---

Mark is three.

The fact of the matter is, everybody knows that he is three. This has something to do with Mark's constant insistance, "Free!" with three pudgy fingers held up. He tries to express the "th" sound with great difficulty, and finds himself stammering "f... f... f..." instead, face and fists scrunched up in struggle.

For a three-year-old with a lisp (then again, what three-year-old doesn't have one?), Mark is remarkably intelligent. With bright, wide eyes, he tries his best to learn all there is to learn - from books, from adults' lectures, and from the animated movies he can't help but love. At three, Mark is not yet one for commenting on film styles and flaws in filmography, but he is fascinated by the motion of pictures over a screen. His favorite of all is Robin Hood, the Disney-produced tale of he who steals from the rich to give to the poor. When Mrs. Cohen asks her son what he has learned from his beloved movie, Mark responds in a soft voice, "T'borrow a bit from those who can afford it."

When Mark tells her this, Mrs. Cohen hesitates. It has been a long time since she has answered Mark anything other than "Correct, very good," but here she has reason to pause. Is it better to compliment the prodigy on his observation or teach him something? In a monotone, she declares, "No, Mark. It's never okay to steal, or not to pay money when you have to. Or else it's not playing fair." But she is only half-hearted in saying so, and she has the strange feeling that while she may have made an impression on Mark's head, her advice will never make its way through to the boy's heart.

----

Mark is four.

He can climb and play and jump. These are his crowning accomplishments, the achievements that tell him that he is four and not three anymore. When he was three he had no interest in climbing to the top of the jungle gym, but now he does it just to show himself that he can. This is because sometimes he forgets what he can do, like when he thinks he can resist the lure of pineapple sorbet, his favorite dessert (discovered to be his favorite one day in June when Cindy finished all the chocolate ice cream) and the times when he mistakenly believes he is capable of playing games with his sister. Climbing the jungle gym, at least, is something that he is always able to do, no matter the day. It does, however, depend on the weather.

Mark loves the snow. He stares out the window and watches the grass whiten and pile up. He doesn't quite understand it, why the snow is cold and wet and so oppressive, but these are what he likes about it. He loses himself while making snow angels, completely sinking into what is the grass under its pretense of being depthless, purely white, and spongey. Mark watches the glimmer of his family menorah in the window, visible as he forms snowpeople and snow angels and has lengthy conversations with all of his creations. His "best" and favorite creation of all is a snow angel: nameless, a "champion hugger" and above all, Mark's adoring best friend. He calls this creation (who does not have a name because Mark cannot decide whether it ought to be male or female) Angel.

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Mark is five.

He begins kindergarten with his hands shoved in his pockets and brand-new glasses ("Don't worry, Mark, you'll learn to love them") on his face. Mark secretly thinks of his glasses as being something other than completely clear; he wonders if they warp his viewing of the world, and if they do, what this should mean. He is remarkably deep-thinking for a five-year-old, mocked by his classmates and curiously observed by his teacher, who is fresh out of college and thinks she knows far more than she actually does.

Mark has several issues with kindergarten. For one, he believes that it is unfair, how he cannot run and play wherever and whenever he desires to. At home, Mrs. Cohen is less than attentive and scarcely present, and so it was only a matter of time before Mark finds his way outside with the house keys clutched in his sweaty palm. So he considers it unkind and unjust that he must remain within the school walls (and, when outside, schoolyard fence) at all times.

Another problem Mark has is with the other students. Well, they aren't quite students yet, as nothing is being learned in the class apart from how to socialize and how fast one must run in order to get an "uncrumbly" cookie. But they are his classmates, and they are unsatisfactory to Mark. Chirpy and obnoxious and loud, every single five- and six-year-old imprisoned in the brick-walled "dungeon" (as Mark calls it in his imagination, which is boundless and rarely as cheerful as one might expect of a five-year-old) is deemed, to Mark, an unacceptable companion. Mark does not realize how picky he is; after all, he personally believes that he has many friends, invisible to others though they are.

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Mark is six.

Chanukah is not his favorite holiday. Sure, there are presents, but Mark is content without said presents anyway, and Cindy always manages to procure the spotlight for herself as she unwraps the supposedly god-given present, whatever it may be depending on the year. Besides, Chanukah loses its impact after the third or fourth night, when Mark begins to slur his words in uttering the prayers and no longer desires to play dreidle, even if it is for chocolate coins.

