Chapter 2 of SWIFTSAILS.
By the time I finally wake up, the bright noon sun is already pouring its steadfast rays right through the window above my desk. Even though I am still exhausted and right on the verge of falling back asleep, I already know that there is no way I will be getting any quality rest with how bright it is in the room. After all, this is the one bedroom in this house with its windows facing to the south-east. That alongside the pale white curtains which barely filter any of the incoming light made it so that while growing up I was almost always out of bed before anyone else in the house.
But these days, lethargy overtakes that rather enviable biological clock from my younger days, and I often find myself in the situation of trying to sleep in a well-illumined room after a long night of browsing message boards and watching illegal anime streams. Of course, laziness produces some stunning contradictions for anyone who bothers to consider the circumstances. If I wanted to fully immerse myself in the endless loop of computer-eat-sleep, I could just fix my sleep schedule and make each of these activities far more enjoyable. If I insisted upon sleeping during the day—maybe to make sure I always catch the latest episodes right after they air on the other side of the world—I could just move my sleeping quarters into one of the many other rooms available in this house, all facing away from the sun and fully equipped with curtains. And even then, if I just had to sleep in this particular room for whatever reason—whether out of nostalgia or out of habit—I could just take the curtains from one of the other rooms and place them in this one instead. Hell, I could even take the curtains from all of the rooms and stack them together to make sure not a single stray beam slips into my room during my daytime napping.
Alas, the tragicomedy of an unemployed bachelor’s pathetic life.
My train of thought quickly derails as I become more and more distracted by the hard, flat object under my spine. Sliding my arm behind my back to fish it out, I unlock the smartphone lock using my thumbprint before my hand even emerges from under the covers.
12:37PM. I got back home just a few minutes before sunrise, meaning I slept for around six hours. Of course, that would be if I fell asleep immediately.
Speaking of which…how the hell did I fall asleep after realizing that some rich stranger knew where I lived off the top of her head?
Maybe I fried the wiring in my brain after trying to figure out whether it was because of research she did for fun (as part of her hobby of screwing with random commoners on the street) or because of instructions from her boss as part of their plans of tracking down their Moby Dick. That would make a lot of sense, now that I consider it. Somehow, sleep comes most naturally when your mind is racing too fast to realize that you should be sleeping.
Sitting up in my bed on this fine morning—er, afternoon—I decide that I will stop assuming the worst of that driver from yesterday.
Ishmael was nice to me. That’s all that matters. At this point in my life, I don’t care if it’s out of ulterior motives or pity or condescension that someone graces me with their kindness. For someone like me, who spends most of his days sitting alone in his room unless Riley drags him outside, pleasantries from strangers are always wonderful blessings in a world full of evil and suffering.
In any case, Ishmael has no reason to ever remember my existence again. To her, I will probably just be one more background character in her long wonderful life, just as she will one day become for me.
But even though this is most natural of interpersonal relationships, I am deeply saddened by the fleeting nature of human connection.
Well, moping about the immutable traits of reality won’t do anything. Time to get up.
I pull myself out of bed and get myself dressed with one hand while using my phone with the other. Of course, it is terribly inefficient to do it this way, but these days efficiency is not exactly on the top of my list of priorities. Putting on the same dress shirt from this morning while scrolling through some news headlines; pulling on a pair of old shorts I found on my chair while glancing through my spam-ridden email inbox; rubbing on some deodorant and fixing up my bedhead while playing some crappy budget match-three game. In the end, it probably took at least ten minutes just to do a basic dressing job that should have taken less than one or two minutes.
While rubbing out the sleep—and the gunk—from my barely-open eyes, I stumble out of my room and make my way down the stairs to get my usually-morning routine out of the way before he shows up—
“Well, look who we have here.”
Riley is sitting at my dinner table with his laptop, class notes, and textbooks strewn around as if he owns the place. Among the mess on the table is a cardboard coffee tray with three cups in it. Just in case, I stride right over and pick up the tray in case one of them is for me.
Nope, both empty. Should have expected nothing less from a caffeine-dependent university student.
“Dude, you look terrible. Ditto for smell.”
“I literally just woke up. Aren’t you here way too early today?”
“Didn’t I already say the other day that exams are happening this week? I’m gonna crash here earlier than usual.”
“When did you even show up today?”
“At around ten?”
“Damn. You’ve never been here before two before.”
“Well, today is just the first time, babe. They say the second time hurts a bit less.”
Not wanting to acknowledge that disturbing innuendo, I immediately move the conversation forward.
“It would be nice if you asked for permission before using my place as your hangout spot.”
“I mean, don’t I basically live here if I have this?”
Riley waves the door key I gave him who-knows-how-long ago with a confident, unashamed grin. I reach for it and try to swipe it out of his hand, but he quickly pockets it again.
“I regret ever thinking that I could trust you with that key.”
“Come on, bruh. You know me. Besides, when was the last time I ever caused you trouble?”
“What about that time you brought that one girl over here and she puked on my sofa?”
“Hey man, leave the past in the past. I don’t even think I remember her name anymore.”
“What a gentleman.”
I wander over to the fridge and crack open the door to see what there is to eat. It seems that the menu for today consists of a carton of spoiled milk, the stalk of a head of broccoli I ate three weeks ago, a few ketchup packets that I grabbed the last time I went for burgers, and half of a chicken salad sandwich that I couldn’t finish the other day and probably never will. Food fit for a king. I close the door, slightly glad that I am a simple peasant.
