There’s no language for the joy of leaving one world temporarily for an imagined other. I was nine years old when my brother taught me how to play World of Warcraft. It was my first MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game—a mouthful) and I remember the day I first heard about it well, but not perfectly. But there is no language to encompass the effort of remembering passwords or what kinds of orcs you’re supposed to kill. Or ghosts that haven’t yet died, and of allowing resentments to float in the air around them, on a Google Hangout, halfway across the world.
I was in the fourth grade. I sat all day in Ms. Leffin’s classroom waiting for the moment in last-period Language Arts when she’d pull a sticky note off her desk and announce to me and to the whole class that quote “Brother George” would be picking me up today from school. No sitting through Jumanji for the third time in afterschool care. No waiting until my dad’s weekend to hang out with Georgie. There were no afternoons like those afternoons, those Brother-George-sticky-note ones. There have been no hours since so full of possibility, so contingent on nothing but him and me in one space.
I skipped out to the driveway after class and into the passenger seat of The Green Goblin, a great 1988 colossus of a Honda Viper. There were trees all around us in Coconut Grove and all that greenness sustained us. George had just gotten his driver’s license and instead of hanging around St. Brendan’s, his own school, or with his girlfriend Tina he had chosen to spend it with me, and I was thankful. I felt cool because we would listen to “I Miss You” by Blink-182 and sing along and laugh at how the guy said “yed” instead of “head.” We laughed because a “yed” sounded like some kind of talking fruit, not unlike the Annoying Orange, only more emotionally complex. And only George could make a 16-year-old singing along to Ashlee Simpson in a mall parking lot sound cool. We left pieces of us strewn about all over South Florida. Tina must have shown him that song.
Georgie taught me how to play World of Warcraft on one of those afternoons. I ran into a room that had red walls at the time, the room we still call Georgie’s Room although it doesn’t have red walls anymore, they’re beige now, and Georgie’s two years of living with us ended a long time ago. But when the walls were red we played video games. I sat on a small swivel chair that we’d dragged in from dad’s office next to his as George opened up the game client to a loading screen vivid with heroes, fantastic beasts, broadswords, maces, and color. I was silent until George asked me: “What do you want to be?”
“What?” I responded.
“Yeah, what do you want to be? Look, you can be a hunter, warrior, mage, druid, paladin…” He waited for my response. I sat in silence. I’d never heard of anything so cool.
“I don’t know. Give me something cool,” I think I told him. “I think you’d be a mage,” he said.
“What’s a mage?”
“Like a healer,” Georgie answered. “You’d be magical.” So he thought I was magical. He read the class description on the page.
“Students gifted with a keen intellect and unwavering discipline may walk the path of the Mage. The arcane magic available to magi is both great and dangerous, and thus is revealed only to the most devoted practitioners. To avoid interference with their spellcasting, magi wear only cloth armor, but arcane shields and enchantments give them additional protection. To keep enemies at bay, magi can summon bursts of fire to incinerate distant targets and cause entire areas to erupt, setting groups of foes ablaze. Their history is long and storied. That’s definitely you, Stef.”
He went on but I only remember the lightness I felt as I imagined myself casting enchantments and the two of us wearing our own arcane armor to protect ourselves against the things that sought to destroy us. Georgie was a paladin and he’d entrusted me with keeping the orcs and the darkness at bay. I’d cast spells and together we’d wear the arcane cloth armor I’d woven for us, that light magic protecting us from the things we couldn’t possibly have expected.
But it’s too easy to tell it this way. This particular afternoon is a conflation of six or seven afternoons when I was roughly nine to 11 years old, bookended in my mind by the time before he left home, and the aftermath. The before: I’m three years old, singing Cielito Lindo on the pink plastic rocking chair, giggling in Spanish, “Now, Georgie! Now, Georgie!” The aftermath: South Carolina, and the letters, and the visiting days. In between were the computer screen, the red walls, and the magic.
In those days the questions were:
Papi, why is the sky blue?
Why does this happen every Christmas?
It’s only when I got older that I learned that why isn’t necessarily followed by an answer. I had known for a long time that no one in my family would ever give me the full story, and in between the disparate details I crafted a survival mechanism of contingent half-truths. I grew to accept that maybe I wanted full recognition. So why became what.
Ten years later, drinking beer on an overcast Miami Beach with George in December, the questions were different.
What happened to you?
We put on the old selves for a moment. The formless thing that drew us together and apart for years felt as easy as it did on the day he told me I was magic. Question breeding question, water rushing over stone.
I know that afternoon in Coconut Grove happened. I can’t be sure of when exactly, but it must have been around 2004, because George didn’t get his license until he was 18, and because that’s when Wikipedia tells me World of Warcraft was released. I do what I can to put years and months on these memories, as if that would give them permanence. But there are no timestamps on all the moments I tasted metal on my tongue sitting on the steps next to my room as I heard Georgie and our dad talking. I don’t know what I learned in Ms. Leffin’s class that day or what I was wearing or what my favorite song was when I learned to associate the wrench of crushed Coke cans with my brother. I remember too much sunlight. I remember sitting in bed and letting the light go, swaddled in my bedsheets until it was only me and the dim blue light of a computer screen that was the afterglow.
I still stare too long at the images, looking deep into the pixels on the screen, trying to discern where each one ends. Powerless in the grip of a dark magic outside of my control, transfixed.