I wake up in the back of the family station wagon, driving south on the Jersey Turnpike. The surreal landscape of industrial desolation is depressing enough, but my first reaction is chagrin that I’ve completely missed New York City. The next distress is my parents’ attempts to talk to me. It occurs with such infrequency that when it does happen, it means something is wrong. Aware of my own recent misdeeds, I anticipate dire consequences. I needn’t worry. Good Old Dad decides that he needs to make up for all the years of avoidance; I’m to have the sex talk. Suddenly the landscape of petroleum farms and chemical tanks is much more interesting. I must have dozed off because the next thing I hear is them arguing about me. Mom is of the opinion that I’m too young for such topics as the birds and bees, since I’m not showing any interest. Dad is more insightful as he believes I’m exhibiting typical teenage rebellion and challenge to his authority. It is Virginia the next time I wake up.
“Timmy, what on earth were you and Joey doing all night that makes you so tired today?” my mom asks.
God, how I really want to tell her.
“Just fooling around, Mom. Can I ask you a serious question?” I try to change the subject. “I really don’t want to be called Timmy any more. When we get to Florida., will you guys please call me Tim.”
“You’re always going to be our little Timmy.”
“Com’n, Mom. Everybody teases me, ‘Where’s Lassie, Timmy?’”
“See,” my dad pipes up. “I told you he’s growing up, just not ready for sex yet.”
“Why do you treat me like I’m so young? And since you want to talk about sex, how come I don’t have a brother or sister? If there’s someone else, you might not baby me so much.”
That shut them up. When we stop for lunch, they are upset again when I’m not hungry.
“There’s something wrong with that boy. A mother just knows these things.”
There is no answer to all these questions. I just sleep the rest of that day’s travel. At the motel that night, they are watching me more closely than normal.
“Why are you wearing your clothes to bed, Timmy?”
Ah, the pleasures of communal living.
“It’s just what I’ve been doing, Mom.”
“Well, get those pants off. I’m not having you look like you sleep in your clothes.”
Okay, but this isn’t going to end well.
“My gawd. Why aren’t you wearing any underwear? Have you turned into some kind of animal? I swear, Timmy, you’ve become very strange.”
“Please. Just call me Tim, Mom.”
“Leave the boy alone. He’s just going through a stage.”
This much parenting must be a strain because they were asleep before I even get tired. I sneak out and go downstairs to the coffee shop. A man looks at me. I go up to him and ask for a cigarette, my first ever.
When I go outside to smoke, he follows me. We start to talk. At least no dirty pictures this time. When he asks how old I am, and I didn’t lie, he loses interest in a hurry. Maybe he is a past victim of Joey’s scams. The cigarette tastes pretty stale. It’s cool to ask a stranger for one. I think how easy it is to meet people, all you need is some excuse. I wonder why I want to meet someone old, or if I can do the same with a woman. Strange thoughts. I worry about Joey. I had said I loved him. Those kinds of feelings are new. I feel I can’t trust them. The sex we had can be called making love, or maybe it’s only sex. Joey says that people just use each other, even just to think they love someone. When we talk about it, it seems like a dead-end. We’re having fun and end up getting it on; it seems like the best way to leave it. Maybe because I’m so young, I have no trouble talking about what I feel. Joey said he feels old, yet we can act like kids. He doesn’t trust his own feelings. Just the opposite of what you expect; someone older should be better at expressing themselves. Ah, the mystery of life. A waitress comes out to have a smoke on break. I have my second cigarette. Her Southern accent is crazy. Country people are different from the city. They don’t worry about being used. They just won’t do that to anyone. Maybe the guy earlier with the cigarette was just being friendly. I go up to bed at three and sleep most of the next day in the back of the car. Mom looks worried but doesn’t say anything. Dad insists we drive all the way to Miami without stopping again. We check into a hotel on Miami Beach at three a.m.
I’m anxious to check everything out, so I get up early in the morning. Miami will be my first home away from the military. It might be a permanent place for once. The hotel itself is pretty old when seen in daylight. It has a pool, but the beach has eroded right up to the hotel foundation. I meet some Spanish kids at the pool and am excited to learn they’re from New York City. When I tell them where I’ve been hanging out in the City, they call me ‘loco.’ It’s better when they find out we are moving to Miami. They are Puerto Ricans and have definite opinions about Miami, especially the Cubans. They teach me to say ‘que pasa.’ (What’s up?)
