When Lionel pulled up in the Mazda, I signaled for him to pop the trunk and tossed in my messenger bag along with Adam's back pack and sports stuff. Adam hobbled over and I pointed him towards the front seat.
"Your ankle. You'll be more comfortable up here, trust me."
"You sure?" Adam asked. He was being polite; it was weird. Polite wasn't a word I'd usually use to describe Adam.
"It's fine," I said. He shrugged and slid in beside Lionel.
"Hey, guys," Lionel said, once I'd climbed in the back. "Sup."
"Sup," Adam said. He'd correctly identified it as a greeting, not a question.
"Lionel, this is Adam," I said. "Adam, Lionel."
"You're Dillon's brother," Adam said. He wasn't shy. Not a great conversationalist, but certainly not shy. I settled back against the Mazda's upholstery as Lionel steered us out of the parking lot.
"So you're on the soccer team?" Lionel asked Adam.
"What position do you play?" Lionel asked.
Adam looked down at the number on his jersey and for a second, his face changed to a scowl. "Midfield. But not anymore, I guess."
"What do you mean?" Over the rumble of car-on-asphalt, I could tell Lionel was actually interested.
"My ankle," Adam said. "It's my second sprain. The first one was bad and the coach didn't think I'd make it back on the field. But I got lucky and it got better... " He trailed off.
Maybe I should change the subject, I thought.
"So Lionel," I said, "how's the song-writing going?"
"Oh," Lionel half-looked over his shoulder, the way that drivers do. "It's good. I was working on the bridge for a new one when you called."
"You write songs?" Adam asked. "What do you play?"
"Guitar," said Lionel.
"That's cool!" Adam sat up a little straighter in his seat. "I play bass. Well, sort of. I'm not very good yet."
"I started out playing bass," Lionel said. "I still have my first one, an Epiphone Les Paul Special. Pretty Sweet instrument for a knock-off."
"Right on!" Adam said. "I have a Epiphone too. EB-3. But what I really want a Gibson Thunderbird...that's like, my dream bass."
I thought, okay, I had saved Adam from talking about his soccer tragedy, but now we were going to talk about musical instruments for the rest of the drive. I had no horse in this race. I played for the xylophone for like, a week, in middle school band. I blew at it. I blew at everything musical; I was even bad at listening. I'd never developed a taste of my own and always found myself buying movie soundtracks or whatever was on the 'hot' rack whenever I looked for a CD. My iTunes collection was my secret shame.
"Uh, where are you taking us, Lionel?" I interrupted, before they could go too deep.
"Where do you want me to take you?"
"Can you drop me off at my place?" Adam asked. "If it's not too much trouble."
"Yeah, sure," said Lionel, "Where do you live?"
"Down Oak Avenue a ways. It's actually on Blue River but that will get you there if you just keep going south. I'll tell you when we get closer."
I realized, out loud, that Adam's house was only a mile or two from where I lived.
"Yeah, I know," Adam said. "I dropped you off, remember?"
It was a better neighborhood though, where Adam lived. The kind of neighborhood without apartment complexes even, just nice houses—houses with four car garages and manicured lawns, roses in the front yards.
Adam and Lionel went back to yacking about their guitars and I found myself tuning them out. I turned my face to the window and watched the skinny trees in the median fly past. Maybe if I played guitar, maybe if I had any interests in common with my brother things could have been less awkward between us. It wasn't horrible, the way things were, but I started to think if anyone were watching us—the way we were in the car—they would think that Lionel and Adam were friends and I was just some guy getting a lift. I don't know.
"So you want to come in for a bit?" Adam asked.
I'd zoned out; I was barely aware we'd arrived at Adam's house and wasn't sure who he was talking to until he snapped his fingers in front of my face. It had made sense that he would invite Lionel in anyway, maybe to show off his bass. But he was asking me.
"Oh, sure," I said.
"Thanks for the ride," Adam said to Lionel. "Nice meeting you, man."
"You too, said Lionel. "And remember to keep practicing. You'll get better." Lionel's eyes flashed at me in the rearview mirror. "You okay to get home from here, Dill?"
"Yeah, it's cool," I said.