Riley watches me and shakes his head.
“You are basically never busy. Why can’t you just do the groceries yourself from time to time?”
“It’s because you’re supposed to do them for me, like we agreed back then. I didn’t give you those keys for nothing.”
“Yo. Stress. You know how heavy your shopping list is?”
“Maybe you should have thought of that before entering a deal I intend on holding you to.”
“Okay, fine. I’ll run to the store tomorrow morning or something.”
“Don’t you have an exam at that time? And another one later in the afternoon?”
“…Oh, yeah. You’re right. Tomorrow evening, then.”
I roll my eyes, but not at him. I’m a bit disappointed in myself that I involve myself so much in the life of others that I know the time of their exams better than they themselves do. Guess that’s to be expected of a stay-at-home bum like me.
Riley puts down the empty cup of coffee that he is pouring aimlessly into his mouth to taste those last bitter drops. He leans forward in his chair and gives me an excited expression.
“Let’s go out for lunch today. My treat.”
“What, are we going to grab dollar menu items from the burger joint?”
“Nope. We’re going to a restaurant.”
I do a double take at the unexpected proposition. After all…
“…When was the last time we went out together to a restaurant, again?”
Riley hems and haws for a bit before giving a straight reply:
“Sometime before you became a disgraceful NEET.”
“Glad to know that’s how you think of me.”
“Hey, buddy, true friendship is accepting someone for who he is. Even if he’s a degenerate.”
Riley chuckles as he brings his focus back to the screen of his laptop. I sit across from him at the kitchen table and flip through his meticulously written course notes. Riley’s beautiful, flowing handwriting would better match the work of an inspired poet rather than the lecture summaries from his engineering classes.
“I feel like these equations have fewer and fewer numbers in them with each day that goes by.”
Riley exhales deeply and shakes his head.
“It’s torture, man. How about you just write my exams for me?”
“Sure, if you’re fine with failing your final semester.”
“But seriously, dude. If I just gave you all of this, how long do you think it would take for you to learn it all?”
I take a closer look at the materials from his courses, skim through the stack of past exams piled up amid the mess, and give an honest guess:
“A month or so, maybe?”
“Would that to be to actually understand it or just to get a good mark?”
“I don’t think I’ve actually understood math since freshman year of high school, so take a guess.”
Riley apparently really takes after his father Conari when it comes to studying. Mom always told me about how back in high school, she really admired Conari’s dedication to school beyond just getting good grades. From how she described it, it was like his life mission was to understand all of life’s mysteries inside and out, with getting good grades as just simple validation of the fruits of his journey.
Meanwhile, all throughout my school years, I’ve just figured out the best way to score a high mark without needing to really understand any of the course material. Whether through rote memorization while riding home from school on the bus, learning the format for multiple choice tests inside and out for a particular class, or sticking right to the marking rubric when writing an essay, I managed to get through high school with acceptable marks without really needing to take in any of the knowledge necessary.
You could say that in a sense I am a good-for-nothing pragmatist. I’m perhaps the embodiment of the failure of metric-driven academic assessment: good grades, horrible student. Or maybe I’m a “model student”, if the point of school is seen as getting as many three-digit grades or two-digit grades beginning with a 9 as possible. After all, given that most of the students at my high school were more concerned with hustling teachers for marks than with really “getting” calculus, I should technically be the epitome of results-based education.
Of course, I found all of that stuff pointless. If the law didn’t prevent me from quitting school before the age of eighteen, I would have done so in sophomore year without any hesitation. But instead, I crammed away all the way until graduation day, then immediately shut myself in at home while all of my friends—and a certain former friend—went off to university.
Riley was always jealous of how little I studied in high school, even though he always pulled slightly higher grades than I did. So, I think he feels like I’m wasting my potential by doing odd jobs around town and selling essays online.
Although to be fair, it’s not like he’s the only one who thinks so. Moreover, he’s the only one from who hasn’t changed his attitude towards me ever since I became a NEET. In other words, he’s a true friend. Good thing too, because that’s the one thing keeping me from calling the cops to drag him out of my house when he’s babbling about his “game”.
Riley reaches over the screen of his laptop and plucks the mock exams out of my hands. Then, closing the lid of the computer and placing the exams on top, he makes a triumphant proclamation:
“We’re going now. To Royal Feast.”
“You want to eat at a buffet? An expensive one?”
“Hey, hey, I’m paying. Don’t sweat the details.”
“Are you sure Uncle Canary would be okay with you wasting money like this?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll just write it off as an expense for the aerospace club.”
“…Are you sure that’s okay? Doesn’t that count as embezzlement?”
“Don’t sweat the details, man. Our club has all the money it’ll ever need. Besides, you’re always cooking dinner for me, so just consider this payback for a few favors.”
“You’re right. Three years of cooking for a picky eater deserves at least a buffet or two.”
“Shut up. If you’re gonna stay home all day, at least learn to cook like a good housewife.”
“I’m telling Aunt Liz you said that.”
We look at each other with serious, blank faces before bursting out laughing.
This feels really good. I’m lucky to have him around.
A pang of guilt hits me when I remember that I still haven’t told him about last night.
Just as I summon the resolve to start that conversation with him, he stands up and pushes me back towards the stairs.
“Before we go, take a shower and change your outfit into something more presentable. Don’t ruin my lunch for me.”
“Damn, does this ever taste good.”