As soon as Dad gets home from work, he takes me out for a haircut, which I don’t argue about. The barber convinces my dad I needed a ‘butch’ cut as my hair is so uneven. Dad agree to call me Tim if I don’t argue about the haircut. Back at the hotel, my NY friends laugh at me but not in a sarcastic way. They know my dad is ex-military. Since it’s always hot and muggy in Miami, short hair makes sense if you don’t care much. They all have wavy/crinkled hair which doesn’t grow too long anyway. We go out to ‘cruise’ on Collins Avenue, walking up and down with hundreds of other kids. I try the thick Cuban coffee which gives me a buzz. I smoke some more. It’s pretty casual. When girls drive by, the guys whistle and make gestures to get them to come over. Girls stare so hard at me, I get embarrassed. My new buddies laugh. The next time, I casually walk over to where the girls stop, lean against the passenger door and stare right back. They giggle and take off. My friends punch me and say I scared them away. I can tell they are happy I’m picking up their style. It’s good-natured kidding and ribbing.
The big deal is going into Nathan’s for hot dogs. Afterward we walk back to the hotel and sit out by the pool talking, mostly about New York. They’re from the Bronx and pretty much stay in their neighborhood. They ask about Greenwich Village and Washington Square. When I talk about Alphabet City, they look at me funny.
“Whatcha doin’ goin’ to Junkie City, man?’
I don’t want to talk about Joey, so I tell them I met this hype, describing the events at Miguel’s burned-out apartment. They all listen, laugh, and said I’m lying, ‘tryin’ ta make the big impression.’ I ask them about the Bronx. They say the best thing is leaving it for one week’s vacation in Miami, especially when it’s so hot. They never go far from their block where everyone knows everyone, young and old, in the neighborhood. The lowest of the low are the hypes (like Joey), going down to Manhattan to score dope and bringing it into the neighborhood. The gangs have fear status: you don’t join but have friends who do, usually in grammar school. My new friends are poor, but they know what they want – money and out of the City. I argue that it is boring in the suburbs, the old ‘grass is always greener’ theory. They think Viet Vets and hippies are just one step above the hypes and gangs. They say my music sucks; they are into Disco, especially Salsa. They have an early boom box/ghetto blaster playing continual tapes of Latin dance music.
We are all dancing beside the pool; my awkward steps are the source of endless amusement, until I pick up the rhythm and moves from these guys who can really do it. I’m getting carried away when someone shoves me into the pool, then everyone is shoved or just jumps in, too. We’re laughing and shouting until a hotel clerk kicks us out. Upstairs I tell Mom I’m soaked because it’s raining outside. With the air conditioning on, they can’t tell.
For the next few days, I hang out with my Puerto Rican buddies, spending 99% of our time chasing girls. My nickname is ‘Huerto’ (pronounced wet-o) for white boy. Girls seem interested until I show interest back. Then they totally ignore me. I’m learning to ignore the obvious stares yet still act interested, just not willing to make the effort. I’m learning ‘streets.’ On Saturday night, we stay up late, bringing five girls back to the hotel pool. We keep the music low and the desk clerk ignores us. The girls decide who pairs off with whom. I end up with Tina, a tall, dark-haired Latina. We just talk a lot, sitting together. Everyone has split up into couples, in the various dark corners of the pool patio. She’s thirteen but tall for her age with clear dark skin and a great smile. She makes all the moves. We haven’t kissed or anything. I feel I should hold back. She knows I like her.
She asks if I’m a virgin.
“I didn’t think so. You aren’t all over me. I like that,” she declares, taking my hand.
She strokes my fingers one at a time as we sit together in a chaise lounge She shifts so she is lying in my arms, against my chest with her head on my shoulder. We watch the sky quietly. She tells me about going up on the roof of her building in New York to watch the stars.
“That’s Scorpio,” as she points out a group of stars that formed a sideways Y. “Mi tia says Scorpio is a spider that bites you after making love.”
I shiver, then ask, “I’m a Cancer, what’s that mean?”
“That’s the Crab Nebula. It’s already set. Cancers are home builders. They fall in love too easily and always get hurt.”
“Are there any good signs?”
“Oh, nothing’s good or bad. It’s how you take it. Cancers make great lovers, they’re so loyal, and they always have money.” She reaches around me and grabs my wallet, “Let’s see how much money you have, Huerto.”
