The last time I saw Warren was on the playground. It was an “under-cover-only” recess — a necessity for public schools in the perpetual rains of the Pacific Northwest. Hoards of damp kids swarmed the three sheltered areas, teeming at the edges like jackals. Others lined up, hang-dog, around the four-square and basketball courts. Outside the dank, cavernous shelter a gray mist of rain lent a gauzy filter to the red brick school building where it loomed across a field of slick asphalt.
Warren was chubby, and used loose-fitting gray t-shirts to hide his bulging midsection. His mousy brown bowl cut bisected his forehead above a perpetual buck-toothed look of distress. To be honest, I don’t remember why I liked him, or even if I did, but I do remember that he had a Nintendo 64.
When I met him, I wondered how he had managed to acquire such an object of power. My own parents claimed we couldn’t afford the expensive system, and yet Warren’s single mom, living in the affordable apartments on the hillside that descended from the Highlands to downtown, had managed. I eventually came to think of it as a kind of consolation prize; Maybe it was supposed to make up for the fact that he was a fatherless only child and perpetual new kid who didn't have the social skills to make any real friends. The lucky bastard.
We would sit for hours in mutual silence, our thumbs animating giant robots in Blast Corps (which we pronounced “corpse”), or the cartoon body of Mario as he explored a 64-bit, three-dimensional landscape. These were the adventures I daydreamed about in school every Friday, anticipating the sanctuary of Warren’s small bedroom overlooking the parking lot, the 20-inch rear-projection TV, and a series of gray cartridges containing new worlds of possibility.
The one downside of going to Warren’s apartment after school was his mom. She looked like someone who smoked cigarettes, though I have idea if she actually did. She had a puffy, dark-brown mullet that perfectly complimented her tight-fitting, high-waisted jeans. She vibrated at a frequency that made me nervous. She had a distracted sort of kindness; If one of us ever spoke, she rummaged through her purse or glanced over our heads into the mid-distance. And yet cardboard Lunchables boxes always appeared, as if by magic, next to Warren and me where we sat on the beige carpet of his bedroom, entranced by the bursts of color on the screen.
At some point, Warren’s mom got a “boyfriend” (a label that strained to describe the middle-aged, mustachioed man that he was, but that’s what she called him). His name was Rick or something, and I still remember how his eyes sparkled and seemed to dance as he listened, like everything we said reminded him of a good joke. In my mind he is perpetually sprawled in the corner of a couch against the puffy arm rest, one work boot tucked underneath him and the other heel balanced on the edge of the coffee table. Warren’s mother seemed to wind down in his presence, like a sped-up cassette tape settling into its natural pitch.
He had a daughter from a previous marriage with a name like Kim or Jen. Let's go with Jen. She was a few years older than we were and, for that reason, should have been untouchable. But whatever complex, invisible boundaries of age and sex had already been erected between boys and girls at that age weren’t present in her, and I found myself grateful and possibly in love.
After a few months, Warren and his mom moved in with Rick and Jen, an arrangement that raised my mom's eyebrows. Even so, I was allowed to visit once because, as I had reminded her several times, they had a pool.
It was another beige-carpeted apartment like the last, but with an extra bedroom for Jen. It was farther down the valley toward Kent, near the hospital, and I thought the blue-siding and remote, forested feel were an improvement over the wet-pavement aesthetic of their last apartment. I changed into my bathing suit in their unfamiliar bathroom, leaving my t-shirt on, and folded the rest of my clothes into my towel. Stepping back into the living room my underwear slipped from the towel and fell to the floor. The idea of strangers catching sight of my underwear seemed, for some reason, unconscionable, and I bent quickly to grab the tighty-whiteys and shove them back inside the towel.
I glanced around to see if anyone had seen. Rick was telling a story, waving his arms from the couch with the full attention of Warren and Mrs. Warren, so none of them had noticed. But Jen sat curled in the easy chair next to me, her arms wrapped around her knees. I suppressed a twitch of horror as a realized that she was staring right at me. She had seen my underpants.
The twitch must not have been fully suppressed, because her face immediately softened into a conspiratorial smile. “I won’t tell anyone,” she said, somehow recognizing my deep, irrational fear. I smiled back, my heart rate slowing. She was an angel.
I followed Warren mutely to the indoor pool and brown-foam-covered hot tub, still thinking about Jen; Her short brown bob, white tank top and tattered boot-cut jeans.
It was a few months later when Warren found me on the basketball court at under-cover-only recess and told me that he was moving to Alaska. Rick had gotten a job there and the whole family was relocating at the end of the month. “In the middle of the school year?” I asked, thinking about Jen. Warren just stared at me from under his damp bowl cut. I probably said I would write, or something. Maybe he said so too. And then he was gone.
We had drifted apart since I had moved into the gifted class. I had my new set of friends — all social pariahs to the rest of the school — and Warren probably felt that he couldn’t risk the scorn of the other kids in his class by associating with me. Our mutual drift was an unspoken agreement, I think, and I didn’t hold it against him. I hope he felt the same about me. But I still remember the desperation I sensed in him as he found me on the playground to tell me that I would never see him again. I knew the other kids weren’t kind to him. They treated him like the chubby nerd he mostly was, and in turn he let them use his N64. I could have protected him, but I didn’t. I could have stayed friends with him, but I didn’t. Now he was moving to the end of the world and just needed to to tell someone who would care, but all he found was me.
I actually did write, once, at my mom's pointed encouragement. He wrote back a long letter that I never got around to answering. I heard a few years later that Jen was hit and killed by a train. I meant to send another letter, but I could never think of how to start.
Photo by Shawn Hoke