Riley’s plate looks like a war zone. Imitated fine cuisine from all over the world fights a border conflict on this plate, where the sauces and seasonings from one section freely flow into and overtake the food sitting in another. By trying to take a bit of everything, Riley has created a multi-colored goop that I am getting a little sick just from looking at.
I force myself to stare down at my half-eaten slice of pepperoni pizza instead of killing my own appetite with my curiosity. Although, Riley’s loud eating sounds are detailed enough to give away almost everything about what’s entering his mouth. The succession of chewy beef, creamy potato soup, and crunchy vegetables might not be so nauseating if I wasn’t fully aware that they were bordered by the nations of Calamari, Pig Liver, and Caviar.
“Don’t tell me you’ve brought girls here on dates with you before.”
Riley stops slurping for just long enough to give me a reply:
“Don’t tell me you’re the jealous type.”
“Trust me, even if I were, I would feel pretty secure if this were your first pick for a date with your mistress.”
Riley laughs and in the process inadvertently spits some of the residue from the messy mélange right onto my forehead. I try to stay calm as I reach over to the small stack of dinner towels that the waiter left there shortly after seeing the disaster unfolding at our table. I gingerly wipe off his spit as he stares right into my soul with his food-comatose eyes.
“I would never cheat on the one person I would ever bring here with me.”
“I’m flattered. By the way, we’re breaking up.”
“Only if you’re footing the bill.”
“This is quite the abusive relationship we’ve got here.”
Between our banter and my bit-more-than-slight horror at Riley’s disconcerting eating habits being utterly unchanged even while out in public, I’ve barely gotten through my second plate of food. Meanwhile, he’s been back into the food line at least four times now—maybe five? I can’t even remember anymore, since the waiter has been so diligent with removing Riley’s dirty dishes every time he finishes scraping his magical potion off of it.
“But seriously, Riley. I thought you only eat like that at my place because Aunt Liz isn’t around to nag you. Have you always been this big of a slob?”
Riley grins sheepishly, exposing a piece of spinach stuck between his two front teeth. I motion up at my mouth with my finger and he quickly uses his tongue to clear out the green patch before speaking.
“This is the first time we’re eating out alone together.”
“Hmm, I think you’re right. Until now we’ve always been either with our families or with our high school friends.”
“Yeah, well, it kinda sucks having to hold back while there’s so much yummy grub to be tasted, ya know?”
“But aren’t you worried about what the other diners are thinking? Or what the staff are thinking?”
Riley looks at me surprised and gives a simple answer:
“I’m a paying customer, yo.”
“If I were the owner, I would pay you to stop grossing out the other patrons.”
“Getting paid to eat? That would be quite a career.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
I pick a shining red piece of pepperoni out of the cheesy top layer of my pizza and pop it into my mouth. As I chew on the greasy piece of spicy meat, I look around us and steal another glance at the family sitting across the aisle from us, who have been whispering to each other while glancing over at Riley for a while now. I sigh and decide that I shouldn’t be trying to play parent with my only true friend. I just silently thank the universe for us being seated in a booth near the back instead of at a table in the middle of the restaurant.
But, now that I think about it, maybe Riley would be a bit more self-conscious if there were more people staring at him?
…Nah. If anything, he would relish the attention.
“Mhmm—that was a big bite. Yeah, fam?”
“Are we heading back to my place after this? After all, your stuff is still there.”
Not that I especially mind, of course. If anything, I get a bit worried when he starts taking a lot of stuff home. It gets me thinking about whether he’s trying to cut me out of his life and finally forgetting about his loser childhood friend. But no matter what, I seem to always find something of his lying around my kitchen or living room. Almost as if he were trying to tell me that he would be back soon.
Or maybe it’s just a way to mark his territory. It wouldn’t be the first time that he’s tried to pull his “alpha” shit on me.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you.”
“Well, I’m all ears now.”
“We’re going to have fun today. I have the whole day planned.”
“What the hell? You have multiple exams tomorrow and you want to screw around right before?”
Right as those words come out of my mouth, I realize that Riley is really going to enjoy the irony of me of all people lecturing him about his study habits. His lips curl into a foxy smile as he begins speaking in a singsong voice.
“Sorry, Mr. J. I’ll be a good student so I can grow up to be just like you.”
Riley snickers at me as I turn away feeling a little miffed at how casually he can poke fun at my situation without the slightest hint of venom. If he could be a really big dick about it, maybe I would be able to hate him a little more.
“But get this, my dad told me about his school days. He had a teacher who always told the class to make plans to go see a movie right before an important test or exam.”
“Seems like a terrible idea. Wouldn’t you forget every last thing you crammed?”
“Actually, that’s the entire point. It forces you to learn the material properly.”
“…Ah. So essentially it’s using the movie plans as a way of preventing you from putting everything off to the night before.”
“Exactly. It seems like a good idea, so I’m trying it out today.”
“And what if it doesn’t work?”
“Then I got to see a movie with a friend instead of studying physics.”
“…I mean, your call. I’m down for whatever. Let me pay for the movie, though, since you paid for lunch.”
“Where did your money come from, all of a sudden?”
I immediately feel defensive about my personal finances and open my mouth to bicker, but it seems like Riley is set on paying today. I sigh and realize he’s effectively forcing me to accept his generosity. Maybe he’s trying to gain my favor to ask for a big favor or something?
But, in the spirit of wanting to stop assuming the worst in people, I nod my head and voice my gratitude.
Riley winks at me while wearing what he intends to be a coy smile on his face.
