I’m with Angelle on the way to the only used game store left in Metairie when a chalkboard sign in front of a bar catches my eye. Someone’s written on it in pink and blue chalk “Bring Our Rooster Back — Reward.”
“Did you see that?” I ask her.
“See what?” she asks. I tell her about the sign and she laughs.
“That’s a story I’ll never know,” I say.
I started a game of Dragon Warrior III on New Year’s Day 2011 and a game of Dragon Warrior on New Year’s Day 2012. We’re going to this store to see if they have a copy of either Dragon Warrior II or IV. It’s actually a LAN center that shares a parking lot with a daiquiri shop. The lot is packed with cars to where we have to drive to the very back to find the last open spot.
“I guess everyone’s watching the football game at the daiquiri shop or something,” Angelle says.
“This oughta be a fun place to drive through once it’s over,” I say.
It was a logical assumption to make, and dead wrong too. The daiquiri shop wishes it got this kind of business. The LAN center is full of spectators commenting and loud gamers pounding on mouse buttons, every one of the dozens of seats filled, standing room only. “Take the base! Take the base! Take it!” a guy is barking into his bulky headset. “I’ll make a man out of you!” sing four guys standing behind a blond kid frantically tapping keys. I recognize it from Mulan. “Here’s the plan,” a twenty-something starts cooing coolly in a velvet voice on his headset, somehow audible through the din, sounding like he belongs on a top 40 station. The whole room’s alive. I feel like I’ve left Metairie for a while and stepped into the same specific space from the first time I saw an arcade when I was very young, the first rock club I ever wandered into, the first bar I ever snuck into with my friends. I enjoy it while it lasts.
Finally I remember why we came here, so I go to look at the NES game selection. They don’t have either game, so the tradition ends here. I can’t say I’m too disappointed because II is a frustrating drag to play through and IV would have been very expensive.
A couple of days earlier I’m talking to Greg, a friend of mine that I haven’t spoken to in a long time. We catch up on what the other’s been up to and then out of nowhere he says “The year’s finally coming to an end soon.” He sounds almost anxious about it.
“It sure is,” I say because I can’t think of any other way to reply to that. I guess I could have said “No it’s not!” Maybe if I ever have this conversation again I will, just to see what happens next.
“I just wish it would come sooner,” he groans. “Ugh, three more days of 2012.”
People who are relieved when a year ends are always relieved every time a year ends. The predictability doesn’t bother me so much as the kind of mindset it implies. It’s not the year’s fault after all. The date the year begins isn’t some universal law like gravity, just a day agreed on by a handful of people over a thousand years ago. Really, January 1st just kind of sits there in the middle of winter. Spring equinox makes more sense from a metaphorical and even an orbital basis for a Northern Hemisphere-dictated beginning. In a parallel universe where that’s the case, I bet he wouldn’t have started this conversation for another three months.
I tell him this.
“Equinox isn’t the same day every year though,” he says.
“It’s a range of three dates,” I say. “Make it the second one.”
“Ok, so the year starts in the middle of March now. Not a very pleasing aesthetic.”
I think about this. He’s right. “So we make March 20th into January 1st.”
“That makes sense,” he says. “How many days is that?”
“From our January 1st to your January 1st?”
“What makes it *my* January 1st all of a sudden?”
“Well it’s your idea, isn’t it?”
“If I were talking to myself, yeah. You just said it made sense, so ‘my’ January 1st is actually ‘our’ January 1st.”
“Well what do we call the other January 1st then?”
“‘Their’ January 1st.”
He liked this. “Ok, so how many days?”
“30 days hath September…” I start. There’s got to be a quicker mnemonic or something for the number of days in a month, because it always feels like it takes forever to get to the end when I go through it. “79 or 80,” I say after a moment.
“Ah, because of the leap year.”
“Which would now come…in the middle of December.”
“Would it have to though?”
“No, I guess we could just stick it anywhere at this point.”
“Why not the end of the year?”
“December 32? Think of all the hard 31 limits that would need to be recoded on websites and in software. Those poor programmers.”
We thought about this a lot longer than we should have.
“November,” I said. “November always felt like it should be a 31 month.”
“You know, yeah. It’s more robust than a 30 month somehow.”
