Lightning in a Jar: Cat’s Out of the Bag

Chapter 11:

“Well, hello! And, who might this delicious young man be?”

Speaking with his usual flare for the dramatic, as if he were emoting on a stage, and not standing in the musty hallways of our high school, Max was referring to James. We were amidst a flurry of students who were in the process of getting to their next class, some of whom couldn’t help but stare at us, drawn as they were by Max’s gregarious persona.

I blanched. Max and I had been talking about venturing into the city, when suddenly James appeared out of nowhere. Having completely ignored the coda I had established—no speaking to me at school (except in geometry, of course)—James had nonchalantly greeted me as if I were any old friend whom he’d bumped into between classes.

Only, I wasn’t.

I was, however, in a clandestine relationship with him.  Emphasis on clandestine. Private. Mum’s the word, and all that.

Since that day in the park, James and I had become practically inseparable. Outside of school, that is. No one knew or suspected one iota. We’d meet surreptitiously after school, taking walks through his secluded, tree-shaded neighborhood. Then we’d head to his home, and slip under the covers of his bed. No going all the way, mind you–I wasn’t ready for that–just a lot of hot and heavy, shall we say, breathing. You get the picture.

I couldn’t get enough of him. When we were together, I felt more buoyant, more adventurous, and yes, more alive. Happier than I’d been in ages. Still, I’d tell no one about our relationship. As far as I was concerned, that’s how it had to be, mostly because of the embarrassment I felt in being with a younger guy. The last thing I wanted was to let the cat out of the bag. Still, every time we met, in my head there were many others in the room along with us. And, they were all judging.

whiteheat2as4

“Top of the world, Ma,” cries James Cagney in one of the best gangster movies of all time, “White Heat.”

First and foremost, my parents, who’d have read me the riot act had they known what I was up to, particularly since, in the six months that I dated Jake, I never stepped foot in his bedroom. Then, there was my best friend, Liza, who was smarter and savvier than I, and almost certain to see my interest in James as a sign of inopportune weakness.

As for my other friends, whom I’d party and hang out with, I could feel their disapproving eyes boring tiny holes into my back. Had this been one of those James Cagney gangster flicks, you would’ve heard me yelling, “Top of the World, Ma!” as my parents and friends riddled me with bullets for bringing a pox upon all their houses.

So, for these reasons, I lived my double life. Publicly, I continued to meet up with my friends, have lunch with George, and have the occasional sleepover at Liza’s. At home, I was the dutiful (sort of) daughter, doing my chores and homework, while my mother sewed my dress for the prom.  And, whenever I could, I’d sneak off to see James. Yes, everything was going smoothly.

Until Max.

I hadn’t counted on Max.

Max was a senior and the only openly gay guy at my school. Jake somehow knew him and had introduced us one night, just before a school performance of the musical, Good News. Max, who had designed the scenery, and the show’s posters which had been plastered all over town, was backstage doing last minute makeup touches on the female lead.

Upon meeting me, he took hold of my face and, holding it up to the light, cheekily remarked, “Miss Thing, don’t ever wear blue eye shadow. It’s absolutely not your color.”

I wasn’t wearing any makeup that night, but I figured, he must know what he was talking about. Most days, Max came to school wearing tons of makeup. He’d keep it on until one of the teachers sent him to the men’s room to wash off. He’d oblige but, first chance he got, you’d find him back in the bathroom, reapplying it. Max never stopped testing the school’s boundaries, and would often end up in the principal’s office.

I didn’t know what to make of him, having never met anyone who seemed to enjoy calling as much attention to himself as he did. Without fear of consequence. When everybody else was trying to fit in, he was embracing his own flamboyant self.

And now, he was commanding me to spend the day with him in the city, and there was no turning him down.

“Miss Thing, what is wrong with you?” He cried in mock horror. “I can’t believe you haven’t been to any of the vintage clothing shops in East Village. Looks like I’m going to have to take you there myself! This weekend, no excuses. Trust me, you will love it!”

I was skeptical. I’d never gone into Manhattan with anyone outside my family, except Liza, and our favorite place to shop was Macy’s or Gimbel’s in Herald Square, so I didn’t know what to expect. But Max knew I had a thing for movies of the 30s and 40s, particularly the musicals, and I did love the style–padded shoulders, sweeping skirts and cocktail hats–so, maybe it would be fun.

