Turtle Power

This Armenian kid I knew in college, Aram, would spend most nights playing video games and watching movies. We’d try to get him out to a bar or something and he’d say I’m just going to stay in my shell tonight. He was big into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles then, even long after they were popular, and a lot of the words he’d use were turtle-related. Some days I’d come over to his place and hear the theme music from behind the door — “heroes in a half shell” — and when he opened up he’d be wearing a mask and the game would be going. And then other days we’d go to the gym together and he’d show me some of his ninja moves; he called his sensei Splinter. One night he told me how his family didn’t speak any English around the house and TMNT’s how he learned the language.

All his grandparents had come over in the genocide with his parents as babies, spent the first few years living in a flophouse while the grandfathers went to work for Ford until they had enough to buy a small house in Southfield. They all lived there, Aram and his four grandparents and his parents and his brother and sisters. Every night the grandmothers would tell stories at dinner about the death marches, the camps, the things they tried to do to help each other, to protect anybody they could, anybody that even remotely looked like them, their escape. There were only so many stories and they all got repeated and after a while got more detailed and ugly and probably exaggerated but always they ended with his family on the run looking for a place to hide. He said maybe because of it he felt like he was always running. Once, he asked if I knew how hard it is to protect people when you’re always hiding and I said I’d think it would be very hard.

Anyway he was tough and shy and he majored in Criminal Justice because he wanted to go into law enforcement. Except he wasn’t big into studying, just playing TMNT over and over and going to the gym, and so after his third year he failed out or dropped out or was kicked out or who knows. We were friends but not close friends and sometimes it’s hard to keep up with people, especially when senior year was so busy. Which is to say when summer came he just kind of went away and none of us saw him again.

Only thing is, there was an article in the News a year or two later about how some big drug deal in one of the worst parts of the city was busted up by what they called a vigilante. They had a statement from one of the kingpins, who said the guy appeared out of nowhere, like he’d come up out of the sewer, and he disappeared the same way, didn’t leave anything behind they could use to prove he was ever there. And I liked to think it was Aram, that he’d found a way to stop running, to hide, and to protect others at the same time.

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