11 April 2010
When my brother was in high school, I would wake up to the vibrations of his stereo, pushed up against the wall between our rooms, pounding up against the sheetrock. It would be about 6 a.m., and I couldn’t quite discern the lyrics at that hour, but I didn’t have to. I knew it would be Motley Crue’s Shout At the Devil, on regular rotation. His room was the opposite of my peach, lacy bubble, with its white, imitation-French dresser and mirror. He had a small collection of vinyl, but it had the essentials – Kiss - Detroyer, Police - Zenyattà Mondatta, Iron Maiden – Number of the Beast. This modest collection was pushed up against a glass cage holding a white rat, which I still can’t believe he got past my mother. The room smelled like boy, and rodents. The walls were still bright red, but he got rid of the Star Wars curtains and bedspread a few years back, the ones I loved to stare at while he read me Arnold Lobel. I was too old for read alouds, but I still liked marching in and flopping down on his bed. Now I just sat there, wearing his huge Police concert T-shirt, memorizing song lyrics and gawking at his weird, teenage boy-artifacts – a plastic skull that glowed in the dark, a collection of bandanas, a stolen traffic light – until he kicked me out. My new favorite activity was forcing him to look at my latest issue of YM, and to tell me which girls he thought were the prettiest. I found this beyond fascinating. The girls he picked never matched up with my choices, and the huge chasm between the male and female psyche grew ever-larger. I later aborted this mission, going back to reading Nancy Drew where the world made sense. I thought we had a good thing going until one day, he just up and moved into the basement. He was no longer a wall away, but in a whole grown-up apartment downstairs, now with a double bed, a better stereo system out of my listening range, and a separate entrance to get girls in. By now he had run away from home once, graduated high school, and been in a fist fight with my father. He was away more, and I was invited in less.
Then I found my in. My brother needed an opponent to play with him on his new Nintendo system, where he introduced me to Super Mario Bros. At first I was psyched just to be there, to get some spy time in the man-lair. I grew up with an Atari, and loved swinging on a vine over a pit of crocodiles just as much as the next kid on my block. But this was different. More and more often, my fingers would itch for the control, for that satisfying crunch of bricks, and the magical trill of notes as I expanded from a flickering rainbow flower. I could now speed through the secret passages to advanced worlds, and slide under twirling bars of fire with ease. I could even make it through those evil spiky cloud-things that followed you everywhere, like an annoying little sister. It was perfect timing for me to learn how to beat this thing. It was summertime, and I was past the age of playing outside all day with my pals. The boy who had been my best friend since birth, who lived right across the street, didn’t want to hang out with me much any more. Not even for wiffle ball. Wearing “sulky” became my new fashion statement. The perfect retreat was my brother’s dark, cool basement apartment, the best place to hide from the heat and my adolescent boredom. He worked all day for some auto-part cleaning company, and I had long, quiet days to myself. I spent way too much time down there that summer, just me against the dragon. I saved the princess dozens of times. Eventually my brother moved out, taking Super Mario with him, and I made my own claims on the basement. I threw my first boy-girl party. I had my first open-mouth kiss in its cool dark, and years later, was consciously bored during make-out sessions on the old couch my brother had left behind.
During a recent trip down into a grown-up pal’s man-lair, surrounded by Spider-man posters and action figures, my friend Victor stuck a NES controller in my hand. I have continually resisted his temptations, riding high on my preachy-horse about the mindless violence of video games. I spend my days trying to get kids to read and lecturing them to tear their eyes away from various blinking screens. He knew I had a few glasses of Shiraz, and a belly full of chicken wings. I was weak. He said, “You know you want to.” As soon as he started it up, I didn’t have to think about what was coming around each corner. I knew instinctively what blocks to bash, and how far back I would have to start running to leap safely over a gap in Mario-world. Victor and my husband were staring at me with their mouths half-open, as I plowed through the tunnels, bopping and slamming those little turtle things and using them as bowling balls against my enemies. The automatic movement of my fingers brought to my nose the smell of my old wet, basement, and I half expected my brother to reach over and give me the deadly “collar,” halfway through the game. My initial thought was that it is disturbing that there is room being taken up in my brain for the reserve of these game-playing reflexes, space that could very well be occupied by much more important information, or a more significant experience or lesson from my youth. I then realized, it was playing this game, feeling rejected by the various boys in my life, I first chucked aside my fashion magazine and saved a princess instead. Lesson learned. I strutted out of the basement after pulverizing my husband at the game. “That was hot,” he said.
By Megan Southard