An electric thrill runs through me as she pulls my wallet out of my back pocket. Soon she was pulling out all the cash Joey gave me. “See, I was right, but why carry so much cash. How did you earn it?”
I turned bright red from fear that she would figure it out, but she only laughs.
“What sign are you?” I ask to change the focus.
“Oh, Virgo, the Lady.”
“So, you’re a virgin.”
“Of course, and I plan on staying that way.”
“Then why ask me if I was?”
“I just thought so. I already know you’ll be a great lover.”
“It’s weird to talk about it, knowing nothing’s going to happen.”
“Well, not nothing,” and she gives me a quick peck on the lips, which leads to deeper kissing.
She shifts, “Don’t push it. I do like you. I just won’t do it with anyone.”
“What about free love?”
“Is that what you want?”
“No. I don’t really understand it. Will you let me visit you in New York?”
She looks at me strangely. “What is it about you and New York, Tim? I hate that place. Will your parents let me visit when you move into your white neighborhood? What will your white friends think?”
“What makes you so bitter. Do you think that matters to me? I really had a great first visit to the City. Now everybody keeps putting me down, like I’m weird for wanting to go back.”
“You’re just not jaded yet. There’s just too many people there. But, thanks for liking me and my city.” She turns around and kisses me for several seconds. Then she continues, “You’re really cool, Tim. I’m going to send you my astrology book if you’ll write me with your new address. Most guys want to take advantage. Then forget me once vacation is over.
She gets up and writes down her address. “If you write me, you can keep in touch with everyone from the neighborhood.”
“You mean you’re all friends up North?”
“Sure. Our folks always travel in packs. Everyone’s been trying to get you and me together all week. You just didn’t know. I’ve been checking you out since you got here.”
We go back to star-gazing. Tina lets me kiss her once more. Then everyone gathers at a single table. Who knows what everyone else has done. I know it wasn’t that much. It’s the old gang breaking up. I’ve only known them for five days. We walk the girls back to their hotel.
Afterwards, I ask, “So you guys have known them all their lives?”
“Si, Huerto, but it’s different down here. We’re on vacation.”
“You mean they’re different here?”
“Of course, man, they may fall in love, like Tina did, huh?” Everyone laughs.
“If she fell in love, then I don’t know it.”
“Tina don’t let just anybody kiss her, man.”
“Well, she gave me her address. She said if I write she’d let you know what’s up with me. So you can’t forget me yet. How come she doesn’t want me to visit you guys in the City?’
“You don’t wanna visit any of us, man. No whiteboy comes to da Bronx.”
“It sounds like Vietnam.
“Way worse; you can’t fly home after one year. That’s why we come down here. It’s what we have to look forward to. You live here but wanna go there. Loco, man.”
“Well, I’m coming to visit, even if I have to stay in Alphabet City.”
After macho arm slugging, we all leave.
In the morning, I get up in time to say goodbye, as they leave with their families to the airport. We are all groggy from staying up so late. The closeness we felt is missing. I’m amazed that my friends have so many brothers and sisters I hadn’t seen before. We stand around, not know what to say.
“You guys think Tina’s already left?” I ask.
Their faces lit up. We race across Collins Avenue to her hotel, where it’s a similar scene of luggage and siblings. Her face breaks into a big smile when she sees us.
“I just had to say goodbye one more time,” I announce. She backs off quickly when I try to hug her, letting me know her parents are watching. The guys seem amused, knowing they’ll see her at the airport soon. I convince Tina to go across the street to Nathan’s, where I get a real hug and goodbye kiss. We promise to write. We get back just in time for the shuttle bus to leave. The guys are already back at their hotel and leaving too.
Walking into my hotel room, I was hit by the loneliness of having lost a dozen good friends.
My folks are waiting for me to go out for breakfast; I order salsa with my eggs as their mouths drop. My dad murmurs about me going native on them. It’s a sly pleasure to upset them. While I eat my eggs, Dad tells me that we are spending the day with one of his new co-workers and his family, including a son, my age. I can hardly contain my joy at that prospect. We drive across a causeway to Miami proper. Dad explains that we were going to Coral Gables, the ‘only’ place to live in Miami. Driving along South Dixie Highway, all I see are Black families in rundown housing that sits right on the thoroughfare. I begin to see through his prejudice when we turn onto Byrd Road. He announces we were in the ‘Gables.’ The transition from slum to affluence is abrupt. The houses are nice, not that impressive, mostly older Spanish Mission style homes set back from the street. I wonder how well these people get along with their Black neighbors.
