I woke up in the back of the family station wagon, driving south on the Jersey Turnpike. The surreal landscape of industrial desolation was depressing enough, but my first reaction was chagrin that I’d completely missed New York City. The second distress was my parents’ attempts to talk to me. It occurred with such infrequency that when it did happen, it meant something was wrong. Aware of my own recent misdeeds, I anticipated dire consequences. I needn’t have worried. Good Old Dad had decided that he needed to make up for all the years of avoidance; I was to have the sex talk. Suddenly the landscape of petroleum farms and chemical tanks was much more interesting. I must have dozed off because the next thing I heard was them arguing about me. Mom was of the opinion that I was too young for such topics as the birds and bees, since I wasn’t showing any interest. Dad was more insightful as he believed I was exhibiting typical teenage rebellion and challenge to his authority. It was Virginia the next time I woke up.
“Timmy, what on earth were you and Joey doing all night that makes you so tired today?” my mom asked.
God, how I really wanted to tell her.
“Just fooling around, Mom. Can I ask you a serious question?” I tried 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 always teases me, ‘Where’s Lassie, Timmy?’”
“See,” my dad piped 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 was someone else, you might not baby me so much.”
That shut them up. When we stopped for lunch, they were upset again when I wasn’t hungry.
“There’s something wrong with that boy. A mother just knows these things.”
There was no answer to all these questions. I just slept the rest of that day’s travel. At the motel that night, they were 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 that wasn’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.”
“Leave the boy alone. He’s just going through a stage.”
This much parenting must have been a strain because they were asleep before I even got tired. I sneaked out of the room and went downstairs to the coffee shop. A man looked at me, so I went up and asked for a cigarette, my first ever.
When I went outside to smoke, he followed me. We started to talk. At least no dirty pictures this time. When he asked how old I was, and I didn’t lie, he lost interest in a hurry. Maybe he was a past victim of Joey’s scams. The cigarette tasted pretty stale. It was cool to ask for it from a stranger. I thought how easy it is to meet people, all you need is an excuse. I thought about why I wanted to meet someone old, and if I could do the same with a woman. Strange thoughts. I worried about Joey. I had said I loved him. Those kinds of feelings were new. I felt I couldn’t trust them. The sex we had could be called making love, or maybe it was only sex. Joey said that people just use each other, even to think they love someone. When we talked about it, it seemed like a dead-end. We were having fun and ended up getting it on; it seemed like the best way to leave it. Maybe because I was so young, I had no trouble talking about what I felt. Joey said he felt old, yet we were able to act like kids later. He didn’t trust his own feelings. Just the opposite of what you’d expect; someone older should be better at expressing themselves. Ah, the mystery of life. A waitress came out to have a smoke on break, and I had my second cigarette. Her Southern accent was crazy. Country people are different from the city. They don’t worry about being used. You just wouldn’t do that to anyone. Maybe the guy earlier with the cigarette was just being friendly. I went up to bed at three and slept most of the next day in the back of the car. Mom looked worried but didn’t say anything. Dad insisted we drive all the way to Miami without stopping again. We checked into a hotel on Miami Beach at three a.m.
I was anxious to check everything out, so I was up early in the morning. Miami would be my first home away from the military. It might be a permanent place for once. The hotel itself was pretty old when seen in daylight. It had a pool, but the beach had eroded right up to the hotel foundation. I met some Spanish kids at the pool and was excited to learn they were from New York City. When I told them where I had been hanging out, they called me ‘loco.’ It was better when they found out we were moving to Miami. They were Puerto Ricans and had definite opinions about Miami, especially the Cubans. They taught me to say ‘que pasa.’ (What’s up?)
As soon as Dad got home from work, he took me out for a haircut, which I didn’t argue about. The barber convinced my dad I needed a ‘butch’ cut as my hair was so uneven. Dad agreed to call me Tim if I didn’t argue about the haircut. Back at the hotel, my NY friends laughed at me but not in a sarcastic way. They knew my dad was ex-military. Since it was always hot and muggy in Miami, short hair made sense if you didn’t care much. They all had wavy/crinkled hair which didn’t grow too long anyway. We went out on Collins Avenue, walking up and down with hundreds of other kids. I tried the thick Cubano coffee which gave me a buzz. I smoked some more. It was pretty casual. When girls drove by, the guys whistled and made gestures as if to get them to come over. Girls would stare so hard at me, I got embarrassed, and my new buddies laughed. The next time, I casually walked over to where the girls had stopped, leaned against the passenger door and stared right back. They giggled and took off. My friends punched me and said I had scared them away. I could tell they were happy I was picking up their style. It was good-natured kidding and ribbing.
