You have never played a video game before in your life, and when your friend hands you a boxy gray controller, turns on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and walks away, all you are left with is a pixelated landscape on the television and the title of the game: Super Mario Bros. You press your finger into the button labeled “START,” and the words slide away from the screen, and suddenly you are alone in an idyllic field. At least, you think that the figure in the red hat is you.
When you press your left thumb against the left side of the cross underneath it, he does an about-face and takes a step towards the left, confirming your suspicions. But left is not where you want to be heading, and you know this for certain when he bumps against the side of the screen. It was a dumb idea in the first place; he had started out facing towards the right, the same direction we read words on a page, and only the grass and the sky were waiting for him there, an expanse that called out as if to say here, come this way, whatever it is you’re looking for is over here. You listen, thumb hard against the other side of the pad, and as you move the man, you move the world.
• • •
If Mr. Baxter’s sweat stain grew to cover most of his chest, as it often did, I was the only one who’d laugh when Mark said it looked like an upside-down South America; I don’t think anyone else ever even heard his jokes. There were just three of us basses in the freshman choir, and we sat at the back of the classroom, next to the sopranos, with whom John spent the entire period flirting, leaving me as the only available audience for Mark’s weekday 2:30 show. It was a position I was glad to fill.
I’d chosen to take up choir rather than continuing band when I started high school because I was heavily considering “sensitive singer-songwriter” as a viable career path at the time. But puberty, and a recently identified lisp, had made every spoken sentence an opportunity for embarrassment, so I preferred to keep as quiet as possible in most situations. The only reason no one noticed that I spent rehearsals moving my lips without producing any sound is that Mark sang loud enough for the two of us both; it didn’t matter what I did, he was all that anyone could hear.
• • •
I woke up to the jangle of an incoming text, and held the phone up to my face to read it: good morning qt ;-P. My heart bounced against my ribs; I’d only exchanged numbers with Seth two days before, and here he was, texting me with unprompted terms of endearment. We met online, on a forum for gay teens, and although we’d exchanged instant messages nearly every night for the past few weeks, I knew better than to expect anything to come of it. But texting was different. He used to only exist on my laptop, at my desk, in my room; now he was there at lunch, and in American history, and during drama club rehearsal. He was still only manifest as words on a screen, but that screen was in my pocket, and I carried him everywhere I went.
• • •
You see something new: a mushroom, with large menacing eyebrows, and legs that are powering it towards the man in the red hat. It is the first thing in the game that moves without your consent, the first thing outside of your control, and nothing points to it being friendly. It is, after all, heading left, directly opposed to your mission of rightwardliness, and so you panic, until you remember your right hand. Beneath it rest a pair of huge red buttons. You press one, it gives a satisfying click into place, and the man on the television jumps into the air. You have only been playing for a few seconds, or a minute if you are especially slow, and already the game has taught how it wants you to interact with it. You can feel the hand of the designer in every step of the first level, resting against your back, keeping you steady and helping if you fall.
• • •
I don’t remember why Mark hugged me the first time he did, but I remember the way his arms felt wrapped hard around my chest, and I remember not knowing what to do with my face. He hugged his friends all the time, but I had never thought he considered me among them. We didn’t interact outside of choir; I didn’t know anything about him, beyond his booming laugh and his lopsided smile, but there he was, hands on my back and head just inches from mine.
I started to pay attention. When he touched other guys, there was always a laugh. It was always a joke. The only way to show affection was to coat it in a layer of implied humor. “Isn’t the very thought of it ridiculous?” the embraces would ask, “a man touching another man, without the intention of harming him?”
• • •
A boy stands in front of an old man in a dark cave. The man raises a sword into the air, presenting it to you. “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.” And so The Legend of Zelda begins, throwing you into its world without the slightest hint of a goal or direction. You have played enough video games to know by now that there is probably a princess that needs rescuing. But when you leave that cave, sword in hand, you are faced with a world that does not welcome you; there is no vast blue sky calling you rightwards. This place extends in all directions, slowly revealing to you new corners of itself the longer you play.