“Here’s the Mertzes,” my dad announces, as we pull into a large home with a spacious yard and sculpted landscaping which Dad says is called topiary.
“You mean like Fred and Ethel?” I joke.
“You better be on your best behavior,” Dad warns. “It’s actually Joe and Betty. Their son is Dickie.”
“Dickie! You better introduce me as Tim or you’ll never get into the country club after I react.”
“Now, Timmy,” Mom pleads, “How can you expect us to change what we’ve always called you.”
“All I expect is you respect my wishes. I’m serious.”
They look at each other and shrug. Soon we’re ushered into the house. I swear Mrs. Mertz was a true Ethel. She calls Dickie, who obviously is as thrilled about this visit as I am. He says to come back to his room, which is a relief from watching my folks do their Ricky and Lucy act. Dickie’s room has the de rigueur stereo system, which I check out first. He rushes over to make sure I didn’t screw it up. How can I, since I just became an expert on boom boxes.
“It’s really complicated,” he explains, fussing over the albums spread out on the floor. “Where are you going to school?” he asks.
Not sure what he means, I answered, “Oh, I’ll be a sophomore. I guess that’s high school.”
“It depends. I mean which school are you attending?”
“The high school?” I guess
“Well, I go to Ransom. It’s private.”
I vaguely remember some story about East Coast private schools. I assume it is really fancy, but I not going to let on I think so.
“What’s wrong with the local high school?”
“Well, they just desegregated the public schools. Since they let the coloreds attend, they are not getting as many graduates into top schools.”
“They just started letting Blacks go to school here?”
“Well, in the Gables.”
“Is that why you go to private school?”
“I go to Ransom to increase my chances to go to a top college.”
“Don’t you miss public school?”
“I don’t know. I never went. But they say there might be riots. They put in all sorts of security.”
“You know, a race riot. I don’t care. I don’t go there. Maybe you better get your folks to send you somewhere else.”
I let it drop, returning to his stereo
“What kinds of music do you like? Lou Reed?”
“I’m more into jazz-fusion, like Jeff Beck Group, Stanley Clarke, Steely Dan. You ever hear this album?” as he holds up Beck’s ‘Truth’ record, still unopened in its shrink-wrap.
“No. It looks like you haven’t listened to it either.”
“This is my collector’s copy. Here’s the one I play. You know, this record is going to be a classic and worth a lot. I want to retain full value. It cannot be opened.”
“Kinda like stamps?”
“Yes, but music is so esoteric. You have to know what going to be remembered as great.”
The record sounds okay, mostly instrumentals. I’m not about to criticize it or even comment.
“Can I check out your albums?”
“What are you looking for? I don’t really like people going through my stuff.”
“That’s okay. This one’s fine.” I look outside and see a dock with a boat parked by it. “You guys have a boat?”
“Sure. The canal goes right along our property. Want to check it out? It’s just a Boston Whaler. Pretty decent for fishing and water skiing.”
We walk out the door in his room to the dock. I check out the canal which is about twenty feet wide. I can’t see where it goes, but the water looks dirty.
“Where does the canal go?”
“Oh, they are all over. You can go out into the Bay or you can portage over flood gates into the Everglades.”
“You mean from here I can get in your boat and go anywhere?”
“Well, not across the Atlantic. I guess we could make it to the Bahamas.”
“This is cool,” and I step into the boat. “Dickie’s Dinghy.”
He looks at me, and for the first time, laughs. “It’s more than a dinghy.”
“And you’re more than a dick.”
We both really laugh at that. His folks yell to come into the house. We are going to view a house the Mertzes know is available here in the Gables. It seems like a done deal, so I keep my mouth shut during the tour. Mr. Mertz asks me if I’m a swimmer, which my dad has probably told him. He says that the University of Miami has a great youth team. It’s just a few blocks from the house we are considering. I say I’ll check it out. From the way my folks are discussing finances I know we were getting the house in Coral Gables. It is even fully furnished. All we have to do is move in.
Mom pipes up to me, “You and Dickie seemed to get along. He doesn’t have any problem being called Dickie.”
“That’s because the alternative is to be called Dick.”
My dad almost chokes trying not to laugh. It’s my first joke he’s ever laughed at.
Mom’s reaction is more predictable, “You certainly have a funny attitude since you stayed with your cousin Joey.”
Just a fun guy.