In fourth grade, Eddie and I were inseparable. We sat next to each other in every class we could (it helped that our last names began with “H” and “K” — close enough); we were always on the same team during recess; we spent Saturday and Sunday at his house one weekend, and my house the next. He even bought me a Ken Griffey, Jr. jersey for my birthday, which was just about the coolest gift ever in the mid-1990s. It didn’t matter that I was (and, regrettably, remain) a New York Mets fan — this was Ken Griffey goddamn Jr. He was in the Hall of Fame of Cool years before receiving an invitation to Cooperstown. Then, during the summer of 1997, Eddie was gone. Okay, that’s a little melodramatic — his family only moved 20 minutes north, into a different, better school district — but at the time, it felt like he was permanently absent. I was going into middle school without my best friend.
In fifth grade, Eddie and I started seeing each other less. He was busy with his new friends; I was busy with our old ones (and some new ones, too — in a weird quirk, my school district’s combined two elementary schools into one middle school). His ex-girlfriend — insomuch as anyone in fourth grade can have an ex-girlfriend; I think they kissed for three seconds once, or something — started hanging out with the Bad Kids. Eddie and I would try to hang out over weekends, to continue playing Madden on his PlayStation, or challenge each other to games of H-O-R-S-E on my basketball hoop, but something was different. Our marriage, so to speak, was ending, but neither one of us wanted to admit it. That lasted until my 12th birthday, when Eddie met my recent friends. To continue the marriage metaphor, I introduced my ex-wife to my new fling. It didn’t go well. I was a different person since he changed schools, and so was he. The reasons why didn’t matter — we were emotionally unequipped to deal with anything, especially, ugh, feelings — we just were.
Eddie and I have barely seen each other in the years since.
I still think about him from time to time, though. What’s he up to now? What kind of music is he into? Is his sister still hot? (To be fair, we Friended each other on Facebook when people still used Facebook for things other than sharing racist Donald Trump memes, so I sort of know the answers to my questions: something to do with a recording studio; Phish; and yes.) Eddie was on my mind a lot while watching Netflix’s Stranger Things, the breakout “Oh my God, are you watching?” hit of the summer. The basic plot, for the three people in the world who haven’t binged the whole season in one long blur: A 12-year-old boy goes missing, and it’s up to his friends, and a mysterious girl named “Eleven,” to rescue him from the Upside Down.
Also, Winona Ryder talks to Christmas lights. It’s great.
Anyway, Stranger Things takes places in 1983, when I was negative-four years old, but its themes transcend decades, especially to anyone who grew up in a small town with a tight-knit group of friends. In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles terms, Mike is leader Leonardo, Dustin is goofy Michelangelo (except with pudding instead of pizza), and Lucas is combustible Raphael. And if they had been born seven years later, the trio would have seen TMNT on opening night. They, with Will (who, by default, is Donatello) before he goes missing, spend every waking hour together, not that they know what time it is. The gang is too busy playing Dungeons & Dragons in the basement — they’re like proto-bloggers — and hiding from girls and bullies, in that order. They’re nerds, before being a nerd was cool. We don’t see much of their lives before Will is trapped in the Upside Down, but we know enough. Will, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas only know how to function as a united front. When something happens — like, say, one of the boys disappears and can only communicate through blinking lights (it makes sense in context… sort of) — things go awry.
I felt like everything had gone awry when Eddie — the password protection answer to “What is the first name of your childhood best friend?” (please do not hack me) — left town. I remember walking into the first day of middle school feeling like a total loner. True, everyone feels like a total loner on the first day of middle school, but I couldn’t admit that to myself. I was stubborn and my pain was the most important pain. (Middle schoolers are horrible people.) I wanted my friend back for the most confusing day of my life. Mike, Dustin, and Lucas go through something obviously far more tragic than I did, but we share something in common: a feeling of hopelessness that your best bud is never coming back. Remember, I was in fifth grade at the time — I didn’t have perspective or life experience; everything was the worst, and nothing was good. This is something that Stranger Things captures extremely well.
(Especially if you’re Barb. #PoorBarb.)
It takes a relatable experience — a missing friend — and adds a heightened, fantastical twist. That’s a large part of why I, and so many others, have responded to the series. We should all be so lucky as to have someone like Will, or Dustin, or Lucas, or especially Dustin, or Mike, or, no, really, Dustin is the best, or, in my case, Eddie in our lives at such an impressionable age. When Mike tells Eleven (an emotional blank slate, for traumatic reasons) that a “friend is someone that you’d do anything for and they never break a promise… that’s super important because friends tell each other things; things that parents don’t know,” I was taken back to conversations Eddie and I used to have. I can’t remember the specifics anymore (we probably argued about whether Batman or Luke Skywalker would win in a bareknuckle brawl), but at the time, they felt like the only things that mattered. It was us against the world (the world being our dumb parents and dumb teachers). In the end, the world won.
On Stranger Things, though, the boys triumph, with more than a little help from Eleven. They get Will back, because Eleven — who nearly, through no fault of her own, breaks the group up for good, because they’re boys and she’s a girl, and there’s nothing scarier to a 12-year-old boy than a girl — faces her darkest fears. She protects Mike, Dustin, and Lucas, and saves Will, because that’s what friends do. They look out for each other when the odds seem insurmountable, especially at that age. All you have then are your pals because it’s the one thing you can be in control of. (This is particularly true if you’re an only child, like I am.) You can’t select your parents, or where you live, or your school, but you can pick who you play Dungeons & Dragons with.
Netflix is playing coy, but co-creators the Duffer Brothers are interested in a follow-up that’s “not a second season as much as a sequel.” It’s unknown whether the story (which is closed yet also open-ended?) will continue, or even if the same kids will return. As much as I love Finn Wolfhard (Mike’s real name is actually Finn Wolfhard), I’d be fine with new characters, Fargo– or American Horror Story-style. That’s the thing about childhood friends — they “come in and out of our lives, like busboys in a restaurant,” to quote Stand By Me. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” I haven’t seen Eddie in years — I didn’t invite him to my wedding, and I imagine I won’t be invited to his — and we’d barely recognize each other anymore. (I don’t wear as many Ken Griffey, Jr. jerseys as I used to.) But I’m glad we had each other when it felt like I needed a best friend the most. I’m sure Mike feels the same way about Will, and Dustin with Lucas. Eventually, though, they’ll go their separate ways. One will get a girlfriend, another will move, they’ll go to separate colleges. Life happens. But they’ll always have the Demogorgon.