Life Is Not A Collection Of Coincidences, But A Reflection Of Ourselves
Starting fresh in third grade, I did my best to be a little less. After having been shunned by everyone at the previous school, I began to believe that I was guilty, or just no longer innocent, and that therefore, I sort of deserved to feel some form of sadness, or shame, or misery. To cope with thinking of myself as my own worst enemy, I started to think before I spoke. Beforehand, I used to say everything, like a child reading aloud from a book, I was incapable of keeping secrets, knowing no one could know everything, even if someday we became adults and knew it all. But now, although I was a natural lover of stories, I decided to stop being a part of them. I kept mostly quiet at the new school in order to avoid sharing any personal details, as these bits of information had already led to situations I’d never forget for a lifetime. Luckily, nobody assumed that I was either Jewish or Spanish upon hearing my name. They just tried to sound it out and asked a question I didn’t know how to respond to. The apparent rarity of that combination still baffled me, so I deemed it unworthy of mentioning. If I was born in the same place as everyone else in school, why was it weird to be both Jewish and Spanish, too?
To protect myself, I began telling new friends that Daniel was my middle name and that my first name was actually Bryan with a Y. I did that in case we’d stop being friends soon afterward, so that if they ever talked about me in the future they would have the wrong name. In my own company, I was happy in the morning as I glimpsed upon my reflection and felt a connection with the name that represented it, but once I went out in public, I immediately became self-conscious of my smile, and also my weight. Subconsciously, being anonymous, or unrecognizable, was crucial.
Then one day in PE the coach called me Teddy. “Teddy!”
I turned to him, confused, and said, “…I’m not Teddy.”
“You’re not Teddy?” he asked, taken aback.
“No,” I said with firm certainty. This was exactly the kind of uncanny trick that would flip my world upside down. He didn’t believe me for weeks. And literally every single week of my life since then, strangers everywhere have repeatedly called me by the name of some random person I don’t know and have never met.
Maintaining this level of privacy was all an effort to withhold the largest confession of all, the one always begging to burst from the seams… I had seen people on TV having sex. I knew the biggest, most grown-up secret there was to know my age, and nobody could handle that truth yet. That was still sacred, and I was not supposed to know about it, so I remained silent. I resigned to the idea that until everyone found out about that on their own I just wouldn’t make real friends. As the year went by, I anticipated having real friends someday all the more.
On the first day of fourth grade I arrived to my new homeroom and noticed it was the same classroom as the previous year, also that my third grade teacher was present to introduce us to our new teacher and ensure that we were nestled in. I greeted them and then sat at the same desk in the back of the room. I didn’t pay attention as they greeted familiar faces. Then I heard her say, to what must have been a new kid, “He’s a good kid.” I checked to see whom she was referring to, and lo and behold, she was pointing at me. This short, new kid standing patiently at her side walked over, extended his hand non-judgmentally, and said, “Hi, I’m Quinn.”
I said, “Hi. I go by Daniel, but my first name is Bryan, with a Y. Daniel is my middle name.”
He said, “That’s my dad’s name! Brian Daniel. He goes by Brian, with an I.”
Quinn Patrick Finnegan was the first person I ever told that lie to, and I ended up having to maintain it for years because he became my best friend. He fit into the same idea in my mind as being the best representation of his name. He had brown hair, fair skin, and freckles everywhere, with a smile that was as bright as the sun. Then when I shook his hand, I unexpectedly felt some warts. Warts came from touching dirt, I thought. I was a germaphobe, so I almost pulled my hand back immediately, but first I asked him if the warts were contagious. He told me without dismay that they weren’t and they were going to be frozen off soon. By the end of the day, we made up a handshake, and then we sat next to each other for the next few years as we defaced every person pictured in our textbooks.
When the bell rang to end the first day of fourth grade, I had thirty minutes left before the bus would leave. Normally I would go straight there and sit by myself in the front seat until it took my sister and I home. But apparently, Quinn’s mom was the new tennis coach, and since the courts were right next to where the busses were, we walked over there instead. There was a small patch of grass near the courts that had bushes and fencing around it, demarcating the school’s border. Those bushes were always full of plump, marble-sized berries in red, orange, and yellow. They had a big seed inside them, which made them perfect for throwing, as they were firm just enough to burst upon impact. We picked a handful and ran around that patch of grass pegging each other like we were at war. The louder and wetter the explosion, the funnier it was. My white uniform shirt was permanently stained after one game, but not his, because he always aimed at the body, and I at the head.
