Love and Warhammer
Fire and Obsession
Sometimes love looks like something else completely. I had never seen the sun rise with the same eyes that watched it set until I met the first girl that ruined me. It was a child’s infatuation. I was twelve and burdened with a retainer, she was American and visiting, via massive yacht, the small harbour town where I spent my summers with my parents on their power boat.
The sky slowly turned blue and I barely noticed. We had spent the night staring into the same campfire built in a rusted, overturned truck wheel, talking about her favourite book. The last of the adults had long since retired to their boats to drunkenly try to fuck, fail, and finally pass out, so we were alone, and she did most of the talking. I had heard of the book, and I certainly liked the prequel—my old Italian stereotype of a soccer coaching Grade Five teacher read it aloud to my class a couple of years previous, and I still had the friends I’d made at recess by imitating Mr. Mamoliti’s hilariously pervy character voice for the fish-man with the thing for jewelry—but every time I tried to read The Lord of the Rings I ended up holding a Star Wars novel before I even knew what a Brandybuck was.
My lack of knowledge was not an issue. She needed to talk about them. It was almost compulsive, as if it had been building up inside her, reaching a critical mass that, when I touched it, exploded like so many walls of Helm’s Deep. She spoke to me like no one really has since: with the conviction of such an absurdly deep sorrow that it could only be expressed through the retelling of her favourite parts of an obscure half-man’s hike up a volcano. By the time the last star of night was consumed by the waking sun I had come to want what she wanted. She called her dream “a world of adventure,” and that was the ideal that would destroy me in the end.
She went away: south to the land called “just outside of Cleveland,” and I was filled with a profound longing. Immediately the world in which I lived was unsatisfying, and I embarked on an intellectual journey of self denial and fanaticism, convinced now that a world of wizards and tree-people was superior to my own home. When my maiden returned on her father’s ivory vessel we would share in this delusion so fully and completely that in some sense it would manifest physically and make her sad eyes go away. Sometimes love looks like something else completely.
When school started, three weeks after she had gone away, I was somehow one-hundred dollars into creating a playable army of Warhammer: the Game of Fantasy Battles.
The Sign of the Hammer
It is common knowledge (or just commonly believed) among the Catholic-schooled that at the turn of the first Millennium the Pope of the time (Urban II) saw a golden cross in the sky. The crazy king of Catholicism took this to be a divine revelation: that the followers of Christ would reclaim the Holy Land of Jerusalem in the name of Jesus. In return for killing all the violence and walking involved, the people of the Roman-Cathollic Church would be allowed to live in paradise for another thousand years before the tribulation prophesied by St. John (or as he’s known colloquially: Johnny Dreamy-eyes). This iconoclastic hallucination could have been a mirage, a comet, wishful thinking, or one of ninety-trillion other common brain ailments left over from the Dark Ages, but the man was the Pope and history needed somebody to start the Crusades. Over the coming decades this same thing would happen thirteen more times, and as a result make the school board mandated religion class in my elementary school practically the only school-thing I cared about.
My elementary school was known only for its sublimely large output of exceptional runners. I was growing too fast to have any sort of physical dexterity; having too many simultaneous long-term dental operations to confidently say a prayer in public; and too scared of Hell to hang out with the kids who exclude the nose-pickers, cry babies, foreigners and scoliosis sufferers, yet simultaneously to afraid of being labelled a pariah to be seen with them. this being the case, there was simply nothing as appealing as the fully-fledged escapism offered by the brutal histories included exclusively in intermediate and senior grade religion class.
Of course, there is plenty of unconditional God-love and good vibes to be had in a religious studies class aimed at twelve-year-olds. The general lesson I remember being pressed on me most was the World Peace was not only achievable but also inevitable. Peace was impending. The word of Christ would spread like Holy wildfire amongst the many bushes of the world and a new Pentecost would arrive, causing a epidemic of hand-holding. It would compel white, upper-middle class forty-somethings to speak in tongues as they shouted from the window of their super SUV’s: “We did it!”
Peace-mongering of this sort put me on the defensive. I would question the publicly funded semi-priests with the zeal of an Inquisitor armed with verbal thumbscrews and a reversible Adidas windbreaker. World Peace? What about everything else we’d been learning? Didn’t John the Baptist lose his head for saying the same thing? Didn’t all the saints die unthinkable deaths at the hands of the unbelieving orthodoxy of the mass-citizenry and its blaspheming church? People don’t just accept Christ. Good is a reflex of evil. The best happiness can only be achieved by experiencing unimaginable sadness.