You die a lot in this game. At first it makes you angry, but you cannot bring yourself to quit. The boss of this dungeon was almost dead this time, he had to have been, and you know how to kill him now; your fingers just didn’t reach the buttons in time, hadn’t learned the rhythm yet. Death is not too great a setback when the future is so clear, but there will come a time, eventually, when you will be not know where to go next.
You might get stuck at this point for days, or even weeks. You walk away from the game, come back every few days to wander around exploring forests and burning down trees, hoping to find something, anything, only to quit again half an hour later. But you always come back. The freedom the game has given you only makes you attached to it all the more, and it refuses to sever its ties. You cannot lose in Zelda; you can only give up.
• • •
When Mark dropped his wallet in the middle of class, and asked me to pick it up for him, I thought it was the set-up for a prank. As I turned it over in my hand, I saw the thing, striped yellow and black like the tape around a crime scene, sitting in the clear plastic pocket where an ID belonged: a card from a suicide hotline. My eyes locked on his as I handed it back, and stayed there even after he turned away. Something had been hiding in him, behind his laugh and the power of his voice, and now he was showing it to me in what I assumed was not merely an accident, but instead an obvious gesture of trust and affection; I had been going through a heavy Nirvana phase since the eighth grade, and had interpreted Cobain’s suicide as romantic in the way that only an imbalanced fourteen-year-old could. As far as I was concerned, a boy letting me know he’d thought about killing himself was as good as laying rose petals across my lawn that spelled out “GO 2 PROM W/ ME.”
That afternoon, I started to write his name in the margins of my biology notes. When I got home from school, I’d lie in bed, play The Beatles’ “Blackbird” on loop, and imagine our first dance. It’d be a December wedding, and his last name would come first in our daughter’s hyphenation. We’d retire somewhere up north, Wisconsin maybe, or New England, and in the winters we’d hold hands and walk our dogs through snow-coated woods. I had it all planned out before I went to sleep that night, and I replayed those fantasies in my head to the point that to this day I remember my dreams of Mark more clearly than I remember his truth.
• • •
The day Seth said he’d call me for the first time, I wanted to vomit just waiting for it. He was my first real experience at flirting, the first boy to ever show an interest in me, and I was still convinced it might all be some elaborate prank. A phone conversation was the tipping point, when he moved from data to a physical presence, and when I felt the phone vibrate in my pocket I tasted bile. “Is- is this Robbie?” His voice was deeper than I’d imagined, and his hesitation put me at ease, let me know that this was something new for him, too.
We made small talk, and I tried harder than usual to control my lisp, and when we hung up not five minutes later, I collapsed onto my bed and told myself over and over again that this was real, that I wasn’t making it up, and it wasn’t a prank. I needed to prove it to myself, so the next day I called him again just to ask how his day was, just to keep the ground from pulling out from under my feet.
• • •
I wish I could remember how it happened, how one minute I was cracking my knuckles and barely listening to a lecture on dissonance, and the next Mark was holding my hand and I couldn’t breathe, but a thing like that can grow so large in your memory that it leaves no room for what came before it. Years later, I can still hold that image in my mind like a snowglobe, a perfect diorama encased in glass and sitting on my mantle: our hands, fingers intertwined, dangling in the gap between our blue plastic chairs in the back row of the choir room.
It could have lasted an hour or it could have lasted thirty seconds and I wouldn’t be able to say the difference. Either way, when he finally pulled away his hand, he laughed. He laughed as if he was just fooling around, as if it was another joke, but there was no audience there and then. Just the two of us, and the warmth of his hand still lingering in mine.
• • •
The best art resonates with you on some frequency that hums in perfect harmony with that of real life. Mario is a digital game of darts. An extraordinarily complicated game of darts, to be certain, one where the dartboard has flaps that open up to other, secret dartboards, with extra points and new backing music, but the principle remains the same: what these games demand is a mastery of physics. Spin your wrist just so, jump off the ledge with just the right trajectory, and you have earned yourself a certain kind of primal satisfaction, the thing a mountain lion feels in the crunch of her teeth against the flesh of a deer, there in the bulls-eye or the blips and bloops of your Nintendo.