While we stood in the school hallway finalizing plans, James happened by. Max waited expectantly for an introduction.

“So, whom do we have here, Miss Thing?” He tapped his foot, impatiently. “Aren’t you going to introduce us?”

I tensed up, as a sense of doom crossed my face. I wasn’t sure James could hold his own with Max. In some ways, James seemed too innocent.

Max glanced from me to James, and slowly, he nodded, as if things were beginning to gel.

“Oh, I see,” was all he said.

“Max,” I began to stammer. “This is–”

Max cut me off, taking matters into his own hands.

“Dear boy, I’m Max and believe me, the pleasure is all mine.”

James shrugged, muttering a casual, “Hey,” under his breath.

“This is James,” I intervened. “A friend from geometry. He sometimes helps me with homework assignments.” I was hoping my words would convince Max that there was nothing more than a distant connection between us.

“You mean he’s in that remedial class you’ve told me about?” Max nodded, seemingly going along with the bill of goods I was selling. “Now, why didn’t I sign up for that class, I wonder?”

I could tell James was feeling uncomfortable by his keen interest in him. Frankly, so was I.

“Well, then,” said Max, “I don’t suppose James would like to join us for our excursion Saturday?”

Getting together with James and Sam was one thing, but James and Max? Out of the question.

“Probably not a good idea,” I replied before James could say anything. His shyness seemed to have kicked in, full throttle.

“No?” He feigned a forlorn look. “How disappointing. Oh well, I guess I’ll leave you two alone. Seems the lad is eager to help you with, ahem–your homework?”

With a smile and a flick of his hand, he tipped the fedora he was wearing to one side, adding,

“Until Saturday, Dear Heart! I expect a full report on your–what was it? Oh, yes. Your homework!”

And, with that, he strode off, disappearing down the hall.

“Uh, that was weird,” said James, matter-of-factly.

The bell marking the start of the next period sounded. There’d be no time for explanations. I simply nodded in agreement, and headed to my class, wondering what Max had surmised about me and James. Could he tell there was something between us? Would he even care?

Knowing Max, I’d be in for a grilling.

(To be continued.)

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

 

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.

A Christmas Remembrance

That's me posing with Shirley and my brother, Rafael, too.

That’s me posing with Shirley and my brother, Rafael, too.

Note:  I first posted this two years ago when my readers were few and far between.  Thanks for reading, and may your holidays be happy and warm!

Each of us has moments in our lives that we’d like to recapture. For me, one of those moments was the Christmas I received Shirley. I was seven and the excitement of the season was still fresh in my heart, beginning with the signal from my mother indicating it was time.

Time to venture down to the basement and rummage through stacks of boxes until we found the right ones. My mother would pretend not to see them, allowing me the thrill of spotting the boxes first. Worn from years of use and handling, they were filled with fragile, shiny ornaments and treasured decorations. Out came the large red Santa boot, made of Styrofoam, red paint and glitter, which we’d hang on the front door. Nestled in another box, we’d find the plastic reindeer that would spend each Christmas watching over us from its perch on the hi-fi. Meanwhile, my father would take my brothers to purchase a tree from a nearby lot. Once they returned, we’d open the box with the delicate ornaments. We’d peel away the tissue paper to uncover each gleaming object in hues of red, blue and silver.  As we decorated the tree, Andy Williams and Perry Como records serenaded us with such classic songs, as “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas” and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

A few days before Christmas, my mother would take my brothers and me into the city. There, we’d move swiftly and purposely through the snow dusted streets, where the warm scent of chestnuts roasting in the vendors’ carts filled the cold, biting air. First, we’d catch a matinee at Radio City Music Hall, not so much to see the film, as to see the Radio City Rockettes perform in their Christmas show, always a spectacular sight. Afterward, we’d cross the street to Rockefeller Center to gaze upon the enormous Christmas tree, ablaze in lights in the dusk of a New York City evening, and watch the skaters glide gracefully across the ice. Before taking the subway back to Queens, we’d make one last stop at Macy’s on Herald Square.  Riding the elevator to the 8th floor, the anticipation of seeing Santaland made my heart beat faster. For the entire floor it seemed had been transformed into Santa’s village, replete with fake snow, starlight heavens, miniature buildings and a wooden bridge you’d walk across as you headed to see the man himself, Santa Claus.

