing to her instead?
We had a great game, and, when it was over, Mike and I collapsed under one of the huge oaks that the park featured. Nicki saw us and came over to join us. She was a rising junior and so a year older than we were. I liked her, and she seemed to like me, too. I didn’t back down when playing against her and gave her back as much as she gave me. Knock me off a ball without using yellow-card tactics or ones where a yellow card was a possibility? I’d come back and do the same to her and in the same way, too, being just as rough. She liked that. She hated being treated like a soft girl.
When the three of us were sitting, she looked at me. “You and Jessica Waldren, huh?” She smiled.
“How’d you ever hear that?”
“My sister is friends with her. Jessica is often over at our house. They talk a lot. My sister talks to me a lot. I’d rather talk soccer; she’d rather talk boys. Boys are okay, I guess. They have their uses when the time and mood are right. But soccer’s more interesting and fulfilling. Anyway, I guess Jessica is really hung up on you, huh? Long term. Looking at the future.” She gave me an enigmatic look that was hard to decipher, but there was some humor hiding behind it somewhere. I could see that in her eyes. But she didn’t know me well enough to be talking like this.
I grimaced. “We’re dating, but that’s all. Hey, I’m fifteen. A sophomore. I’m not looking for a wife. Not even a long-term attachment. I’ll probably date several girls in high school. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Learn the basics about dating and maybe sex if the girl’s interested, which most seem to be? So, when we go to college, we won’t be rank beginners. I’ve heard college girls don’t like dating virgins. They’re more into doing than teaching.”
Mike sputtered and spat out some of the Diet Dr Pepper he’d been drinking. I grinned. I never talked about sex much, not even with him. I know, boys are supposed to be all about talking sex at our age, eagerly doing so with friends. Somehow, neither of us was comfortable doing that. Well, I wasn’t, and he was the sort of friend who respected my idiosyncrasies and paid attention to them. He knew this was an area I liked to avoid and so avoided it himself. To say what I just had to a girl I hardly knew was atypical lunacy.
But I liked Nicki. I liked the competitive closeness we’d both felt during the game, the respect we had for each other. That was part of it. The other part was: I didn’t like hearing Jessica telling people that we were more than just a couple of young high-school kids who’d gone on a few dates. I liked Jessica fine, but more as a girl friend than a girlfriend. A friend with benefits, maybe. We hadn’t done much, but there was no doubt she was eager for more. That’s a nice trait in a girl when you’re my age; maybe any age. But now I felt she had thoughts about what we were doing other than dipping our toes in the hormone-laced romantic water.
I’d have to find a way of cooling things with Jessica, mostly with cooling her expectations. That might be tricky. Girls have a way of going off when disappointed. And Jessica was a strong-willed girl.
Nicki left before we did, and Mike gave me a curious eye but didn’t ask anything about Jessica. That was one reason we were as close as we were. He understood what subjects were best left alone. Instead, he started talking about his family. Extended family, that is.
“My Aunt Cynthia is getting a divorce,” he said. He was looking over at a new soccer game that had started, speaking almost as if I wasn’t there listening. It was like what he was saying was something rattling around in his head that he wanted to get out in the open to see what the words felt like when spoken aloud. “I guess there are irreconcilable differences, whatever the fuck that means. In this case, it means they’re past the marriage-counselor stage, if there even was one of those, and getting divorced.”
“She’s got kids, doesn’t she?” I’d met his aunt’s family when they’d visited a couple of years earlier. I remembered a young girl and a boy who’d just become a teen. “What’ll happen to them?”
He shook his head. “Too early to tell. The dad’s left already. From what I was told, she threw him out, although he’s putting up a fight about living there while things get settled. I wasn’t told why they’re splitting. It would be better if they did talk about that, you know? This way, I imagine all sorts of ugly things the dad might have done, probably worse things than what actually happened. But that isn’t the big news: Mom told me today that the two kids will be staying with us while Cynthia and Matthew work through the settlement. Aunt Cynthia will be spending some time here, too, rotating back and forth.”
“You don’t have room for two more kids and certainly not another adult.” I remembered that his aunt’s family had stayed at a hotel when they’d visited a couple of years ago. Mike’s house was quite a bit smaller than mine. His dad was a painter who worked for a jobber and made decent money when working, but the work wasn’t all that steady. His mom worked for a caterer, but that was sort of hit-and-miss work as well. Big jobs, she got called. Small stuff, which was more usual for a caterer, she wasn’t needed. Mike’s family, the three of them, lived in a two-bedroom house. I couldn’t see how they’d fit in a pair of kids and occasionally a woman as well.
I’d briefly met that family. They’d spent most of their time here being tourists and seeing the sights of a much larger city than where they lived. They’d only had dinner with Mike’s family a couple of times. His aunt did spend some time visiting with her sister while the two kids and their dad were off being tourists. I could remember her well enough; the rest of the family was only a vague memory.
Mike stood up and brushed himself off. I followed suit, and we took off for my house. We tended to spend more time at my house than his. It was more spacious with a lot more for us to do, and I think he liked Jeffy more than I did. A younger brother is easier to take when he’s not your younger brother. When he’s not yours, you get to go home and leave him behind.
I’m planting the wrong impression here. Jeffy wasn’t really a butt pain. In fact, I was very fond of him. It was just that he was four years my junior, and I had the sneaking suspicion he was smarter than I was. That isn’t a good thing in a younger brother. He sorta looked up to me, though, and that meant I had to be better than I really was when around him. That gets tiring.
We got back to my house just in time for lunch. Mom had made sandwiches for everyone, everyone being herself and my three sibs who’d been home with her. The twins had PB&J with the crusts cut off and the sandwiches cut into triangular quarters. Jeffy’s sandwich was tuna fish, and he’d cut up some raw veggies—broccoli, cauliflower and carrots—to eat with it. See? He even ate smart.