• • •
The winter of my freshman year, I convinced my parents to let me apply to a public boarding school in my home state, a kind of residential charter school. When I told Mark I was leaving, he made a few light jokes about being the only guy left in choir by next year, but otherwise didn’t probe too far into the issue. Maybe by then he already knew he was leaving, too, for a school in the mountains of New England; if he did, he didn’t tell me. I only found out the next year from his facebook.
I was mystified, and some basic internet research didn’t give me any concrete answers. The school’s own website only told me that their goal was to provide a “safe learning space” for students who have “faced challenges,” and those who “march to the beat of their own drummer.” External sites used the phrase “behavior modification,” but no one specified what kind of behavior, or how it was modified. I blinked, and the caution-tape card with the phone number flashed beneath my eyelids. I pushed it out of my head. I didn’t any much time to spend remembering my past life those weeks of introduction to a new home.
A girl named Kat lived across the hall, and I’d met a Trevor at orientation in the summer, so in those uneasy first weeks, we latched on to each other as a way of not being alone while we found more permanent social footing. I’d grown attached to the boy, and I thought I’d been picking up signals, so one afternoon when the three of us were watching a movie together, spread across the beat-up secondhand furniture in our common room, I sat next to him on the couch. Halfway through the movie, some long-since-forgotten Saturday Night Live spinoff, I saw his hand lying out in the space between us, and, holding my breath, took it in mine. He pulled away instantly. A shame washed over me, worse than any I’d ever felt, which would come back to me in waves each time he avoided eye contact as we passed each other on the campus.
When I retreated to my room, I stared at the only photo of himself Mark had put online since leaving. There he was, the same Mark, with the same crooked smile, sitting on the porch of a cabin in some Thoreauvian wood. I almost sent him a message right then asking if he remembered, if that moment in the back row of the choir room still clung to him the way it clung to me, barnacles on the hull of a ship, but I couldn’t bring myself to put my fingers to the keyboard.
• • •
The Legend of Zelda is a game about navigating through the social sea of your first week at a new school. You know the beginning, a lunch tray and a sword and leaving the cave to face the sun, but the rest is fuzzy, a thin line on the ground that you try to follow even as it keeps disappearing or forking off, kids you thought you might have liked sitting next to kids you can’t even look at without beads of sweat appearing on your forehead. You stumble your way through, guidance minimal and humiliation constant, but when rewards come, you feel as though you have earned them independently; you have made your own friends, solved the puzzles, found your way through the mazes and killed all the monsters in the dungeon all by yourself. It was not just physical memory, but the actual synthesis and retention of information that brought you to this point, and when the princess is saved and lunch period is at last the respite from the school day that it was meant to be, your breath comes easy and your blood beats slowly through your veins with the knowledge that no matter what challenges follow, there is at least one that you have made it through alone.
• • •
Seth was there, in real life, sitting right next to me in the dark movie theater, and I still had to remind myself it was actually happening. I had picked him up in my car, and we had talked for the whole ride here, and I had yet to make some grave mistake, and all of it was real. My whole body felt on fire. I reached my hand out and grabbed a fistful of popcorn from the bag sitting between us, just to move something and release some tension, and shoved it all in my mouth. I chewed once, but the noise was deafening, and so I let the popcorn slowly dissolve in my mouth, gumming it to a salty paste that I could swallow silently, so as not to ruin my perfect moment with the crunchy reality of my body.
The music pumping out through the speaker behind me was rising to a stirring emotional peak, and I knew it was the right time. He couldn’t laugh in a theater, not at a moment like this, and if I failed, there’d be no one to see it, no one to remind me of my shame. He lived an hour away from me; if I wanted, I could never see him again, never answer his texts or respond to his chats. It was a foolproof plan. His hand closest to me was resting on his thigh. I took a breath, closed my eyes, and reached for it, working my fingers into the spaces between his and saying a silent prayer that I hadn’t somehow taken everything he’d said the wrong way, misinterpreted all the signals and fucked up the best thing that had come my way in years.
He didn’t pull away, palm against mine and the pads of his fingers on my knuckles, and when I stole a look at him, I could see a smile on his face in the faint yellow glow of the rope-lights along the aisle.
Rumpus original art by Chelsea Martin.