The big deal was going into Nathan’s for hot dogs. Afterward we walked back to the hotel and sat out by the pool talking, mostly about New York. They were from the Bronx and pretty much stayed in their neighborhood. They asked about Greenwich Village and Washington Square. When I talked about Alphabet City, they looked at me funny.
“Whatcha doin’ goin’ to Junkie City, man?’
I didn’t want to talk about Joey, so I told them I met this hype, describing the events at Miguel’s burned-out apartment. They all listened, laughed, and said I was lying, ‘tryin’ ta make the big impression.’ I asked them about the Bronx. They said the best thing was leaving it for one week’s vacation in Miami, especially when it was so hot. They never went far from their block where everyone knew everyone, young and old, in the neighborhood. The lowest of the low were the hypes (like Joey), going down to Manhattan to score dope and bringing it into the neighborhood. The gangs had fear status: you didn’t join but had friends who had, usually in grammar school. My new friends were poor, but they knew what they wanted – money and out of the City. I argued that it was boring in the suburbs, the old ‘grass is always greener’ theory. They thought Viet vets and hippies were just one step above the hypes and gangs. They thought my music sucked; they were into Disco, especially Salsa. They had an early boom box/ghetto blaster playing continual tapes of Latin dance music.
We were all dancing beside the pool; my awkward steps were the source of endless amusement, until I picked up the rhythm and moves from these guys who could really do it. I was getting carried away when someone shoved me into the pool, then everyone was shoved or just jumped in too. We were laughing and shouting until a hotel clerk kicked us out. Upstairs I told Mom I was soaked because it was raining outside. With the air conditioning on, they couldn’t tell.
For the next few days, I hung out with my Puerto Rican buddies, spending 99% of our time chasing girls. My nickname was ‘Huerto’ (pronounced wet-o) for white boy. Girls seemed interested until I showed interest back. Then they would totally ignore me. I was learning to ignore the obvious stares yet still act interested, just not willing to make the effort. I was learning ‘streets.’ On Saturday night, we stayed up late, bringing five girls back to the hotel pool. We kept the music low and the desk clerk ignored us. The girls decided who would pair off with whom. I ended up with a tall, dark-haired Latina named Tina. We just talked a lot, sitting together. Everyone had split up into couples, in the various dark corners of the pool patio. She was thirteen but tall for her age with clear dark skin and a great smile. She made all the moves, but we hadn’t kissed or anything. I felt I should hold back but she knew I liked her.
She asked if I were a virgin.
“I didn’t think so. You aren’t all over me. I like that,” she declared, taking my hand.
She stroked my fingers one at a time as we sat on a chaise lounge, and she shifted so she was lying in my arms, against my chest with her head on my shoulder. We watched the sky quietly. She told me about going up on the roof of her building in New York to watch the stars.
“That’s Scorpio,” as she pointed out a group of stars that formed a sideways Y. “My tia says Scorpio is a spider that bites you after making love.”
I shivered, then asked, “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 reached around behind me and grabbed my wallet, “Let’s see how much money you have, Huerto.” An electric thrill went through me as she pulled my wallet out of my back pocket, but soon she was pulling out all the cash Joey had given me. “See, I was right, but why carry so much cash, and how did you earn it?”
I turned bright red from fear that she would figure it out, but she only laughed.
“What sign are you?” I asked 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, and I knew you’d be a great lover.”
“It’s weird to talk about, knowing nothing’s going to happen.”
“Well, not nothing,” and she gave me a quick peck on the lips, which led to deeper kissing.
She shifted, “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 looked 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 it 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 turned around and kissed me for several seconds. Then she went on, “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, and then forget me once vacation is over.
She got up and wrote 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 went back to star-gazing, and Tina let me kiss her once more. Then everyone gathered at a single table. Who knows what everyone else had done, but I knew it wasn’t that much. It was the old gang breaking up. I’d only known them for five days. We walked the girls back to their hotel.
Afterwards, I asked, “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 laughed.
