#5. The Alien
It's not the Alien's fault that they don't understand our Hu-Man customs: They probably had hippy, new-ager, do-what-you-feel kind of parents. Maybe he was a home school kid that you always saw plunking quarters into a Street Fighter machine at the 7-11, but never saw in class. Maybe she was the girl next door that would occasionally dance naked in the yard while you were stuck waiting for the bus. The Alien's house always smelled like something you'd never experienced before, something bizarre and unique that you could never quite place, (PROTIP: It was weed) and everything else in their home life would mirror that same foreignness as well. The first hour at the Alien's house was great: It was pure anarchic fantasy, like the first hour of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Unfortunately, the second hour was also like Willy Wonka -- the part where shit abruptly gets real and psychologically scarring.
I'm still terrified of both water and purple. Oddly cool with Gene Wilder, though.
I once had a friend we'll call Nick (to protect his identity...although it's likely he's waging war with the internet right now from a hollowed out tree in the Redwood Forest, so it's probably a moot point anyway). Nick seemed completely normal at first, and indeed, we got along brilliantly. Our priorities were totally in sync: We would empty out milk jugs, fill them back up with water, string them up from the rafters of my back porch, wrap our hands and feet in ace bandages, and pretend to be Bloodsport. Not pretend to be kickboxers, or deathmatch contestants, or even any specific character (they were all muddled Frankenstein's monsters comprised of equal parts Van Damme, tubby biker, and that guy with epileptic pectoral muscles to us); no, we each pretended to be the entire movie of Bloodsport - just whichever part kicked the most ass in our minds.
You all know who I meant.
Story wasn't exactly our strong suit, all right? The important part was round-housing something until it exploded, and also getting hurt a little in the process -- because if it's painful, we reasoned, then it's no longer "playing." In other words: Totally normal, prepubescent boy stuff.
But all that was at my house, until one day Nick invited me over to his. When I arrived, I found his home entirely empty save for a futon on the living room floor. His mom thought furniture oppressive, I suppose, or maybe she just smoked all of the chair money. Most remarkable to me, however, was seeing that blank expanse of wall where the TV should have been. That's the Alien's chief identifying trait: No matter what form they may take, no matter their beliefs or ethnicity, their family never, ever owns a television. To a pop-culture addled kid with a working single parent (read: Raised by re-runs of Voltron) it was like discovering that their house didn't have a roof. It was baffling, upsetting, and seemed generally unsafe somehow, in a way I could not place. The most resounding culture shock, however, came from the fact that Nick was allowed to swear - not just in general, but directly at his mom: "Mom, stop being such a fucking bitch!" was a common complaint in their home, spoken with the same tone you'd say "but that's not faaaiiiir!" to your own parents. And she didn't even karate chop him in the neck afterward, as she totally and understandably should have done! It was a whole new world!
The lesson the Alien taught us was two-fold: One, that freedom from normalcy is a beautiful thing sometimes. It's like hopping on a plane to China once a week; it really expands your worldview. But the Alien also taught us that the normal life we felt to be occasionally confining is that way for a reason: It's awesome that Nick's mom thinks shirts and bras are like straightjackets for your torso, but the magic of seeing your first real-life breasts only lasts until you see your first real-life Tofurkey-grease burn to an exposed nipple.
#4. The Devil On Your Shoulder
The Devil On Your Shoulder was the kid with the brilliant ideas that, in retrospect, always turned out to be incredibly stupid and dangerous. He's the reason every single new game you and your friends invented always ended when somebody got hurt. You never thought to build endings into the rules - nobody invents innings, or score limits, or overtime in their youthful fantasies - so a new game only ended when it got boring, or more likely, when the Devil On Your Shoulder politely reminds everybody that there's some lighter fluid in the garage and he's pretty sure that tennis balls are flammable.
"No, I hear you: You're saying the thumb tacks hurt. But I'm saying you'll barely feel the thumbtacks if we light the whole damn thing on fire."
The Devil On Your Shoulder from my childhood was named Robert, and I actually still keep in touch with the guy to this day.
