'Pac-Man' Turns 35: How The Summer Of 1984 Changed My Life

by Maggie May Ethridge
Originally Published: 

Even more intriguing than breakdancing skills were the little boxes with joysticks and the word “ATARI.” Jeff had video games.

I had never played video games before that summer, when Jeff sat down (very close to me, I noticed) and, shyly smiling, pushed the button on the television and said, “This is called ‘Pac-Man,’ I was 100 percent captivated by the boy, and the game. Pac-Man was incredibly satisfying. All I had to do was move this little yellow fellow through the tunnels, eating up yellow dots, and avoid the four evil ghosts with names like a Shel Silverstein poem: Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde.

We spent July in two worlds. One world was full of scores and levels and sweat-covered joysticks, sitting closely next to Jeff and shrieking with laughter and competition, the other world was outside in Baton Rouge, exploring the neighborhood, dense with the greenest trees I had ever seen, and going on mini-adventures around town with my mom, my aunt and Jeff’s mom. Jeff’s family was my first introduction to a lifestyle I found intoxicating: Jeff’s younger siblings ran naked, there were musical instruments scattered around the small house (including a piano plopped directly in the middle of the living room, which at any time had a child pounding away on the keys), Jeff’s mom often had a baby on her breast, and Jeff himself went barefoot with no shirt, just shorts. He had that ’80s-boy hair, a little shaggy, and jean shorts. I thought he was adorable.

We played Pac-Man into the muggy month of August, until I could level up quickly and felt like a real video-gamer. I had the bug—for games, and for boys. One day as we set out on some local jaunt, Jeff told my aunt that I had said I loved him. I was so humiliated that I could feel the heat burning my freckles off. “No, I did not! I don’t even like you!” I almost screamed. It was Jeff’s turn to redden, and he stared out the window. I was crushed. I had ruined our friendship.

After that, I had no access to Pac-Man or Jeff. We were uneasily polite to one another when we had to be, but neither of us could work up the courage to talk about what had happened. In the last few weeks of Baton Rouge, we began hanging out again, and I sat side by side with Jeff watching Pac-Man conquer the ghosts. I knew I’d be leaving Louisiana, the heat and Jeff, but Pac-Man—he’d be everywhere. I’d find him again.

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