On the morning of December 28, 1986 I was sitting in my neighbor’s living room when I stole a scrap of paper from her backpack and scribbled, “Today I saved the princess!” I then dated it and signed my name because that somehow made it more official. No notary public was present, no witness even. My neighbor was still asleep and had been for the five hours I’d been playing Super Mario Bros. on her Nintendo.
Before your outrage makes you prematurely scroll to the bottom of this post to see if it is sponsored, let me assure you that my butt lobbied hard to be featured at the beginning and end of this story but negotiations ultimately failed. It was demanding emancipation.
I remember that piece of paper because I ran home and stashed it in a special box that held other important memorabilia like ticket stubs, discarded gum wrappers, and tin foil that I had fished out of the garbage and planned to recycle because that gesture alone was going to save the world from Communism. I eventually ended up with a basketball-sized wad of tin foil that my mother found while cleaning out the dumpster that was my closet, and in her exasperation she threw the whole thing back into the garbage. I expected the Soviets to topple Reagan within days. The fact that they didn’t obviously means they were being just as careless with their recycling.
My siblings and I only ever owned an Atari growing up. Ours was a household without cable TV or R-rated movies or unnecessary evils like a Nintendo or a Sega Genesis. So I spent hours at my neighbor’s house watching MTV and Lost Boys and playing her Nintendo, specifically Super Mario Bros. No other game interested me, and when she was willing she’d let me spend hours trying to complete levels, tossing fireballs at potentially harmful turtles, collecting valuable golden coins, finding hidden passages through those giant pipes. That’s why it took me over a year to save the princess. A whole year. A year ending on December 28, 1986. Somewhere in a Southern landfill there is a scrap of paper to prove it.
If my life had taken one or two different turns I might be out there now digging around trying to find it, all while dressed in a ratty nightgown, faded pink curlers in my my hair, and half-eaten roadkill tucked up under my unshaven armpit.
Meaning not very different from what I’m doing now.
Friday night Leta was huddled up under a blanket on the couch at my mother’s cabin, her head and mind buried deep within a game on the Nintendo 2DS that Santa had left her in the oven. Yeah, the oven. Santa is clever and left her clues to find it there, one that led her to my desk, one that led her to the dog food and so on until she found a gift where we had baked cookies the night before. Thank god he left clues, otherwise we’d have every reason to report him for operating eight reindeer while under the influence.
I heard a very familiar groan escape her mouth, and then, “I WON’T EVER GET PAST THIS LEVEL!” Aha! She was playing the game that had come with it, an iteration of Super Mario Bros. that closely resembles the version that I mastered all those years ago. I asked if I could sit down and see what was holding her up, and suddenly I was holding the game in my hand. Same controls I grew up with BUT THE WHOLE GAME IN MY HAND. If the eleven-year-old Heather could witness this future she’d totally forgive the fact that she ended up living in Utah.
The date? December 27. That’s almost 27 years to the date.
What happened next surprised me more than it surprised Leta, and she was sitting there with her mouth wide open, stupefied.
“MOM!” she shouted a little too close to my ear. “HOW… WHEN… YOU’RE SO GOOD AT THIS!”
The muscle memory of the A and B buttons returned immediately, the ability to jump over dangerous holes and fires while simultaneously shooting at plants and turtles animated my fingers within seconds. I was good at this! I WAS A GENIUS! MAD SKILLZ HAD I. Except, I’m just as good at remembering every single word to all the songs I knew when I was eleven years old as well:
All the school kids so sick of books,
They like the punk and the metal band.
When the buzzer rings,
They’re walking like an Egyptian.
In fact, I can’t scrub those words from my brain. Play the first two chords of a New Kids on the Block song and you might as well pour gasoline on my head and light it on fire, the ensuing hours of joy would be no different.
Still, for a moment I was not the mother she avoided when faced with a dilemma concerning a video game. An alien had abducted the real me and replaced me with a better model and she couldn’t have been more appreciative. Unless I was also going to let her have ice cream for every meal and then maybe she could find a little more appreciation somewhere.
Those memories and thus the ability to recall them so easily must mean they reside somewhere in the same vicinity of the brain, that’s the only explanation for the fact that I haven’t touched that game in over 25 years and there I was showing my daughter how to get to the next level. For the next few hours we took turns trying to advance past the next obstacle, and the only reason we stopped is because she got really tired and started running off of ledges for no reason whatsoever and I was all DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW MANY COINS WE HAD TO COLLECT TO EARN THOSE LIVES?