Welcome to another great year at Bat Masterson Junior High School. For your first homework assignment, you will write a two-page composition about what you did on your summer vacation. Some of you may get a chance to share them with all of your classmates! Due Monday.
For my summer vacation this year, I got to visit my friend Alan Mendelsohn. Some of you probably remember him from when he used to go to Bat Masterson with us, but his family moved back to "The Bronx" last fall. I missed him a lot and I was really glad my parents agreed to let me spend the summer with his family this year.
Visiting "The Bronx" was great! At first I thought he would be living in a neighborhood like my old neighborhood in Hogboro, but it turned out that his family didn't go back to exactly the same place they lived before. Instead they moved to a neighborhood outside the city that is a lot like here in West Kangaroo Park. We could get the bus into the city pretty easily, though-- the buses in "The Bronx" are a lot faster than the ones in Hogboro, because they use Venusian teleportation technology. The first week I was there, Alan's mother took time off work so we could do all the tourist stuff, and it was pretty fascinating. The tourist stuff in "The Bronx" is all basically the same as here, but it's kind of different, too. I guess that's the point of traveling, to see what the differences are, and what things are the same. I especially liked the zoo, where they had all kinds of animals that they don't have in the zoo in Hogboro. Going up to the top of the highest building in the city was fun, too. We could see all the way out to the dead sea bottoms and the vast red plains that are on the other side of the one-way camouflaged dome.
After that Alan's mom had to go back to her job. When they moved back she got a job in the High Commissioner's Cultural Liaisons office-- she gets to teach people in "The Bronx" about all the interesting local customs she learned in Hogboro, like palmistry and metal-detecting. She says they're really happy to get someone who has actually lived and studied in Hogboro for years, like she did.
Me and Alan were pretty tired out from a week straight of running around the city looking at museums and so on, so we decided to just hang out at Alan's house and relax. At first it was fun. We flopped down on his bed and talked about all the things we'd missed while we were living so far apart, and read the new comic books I brought him from Hogboro. He had a cheap Omega Meter he'd bought at the five-and-dime and we messed with it to see how many different tunes we could get it to play by varying our brain-wave patterns, and we thumbed through some of his collection of weird used books, which were an interesting mix of ones he'd bought in Hogboro (like Lady Be Good: The Mystery Bomber of WWII and Houses That Kill) and ones he'd bought since coming back to "The Bronx" (like Boys Are From Mars, Gills Are From the Seventh Existential Plane and Help A Saturnian Ate My Digital Watch.) After awhile it started to get boring, though. It turns out that sitting around a house in the middle of the suburbs of "The Bronx" isn't all that different from sitting around a house in West Kangaroo Park, and that gets boring even if you're with your best friend in the whole Solar System.
We tried watching TV but TV there is very different from TV here. All the sets are two-way: when you're watching your television, other people watching TV in their houses can see you. I thought this would be neat at first, because we could talk to people all over the planet, just like I'd seen in science fiction movies, until Alan told me it wasn't like that. You get to watch whatever's being transmitted from a random TV set somewhere else, but it won't be the same TV set that's watching you, so you can't actually communicate both ways, and usually the sound is so staticky that it's better to leave it on mute. Mostly what you do is you flip channels a lot looking for somebody who's doing something interesting, but all you see is people sitting in front of their TVs, flipping channels and looking for something interesting. Alan said that sometimes it's actually really good-- like on holidays, if you're all alone, you can turn on your TV, and most of the other people watching TV will also be people who are alone on the holiday, so everybody celebrates together. That sounded really fun to me-- if we couldn't go to the Old One's apartment for some reason, I think I'd rather do that than have the holidays just with my parents. Alan also said that sometimes if you flipped channels a lot in the middle of the night you might find people who had forgotten they left the TV on and were canoodling on the couch, but it was considered really impolite to watch. We decided to wait and try looking for that later in the summer, when Alan's parents would be more used to me and it would be easier to sneak downstairs after they were in bed.
But sometimes we did see something kind of interesting for a little while, like people practicing musical instruments or parents playing with little kids, and once we found a bunch of girls about our age who looked like they were putting on a play in front of the TV for whoever happened to be watching. We messed around with trying to be entertaining ourselves after that-- Alan told me to try dancing some of the dances of my native people, so I taught him "I'm A Little Teapot", which for some reason we both thought was hilarious. Then I tried to get him to do one of the polkas that Madame Zelatnowa had tried to teach me, but I didn't remember it very well without the music, and Alan said we shouldn't be messing around with powerful forces like polka anyway. Then I taught him some of the yoga I learned in Mr. Winkle's class last year. We left the TV on, just in case some random person somewhere else in "The Bronx" wanted to learn yoga, too.
