Next Door

That summer he was turning 13 and that was a pretty big deal. His mother promised him a good party at a restaurant. Okay, a Chili’s or something, but not a Chuck E. Cheese like just a couple of years ago. It had to be small – 10 people, including you, his mother said. So that meant nine, and that upset him at first.
“Nine? Only nine,” he asked her, with a touch of panic to his voice.
“Yes Eli, only nine,” she said evenly. Then, “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know, I just don’t know if I pick only nine,” he said, the panic building a bit more.
“I’ll help you,” she said. “It will be easier than you think.”
She said that to him a lot and in recent months the words caused him great confusion. Did that mean there was something wrong with his thinking? Like, his brain? “Well,” he said, with great effort to sound calm, “someone is going to be mad.”
She breathed out a little hard, but not a real sigh. “I will help you,” she repeated. “We have a lot of time.”
They did have six months, in fact, and he was grateful he had brought it up with her at his half birthday. He didn’t tell her it was his half birthday; he didn’t mention it to anyone because that was definitely not something to be done anymore. So it was February and they had time.
Over the next months, several of his friends and classmates turned the big 1-2-3, as they called it amongst themselves. Jay’s birthday was in early April and Eli got an invite to a “Jay’s Guys Cookout Party.” It was a pretty funny invitation, just a sheet of paper folded in thirds and mailed with no envelope. On the inside it had photos of Jay as a baby and a little kid and a picture of a cigar added to one and a bottle with XX on the label to another. Eli had been thinking no invites, just calls and maybe emails if his Mom would give him his own email, but this was good too.
Early April weather was predictably unpredictable and spring seemed way off. It rained the day of the party and when they arrived Jay’s mom was still arranging lawn chairs in the basement. “Jay, it’s like a man cave in here,” she said, and Eli could tell Jay was embarrassed. He would be. He was pretty good friends with Jay so he sat on one of the lawn chairs and sipped a soda and gave Jay a guy thumbs up. He meant it to be nice, not sarcastic.
The guys made teams and took turns playing Jay’s new (very) cool video game, a game Eli’s mother would not let him play. Then his dad started grilling hamburgers on the patio under an umbrella. The video game started to fade out and then some of them were just watching his dad grilling and they all sensed a coming doom: this party could suck anytime now.
Jay bolted for the sliding glass door, slid it open hard and ran out into the yard, whooping and hollering around in his bare feet. Jay’s dad began to yell, “Jay, what the --“ as Thomas, Jay’s best friend, ran past him. Nick was next, and then the rest of them were out there in a clump. They ran, jumped, slid, rolled, jumped over each other rolls, and wrestled in the puddles of cold rain and leftover hard lumps of snow.
Eli couldn’t remember what brought them back inside again, but there they all were on an old sheet his mom laid on the floor. They stamped their feet and congratulated each other with nods and smiles and back slaps.
After a few minutes, his mom handed out bright colored, thin towels with scenes of beach balls and ocean waves. She told them to go – one at a time – into the bathroom and take off all their clothes and put them in the tub. They would wear the beach towels while she washed and dried the clothes. Eli liked Jay’s mom, she never seemed to get mad at anything.
They had just started the procession with Jay and Max towel-clad and lounging on chairs when she came running around the corner again with a big marker. “You have to put your initials on your underwear,” she said. “We’ll never be able to tell whose is whose.”
This caused bellows of laughter. Jay and Max went back in the bathroom and came out a minute later holding their damp and now graffiti-ed underpants over their heads like warriors.
Eli knew then there were 15 of them because Jay’s mom got five markers, saying that’s one for every three of you, that should be enough for your artwork. So, 15, which meant Jay got to pick 14 guys. Okay.
They ate their burgers and the cake while Jay opened the presents, all of them in their towels. Fifteen young boys, almost all still hairless, almost all slim as sticks with bony shoulders and knees. Two had some childhood heft but they were smooth. But now they knew that most had the tiny armpit hairs of early puberty. There was a little teasing of the envious kind. They were louder than usual, revved up on their half nakedness, their shenanigans, the sugar.
Eli had to admit that for a house party it was really good. They all told Jay that as they left and they were still talking about it at school the next Monday. You couldn’t plan something like that, Eli knew. Jay was smart and also a little lucky. Eli couldn’t have 15 guys in his house, not even 10. Their house, their apartment, was too small for that all together and had small rooms, and no real yard. He knew that was why his Mom had told him a restaurant.
He went to one other birthday party – a paintball party, which he actually disliked but didn’t let on and was exhausted at the end from faking. He was not invited to two other parties. The first non-invite was a bit of a shock. He went to Jonathan’s birthday last year but so did just about everybody else, and they weren’t really friends, they had just been going to the same schools forever. It made it easier for him, too, to realize it wasn’t such a bad thing and now made it easier for him. His mother was right, it was easier, and he hadn’t really had to think about it, it just happened. Is that what she meant?
He could bypass a whole bunch of guys, like Jonathan. That got his number quickly to 21. Then he started cutting away some of the borderline guys, maybe he had been on a team with but not much more than that. That got him to 16, including him. There were three he was debated about: two were good friends with each other and never did anything without the other, but they were what he called cool jerks. He wanted them to like him but he didn’t really want to be like them and he was a little scared of them. They could turn on you in an instant but for that time they liked you it was exhilarating in a way he couldn’t explain. The other was a quiet kid he knew since kindergarten and was making his way quickly to being a loner and a left-aloner, Josh. He liked Josh, he knew it, but sometimes when the others talked about him, teased about him, Eli let his liking get shadowed by doubts and ifs and maybe nots.
It didn’t matter though because even if he took the three of them out, that still left 13, including him.

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