Later at home, I got another phone call from Ken Ikeda.
It still jarred me somehow, each time I picked up the phone and heard his voice, his "Wait, Dillon, don't hang up—". It still made my teeth clench, my heart leap into my throat, and I'd been getting these calls for almost two months.
So, back before Adam and Community Service Club, back before my mom killed that guy—that’s when I got the first call. It was a weekend and Teek was out of town with her family, so I was home watching TV and feeling sorry for myself. And the phone rang and it was Ken.
At that point, I hadn't heard from him in almost two years which is like forever when you're sixteen. An eighth of your life. That kind of lapse should be unforgivable.
I hung up on him as soon as he said his name.
I'm not sure why I did it; I'd never hung up anybody before. But Ken was a special case, as I had decided I especially hated him. I would crawl across a parking lot of broken glass before I'd let him say a word to me.
So when he called back, I slammed the phone back in the cradle. And when he called back again, I did the same thing. It became a pattern; it became The Way I Handled Ken's Phone Calls. Even when Mom was watching me, I had to do it. But what kind of person keeps calling after you've repeatedly hung up on them?
What an asshole.
I almost want to say, he wasn't always an asshole. I almost want to say, he used to be great. But who knows, maybe he had been a jerk in middle school too and I was just too stupid to realize it. So I'll say this instead, as much as I hate to admit it:
I liked Ken, once.
I liked Ken in middle school. We'd zeroed in on each other somehow, across the normal social borders. He was so smart, taking ninth grade geometry as a seventh grader, but he wasn't a nerd. If you were a nerd, the teachers liked you and everyone else thought you sucked. In other words, you were me. The teachers didn't like Ken; it was no secret that he found middle school tiresome and no matter how many As he got, that didn't change the fact that he obviously wasn't trying his best. He had his sights set on college, but he was smart enough to know that working your ass off in middle school wouldn't matter in the long run. He was getting 95s when he should have been getting 105s, as our middle school handed extra credit like crappy concert flyers.
Me, I scrambled for those extra credit points, getting better grades than him in our shared classes because I did care. I was good at school. It was like my identity, the only thing I had going for me. I wasn't athletic or funny or even all that social, but I made the high-honor roll every semester. My name was posted on the list in the office.
But Ken was everything I wasn't, at least to some degree. He played flag football and he did karate. He fit in fairly well with the jocks and the middle-tier popular kids. He hardly got picked on. I'd found, in middle school, the smarter you are the less people seem to like you, but Ken was good at hiding it. I don't mean that he dumbed himself down, but when you were talking to him you could forget that he was probably a genius and just have a conversation. He knew how to talk to people.
I didn't learn how to do that until later. Not that I was a genius myself, but I worried that people would think I thought I was if I said too much. It had happened before. This one time, Denny Kirkpatrick was telling me to get out of his seat during lunch because "this is where me and Julie sit." Without thinking, I found myself muttering "Julie and I" and Denny got pissed at me for correcting his grammar and called me a smartass fag. Just slipped that last part in there. He was a jerk. He was also the guy who pulled the corners of his eyes back tight when he passed Ken in the hall and then laughed about it with his meat-head friend. I said, Ken! because I wanted him to know I was indignant on his behalf, even if I lacked the balls to confront the bullies. And Ken said, Just ignore it. But I could tell it had bothered him.
Ken said he hated being Japanese, which I thought was a funny thing to say. I supposed I didn't love being Polish—especially when people couldn't pronounce my last name—but I didn't hate it. I just don't like being different, Ken said, and that was funny too because he fit in, people liked him, he totally belonged. He was wiry, but not scrawny, neither short nor tall. He was good-looking.
I hadn't had any Japanese friends before Ken, so I didn't know anything about being Japanese, about why it might suck. Maybe it did suck. Ken's mom was really strict, but when I said it like that he just laughed, like you don't know the half of it. It was just the two of them; Ken's father had died when he was in elementary school. Heart attack. I secretly thought this was why we got along so well in the beginning, Ken and I. We both had these missing fathers. I'd have never said it out loud, of course, because my own father wasn't dead, just on a different continent, and it wasn't the kind of comparison you were supposed to make. And this was about Ken's family, not mine.
Ken's mother wanted him to spend every minute of his day studying. This was a cultural thing, my mom assured me, having probably read an article about it and thus became an expert. She always tracked down Ken's mom at school functions. My loud, Polish mother in her scrubs and sneakers would try to chat up serious, business-suited Mrs. Ikeda about what a great kid her son was, how smart he must be. Ken's mother would shake her head; No, his grades aren't that good. He's not a good student. Later my mother would tell me, She's being modest, she doesn't mean those things, but according to Ken she did mean those things, and Ken would know, right? I mean, that was his mother.
Ken spent the first half of the summer between seventh and eighth-grade taking classes at the local college and the other half in Japan, with his mom's family. I hardly saw him at all the whole three months, and when he got back in late August, he was different. Everyone was changing around that time if you know what I mean; you would walk into eighth grade and find that this girl had sprouted boobs and that guy was no longer a soprano, so on and so forth. Ken had grown an inch or two and now, apparently, he yelled at his mother. I'd never heard him yell at his mother before that day. I barely got inside the door before she came in, scolding Ken about something. He told me I should go upstairs and then he lit into her. I had no idea what they were fighting about—they were yelling in Japanese—so I went upstairs, not knowing what else to do and went into Ken's room to wait it out.
Ken came in obviously still pissed. What's was that about? I asked. I was afraid they were talking about me or something. I was always afraid they were talking about me when they lapsed into Japanese, like I was that important to the Ikedas.
Ken slammed the door shut behind him. It doesn't matter. She won't come in here. He looked flushed, breathing like he'd just sprinted up the stairs. There was something different about the way he was looking at me, something I didn't think I'd seen before. There was no uncertainty to it.
Did you miss me? he asked.
Well, yeah, I said. I wasn't sure why he was asking, if he was serious or joking. He looked at me again in that weird way. There was something fierce about it.
Then I watched as he shrugged out of his short-sleeved button up, letting it fall to the floor like a signal, a sign. Standing there in his bright white t-shirt he said, Take off your pants.
Like he knew somehow that the whole summer and most of the last year I'd been waiting for him to tell me to take off my pants.
I stared at the phone until I was convinced it wasn't going to ring again. Then I went into my room to lie on my bed, close my eyes and pretend, for just a few minutes, that I was thirteen again and still had something to look forward to.
Up next Thursday, Chapter Eleven: A Lack of Breakfast