When I was fourteen, I had all sorts of ideas. Like I had this idea for a movie about a kid who erases bits of reality whenever he jacks off. Every time he gets a little self-frisky, a random ten-by-ten-by-ten foot chunk of his city disappears. There are houses missing their top stories. Half-cars have to be towed away from suddenly missing bridges. People disappear. Everybody’s freaking out, and nobody knows where it’s going to happen next. The kid knows it’s his fault, though—he knows it—but he’s so horny that he can’t help himself, so whenever he does it he crosses the fingers on his other hand and hopes that nobody gets hurt.
“What happens next?” Sam asked when I told him about my movie on the school bus. His fat face was blank. I couldn’t tell if he was impressed or skeptical.
“Well I don’t know what happens in the middle,” I said, “but by the end we find out that his semen is, like, connected to the planet or something. Like the Lifestream in Final Fantasy VII.”
“Everything you do is a ripoff of Final Fantasy VII.”
Just then the school bus door hissed open and let in a bunch of cross-country ninth-graders, stomping, yelling, smelling of damp sweatshirts. A gust of January air followed them, and the bus’s heaters rattled into a higher gear to compensate.
“Yeah, but don’t you see the metaphor?” I muttered, nervous that the older boys would hear us and make fun. “Spunk equals life essence equals reality?”
Sam shook his head and didn’t say anything.
Sam was the alpha-nerd of Kenmore Junior High, much smarter than anyone at our school, including me. He crafted extensive Dungeons & Dragons scenarios in his spare time, full of branching quest-lines and cave complexes and royal lineages, really epic shit, which he never showed to anyone. He wrote a tech column for the school paper that only I read. He knew most of the dialogue in all three Star Wars movies by heart. I hated it when he got superior, so to take him down a notch, I unzipped the front pocket of my backpack and pulled out a string cheese.
“Dude, I told you not to do that,” he said.
“What? I’m hungry.”
“I’m hungry too, but I’m suppressing that hunger to practice self-control and to cleanse my body of impurities.”
“Far past the salt shores,” I intoned, quietly, so the cross-country kids wouldn’t hear, “beyond the sea, lies the ancient land of Ramadan.”
“Don’t mock me.”
“Come on, dude,” he said, “I’m having a really hard time with the fasting and all. Then plus my mom took my Magic cards away last night.”
“She did?” I said. “Why? We were supposed to play on Sunday.”
“She saw my Demonic Tutor and flipped out, because, you know, it has a pentagram on it. She said she wouldn’t have that satanic stuff in her house.”
“That sucks,” I said, but I still looked him in the eyes and took a big bite of my string cheese.
He made a noise, turned to face the window, and ignored me for the rest of the bus ride. Sam was supposed to refrain from sinful behavior and foul language during Ramadan, and I bet it really sucked for him that he couldn’t tell me to go fuck myself.
When Sam started doing this whole Ramadan thing, I thought it was just because he was fat. I told him he didn’t have to convert to a new religion to go on a diet. He said I didn’t get it.
“Okay, for one, I’m not converting,” he had said. “I’m joining. I was an atheist before. And for two, it’s not about the not-eating, it’s about the cleansing.”
“So you believe in God now?”
“In Allah,” he said, “and yes.”
“Why did you change your mind?”
He waved me off. “It’s too complicated to explain,” he said, in that airy, dismissive tone he had picked up sometime in the last couple months.
It irked me that he wouldn’t explain himself. How people became who they were was a mystery to me. When junior high began, my old friends, responding to some secret broadcast or something, began wearing different clothes and saying different things and acting certain ways around certain people. I couldn’t explain it. I walked around half in a panic because I was the same old person I had always been, into the same nerdy stuff. The inside of my head felt the same as it had last year, or four years ago. I probably would never understand why a kid wearing a South Park t-shirt could talk to a kid in a 311 t-shirt, but not to a kid in an Abercrombie t-shirt—the shades of motive and understanding were too complex—but I felt like I could wrap my head around something as big as Sam’s conversion to Islam. He wouldn’t tell me, though, and that drove me nuts.
When we got on the bus after school, he seemed to have forgotten this morning’s string cheese insult. He related some Star Wars puns he and Jon made in fifth period. “I wish I could remember all of them,” he said. “Theywere pretty entertaining.”
“Probably you can’t remember them because of the hunger,” I said.
“Shut up about it, dude, I can’t eat until sunset.”
“You’re like a gremlin,” I said. “Do not feed after midnight.”
“Being a Muslim isn’t like being a gremlin. Actually, though, my mom wants me to invite you to dinner.”