Even that got boring after a couple of days, though. By Thursday we were flopped out on Alan's bed again, just sort of staring at the ceiling. Every so often he would kick me in the ankle or I would elbow him in the side and say something and we would talk for a little while until it petered out again, but that was about as exciting as it got.
Finally I said "I wish you hadn't sold your comic book collection in order to buy the Key to Interplanar Travel. I kind of wanted to read Wonder Wombat someday."
"I haven't had a chance to get started on rebuilding it," Alan said, "between moving and another new school and then talking my parents into arranging for you to be able to visit."
"Yeah," I sighed. "I guess I can re-read that book about the Quest for the Great Popsicle again, at least." Alan is a lot pickier about his comics, which have to be in mint condition, than about his used books, which he prefers as battered and interesting-looking as possible. That's because he's a connoisseur of comics, but a dilettante of disquisitions. (I read his vocabulary-building books a lot while we were bored.)
"We could go into the city tomorrow and look for some more comics and books," he said, kind of slowly and carefully. "I think some of the stores I used to go to are still there."
"Would your mom mind?" I asked. My mom had specifically told me not to go getting lost in any strange cities alone, but if I was with Alan I wouldn't be alone.
"No, she's used to me going after school," he said. "I wasn't sure you'd want to, though." He kind of looked at me without looking at me, from where we were both flat on the bed. "You seemed like you were bored with the comics when we went in Hogboro. I thought you might not really be interested in that kind of stuff any more."
"That's because you had to look at every single comic in the store, and then you didn't even buy any," I said. "Anybody would have been bored, Alan. A Tibetan monk who had spent the last thirty years walled up in a tiny cell would have been bored." Alan had a lot of books that talked about Tibetan monks and things like that. "But I have a pretty good idea of what was in your collection before, so I could help you find stuff." I still felt sort of guilty that he'd had to sell his treasured collection to pay Clarence Yojimbo and I hadn't been able to contribute anything. "Besides, I'd like to see what comic shops are like here. I bet they're different from in Hogboro."
"Okay, cool," said Alan. He seemed a lot happier all of a sudden. "We can go tomorrow, then. We should bring backpacks to carry the stuff back, just in case we end up buying a lot."
My mother had given me $200 for spending money while I was in "The Bronx", which we'd exchanged for local money on the first day I was there. It had come out to 50 nanoklatchniks, which Alan's mom said would be plenty, because nanoklatchniks were still worth a lot more than dollars. I hadn't spent any of them yet, because when we were with Alan's mom, she'd insisted on paying for everything, so I was looking forward to getting to spend some of it, and maybe buying Alan lunch or something as a thank-you for inviting me.
We left early and told his parents we were getting breakfast in the city. Alan had a guidebook that was supposed to talk about the most offbeat and unknown ethnic restaurants in the city, and it had mentioned a place that served Nafsulian Green Death Chili and really good fleegix, and was open twenty-four-hours-and-almost-forty-minutes a day, so we wanted to try that.
Alan's mom seemed weirdly happy when we told her about our plans for the day. She said she was glad that I still shared so many of Alan's interests, and she'd been worried we'd be bored by ourselves in the house, and it was good to see Alan working on his comic book collection again after so long. I guess she was worried that after we hadn't seen each other for so long, we wouldn't have as many things in common any more.
I thought about that while we were taking the bus into the city. I know I said the buses there are faster because they teleport, but they aren't instant like the transporters in Star Trek. It still takes a little while to get places. How it works is, you wait at the bus stop until a teleport pod appears, and then once the doors open you get in and feed your fare into the machine. There will already be a lot of people in the pod, just like a Hogboro bus, so you find a seat, and then you usually wait for a few more minutes. The teleport pod has to warm up its engine, and the computer in it has to do all the calculations to figure out where it's going next and how to get there safely. Then everything sort of fizzes out and fizzes back in-- it's completely different from the way interplanar travel feels, like the difference between drinking fresh tap water and drinking ginger ale-- and you'll be at the next stop.
It usually won't be the stop you're trying to get to, though. The buses go to a bunch of different places, like Hogboro buses, but they won't necessarily be near each other, and they're in a different order every time. Alan's mom said they had to work like that, otherwise there would be so many people teleporting all over the place that they would constantly be teleporting into each other, plus sometimes it takes a lot more energy to teleport to some places than others. When the bus gets to a new stop you have to look out a window to see if it's a stop you want. There's an electronic voice that's supposed to say the name of the stop, too, but usually even local people can't understand what it's saying.
