The four of us became close in that way intelligent, exiled boys, who are intelligent enough to know they are exiled, become. It wasn’t hard for us to inhabit Alan’s World – we’d already been driven out of our own. We chose to be immigrants to try to forget that we were emigrants.
At school, we were the losers. I think it’s safe now to say that. With Alan and James, it being the suburbs in the 1980’s, you can be pretty sure it was their race. I guess the best thing you can say about the small town where we grew up is it didn’t discriminate any more against James for being black than it did Alan for being Chinese.
Even Drew, who was cool by every metric we then understood, was somehow an outsider. The high school hegemony sniffed out something different about him, although it wasn’t quite sure what it was, and he was displaced to our gaming group. Unlike James, who always wore clothes from the Goodwill that were in style a few years before, Drew always had the coolest clothes. Unlike me, he had no acne but smooth, boy band looks. Unlike any of us, he was athletic, and played on the soccer team that almost won conference. But he never quite fit in with the jocks or any of the other circles.
As for me, I had no social skills, and I liked reading and writing stories – a classic honors-classes nerd. I was also doomed to loneliness by an awkward tendency to get eager boners around pretty girls.
Well, any girls.
In the summers of our childhoods, Alan and I had been inseparable. Daily walks to go fishing or to swing at a baseball in the park. But the summer that Alan created his World, he disappeared from the block. He was busy sculpting the continents, molding the mountains. He fashioned beasts. When his mom thought he was practicing piano, he was actually creating the trolls and ogres, the yagas and muchus, the lazza and the crepin. He made the dragons, and he hid them deep beneath the earth. That is where monsters belong.
Finally, he peopled it. Families and generations, unique cultures coming to the fore and fading away, leaving ancient stone traces, weathered smooth by years. Borders were drawn and redrawn, then drawn again, shifting in time lapse, rising and receding like a forgotten tide.
For a group of fourteen-year-old boys, for two years, Alan’s World was where we lived.
Keeping the secret was hard. We never referred to the game by name – it would have been certain death by humiliation if the wrong people got wind of it at school. So we called our after-school gaming “practices” or “sessions” to throw people off the scent. I kept my character sheets in a folder with E-N-G-L-I-S-H printed in bold letters across the top.
Alan was wound tight. He almost seemed to buzz, as though under that awkward exterior – a thin-limbed, near-sighted Asian boy – something larger was struggling to emerge. He was quiet in the classes we had together. He only spoke if the teacher called on him. But he was smart. It made his home life more confusing to us. We weren’t sure why, despite all his grades and accomplishments, no one, not even Alan, was ever satisfied.
We played in Alan’s basement. His dad would come home when we were in the middle of a game; we’d hear the churn of the garage door and the weary footsteps above, and we’d know that we only had fifteen minutes before his mom opened the basement door, letting in that sweet exotic smell of dinner cooking, and yelled down something in Chinese.
Then Alan would carefully fold his screen and cover his materials, closing the Blue Binder on top of the maps and charts he kept back there. We’d pack our dice into little velvet bags and our character sheets into folders and get on our bikes, or if it was winter, we’d call home for rides and then wait.
The basement was our sanctuary. Alan’s parents might glare at us with pointed indifference when we walked past them to the stairs; they might stomp around above us to make their dissatisfaction known, but for some reason, they never came into the basement.
Alan’s World consumed us. It was like living in the best book you’ve ever read, or being a character in your favorite movie. It was a reality, one separate from but no more abstract than the absurdity of high school. And unlike school, it was a reality where what we said and felt and did mattered.
When we slept, we dreamt of Alan’s World.
But by our senior year, we began to drift. Drew started hanging out with the theater kids, even got a part as the village butcher when the school put on Fiddler on the Roof. James had to get a job after school and help out around home with his little sisters. I got caught up in the college search – all the tests, sweating over applications on my mom’s electric typewriter.
Alan fell in with the alternative band clique, spent his weekends in loud basements and underground shows. He bragged up his knowledge of bands that we had never heard of and, honestly, didn’t care about. He started smoking at school, cutting class out in the softball dugouts with some of the long-haired, flannel-wearing types. We heard he even smoked a little weed.
Alan and I still talked on the phone occasionally, but increasingly it was like talking to a stranger. When we saw each other in the halls, we’d exchange awkward looks, uncertain if our memories together were adult nostalgia or childhood embarrassment. We never spoke about it. A thin layer of dust formed in my closet atop my E-N-G-L-I-S-H folder.
The last time I talked to Alan was during our freshman year in college. I’d gone downstate to the state university megaschool, but he’d gotten into a small, elite school in the city. We were about three hours apart on the map, the farthest we had ever been.
His parents were paying for school. They thought he was doing pre-med. But without telling them, he’d dropped most of his science classes. I like to think they would have been too easy for him, anyway.