"All right then. Have fun, kids."
He popped the trunk for me again so I could get our stuff. I looked up and saw Adam's house: a beige-stuccoed two-story that sprawled across the lot. Adam's house looked a lot like all the others on his street. I grabbed all three of our bags and shut the trunk.
"That it?" Lionel called out the window.
"Yeah!" I shouted back. "See you later!"
"So, he's cool," said Adam, as the Mazda drove off.
I shrugged. "Yeah, that's what everyone says."
Adam half-limped, half-hopped up the three steps to his front door. "You don't get along?"
"No, no," I told him, coming up the walk with our bags. "We get along fine. I just don't really know him that well. You know that he was in England for like, the last twelve years?"
"Really? He does kinda have a weird accent.” Adam was unlocking the door. "Boarding school or something?"
"No, he... " I hated this part, the explaining. I had to do it every time somebody asked about my father, my brother, my weird family. "My parents split up when I was little and my father moved to England for work. Lionel went with him."
"Huh," said Adam. "I bet that sucked."
I shrugged again, following Adam into the house.
Adam's hallway seemed clean and typical. A big picture of him with his parents and I guess his older sister sat on an entryway table, the kind of portrait you take in a studio. Adam looked basically the same, just a little smaller, his hair slicked down, a tie around his neck.
"Don't look at that," Adam said. He took his bags from me and proceeded to throw them on the floor. "Hey, do you mind if I take a quick shower? You can hang out in the living room and watch TV if you want. I'll be like, five minutes."
"Okay," I said. "That's cool."
"Great," said Adam and he headed off down a hallway. I realized I must have left my gross sweatshirt in Lionel's car, but that wasn't worth worrying about now. I tried to hang up my book-bag on the stand-up coat rack by the door, but it wasn't going to support the weight of my homework. I put it on the floor by the door instead and walked though to the living room.
Adam's living room was nice, with hardwood flooring and black leather furniture, but it looked more lived-in than I'd expected. Mis-matched throw pillows littered the sofa and chairs and stacks of books and magazines spilled over the coffee table.
Their television was enormous, gorgeous. I found the remote between the magazine-stacks and turned it on; some kind of nature program with long panning shots of a forest lit up the screen. It didn't look like my kind of program, but the picture was so clear, beautiful, and huge that I plopped down on the couch, transfixed.
I sort of loved television. Some people assume that if you are smart and a good student that you never watch TV or you must hate TV, but not me. It was my substitute for a social life. I loved to come home from school, flop on the couch and turn on some mindless sitcom I could watch through the veil of channel-surfing. Teek's family didn't even have a TV. They'd even slapped one of those Kill Your TV stickers on their car. So Teek wasted all her time on the internet instead and pretended she was better than all us TV-watchers. I was glad Adam's family was sensible in this respect.
I settled into Adam's mega-comfy sofa. Whatever nature was being documented failed to impress me, so I started flipping through channels.. But it must have been the wrong time of day, because nothing really caught my eye.
Then I stumbled onto a channel was actually broadcasting a ballet performance. I almost laughed; it seemed so goofy. I could go years without once thinking about ballet. Swan Lake was the only ballet I'd ever heard of, except for the Nutcracker which everyone sees when they're like eight. Maybe this was Swan Lake; there was no way of knowing. I lifted the remote again, to change the channel but then the camera angle shifted and I got a good look at the lead dancer's feet, larger than life on the giant screen.
I'd never really seen or thought about ballerina's feet, how they are literally balanced on their toes in those weird satin shoes. How did that work? How did they stay upright?
I looked down at my own feet in my old, patched sneakers. How hard was it really, to balance like that? I pointed my toes straight at the hardwood floor and experimentally shifted some of my weight forward; I was still on the couch mostly, but it didn't seem impossible.
I left the ballerinas on the screen and stood up (normally) between the couch and the coffee table. There was nothing to hold onto there, so I moved over by the fireplace,. Gripping onto the mantle with one hand, I tried to very carefully to lift myself up onto my toes. Not the balls of my feet; that was easy. Toes.
It was one of my worst ideas.