It took us longer than usual to get to where we were going that morning, and it was rush hour so we didn't get seats together. That meant I had a lot of time to think about how maybe Alan's mother had been worried. I could see how she might be worried, I guess. She didn't want to be a bad hostess but she was basically going to be leaving us on our own for the rest of the summer. Plus, she was probably hoping Alan and me would have a good summer. She was a lot like my mom-- well-meaning even though she didn't have much in common with Alan, but she did want him to be happy, and if we hadn't still been friends it would have been pretty miserable.
I hadn't been worried about that at all, myself. Maybe I should have been. Now that I thought about it, I had changed a lot since Alan left. I'd made friends in the corrective gym class, I'd started talking back to my teachers instead of ignoring them, and I'd been going into the city a lot more than staying at home. Plus I'd started to have a growth spurt. I still wasn't as tall as Alan, but I almost had to shave now. I'd been thinking about maybe letting it go over the summer, to see if I could grow a sort-of beard like Alan still had.
Maybe that was why I hadn't been worried about still being friends with Alan. A lot had changed since he left, but it still felt like he'd been involved in all of it. I'd taken his place as the troublemaker in my classes and I'd sort of become the leader and teacher of the weird kids the way he'd taught me how to trip people and so on when he'd first come to the school. It wasn't that I tried to become Alan or anything like that-- it was that I was trying to learn how to be the person I was around him, even when he wasn't there. It was like he'd made a space for himself in my life, but after he left the new space was still there, and I was growing into it and becoming more me, the way he was already completely himself.
I thought about that some more, and I looked over at Alan across the bus. He was looking at me, too, with a weird expression on his face, but he turned away quickly when he saw me looking up. I wondered if Alan had changed, in ways I hadn't noticed yet, and when I thought of that I felt kind of like one of the kids he used to trip by suddenly swerving away from-- like the ground was out from under my feet. When Alan had left I'd gotten bigger, and not just in terms of clothes size I mean, but he'd had to come back to "The Bronx" and fit back into his old life. In Hogboro he'd stood out, and he'd had his life in "The Bronx" to make him special, but here he was just another kid, and he was the new kid again, too, for the second time in a year. He'd been really excited about getting to go home but sometimes things weren't as good as you'd expected.
He'd been sort of weird when I'd first gotten there, too; not unfriendly-weird, but kind of awkward and careful and quiet, and his parents had been extra loud and cheerful like they were trying to make up for it. After a couple of hours he'd been back to the old Alan, though, so I'd just figured he was nervous or something. But he hadn't really talked much about his new school, and he hadn't introduced me to any new friends. And now that I thought about it, it was weird that he hadn't bought any new comics since he'd moved. It had been over six months, after all. I'm not a connoisseur like he is, and I'd probably bought a few dozen in that time. He hadn't seemed like he'd lost interest, though-- he'd been really excited about the new issues I'd brought him, and I don't think he was just pretending. He'd been really happy when I wanted to go on this shopping trip with him, too. I looked over at him again, and he had another weird and sort of un-Alan-ish expression on his face, but when he saw me looking he smiled and gave a double thumbs-up.
Maybe he'd had a harder time of it that I had. I tried to imagine Alan being all withdrawn and lonely like I'd been in West Kangaroo Park before I met him, but it was really hard to imagine Alan that way, because he was Alan. I wondered if maybe I shouldn't have talked as much as I did about how much fun I'd started having in school after he left, but he'd seemed to like it. He'd cheered me on after the fact about making trouble in my classes and made way better comments about the teachers than I could come up with, and even though he hadn't had as much trouble as I had with Mr. Jerris, he said he really wished he could have been in the corrective gym class, because he had some interesting books about chess and yoga. I hoped Alan didn't think I had replaced him with the kids from gym class-- they were all sort of in awe of me because I was usually the one who started things and I was kind of the leader, so I didn't have anyone who was really a good friend. It was better than sitting at home but it wasn't at all like getting to spend time with Alan. I decided to make sure he knew I wanted to be here because of him, not because I wanted to see "The Bronx", starting with this trip today. Even if it did mean having to not act bored while he looked at every single comic book twice over.
The next stop after that turned out to be the one near the twenty-four-hours-and-almost-forty-minutes diner that had the Nafsulian Green Death Chili. We both agreed that it was a pretty good breakfast, but whatever Nafsulian had tuned into the Bermuda Triangle Chili Parlor back home and gotten the recipe had clearly missed a few steps. This was probably a good thing. I still can't quite handle the Bermuda Triangle's Green Death, but this was only about as spicy as the H-bomb back home, and the spicy taste was a different sort of spicy. Plus it was almost more teal than green. Alan asked the waiter about it, and it turned out that fresh chili peppers are really hard to get in "The Bronx", and the dried ones didn't work, so they'd had to substitute these Wiltzbilb spicy yellow figs and blue garlic from Spiegel instead. Because of the blue garlic, they had to set a hard limit on total daily consumption, or it would start making you really mentally suggestible. They also had excellent potato pancakes on the side, even better than the ones Madame Zelatnowa makes for holidays, and the fleegix was the best I've ever tasted. We decided it was definitely worth coming back sometime.