“Really?” I said. Sam I had been friends since the start of seventh grade, saw each other five days a week, met outside of school to play Magic at least once a month, and Sam had even slept over at my house a couple of times, but I had never met his parents. They always dropped him off in the street outside my house and let him walk up the driveway. Thinking about dinner at their house, I felt my stomach twist into a nervous hitch.
“Yeah, since you always have me over all the time,” Sam said. “She wants to repay you. Friday, if you’re free. But you don’t have to be. If you have something else going on, that’s cool.”
“What would I have going on?” I said. The bus was turning onto my street, so I wriggled into my backpack. “I’ll talk to my mom about it.”
At home, I turned on my computer, and while I waited for Windows 95 to boot up, pulled my notebook out of the pile on my bedside table. It had been days since I worked on my computer game—which I had named Ramadan because it sounded like a made-up fantasy word—so I flipped through the notebook to refresh myself: maps, character sketches, ideas, histories, timelines. Ramadan would be great. It would be the next Final Fantasy VII.
I was obsessed with Final Fantasy VII. I filled my head with Final Fantasy VII the way I used to fill my head with Seattle Mariners stats. I knew the name of its producer (Hironobu Sakaguchi) and the composer of its music (Nobuo Uematsu). I knew it was the most expensive video game of all time—forty-five million dollars for all those sweet CG cut scenes and that epic scope. I knew that the gloomy and labyrinthine city of Midgar, where the first part of the story was set, was named after midgard, the old Germanic and Norse word for the world. To memorize trivia about a thing is to become the master of it. I thought that if I understood everything about Final Fantasy VII, I could one day make a video game as awesome and all-encompassing and kickass.
But so far, Ramadan wasn’t measuring up. I had a game engine I had downloaded for free, but programming was turning out to be more time consuming than I thought, and as soon as I got a chunk of the game up and running I found that I wasn’t happy with it. My notebook was full of all the awesome ideas I could think of—armies of clockwork robots, octopus-gods the size of whole cities, wizards on motorcycles—but the game felt flat, the characters lifeless.
I lay back with my notebook spread out on my chest, trying to figure out what made a character seem like a person. It wasn’t just facts. I could list off facts about myself—fourteen years old, brown-haired, skinny, lover of Star Wars and Final Fantasy—but that didn’t really give you a sense of my character, or what it felt like to be me. That didn’t tell you anything about how I felt when I was seven and fell out of a tree and while I was falling I was sure I was going to die but then I didn’t even get hurt, or how I had lived in this house my whole life and now every detail of it was a part of me, the feel of the grout between the orange tiles, the curves in the wood grain on the bathroom door that looked like a human face. Fuck man, it blew my mind, thinking about how everyone—me, Sam, my parents, everybody—was this complicated bundle of facts and memories and sensations, always shifting. Was that how everybody felt? Did I get to choose who I was, or did everything else choose for me? And why couldn’t I be in someone else’s head? Why couldn’t I Vulcan mind meld with Sam and understand how an atheist fourteen year old becomes a Muslim fourteen year old?
No, no, focus, I told myself. This was why Ramadan wasn’t getting done—I got distracted. I daydreamed. I opened my notebook and went back to work. Friday. On the bus, Sam fiddled with the straps of his backpack and looked out the window into the curtains of drizzle. I couldn’t tell if he was nervous that I was going to his house, or just hungry and irritable.
“You can see my save in Final Fantasy VII,” he said after a while. “All the stuff I’ve got.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Hey, how do you think the world will end?”
“Oh come on,” he said. “The odds of that are so small.”
“It killed the dinosaurs.”
“I bet it will be some technological disaster, or nuclear war with, like, China,” he said. “Or maybe even something really simple, like global warming. Yeah.” He nodded and turned to look out the window again, maybe imagining the Chinese mushroom clouds blooming over the sub-developments right now.
We got off the bus and walked through the rain, deep into one of the new developments on the hill above Kenmore. “That’s me, that’s my house,” Sam said, pointing to the one at the end of the cul-de-sac. It was bright white and new, crowded on both sides by equally bright white and new houses. On the porch, a plush beaver held a wooden sign that read “Welcome.” Its fur was shiny and brown.
Inside, there were dried flowers in a vase, copies of Sunset and Woman’s Day fanned out in a wicker basket by the couch, a cross-stitch of Jesus on the cross above the shoe cubby by the door. Everything smelled like potpourri. Sam got us Cokes from the fridge and led me upstairs, to his room. He had his own TV in there, and a Playstation, a Nintendo 64, and all the older video game systems, too.