One of my ankles immediately gave out and I found myself plummeting towards the coffee table. The hardwood floor had seemed perfect for my for this stupid experiment, until I slammed my face into it. Well, okay, not my face—just the whole left side of my body. As I lay there beside the coffee table, in that sudden, extreme pain you feel right after it hits you that you've really fucked up your body, Adam came running from around the corner, back in his normal clothes, hair wet and slicked back.
"Dude, are you okay?"
I was acutely aware of the plinky classical music still coming from the television; of course I'd left the ballet on. Of course I had. The embarrassment distracted me from the pain in my shoulder, ankle, and hip and I tried to sit up.
"I'm fine," I wheezed, wholly unconvincing.
"Dude, dude!" Adam kept saying that. He had a big smile on his face which seemed kind of inappropriate considering the circumstances. He walked around the coffee table to stand over me. "What happened?"
"I... tripped?" I managed to say. What was wrong with me? Why did I do embarrassing shit like this? I tried to hide my face behind an arm; my ears and cheeks were burning, I was probably beet-red. Goddamn Polish complexion.
What if Adam figured it out? What if he saw the dancers on TV and figured, Oh, well, Dillon is the world's gayest, so he must have seen this program and thought he'd try a little dancing himself.
I wanted to die.
"Geez, I can't leave you alone for five minutes," Adam said, like he was my mother. He offered me his hand. Maybe he was going to buy 'I tripped' at face-value. Maybe he just thought I was a klutz, not a freak.
"Thanks," I said, and reached for his hand.
He tried to pull me up, but then he wobbled a little, yelled, "Fuck!" and landed on the floor beside me, clutching his ankle.
"Shit! Your ankle!" Now I felt embarrassed and terrible. But Adam just started laughing.
"It's fine, it's fine." He stretched out his legs in front of him. "Don't worry about it. Doesn't even hurt."
"It doesn't?" I asked, trying not to make a face as I pulled myself up. I could already feel the bruise forming on my shoulder. I touched it gingerly through my t-shirt.
"No," said Adam, "No I... " He laughed here again. Or maybe it was more of a giggle. "I took some Vicodin."
"Yeah, I had a bottle left from last time I sprained my ankle." He cocked his head at me. "Do you want some?"
I laughed, rubbing my shoulder. It was funny how a bruise could feel like a scrape, like an open wound, like the road rash you get from falling off your bike. "It's not that bad. I'll live."
The ballerinas were still prancing across the TV. Adam hadn't said anything about it. But the remote was on the couch within my reach, so I took the opportunity to turn it off.
"Well, yeah, I figured you'll live." Adam looked at me weirdly. "I just asked if you wanted some Vicodin."
"To like... get high?" It was a stupid thing to ask. I wondered how many times I could embarrass myself at Adam's house before it was time to go home.
But Adam just grinned. "Something like that."
"Oh," I said. "Probably not then. But thanks."
Adam laughed at the 'thanks.' "Dude, you're weird," he said. But he didn't say it meanly.
My face still felt flushed. I leaned back against the couch, wracking my brain for something to say. "You said you sprained your ankle before?" I asked finally.
"Yeah, same old, same old. Soccer injury. But it was my fault last time." Adam stared out at his ankle, which he's wrapped in some kind of white sleeve.
"No one kicked you," I said.
When he'd mentioned it in the car, he'd almost looked angry. But he seemed okay now; maybe that was the Vicodin. I wondered, how much did he take? Just enough to kill the pain? Or was he actually getting high?
"That last time," he said, then paused to shake his head. "The last time I sprained it, Coach was sure I'd be no good in midfield anymore. Cause we have to run the most, you know?"
"But it healed like, perfectly. And then that stupid girl…" Adam screwed up his face, suddenly glaring daggers at the carpet. "Ugh, fuck her!"
"No thanks," I said. Haha. I was so clever.
Adam let out a short laugh. "Right," he said. Then there was a pause. I wished I'd left the TV on, just turned to something else for background noise. It was awkward, sitting on the floor of Adam's living room in silence.
"Dillon, do you like girls?" Adam asked suddenly.
That caught me so off-guard I said, "What?" before I even understood what he was asking.