After we ate we walked to the neighborhood where all the book and comic stores were. Walking long distances is a lot easier in "The Bronx", because of the lower gravity, and the slightly higher oxygen content in the air under the domes. It was a enough of walk that we could have had a long conversation, but I didn't know what to say. It was weird to think that maybe he hadn't been collecting comics because he wasn't happy here, at the same time that he was still Alan the same as he used to be. Finally I just asked him what his new school was like.
He shrugged. "It's okay," he said. "I have to work a lot harder than at Bat Masterson. The teachers here expect us to be smarter and faster than the kids back in Hogboro, of course." He was doing that thing again where he acted like he was a superior being. I guess I found it a little less annoying now that I knew for sure that he was a superior being, but I still didn't say anything. It's not fun to be treated like you'll always be a stupid kid, just because of things you can't change. He looked over at me again. "And I'm way behind in all the psychic stuff," he added.
This was interesting enough that I forgot I was annoyed again. "You learn about psychic stuff in school?"
"Sure," he said, and stuck his hands in his pockets. "It's normal here, you knew that, right?" I guess I did know that, sort of, but I hadn't seen anybody using it, and I hadn't really thought through that it would mean having psychic classes in junior high. "Apparently there's all sorts of psychic powers I should have learned how to use while we were living in New York City and Hogboro that I didn't even know about," he said. "They gave me a bunch of remedial exercises to do over the summer." He kicked a lump of red "Bronx" rock that was on the sidewalk. "I figure, screw 'em, I learned enough on my own to impress Rolzup, the High Commissioner, right?"
"I wish I had classes like that," I said honestly. "Chess and yoga are fun, but I'm not really learning anything I couldn't learn messing around on my own, if I wanted to."
"You could probably do the exercises," Alan said. "You were pretty good at all that. You'd probably be better than half my classmates if you had a proper psychic training course instead of Klugarsh's nonsense. And most of my classmates are mental midgets by the standards of 'The Bronx' anyway, you've got ten times the potential."
"Could you teach me?" I asked. I was kind of excited at getting to learn more about psychic powers. Clarence Yojimbo had been right, really-- controlling minds and moving objects was fun for awhile, and traveling between planes was sort of exciting, but there wasn't really much more I could do once I got bored with that. I'd messed around with it a little after Alan left but I hadn't discovered anything new I could do. I wanted to know what it was really supposed to be good for.
"Indubitably," he said. We shook on it, and by then we were at the street with all the bookstores. We went into the first one we saw. Alan said it was new since the last time he'd been down here-- he'd done most of his shopping since he'd moved back at the tiny used bookstore in his new neighborhood. It was pretty much like a used bookstore back in Hogboro. There was a guy in thick glasses and a green sweater (green sweaters are as common in "The Bronx" as blue jeans are in Hogboro) sitting at a counter, almost hidden behind towering piles of junk. He grunted at us as we went by.
The first thing Alan did was find me an old copy of the same textbook he was using in his psychic class. He said after making it through the backwards version of Yojimbo's Japanese-English Dictionary, I could handle that just fine. Then I wanted to look for presents for people back home. I ended up with a paperback book called Venusian Aikido for Today that I thought Mr. Winkle might like, and Cinematography in All Eleven Dimensions for Uncle Boris. In the overflowing recipes section I found a copy of Favorite Spiegelian Dishes because everything in it was fried in animal fat and it would be really entertaining to hear my grandparents and Madame Zelatnowa talk about how terrible it was, and Alan found an old pamphlet called "Now You're Grilling with Nuclear!" for my father-- that one turned out to have been imported from somewhere near Hogboro. I bought them all for less than one nanoklatchnik, so I was feeling pretty good. Alan bought a few books for himself, too-- a recipe book called The Stationmaster's Guide to Blue Food of the Galaxy, because he said he was intrigued by the blue garlic in the chili, and also something about werewolves, I think.
By then we'd spent enough time in the used bookstore that we decided to go right to this comic book store that Alan remembered.
This place had a sign across the front in big block letters that said "COMICS AND FUNNY BOOKS" with a big smiley face on either side, and there were posters of superheros all over the windows, making it hard to see inside. Outside by the doors there were two long white cardboard boxes full of old comics, with "THESE BOXES 5 PICOKLATCHNIKS A BOOK" written on them, so we stopped to thumb through them first.
