Palm Springs Junior High, Fall 1980
The day I met her began uneventfully and, predictably, self-consciously. The tender, doughy rolls around my torso served as insulation from popularity and the responsibility of fitting in. My Toughskins and counterfeit Izod Lacoste pullovers guaranteed total freedom from the opposite sex. In bed at night, I lived fantasies bursting with conquests and victories. I slew bullies, loved cheerleaders, saved the student body on countless occasions in heroic fashion, but I’d always fall asleep defeated with the cold truth and my heavy, murky existence. I deeply felt, somewhere below my gut, where little could reach, that I could dazzle if given the chance. This would have to wait, for I was a twelve-year-old kid trying to get a grip on it all, a fresh fat-body in the trenches of junior high school, negotiating the mines strewn by adolescence. I had experienced the pangs of crushes, being the victim of quite a few throughout my elementary school years, but nothing could’ve prepared me for the wrecker ball about to annihilate my fragile blood pump.
That morning, drenched in sweat after waiting in the baking sun outside of Cambridge Square, my Section 8 apartment building, on West 18th Avenue and 56 Street, in Hialeah, I stepped onto the bus, thinking about food and the cafeteria’s daily special. I was a romantic in theory but a simple glutton in practice, and I knew the weekly menu by heart. Food was solace and shame. Oh, and both my parents worked at Tres Monitos Bakery. Ya tu sabes.
My transportation to Palm Springs Junior High was one of those small private numbers with a terrible paint job and the word “Caution” misspelled on its rear doors. Mr. Anton’s converted van smelled of vinyl, sweat, and Pixie Stick powder. He greeted me with a sleepy liquid drawl that made his lower jaw appear unhinged and reminded me of my unpaid weekly fare. Ambrosia’s “You’re the Only Woman” was oozing from the van’s crap speakers. I sat next to Arnie, one of my best friends at the time and talked about his new Slingerland drum set, my new copy of Double Fantasy, and our baseball game that night. We decided that Lennon was God, and that Andy Newmark, although tasty as hell on the album, couldn’t compete with Ringo’s playfulness and charm. We were thrilled at Lennon’s comeback and considered “Starting Over,” the record’s first single, a beautiful song. We reluctantly agreed to just deal with Yoko. Bur Arnie was appalled, “The witch continues to hang around. And she’s still screeching and got writing credit on the album!”
“Well, at least he’s out of the house and making music.”
So unthinkable, that he’d be dead in a few months. In its place, we would’ve sooner believed anything anyone would’ve told us—the most preposterous prophecies and unlikely catastrophes and apocalyptic scenarios. It was that impossible.
Our game that evening was against Havana, the best team in the league.
I loved night games: the lights, the sharp, cooled diamond, the bubblegum-chewing, short-skirted sisters of my teammates and opponents, and snacks afterwards at Lil’ General Food Store, a seedy mini-mart on Okeechobee Road, where we’d always stop for a soda and a Slim Jim. My brother and I also purchased our copies of Hit Parader and Creem magazines there every Wednesday after the game. Reading about the latest antics and newest releases from the hottest musicians was a great post-game thrill. The interviews were a special treat. We read them with relish, planning our own responses to questions we were sure to be asked in our starry futures. The pictures were colorful, bold and screamed of sex and debauchery and jets and stadiums and female fans, and we couldn’t get enough.
We played for Cubanos Libres, a private baseball league owned and managed by two Cuban all-stars from the fifties. My community held the sport to their bosom as tightly as their rich culture and heritage, and my father wouldn’t allow us to play in a program without proper Cuban representation and coaching. (He finally allowed me, in 1982, after two years of ball-breaking and lobbying, to play for H.A.A., the Hialeah Athletic Association).The teams in this exiled league were named after provinces in Cuba and the program was designed and run like the big leagues on the island. I loved to play and didn’t care about countries, provinces, uniform colors, managers or umpires. Baseball was my charming slice of Americana, and pro ballplayers were my national heroes. Great skill was paramount, but they were also bred to value finesse and athletic elegance, qualities embodied in the debonair but wholesome demeanor of major league stars. Their healthy smiles and clean swagger spoke volumes of their conquests on and off the field, and I admired their quiet confidence and knowing air.
I was a devoted ballplayer with aspirations backed by a sliver of talent and a slab of enthusiasm. My brother wasn’t very good, and while I was behind the plate, managing field operations as catcher, JC was out in left field, cursing my parents and quietly humming Donna Summer.
Music and baseball were the only two things that made me happy. I invested all my time and energy in both, dreaming big that one of the two would hit in the long run. They were things that came naturally, so I nestled in their safe rules and rhythms. I could talk and play baseball, and I was born with strong melodic and rhythmic instincts. I also had more than adequate knowledge of pop and rock music. Friends would come to me with trivia, often quizzing me or challenging me, trying to stump me with a magazine or book in hand. Other times they’d come begging for relief or salvation, driven half-crazy by an irretrievable fact, lyric or melody line, the mental shrapnel that lodges temporarily in crevasses too deep to recover and keeps sleep at bay. I’d help them with an effortless answer and restore their peace of mind. These marginally compensated for everything I lacked.
