Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Letter to the Machinehead Concerning That Night

Dear Jessica,

Technically this is a letter for you, but, because I know it wouldn't really register properly due to you being you, it turned into a letter about you instead. But, it still belongs to you. It belongs to both of us. I just want to tell the story. Maybe someday you'll be able to read this and talk about it.

It was the mid nineties. It was the time of Clinton, of middle school, and the first, and last, serious girlfriend I would ever have. More importantly, though, it was the time I made a name for myself in my small circle of gaming friends as the deadliest opponent any one of them could face in our new favorite past time: Goldeneye 64.

Of the six or seven of us that ever partook in this exciting new religion, this true sport of kings, only one of my friends ever even gave me a challenge. For a boy not good at much, my championship status awakened my inner gladiator, and to some extent, my inner douche bag. But, even that feeling was exciting. I gloated often, finally knowing what that even felt like. My hubris was palpable in the air around me, and I found myself feeding off of the huge ego I produced every time I played, like some disgusting egg loving chicken.

I knew the caves and the library better than my own house. I circle strafed in my sleep. When the house was silent and I had only my own beating heart to keep me company, I would hear the soft, intoxicating rhythm of that slow espionage melody, tinkling through my veins like a light rain. Never had I felt such total confidence and control in my whole life. Never was there a time and place so ripe for a person's own personal fall from grace. And, never, was there a more pathetic way for a boy to become a man than to have his ass handed to him, in his own place of worship, by his little sister.

It was late on a weeknight and my mother was out, which wasn't that uncommon back then. My sister and I got along well enough that I was appointed babysitter. It wasn't a huge responsibility, really. Autistic people, especially my sister, tend to have extreme obsessive compulsiveness, and basically take care of themselves. You just have to keep things stocked to facilitate their needs like cereal and soap and electricity.

I didn't have to tell my sister to eat up, wash her ears, go to bed. Her obsessive nature took care of all of that for me. I just had to make sure nothing caught on fire, fell over, or brought the cops to our door. A trifecta that I, the babysitter, had achieved on probably more than one occasion. Being her babysitter meant I just had to be there, so, most of the time I was "watching" Jessica, I was really just watching myself, be awesome at Goldeneye.

Apparently I wasn't the only one.

I had grown tired of shooting the computer driven bad guys and was about to call it a night when I caught my sister staring intently at me from beneath the covers of my bed. This might sound startling or unsettling, but, living with my sister was a life of being watched from corners and from under covers. I pulled my hand away from the power switch and leaned back, our eyes never breaking their lock.

As always, I was the one to break the silence. "What is it Jess? Is something wrong?" She just shook her head at me and kept staring. It had taken me a while to be able to pick out her actual body language from the constant noise of her idiosyncrasies, but I knew she wasn't upset when she shook her head. It wasn't despair in her gaze, it was desire.

The words fell out of my mouth before I could stop myself. "Do you want to play, Sis?"

"Oh yes, Brother, dear." Jessica's is a speech pattern made up of a million other patterns she's heard over the course of her life. It sounded almost comically Dickensian, but I knew what she meant. What she said didn't matter, what she meant was, "I want to play this game more than anything in the world, right now." So for the first time since the "Great Street Fighter 2 across-the-house Free for All of 1992," she got extended a controller from my hand.

Before we got started I found myself, compulsively, giving a speech. In retrospect it was a speech that she couldn't possibly have understood, and probably wouldn't even today. I don't think so, anyway. So, I guess it was more for myself'; to justify what I was planning to do to her on that virtual plain. "Ok," I started. "We're doing this. But, you need to know something first. You get a lot of leeway around here, and I don't. You don't get yelled at for grades. You don't have to go out into the real world and get jumped. Mom still takes care of you, and Dad still loves you. And, while I don't really blame you for all of that, I want you to know that this, this game, it's mine. And, I'm not going to take it easy on you. Not for one damn second."

I got a glare back that still makes me laugh. Jessica has this hilarious way of giving someone a dirty look. Think of a cartoon squirrel, scrunching her face and sticking her neck way out to scrutinize a suspicious acorn with a stick of dynamite stuck in it, and you'd start to get close to my sister's technique, because that's exactly where she learned how to glare at someone. Loony Tunes taught me to love classical music, and it taught my sister how to say, "bring it on, bitch" with just a glance.