After a minute I realized why the comics I was looking at seemed weird. "Alan, these are all comics from back home," I said.
"True," he agreed. "All comic book collectors in 'The Bronx' collect comics from there, Leonard. There is no comics industry here-- or, at least, no good one," he amended. "There are a few terrible books that are trying to mimic these," he waved his hands at the boxes, "but nobody bothers with them except real fanatics."
I frowned. I guess that explained why Alan could start a collection of comics that William Lloyd Floyd would recognize while he was still living in "The Bronx". But then I realized what comic I was looking at. "But this is a mint condition copy of 'Action Comics #1'," I said, pulling it farther out of the box. "It's worth at least $500!" I'd remembered that it was one of the ones Alan had considered buying back in Hogboro, so I'd looked it up later. I was still a little shaky on how many dollars to a picoklatchnik, but I was pretty sure it was a lot less than a hundred.
"That's what's different here," Alan said. "Hey, can I see that? I might want to buy it." He flipped through it and frowned, continuing, "Back in the 1930s when they were printing these, people back where you live would just buy them and then throw them away, so they're pretty rare. Plus it was a lot easier to import them here-- fewer radar arrays and all that-- so a lot of them ended up in 'The Bronx' and disappeared from your markets there. Since they were still pretty hard to import, though, people here hung onto them, so they're a lot more common here than in Hogboro." He stuck the copy of Action Comics back in the box.
"You're not going to buy it?" I said.
"Nah, it's too boring to be the first thing in a new collection," he said. "Here in 'The Bronx', the really sought-after, hard-to-get comics are recent ones." He went into the shop, holding the door open for me.
Inside, it reminded me more of Morrie's in Hogboro than anything-- there were only a few shelves, widely spaced, with comic books turned covers-out, and some tables near the back with some kind of board game involving brightly-colored crystal pyramids set up on them. But the shelves, rather than being grimy-looking, had polished, locked glass doors protecting the comics, and there was actually a pretty good-sized group of green-sweater-wearing people sitting at the tables, chatting and playing games.
The comics carefully locked under the glass cases were all the same comics I'd been buying for spare change down at the drugstore in West Kangaroo Park-- I saw a couple of Batmans, and Daredevil with the new artist, and one of those issues of Iron Man with the drunk guy on the cover. "You mean those ones I brought you--"
"Are really valuable here, yeah," Alan said. "But as a connoisseur, I, of course, care more about quality than price."
The guy behind the counter looked up when he heard us come in. He was pretty tall, for "The Bronx", but he kind of hunched in on himself, and his thick-rimmed glasses were even thicker than the usual. When he saw who it was, he spread his arms and boomed out "Mendelsohn!" enthusiastically.
"Hi, Boom-boom," Alan said, with a curt nod.
"I haven't seen you in ages," Boom-boom answered. "Twelve months, I bet! Almost half a year. And who's that with you?"
"This is my friend Leonard Neeble," Alan said, sort of pushing me forward. "He's visiting for the summer. From Hogboro."
"Hogboro?" said Boom-boom, getting really excited. "You mean, Hogboro as in the Hogboro plane? On Earth?"
"He brought me the final issues of The Human Fly and Howard the Duck," Alan said, with slightly mean grin. "And every issue so far of Starblazer, including June."
"You have to be kidding, even you aren't that lucky. No one has the June issue of Starblazer." The guy was gazing at me with this intense look like he wanted to take me home and lock me in his basement, almost the same way William Lloyd Floyd had looked at Alan's run of Wonder Wombat when he was buying it. It was kind of scary.
"Well, you know me," Alan said, "I'm more interested in the older books anyway. Back issues still upstairs?"
"Yeah, go for it," Boom-boom said, only half paying attention.
"I know Leonard gets bored looking through back issues. Why don't you stay down here, Leonard? Maybe the regulars can teach you Martian chess or something," Alan said, with a smile that I should have known better than to trust.
I looked over at the tables and I realized that the people back there were staring at me pretty much the same way Boom-boom was, half awestruck and half hungry. "We'd love to," one of them said fervently. They looked like they were mostly high school or college age, mostly boys. Some of them even had sweaters in colors other than green.
"I don't mind," I started to say to Alan, but some of them had gotten up and were already gathering around me.
"Are you really an Earthling?" one of them asked.
"Last I checked," I said.
"Is it true that instead of using teleportation, humans travel around by riding on metal tanks full of exploding hydrocarbons?" someone else asked.
I actually knew the answer to that one, because after Clarence Yojimbo had talked about not understanding how internal combustion engines worked, I'd checked a book out of the library on it. Before I could say more than a few words, though, someone else-- this one was a girl, in a knit green minidress instead of a sweater-- interrupted with "Is it true that Earthlings die if they don't eat human flesh once a week?"
