When the Living is Easy

February 21, 2005

The following passage is from Chris White's forthcoming memoir of his youth, "Halcyon Days," to be published by Simon and Schuster in November 2012.

I’ll never forget that summer, when freedom and innocence mingled together night after humid night. For the children of the neighborhood, the rigid hierarchy of school-year cliques evaporated like so much dew on a lawn still uncut by the Mexicans who mother and father paid to do all of the yard work.

My closest companion in those months was Billy, who was one year my junior but a good foot inches taller. There was nothing we did not do together that season – Xbox, PlayStation2, and on occasion (as even children feel nostalgia) the old and battered Super Nintendo we had found forgotten in the corner of the crawlspace.

Like all boys that age, we were curious about girls for the first time, and we tried desperately to learn all we could, by playing “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.” One morning just after breakfast, as Billy was punching a hooker in the stomach, his mother overheard the noise and came in to investigate. In the way that only best friends can, we answered her at the same time, with the same words: “Back off, b***h!” We laughed to the point of tears, joining Billy’s mother, who often enjoyed moments so much that she skipped right over the laughter and went straight to the tears.

And of course, our curiosity over the fairer sex also took us beyond Billy’s living room. It is often said that no man forgets his first romance, and rightly so; even years later, the finest details of those magical days are etched into my mind like so many initials on a whiskey flask from “Things Remembered.” Her name was WetGurl256. We met on a sunny June day in a Tara Reid chat room, and within minutes we were conversing like old souls.

She was beautiful and athletic according to her instant messenger profile, with a deep passion for Dungeons and Dragons. I pursued her madly, but she would not grace me with even a picture until I had sent my own along – and what’s more, she insisted that the photo be shirtless. Such demands seem foolish as we look back upon them, but in the gleeful naiveté of the hour, I was happy to comply, and shortly thereafter she demanded that we meet alone at a loading dock or abandoned parking lot in two days, as she would need that time to drive her van up from Houston. I was not to tell my parents.

But my mother was the only one who could transport me to a suitable location. And like all mothers, she always saw her son as a child, and forbade me from meeting my beloved. WetGurl was furious and refused to answer my messages – first turning on her AutoResponder, then simply blocking my screen name altogether. There have been many similar romances since then – gleeful, painful – but those 36 hours will always anchor my heart in that amazing season.

Of course, romance is not first in a boy’s heart when summer arrives. The best hours of every day were spent in furious competitions involving the entire neighborhood. Captains were named, teams were picked, and the fierce pick-up games were played from dawn to well after dusk. The local superstar was Steven Traduski, who despite his 250-pound frame could play almost any game well – FIFA Soccer, Madden Football, the entire EA Sports series – and astonish us by consuming an entire package of Oreos before any game was half over.

Steven’s only true competition was Stan Johnston, who when he did not take his medication had a twitchiness and energy about him that made his button-pressing skills formidable. Their battles became a part of neighborhood lore. One steamy July night, Betsy Paterno, the most popular and beautiful girl in the neighborhood (and the secret crush of Billy), hosted a pool party; hardly an unusual summer event, but for Betsy’s daring insistence that all girls in attendance wear bikinis (she had seen a similar party on a WB teen drama). The street was flushed with excitement in the weeks before the party; our youthful imaginations running wild with speculation. But I remember that we all skipped that party to watch Stan and Steven fight through 37 innings of PlayStation2 baseball before calling it a draw. When our trance-like focus was broken, we shook off our dismay over missing the party by watching Stan and Steven play Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball, with jiggle mode turned on, for five hours.

Not all our days were spent indoors, however. Many days were spent at the swimming hole, relaxing in the shade of the old elm trees, as the GameBoy Advance is backlit and does not require direct sunlight in order to see the screen. Which was an excellent feature, because sunlight hurts my eyes immensely.

Truly, I’ll never forget the magical summer when I was 23.

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One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2013, Chris White