“November 31st is our leap day.”
We spend a few minutes figuring out what our new birthdays are. Mine becomes February 23rd. I suddenly remember that I was friends with a girl a long time ago whose birthday was February 23rd and it nearly knocks me over because I realize I’ve had no memory of her whatsoever for years and years until this coincidence of thought brought weeks of experiences flooding back.
There’s this girl with long dyed black hair hanging out with my friend Chris when I go to meet him at Pepper’s. I hadn’t seen Chris since we’d lived in the same dorm building two semesters ago. The last time we hung out, he had walked in on me while I was pissing in the bathroom. Instead of the standard “Oh oh, sorry man,” he just stood there and stared at me. I stared back at him and then delivered the best one liner I’ll ever come up with: “Window shopping or just sightseeing?” Chris turned and sort of half ran out of the bathroom. Marcus and Louis exploded with laughter in the other room.
“Let me get you an icepack,” Marcus heaved between laughs.
“I don’t need an icepack,” Chris snapped. He was beyond flustered.
“It’s the only way we’ll stop that blushing,” Louis cackled, adding “Window Shopper.”
“Don’t call me that!”
One year later, Chris waves at me with a big smile on his face, getting up out of the booth to greet me. He looks exactly the same as he did a year ago. I decide not to bring up the bathroom thing. Yet.
“I’d like you to meet a friend of mine,” he says, gesturing toward the girl.
“I’m Alissa,” she says.
“I know,” I say, sitting in the booth. “I’m Jak.”
“You know? How did you know?”
“That crazy thing a year ago that we met at.”
“We did? What crazy thing?”
“You don’t remember?”
“No, refresh my memory.”
“Oh yeah, that’s right. It was a pretty wild time, so bear with me. I’ll try to get the story right.”
She sits up straighter in her chair. “This I’ve got to hear.”
I come up with this absolutely stupid story. I don’t remember most of the details anymore. Swimming pools full of alcohol and Rolls Royce demolition derbies. I think Billy Joel showed up for some reason, probably because “Piano Man” was on the jukebox at the time. At one point we all ended up at the White House. We got the key to the city of Thibodaux. Aliens showed up. That kind of dumb story. It all ended in a disaster, because that’s the only way I knew how to end a story back then. Something the aliens did, I’m sure. Everyone that didn’t get amnesia from their head injuries agreed to be sworn to secrecy since the government considered the existence of the aliens classified. I remember that I ended it with “To this day, if you talk to anyone involved, from Bush to the mayor of Thibodaux to the guy in the gorilla suit, they’ll act like they have no idea what you’re talking about.” Somehow she was still listening.
“Then why are you telling me? Won’t you get in trouble?”
“It’s all right because you were there. Don’t tell anyone else, now.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t dare.”
“I can’t believe I did,” I say. Chris keeps nudging me under the table and grinning and winking at me. He’s really very bad at subtlety. Alissa notices and gives him a sour look. I say “Did Chris ever tell you why we call him Window Shopper?”
He frowns. “Aw, c’mon man.”
“He didn’t, and you’re going to,” she says, completely intrigued.
“I, just, ugh,” Chris stammers. “I don’t have to sit through it.” He gets up and walks outside to smoke a few cigarettes, anything to not relive that. It really bothered him! He didn’t come back in for another forty-five minutes after I finish the story, so Alissa and I keep talking. At one point she mentions that she had always wanted to be a pilot.
“Like for an airline?” I ask her.
A look of shock crosses her face, like she blurted out a secret no one was supposed to know. “Ugh, never mind, no, no, no no no nonono.” She sounded out the “no”s like a marble dropping.
At first I thought I had said something dumb. “Then what, like a test pilot?”
“Seriously, forget I ever said anything about it.” I realize that for some reason this was extremely embarrassing to her.
I spend the next minute trying to think of something else to talk about. Only aviation exists in the entire universe for this minute. I keep my mouth shut.
She breaks the silence with “My dad always told me it was a stupid idea.” I figure that’s about the moment our friendship really began.
“Well, me flying.”
“Why would he say that?”
“I don’t know. He never said why. Just that it was. And he was very adamant about that.”