“You’re so lucky,” I said, sprawling in a beanbag, looking at the video games on his shelves and spread across the floor. “You’ve got a great collection. Did your parents get these for you?”
“Yeah, most of them. Here, I want to show you how far I am.”
He was near the end of Final Fantasy VII, and must have sunk almost a hundred hours into perfecting his game. All his characters were maxed out at level ninety-nine. He had all the spells, all the secret weapons, all the everything. We played for a few hours, dying on one of the optional super-powerful bosses, Ruby Weapon, again and again, until his mom, who I hadn’t heard come in, called us down for dinner.
“Already?” I said.
“Yeah, we eat early.”
Sam left the Playstation running and we went downstairs. His mom was named Christine. She was wearing one of those suit-dress things that middle-aged women wear to work. Her hair was blond and very shiny, and it looked out of place above her motherly face and suit-dress. It looked too young, like she had scalped one of the girls in my grade and made a wig. “Hi, guys!” she said as we came downstairs. I introduced myself.
“It’s so nice that we finally get to meet,” she said. “Sam tells us a lot about you.”
“Good stuff?” I said.
She laughed, like I had just told a hilarious joke. “Good stuff.”
Sam’s dad came out of the bedroom. He was a little man, only as tall as me, with a circlet of reddish hair surrounding a gleaming bald crown, a neat red beard fading to gray, and a pinched face. Sam had mentioned that he was a judge, and it was easy to imagine him in black robes. His name was John. He shook my hand and we sat down to eat.
Sam’s mom had roasted a chicken, baked soft rolls, and tossed corn on the cob in some kind of spicy seasoning. I reached for a roll, but then, when I saw nobody else was serving themselves, I put my hand back in my lap. I didn’t like having sit-down meals with my friends’ families. Everything was unfamiliar: the food tasted different, the silverware was strange, you never knew where to sit. The conversation was usually about you, or you and their son, or school, and it felt like stepping onto a stage you had never seen before, with a script you had never read.
We were all just staring at our plates. “Since you’re the guest,” Christine said, “you can say grace if you’d like.”
My family didn’t do that, and I didn’t know how. I shook my head, embarrassed, trying to think of a polite way to turn her down. “No, that’s okay. You made the food, you should do it.”
“That’s perfectly okay,” Christine said. “We’ll say it.”
“I’m not going to say it,” Sam said.
John looked annoyed, but Christine said, “You don’t have to. But you do
have to join hands.”
Sam rolled his eyes and grabbed for my hand. His palm was hot and clammy, and it made me think uncomfortably of his fat, his sweat, how my hand would feel moist, maybe even sticky, when I pulled it away. When Sam’s dad took my other hand, his hand was cool and dry.
“Come, Lord Jesus,” Christine and John muttered together, “be our Guest, and let Thy gifts to us be blessed. Amen.”
Looking down at my empty plate, I said “Amen,” and blushed, confused. Sam had never mentioned that his family was religious, only that he used to be an atheist, and now was Muslim. They didn’t seem to notice my discomfort. Sam’s dad released my hand and he and Sam’s mom reached for food and started serving. Sam didn’t move. He was gripping the edge of the table hard enough to turn the skin under his fingernails white.
“When is sunset?” Sam’s mom asked, loading Sam’s plate up with chicken and corn.
“Five minutes,” Sam muttered.
She turned to me. “Has Sam told you about his recent conversion?” There was something like humor in her eyes.
“Yeah, yeah, he has,” I said. “Ramadan.”
“We’ve placed bets on how long it will last,” Sam’s dad said.
“No we haven’t,” his mom said. “We’re supporting him. It’s different from what we’re used to, but he’s still giving glory to God, in his own way.”
“Is he?” Sam’s dad asked, and turned to Sam. “When was the last time you prayed to Mecca, Sam? Read any good passages in the Quran lately?”
“John,” Sam’s mom said, and slapped her husband’s arm. She laughed, but I could tell she was mad. “I think that everyone should be free to find their own faith.” She gave Sam, who hadn’t said anything or moved at all throughout the entire conversation, a blank, level look that I didn’t understand. “But we haven’t changed dinner time,” she said. “Not for heathen customs.” And she and Sam’s dad laughed.
After that, the conversation turned to the usual things: their kid, school, what classes I liked, what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told them I wanted to program video games and they nodded. “Sam wants to do the same thing,” Sam’s dad said, pointing at Sam with his fork.
Sam didn’t. He actually wanted to write fantasy novels, and had told me this over and over, but I knew that his parents didn’t approve of books with magic and demons in them, so I didn’t say anything.