At 3:25, the busses started their engines, which meant I had five minutes left before they would leave. The bus ride was at least an hour long, so I went to the vending machine and got a Welch’s Grape Soda. As I bent over to retrieve it, some kid came out of nowhere and cut Quinn in line and then insulted him. Quinn retorted, as I quickly learned that he was intolerant to intimidation and disrespect, and before I knew what was happening, they were already squared up in a fighting stance with both fists cocked. As I stood up, I couldn’t hear what either of them had said because the voice in my head was telling me that my eyes were, in fact, correct – I definitely recognized this random bully from somewhere. It suddenly occurred to me. It was one of the bullies from the previous school: Andy! Somehow, most of my enemies in life have had a name that starts with the letter A. Apparently he was a new kid here, too.
I was still in the background as they took one step forward and were just one more step away from being in a fistfight. They were so fixated on each other that they no longer had use of their peripherals. Then suddenly, I flew in between them and punted Andy in the nuts so hard that he collapsed to the ground like a lifeless rag doll. He looked frozen solid as he fell, stunned in such utter shell shock that he didn’t even blink. I had never defended myself before that, but the fearless impulse to protect a friend was activated and took complete control. Then we fled from the scene, laughing hysterically while sprinting away, looking over our shoulders every second at Andy trying to chase us on wobbly legs. We got to my bus in the nick of time and did our handshake before I hopped on. The bus driver saw my shirt and asked what had happened, but I didn’t have time to explain. As the bus pulled out of the lot, I ran to the backseat, opened a window, and waved goodbye to Quinn. I know he had a good afternoon that day. I never saw Andy again.
After that, we began having sleepovers at each other’s houses every weekend. His family, The Finnegans, had just moved here from Vermont, to a quaint part of town in a city called Old Plantation. This section was the original neighborhood from which the rest of Fort Lauderdale was built around. Despite the slightly old-fashioned exterior, it had all the perks, like the zoning law that required every housing property to have its own acre of land, minimum. From his driveway, you could only see a one-story house with vines going up it, and a huge mango tree in the backyard that had branches hanging over the roof.
Inside, to the left of the entrance, there were two bedrooms. Quinn had his own room, decorated with baseball trophies, an en-suite bathroom, and a waterbed. His two older sisters, Casey and Kelly, shared the other bedroom, had single beds, and their bathroom was in the hallway. In total, they had about six dogs and two cats. I slept in a red sleeping bag on the green carpet floor next to Shannon, the St. Bernard, who slurped out of the toilet bowl first thing in the morning and then slobbered all over my face. I was so grossed out, but even happier to be there.
For breakfast, his mom Darlene made us sandwiches and we ate them poolside. Since I weighed 120 pounds and everybody else weighed less than 100, I always wore a shirt at the pool. After eating, I stood at the ledge, dipped my toe in the water and sheepishly said it was too cold. Quinn sprang up from his chair in a rush to dive in. He knew I needed to be challenged. So I jumped in first and then Quinn and Shannon followed suit. Later on that day, Brian stepped out and told Quinn it was time to run his daily sprints on the tennis court. Almost every house in Florida has its own pool. But behind theirs, there was a short path to a tennis court, with basketball hoops at one end and tetherball on the other. To the left of the court, there was tree with a hammock hanging underneath, overlooking a lake with a fountain.
Around the house, there was Yankees memorabilia and framed black and white pictures of a young Brian meeting Joe DiMaggio. As Quinn’s baseball coach, Brian was dedicated to making sure Quinn got the right attention to make a run at the major leagues. He coached the whole family. That’s how his parents met. Brian was Darlene’s tennis coach in college and all the way to the pros. She was still a ranked professional, and he was still her first love, albeit eighteen years older. His sisters played on the tennis team at school. I put my shoes on and ran sprints with Quinn, racing from one end to the other. In PE, every time I ran the mile, I always stopped running at some point and walked. I didn’t have the stamina or maybe the right breathing tips to run the whole mile. But to my surprise, now, no matter how hard we sprinted, we always ended up finishing in a tie. At the time, I thought I was more physically suited for competitive eating, but I guess I couldn’t deny now that I was at least pretty fast.
Next weekend, when I opened the door to introduce Quinn to my bedroom, his eyebrows raised up when he saw the scattered pile of my G.I. Joes on the floor, the shelves of meaningless stuffed animals, and my twin bed with Scooby Doo covers on a mattress that still had the plastic wrapped around it, so it always made noise when I moved.
“What,” I asked, “you don’t play with G.I. Joe’s?”
