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BEN CLARKSON/The Globe and Mail

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Remember the moment you knew your destiny was either being Cool or being a Nerd? Mine came after the Christmas break when I was 11.

That Christmas had been unusually good: My glorious greed had been satisfied by a number of gifts. The best of all was a set of Hot Wheels cars and tracks for which I had been bugging my parents for months, and which I received tightly wrapped in their usual fine style.

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My fellow malicious gift-receivers know that much of the fun lies in comparing your acquisitions with those of friends in the hope yours will outstrip theirs. Applying this schadenfreude logic, true post-Christmas spirit rests in the patronizing, hypocritical praise of another's gift when you both know yours is better by far.

Almost as good is the anticipation of meeting friends on the first day back to school, full of prurient "Whajaget? Whajaget? Whajaget?" enthusiasm.

So it was that I met my friend one January morning as I walked beside the creek on my way to school. As our paths converged, I could barely contain my grin, and after some chit-chat about NHL standings, I popped the "whajaget" question. (I was reserving my Hot Wheels declaration for a suitable moment in which I could downplay the glory of my gift.)

"All I got was clothes," he said. My heart went out to him, with a considerable amount of glee.

"That's all I wanted." I took my incredulous heart back.

Clothes? Clothes weren't gifts. They were a parental obligation, a form of maintenance like taking you to the doctor or dentist. They weren't something to look forward to at Christmas, and certainly weren't anything on which an acquisitive 11-year-old would want parents to waste valuable gift money. Sure, society required you to wear clothes, and you obliged society so that you could play with your toys without people getting indignant about your nakedness.

So why did he want clothes for Christmas? As it turned out, he had embarked on an early project of lunatic sophistication that was a harbinger of the teen years; a time when being around girls and trying to look cool would replace playing with other guys. A time when a stack of toys would never again be used to create worlds of imagination.

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"Why?" I asked him.

"I want girls to notice me."

Had he hit his head? Girls were scary, especially to a fat kid like me. Talking to them was a sure route to humiliation. Why would you want them to notice you?

He, however, stood by his declaration.

A few days later I saw him in the school yard, winter coat unbuttoned, displaying his new paisley shirt and bell-bottoms. He looked cool. I'm sure I was wearing pants that were too short and a turtleneck that was squeezed around my pubescent pudge.

I noticed his demeanour had changed, too. His face bore the implacable indifference of the eternal Cool Guy. He acknowledged me, but with some unfamiliar reservation; a distance, a sort of looking away that I found more strange than hurtful.

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I didn't know it then, but I soon understood that our friendship was to become part of the divergence between Those Who Are Bound To Be Cool and Those Who Are Bound To Be Nerds.

I searched for things to talk about. Hockey cards? He was past that. Comic books? He'd probably given away his collection. Hot Wheels? I was eager to talk about how cool the red Ford Mustang looked speeding along the orange track, but I knew that if I ever wanted to see a sliver of light from the open door to all that is Cool I'd better keep my mouth shut. Cool wasn't really an option for me, but in him I at least had a contact who might be willing to vouch for me in that mysterious place.

"What did you do on the weekend?" I figured it probably didn't have anything to with toy red Mustangs.

"I went to a party."

I reckoned from his tone that this wasn't the kind of party your parents take you to. This party involved only pre-teens and barely-teens and the release of the animus lurking therein.

Did he have fun, I asked. He looked at me out of the corner of his eye with a touch of Cool Guy forbearance. This party evidently hadn't been about fun. It had been about the serious business of Being Cool.

"It was okay. Could have been better. We tried to get some beer but nobody looked old enough to buy any."

I supposed that even the most dissipated 11- or 12-year-old would have had trouble passing for legal drinking age. But two things especially struck me about this revelation: his sheer terrifying courage in proposing to drink beer, and the idea of trying to have fun with no toys involved.

So what did he end up doing?

"We smoked cigarettes and watched TV."

I guessed that was kind of cool, even though it was how my middle-aged neighbour seemed to spend her evenings, and I never thought of her as being cool.

The bell rang to call us to class.

"See ya, " I said.

He walked off in silence in his shimmering paisley, all ready for girls to notice him. I walked off anticipating that red Mustang whipping around the orange track after school, comfortably obscure. The two of us never spoke to each other again.

Mark Harding lives in Toronto.

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