We’d open our presents on Christmas Eve, which in our family was even more important than Christmas Day. The gifts were modest and simple as my parents couldn’t afford more than that. One year I received a plastic set of checkers. Another, a Dr. Ben Casey doll that had been purchased with S&H green stamps. In fact, green stamps were used to purchase many of our gifts.

But this year was different. This was the year that I was given Shirley, a flaxen-haired, blue-eyed doll in a pink dress and crisp pink and white striped pinafore.  She was absolutely breathtaking! Shirley, whose name my mother had chosen because the doll reminded her of Shirley Temple, was the most beautiful doll I’d ever laid eyes upon–and she was unattainable through green stamps. No ordinary doll, Shirley was a Madame Alexander doll, purchased at the most prestigious, high-end toy store in New York City, F.A.O. Schwartz. I hugged my new doll tightly, breathing in the smell of brand new plastic. In my delight, it didn’t cross my mind to ask how my parents were able to afford such a doll.  Too excited to even sleep that night, I just didn’t think about it. During the night it snowed. In the morning we’d all go sledding. But tonight I had Shirley. This was Christmas for me.

It wasn’t until later that I learned how a number of relatives and close family friends had pitched in to help my parents purchase Shirley for me. I learned how my parents made the decision to not give each other gifts that year, so that I could have Shirley.

Throughout my childhood, I received other dolls, but none compared to Shirley. The other dolls, for the most part, are gone now, but I still have Shirley. She is safely stored in a cedar chest, which I sometimes open at Christmastime, for one more look, for one more touch of my old, dear friend.  For when I hold Shirley, I am surrounded again by my parents’ love, their real gift to me.

So, how about you? What are your best holiday memories?

Thanksgiving in Chicago

This sculpture seems to be holding court at the Art Institute of Chicago

Just got back from Chicago and all I can say is:

Brrr!!!

Talk about windy.  Sure, I know Chicago is known as the windy city. But I figured that was just a figure of speech. Much in the way New York City is known as the Big Apple.

I mean, everyone knows that NYC really isn’t an apple, right? There’s nothing about it that tastes like a Granny Smith or a Red Delicious, is there? So, I just assumed Chicago really wasn’t windy. At least, no more than any other city.

But, no. Turns out Chicago is 100 percent, honest-to-goodness windy. Wizard of Oz tornado-in-Kansas windy, though I didn’t see Miss Gulch flying by on a bike.

In fact, those Chicago gusts nearly knocked the wind right out of my sails, and any determination I had to face the crowds on Black Friday were immediately dashed.

Ready for the holidays at the Art Institute of Chicago

So, maybe skipping Black Friday was for the best. After all, I find that for every gift I purchase, I usually end up buying a second for myself.

Besides, there’s Cyber Monday!

So what did we do instead? For starters, we stayed in and puttered. We ate leftover turkey and all the fixings, caught up on our magazine reading, and chatted and laughed to our hearts’ content.

We watched TV and lamented that one of our favorite new series, 666 Park Avenue, has been cancelled. We had a moment of silence for Larry Hagman, an actor who could channel evil like few others, and who was pure perfection in his role of J.R. Ewing on the Dallas TV series.

We did venture out on occasion. Once to see the film, Lincoln, which was then followed by a lively debate on the complexities of the man and what it took to get the U.S. Constitution’s Thirteenth Amendment–the one outlawing slavery–passed.

We also spent an afternoon at the Art Institute of Chicago, saw the Chicago Symphony concert perform music from the Disney film, Fantasia, and dined at a very nice restaurant.

And, did I tell you it was freezing?

Of course, when the temps warmed a little, I got to enjoy one of my favorite pastimes, taking walks around a nearby lake.  Herewith, some photos from my trip:

A walk along the lake.

Signs of Christmas

And one more…

At the airport, a chance encounter with the The Blues Brothers.

So, what did you do last week?

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.