As we approached the light green and gray building, we remembered that Monday meant spaghetti, and we were happy. Our spaghetti was special. The cafeteria ladies with their shower caps and plastic gloves made it just right. The sticky noodle and beef-sauce casserole, covered with a waxy orange cheese blanket, was our favorite. Our ladies used ice-cream scoops and skillfully placed two perfectly round spheres onto the entrée space of our cardboard trays. I always had seconds; never having the experience of trauma on a full stomach, I seldom denied my appetite full satisfaction.
I finished my double portion and made my way towards the exit. Trays were dumped in a hole on the wall. A metal slide, attached to the hole, would ease the trays into large garbage cans, avoiding the splatter. The smell, rancid and sweet, embodied by Pedro, the alcoholic custodian guarding the rubbish flume, was a prelude to Mrs. Fedish’s science class.
“Dame tu leche, chico!” was Pedro’s customary command.
He’d always ask for and keep the unopened milk cartons. He’d make us place them in a box he’d carry home with him every afternoon. Sometimes he’d actually remove a roll or some remaining grapes from a tray and devour these leftovers right in our faces. His one good eye was quick, but his other filmy one, plagued by cataracts, was Poe material. Pedro was a fascinating and grotesque creature, a Homeric caricature. He was our very own Polyphemus: one-eyed, greedy, mean and stupid.
In those years, Palm Springs was on a strange but student-friendly schedule. Eighth and ninth graders attended classes from 7:00 am to 12:00 pm, and seventh graders were in session from 12:00 pm to 5:00 pm. We all loved it and thought it was ideal either way. Seventh graders got to stay up late and sleep in, and the rest had an early start but a full day to blow off steam following their scholastic torture. So I was able to briefly brush by my brother after lunch, which began at 11:00, just before my classes started at noon.
After giving up my milk and dumping my tray, Arnie and I departed in subtle, underclassman fashion, and I walked out into the bright sunshine lighting the grassy courtyard. I saw my brother in the distance, an entourage swarming about him, the nucleus tolerating numerous, dancing electrons. As they approached, all movement slowed down, and I gradually detached from my corporal confinements, observing the progression of moments from the outside, somehow removed and suspended. The sharp glint of her smile transfixed me. I watched in terror and prayed to my God, like something in Borges’s Ficciones. I asked for some frozen time, a period killing the external but permitting me to breathe, a little grace play existing nowhere but within me, giving me room to muster courage, wisdom, a trace of coolness, just an hour of merciful slack, where I could assess the situation, buttress my buckling knees and failing heart, but the world never stopped, and God had jokes.
On my brother’s arm, walking with the spirit and confidence of a Hollywood slayer, but the wholesome affability of the girl next door, was the loveliest creature I had ever seen. It wasn’t just her looks, it was a composite beauty that radiated from sheer existence and overwhelmed the senses with enchantment. Still buoyed and stupid from the impending, magical confrontation, I witnessed my brother soundlessly speaking to me, and the panic of being known as a complete moron for the next three years transported me back into my chubby frame. This was the moment when life as I knew it ceased to exist. He introduced me in front of several people, and her behavior was natural and horrifying. She softly pinched my cheek and said, “He’s so cute!” The most dreaded sentence in the English language for a fat kid. Spontaneous combustion would have been a welcome comfort. My bowels were scared sh**less, and, with a pathetic smile, I made a beeline for the restroom.
I sat in a stall for a while, playing the scene over and over. The humiliation was bad, but worse was the deep and unshakable impression of her touch, her face and her smell. There was a fast, heavy thudding in my chest, and I could not understand why I felt like crying. My previous crushes were from afar, and I gladly settled for distant worship. I was satisfied with my lot, for I was always attracted to the unattainable. This one followed my unavailing pattern, but it was different. I wanted more than anything to actually participate this time. A condition and reality reserved for the anointed, not the poor and portly. It was more like an unbearable need, a hopelessly insatiable hunger.
I had just met her, but I wanted to hold her hand, walk her to the curb and wait for her bus—not in typical midday fancy, the kind I wallowed in with catatonic intensity, making me late to first period on a regular basis—but for real, an act of physical veracity, a departure from the world inside my dreamy escapades. The tears that were now brimming were caused by the absurdity of this notion. In what universe could this happen? The fact that I would never engage in that innocent and benign activity with her crushed and flushed me into despair. For the first time I was destroyed by the futility of my desire. A bit dramatic in the telling, I admit, but not as dramatic as the bout of dejection that followed that landmark commode crisis. My first week in junior high ended with the beginning of my life’s story. It set the tone for the next four decades, a doomed, quixotic theme for a lifetime.