“Yeah,” he said, “Until I was f-f-five.” Although he sometimes stuttered, he spoke the truth like a punch to the gut. He chuckled and then sat down, ready to play Mortal Kombat and Mario Kart on the N64 all night. Once it was bedtime, I offered him the guestroom, even though there was a pullout mattress underneath my bed.
He said, “No, that would defeat the purpose of a sleepover.”
I was reminded yet again that this was my first sleepover since my sister and I finally stopped sharing a room. I was ten and we had just moved from a townhouse into a new two-story house. The neighborhood still had unfinished houses and roads under construction because it was situated on recently cleared swampland, just a stone’s throw from The Everglades. For anyone who doesn’t already know, the everglades are a stew of water-fields that are home to alligators, all kinds of reptiles, fish, birds, massive bugs, spontaneously combusting fires, and people on airboats who never take off their sunglasses. There was a highway running between my neighborhood and The Everglades called Alligator Alley, where, during the right season, hundreds of alligators lined up all along the three-hour stretch of fencing. Driving on the highway was beautiful underneath the cotton candy colored skies, but there was a delicate sense of danger when it came to kids leaving the neighborhood on foot. There was even a section in my neighborhood where I couldn’t ride my bike through because birds would swoop down on a surprise attack and viciously flap their wings just above you as they pecked at the back of your head. Watching this happen to old people who were just out for a casual bike ride was hilarious, because I knew very intimately just how intense that unwarranted experience was. Crows are legitimately smart and can remember faces for a long time. If you’ve ever annoyed one in the past, it won’t forget you. This suburban swampland was as close as it got to anything remotely like Jurassic Park. I once heard someone say, “Florida’s like Australia – everything’s trying to kill you.”
Of course, kids could have fun doing anything anywhere. We dwindled all the way down to defining the shapes of clouds and playing games like “count the road kill,” but once we reached two hundred we were bored to death. Thankfully, the 90’s were arguably the best decade ever for raising kids. It seemed like almost everything that was made catered to children: the toys, the original Disney movies on colored VHS tapes, CD’s with personalized playlists, Nintendo, Sega Genesis, Gameboy, PlayStation, Pokémon cards, it was the golden age of wrestling, the first household computers with dial-up Internet, Windows Paint, mobile phones, and the most rebellious era of pop-culture were all converging into a new millennium of boundless direction. It was truly great, and everyone predicted there were even greater changes beyond anyone’s imagination coming soon.
But nothing really changed too quickly at first, until we took a field trip that unexpectedly became unforgettable in the worst way, as it brought lower school to the scariest of ends. We were taken to a place called Pathfinder, which I still have no idea where in Florida that was. It was hours away into the woods. This was pitched to us as simply a camping trip with cabins, and there was a small town full of people running the grounds like it was still the 1800’s. We were driven there by bus Friday night. The next morning, we were introduced to the townspeople who were role-playing as pilgrims and spoke in a 1950’s-programmed-actor kind of way. We walked through all the little shops in town with antiquated machinery and old tools inside, which these people talked about as if they were still using for work on a daily basis. It was like a live-museum of that time with performers who gave us the actual experience.
Once night came along everything around town sure did change. During the day, we did cool camping stuff like roast marshmallows in a bonfire, play a plethora of games on open fields, tell spooky stories, and put those candy crack rocks on our tongues and watch them pop in each other’s mouths. But after all that, walking back to our cabins through the streets of Pleasantville was suddenly a pseudo serious situation. The townspeople were not playing nice anymore. Unbeknownst to us, we were supposed to actually participate in the role-playing for the rest of the night. We were cast as the G-rated version of runaway slaves – heading for The Underground Railroad. We had to split up into small groups and quietly sneak around through backyards and alleys to try to remain unseen by any of the adult actors. Of course, every group was spotted and stopped and questioned.
“What’s that smell?” A white lady asked a white boy.
“I just peed my pants,” he improvised, and everyone laughed like they were all mingling together stupendously. As their laughter rose, I could smell the potent absurdity. Bizarre behaviors always seemed to emerge in idyllic settings. Is it the beautiful backdrop that makes people seem so strange, or would they seem just as strange in a decrepit location? Nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Then I realized that the purpose of this trip was basically to show kids a lesson in the unforgivable section of American capital-H History. As a white passing, second-generation Latino-American, I was appropriately ignorant to the history here that I could feel yet knew so little about, but if I wanted to assimilate, I would presumably have to accept it as part of my own. A mental snapshot of my school suddenly struck me, and a flash of insight accompanied it.