Except for the weird bit right after grace, John and Christine were the sweetest people. I couldn’t imagine them as the stonehearted prohibitors Sam described. When his mom asked me where my family worshiped and I said, “We’re not religious, really,” she laughed—not in a mean way, in an “oh you” kind of way.
“You can come with us any time,” she said. “Any Sunday you want.”
After dinner, Sam’s dad said that Sam normally had to do the dishes, but since he had a friend over, they would make an exception tonight. Sam raced back up the stairs and fell into his beanbag. He pressed the power button on the remote with his toe and leaned back, staring at the ceiling. My beanbag was still molded to the shape of my body.
“Here, you play for a little bit,” he said, and handed me the controller.
He was quiet as I ground through a few battles with Ruby Weapon, losing every time. He only spoke once, to recommend that I switch out Yuffie for Tifa. “Tifa does more damage.”
After half an hour of silence, I started to think maybe he was mad at me.
“So,” I said, and looked over. “What’s up?”
“Why’re you so quiet?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
There was that tone again, that smarter-than-you, dismissive thing. “I have a theory about you and Ramadan,” I said.
I paused the game and leaned forward as best I could in my beanbag chair.
“I think you switched to Islam to piss off your parents.”
“What? Are you kidding me?”
“You did, didn’t you? It’s a rebellion thing. You got tired of them taking your Magic cards and making you go to church and stuff so you decided to, like, really show how different you are, like, fuck you, I’m becoming an Islam.”
“It’s Muslim, not ‘an Islam’, you moron, and no, I didn’t.”
“Dude, you don’t have to be a dick about it.”
“You don’t be a dick,” he snapped. It was the first time I’d heard him swear since Ramadan started. “You don’t understand. You can’t understand. There is no possible way you can understand. You’re like an amoeba trying to understand the Theory of Relativity. You can’t.”
I was surprised, and couldn’t think of anything to say. Sam settled back into his beanbag and didn’t talk to me for the rest of the evening. He was right, I didn’t understand, and I was too nervous now to ask him to explain. I thought I was right about his conversion, or at least half-right. Something about his parents, something about being a lonely kid who didn’t fit into the tidy cubby of his family, I don’t know. I wondered how Sam had managed to hide Final Fantasy VII, which was full of swearing and demons and magic, from his parents.
When my mom came to pick me up we stood in the entryway, next to the vase of dried flowers, and Sam’s mom gave me a little hug. She told me she wanted me to come over again soon. Sam’s dad shook my hand and said it had been wonderful to meet me. Sam, sitting on the top stair and frowning, only waved goodbye.
For my twenty-ninth birthday my dad wanted to cook me steaks on his new grill, so after work I drove north from Seattle, sweating in my car, creeping along the baking August interstate, to Kenmore. He had asked me to bring dessert. I stopped at the Safeway near our house to pick up ice cream and salted caramel sauce, which I knew my parents loved. Part of getting older, I found out when I realized I’d been eating the same oatmeal and drinking the same French press coffee for breakfast for the last four years, was allowing parts of your life to solidify into habit, and taking comfort in those habits. My parents were like that—retired now, they ate waffles on Saturday morning, went to brunch on Sunday. They still lived in the same house where I grew up, same eighties-fantastic orange tiles in the kitchen and bathrooms. Dessert was, invariably, ice cream and caramel sauce, so that’s what I was going to buy.
In the frozen desserts aisle, my sweat freezing on my back, I spotted a guy about my age, maybe a little older, a pudgy, short guy with reddish-brown hair and stubble. He wore cargo shorts and a Seattle Mariners tee shirt that draped halfway down his thighs. The guy looked a lot like Sam. A little boy hung around his knees, holding a fistful of the man’s shorts in one hand, carrying an electric-yellow T-Rex in the other.
Was it Sam? I hadn’t seen much of him since eighth grade. I only went over to his house that once, and after that we talked less on the bus. A year later his family moved to the next suburb over and he went to a different high school, so I lost track of him. Every once in a while, I would try to find him on Facebook, but he didn’t seem to have an account.
“Sam?” I said, and the man turned around.
“Oh hi, hey, how you doing?” he said. It was obvious he didn’t know who I was.
I said my name and he nodded, but he still looked at me blankly. “We went to junior high together,” I said. “Final Fantasy VII?”
That did it. He jerked back, as if remembering me was a kick to the chest, and his eyes opened wide. “Oh my gosh,” he said. “I can’t believe I didn’t recognize you!”