“Finish up the rest of your food and we’ll get going. I’ll grab another plate so we can munch on something together.”
I immediately feel the family next to us tense up as Riley stands up and prepares to go grab yet another plate. I glance over at the brown residue lining the dish he is leaving behind and realize that I cannot in good faith allow for Riley to embarrass himself any further. I don’t think I can eat properly with Riley’s display of bad etiquette right in front of me, anyway.
“You know what? I’m not that hungry anyway. Let’s just get going.”
“…I seriously can’t believe you, Riley.”
“Dude, you barely ate anything. This is just me trying to get our money’s worth.”
“I am pretty sure that this could result in us getting banned from both the restaurant and the movie theatre.”
We got into the theatre without a hitch. The entire time, I was nervous that the usher would check Riley’s shoulder bag like she’s supposed to. But Riley’s suave social skills really came in handy here, as he made small talk with the obviously enamored girl. By the time she scanned our tickets and ripped off our stubs, she seemed ready to just jump onto him and relieve all of the sexual tension in the air. But, in complete control of the situation, Riley pulled us away from her with a big smile on his face, letting us slip right past a sign which clearly read “No Outside Food” with several meals’ worth of fried edibles stowed away in Riley’s bag.
Riley plops right down in the chair dead center in the back row, and I sit to his left not caring that I would be watching the movie slightly off-centre—which he, on the other hand, would find acceptable. Once comfortably seated, he reaches into his bag and fishes out a neatly-tied dinner towel. Carefully undoing the tight knot, he opens up the towel to reveal an assortment of fries and onion rings. He lifts up the towel by the corners and moves it over to my lap and then pulls another wrapped cloth package from the many he still has left in the bag.
“I swear you planned for that waiter to give us this many towels, so you could do this kind of thing.”
“Nah, dude. It was all just in the moment; imagine paying $30 just so that your friend could eat a hamburger and a slice of pizza. What nerve by that establishment! They even brushed me off when I asked for a discount.”
“I mean, to be fair, it was all-you-can-eat, and I all I could eat was that much.”
“Maybe all-you-can-eat can also be interpreted as ‘all-you-can-eat-for-the-rest-of-the-week-too’?”
“I don’t think that would hold up in court.”
“You’re right. We’ll have to keep this our little secret.”
“I’m just an innocent bystander.”
“Then gimme back my onion rings, you traitor.”
“Consider this a hush fee.”
I nibble away at the fried food as the movie starts.
“Man, that movie was terribad.”
“I wouldn’t know, since your chewing drowned out most of the dialogue.”
“Which asshole’s idea was it for them to cast him as the lead? His acting was so stiff…”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it. You told me the same thing while the film was still rolling.”
“This is a comprehensive list of my afterthoughts:—”
I realize that he’s not going to shut up. I decide to just ignore him while nodding my head.
We’re walking around in the plaza outside of the theatre, wandering in and out of various stores while Riley goes on and on about the crime against humanity that the director of that movie committed by not overseeing the script and the sound effects. Luckily, my window-shopping nature keeps me occupied comparing different brands of trash bins at the department store while the chattering next to me ebbs and flows like the inundation of noise that it is.
“But all of that could have been forgiven if not for that plot hole—”
“Oh, sorry. What’s up?”
“We are standing inside of a pet store staring right into a birdcage with a huge parrot in it.”
“That we are.”
The fine avian specimen tilts his head at us, seemingly entertained by our little back-and-forth.
“Are we heading back to my place now?”
“Woah there, buster. You’re gettin’ a bit too feisty, there.”
“For the love of God. We had lunch and watched a movie. Are we calling it a day yet?”
“My man. You’re saying that as if you’re not enjoying yourself.”
“I mean, I’ll be honest, I have better things to do than hanging out with you and Mr.
Parrot discussing low-budget movies.”
“But that’s the thing! That movie had millions of dollars to work with—”
“Not my point. Let’s get out of the plaza.”
“We can’t. We’re taking the bus from the terminal over there in like five minutes.”
“Wait, that doesn’t go to my place—are you saying you have even more planned for today?”
“I mean, I did say I made plans for the whole day.”
“You really are gonna not study.”
“Have I ever kidded around before?”
As a matter of fact, yes you have. Every day of your life, most likely.
I don’t bother saying it out loud, though. Instead, I stick my finger through the bars of the cage and let the parrot examine the tip of my finger as I wiggle it. The bird shuffles close enough to for me to lightly stroke its soft breast feathers.
“What a stupid-looking bird.”
“Dad told me that he and his posse in high school called each other ‘Birdbrains’.”
“Were they a band of idiots?”
“I’m telling your dear Uncle Canary that you said that.”
“I’m sure he’ll survive. He doesn’t seem to be as big of a wuss as his son.”
“What high praise.”
“Squack—pretty bird, pretty bird.”
“Yes you are, little guy. Yes you are.”
Riley also sticks his finger through the cage, causing the parrot to direct his attention to the new stimulus. It steps out of reach of my finger and makes its way over to Riley who for once has a gentle smile on his face.
“I never knew you liked birds.”
Riley shook his head.
“I’ve never been particularly fond of them. But Dad is. He always says that they remind him of those dear friends from high school.”
“Was one of them my mom?”
Riley glances over at me, then back into the cage.
“From how he described the two, I don’t think so. I think Aunt Jenny and Dad were more just two people in the same social circle who happened to keep up contact over the years.”