“Yeah.” She says it like she’d never considered that as a possibility. “I guess he was a strange guy.”
“‘Was’. Is he still alive?”
“Oh. Yeah, I haven’t talked to him for five years now.”
“Does it still matter what he thinks?”
She stares ahead for a moment. “Hm,” she hums. “No, I guess it wouldn’t.” Of course it wasn’t so simple as that. And of course it really was too. We got to be pretty close friends for a while after that.
A few days later I met her roommate Don. They had been best friends since elementary school. He had this great easygoing personality and found humor in everything. He was also a curiosity in Thibodaux, a giant 6’5″ gay man easily more than 400 pounds. He had a knack for hooking up with the worst people in the world. The one who beat him up with a baseball bat. The one who stole his car at gunpoint after breakfast. The one who tried to drug Alissa at a party. The one who was selling crack from the house they used to rent and tried to blame Don when the police raided it. Those were the big four; most of the rest of them just ended up stealing things. We came back from lunch with him one day to find their apartment door open. “Well, it happened again,” he said in the way anyone else would say “Ah, the mail came.” This one had stolen the television, his vintage record player and the toaster. The toaster. “The TV, the turntable and the toaster,” Don said, giggling. “I have to appreciate the alliteration.” Then he sighed. It’s the sort of sigh I shouldn’t have been able to ever forget. It was an aural diamond of concentrated sentiment, one wordless syllable that spoke paragraphs of resignation clearly and without context. It’s been years and years since I’ve thought of it and even longer since I heard it, and it still breaks my heart a little even just to remember it. I couldn’t recreate it if I tried. I wouldn’t want to.
The apartment lease was in Alissa’s name and she was torn about telling Don to find another place to live.
“I couldn’t,” she would convince herself. “He’s always been there for me, so I have to be there for him. He’d end up living with people like that and really get hurt or in trouble. He’s the worst judge of character in the world.”
“I have to,” she would convince herself. “I can’t keep coming home to an open front door. One of these days he’s going to bring someone here that’s going to kill us. I have to look out for myself at some point. He’s the worst judge of character in the world.”
Most of our time as friends wasn’t consumed with these issues. Like Greg’s 2012 though, difficulty sticks out more in memory.
The last time I talked to her was in an email. I’d moved from one friend’s place to another’s and decided I wanted to stay in town permanently, so I had started looking for a job. I was going back to New Orleans periodically to work with my friend’s company and play shows for cash to sustain me while I looked for something steadier in Thibodaux. She had emailed me after I hadn’t been in touch with her for a month or so, just asking what I’ve been up to and if I had any new music she could hear. I told her I’d been really busy and that I’d catch up with her “real soon”. I attached a couple of MP3s of songs I was working on. I figure that’s about the moment our friendship really ended.
She emailed me back a few hours later, though I didn’t check it until the next week. She had spent her own actual real time listening to my songs and then writing out what she liked about them. I don’t remember what her email said anymore; instead, I remember that I was wearing a pair of blue jeans and a maroon t-shirt, with my tan button down shirt draped over the computer chair. I remember that I was eating an orange popsicle. I remember that later that night I got drunk with Rob and Ben and Brennan in the same booth at Pepper’s where I’d first met her. I remember not replying and letting this friendship slip away because I felt like she was part of the life I had before I’d made this latest plan. Anything involved with that life could wait until this life was in place. It’s the kind of wrong thought that’s only obviously wrong after it’s all over.
Up to this point, talking to Greg, years after “real soon”, I’d forgotten everything about Alissa and her universe, which I guess is fitting for a friendship that started with a story about amnesia. I wondered what else I might have forgotten. I wonder what I’m doing now that I might forget. It happens, I know that. Everyone who’s lived enough to regret something knows that. Forgetting human beings still seems wrong somehow.
Alissa. Don. Bring Our Rooster Back — Reward.
“Anyway,” I say, “the point is that you wouldn’t be anticipating the new year like this right now if it were three months away.”
“Well, obviously,” Greg says. “So?”
“So it seems awfully limiting to label the next three days as being part of a ‘bad’ year knowing how arbitrary it is, doesn’t it? Why wait to change your outlook?”
“Hm,” he hums. “That makes sense.” And in this case, of course it really is as simple as that.