Instead, he signed up for classes at the Art Institute. Art and photography. He used public transportation to get there – a skinny Chinese kid with a sketchbook on the El, going through the wrong parts of the city.
“What are you going to do when they find out?” I asked him. The receiver crackled. “Aren’t they going to stop paying for school?”
“They won’t find out,” he said, hope and resignation intermixed in his voice. “By the time they know, they’ll have come around.”
It was early November and outside the window the landscape had retreated from green to brown, a pallet reduced tenfold. Alan began to describe a Halloween party he’d been to. He’d started experimenting with drugs earlier in the year. In high school, it didn’t seem like a big deal. But in college he’d moved to more serious stuff.
On the phone, he told me a story about a conversation with a hand dryer he’d had while high in a bathroom. His voice quickened, the words spilling on top of each other. I’d never heard him like that. It sounded like he wanted me to understand something, like he wanted something from me, but neither of us quite knew what.
“I freaked out and started running around. Like I was looking for someone even though I knew no one was in there. Does that make sense? I started running in this tiny bathroom, and I remember the sweat just pouring off me and my head feeling hot and then bang! I woke up the next day under the hand dryer, dried blood in my hair and a big lump on my head. I must have run into it.”
I wasn’t sure if he’d gotten to a punchline or the end of an anecdote or a plea for help. I laughed a little and he was quiet. I felt like he was waiting for me, but I didn’t know how to react.
So I just kept talking about life on my campus, my classes, the story I was writing. The girls. By the end of the conversation, the air had been let out. It was impossible not to notice it, though neither of us mentioned it. When we hung up, I felt like somehow I’d let him down. That was the last time we talked.
Sophomore year of college an envelope came from him. No return address, but I knew the handwriting from a thousand maps and character sheets. When I opened it, half a dozen black and white photographs spilled out. Taken mostly on the beach, Lake Michigan thundering in majestic, autumnal whitecaps, the skyline grayed in relief. A big rock scrawled with illegible graffiti. A row of seagulls on a rotting pier. The timeless glow of neon from a nearby tavern, the El tracks overhead. A love poem etched in the sand, vanishing in the rising surf.
Years afterward I was flip-skimming screens on my iPhone at an airport Starbucks when someone tapped me on the shoulder. Despite the gray stubble sandpapering his face, I recognized Drew. Same hair, same golden smile, only creased more deeply. Still fit. He introduced me to his husband, Grant.
Drew asked what I’d been up to, where I was flying to. One of my company’s orders had been screwed up in shipping, I told him, the pieces were packed wrong by us, arrived damaged at our dealer in Canada, and I was on my way to the dealer to see what, if anything, could be salvaged – including, I hoped, the relationship with the dealer.
“Marketing,” said Drew. “That makes sense for you. The stories you used to write, I mean.”
Drew and Grant were on vacation. On their way to Ireland.
“Still exploring new realms,” Drew said, flashing the smile.
They paid for my coffee.
“You ever hear from any of them?” asked Drew. “The others?”
“Not in years,” I said.
“I caught up with James not too long ago. Married now. Five kids.”
“Five?” I whistled. “My god. What does he do?”
“Mechanic of some kind. Works on construction equipment – hydraulics, engines. Union job.”
“Good for him. Who would have thought.”
We sipped our coffees.
“Nothing from Alan?” he said at last.
“No. Not in years. College.”
“Me either. I wonder why,” he said. “Why do you fall out of touch with some people?”
But all I could do to answer that, even after decades of deliberation, was shake my head.
“I guess it happens to everyone. Eventually. We all end up separate, in those other places,” said Drew. “I bet we could track him down with Facebook or Google or something.”
“Maybe,” I said, suspecting that, like me, Drew had already tried.
“I’ve always thought I should have contacted his parents. Would they remember us?” he asked.
“I think they would.”
“Would they talk to us?”
That I didn’t know. I didn’t know if they knew what happened to him, or why. I was quite sure they wouldn’t understand it any better than we did.
“We should call them,” he said, “I’ve still got that number memorized. If they’re still in that house. We should call them.”
I nodded and shook his hand, confident that neither of us ever would.
Drew and Grant were late and their gate was boarding, so we traded phone numbers. Now my wife and I get together with them occasionally for dinner. We’ve invited James and his wife, too, but they always have an excuse. Five kids, other places. I don’t know.
After dinner we pull old board games out of the closet – simple ones, not designed to tax your exhausted mind after work or to tease your imagination awake. We roll the dice and march the colored plastic pieces down the narrow track, racing to the prescribed endpoint. We play the games and finish a couple bottles of wine and laugh long into the night, satisfied with postponing for a few hours the inevitability of tomorrow.