“If she fell in love, then I didn’t know it.”
“Tina don’t let anybody kiss her, man.”
“Well, she gave me her address and said if I write she’d let you know what’s up with me. So you can’t forget me yet. How come she didn’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 don’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.”
“Que loco, Huertito.”
After macho arm slugging, we all left.
In the morning, I got up in time to say goodbye, as they left with their families to the airport. We were all groggy from staying up so late, and the closeness we felt was missing. I was amazed that my friends had so many brothers and sisters I hadn’t seen before. We stood around, not know what to say.
“You guys think Tina’s already left?” I asked.
Their faces lit up. We raced across Collins Avenue to her hotel, where it was a similar scene of luggage and siblings. Her face broke into a big smile when she saw us.
“I just had to say goodbye one more time,” I announced. She backed off quickly when I tried to hug her, letting me know her parents were watching. The guys seemed amused, knowing they’d see her at the airport soon. I convinced Tina to go across the street to Nathan’s where I got a real hug and goodbye kiss. We promised we’d write. We got back just in time for the shuttle bus to leave. The guys were 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 were waiting for me, and we went out for breakfast; I ordered salsa with my eggs as their mouths dropped. My dad murmured about me going native on them. It was a sly pleasure to upset them. While I ate my eggs, Dad told me that we were spending the day with one of his new co-workers and his family, including their son, my age. I could hardly contain my joy at that prospect. We drove across a causeway to Miami proper. Dad explained that we were going to Coral Gables, the ‘only’ place to live in Miami. Driving along South Dixie Highway, all I saw were Black families in rundown housing that sat right on the thoroughfare. I began to see through his prejudice when we turned onto Byrd Road and he announced we were in the ‘Gables.’ The transition from slum to affluence was abrupt. The houses were nice, not that impressive, mostly older Spanish Mission style homes set back from the street. I wondered how well these people got along with their Black neighbors.
“Here’s the Mertzes,” my dad announced, as we pulled into a large home with a spacious yard and sculpted landscaping which Dad said was called topiary.
“You mean like Fred and Ethel?” I joked.
“You better be on your best behavior,” Dad warned. “It’s actually Joe and Betty. Their son is Dickie.”
“Dickie! You better introduce me a Tim or you’ll never get into the country club after I react.”
“Now, Timmy,” Mom pleaded, “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 looked at each other and shrugged. Soon we were ushered into the house. I swear Mrs. Mertz was a true Ethel. She called Dickie, who obviously was as thrilled about this visit as I was. He said to come back to his room, which was a relief from watching my folks do their Ricky and Lucy act. Dickie’s room had the de rigueur stereo system, which I went to first. He rushed over to make sure I didn’t screw it up. How could I, since I had just become an expert on boom boxes.
“It’s really complicated,” he explained, fussing over the albums spread out on the floor. “Where are you going to school?” he asked.
Not sure what he meant, 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 guessed.
“Well, I go to Ransom. It’s private.”
I vaguely remembered some story about East Coast private schools. I assumed it was really fancy, but I wasn’t going to let on I thought so.
“What’s wrong with the local high school?”
“Well, they just desegregated the public schools. Since they started letting 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 Gulliver 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 held 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, so 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 sounded okay, mostly instrumental. I was 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 looked outside and saw 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 walked out the door in his room to the dock. I checked out the canal which was about twenty feet wide. I couldn’t see where it went, but the water looked 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, but I guess we could make it to the Bahamas.”
“This is cool,” and I stepped into the boat. “Dickie’s Dinghy.”
He looked at me, and for the first time, laughed. “It’s more than a dinghy.”
“And you’re more than a dick.”
We both really laughed at that. His folks yelled to come into the house. We were going to view a house the Mertzes knew was available here in the Gables. It seemed like a done deal, so I kept my mouth shut during the tour. Mr. Mertz asked me if I was a swimmer, which my dad had probably told him. He said that the University of Miami had a great youth team. It was just a few blocks from the house we were considering. I said I’d check it out. From the way my folks were discussing finances I knew we were getting the house in Coral Gables. It was even fully furnished. All we had to do was move in.
Mom piped 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 choked trying not to laugh. It was my first joke he’d ever laughed at.
Mom’s reaction was more predictable, “You certainly have a funny attitude since you stayed with your cousin Joey.”
Just a fun guy.