My cousins only lived two miles away from me, but at that age two miles was no different than Timbuktu. Our families were together a lot, but that was on the weekends. During the week we went to different schools, had different friends, and lived different lives. So when we got together on Saturday night or Sunday afternoon, it was time to share stories and catch up. Their stories always seemed better than mine even though I tried my best to match them. It was impossible. No matter what I said, they could beat it, so I always ended up just listening to them.
Not that listening to them was a bad thing. They had tons of cool things to teach me, like who was the best football or baseball player of all time or the proper technique to shoot free-throws. We built tree forts and fixed our bikes so we could race them across the park; we sailed ships in the pond and made slingshots together so we could sink them in glorious kamikaze air raids; we played stickball and freeze tag and a lot of crazy games that I didn’t play with the kids in my neighborhood. The games always had some caveat attached to them, like “Walnut Street Rules” or “Cracker Jack Law,” which meant nothing to me until I did something wrong and all the kids would scream at me. It’s not that it was any different in my neighborhood. If a ball went under a car, it was a double. If it got stuck somewhere and you had to climb to get it down, you were out, and you did the climbing. Like any kid, I adapted quickly and took the standard abuse until I got it right.
“Hey kid, I don’t know how you do it in your neighborhood, but here that’s an ‘Oak Street Fly Rule Single,’” someone would yell.
“Matt and Mike, why don’t you teach your cousin something before you let him play?” someone else would holler.
“Why don’t you shut up or I’ll shut you up,” Matt would say.
“Yeah, he’s just learning and he’s still better than you,” Mike would answer.
It made me feel good when my older cousins stuck up for me, especially because they weren’t afraid of the kids who were older than them. Like I said, they were cool, and there were two of them so it was double trouble if you got into a scrap.
When summer rolled around it was even better. Since they were older, my cousins were allowed to ride their bikes farther than I ever could, which meant I got to go with them to Lengel’s Market. We’d get ice cream, soda pop, and Snickers bars. It was the best. One time my uncle even took time off and took us all to Shea stadium for an afternoon Mets game. My cousins were crazy about the Amazin’s. That was one thing they tortured me about because I was a Yankees fan. They made a good case for Nolan Ryan being the best pitcher ever, but they couldn’t sell me off of The Bambino. That afternoon I cheered like crazy for The Mets, who won in the bottom of the ninth, but it still didn’t change my opinion that Yankee Stadium, where my dad took me to my first ballgame. It was a much better stadium, partly because I saw the Yankees beat the Red Sox, and partly because I was with my dad.
Summer was also great because we got to have sleepovers. Usually, my cousins wanted me to stay at their house. That was fun, but sometimes I wanted them to stay at my house so I could show them off to my friends. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t stay over until I was at their house one night. It was bedtime and my cousin said he was thirsty, but my aunt wouldn’t let him have a drink. I had never seen anything so mean before. My aunt was always so nice, but no matter how much Matt whined, she wouldn’t give in.
“Matthew, you know what happens every time. Just go to sleep,” she said.
“Ma, I’m not a baby. Just let me get a drink,” Matt complained.
“Do you want me to get your father? Do you? Now go to sleep!” she said and closed the door.
Matt listened carefully until he heard his parent’s door shut, then he crept out to the kitchen. He moved without a sound, another great trick he taught me, and was gone for what seemed like forever. The suspense was almost too much to bear, but just when I thought I had to go after him he reappeared in the doorway, grinning and holding three Cokes. We couldn’t help but celebrate our victory by staying up laughing and listening to Matt’s story of how he completed his mission. That was what he called it, a mission, and from then on all of us started calling anything that could get us into trouble “missions.” The victory was short lived because we were shushed from down the hall by my aunt, but I went to sleep that night as proud of my cousins as I ever had been.
The morning was a different story. I awoke in a foggy stupor, groggy from not enough sleep because we had stayed up so late. But there was something else. There was an odd smell, pungent like the lion cage at the zoo. And there was something else - the bed was wet and cold. I jumped up and threw the covers on the floor. I looked in shock at the giant wet spot on the bed and then I knew. It was pee – but it wasn’t mine. My pajamas were wet where I laid in it, but not in the front. My cousins had twin beds and I had slept with Matt in his bed, but he was gone. And so was Mike. I pulled back the covers on his bed and looked in horror at an identical wet spot. As the realization dawned on me, disgust overtook me. I mouthed the words, afraid to say them aloud: “They’re bed wetters. Twin pissers!”