Later in my education, a priest would tell me that a true believer in the Kingdom of Heaven is unimaginably sad because life on this earth is to be separated from one’s Lord. If only I had heard that from my religion teacher I might have figured out what this was all about before it grew out of control. As it stood, though, in Grade Seven, I thought that the only thing that would make me happy was the start of a new crusade, the same as the old crusades; the knighting of me to act in the name of Lady, far away in her unspecific American town.
Now, my retainer at the time created all sorts of crevices in which saliva would collect and eventually overflow when it came time for me to publicly speak, so there is a good chance that instead of hearing a little self-righteous bastard tell her she was wrong to hope, my teacher might have thought the red-haired shy kid who sat in the back row, and had no running medals to his name, was drowning out of water in an invisible Marianas Trench of mouth juices. I think she must have understood my snarky nihilism. though, because every time I publicly choked about war, class would turn into a twenty minute conversation about The Crusades, which to my tiny, baseball-capped skull, meant we were actually talking about Warhammer. The denial thickened.
Speaking in Tongues
You know what Warhammer is even if you don’t. Perhaps you’ve seen the little pewter figurines in a display window. Maybe you purchased a novel titled Gotrek and Felix in Trollslayer: a Warhammer Novel by accident while looking for Game of Thrones in paperback. There’s a chance you’ve interrupted it on a Friday night, thinking that “Duelling Grounds” was a badass name for a bar, only to find the smell of Chinese food in place of music, the pimpled gaze of a dozen sober eyes begging not to be judged, and a flickering fluorescent light instead of the alcohol you now very desperately need. You could have dreamt it.
My Grade Seven English class knows that Warhammer is a game played with tiny knights and demons and dice and measuring tapes because I told them. I stood before them for a record-breaking eleven-minutes and seventeen-seconds describing the infamously nerdy hobby game as a part of the annual public speaking assignment my school held every spring for every student.
The sub-unit was called “Speeches” and it was universally maligned. The project was a lethal combination of essay writing, memorization, and reading aloud while on display, suffocating in an unholy vacuum of anxiety. The students hated it because it didn’t involve running, which in the end was the same reason the teachers didn’t like it. My school knew what it was good at, and public speaking was never going to be on the list of reasons to send a child to Mary Phelan Elementary.
Limitations on the speech assignment mandated that the oratory last a minimum of three minutes and be recited from memory with only the aid of cue cards containing memory-jogging bullet points. The maximum allotted time was a laughably unachievable five minutes so as to allow a class of thirty foot-race enthusiasts to present everything over two extended English periods. The goal was simple: year after year I would try my best to hit exactly three minutes by taking my time and pretending that my dramatic pauses were for emphasis and precision. Everyone did this except for the kids who were literally illiterate and barely made it through their introduction by minute four, after which the teacher would allow them to sit down and dream about galloping around while another child was publicly martyred.
Something happened to me though, in front of my split-class of thirty-five. As I stood before my speedy peers, nervous and arguably holding back a tide of orthodontic anxiety drool, ready to three-minute mile yet another “Super-Speaker!” sticker onto a grading rubric, I was overcome with what I can only describe as Pentecostal fervor. For the first time in the history of “Speeches,” a pre-teenaged boy abandoned his cue-cards as his eyes glazed over, spewing forth from his expensively and extensively retained mouth eleven minutes of constant noise that added up to the entire fictional history and slightly abridged rules of a game they didn’t know about. The whole time, overtaken by images of a rising sun, a burning log inside an overturned truck wheel, and a world of adventure.
When it was done and the visions had stopped, no one knew what to do. They clapped, but forgot why. I took my seat back and stared at my hands while some kid lied about what his favourite TV show was and I ached for a world of adventure. The mark I received for my haunting sermon was unsurprisingly terrible. None of it mattered, it was only of this world.
My first piece of Warhammer was a Wood Elf Lord on a steed, armed with a lance and shield. I never gave him a name. His grave would forever remain unmarked when he inevitably died in the name of a god that had forgotten him. He had a blue cape that I eventually painted green, and because I rarely used the proper brand name glue to mount him on his warhorse, he often rode into battle with the courageous zeal of a vertigo patient.
Wood Elves were my team. In Warhammer, identifying whose side you’re on is a decision that carries the weight of a dynasty, especially for the unemployably juvenile, as each individual piece costs at least a very real twelve dollars, and in order to play a game you need at least forty of the little bastards. They also need to be painted. I chose to lead a host of Wood Elves out of a strong feeling of belonging. It was commonly thought by the game’s lonely community that the Woodies (colloquial term) sucked. But I was convinced that the skinny guys with the bows and arrows, much like myself, could defy the expectations of society by hanging out in forests and believing they could control the wind.