“I guess that makes sense. I’ve never heard about any of this birdbrain stuff before.”
“That’s because my Dad only brought it up recently.”
The parrot uses its beak to prod at Riley’s finger, but he doesn’t seem to mind. Instead, he sticks his finger in further to rub the top of the bird’s head. It seems to like it, as it closes its eyes and lets out a low-pitched clicking sound.
“Looks like your supposed bedroom skills are coming in handy, there.”
“A worldly man is one with many talents.”
Just then, I hear a loud sound right outside of the pet store. Looking over, I see a bus driving past us.
Which reminds me—
“Should we get going to the terminal, now?”
“Yeah, sure. Seems like it’s about time.”
Waving goodbye to the endearing bird in the cage, we leave the store and make our way to the bus terminal five hundred metres away.
“Spare. Not bad, J.”
“I would be a bit prouder of myself if I didn’t know that was a fluke.”
Looking up at the screen displaying our scoresheet, I can see that I’m getting stomped by Riley. While my first seven frames have been mostly open with only a single spare, Riley has an excellent assortment of strikes and spares to boost up his score. Given that one open frame is worth up to nine points while a spare and strike can be worth up to twenty and thirty respectively (depending on subsequent rolls), Riley has comfortably doubled my score. How typical of Riley, being so familiar with a mainstay date activity. Given how easily he finds his way around here, I have almost no doubt that he comes here somewhat regularly to practice.
Meanwhile, the last time I’ve bowled was probably in a five-pin game during elementary school at one of Riley’s birthday parties. Basically, I have no clue what I’m doing. I end up just watching how Riley’s delivering the ball while also trying to recall anything Riley has said about bowling.
“Come on, J. You can still catch up if you roll enough strikes.”
“And you can become a millionaire if you win enough scratchcards.”
“Ah, but keep in mind—”
Riley turns towards me as soon as he lets go of the ball and sends it rolling down the alley into the remaining two pins to complete his spare.
“—bowling is all skill. Everything is decided by you and you alone.”
“But what if the oil isn’t evenly spread and the balls aren’t up to regulation?”
“We’re using the same lane, bozo. No excuses for your defeat.”
“Okay, fine. I’ll lose like a man.”
I stand up and walk over to the ball return to grab a ball with a swirling pattern on it. It reminds me of those marbles that I once bought at a dollar store, except enormous. And with a finger hole.
Well, here I go.
I look up at the scoreboard and realize that I don’t really have a real chance at beating him anymore. I decide that it’s probably best to just slow down the pace of the game and try to get a few good shots in.
“Hey, Riley. Wanna give me some pointers?”
“Huh?! You’re asking for help?”
“Hurry up before I change my mind.”
“O-okay! Here, lemme go over there—”
I hear Riley jogging up to me from behind, and turn around to see him rubbing his rented bowling shoes on the ground.
“See how the bottom of these shoes is slippery?”
“Yeah, I noticed. It’s so impractical.”
“On the contrary, you’re supposed to slide a bit when you throw the ball. It helps you to transfer your forward momentum to the ball.”
“Huh. I never knew that. Does it help?”
“Well, letting yourself slide instead of holding back does help you follow through more naturally. That will probably let you throw straighter and with more power.”
“It probably will? Isn’t bowling supposed to not have any luck?”
“Hey, bud. I figured this shit out myself, so I’m just telling you what works. Maybe you’re not as naturally talented as I am.”
“…Is bowling a skill you’re born with, then?”
“I mean, being hot enough to be able to take girls to bowling alleys is certainly a genetic boon.”
“Why, aren’t you being modest today.”
I take four steps behind the opening of the lane and try to line myself up with the ten pins all the way at the end. Then, taking brisk strides forward, I lean into my left foot as I finish my last step and let the ball go as my forward foot glides just a bit before coming to a halt.
“Hey, Riley, how did that look?”
The ball slams into the pins. Nine of them fall, and then the last one on the side wobbles from side to side before finally it—
—goes right back to standing in place.
“Wow. That was close. Did I do something wrong, Riley?”
“N-no. That was fine. You were just unlucky.”
“But you said before—”
“You were unlucky. Your form is fine. Knock that pin down then let me have my turn.”
I do the same thing I did last time, but this time training my eye on the one pin standing on the side. Step, glide, release. The ball rolls confidently down the lane and slams right into the lone pin. The poor guy had no chance. That makes my second spare, in the eighth frame.
Riley steps up and makes his delivery for his ninth frame: another spare. That makes his fifth one, which along with his two strikes makes for a commanding lead.
In my ninth frame, I concentrate once more and try as hard as I can to imagine the follow-through of my throw. Four steps, lean in, glide while throwing—
Riley and I exclaim in unison as all ten pins fall and the scoring machine gives me a nice little X to reward me for my efforts.
“You better watch out, Riley. Would be a shame if you lost to a newbie like me.”
“Not gonna happen.”
Riley suddenly seems to get more serious. Rather than just casually throwing the ball and nonchalantly slamming over the pins due to pure muscle memory, he lines up his shoulders with the lane and breathes slowly in anticipation of the delivery. He steps in, slides on his left foot, and throws the ball—
—and that’s when I noticed something: he is always delivering slightly off-centre. In fact, now that I think about it, he’s probably doing it on purpose. After all, hitting the pins straight on would leave the side pins standing at the end, so the ball must be striking at an angle; for him to be hitting so many pins on such a consistent basis, he must be aiming at the perfect sweet spot every single time.
