Lightning in a Jar: The Walls of Jericho

CHAPTER 8:

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.

Jericho always had the best apple cider bar none.

Jericho Cider Mill. The best apple cider, bar none.

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.

“Teléfono!”

“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.

Lightning in a Jar: A Perfect Childhood

CHAPTER 5:

When you think about it, there is no such thing as a perfect childhood.

So much can go wrong, so much can happen. You can be five and playing hopscotch on the sidewalk in front of your home, and suddenly you miss a beat and fall in a heap of scrapes and bruises. You can have a much older half-brother who doesn’t think much of you and doesn’t give a second thought to scooping you out of your bubble-bath bliss, and dropping you naked and wet on the hallway carpet, simply because he needs to use the bathroom to take a piss.Me, June 1972 2 1

Maybe you’re playing with a brother you adore, and he’s jauntily carrying you across the living room, making you giggle in ecstatic glee as you anticipate being tossed on the couch. He drops you too soon. A genuine accident, and you land on the edge of the coffee table, your head striking the sharp corner of the table, causing a small puncture. Blood splatters across the table and onto the rug, and you end up requiring six stitches. Enough to make you scream and your brother to get a beating.

Think about it. A president can get assassinated just like that, and the world forever changes. Seemingly overnight, you can be eight years old and sent away to live with relatives in a far off country, and when you return, a year later, everything’s changed. Your family has moved, and no longer live in your childhood brownstone, but by the corner of Main Street and harsh reality, in a modest apartment, so small that you now are relegated to sleeping on the living room couch, after everyone else has gone to bed, that is.

You move again, this time out of the city and out to the suburbs of Long Island. You become deathly ill and are bedridden for months. Meanwhile, everything keeps changing around you.

Nothing stays the same and you can keep coming around the bend as many times as you want, and still you can’t stop it. Change, that is. It’ll happen, it always does. You keep moving, and time keeps passing and before you know it, you’re 15, and you find yourself living alone, as a boarder in someone else’s house, all because your own family has dispersed—parts unknown.

There is no such thing as a perfect childhood, but finally, your family settles down and you’re in high school. You meet a boy and go steady for the first time. A boy who’s a senior, and you’ve fallen in love. Then, life smacks you in the face, and you’re tossed to the curb in a wrenching breakup.

But, there’s someone in math class and for a fleeting moment you think, he is a friend but he could me more. If only the age thing didn’t bother you so much. That’s how you feel. Terrified that you find yourself liking him. Drawn to him and looking forward to seeing him each day in class, but ignoring him. Mortified that he’s so young. A whole year younger. If only, you say. He’s caring and you aren’t used to such sincerity. Yet, he doesn’t care about appearances, and you do. But then you never asked for this, all the same.

So, therein lies the rub. And, what do you do? You start hanging out with George and Max. Jake’s best friends. Max is all right. Hefty and tall, with a moon-shaped face, deep set eyes and a crooked grin. And, most of the time, stoned out of his mind.

But, George is another matter. He likes you, he really likes you, but you find him boring and dull-witted. No personality and if you think about him for too long, you become repulsed, but mostly with yourself. You can’t even stand it when he touches you. Yet, you agree to go out. Not one time, but several. Over and over and each time you dread it. You do this because you are a girl on a mission with one goal in mind: To make Jake jealous. And, what better way than by dating his best friend?

Yet, Jake doesn’t care. Not one bit, and he’s shown you that by his indifference. Witness the other night. You were at the Ho-Jo’s, sitting across from George, sharing a dish of chocolate ice cream. George kept going on and on about how nervous he was because he still hadn’t heard from his first choice for college, Plattsburgh State, and all you kept thinking was, Plattsburgh? Why would anyone want to go to a school with a name like that? And the more you said it in your head, the more peculiar it sounded and soon you burst out laughing, and George, who didn’t see the flash of scorn in your eyes, couldn’t figure out what had you in stitches. And, there you were, glaring at him as if he was the crazy one. Plattsburgh, indeed.

But, then Jake walked in with Little Miss Pinched Face. That’s what you’d taken to calling his new girlfriend because she always appears to be in flinching in pain. And, all you could think of was making Jake jealous, which is why you started flirting with George, suddenly gushing at his every word. And, while you did, you felt sick inside while George was beaming, taking it all in. He fell for you, after all. Jake gave a polite nod and sat down with Pinched Face, in a booth near yours, his back toward you. Why? Because he didn’t care. And, the rest of the night you felt stuck. Stuck with George and talk of Plattsburgh, watching his mouth form words you couldn’t hear, because your mind wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere, but there.

You’re young and foolish and can’t see the forest for the trees. You should know better, but jealousy has you by the throat. Jealousy and your own insecurities and self doubt. And, why do you keep pushing away the only boy you really care about?

