AJ Burnett and Manny Ramirez were headcases. That’s why they were best friends.
At lunch, Manny slumped over the table, buried in a black parka, wearing headphones so big they covered his ears. AJ beside him, etching the letter ‘H’ with a circle around it into a spiral-bound notebook, wearing a stained white t-shirt and jeans. He had his own parka, but it was draped over the back of a nearby chair. Occasionally Manny raised his head from the desk and burst into rhyme, aping the lyrics on the CD player. AJ never joined him, but he nodded his head in appreciation. He idolized Manny and the way that he had.
After school sometimes they went to the park and dicked around in the forest, lighting joints and smoking cigarettes by an old mattress that some kids had left there years before. When they were high they leaned back on the mattress and talked shit or wandered aggressively, throwing rocks and metal junk at the trees. AJ had to lie to his parents. They didn’t know he was spending so much time with Manny, who they disapproved of for many reasons. They were new to the suburbs, coming from a part of the country that didn’t have anyone who wasn’t white. They hated Manny on sight, and would not have liked him if he were an honours student. AJ’s father chased Manny out of their house on more than one occasion, and he threatened to kill him after he found the two of them together in AJ’s room, stripped to their underwear (it was the middle of August), and smoking weed out of a converted coke bottle.
Sometimes Manny brought girls down to the forest. Sometimes he only brought one. Manny had a way with women. They came to him very easily. Usually he sent AJ back to his house to raid the liquor cabinet, in the early days, or later to bring some of the cheap whiskey or scotch he always had hidden in the back of his closet. The girls were not always there when AJ came back, and Manny never talked about them. They always got drunk anyway. Other times, if there was only one girl, if the girl stayed, they all drank together and AJ drank the most because he was nervous. Manny would try to teach him, and he said things that made AJ blush and the girls laugh idly and slap him for his cheek. Once, with a girl that was famous at school, Manny showed him. Halfway through AJ got nervous and walked back home, reprimanding himself for leaving but glad that he had. Things never worked out with his own girl when Manny brought one for him, if they even got that far. In groups the girls were nervous. They recognized the mattress was not a safe place. AJ always drank or smoked himself into a stupor. “Calm down,” Manny would tell him, “lay off that shit, it’ll come. Don’t try so hard. You make the girls as nervous as you.” AJ tried, but he found it difficult.