“What’re you making us for lunch, Mom?” I asked very politely.
She scoffed. “You can have whatever you want to fix.”
Two could play that game. I turned Mike. “How does filet mignon sound? I’ll grill us up a couple. Medium rare?”
Mom just grinned at me. I guessed we didn’t have any filets mignon to grill. Or she knew I didn’t have the nerve to appropriate them if we did have some.
So, I made each of us two toasted cheese sandwiches, and Jeffy asked if I’d make him one, too. I had the feeling he wasn’t that hungry; he just wanted to be included with the big guys.
The three of us took our sandwiches and some potato chips and Dr Peppers into the family room to eat. Teen boys don’t like their moms listening to their conversations.
I asked Mike how they were planning to fit three more people into their house.
He looked at me, then dropped his eyes. Without looking at me, he said, “Mom wanted me to ask you if I could stay with you while they’re here. That would help a lot. That way they could put my aunt and her daughter in my room. She said girls need privacy. Gail, the girl, is only six. Who needs privacy at that age?”
“And what about the boy? I don’t remember his name. But boys need privacy even more than girls do. Especially in the morning before they can pee.”
Mike laughed and Jeffy blushed.
Mike shook his head, agreeing with me and disagreeing with his mother. “Right. But Mom thought maybe he could come here, too. I told her that would be imposing, and I wouldn’t ask. So, I’m not doing that. I guess he could sleep on the couch in our living room at home or on a floor somewhere.”
“That would get old pretty fast, wouldn’t it, and wouldn’t solve the privacy or peeing problem. How old is he?” Jeffy asked. “Maybe he could sleep in my room. Even though my bed isn’t all that big, I’m sure we’d have plenty of room.”
Did I mention that Jeffy was very nice? Considerate, too. Well, he was.
Mike said, “He’s Davy’s and my age, Jeffy. I don’t think you want a kid our age sharing your bed. If he tossed and turned, he’d toss you right out of the bed. But thanks; it’s awfully nice of you to offer.”
Jeffy blushed. I rarely complimented him. He wasn’t used to it, as the blush made apparent. My bad. I needed to correct that. Jeffy really was a neat kid. He had brown hair with quite a bit of red in it, almost like strawberry blond, kind of like mine but a little brighter. I didn’t wear mine messy and realized he didn’t, either, possibly copying me. I had glasses, though, and he didn’t. To tell the truth, I thought I looked sort of dorky and was hoping I grew into my looks as I got older. I wore contacts when playing soccer and at school; I only wore glasses, and then only sometimes, when I was at home. Okay, I admit it, I’m a little vain as well as dorky. Strange mix, but I think most kids my age are ambivalent about how they look. My problem is, I don’t have much to be vain about. I look like my age: an unfinished, gawky, half-child, half-growing teenager with a huge dose of uncertainty underlining it all.
One problem: my feet were now too large, telling me I’d probably get even taller. I hoped I’d continue this growth spurt now and it would end before summer was over. I got too tall too quickly this year, starting just as we were finishing our freshman year. I was hoping to play a lot of pickup soccer this summer. Soccer was good for me, and I loved playing it; you can’t be a good player if you stumble all over your feet, however, and playing competitive soccer this summer would help me learn to use these longer legs, to develop more coordination. I still wasn’t entirely comfortable with my legs being as long as they were. But I was faster now. Go figure.
I wanted to be better than just okay for soccer in the fall.
Mike knew I wasn’t happy with how I looked. He said I just need to smile more, but what did he know? He didn’t even know not to call me Davy, even after being told a gazillion times. Well, he didn’t do it often. He did know. When he did it, it was usually for a purpose. But now, when he was asking a favor? Why now? He’d specifically said he wasn’t asking one.
Well, I could see something there. Perhaps he was showing me how close the two of us were, that he knew my likes and dislikes, that he could get away with tweaking me because of our bond, and at the same time he was using it as a reminder that he never did it outside his or my home, never in front of people who’d pick up on it. In other words, he was reminding me that he was a good guy and had my back. If that was it, he was being very subtle doing it, too.
He wanted me to invite him and his cousin to stay with us. Indefinitely, as far as I could tell. Well, I couldn’t do this without getting my parents involved. Mike knew that. I guessed he was just greasing the skids. Getting me on board would make a difference when the adults were brought into it.
I was opening my mouth to say all this—well, the part about getting my acceptance, which wasn’t a done deal as far as that went. I really wanted to meet this kid who was my age who’d be living with us. I hadn’t had a chance to do that before—when Jeffy jumped in, offering his bed. I was happy about that. I needed a good way to tell Mike he was jumping the gun a bit. To tell him diplomatically. Jeffy gave me time to think.
Jeffy looked at Mike and said, “You don’t call him Davy much other than to tease him. Can I ask you something? Could you stop calling me Jeffy? I’m old enough now to lose that baby name. I’d like to be called Jeff. You did that for David. How about me?”
Mike stood up, smiled at him, clapped him on the shoulder, then squeezed it lightly. “Sure thing, Jeff, and I’ll get a lot of practice using that name while I’m staying here.”
Oops. He was expecting me to say yes. Not asking.
“Mike,” I said, hoping he wasn’t going to be pissed. “It’s most likely going to be okay with me, but can I at least meet your cousin first? I think his name was Jeremy; something like that. But if he’s going to be staying here, I need to know he isn’t an asshole or child rapist. Jeff here—” I emphasized the name without the ‘y’ “—would need that reassurance, too.”
I grinned at him, showing I was half-kidding so he wouldn’t take offense. I didn’t like the way he was looking at me, though. He knew me as well as I knew him.