Sunday, July 17, 2016

Middle River

It was the first truly nice day of the year in 1982, one of those sunny, warm, early March days that preview the coming spring. I still had no friends. I was still the weird, non-white kid from Jersey who wore his snow boots until well after all the snow had melted, then replaced those with a pair of Sikes, counterfeit Nikes with the swoosh glued on upside down. 

Having a pair Sikes may have been worse than wearing the ducks when there was no snow on the ground. I had people start calling me Freddy in lieu of Fernando. It sounded more American in this place, Middle River, where I was the darkest skinned person, the closest being a girl of Native American descent. Besides, I couldn’t abide the twang that came out when the kids pronounced the nan in Fernando. Also, Freddy was the nickname everyone called my father, who had no idea we had left Jersey, for good. Even then, I suspected I would never see him again. As much as anything else, it was a twelve-year-old’s way to honor his dad.

I decided that the day was too gorgeous to be spoiled by the fact I had no friends on that gorgeous, pre-spring Saturday. I slipped on my Sikes, picked a direction, and just started walking. For as much as I hated Middle River, it was beautiful. There were huge, wooded expanses and lush greenery everywhere. I found a creek and followed it.

I walked for what seemed miles, but I’m sure was far less, until I ran into someone I thought I recognized, a girl. “Freddy?” she called out to me with a smile. It was Kim from class at my new school, Stemmers Run Junior High. I didn’t know her well. A taller, thin wisp of girl who wore turquoise tortoise shell glasses. She had seemed shy, not exactly the girl I typically hung out with. But she was a friendly face, something I was desperate for. She invited me into her home, and I welcomed it.

She got me something to drink, and we went into her nicely manicured back yard and talked a bit, about what I don’t completely remember.But I do remember that she was the first person to show an interest in who I was rather than what I was. 


I’m sure I went on and on about Jersey, about all the friends I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to, about my now dashed dream of studying acting at the New York School of Performing Arts—the so-called Fame school. Eventually, Kim asked me if I wanted to listen to some music.

So we lay on her lawn, looking at the wide, blue sky, listening to Elton John. The song Daniel was her favorite. Kim had an older brother named Daniel who she’d lost, and the song served as a tribute, a reminder of what she’d lost. By the time side A of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was over we were holding hands. I felt compelled to kiss her. We hung out for a little while longer, holding hands, kissing; but by the end of the last side of the album, I felt ready to move on. I kissed her one last time before heading back home.

By the time the weekend was over and we’d returned to school, it was as if nothing had happened, as if we both knew we had just needed that moment to shake off the loneliness that had been plaguing us both—that it had been enough.

Things would fall apart quickly from that point on. I would soon begin to hang out with a group of troublemakers from my new home in the Riverdale Village apartment complex we’d moved to. I would spend the next nine months transforming from straight A student to an alcoholic, juvenile delinquent. I didn’t know then that I would nearly get arrested a few times, tag along for a gangbang behind Middlesex Library, only to be turned away once I got there—“not the one with the glasses,” the girl would say—I would even help burn a cross.

All that would come later. However, on that warm, late winter day in 1982, I just needed to feel like I belonged somewhere, again. For the briefest moment, Kim gave me exactly that. If only I had buried myself in that, in Kim’s kind offer of friendship, I might’ve avoided the dark spiral I would soon fall into.



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