I had no idea what to say to that one, but before I could, someone else asked "Do Earthlings really keep chickens as livestock?" and then someone else said something over that, until I could hardly understand what people were saying. One of the girls stepped forward and tried to touch my sleeve.
"ALAN!" I cried out for help. Unfortunately, what I had forgotten, between being excited about getting to visit, and being worried that he had been unhappy, was that Alan Mendelsohn was, in fact, evil. He waved cheerfully at me just before he disappeared at the top of the stairs, and I figured that was the last I'd see of him for about an hour.
"Look," I said rather desperately to the people who were still asking me questions about Earth, "I really just came in here because I like comics."
That was the wrong thing to say, because then they started talking about comics. I guess they wanted to prove to the Earthling that they knew just as much about Earth comics as he did. Unfortunately, that wasn't very hard. I'd never been much more than casually interested in comics before I met Alan. After that I'd started to pick up a little more, mostly because I wanted to understand him when he talked about them, and that was the only thing that saved me, I think. At first I managed to hold my own by steering the conversation toward comics I actually knew about, and then faking it. It still felt kind of weird, like they were treating me like I was some kind of exotic alien from another planet, but after all, that's what I was, so I figured I could deal with it. But every time I got something wrong or admitted I didn't know something, they looked at me like I had personally betrayed them. I was starting to be afraid that if they decided I didn't know enough about comics to satisfy them, it might turn ugly fast, like the mob in Lenny when they found out that the Terrible Trouncer was a fake.
In fact, after I failed to show proper interest in Rawhide Kid, one of the bigger ones said, with a dangerous growl, "I'm starting to think he's not a real Earthling. Maybe he's been lying to us all along." Luckily, just then Alan finally came back downstairs, with a dozen or so comics under one arm. I ran over to him and immediately dragged him back upstairs. It wasn't the smartest retreat I'd ever planned, since we'd have to go back down the stairs, but right then it was the fastest route to get away.
"Help," I hissed at Alan when we were safely out of sight.
"What?" he said. "Having trouble with Martian chess? The rules are a lot simpler--"
He was laughing at me. I narrowed my eyes. "You knew that was going to happen."
"I thought you might want to learn Martian Chess!"
I shoved him into a comic-book-covered table.
"Okay, okay, they can get kind of intense about Earth culture. I figured it would be fun to see what happened if they finally met a real Earthling."
"You're a terrible, horrible friend," I told him. "I thought they were going to eat me alive. It was like Village of the Damned."
"You like me anyway," he said.
I did. I remembered I'd promised myself to keep in mind that he might be worried that I didn't like him as much now that I had other friends back in Hogboro.
"Yeah, I do," I told him. He looked at me, surprised, and flushed a little.
"Let's just get out of here," I added, before he could say anything. "And next comic store, I'm helping you look for books, and you don't abandon me to a bunch of weird Earth fanatics."
"Deal," Alan said. He grabbed my hand and led me back downstairs. When we emerged, most of the people were back at the tables, and I thought we might get out without any trouble, but instead there were a bunch of whistles and catcalls, like I used to hear on the street sometimes in the Old Neighborhood in Hogboro. Boom-boom grinned at Alan and wolf-whistled. "Damn, Mendelsohn, I knew you were lucky, but I didn't know you were that lucky."
Alan was flushed really red now. I'd never seen him really blush properly before, it was weird. He dropped the comics he was still carrying onto the counter and said, "Start a pull box for me, I'll be back for these later. We're leaving now."
"You might want to straighten your sweater first," Boom-boom said, and waggled his eyebrows.
Alan didn't even reply, he just dragged me as fast as he could out of the store.
"What was that all about?" I asked, after we were safely on the street.
"The catcalls and stuff," I said.
"Oh that," Alan replied. "They all thought you'd dragged me upstairs so we could make out."
I tripped on a crack in the sidewalk and had to take a second to get my balance back, then I said "You mean make out like kissing."
"Sure," he said.
I didn't really know what to make of that.
"I'll let your poor Earth brain have a few minutes to process that," he added with fake kindness.
Okay, I let my poor Earth brain try to process that. "They do know that we're both boys, right?" I said. "I mean, the boy-girl stuff doesn't work differently in 'The Bronx', does it?"
"They knew we were both boys," Alan confirmed. "And it mostly works the same. It's just that here, it's just as normal for a boy to date another boy as for a boy to date a girl. Or for two girls to date each other."