“It’s okay. I don’t look much like I did when I was a kid.” I was taller now, muscular from biking and Tai Chi, and I had shaved my head in a panic last year when I noticed my widow’s peak encroaching. “What have you been up to?” I asked. “Who’s this little guy?”
He introduced me to his son Haydn. “Two more at home, too,” he said.
“Lucy and John. Lucy’s four and John is nine months. Haydn, tell him how old you are.”
“I’m five,” the boy muttered.
“You’ve been busy,” I said. “What do you do now?”
“I’m a pastor.”
“Really,” I said. I thought about asking him what had happened with Ramadan, but I didn’t want to risk getting stuck in a half-hour conversation, some life-lesson-I-saw-the-light riff, with a guy I hadn’t seen in fifteen years. Besides, how much stuff you were into when you were fourteen carried over to adulthood? I had abandoned my epic Ramadan computer game, my reality-erasing masturbation movie idea, and so many other things—Sam had abandoned Islam. I said, “That’s so cool. Where at?”
He told me where his church was and asked about my life. I told him I was engaged. I was really into biking. I was a systems programmer for a video game company in Seattle. “That’s what you always wanted to do, wasn’t it?” he said. “That’s so great—you’re living the dream.”
“I guess I am,” I said. “It’s not quite as glamorous as I thought it would be when I was fourteen. But hey.”
“You’ll have to forgive me,” he said, “I haven’t played video games for years and years. What does your company make?”
We made one of the big titles, a multi-million-dollar franchise we had inherited from another, more talented studio, one that was published on all the major consoles and PC. Not an RPG, a first-person-shooter, all space marines and neon aliens and blood. When I told him he nodded. “Oh yes. All the kids at church love that one. I have to hear about it all the time.”
We looked at each other. He had to hear about it all the time? I was used to hearing that the fruits of my labor were a waste of time, but it seemed pretty hypocritical coming from Sam, even with those supposed “years and years” of not gaming. Or maybe it was a veiled moral rebuke. I tried to pull that thought up by the roots. I was a lifelong atheist, and had realized in college that I tended to assume all religious people had a nasty self-righteous streak.
My religious friends liked to point out that I was a hell of a lot more defensive and critical than they were, so I worked hard to correct that tendency. I told myself that Sam hadn’t meant to antagonize me, but I didn’t know how to react. I smiled. “Yeah, the kids love it,” I said.
“We’re keeping our house a gaming-free zone,” he said. “We figure the kids’ll play plenty at their friends’ houses.”
I stopped myself from asking why. I stopped myself from telling him about the dream I had in college, where I was standing on the Kenmore Junior High tennis court in my PE shirt that smelled like mildew and body odor, and the other side of the court was a wall of fire, and my opponent emerged from the flames—Sephiroth, the villain of Final Fantasy VII, holding not a racket but his massive katana—and I woke up wrapped in sweaty sheets. I didn’t tell him that six years ago I used him as the inspiration for the nerd character in my first published game, a little high school popularity simulator modeled after Japanese dating sims, an obscure genre I was obsessed with back then. I didn’t ask if the names Hironobu Sakaguchi and Nobuo Uematsu still meant anything to him. But I did want to. Part of me really, really did.
We said goodbye, then bumped into each other again at the checkout stand and walked to the parking lot together. We shook hands next to his RAV4, full of kids’ car seats and kids’ toys and kid crumbs, and he drove away.
My dad grilled us all steaks. My fiancée arrived and gave me my birthday present—three hundred bucks toward a new sound system for our living room—and I thanked her, but as she sat with my parents on the patio, telling them about cables and receivers and fidelity and all the research into sound equipment she had done, all I could think about was how strange it was that I had met Sam ten years before I met my fiancée and yet I knew her so much better. She was the bigger part of my life. There was a metaphor lurking somewhere in there; when I was a kid, I thought that knowing the surfaces of something meant you knew the whole thing. Final Fantasy VII trivia, who said what, religions and beliefs like neat little categories. Even now, almost at thirty, my life was full of facts and trivia: my future sound system’s watts and impedance, wedding planning, finances, how the people I used to know wound up spending their lives.
I excused myself to go to the bathroom and sat on the toilet seat cover, pants on, googling Sam on my phone. No Facebook. No internet presence. For some reason, that made me very sad. It was like a segment of my life had been cut out, the two ends stitched together, and I hadn’t realized it until now. I looked up when I heard my mom calling my name and saw the pattern in the wood grain on the bathroom door, the pattern that looked like a human face, which I had known my whole life, which was one of those little details that was a part of me. I slipped my foot out of my flip-flop and ran my big toe across the grout between the tiles.