A Short Story by Liz Varley
Written using the suggestion "Cleaning"
Originally featured on 03-22-2007
As part of our series "Springset"

They were a year apart, and they were both Gemini’s. Tye’s mother let him grow his hair long and it was past his shoulders like a streak of grease. Ben’s hair was always buzzed because his own mother had a fear of lice instilled in her as a child in Spain. Tye never tied his shoes and wandered around trailing gray laces, never stopping when Ben called out,

“Dude, wait up, my shoes untied!”

The two boys met when Tye launched a billiard ball blue stink bomb into his neighbor’s garden and proceeded to pitch himself over the fence into a dogwood bush where he crouched until Mr. Runni, a biology teacher at Cleveland High, went back into his house, glancing at Ben with a look of calm distain.

“Runni F-ed my paper on ladybugs,” Tye said to Ben when he exited the bush, jerking his head in the direction of the still smoking stink bomb.

“You’re in high school?” Ben asked, eyeing the squinty brown eyes of the scrawny imposter.

“Yeah. What grade are you? Sixth?”

“Eighth.” Ben stood up straight and crossed his arms. From the window his mother called,

“Ben-JA-min!” and he ran in the house, grateful to be relieved of Tye’s presence.

The next day Tye was on the doorstep politely asking for Ben to come out and play. Ben’s mother invited him in and sat him at the kitchen table with a bag of stale Bugles and a glass of cranberry juice. Ben slinked down the hallway from his bedroom to find his new friend filling each cone shaped corn chip with juice and drinking it. Ben relished the disgusted look on his mother’s face even though he told Tye to cut it out.

Ben didn’t have that many friends before Tye, which had been fine with him as it gave him more time to play video games. His mother urged him to go outside and she regaled him of stories of her own youth; ญญญญ he would wait until she grew silent with thought and would return to his game. She told him he was getting fat and refused to buy any junk food with the exception of half-priced items. She made him drink skim milk and when they went to the movies it was dried apple slices and water.

The first time Ben went out to dinner with Tye’s family they all ordered milkshakes—even his mother—and insisted he get one as well. Tye’s mother and father never bugged him about being overweight, and in fact they said things like, “you guys must be hungry from all that running around,” when he and Tye came in through the sliding glass door, having escaped a scene of some crime. Ben felt guilty going out to dinner with Tye’s family though, knowing that his mother was alone at home eating leftovers from the night before made him anxious to get away from the laughter and freedom they offered. When he got home his mother would tell him he had food on his face, or his shirt had come un-tucked, but then she would hug him. She didn’t ask him any details, didn’t demand to know where they went or whether or not he flossed his teeth when he stayed overnight.

“Did you have fun Benny?” she would ask, and he would nod.

At school Ben walked the halls with confidence knowing that he had a high school friend mere blocks away that could, theoretically, come to his rescue should there be a threat against him. He didn’t worry about the insults his fellow classmates hurled at him as be walked by the lockers, or the worse ones that were whispered to him in class, because he felt they no longer mattered. Once he got to the high school building, he thought, he would become friends with Tye’s friends, and then the friends of those friends and so on. The whole process would be effortless and now that the prospect of popularity was on the horizon, it suddenly seemed necessary to him.

The summer before his first year of high school Ben spent more and more time with Tye, often heading to his house as soon as he woke up. Tye had started stealing cigarettes from his father’s packs and they often went into the woods behind the small park in their neighborhood and shared them. Sometimes Tye would tell Ben about the multiple relationships he’d ended the past school year and shared with him the names of girls who were likely to give blowjobs. Sometimes he would describe the building projects his father let him participate in—otherwise he was silent.

Ben didn’t talk about much as Tye never asked anything so he mostly muttered agreement, rarely chiming in with his own stories. If he did they were abandoned after a few minutes because Tye’s attention would be drawn to a blue jay up in a tree that was in rock-throwing distance, or the sound of a bike wheel on the nearby pavement and he would have to look up and see who it was.

Some days Tye would be gone and his mother would explain that he was with other friends. Tye left for a week in July to go to his friend Rocco’s camp on the coast; Ben was thrilled to think that after he was introduced to Rocco, the next summer he too would get an invitation. If Ben asked to go along with his other friends, Tye would usually respond that he was getting a ride from someone and wouldn’t want to impose on them.

