Another year of school was winding down. Pretty soon it’d be time for finals and the Regents Examinations. But first, there’d be the senior prom. For months, I imagined I’d be going to the prom with Jake. We’d hold each other tightly while slow dancing, and when it was over, we’d end up on the beach, as most revelers did, making out beneath the glow of the sunrise. The one time when talk of curfew would be excused.
It promised to be the perfect night. Me, on the arm of my boyfriend, wearing a long flowing dress sewn by my mother and her Singer sewing machine. That had been the plan, but now Jake would not be taking me, but rather, his new girlfriend, who seemed to always look like she’d swallowed a bag of prunes, pits and all.
Two months had passed since spring vacation and the devastating breakup. Two months of uncertainty and hurt burrowing inside me, taking hold like a vice constricting my body. Two months that found me sometimes doing well, sometimes so high I had to lay perfectly still to keep my head from spinning, and sometimes longing for a boy who I knew was too young for me. I couldn’t help but wonder, how different things might have been if we hadn’t moved here at all. Jericho. For better, for worse, it sometimes felt as though the walls were tumbling down around me.
Located on Long Island, in the Town of Oyster Bay, Jericho didn’t really start to see a boon until after the Second World War. Like all suburbs, the houses there looked immaculately pristine, with only slight variations to tell them apart. We were a traditional community, where women mostly stayed at home, and men caught the Long Island Railroad from Hicksville, the next town over, to their jobs in the city, which was about an hour away. We kids had our run of the neighborhood, but often you’d find us hanging out at the local shopping center, springing for a strawberry or chocolate parfait at the Gertz department store. Our version of the soda shoppes of yesteryear, I suppose.
Once, Jericho had been a haven for Quakers, who ended up giving the town its name. I imagine that then it was nothing but farmland and gentle hills, nurtured by the sun, and the rains of a thousand storms, with earth rich with minerals and nutrients, giving forth to tall oaks, maples, rambling roses, untold brambles and foliage that grew darkly rich and plentiful.
I never gave much thought to how we ended up leaving Queens for Jericho, but knowing my father, he probably bought the first place that came on the market, sight unseen. It was a split level with a large backyard, and the front yard was caddy corner to an off ramp of the Long Island Expressway. With no fence to protect our plot of land, cars speeding too fast as they exited the highway were known to end up in our yard, leaving tread marks across our lawn and my mother’s daffodils.
For a little while we planted roots, if only fake ones, because when push came to shove, there was no tying my family down. My parents, having left their home in South America 20 years earlier, were nomads and we kids, were along for the ride. Seems fitting that we lived so close to a major thoroughfare, as we were constantly on the move and nothing, not even owning a home, could keep us tethered to one place for very long. Seemed we were always about leaving.
I was 12 when we moved in, 14 when we sold it, and 16 when we bought a similar house on the same block, this time facing a different highway, the Northern State.
I lived on the west part of Jericho and James lived on the east, with the main thoroughfare being the dividing line. On the west side was the neighborhood park, where we’d spend summers at the pool, and winters at the ice skating rink. There was also a drive-in nearby, which we never went to as my parents didn’t like sitting in the car to watch a film, and the Ho-Jo’s, a family sit-down restaurant, where every Monday featured all you can eat fried chicken.
On the east side was the public library, the Waldbaum’s supermarket, and the Jericho Cider Mill, which served cider so flavorful and naturally sweet, you felt like you were tasting a little bit of heaven. The high school was down the road a ways, along the main thoroughfare, and just beyond it was the Catholic Church. The synagogue was located above the firehouse when we first moved to Jericho, but later moved to a building of its own, still close by, so that devout congregants could walk, not drive, to services on the High Holy Days, as was expected of them.
I came to know my town well and the surrounding ones, too. Eisenhower Park was about six miles away, which is why I figured it was a better place to meet James and Sam, rather than the park down the street from where I lived. I feared that the park by my home would increase my chances of running into someone I knew, and I couldn’t fathom having to explain what I was doing, or who I was with, to anyone.
I woke up late on the morning of our outing. After trying on several outfits, I decided on a floral top and shorts. At precisely 12:05, I pulled my bicycle out of the garage. It would be about a 30-minute ride to the park, but I was too excited to wait another minute. I wanted to be sure I was on time, since it wasn’t in my nature to be late for anything. As I straddled my bike, with my right foot on the pedal, I heard my mother open the front door screen. Cupping her hand to the side of her mouth, so she could be heard across the traffic din of the highway, she shouted.
“Quién es?” I asked, hoping she could just take a message for me.
My mother shook her head. “No se. Un muchacho.”
A boy. Could it be James calling me to let me know he was going to be late or worse, that he wasn’t coming at all? Yet, I didn’t remember ever giving him my phone number. Something told me to take the call just in case. Leaning the bike against the garage door, I ran inside, and headed down to the basement to take the call there, out of earshot.
“James?” I said hesitantly into the receiver.
Click. My mother hung up the line in the kitchen.
“I was just getting ready to leave. What’s up, Kiddo?”
“That’s what I was going to ask you. You haven’t been retuning my calls and maybe I’m wrong, but you seem to be avoiding me at school. Keep it up, and I might reconsider inviting you to the prom.” I heard a hint of sarcasm in his laugh.
It wasn’t James at all. It was George, Jake’s pal, whom I hadn’t seen since the night at HoJo’s, when we ran into Jake and Miss Pinched Face.
“And, who the heck is James, anyway?” He added, with a certain bravado in his voice.
Something told me I was going to have to back peddle pretty hard to explain this one.
(To be continued.)
Missed an installment? Catch up by visiting the page, Lightning in a Jar: High School Years.