I turned around, set the options for the match, and loaded the library; my favorite level. I could already feel the victory swelling in my chest. The game camera spun around our characters and I couldn't hold back the big, satisfied grin. The match started standard enough for me. I knew where all the secrets were, all the weapons, the armor, everything. My sister barely knew how to move forward and pull the trigger at the same time, which put her on par with half of my friends. I was humming along, arming myself to the teeth, and stalking her on the radar like a hungry leopard. Enjoying every succulent second of her impending doom.

I rounded a corner, saw her standing there, and took a second to chuckle. This was out of character for me. No seconds of chuckling were ever enjoyed with my friends as opponents. It was all search and destroy with them, and the chuckling came after. But, this was my sister. What harm would a little moment of gloating do? Well, it does about the equivalent of forty high powered , full metal jacket assault rifle rounds ripping through my body armor, and then my chest, splattering my proud ass all over the concrete walls of the library offices.

There's something I didn't mention about my sister. I don't know about all people like her, but, my sister doesn't really learn how to do things. She watches and then just does it. Now, one might exclaim, "it's like she can see the matrix." For me, I watched Neo and Trinity look at, and then know how to use a helicopter and thought, "Jesus, all these people are autistic."

I had found the armor, my favorite pistols, and tracked her with a detailed knowledge of the building's layout. She remembered and repeated me acquiring two, dual wielded M16's, and deducted what the trigger on the controller was for. She then continued to run a series of subroutines in her head that came at me like a white hot purifying flame. Her shrill giggle piercing the air the whole time I was being slaughtered. Each laugh shoveling out more and more of my once plentiful confidence and certainty. She was schooling me, teaching me about how momentum wasn't everything, and that all the wins in the world under my belt counted for absolute dick.

My "disabled" sister hunted me with a Terminator-like tenacity that I had never experienced in my whole life. She wouldn't be caught in traps, she wouldn't flinch in direct gunfire, and she displayed no pattern or weakness to exploit. She was focused, consistent, and had absolutely no concept of fear. In the real world, sure, she was an easy target, but here, in this one, her world not mine, the rules limited all of our actions to basic mental input. She walked, shot, and killed, like she was on a mission from God, and God had told her to kick my sorry ass all the way from Hell to breakfast. It was judgment day in our house that night.

When the smoke cleared and the game revealed the winner, I believe the score was something like 20 to 3, Jessica. Of course, a humiliated boy's memory is unreliable at best, so if the Ghost of Christmas Asswhoopings came down and told me I hadn't gotten a single kill, I wouldn't argue. I had been beaten, worse than I ever had, or will be, in my entire career with that game. Worse still, it was the only time it ever happened, because after that night Jessica lost all interest in Goldeneye.

It seems like a trivial place and time for a boy to have two substantial epiphanies at once, but that's exactly what happened. After she left and I was still sitting there, staring at the screen in my dark room. I thought about the lessons I had just had burned into my skin. Tattooed onto my forehead. She taught me that disability is only defined by environment, and she taught me that cockiness, like steroids, will boost your performance all the way to the point that it destroys you.

Of course, I forget these lessons in adulthood, often actually, but something always snaps me back to that night. Someone exposing a trivial achievement of mine for how frivolous and meaningless it really is. Or, effortlessly negating my existence in a field that I consider myself an expert. Or, usually when I get a progress report about Jessica. When I hear about her horseback riding, or her swimming medals, or her fiddling with her computer in ways even I can't back track. Or, how she's always happy to see me. How she doesn't hate me for being different from her. How despite all the small stuff that brings her to tears, the big stuff just washes over her like a warm ocean wave.

All of that reminds me of that feeling I got that night. That if her wires weren't crossed for whatever reason, that she would have surpassed me in every measurable way. That i was the prototype, and she was supposed to be the production model, and a cruel twist of genetic chance permanently knocked us all off course. Flinging my sister into a cold abyss, and allowing me to retain some sliver of validity that I could later build some kind of personality around. So that even my small successes are really her doing. Adjusted and corrected via radio signal from outer space.

I think about her a lot when I'm alone, and a lot when I'm playing a game. I think of her, and that night, and how she pulled back the curtain for me for those brief, bloody minutes. I think about her, then sounds of artillery and impact tremors are tuned back into focus, and I race into a hail of gunfire, laugh into my headset, and take out as many sonsabitches as I can with pure reflex before I get crushed under and avalanche of hot, screaming hell. That's how Jessica would do it, and those moments are for her.

Those moments are your moments, little sister.

You glorious, never tiring, Machinehead.

I promise I will always love you more for what you taught me, than I hate you for having to live through the lesson.

Chiggie Von Richthofen
That deaf, dumb, and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball...

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