"Oh," I said, and let my Earth brain process that for a little while, too. I'd never really even thought about that before, but I guess it made sense. I mean, I didn't understand what made the girls-and-boys thing work anyway. A lot of the kids at Bat Masterson had been really excited about dating each other, but I'd never seen the point, and they always seemed to be trying to make it work like the love stories on TV and in books. As far as I could tell, though, the love stories on TV and in books weren't much like people dating in real life. The only couples I really knew very well outside TV were my parents and my grandparents. My parents got along well enough but they didn't really interact much outside making dinner, and the Old One and Grandfather acted exactly the same way around each other as they did around Madame Zelatnowa.
I figured if I didn't understand how it worked with boys and girls, there was no reason it couldn't work the same way with boys and boys. Plus it made a lot of other things make sense-- things I'd heard or read, about "the gays" and stuff like that, which my parents and teachers wouldn't explain, and that the Old One always told me I would have to ask my parents about. I was pretty sure there were boys back on Earth who dated other boys, too, even if there it wasn't just as "normal" as boys and girls.
I tried to imagine me and Alan ending up like my parents, or like Grandfather and the Old One. It didn't really work. I mean, it was Alan, I couldn't see us ending up with a special salad bowl and plaid wallpaper, or even a Romanian vacuum cleaner and a parrot. Well, maybe the parrot. But me and Alan made a lot more sense than trying to imagine myself like that with any girl I'd ever met in my entire life.
"Okay," I said.
"Okay?" Alan asked.
"Okay, it makes sense."
"Sure. Of course it makes sense."
"Sure does," I said. "Good for 'The Bronx'." I think he hadn't been expecting me to react like that. He didn't know what to say.
"You, uh, don't want to make out with me, do you?" I asked, just to make sure that wasn't why he was being weird.
"No!" he said.
"Good," I said in relief.
"Good," he replied.
"I mean, not that I don't--" I added, suddenly afraid that wasn't the reply he'd been hoping for.
"No, yes, I understand, exactly right," he said.
"Good," I replied. We walked on a few steps in silence. "Besides, I'm pretty sure I could do better than you," I said, nudging him in the side. "Boom-boom seemed to think I was a catch."
He blushed again. It was fascinating, and this time I could concentrate on observing properly. "That's just because, well--"
"What?" I asked.
"Because there's a rumor that Earthlings are, well, larger." He made a couple of hand gestures that made it really clear which particular part was supposed to be larger.
"Oh!" I said, and then I couldn't resist asking, "Um. Are we?"
"I have no idea," said Alan, "and I have no plans to find out."
It took me a little while to get used to the idea that people in "The Bronx" might be looking at me and Alan and thinking we were boyfriend and, well, boyfriend, I guess. The rest of the day it felt like everybody was staring at us, and I thought way too much about everything Alan and I did together, and whether it would make it look like we were dating. It was pretty dumb to feel that way. I mean, if they were staring at us, it was probably because I was from Hogboro, not because they thought I was dating someone in a completely normal way, and I hadn't minded that before.
I bought Alan lunch as a thank-you for hosting me even though buying him lunch sort of felt like something I might do on date, because I decided I wasn't going to let that change anything. We got Moo Shoo Pork and Nafsu Cola from this Waka-Wakian place we passed on the way back to the bus stop. They had fleegix too, but we decided not to risk the possibility that it might taste like real Waka-Wakian fleegix. Besides, I was starting to get a little sick of fleegix by then, even the good fleegix they had in "The Bronx". The guy behind the counter winked at me when I insisted on paying for both of us, and said "Ah, young love," and gave us free yogurt-filled muffins. I decided I could live with people thinking we were dating if it meant free muffins.
It didn't take very long until it just felt completely normal. Boys dating other boys, I mean, and knowing that people might look at me and Alan that way. I got to noticing people on the bus and on the street who were in pairs that weren't man-and-woman pairs, and we had dinner a couple of times with Alan's Uncle Mel and Uncle Ambrose, which was always a good time. After awhile it was hard to figure out why anybody thought only men and women could be like that. (Me and Alan did finally sneak downstairs to the TV after bedtime a couple of times, too, and I got a much better idea of how the men-and-other-men thing works in the middle of the night, when they think nobody's watching. I got a better idea of how the men-and-women thing worked, for that matter. It turns out that Earth men are bigger, but not enough bigger to really make a difference.)
Anyway, I almost got to where I kind of liked the idea that people thought Alan and I were dating. It wasn't just the free food, although that was nice, or the fact that I was pretty sure Alan's parents had only invited me over for the summer because they thought Alan was so weird that he had zero chance of ever dating somebody from "The Bronx". But it was kind of nice to know that people thought we were that special to each other, I guess, and that they thought we made a good pair.