Birthdays are celebrated in the Cohen household in a rather awkward way. The birthday person - Mrs. Cohen, Mr. Cohen, Cindy or Mark - chooses the restaurant at which dinner will be held, usually the birthday person's favorite place, although it varies. That means to Mark that the February birthday of Cindy will be celebrated over French cuisine, his father's July birthday over Indian food, his mother's December anniversary of birth a la Chinese food, and his own April celebration at the place of Cindy's choice, because after all, no six-year-old is allowed to make his own decisions. Mark begins to resent his sister for this, and even though cake and presents are dedicated to him, he grows to dislike birthdays as well.

Passover is not a favorite of Mark's, because it is too wrapped in tradition for there to be any room for Mark's creativity. He sits sulkily at the "kids' table" with Cindy and other cousins, legs dangling - unable to touch the floor - and arms crossed over his chest. To top it off, Mark loathes the leaven-free "bread" served called matzoh, and enjoys flinging it at whatever aunt or uncle ends up with the loathsome task of serving the children their food.

Thanksgiving has too much food for Mark to really enjoy it, and the true unfairness of this is that he does not like any of the food anyway. It is hardly a reflection on his taste, because anybody would loathe turkey prepared by a tense Jewish mother complaining about how "Pesach seders are so much more pleasant" and demanding that Mark and Cindy pull their own weight in preparation of the meal that neither of them will truly eat.

Halloween has never had any appeal to Mark, mostly because costumes seem silly to him when people can always tell what lies beneath the mask. Besides, it is hardly a change for him when all he ever really wears is a mask anyway.

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Mark is seven.

To him, seven means many things. Being seven means that he could, if so he desired, audition for the school play. Though it is not something that Mark would even remotely wish to do, acting is a passion of Cindy's and therefore a passion of Mrs. Cohen's as well. So without a single word of his own imput, Mark is forced through the audition process and, much to his surprise, finds his name on the cast list of the elementary school musical.

It is true that Mark has a spectacular singing voice. But then again, he is seven, and most seven-year-old boys are fairly talented at singing, and those that aren't rarely find themselves inclined to sing anyway. Mark fits into the small category of those boys with good voices but no desire to sing publicly. After all, he has been conditioned (mostly by Cindy and his parents, but by schoolmates and even teachers as well) to dislike attention in general, a rule which falters occasionally, such as when Mark gets back particularly excellent schoolwork to put on display at home.

So with his sweet, smooth voice, Mark is an ideal candidate for the role of Michael Darling. His baby face and tender personality only add to these complimentary features, and so that is the role that Mark has. He likes neither the spotlight nor the role that he is to play, but it is an Assignment, and like many other Assignments that Mark has had in the past, it is like a rock: unbudging, not up for debate, and unlikable.

What Mark does not remember years later about his experience in Greenacres Elementary School's production of Peter Pan is the tremendous amount of applause he recieves, and the cast recieves. Though he loathes the memory of his performance and eventually forgets it altogether, Mark spends the first few years immediately following this event recalling it in vivid detail, tacking to his wall a newspaper clipping - a review of the show - in which "Mark Cohen, a seven-year-old sweetheart" recieves a great deal of praise.

Praise is something that comes scarcely to Mark, although it is much-appreciated and very well-deserved.

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Mark is eight.

He discovers much about himself in the time frame of exactly fourteen hours. His sister Cindy - four years and seven months older than Mark - is the golden child, and the guest of honor at her own Bat Mitzvah. After eleven months of enduring Cindy's Hebrew chanting, which is rarely accurate but impossible to decipher and thus always praised, Mark is strapped in the car beside a dress-clad elder sister, behind tense parents and in a car alongside those of relatives he'd rather have never met.

Mark learns, through being coddled and irritated by aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, that he is not always as good-natured and sweet as he often is. For example, he finds it extraordinarily easy to wail, "Leave me alone!" when the seventeenth cousin approaches him inquiring about "Marky's widdle toes". Similarly, when he is caught by surprise at Cindy's party and lifted up on a chair, Mark shrieks and wails until he is returned to the ground, at which point he fiercely kicks John, the twenty-four-year-old Master of Ceremonies and instigator of such torment.

It is on this very evening that Mark makes three promises to himself. One is that he will never become anything like Cindy's male peers, with their dark eyeliner and arms crossed over their chests as they try to look attractive. (To Mark, their stances look more like Grandpa Joey with his cane, leaning against the wall, than anything else.)

The second promise is that Mark wll never be attracted to girls like Cindy's female peers. This is an obvious promise; Mark has never seen anything less appealing than the lipstick-wearing drama queens of Cindy's social croud. In their skirts and tight tops, sneaking wine coolers on the hour, Mark finds them to be not only unattractive, but also flat-out irritating.

