When I think of home, I think of the languorous circle of rock-bare pavement, the springtime hum of mower music, and the slow arcs of bicycle riders and dog walkers. I think of busy twilights and missed sunrises, plump robins and rushing creeks. Somewhere, wedged among the flowing scenery and its pulsating memories, I think of the neighborhood kids.
In the summers of my middle school years, I played with these boys very often. One of my best friends had a pool, and we'd play Marco-Polo. I still remember the shrieks of "FISH OUT OF WATER" that seldom found its mark, even as we started climbing out of the pool to douse the tagger with a cannonball. Occasionally we played Chicken, and it is this unfortunate game that I remember Zach the most. On piggy-back, in the sloshing waters of my friend's pool, two opponents tried to knock each other off. Blonde, meaty-fisted and heavily-built, he had the potential to dominate Chicken. It was unfortunate, then, that nobody could hold him for a very long time before they both collapsed in a flailing, splashing of arms and legs.
I was a frail little asian kid, and I never participated in the roughage of Chicken. Instead, I played hide and seek. We borrowed someone's basement, picked a seeker, and created a tumbling mess in our attempts of hiding. Once, I scouted out the perfect hiding spot. Memory evades me on whose house we were hiding in. After being in so many basements, they start to look the same: childhood toys, shelves, furnace. In the corner, tucked between two shelves, was a plastic sand pit with a hinged cover, and it had just enough room for a person to curl up and close that lid.
When the countdown started, I ambled towards that plastic bin, zig-zagging and feigning a search. I lifted the lid, and in there, crouched down in his basketball shorts and t-shirt, was Zach. "Get your own place!" he hissed, and I shut the lid hastily. I don't remember where I hid for that round, but I do remember that the plastic bin was indeed a very good spot. I was eventually found by another kid who I don't recall, and I joined the squad of searchers. We bounced around that basement, upturning boxes and kicking trash cans. Slowly, more boys were found crammed into crevices in the wall, behind pillows in the shelves, in the shadows of the water heater. But not Zach. We crossed over that plastic bin so many times in our search. Once, someone even stood on the lid to peek at an upper shelf. Nobody thought the bin was large enough to hold a person, and especially not the bulky frame of Zach.
I knew where Zach was, and I had the responsibility of finding him. But something told me that it wasn't right to walk over and lift the lid. It felt a little dirty. So, I let the timer run out. I let him win the game, win whatever prize we had determined before, and I told nobody that I had seen his crouched body in that sand pit.
That picture was taken in the days before Zach moved out. I had just finished my freshman year of high school and we grouped together one last time to take a group picture. I was the cameraman. Zach is there, the second person from the left in the back row.
The night before his departure, we stayed late at a different neighbor's house, and I remember sitting on the porch with him. For so long he was the rompiest of the rompers, the wannabe tackler in our football matches, the energetic tagger in Manhunt. But here we sat, side by side. So clear were the chirp of the katydids, the thickness of the fast-fading twilight, the sweaty cling of our clothes. Not much of our conversation remains unbattered by my later influx of formulas and algorithms, but I remember taking a few selfies and exchanging contact information. Zach was moving down to Orlando with some relatives, and I think I cracked the obligatory Florida Man joke. I think I also told him to watch out for the alligators and to have fun at Disney World. The pictures turned out horrible. He had some retroreflective material on his shirt and they flashed back at the phone in an act of anti-paparazzi defiance.
We chased his car as it pulled out from the driveway the next morning. Zach lived in the house immediately to the left of the bridge that led to our neighborhood. Steel-gray siding, dark shutters, and a prominent sunroom. They had a dumpster on the driveway that day, a dumpster that we'd root through after they'd left and pull out a pogo stick. I filmed that life-speckled cream-colored van as it passed the bridge for one last time, filmed my laughing sprint and the eventual vanishing of the vehicle over a hump in the road. Some of the other boys on bicycles made it further, but they too came back eventually, for it was no use in stopping this van, reversing the selling of their house, reversing everything that had come to result in that van disappearing for one last time through the rock-bare pavement of our gentrified neighborhood.
A little less than four years have passed since we took that group picture. When I think of those moments I think of Ed Sheeran's "Castle on the Hill," about driving home on those old country lanes, about not knowing the answer to everything, about diverging lives and shared sunny skies. And I think about Zach, sometimes. He's still down in Orlando, and I think he's a football player now. We have each other's phone numbers, but I have never texted him after that van pulled out and left Manlius forever. For, I don't exactly know what to say. We both hold mental snapshots of our younger selves. I remember his bearish touch, his unique lilting speech, his crew cut. He probably remembers me as that scrawny kid who can't catch a football but can intercept one with stunning accuracy. It is certain that we have both changed, and perhaps there lies a fear that we will no longer fit these snapshots, and in doing so, shatter the pictures of innocence we made in those lazy summer afternoons.
Someday, perhaps, I'll go down there and share a drink and a laugh. But for now, we thrive in our separate worlds, living in each other's negative spaces.