When the ball impacts the pins, I get my answer—
“Aw yeah! Another strike!”
—The two right-hand front pins. He’s hitting right in between them and allowing this to sweep all of the pins off of their feet. What a Casanova, even when it comes to bowling.
“Okay, time for my fills.”
Riley grabs a ball and once again lines up to complete his tenth frame. However, before he even completes his delivery, I can see that it isn’t going to hit all of the pins—
Just mentally comparing it with his previous throw let me immediately see that he wasn’t going to knock them all down. His arm noticeably rotated right before he let go of the ball, resulting in it slowly bearing to the left until finally it only struck down five pins in the middle of the pack. Now, after the machine cleared away the fallen pins, there are pins on both sides of the lane.
“You got this, Riley.”
“Watch close, J.”
I do exactly what he says and realize, with horror, that his delivery on this shot has gone horribly wrong—
“…A gutter ball…”
That was just pathetic. Maybe he was conflicted on which side of the lane he wanted to aim for and changed his mind at the last moment. Or maybe he got greedy and wanted to take the risk so that he could try knocking down the rest of the pins.
Either way, what an anticlimactic way to end off his game.
“Well, your turn, J. Then we’ll get going.”
I nod my head and walk over to grab a ball. While backing up and taking my stance, I compare the time where Riley scored a strike to the subsequent deliveries when he didn’t and manage to roughly understand what works and what doesn’t work.
Now, it will be a matter of if my body can follow my instructions properly.
“Come on, J. Just take your shots and we’ll get going. The score doesn’t really matter, anyway.”
I immediately feel my shoulders slump when I realize that Riley is trying to comfort me before we even finished. I already know that since I’m more than fifty points behind Riley, I wouldn’t be able to overtake him even if I threw three strikes in a row. At this point, I already lost as expected. But Riley knows that even when I am well aware of when I’m bound to lose, I still let it eat away at me.
“Are you just saying that now that I have no chance of winning? What happened to your competitive spirit from before?”
Riley sighs and taps his feet.
“You haven’t really been taking this whole bowling thing that seriously, anyway. I’m happy that you got a strike on the ninth frame, so there’s no need to let me put pressure on you.”
“But Riley. That’s where you’re wrong.”
My body and mind align and move of their own accord as I complete my tenth frame in a trance, muttering only a few words under my breath as I shock both of us with the ensuing event:
“I went and got myself all fired up.”
“That was amazing, J! Three strikes? Were you just slow-rolling me this entire time and hiding your incredible talent?”
“Nah, it was just beginner’s luck.”
“I already told you that there’s no luck in bowling!”
“No, actually, you said—”
“Cut it out. Just accept the praise, dude. I’m seriously stunned, yo.”
“Okay, fine. Thanks for the kind words. And for paying today.”
“Don’t mention it.”
We’re sitting on a park bench eating ice cream cones. Earlier, at the buffet, Riley wanted to put a few scoops of ice cream into his bag along with all of the fried food, but I stopped him from ruining the beautiful start-of-school present that Aunt Liz had gotten for him at the beginning of his last year of his degree. But as soon as we left the bowling alley, Riley dragged me onto a bus and brought us to the ice cream shop near my place. And now, we’re finishing off a long day of running all around town with a calm frozen dessert in a park.
“Mmm~! This is just the thing I needed after that huge meal this afternoon.”
“Aren’t we basically just having ice cream as dinner right now?”
“I just considered dinner as all of the fries we had in the theatre.”
“Hm. Fair point.”
Somehow, after spending most of the day feeling myself bursting at the belt, I am still in the mood for a bit of ice cream. Maybe the bowling game helped to kickstart my metabolism or something. After all, my almost-miraculous performance in the last frame caught me completely off-guard. It was like the God of Bowling suddenly came down to me and let me see the game in a completely new light. In those moments, everything made sense, from placing my throw perfectly along the oil lines to adding just the right amount of spin to the ball to make sure that it approaches the pins at the right angle.
Of course, I still lost to Riley. But I had closed the gap to just five points. Meaning if Riley shot just one more gutter ball somewhere, I could have beaten him.”
Riley, however, seems completely unoccupied with the narrow margin by which he beat me. Rather, he’s lauding me as if I’m the next world champion of bowling or something and completely leaving himself out of the picture.
“Seriously, J. You never fail to impress me.”
“What’s this all of a sudden? Is this a confession scene or something?”
“Lay off on the jokes for a bit. I’m feeling my serious mood kicking in.”
Riley and I always are bantering back and forth all day every day. But while I would be okay keeping up that routine for as long as possible, Riley is the type of person who loves to drag me into deep, introspective talks once in a while.
I can’t tell if I really like it when he’s so mature and contemplative. It doesn’t matter, though; whatever he wants to talk about, I’ll listen. Because he’s—”
“‘My childhood friend’. That’s probably how you think about me, right?”
“I mean, that’s exactly what you are, right?”
“I think you’re both wrong and right about at the same time.”
“Okay, dude. Enough with the blazin’. Bring yourself back to reality.”
“Chill, chill. I need to think about how to word this.”
A silence falls upon the evening as Riley ponders with his eyes closed. Instead of the infectious grin he usually carries or the gentle smile I saw at the pet store, this time his face shows a much…darker…expression. As if he is conflicted on whether or not to say whatever is coming next.