The architecture at school was a representation of the same American History. In both places, it was impossible not to notice. Yet I hadn’t regarded the unmistakable evidence of what it all meant. Our school, which was big enough to be a college campus, was full of cherry trees, and red, prestigious, fake-brick buildings, each with white corner tiles and tall white pillars at the entrance. Every office was official with a bench outside it and a name on a bronze plaque. There was a trimmed grass field for every sporting team, and they would all eventually go on to win state championships. There was even a bell-tower. This was the futuristic fantasy of a pre-civil war South settlement that pilgrims had idealized for themselves centuries ago, once they colonialized, traded religion for land, waged a series of wars, outsourced labor, and declared a president. If the White House were made of fake-brick, it would look like our school in Plantation Florida, and it would also be called American Heritage.
When the night was over, everyone went back to the assigned cabins. There were three cabins for everyone to stay in – one for all the boys, one for all the girls, and the third for counselors or chaperones. In the all-boys cabin, before bidding us goodnight, the male chaperones condoned a pillow fight, last man standing. I stood in the back next to my bunk ready to attack, but honestly, I was just there to observe. I obviously preferred not to participate. Blatant displays of machismo slightly intimidated me, perhaps because I stopped wanting attention, or maybe because I was afraid to find out how good I was. Quinn, although he was the smallest, mowed people down as he charged forward, but he had gone too far ahead way too quickly, and suddenly four kids surrounded him and clobbered him from all four corners as his head spun around in circular succession for all 1, 2, 3, and 4 hits. I ran through the circle and hugged him to get him out of there, but he’d gotten hit too hard and too many times and was suddenly crying. The chaperone took him outside for fresh air.
Naturally, everyone calmed down after that and we got into our bunk beds as the lights were turned off. In the middle of the night, once people were asleep and the cabin was completely silent, there was a thud. Thud. Thud.
Someone yelled, “Shut up!”
It sounded like it was inside at first, but nobody was moving. We turned on the lights and everyone stared at each other in silence. Most of our bunks were lined up along the same wall of the long rectangular cabin. From the end where the door was, we heard it again, thud. We all took note. The noise was coming from outside, and simultaneously we all knew it had to be someone throwing something at us. There were no windows to see through and no peephole to look out into, so we peeked under the door, but nobody’s feet were standing there. Thud. Thud. Without saying anything, we acknowledged that whatever it was, without a counselor in our cabin, we would have to confront it, unprotected. Everyone started to freak out in different ways, prompted by different What If questions. Then Quinn stood up and yelled at the door, “Who’s there?”
There was no verbal response, just another boom. Since there was no one at the door, Quinn looked back at us and said, “You guys are babies,” then he went and opened the door. I walked out with him and we saw a grown man about thirty yards in the distance standing in the wilderness, with the only light that was still on outside shining on him like a spotlight. He was wearing camouflage pants, a black hooded sweater, and a ski mask. And he was throwing branches and rocks at our cabin then jumping and screaming. It was surreal, like a terrifying haunted house, but this was for real, and therefore, unbelievable.
When we went back inside to relay what we had seen, some kids got up to bear witness, and some ran under the covers of the same beds as their friends to cry themselves to sleep. I would have, too, but Quinn stayed on the porch, so that’s what I did. Since he was a baseball player, throwing was his forte, so he picked up a rock and threw it back with better accuracy than the man who threw it at us. This seemed to excite the man because he jumped higher and barked louder, “Hit me! Hit me!” One by one, we all joined in and started throwing debris, until literally like a dozen of us showed up. With confidence in numbers, we all grabbed the branches and rocks and simultaneously ran out there together in a courageous charge, but he retreated and swiftly disappeared into the darkness of the forest.
Worried, we stayed up all night wondering if this was a prank. But because there was no one there that weekend who fit the culprit’s physical description, we determined that it couldn’t have been. The next morning we told our counselors how shaken up we were by what had happened, but in an unexpected twist, they didn’t believe us. They proceeded to act as if our true story was not even worth hearing. By simply not responding, they just ignored us as if we were not speaking with words, like we were patients in a psychiatric ward. We had just communicated to them that there was an alarming threat and they outright didn’t care. We would not have joked about seriously getting attacked. We had never fabricated anything to that degree. Were they trying to lose credibility, or trying to convince us into believing we had none? Nobody knows. There was no closure. I guess for them it was just too early in the morning. If that happened today kids would be in counseling for years, but it was the 90’s.