The third promise is that someday Mark will operate one of those sturdy, steady machines recording every minute of Cindy's party; although in seventeen years Mark will find them to be slightly more technologically advanced, cameras are, in essence, always the same honest and thoughtful machines that Mark loves.

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Mark is nine.

One day he is approached by one of his classmates, and Mark cringes upon sight of him. It is not that Mark has any hard feelings towards this boy in particular; simply put, Mark dislikes socializing in general because he feels that nobody could possibly hold up an intelligent conversation with him. He wonders if this is egotistical, but then reminds himself that it is true, that's all, and the proof lies in his classmates.

According to their grades, there are three "smartest" students in Mark's fourth-grade class. This is common knowledge amongst these students (and probably their classmates as well), simply because they are smart enough to recognize this. The three students' names are Mark Cohen, Nanette Himmelfarb, and Roger Davis.

Nanette is composed and soft-spoken. She is a transfer from a private school called a yeshiva, which she previously attended but left because she was uncomfortable with her father's being the "rebbe", or principal. Other private schools were then sought out, but none were quite as good as Greenacres Elementary School - while public, Greenacres is in fact an excellent school catering to the hardworking students of Scarsdale. And so Nanette found herself in Mark's class, as well as in his Hebrew School class. Mark knows her very well now, from her curly brown hair to her plaid skirts, and often entertains the idea of having a crush on her. But try as he might, Mark finds himself unable to like her, and leaves it at that.

Roger is also quiet, just as Nanette and Mark are, but he is the kind of quiet that seems to scream things in his silence. He sulks and frowns and shakes his head, but his opinions are strong and fierce when scrawled on paper. Because "Davis" immediately follows "Cohen" in the alphabet, he and Mark are briefly seat-neighbors in the beginning of the year, and Mark learns Roger's entire personality in the three weeks of sitting beside him. Roger is loud outside of school, sharing his opinions with his family, with whom he is extremely close, but in school keeps to himself, knowing that he does not truly desire the companionship of any of his schoolmates anyway.

Mark watches Roger and Nanette and finds himself reflected in both of them, and would almost desire to become either one's friend, but then remembers having promised himself never to socialize with any such people. He keeps his eyes on his schoolwork and keeps his mind to himself, refraining from imagining having fun with his "friends" Nanette and Roger. Instead, Mark is focused on that which is required of a boy his age, and forbids himself from doing anything more.

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Mark is ten.

Cindy, now a freshman in high school, begins to take the daily forty-minute commute to and from a private Manhattan theater-oriented high school. She studies dance and music and acting, never neglecting to come home and demonstrate what she has learned each day. Mark, as a result of Cindy's newfound passion, is forced to select a performance art of his own to study and eventually perform onstage. Although he has already been in a musical and loathed the experience, Mrs. Cohen is convinced that her son will love to learn to tango, and promptly registers him for lessons at the Scarsdale Jewish Community Center.

As Mark expects, he detests the lessons, although his hatred for them spins largely from the fact that he has horribly uncomfortable dancing shoes and cannot bear to move very much in them. That alone cements his obstinate refusal to thrive at the dance, and so his private one-on-one lessons are abandoned in favor of partnered lessons, with Mark's fellow tango failure, Nanette Himmelfarb.

Mark kicks off his dancing shoes to even out his and Nanette's height, and finds an immediate difference in his tangoing success and pleasure. In his first few moves across the floor, he is not only significantly better at the step, but also finds himself enjoying it. The moment that thought crosses his mind, Mark is horrified, and takes several steps towards his shoes. Instructor Doreen Himmelfarb, however, will have none of this, and refuses to allow Mark to put his shoes back on, forcing him to continue dancing.

Mark never forgets how to tango, but then again, whenever he does it in the future, he keeps his shoes on.

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Mark is eleven.

Now nearing the end of his childhood, Mark is slowly developing skills and habits that will follow him into adulthood. For example, he steadily begins to detatch, creating his own little world. Inside that world resides a whole host of things that Mark adores, such as a perfect family (posessed neither by Mark nor by anyone in the real world, apart perhaps from the children on the sitcoms Mark loathes and Cindy loves), group of friends, ideal hometown (New York City), and the list goes on.

