Fourth Grade Summer
Maybe it’s this game, Super Mario 3. Yes, that must be it. That impossible desert level where the angry sun chases me relentlessly throughout.
Maybe that’s why I never—
“You never go outside,” my mom interrupted and turned off the bedroom TV.
“What does he need to go outside for? Over.” rang dad from an intercom. He had installed it in the living room to speak to the bedroom, the only two rooms in our home.
“Because he doesn’t have any friends…over.”
“If he studies at home and gets more As, everyone will want to be his friend.”
Wouldn’t that be nice?
Mom grabbed my hand and walked me out of the bedroom.
We passed dad who was fidgeting with our illegal cable box and walked directly into the angry, blazing sunlight. Four kids twice my height were playing basketball—or whatever you call it when two stacked ShopRite shopping carts act as a hoop.
Negotiations were swift.
I was to play basketball with these 8th graders. In return, they could come back home for brand-name soda. Chintu, their leader, was not allowed to bring any paan in the apartment. My parents were heading off to the store, so it was on me to somehow enforce that last rule.
How a 4th grader fared against these Monstars in basketball is none of your business. But we got back home and I handed them Cokes. Chintu let out a loud burp.
“Do you have any candy?”
“I have Mario 3.”
“Mario 3? Gross. You don’t have Super Nintendo?”
“Shut up chutu, you’ve never had beer,” snapped one of Chintu’s friend, an om tattoo rested on his forearm, drawn with a sharpie marker.
“Yea, dad let me try Budweiser once. Hey, what’s that?”
“Oh, that’s our cable box. What’s a cable box? Oh, my dad got it. It hacks pay per view and lets us see HBO, Showtime, all that stuff for free.”
I could see how excited they were. Chintu grew serious.
“What about channel 96?”
“Of course we have channel 96,” I said scoffing with laughter. “Do you guys NOT have channel 96?”
I had no idea if we did or what that channel was.
Chintu grabbed the remote. Fumbling frantically with the buttons, he finally pointed at the TV. Click.
The scene seemed boring enough. A cable repairman had arrived at a lady’s house. She was wearing a nightgown and, when opening the door, apologized for not being properly dressed.
“How dumb is she?!?” I thought. “They give you a wide arrival window, cable guys never come on time anyway, and she’s STILL not dressed?!” I looked askance at my new friends to see if they found this as stupid as I did.
They were transfixed. Mouths agape as if this was the greatest thing since Jurassic Park. The lady’s TV was fixed in a second. It had been unplugged. Some dialogue followed that waxed philosophical about cable prices.
“Thank you so much.”
“Can I interest you in the premium package?”
“How big is that package?”
“The biggest you’ve ever seen.”
I couldn’t have been prouder of my dad who avoided this kind of useless haggling about packages and just got cable illegally.
The characters then began to “fall in love,” as my parents called it when we watched R-rated movies. They’d turn down the volume and let me play Gameboy during these performances, just boring filler between explosions or car chases.
Come to think of it, I’d never actually seen a scene like this.
Today, though, I watched it all and was amazed that these seemingly hardened 8th graders had such a romantic side to them. So I made friends and, soon, we had a routine.
We’d play what was more or less basketball and take turns stealing candy from the local convenience store. And then I provided the afternoon chick flick for these softies. It was always the same sappy formula.
Pizza delivery boy arrives. Lady has no money. They fall in love. Candidate arrives at interview. Boss explains how competitive the market is. They fall in love.
Babysitter and boyfriend fall in love on a couch. Kid’s parents find out, have a stern conversation with them. All four of them make up … and fall in love, together.
But by Christmas, Chintu convinced his parents to get him his own cable box and, by the summer, something called the world wide web began to provide the same kinds of love stories on a computer.
They were in high school now, so I didn’t even get to steal candy with them. Ultimately, these now-9th graders even gave up our sacrosanct cart-ball to create their own love stories with the girls their age.
“What are you doing just moping around?” mom asked on a day I was feeling particularly sorry for myself. I didn’t want to explain that they were off being boring with girls, that maybe if we just had Super Nintendo or Pepsi instead of Coke or better romance movies, this could have all been avoided.
“Well, what is it?”
I lied and gave her something that made sense.
“The reason I can’t hang out with them…is because they made me steal from Krauszers.”
She made me swear never to associate with them. An easy task. I could have gone directly to Super Mario 3.
Would you blame me? But something called me outside.
Against my father’s wishes of not going outside and against my mother’s wishes of making friends, I stepped outside of our trellis and onto the sidewalk by myself.
The sun was less angry that day.
And as it shone down on my face, I realized, this was plenty.