On the second day of summer break 1997, Arvin Gupta’s best friend in the world, Tucky Sinkowa, showed Arvin his fabulous, sparkling magic.
The silence that followed Tucky’s illuminating pink display, which had lit the entire basement and the brightly colored borders of the yellow vintage movie posters Tucky’s father hung defiantly during the divorce proceedings, was a silence that came only after moments of great revelation. It was not unlike the time Tucky told Arvin in confidence of his first wet dream. Then they were huddled in mummy bags beneath the massive wooden entertainment center in Arvin’s living room. The credits of ‘Life of Brian’ rolled above them as Eric Idle sang, hung high above the desert sands, an ornament dangling in the idyllic blues of the television sky, his whistles filling the awkward spaces between the boys’ uncomfortable pre-teen breaths. Then, Arvin knew what to say.
But that was weeks ago. And this wasn’t a wet dream.
An itch crept up Arvin’s leg brace. He dug at it with a pencil, eager to return attentions to his magical friend. “So you’re like a fairy,” Arvin said finally.
“No, idiot,” Tucky said.
“Well, I don’t get it,” Arvin said. He thought for a moment. More scratching. “Just to confirm. You’re not gay?”
“I don’t know. You acted like you had this big secret. I just thought–”
“Just shut up, Arvin. This is serious,” Tucky said.
“Yeah, but I just want you to know it’s totally fine if you are. I mean my mom, she had a gay friend before–”
“Dude, really. Just shut up. This isn’t about you,” Tucky said. His sweaty palms ran through his greasy mop-top as he began to pace the room, bouncing from corner to corner like a trapped fly while Arvin sat motionless and watched.
“Sorry,” Tucky said. “I didn’t mean to cut you off. I know how hard it is for you to talk about her.” Smells of Fourth of July picnics wafted through the room. “But really, Arv, you can’t tell anyone.” His high-pitched voice was hushed and urgent, clearly sore. The ask was unnecessary because the boys both knew Arvin didn’t have anyone to tell.
“You’re a superhero,” Arvin said. “Can you imagine what Becky would do if she saw this? She might actually notice you.” She was all Tucky talked about lately, unattainable, pretty and popular.
“Cool it, okay? Becky can’t know. No one can. I know you think this is cool, but it isn’t. It hurts. My throat and eyes burn, my hands sting, and it, it just sucks, okay?” His voice cracked. He wiped his brow. Yellow sweat stains from generously applied anti-perspirant clung to his tee and resembled melted butter on rice. “I’m like Jubilee, the lamest X-Man ever. Who gives a damn about Jubilee? No, I’m even worse than her. I can’t even control this… this thing.”
“What do you mean?” Arvin asked as he tucked his bad leg beneath his blanket. His brace caught on its thick fibers.
“Like, sometimes, stuff just comes out,” Tucky said.
Before Arvin could ask from where ‘stuff comes out,’ the stairwell lit up. A shadow bent and crawled down the steps, finally resting on Tucky’s bony shoulder. “Boys,” Tucky’s father, Red Sinkowa, said from above.
“Lights out.” He paused. “What is that ungodly smell? Christ, are you two lighting firecrackers in the house again?”
“No, Dad,” Tucky said. He shuffled to the window and cracked it open. “Just burned some popcorn. We’ll be quiet.”
“Don’t be quiet. Go to bed.” Red had a woman over, Janelle. Janelle reeked of hairspray and cotton candy. Her nails were long and blue. Family dinners with her were strained conversations between bites of rubbery pizza and lukewarm breadsticks. She was not bookish and kind like Tucky’s mother, Alice, the elementary school librarian.
Alice would have let them stay up.
And so they went to bed. Arvin spread out on the floor in a tangle of patchwork blankets and old bed pillows beneath the lumpy couch that Tucky occupied. The putrid after smell from Tucky’s display had faded into something more pleasant. Something like jello. Arvin looked up at Tucky’s feet hanging over him, periscoping out from a moldy blue blanket, and he thought of his friend, the guy attached to those little feet. This magic, curse though Tucky thought it was, was the best thing that had ever happened to Tucky whether he knew it or not. It was a way out of dingy basements and torn families. A path to recognition.
Arvin’s heart pounded with excitement. Before Tucky’s powers, it had only been a matter of time before Tucky moved on to greener pastures rife with better friends, friends who could go out, run and play sports, friends who weren’t afraid of cars and had the shiny new learner’s permits to prove it. But now, overnight, Tucky had become a freak like Arvin, and Arvin felt a profound and moral obligation to help Tucky weather this crisis by honing his sudden and mysterious powers.
“Arv?” Tucky whispered.
“Yeah, Tuck?” Arvin said.
“Do you ever think about them?”
“Your mom and sister,” Tucky said.
“All the time,” Arvin said, scratching at his brace.
“Please don’t tell anyone,” Tucky said. “I want to make it go away before we go back to school.”
In sixth grade, Arvin learned to practice active listening in Ms. Gilroy’s social studies class. It was a few weeks after his mom and sister were buried, and he had only recently returned to school. None of his peers seemed to know how to act around him, so they reached some sort of unspoken consensus to ignore him. His tragedy followed him with every limping step, leaving silence in his creaking wake.
Arvin’s therapist had told him to open up, to put himself out there and show his friends that he was stronger than his bad leg, but he had no friends because they had abandoned him. And he was weak. So he stood in the back of the room and watched alone as rows of his classmates, pubescent pre-teens in tiny desks, partnered up to rephrase and regurgitate key terms from mindless conversations. He had given up on participating in the activity and had started a slow, shameful walk to the front of the room to notify Ms. Gilroy.
Then Tucky came over and asked to be his partner.
Now sensing the distress in his friend’s muffled voice, Arvin sat up and looked Tucky square in the eyes. “You want to make it go away before we go back to school?”
“That’s what I just said,” Tucky said.
“But why would you want that?”
Tucky didn’t answer.
Cool summer air crept in from the open window and filled their lungs with sleep.