That’s when I realize that this whole day—lunch, the movie, bowling—was just a leadup to this moment. But contrary to my original instinct that it was about a favour he wanted to ask of me, my gut told me that this was something of a much more personal nature.
After all, why the heck would Riley of all people try to bribe me into giving him a favour? He would either just force me into it through one of his schemes or plead with me until I get sick of his puppy eyes. There never was, and will never be, a reason why Riley has to spend so much money just to ask a simple request of me.
This is something huge. I start feeling nauseous, as the taste of the sickening sweet ice cream settles in my dry mouth.
Riley opens his mouth and begins to speak.
“My father regrets a lot of things, you know.”
“Yeah, I mean, I’m sure my mother does, too. I told you about everything with Aunt Nina.”
“Indeed you did. Feels like my Dad and your Mom had quite a rocky high school experience together.”
Riley takes a deep breath before continuing. When he opens his mouth, his voice cracks just slightly.
“To this day, Dad wishes he could go back and do more for the Birdbrains. Even after all of this time.”
Another silence falls as I fail to find a proper reply to this revelation. This time, the space between words is a chasm that threatens to swallow me up and bury me in its depths.
“J. My Dad is telling me all of this because he’s leaving.”
I freeze over. Leaving? What does that mean?!
I sigh a breath of relief and lightly punch Riley’s shoulder.
“For fuck’s sake, dude. You scared me for a second.”
“Haha, he still has a few decades left to live.”
“Did I just hear disappointment in your voice?”
Riley laughs at my black humour, then stands up and throws what’s left of his ice cream cone into the garbage can nearby. Then, he turns around and extends his hand to me, reaching for the melting cone in my hand. Admitting to myself that I will never finish this off anyway, I let Riley pick the slightly-moist waffle out of my hands with his thumb and index finger and bring it over to the garbage can.
I think about how casually dependable Riley has always been for me. No matter what kind of struggle he’s going through or what sort of high point he reaches, he never fails to show back up at my dinner table with all of his books and notes, complaining about his classes while talking about the hot date he has the next day or what he’s craving for dinner or what cool new thing he saw on the Web.
He is always there, by my side. As if trying to make up for the person who I wanted to be at my other side.
“When Mom and Dad move to Montreal, I might not see them again for quite a while. You know, with the checkpoints and everything.”
“Isn’t there a ceasefire right now, though? I read on the news that a merger is going to be signed. The war will be over soon, and everything will go back to how it was before the split.”
“Who knows. Didn’t you see all of that stuff about a terrorist militia on the move? Apparently they captured an Ontarian soldier and everything.”
“Wait, what? Did Quebec send them or something?”
“Nope. They’re apparently all from Ontario. It might be the beginning of a civilian uprising.”
“That’s pretty scary.”
Riley nods and scratches his head.
“Anyway. You know that question I keep pestering you about, right?
“You know why.”
I feel a mix of relief and annoyance. Did he take me out today just to make a request that he always asks of me anyway?
“I would trouble you a lot if I live at your place.”
“That’s not quite it. I want to move into your place.”
“My parents are selling our house. Your parents always seemed to intend to come back. Mine aren’t quite so optimistic. They’re basically planning for the worst. The situation in Ontario has always been chaotic, and they’re expecting things to only go down from here.”
I’m completely lost for words. Uncle Canary told me about how he grew up in that beautiful house and always dreamed of living the rest of his life inside of it. And yet, the war has stripped him of even that humble dream…
“I am so sorry.”
“What? Don’t be. My Dad’s really excited, if anything. Apparently, the other Birdbrains are living in Montreal right now too, so he’s taking it as a chance to make amends.”
“It’s not just that. I can’t let you move in with me.”
“Come on, man. It would basically be like hanging out all day every day. What’s to hate?”
I sigh and try as hard as I can to not imagine the happy life that would be going downstairs knowing that there would be someone there waiting for me. A life where I don’t need to be wary with my hopes, lest all there at the dinner table is a pile of textbooks and a few pieces of scrap paper. As soon as he suggested the idea, I started to look forward to it. But I can’t accept it.
“I wouldn’t make a good roommate, and I usually just stay up in my room.”
“I already know about all of that. I can remember a few times where I’ve studied in your kitchen all evening and you never came down even once.”
“J. Answer me honestly.”
Riley turns on the bench and looks right into my eyes. His look of resolve surprises me, especially given that he looked so unsure just a few moments ago.
“If you just always hole yourself in your room, then what difference would it make to have me live over there? But that’s not the real issue here, right? It’s not really about that.”
I look away, but Riley grabs my head and forces me to face him.
“Look right at me when you answer. It’s me, isn’t it?”
I struggle to turn my head and avert my eyes, but his hands are firm. Closing my eyes to gather my thoughts, I give my confession:
“I don’t want you to be bound to me.”
“Well, I want to be closer to you. I’m already always there anyway, right? It’s pretty much already my home. All I ever did at Mom and Dad’s place was walk up the stairs to my room and go to bed. I spend more waking hours at your place than at mine.”
I move my hand to take Riley’s warm hand off of my cheek. He removes it before I even make contact.
“Look, Riley. If you lived with me, I would worry that you’re only by my side because I’m giving you no other choice.”
“No, it’s not. Especially now, with your parents moving away. You said they’re selling the house, right? That means if you ever have an argument with me or realize how big of a loser I am, you won’t have anywhere to—”
“I wouldn’t go anywhere. I can’t, man. You might think of us as just childhood friends who stuck together for old times’ sake, but that’s where you’re wrong. I wouldn’t leave the only person I could call a brother.”