The first, a perfect family, is not so important in Mark's fantasies as one might think. He spends few waking hours at home anyway, preferring to lurk under an oak tree in a nearby park and simply observe. But when he is home, Mark faces the harsh reality of having a mother who simply does not love Mark half as much as she loves her other child. The true injustice of this is in the fact that Cindy is not nearly as perfect as her mother seems to believe she is; in her spare time, the fifteen-year-old experiments with the kind of things Mark would only expect of rebel child April Ericcson, Cindy's long-time best friend and horrible influence. (April has always ignored a very indifferent Mark.)

Friends are a more distant realm of desire for Mark. He longs for friends apart from those whom he secretly knows do not exist, the fluttering presences in his life encouraging him to Do Bad Things, the causes for his occasional groundings and scoldings. The friends Mark desires to have are calm, cool and collected, even if they occasionally lurk in alleyways with forbidden substances. Mark is young, but he lives with Cindy (and occasionally April) and a drunken father, so he has seen much which is often kept from eleven-year-olds' wandering eyes.

Mark's eleventh birthday is observed with a celebratory voyage into New York City. Manhattan is to Mark an occasional treat, the land of smoky buildings and crowded streets and, bless them, impersonal establishments. He is able to be invisible and not fawned over by neighbors and family friends and relatives that he doesn't like anyway. So in Mark's imaginary world, he lives in this city that he loves so much.

At eleven, Mark knows what he wants, but is not entirely certain how he will achieve it all. It is also a possibility that Mark does not even intend to achieve these dreams, but wants to simply imagine them. Nobody knows what goes on inside his tiny blond head, because he is so good at doing the one thing his sister and mother have in common with him - masking his emotions. It comes easily and quickly to him, and once he begins such a practice, it is impossible to stop.

Everyone has their addictions. Some are just more obscure than others.

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Mark is twelve.

He has always longed for rebellion but never considered just how to go about achieving it. As it happens, rebellion comes in the form of a young girl he has never really liked but has always had to deal with anyway. She is sixteen, and despite her recent falling-out with Mark's sister - or perhaps because of it - April does her best to maintain a positive relationship with Mark, a relationship that she has (up to this point) never really had.

Now, however, Mark can oftentimes be found in the front seat of April's father's convertible, seat belt buckled over his torso and legs finally reaching the floor of the car. April messes up Mark's hair a little and smears eyeliner onto his eyes, with Mark unwittingly breaking the very first promise he made to himself three years ago, at a celebration of his sister's coming-of-age that didn't even really happen.

Because Mark has never truly had any real friends - he is now willing to concede, aloud even, that his former friends were both imaginary and evil - he is quick to accept the friendship of April Ericcson. With her comes the presence of the substances that make her so alive and full of energy, transforming her from the dull-eyed teenager she might otherwise be. She does not tell Mark specifically that she uses drugs, or what drugs she uses, but Mark is neither stupid nor ignorant, and he hears things. Even at such a young age, children are taught of the presence of such things early on, along with a "Just Say No" policy that even Mark can identify as being idiotic.

With April as his friend, Mark feels more secure. He finds himself embarking on new adventures - years later, in a rage directed towards both April and whoever bought her a set of razorblades, he will recognize that the adventures were more Mark's actions based on April's commands and wicked ideas. Regardless, Mark enjoys himself and finds himself on temporary, completely original highs that allow him to smile and forget the constant thought processes in his mind. For example, as April teaches the twelve-year-old to drive in the high school parking lot, Mark both absorbs the experience and forgets he is even existing. It is a memory he never forgets, but he will never be able to recall the exact feelings he experienced as the car spun around corner after corner after corner, Mark pleading with himself not to crash into anything.

On the day before his thirteenth birthday, Mark is in the passenger seat of April's father's car (driven into the city by April with help from Mark) and finds himself at the metaphoric intersection of Peer Pressure and Just Say No. When, a year later, Mark announces to his parents that he is moving to the city, the most recent memory he has of Manhattan is of himself and April running through the streets, Under The Influence. Perhaps that is why Mark remembers the city so fondly in later years, rather than recalling the grunts and bellows of passersby and the city's ability to be too hot one day and too cold the next. All Mark remembers is the soaring, whooping, crazed high he experienced for the first time at the age of twelve.

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Mark is thirteen.

He does not want a Bar Mitzvah, but it is coming up anyway. However, in the weeks prior to it, Mark no longer considers himself a child. April is running away, she tells him, and does he want to go with her? Mark does not even consider disagreeing; he throws together an assortment of clothes and shoves it into a backpack, slings one of his father's scarves over his neck, and settles comfortably in the car that is now indispituably April's and Mark's.