Gerald's best stories always began with "Hey, do you remember that time in fourth grade--" and usually ended with Helga being weird or Eugene breaking a bone. But, sometimes, they ended with two nine-year-old boys sitting the park at night after a game of football, doing exactly what they were doing right now: lying in the grass and talking about stupid boy shit.
It wasn't exactly the same right now as it was then. Gerald's on the high school football team now, and Arnold isn't, but that's okay. Arnold is an okay player but he'd never had very much luck, not just in sports but in pretty much everything, so it's probably for the best. Gerald has his red football jersey from tonight's game on-- still sporting that number 33, and Arnold always means to ask why that's his lucky number, because you think he'd know , what with them being best friends, but he thinks it has something to do with Kareem-- with "Johanssen" in big block letters on the back. Alcohol usually wasn't involved back in fourth grade, either.
They've just come from Rhonda's party-- everyone went to Rhonda's right after football games, because her parents were just distant enough to know that their daughter was throwing wild parties while they were in Milan for the weekend, but not care enough to do anything about it as long as nobody broke anything-- and decided to stop in the park for a little while to sober up before going home. Gerald is talking, and Arnold is listening, like pretty much always. Gerald's gift of gab was probably the biggest factor in getting him elected senior class president of P.H.S. 183.
"I really think Phoebe was--"
"You're joking, right?" Arnold interrupts for the first time. " Phoebe ?"
Gerald shrugs. "You can't deny that the bookworm got hot."
"I'm not denying anything. I just don't think she's interested in you."
"Psh, who wouldn't be?" Gerald flexes his biceps, then laughs. His laugh is deep. Throaty. Maybe a little raspy from the smoking earlier.
Arnold rubs his shoulder where Helga punched him earlier that night. He'd dropped a shot and it had landed on her pants. She never missed an opportunity to hit him, and he had been suspecting it was just an excuse to touch him for about five or six years now. He doesn't mind so much anymore, except for the part where it hurts. A lot. Lacrosse had been good to her, and she's probably stronger than he is. He figures they probably would have started dating sometime around freshman year if she could just get over her denial, but whatever.
"Yeah, whatever," he says. He looks over at Gerald, who had pulled his jersey up over his head while Arnold was lost in thought for a moment. The moonlight illuminates the little hairs on Gerald's stomach, goosebumps pulling the skin taught in the slight chill of the fall night. Arnold makes a weird connection, thinking that if he ran his hand over his friend's stomach right now, it would probably feel like caressing a basketball-- another sport Gerald was on the team for, actually. He's part of that unholy trifecta: football, basketball, and baseball.
"Everyone wants me," Gerald laughs again. He's kidding, Arnold knows Gerald doesn't have that big of a head, it's just that he loves to talk. "Even you, Football Head."
Wait, what? Arnold thinks. Then, "Wait. What?"
"You think you're the only one that doesn't miss much," he says soberly, as if that explained it.
"Right." Arnold really doesn't know what to say to this. He knows it is odd that his first instinct is confusion, not denial, but he doesn't know what to say .
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" His grin is huge; Arnold is having trouble figuring out whether or not Gerald is kidding right now or not.
"No, really. Are you on E? Have you been hanging out with Curly again?"
"Don't you think my momma already told me about guys like him?"
Arnold bites the inside of his mouth. "My arm hurts."
"If you and Helga would stop fighting and start kissing, that wouldn't be a problem, would it?" Gerald shifts, and now their arms are just barely touching at the elbows. It is a testament to their comfort around one another that Arnold doesn't move away. Or maybe he really is thinking what Gerald was thinking-- if Gerald was thinking about that so-warm-it's-cold feeling you get when you're all too aware of skin to skin contact, that is. He feels very sober right now. Maybe too sober.
"I guess," he says, not incredibly enthusiastic about the idea. Not that he doesn't like Helga, but. "I'm just not--"
"Yeah, I know," Gerald cuts him off, his face serious now. "Me either, really. I just don't--"
"--feel it." Arnold finishes.
"Yeah." Gerald rolls over and props himself up on his elbow, leaning over Arnold and obscuring his view of the downtown skyline. "Do you--"
"Um," Arnold says.
"Um," Arnold says, louder this time.
"Look," he tries to think of a way to word it, "I don't think we have to talk about everything , you know? Some things just are ."
Gerald grins again. "You're probably right." He shakes his head and laughs.
Arnold watches this, and in this moment he isn't thinking about how they're now less than a year away from graduation and the world beyond. He doesn't think about his missing parents or his dysfunctional family or their classmates. He thinks about how many times they've laid here under the stars, talking first about little boy things and then big boy things, but always stupid boy things. What they don't talk about is how neither of them can ever really keep a girlfriend, for various reasons, some of which are obvious and some not so much.
He reaches up and touches Gerald's face. It is only for an instant, and he plays it off by sliding his knuckles quickly along Gerald's cheek to grab a blade of grass out of Gerald's hair, next to his ear. But it's long enough.
"Hey," Gerald says, running a hand through his curls, dislodging more grass that falls on Arnold's sweatshirt. "Watch the hair."