Tap, tap.

What is that? Then you remember. You’re in study period and someone is tapping you on the shoulder, pulling you out of your self-defeating thoughts. You look up. It’s James, curiously staring at you, willing you to smarten up and see what’s in front of you. Wake up, he ought to be saying. Wake up!

“Thought I’d find you here,” he softly whispers. He crooks his finger and adds, “Follow me.”

You look around apprehensively. It’s study hall after all, and you haven’t really given James the time of day, and you wonder if his patience with you is wearing thin. The teacher assigned to study hall, who is more like a warden, seems to have left the room, and the prisoners, ahem, students, are on their own. James isn’t even supposed to be there, but somehow that doesn’t matter. Before you can reply, he takes your hand and pulls you up, and you feel your hand tremble as it meets his. His palm is tender and hot against yours. You grab your things, as he gingerly guides you out of the room. And suddenly, you’re taking flight, and you feel like an escapee. Where are you going? You don’t know, but there’s no time to ask. All you know is that, for the first time in weeks, you feel a lift in your step.

There may be no such thing as a perfect childhood, but sometimes there are moments that come close.

(To be continued.)

Missed an installment? Catch up by visiting the Lightning in a Jar: High School Years page.

Lightning in a Jar: In Like a Lion

My high school in Long Island, New York.

Yearbook photo of my high school in Long Island, New York.

CHAPTER 2:

Time passed. Winter was loosening its clutch on the North Shore of Long Island and signs of spring were beginning to emerge everywhere. In my mother’s daffodils and in the hydrangea bushes in our backyard. In the local park, where they were mowing the lawn and adding fresh sand to the ground by the swings. And, in my bicycle, which had become dusty in the garage, from non-use during the cold months. Now that it was getting warmer, I could once again ride my bike to school in lieu of taking the school bus. These signs were a reminder of the old adage taught to us in grade school. “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.”

Spring break was just weeks away, and I couldn’t wait, though I was hoping to stay home for the break so I could hang with Jake. He seemed a bit aloof lately. I asked him if anything was wrong but he looked at me tenuously and then shook his head.

My parents had other ideas for the break. They were making plans to go to Washington, D.C. to see our nation’s Capital. This was their way of making it up to me for not allowing me to go on the 11th grade field trip to D.C. in October. The idea that girls and boys were going to be sleeping in the same hotel (though not in the same rooms) caused my traditional, Latino parents to forbid my participation altogether. I remember being crestfallen the entire week, when nearly all the juniors were away on the trip and I had to stay and attend school, business as usual. Going to D.C. with my parents just wasn’t going to be the same, and I was doing my best to talk them out of it.

Meanwhile, for the first time, I was excited about math. Turns out, when explained s-l-o-w-l-y, geometry is relatively easy to comprehend. But the real reason I was excited was Sam and James. I enjoyed their company and loved hanging out with them in class. We’d get there early, and gab before class started, during class—whenever we could get away with it—and afterwards. It was the “afterwards” part that annoyed Jake, because he’d be waiting for me in the hallway to walk me to my next period, and more and more, I was one of the last to leave as I tried to squeeze in more time with James and Sam. Something Jake didn’t understand at all.

“Why bother? They’re just kids!” he asked, exasperated.

“Because they’re helping me with my homework, I guess.” Not entirely true, but I wasn’t about to let him know that I genuinely liked my sophomore friends. So instead I said, “It’s okay if you can’t always meet me after class. I don’t want you to be late for yours.”

He seemed relieved. I looked back at the classroom and spotted James gathering his books. He looked up at me and smiled warmly. I was trying to think of something pithy to say to him, when Jake grabbed my hand and books, and pulled me away.

The next day, there was no sign of Jake after class. For a moment, I was disappointed. But then I heard a voice behind me say,

“Hey, Bubbles, mind if I walk you to your class?”

It was James. Quietly soothing James. Who seemed to know as much about old movies as I did, and could crack me up with a wry observation. Because of his shyness, he seemed like a lamb, but there was a hint of wildness underneath his demeanor. James had already conjured up a nickname for me, Bubbles, because, as he said, I had a “bubbly” spirit. I wasn’t sure about that, nor was I crazy about a nickname that sounded like it belonged to a stripper, but secretly I was digging that he had his own name for me.

“Where’s Sam?” I wasn’t used to seeing one without the other.

“Oh, he’s staying. He wants to talk to Mrs. C. about the grade he got on the last test.”

“Well then, I suppose you can walk me, but don’t you normally make a left here to go to social studies? I’m actually headed the other way for my English class.”

“I don’t mind,” he smiled, adding rather expectantly, “Would you like some help with your books? You’ve got quite a few there.”