Not that I wanted to be dating Alan or anything! Right now I don't want to be dating anybody, and I'm pretty sure Alan feels the same way. Maybe in ten years or so we can think about it again, but ten years is soon enough. My parents and Alan's parents said that if we both get good grades he can visit Hogboro over the winter vacation-- my family will be done with the holidays by then, and "The Bronx" has a midwinter holiday too, but the seasons are so long there that the holidays move around the school calendar even more than they do for us-- so we we'll have plenty of time to figure things out.
Just in case, though, when I got back to Hogboro at the end of August I went to the big library downtown and did some research into how boys-and-other-boys works here. I knew it wasn't considered "normal" like in "The Bronx", but that was all I knew. I learned a lot more than I expected! Did you know that in Ancient Greece, men falling in love with other men was just as normal as it is in "The Bronx"? In some parts of Greece that was even considered more admirable than men and women falling in love. Alexander the Great even built a whole temple in honor of his boyfriend! And Liberace, who is one of my mother's favorite musical artists, was gay, too. There are more gay people than I realized in Hogboro, even. I found a flier for a bar taped on the front window at Morrie's that made a lot more sense once I realized what the Greek references probably meant.
Now that I know more about it, I'm pretty sure Uncle Boris is gay, too. And possibly used to date Lance Hergeschleimer. It would help explain the spats. And maybe also why Lance Hergeschleimer thought Waka-Waka was so much better than Hogboro. For a long time they haven't treated gay people very well here in Hogboro, but I'm pretty sure nobody cares in Waka-Waka any more than they do in "The Bronx", which just goes to show you that some things in Hogboro are so awful that even Waka-Waka looks great in comparison.
I didn't want to ask Uncle Boris if he was gay, because I was afraid he might have a movie about it, or worse. Instead I asked the Old One.
"I have never known anything of Uncle Boris's sexual history," she told me, "and I hope I never shall."
"Oh," I said.
She was mixing up some kind of thick dough involving honey, dried cranberries, carob chips, molasses, and raw oats, and she folded it over and pressed it hard against the breadboard. "But if you're old enough to be asking that that question, you're old enough to know that Madame Zelatnowa is my girlfriend."
Well, that explained why she never acted any different around Madame Zelatnowa than around Grandfather, and why she still lived in their little apartment even though she made more money working as a professor than Grandfather ever had in his life. It probably also explained why my parents were so weird around her sometimes. "Does that mean you and Grandfather...?" I started, but I didn't actually know how to finish it.
"Your grandfather and I as well," the Old One said. "Not everybody needs to limit their love to only one person. Especially if you purify your body of toxins by eating only raw food, and no animal products."
I sighed. That was probably the end of learning anything interesting, if she was going to start talking about raw food again, but she peered at me. "Sofia!" she shouted down the hall. "Come in here and talk to the boy - he thinks he's gay."
Madame Zelatnowa appeared in the kitchen before I had time to do more than squirm. "What nonsense have you been filling his head with, Old One?" she asked.
"I don't think I'm gay," I protested. "I'm just interested in the topic, because of my friend Alan Mendelsohn, who you met."
They both stared at me.
"Okay, I think I might be gay," I clarified.
"Because of your charming friend Alan Mendelsohn, who I met?" Madame Zelatnowa asked.
I shrugged. She smiled at me in a disturbingly knowing way.
"Not like that!" I said futilely. "Well, mostly not like that. I mean, where he comes from, it's perfectly normal to be gay, nobody cares if you're dating a man or a woman. I thought, in the interest of cross-cultural understanding, I should try to learn more about how it works."
Madame Zelatnowa is always throwing around words like "cross-cultural understanding", and I figured that might distract her from Alan. It worked, because it turns out that Madame Zelatnowa knows a lot about cultures that don't think one man and one woman is the only way to be in love or get married. She said that in parts of Tibet, where she studies, it's perfectly normal for all the women to have two or three husbands each, and that right here in America, before the white people came, some of the Indian tribes thought it was okay for a man to have a husband, or a woman to have a wife. She said that if I was really interested in learning about sexuality in other cultures, she had some books she could loan me, and even some college-level resources she uses in one of the class she teaches, if I thought I could handle it.
I said would love to borrow her books. I've already read a couple of them while I was waiting for the school year to start. I'm looking forward to having a chance to share some of my new knowledge in my classes this year, starting when we do the big unit on Ancient Greece in History. I'm sure this is truly going to be another GREAT year at Bat Masterson Junior High School!
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Neeble: Please make an appointment as soon as possible to meet with Mr. Heinz, our counselor, Mr. Winter, our principal, and myself, to discuss this composition which was turned in by your son. We are deeply concerned for him and for his ability to thrive at Bat Masterson this year.