“You say that now, but you never—”
“I do know. Look, if we argued, I’m not gonna run away like a little kid. We’re gonna sit down and talk about it, like we always have. Since when did we ever hold grudges with each other?”
“Remember that one time where I ate the last piece of your chocolate Easter bunny?”
“I’m pretty sure ‘never talking to you again’ lasted all of three hours before I ran back apologizing.”
“Sure. Point taken.”
“And then, all of that stuff about you being a loser…”
Riley puts a hand on my shoulder and gives it a firm squeeze.
“You’re the type of person who can throw three strikes in a row when he gets serious. I’m sure you’ll be fine, man. I know you will. And I want to reserve front row tickets for the moments when you shine.”
I feel myself getting a bit emotional. Happiness. Self-loathing. Confusion. Frustration. The indescribable catharsis in my heart wells over as I feel myself tearing up a bit.
“You have so many friends. Back in high school, all of the other guys adored you. And then, even Alex… even she always hung around you. And yet, you’re always here for me.”
“Dude. They were just classmates. No big deal. If you didn’t notice already, you’re the only real friend I’ve got. Alex and I only ever started talking because we both knew you. In fact, I was always jealous of Alex for being a better fit for you than I was.”
“That’s not true. She and I—”
“I could feel it. I didn’t stand a chance against her until she walked away herself.”
I can’t say anything, effectively confirming the truth of Riley’s words. But he simply laughs sadly before continuing.
“It’s fine, man. I was okay with it, then, and I’m okay with it now. After all, slow and steady won the race. It’s honestly Alex’s loss, being too petty to talk to you about everything face to face.”
“I’m glad to know that this is a shounen ai manga where the girl loses to the main guy.”
Riley chuckles and looks up at the sky. The sea of stars is already twinkling over the clear skies of Waterloo. The familiar coolness of evening has already settled in, but somehow my existence at this moment feels so incredibly warm.
“Mom didn’t want me to stay here. She told me to follow after them right after my exams are over. But Dad helped me convince her to let me stick around if I live with you.”
“Aunt Liz changed her mind about something? Seems unusual.”
“Yeah, I was surprised too. But Dad told me afterward that Mom always felt guilty about not doing anything about the Birdbrains when they fell apart. In a way, Mom is even more excited than Dad about moving to Montreal. After all, she probably wants to see Dad laughing with his friends again.”
Riley gives a wry grin.
“She probably didn’t want for me to also regret not being next to the one I love most.”
My face feels a bit hot from the sudden mention of “love”. Looks like I’m an easily moved person.
“So, as long as you live with me, Uncle Canary and Aunt Liz will let you stay back?”
I pinch the bridge of my nose and try to organize my thoughts.
“I still don’t think us living together is a good idea.”
“Well, I think it is. After all, then I can stop you before you do stuff like last night.”
I look right at Riley with a gaping mouth. He’s looking at me right back with a smirk on his mouth, but with a worried expression shown in his eyes.
“Yes, I know about it. Got a little tip from someone.”
I open and shut my mouth like a goldfish. I struggle to find the right way to explain myself.
“How much do you know?”
“Let’s just say a connection of mine got their hands on your police report.”
I cover my eyes with my hands as I prepare to apologize.
“I was going to tell you earlier. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. To be honest, the reason why I was talking so much today was that I didn’t want you to bring it up before I did.”
“I thought you talked that much today because that’s what you do every day.”
“Hey, hey. Get a little more serious if you’re apologizing.”
Riley stays silent, as if waiting for me to say something. I realize that he is still waiting for my answer to his question.
“How long do I have to make the decision?”
“Until the end of the week, right after exams. That’s when my parents are leaving.”
“Woah. That soon?”
“Yeah. I know, right? They seem to have been planning it for a while too.”
“And you only found out recently, you said?”
“Yup. A day or two ago.”
I decide that it’s probably fine if Riley moves in. After all, his presence is a huge help to me too.
“You can probably just start bringing your stuff over in the next few days. So we don’t have to scramble on the day your parents leave.”
“So that’s a yes?”
We smile at each other, thinking in silence about the future.
Riley stands up once more, this time picking his bag. I follow his lead and turn to go towards my house.
“You’re coming to grab your laptop and books, right?”
“Nah, don’t need ’em. I wasn’t going to study the night before my exam, remember?”
“Yep. I still think it’s a horrible idea.”
“Well, I’ll know after tomorrow morning.”
Riley turns the other way to go to the bus stop, but turns right back as if he forgot something.
“Since you’re already out, shouldn’t you buy your groceries right now?”
“Nope. Your job.”
“Sigh. It was worth a try. I’ll bring over the groceries tomorrow. In the meantime, take the rest of this.”
Riley hands over his book bag which still has all of the food from lunch wrapped up inside of it. I peek inside and see that even if Riley forgot about the groceries tomorrow (which wouldn’t be without precedent), I would have enough to eat for the next few days.
“Oh yeah. One final thing.”
Riley steps towards me and puts his arm around my torso. Surprised, I clutch onto the bag with one hand while the other falls to my side.
“Happy birthday. I’ll say it again in person tomorrow. But just in case.”
A quote from my favourite book suddenly popped into my mind:
There is no use in loving things if you have to be torn from them, is there?
I bring my free hand up to Riley’s back and pull him closer. All at once, my tears finally brim over and fall.
“Thank you for everything.”