I reddened. True, I had a lot of books in my hands because I’d been to the school library earlier for a report I was writing and was going to continue working on it during study period, but somehow, I felt James was getting too close for comfort.

“Um, no thanks.” I then paused and said, “James, last I heard you’re not my boyfriend. I don’t mind walking with you, really, because you’re a friend. A very nice friend. But that’s all. It’s weird for you to carry my books.” Ugh. Why did I just say that? I could see how deflated he looked.

“Sorry. Just thought I’d ask, that’s all.”  This wasn’t going well and I had a feeling it was my fault. It felt so awkward being here without Sam to balance us out.

James must have felt it, too, because suddenly he surprised me and quietly said, “Maybe you’re right. I thought it’d be nice to walk with you, but I should just probably get going before the bell rings. Later.” With that, he turned and walked away.

After school, as I was unlocking my bike to go home, I ran into Sam. He was alone and about to head to the public library. I glanced around hoping to see James, wanting to make sure we were okay.

Sam greeted me and said, “If you’re looking for James. His mom picked him up earlier. Doctor’s appointment.”

“Why would you assume I’m looking for James?”

“I just figured,” he remarked matter-of-factly.

“Figured what, exactly?”

“Well, it’s kind of obvious. He’s crazy about you and I think you feel the same.”

I stammered. “Sam, no way. You’re crazy!”

“You think so? From where I’m standing, you seem to be all he thinks about.”

I was aghast. As Sam took off on his bike, I zipped up my windbreaker, and started to think about what he’d said.

James liked me? Suddenly I felt like I was in an Agatha Christie mystery, when all the suspects are gathered together at dinner and all the clues start falling into place, revealing the identity of the murderer. Only instead of exposing the killer, the clues were now revealing this attraction that had caught me unawares. Did I feel it, too?

But now, I could see. Sam was right. I began to remember how my cheeks would burn each time I felt James’ seemingly constant gaze upon me. How he’d wink at me as if he and I were the only ones in on a joke. How he’d hold the door open for me when we got to class. The electric current I felt when my arm briefly brushed his. And, I remembered just how much I looked forward to seeing him, and how, despite his shyness, James had proven to be even funnier and more scintillating than Sam. And his eyes, how beautiful and open there were to me.

I pedaled feverishly all the way home, and by the time I arrived, I knew what I had to do. Two things were certain: James was too young and Jake was my boyfriend. There was only one solution. I had to stop talking to James!

Yet, nothing really is certain, is it? That night, the wind blew furiously, bringing with it a new morning frost that made it too cold to ride my bike to school.

So much for spring. Seems like the lion wasn’t yet ready to yield to the lamb.

(To be continued.)

Missed an installment? Catch up by visiting the High School Years page.

Flailing

I didn’t always live in Queens. Just before sixth grade, we moved out to Long Island, and before you knew it, I was hitting those awkward teen years.

My high school yearbook photo

If you want to know the truth, I was a teenager with no direction, and no ambition whatsoever. A lousy student with even crummier study habits. I was painfully shy and mortified by speech class, where I had to step up to the podium and debate on an issue I didn’t give a hoot about. In geometry and algebra, I was one of the few who managed to turn, what should each have been a year-long course, into 18-month-long ones. What can I say? I needed the extra time for the math to sink in.

My future looked bleak. I was flailing.

Even Mr. Meissner, my science teacher was baffled at the thought of my prospects. He talked me into enrolling in his General Science class which actually proved to be one of my favorite classes because the only thing we didn’t study in that class was science. We were a class of misfits. My “lab” partner was on his third year of being left back. He’d boast that he knew a lot about nothing, and it was true. Everyday, he’d regale us with his breadth of knowledge about the most mundane things. I never knew anyone who knew so much about so little.

Frankly, there was little hope for me. Mrs. McHale, the Home-Economics teacher nearly twisted my arm to get me to take her class so she could teach me how to sew. She literally yanked me out of the hallway one day, and the next thing I knew I was enrolled in her class (much to my chagrin). I hated sewing. I took the class but I never sewed a stitch. My mother, who was a master with the sewing machine, ended up doing it for me. To this day, I can’t even sew a button on a shirt.

The computer teacher practically twisted my other arm to get me to take his class as no other girls had signed up for it. So I did, but these were the computers of the past, pre-Apple and pre-PC’s. There was no internet access. Nothing, but mysterious codes for enormous computers that I was sure would never amount to anything of significance in my lifetime. Those binary numbers just swam over my head and dive-bombed on any future I might have as a computer analyst.

And then two things happened to change my life. And by things, I mean two people: Miss Stern and Lynn.