Three other people I knew played the game. One was my brother. Despite my heroic proselytizing in front of everyone I knew in the whole world, this number did not grow. Because of this sad fact, games were rare. Even more rare was the one time in my life that both my brother and the new kid in school from Poland joined me in my parent’s then-unfinished basement for the most epic battle my nameless general would see. The battle that would destroy my world.
A disaster unfolded, unseen over the moisture-stained concrete plains of war. It was not a hurricane that could be predicted with a sort of satellite apparatus, or a rogue lion bent on species-wide revenge that could be reported by the news. As I moved my miniature under-dogs into firing position that morning, I was none the wiser of the cataclysm of trans-dimensional proportions threatening to open up underneath the spiritual plains of my collectively imagined world of adventure. Soon an unknown horror would consume my most magically equipped Elven Wardancers, leaving behind nothing but tiny pieces of ridiculous lead.
We’d been planning this all week, and we saw in the foundation of my house the ultimate canvas on which to paint our version of reality red with the imaginary blood of a million allowances. Our reality that day was not one dependent on how fast or long you could run but rather on how well you understood the way that things were set, the rules those things followed, and they ways in which you could interact with them. All of this order presented in a package also containing the ingredients to make a fantastic and sweeping narrative. Scattered about the floor was my world of adventure.
My brother’s legion of Dwarf Slayers supported his cannon-toting gyrocopter; the other guy’s host of High Elven lancers; my sucky tree people with their arrows—these were extensions of what we truly wanted, for one reason or another, life to be.
Hour three had come and there was a commotion above us. The doorbell had been activated just as my skinny guys in capes opened fire on my brother’s bearded squad of shirtless axe-wielding half-men. War marched on. The Polish kid obliterated a walking tree-monster of mine as my brother laughed with revenge. Feet descended the wooden stairs that led to reality and my nameless Wood Elf Lord fell off of his loyal mare. I knew we weren’t alone, but I chose to stay in the world we made.
And there she was. Reality and fantasy had collided in the best way possible. Love meeting war, both born of obsession and hormones, and in their mixing creating a place I wanted because she did.
“What are you boys playing?” said the man who took her away on his boat a year ago.
I explained it was war. I explained the stakes. If one of the others broke past my battle lines an eternal winter would fall. I said it all as if it were real, trying to meet the gaze of the person that did this to me. When I couldn’t find the fire-lit eyes of the summer before my heart sank. She just stood there, in a basement that was made more of mold and dry wall than anything that could be called adventurous.
“So it’s a dice game.”
It wasn’t. Her dad was wrong. But what could I say? That it was war that depended on probabilities best represented by dice? That maybe his precious football was a dice game? Or all the fucking running everybody liked to fucking do? Maybe that? Dice are never just dice. Until they are, and embarrassed, you elect to hide in the basement throwing them against the floor, wishing you were cool and fast.
I gave her a hug when she left but I don’t remember saying anything. I never saw her again, but dreamed of her twice, the way she was when she told me about a world of adventure. No one cares who won Warhammer.
Life After War
Speeches happen at the end of the school year, around the same time that all of the students make a name for their gazelle-like selves by galloping in circles. Maybe it is on purpose, but even if it’s not: all of the spring-time curriculum is filled to the brim with sweaty peacocking activities.
Fresh off of my disturbing display of obsession, the one that froze my heart and confirmed what I had worried ever since that basement annihilation from above, I was sitting in the newly renovated school library hoping that at least my reputation with the quick-legged would be unscathed. I was simultaneously listening to the senior English teacher explain the rules for the afternoon. My school was small, Catholic, and horrible, so that bright afternoon in the library, we would have our end of year dance.
About eighty kids huddled and circled to J-Lo and The Backstreet Boys in a blindingly bright library at two o’clock in the afternoon. It was clear that, despite the conviction in my earlier fevered plea to roll dice in the dark, no one wanted a crusade. The game had changed, but the rules were the same. It was time to redefine the word “adventure.”
I found the most renowned female distance runner in school. She was a year younger than me and had legs woven of aircraft cable. Perhaps it was ambitious of me, choosing such a fast lady for a dance partner, but the concrete battlefield of my basement was a stiff grey library carpet now and this time I would refuse to waltz it alone. We shuffled our feet to the last song of the early afternoon and then her boyfriend kicked me in the back.