September 28, 2005

With the Lights Out

By Joe Speaker © 2005

We were just entering that age, Donny and I, when the opinions of your peers start to matter. A lot. Rebukes begin to sting more, camaraderie can uplift you for days. The last thing you want is to be thought "different," so you check your childhood impulses and guard your secrets.

I'd known Donny for a couple years, knew who he was anyway. In a small town like ours, you run across pretty much everyone your own age on the athletic fields. But this was my first year in the new school, the new neighborhood. When that first bell signaled the start of 5th grade, I saw some familiar faces. Donny's was in the chair next to me. Partners.

He was a squinty-eyed towhead, a direct contrast to my dark skin and features. But in almost every other way, we were identical. We both appeared as though a strong breeze would topple us, bony from our ankles to our wrists. We had braces. We'd discovered the lure of girls, mysteries that demanded investigation beyond the ritualistic playground taunting. We played the same sports-baseball and soccer-with similar results and worshiped the Oakland A's, despite their abject record. We both shone in the classroom. We fell into an easy friendship.

It wasn't long before he invited me to a sleep-over, that time-honored rite of pre-adolescent independence. I'd never spent the night at someone else's house before, not completely anyway. The closest I ever came was the time I had to summon my parents to fetch me from Jamie Hedley's house after an early morning nightmare.

Donny's parents fixed us some burgers and left us to a competitive game of Monopoly. Each of us wanted to win, but remained respectful of each other and, above all, mindful of our actions and how they would be perceived. I wanted to be invited back and didn't want to jeopardize that possibility.

Shortly, it was time for bed. With the lights out, we conspired to take over the world someday. Partners.

His Mom interrupted our reverie. "Donny," she said, turning on the bulb. "Don't forget to put on your headgear." I saw his face drop. The headgear, that awful contraption of orthodontic torture, scourge of every bucktooth kid's existence, a fate every bit as horrifying as a medieval punishment. Donny was mortified. He raised his head to protest, but his mother cut him off.

As she did, I slid my hand across my sleeping bag and into my overnight bag. "That's okay Donny," I said, pulling it out. "I should probably wear mine, too."

We strapped them on, bands, hooks and all. Then we slept silently, comforted by our shared shame.

Joe Speaker is a writer from Southern California.

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