But Adam completely switched gears. "Are you sure you don't want any Vicodin?"
"No," I said, then had to backpedal once I figured out what we were talking about. "I mean, I'm not sure. I mean... maybe?"
What the hell, right?
I'd never gotten high before, really. I smoked part of a joint at a party with a bunch of other guys, but I didn't think it got me high. I did feel different though. We were all sitting around on the lawn chairs beside someone's pool, and someone passed me this thing, so I took a hit. It didn't hit me immediately, but after the first few puffs, I just felt really zonked. Like, super content to just sit there, leaning back in that patio chair, and stare up at the stars.
Vicodin seemed more serious, but then again, people took it all the time legally. Aside from people getting addicted, I couldn't think of anything terrible I'd heard about it. My mom had never officially warned me off it. I mean, taking a few pills one time? Nothing terrible about that, right?
It was funny, the way I was trying to rationalize it. My shoulder and hip were both aching. It would help with that, right? Right. My sudden compliance had nothing to do with the fact that Adam had asked me a question I didn't want to answer.
"Okay," Adam said cheerfully, hopping up on his bad ankle. He was barely limping now as he headed back down the hall.
"Here," he said when he came back in. He had three pills in his hand, which he dropped into my palm. They were bigger than I'd expected.
"Go ahead," he said, "We have a ton—my mom hoards them too."
"Shouldn't I just take one?" I asked.
"Uh, sure but... " He twisted his mouth into a smile that showed most of his teeth. "Three is more fun."
I figured he knew better than I did, so I went into the kitchen to get some water. When I popped the pills in my mouth, the bitter taste hit my tongue immediately, almost made me gag. I stuck my face under the faucet and got the water that way, so I wouldn't have to look for a glass. Adam's kitchen had a window right above the sink and I could see my reflection in the glass as I swallowed and wiped my mouth. Why did I do that? the voice of reason in the back of my mind wanted to know. But it was too late, it was done.
I walked back into the living room where Adam was now sitting on the couch and plopped down beside him.
He gave me a thumbs up. "Want to watch something?"
"I guess," I said.
"Or like, play a game?" Adam pointed to the cabinet under the TV; through the glass case I could see a couple of gaming systems with tangled cords. "I have an Super Nintendo my room too. You know, the one from the 90s. Ever played one of those?"
"Yeah, actually," I said. "One of my friends had one when I was a kid. We just played Mario and Street Fighter."
"I have Street Fighter."
"I was always bad at Street Fighter. But I'll play if you want. If you don't mind me totally sucking." I did want to see Adam's room.
"No way, it'll be fun." Adam grinned again. "Let's do it."
I followed Adam into his bedroom and immediately found myself ankle-deep in clutter. I'd been expecting a mess—I saw how Adam treated his truck—but not one quite like this. A closet-worth of clothes lay strewn and heaped across the floor, peppered with magazines, CDs and some items I'd need a closer look at to identify.
Adam kicked his stuff aside to clear us a path. He did not apologize, which I definitely would have if my room looked like this. "You can sit on the bed," he said, pushing a sweatshirt and some gaming magazines onto the mess on the floor.
I sat down while Adam made his way to the small TV set up on his dresser and turned it on As he unearthed the Super Nintendo from a pile of clothes and untangled the controllers, I found myself studying his walls. Adam had plastered his bedroom with overlapping posters. They were almost all band posters—names of groups in sharp, jagged fonts with images of screaming guys and girls, tongues and microphones. Some were glossy ones like from the mall or from magazines and some were plain paper ones that looked weathered, show posters like you see on telephone poles.
I glimpsed a big Nine Inch Nails poster next to a smaller one for The Killers, and then there was another glossy one for The Cure above his desk. One for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, which wasn't one I'd heard of, but I liked the name. I only recognized a few of the bands, but my music knowledge was so shitty, so limited. Adam obviously didn't have that problem. I was pleased to be in Adam's room with him, taking his Vicodin.
"Thanks," I said, when Adam handed me a controller.
"Street Fighter, right?" Adam had picked up a shoe box from the floor and was digging around in it. "I never have anyone to play this with."