Friends would come to my house and we'd start an innocuous enough game, like hide and seek. One or two rounds would pass, at most, before my jaded, over-stimulated child-brain needed to up the ante. Now it was hide and seek, but also freeze tag. Then it was team hide and seek. Then the boundaries expanded and expanded, eventually disappearing entirely. Three hours later and we're playing something called "night fighting" which, stunningly, is exactly what it sounds like: Night-time hide and seek where you fought everybody after you found them. That game inexplicably lasted an entire summer, and by the end, every player had jury-rigged up A-Team-esque specialty weapons. Nick built a nightstick out of PVC pipe and filled it with sand. Sean wrapped an aluminum bat in Nerf foam. Mickey had one of those flexible cable bike locks, with a padlock snapped onto each end. He called them bike-chucks. I had a golf club with the head broken off; I'd sharpened the remaining metal shaft on the pavement. It wasn't the most damaging weapon, (that was Mickey's bike-chucks, of course) but the psychological factor was not to be discounted. Once discovered, I would charge at my opponents, screaming and dragging the steel tip on the asphalt, sparks hurling up behind me into the night. It didn't matter that I'd only leave a nasty welt if my blow connected, but Mickey would knock my teeth out if his landed; for a minute there, I was half Back to the Future and half Highlander. Looking badass adds like 10 damage points to any move. Everybody knows that.
Like this, in my head. Like a chubby 11 year old in Bermuda shorts holding half a golf club, in reality.
Somehow, not a single neighbor called the cops that summer to report the epic child-war being waged every night in their backyards, beneath their decks, and on one occasion, inside of their empty pool. It went on way longer than it should have, and we all earned way more than our expected allotment of scars.
And that's why you need the Devil On Your Shoulder: To teach you the value of boundaries as a child. See, anarchy sounds like a damn fine time to a kid. Who needs these god damn rules, man? Parents telling you what to do, adults ordering you around, teachers giving you homework - screw that! We want to be free! We can rule ourselves! And the first rule is, there are no rules! But after a few days of this beautiful utopia, when every single kid on the block is sporting an eye-patch, you learn to just quietly shut your curtains when the Devil On Your Shoulder stops by at 2AM to whisper "the fights have begun" into your open window.
#3. The Enemy
Every group has one friend that seems to belong more with the Enemy: The sporty kids always had one smaller, scrawny dude in an Atari shirt who was constantly losing the hackeysack on the roof. In every gaggle of asthmatic nerds there was one kid who had to duck out of DnD in the middle of a Beholder battle to make soccer practice. Sean was the Enemy in my childhood clique, and, obviously, he was the athletic exception to our nerd rule. Sean absolutely shared our priorities: He loved Micro Machines and Transformers, and had the one single subscription to Nintendo Power that we all circulated. He wanted to belong with us geeks, and for the most part he did, but unfortunately, God cursed him with a working human body and the urge to use it.
You poor damned, accursed soul.
He would try to hang back with us during the weekly mile, after we'd all valiantly sprinted the first lap, and then lapsed into a haggardly crawling walk for the remaining three. He'd slow his pace with ours, but it wasn't natural to him. You could see it in his eyes: Athletics called to him like the Wild calls to a captive wolf. He would reluctantly shuffle along, but was always urging us to speed our pace. When that failed, he would start jogging in short bursts, then stand and wait for us to catch up. Eventually he was circling us, running ahead and running back. Finally his body simply couldn't take the passivity anymore, and Sean would inevitably disappear, legs pumping furiously, blonde bowl-cut gleaming like the sun itself, trying to make up the time he'd spent stuck with the nerds. Eventually, he would disappear from our lives entirely in much the same fashion, metaphorically making up lost distance in the great mile that is life.
The Enemy is there to teach us that the other side isn't necessarily the villains we make them out to be. There are nerds that love football, and jocks with Level 20 Paladins out there, and even if those differences pull us apart eventually, it's only our stubborn, insecure, self-set borders that turn them into animosity.