Miss Stern taught Creative Writing. Up until then, the extent of my writing was limited to assorted diaries I’d kept throughout the years, and the copious notes I’d write in class and pass to my friends, when I should’ve been paying attention to classwork.

And then I took Creative Writing and the world was transformed. It was as if my life had gone from black and white to brilliant Technicolor. My heart became infused with joy. Suddenly, I was turning in assignments on time and raising my hand with record speed–excited to read my work aloud, whether it was an essay describing the contents of my bedroom or  a poem in the style of Ben Johnson. It was in her class that I learned the line, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive.”  Oh, how I loved Miss Stern, and how I loved her class. To me, there was nothing better!

Except maybe my friend, Lynn. If you ask me, Lynn had one of those intensely bright minds that left me in awe. She took AP honors classes, and barely needed to blink to get an A. Yep, she was smart as a whip, with a biting sense of humor, much like Dorothy Parker.

Lynn and I traveled in different circles. You could find me with the potheads, the delinquents, and the ones who prided themselves on knowing much about nothing. Whereas, Lynn was with the intellectual crowd, the ones who knew their life plans, and had dreams of going to Princeton, Columbia, or Dartmouth.

And, then one day, by chance, we became friends. Which evolved to good friends. Whereupon, we embarked on a series of fabulous adventures. Just me and Lynn. And, in the process, Lynn changed my life.

Oh, and I suppose this would be as good a time as any, to make a formal apology to the country of India. As you requested, we never returned to your embassy.

But I’ll save these stories–the tales of our sometimes wild adventures–for another day.

So, how about you? Can you remember someone who may have helped change the course of your life?

Devastation in the Land of My Childhood

I was planning to write something light and frothy today. I was going to tell you about all the shopping I did while in Europe, and show you some of my photos of shopping hotspots, things I bought, things I wanted to buy, if only my budget had allowed, and things that were way out of my price range. I actually started writing that post and who knows? Maybe some other time I’ll finish it.

But, today I am sad. My achy, breaky heart is tormented by what’s going on along the other side of the U.S., otherwise known as the east coast. Particularly, New York, my home, my birthplace. I could cry just for my city, alone. I could sob for Queens and all it has endured. I’m sure Long Island, where I spent my teen years, didn’t fare much better, though I don’t know for sure.  All that is going on right now is hard to fathom for those of us not there and for those of us who have never experienced anything like it. Let’s hope we never will.

For that Hurricane/Cyclone Sandy sure was a menace. She wreaked her havoc on everything she touched, and slammed all that was in her path. Like Queens, where 100 homes burned to the ground, just like that, and not a soul could do anything to stop it.

But then there’s the New Jersey shore. I think of the summers I spent there, in Atlantic City, and even once wrote about it in a post called, My Boardwalk Empire. For many years, Atlantic City was the vacation spot of my dreams. I still hold that place in high esteem and shudder at the pile of heap that it is now, after just a few hours of stormy mayhem.

How many times I skipped along the boardwalk, waving with a flick of the hand, to Mr. Peanut, as I whizzed by. Memories of buying a fist-load of saltwater taffy and breathing in the salty air mixed with the scent of Belgian waffles. All the sights and sounds of vacationers by the sea, echo through time, reminding us of that which was once there.

Yes, Atlantic City. This was the place to be. After the storm, when Governor Chris Christie surveyed the damage, he reflected how anyone his age, who’d spent time there, is devastated, knowing so much of the Jersey shore has been lost, and the coast, itself, will never be the same again. I can certainly relate, stricken with grief as I am. Heartbroken for the loss and the destruction suffered by so many.

Fires, floods, pummeling winds, power outages, and even snow. Sandy brought it all. What a terrifying combination, somehow reminding me of the Ten Plagues that the Lord brought on to Egypt–pestilence, frogs, boils, darkness, etc. There were casualties, too, but early preparation was key in helping to keep those numbers down.

Yet, all the damage in the world can’t stop the faith and belief in the goodness of people. Of people helping each other through simple acts of kindness.

Nor can it stop the will to go on. In the face of hardship, resilience is a powerful thing. People will walk miles, jump through hoops and bend over backwards for a ray of hope, and the promise that this, too, shall pass.

And, while the storm is over, the rebuilding begins, as insurmountable as it may seem. How long will it take? The folks in charge seem to think it’ll be mere days for the subway system to be up and running. I wish I were as optimistic. Patience is needed, something those of us raised there have in short supply. It’s going to be a long haul.  Luckily, folks there have grit and tenacity. They will survive, they will rebuild and they will be stronger for it.

For now, being so far, there’s not much I can do. I’ve been in touch with my friends and family and know they are safe. I’ve made my donation to the Red Cross. And, next spring, I plan to go back and visit. For I wish to see it again in all its brilliance. I need to see it again.

Life goes on, after all.