"Did you get that at a pawn shop or something?" I asked. I was pretty sure the Super Nintendo was as old as we were.
"Nah, it was my sister's. I just dug it out of the attic. My family keeps everything." Adam found the game, lifted it up and blew into the cartridge. Popping it into the SNES, he turned to look at me. "Are you feeling the Vicodin yet?"
"I just remembered, you should eat something. So you don't get nauseous." As the game started up, Adam turned around to open a drawer of his desk and pull out a crumpled bag of corn chips. He tossed them to me. "Here, you can eat these."
How old were they, I wondered? The bag was half empty, not sealed. I pulled one out and tested it with my tongue. Probably stale, but salty and greasy enough for me to want to eat anyway. "Thanks," I said.
"Okay, versus mode?" Adam grabbed his controller. "You ready?"
"Yeah," I said around the couple of chips I'd stuffed in my mouths. I wiped the grease off my fingers on my jeans. "Who should I play as?"
"Uh, whoever you want." Adam moved his cursor over Ryu and locked in.
I scrolled through all the names, looking at the pictures. Some seemed familiar from playing as a kid. I thought about the Sumo wrestler, E. Honda, but then I went ahead and went for Chun Li instead. The lone lady. "I warned you I totally suck at this, right?"
"Whatever," Adam said. He picked a stage for us and I fixed my eyes on the screen.
Adam's Ryu started jumping up and down so I attempted to move in his general direction and punch some buttons. Adam just blocked everything I tried, until I tried to jump over him, and then he started kicking my ass.
"I really, really suck," I repeated, as Chun Li flew across the screen, screaming, to the sound of "K.O."!
"I don't know why you keep saying that," Adam said. "It's cool.”
I stuck another corn chip in my mouth before the next match started. "Yeah, okay." I didn't know why I kept saying it either. It was probably annoying; I should just shut up and take my beating.
By our third or fourth match, I stopped caring how much I was sucking. I realized I was smiling as Adam destroyed me with Blanka. It was hilarious when Blanka started chomping on my Dhalsim's head.
"He's eating my head!" I told Adam, like it wasn't obvious.
Adam laughed too. "Yeah, Blanka's a beast."
I kept laughing, and ate a couple more corn chips. I was a little dizzy, but it was a nice dizzy.
"I think I'm feeling it," I told Adam. "This is nice. I feel really, really content."
"You're funny, Dillon," Adam said, in much the same way he'd told me I was weird earlier.
"Thanks," I said. "I try."
"Do you want to keep playing?"
I thought about it for a second. I looked down at the controller in my hands, and suddenly it seemed heavy, like it would take way too much effort to lift it up and play again. I shook my head. "Not really. Unless you want to."
"Doesn't matter. Do you want to play something else?"
"Nah." I was still perched on the foot of Adam's bed, and what I wanted really, was to lie down. Adam had moved to his desk chair and he swiveled around a few times like he was trying to make himself dizzy.
"I'm gonna play Half Life, then. That cool?"
"Sure. Can I lie on your bed?" Was that a weird thing to ask?
"Yeah, go ahead. You feel okay?"
"Great," I said. I let myself fall back onto Adam's mattress. He had glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to the ceiling; that was so cool, I'd always wanted a set. "Cool stars," I told him.
"Oh man, those are so old... "
I shut my eyes as I listened to the clicks and beeps of Adam's computer booting up. With my eyes closed, I wasn't so dizzy. I was content to lie there. It was weird (but not unpleasant) how my body felt so heavy, but also kind of floaty at the same time.
I guessed I'd be lying here on Adam's bed for a while. I thought about calling my mom, in case she was worrying where I was, but she hadn't shown much interest in anything outside of lying on the couch all week. Maybe she hadn't even noticed I wasn't home yet. I chose to focus on the sounds of Adam's game instead. It sounded kind of fun, like I was in an arcade.
"Adam," I said.
"Yeah?" The noises from his game stopped; he must have paused it.
"Are we friends?"
"Yeah, of course we're friends."
I let my eyes close again.
Up next Thursday, Chapter Nine: Hang-Ups.