Sonia Ruiz

Nuju and I met in the unlikeliest of spaces, crowded by the capitalistic beep-bop-beeps of hungry cashiers and the green smell of laminated store tiles and the wanting cries of expensive kids gorging on the hedonistic aisles of Toys R Us. But Nuju didn’t seduce me. He stood quietly on the edge of an empty shelf, above and apart from the wanton jostling of the other Lego canisters below. I gazed up in awe at the promotional image plastered on his cylindrical box, where a backdrop of pearly sky and crystal skyscrapers framed a body of alabaster white and eyes of cobalt blue. Nuju stood, in the picture and in reality, alongside no one — no other Nujus or Toa Metrus or even other 2004 BIONICLE sets. The 8606 Toa Nuju label printed on the bottom left corner of the box distinguished him from the remaining BIONICLE sets, the sole 2004 model above a sea of newer 2005 releases. With a rare decisiveness, I leapt and pulled the canister down. Into the shopping cart Nuju fell, replacing my other would-be lifelong companion: A brown-armored, green-eyed, hunchbacked Onewa.

Nuju and Onewa, I would soon realize, outright disliked each other. I was privy to this information because some Lego executives had realized that imbuing plastic pieces with personalities increased profits and encouraged consumer investment. So out came BIONICLE novels, comics, films and my (parent’s) wallet. Every time I held Nuju, I knew: That his plastic frame was steel armor grafted on organic muscle and mechanical limbs; that at full height he stood not 6 inches but 6 feet; that he hated gardening, wielded the elemental power of ice, rode wild birds, studied astrology for a few thousands years,and spoke with a Canadian accent, apparently. These were Nuju’s lived experiences, as concrete a reality as his 48 white and gray pieces and the dull edges of his plastic ice picks. (They doubled as snowshoes when he went mountain climbing.)

Nuju, then, lived as much in the crinkled pages of the BIONICLE Adventures novels lining my bookshelf and the 90-minute Miramax films uploaded illegally to YouTube as he did in the bottom white drawer. Scholastic, the publishing company to whom I owed much of my familiarity with Nuju, once released an online quiz that matched the test-taker’s personality to one of the six heroes of Metru Nui. I made a habit of taking the quiz, one of the more ingenious inventions of the BIONICLE marketing team, and always got the same result:

“You are Nuju: You are hardworking and concerned with the future. You find it hard to work with a lot of noise and disturbance around you. You pride yourself on always thinking ahead, but forget to enjoy today.” 

I delighted in reading it, because it confirmed what I already knew: Nuju was Ahmed rendered cool. He crystallized the qualities of which I was ashamed and purified them — he made my introversion a virtue, my isolation a compliment. I looked up to him, a figure who was at once relatable and distant, an equal and a superior, a friend and a model. We both loved reading, but while I flipped through history textbooks in the empty corner of the school cafeteria, he deciphered ancient runes in a laboratory atop a skyscraper. We both obsessed over the future, but I feared the fallout of a poor test grade, and he compiled prophecies predicting the advent of the apocalypse. Neither of us spoke much, but his silence garnered the respect of his peers while mine encouraged their neglect. The clincher: We both used visual aids — I, a chronically cracked pair of glasses; he, an electronic X-ray lens built into his mask.

I lost his mask a year into our relationship. For the next four years, Nuju instead wore a special edition Kanohi Avohkii, the Mask of Light, a glittery and claw-shaped piece of plastic that might have offended the sensibilities of a figure more masculine than myself. The Avohkii did come to offend me, but for a rather different reason: It didn’t belong to Nuju. A Google search yielded hundreds of images of Nujus wearing Matatus but none wearing Avohkiis. Maybe this should have pleased me. The Avohkii distinguished my Nuju from the thousands of others owned by thousands of 12-year-old boys across America. It made him special. Once again Nuju stood on a shelf with no peers, above and apart from all others.

Yet this couldn’t be right. I loved Nuju because I related to the account of his life dictated to me by the Lego Company. Nuju was “supposed” to wear the Matatu, not the Avohkii. Nuju, I felt, couldn’t be complete —couldn’t be mine — without his original, mass-produced mask. That mask, the Great Kanohi Matatu, gifted Nuju his most important power: Telepathy, the ability to move objects via mere thought. For a boy who mostly resided behind the bars of his mind, the Matatu offered the ultimate power fantasy: That you could mold the world just by thinking about it. So once again, I pulled Nuju down from his isolated perch.

As a new teenager, I had only just discovered the scandalously grown-up activity of sending electronic payments to anonymous sellers. Except this one, a certain “will560” on the online BIONICLE forum BZPower, did not want compensation, because he had “about seven Nuju metru masks and i could aford to give one up.” I waited 38 days for the plastic treasure, in part because the United Postal Service lost the first one he sent. Will560 just mailed me another. And so a dented two-inch piece of plastic began its travels across the 800 miles that estrange Illinois from New Jersey. The Great Mask of Telepathy came in the mail when March was on its fifth day and my friendship with Nuju on its fifth year. I fixed it onto Nuju’s face with the breathless anticipation of a lover rediscovering his beloved. As befit our personalities, our passionate reunion was conducted in silence, punctured only by my mouth-generated sound effects as Nuju slid and leapt and dived from Knowledge Towers to rickety bunk beds.

Nine years after the mask’s arrival, Nuju is a veteran retired from the battlefield of play. His chest heaves with the irregularities of wounded plastic and browning white and missing pins. Pigments of thick chestnut-colored clay have crept and settled into the crevices of his legs and feet, mementos from his travels through the Po-Metru desert and dusty Staten Island apartment bedrooms. The corners of his arms and edges of his knees have grown canescent, curdled, frayed from freezing winds and bleaching suns and grubby hands. His limbs creak when they bend, the sounds of a biomechanical body parts in need of an oiling, and he moves with the fragility of an icicle anticipating a fall. He smells like old plastic and dust with just a tinge of vanilla.

Only his mask, attained after the peak of his physical rigor, has retained its sleek corporate whiteness, the one part of Nuju that playtime has not branded as mine. And yet that mask is the face I gaze down at every time I return home and pull out the cardboard box that doubles as a retirement home beneath my bed, where Nuju sits apart from the rest of my BIONICLE collection (now resettled in the attic). It’s that mask, so recognizable from the marketing team’s mass-produced promotional material — books, comics, films, games, television commercials — that reassures me that Nuju, my Nuju, is safe and present.

I doubt, even now, that I will ever be as cool as Nuju, if only because I can’t shoot ice from my hands. But I don’t need to be. Nuju’s life story, authored and sold to the markets by a committee of Legoemployees, was tailor-made for me — fiction as therapy. It assured me of my worth, introversion and all. For a time I had struggled to accept that, like Nuju, I found home in the apartness of the void — the solitary walks and lonely lunches and empty shelves. Then he pulled me up there with him.

I am Nuju.

Ahmed Elbenni | ahmed.elbenni@yale.edu .