“See Mike drives and Jeremy rides shotgun almost always, because the last time the car was towed he paid for it from the money he gets working at Starbucks—I ride in the backseat and usually we pick up Heather, who’s Mike’s girlfriend, and she always has someone with her, usually some girl even dumber than her, so there wouldn’t be any room. It’s nothing personal, man.” Over time, the long excuse just turned into “got no room, bro,” and that was that. On those days Ben would just play video games, hoping that Tye would call him that night. Sometimes he did.

When they first met, they would usually ride their bikes around, finding their own entertainment where they could. In the month before school, when Ben began to see Tye once a week at most, and Tye’s mother no longer treated him like a favored guests who got special privileges, but more like an inconvenience. Ben decided it was time to ensure his future in high school.

“Are you gonna have fifth period lunch, too?” Ben asked one night, when Tye was rolling a joint on a C.S. Lewis book.

“Yeah, I think so, man,” Tye responded, tucking a thick strand of hair behind his ears. He had cut it recently, but it still hung in front of his face.

“It’ll be cool to eat lunch together,” Ben said and smiled, thinking of how nice it would be not to have to walk down the rows of the caféteria until he spotted a vacant table in his peripheral vision.

“Well, yeah, but I don’t really stay at school during lunch you know? We usually go to Burgerville or something and get stuff, or whatever, but you’ll be fine, man, there’s plenty of chill people at Cleveland.” Ben felt a lump forming in his throat and he looked down at his lap where his hands were folded together.

“Do you think maybe I could go with you guys sometime?” Ben asked quietly, not looking up but seeing Tye lift his two hands to his mouth and run his tongue along the end of the paper.

“You know how the car situation is, B. I wish it weren’t so cramped all the time, but only Mike has his license. When I have a license things’ll be different.”

“I’m sure you’ll make lots of new friends,” Ben’s mother told him as he got out of the car on his first day of school. He nodded.

As he walked through the fronts doors with the throngs of other students he wished the school was empty, and that he was walking in alone, that he didn’t have to hear the voices shouting and calling all around him. He held his head up regardless and found his way to homeroom where a smiling teacher greeted him and he found his seat, across from a tight-lipped girl with flat blond hair cut up along her face and another girl who had her head on the desk. He saw Tye pass in the hall after the bell rang and was tempted to jump up and run out in the hall to catch him. He stayed in his seat.

By lunch, Ben felt things were brightening up a little and he had even had a few conversations with some kids he knew in biology class that went pretty well. As he walked into the busy caféteria with his tray, he spotted Tye at a table in the back corner, talking to a person he recognized as the driver of the car Tye went off in. His instinct was to ignore it and find another table, to just plop down anywhere and start talking, but instead he went towards Tye, trying to compose an intelligent line in his head. All he could think of was,

“What’s up Tye?” and all the eyes of the table looked up at him.

“Do I know you?” asked the driver, who Ben knew was Mike. He knew a lot of things about him that Tye had told him. He could tell Mike knew nothing about him.

“I was talking to Tye,” Ben said, and finally he looked up.

“Man, I told you there were lots of people here to hang out with—why don’t you go sit with some of them?”

“I just thought I’d say hi,” Ben said, hearing the pleading tone rising in his voice that he immediately resented.

“Who is this kid?” another guy asked.

“Just this kid from my neighborhood,” he said in a condescending tone and started to get up.

“Comon, I’ll show you a good place to sit,” he continued, this time with pity in his voice. Ben backed away from the arm Tye was using to lead him away.

“We’ve been hanging out for awhile,” Ben said, turning back towards the table. Mike laughed.

“You hang out with this kid Tye?” he asked, and the others at the table began to laugh along with him. Tye threw up his arms.

“Jesus, Mike, I’m trying to do this fucking kid a favor, you know? His mom comes to my mom and asks if I would come over a couple times to hang out with him, you know, because he’s got nobody else because his dad is gone? Maybe if you ever did anything nice for anybody you’d understand.”

Ben felt himself tighten up. He could sense the looks on the faces of the people at the table that pretended to resume eating. Two of the girls tried to hold their laughs in, but it just made it worse when they came out as shrieks.

“I tried to tell you, man,” Tye said as Ben began to tear up. He turned away before he felt his eyes begin to blink wildly, before he could humiliate himself any further.

“I tried to tell you!” Tye yelled again across the caféteria, but Ben just kept walking.

They were a year apart, and they were both Gemini’s.

Read More By Liz Varley

COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project

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