Tag Archives: narrative nonfiction

Valentine’s Day, 1980. An Elementary School Memory.

“I’ve seen so many ‘I choo choo choose you pictures online today,” I said to Anne, while we walked through our neighborhood yesterday. “I think that’s one of those things that is going to be a generational touchstone for us, if it isn’t already.”

We came to a red light, and stopped. I hit the walk button and it chirped happily at me.

“Like, you can say that to just about anyone our age, and they’ll know instantly what it is.”

My mind wanders to weird places when we walk.

The light changed and we crossed the street. “I can’t believe how hot it is,” Anne said.

“Yeah, it’s not even fun to troll my friends who are living through stormpocalypse, anymore. Like, all the jokes have been done.”

I took a drink of my water, and we walked for a few blocks in silence, not holding hands, but linking our pinky fingers, which is a thing we do when we go for a long walk.

We turned up a street that was heavily-lined with trees. In spring and summer, it’s one of the most beautiful places to walk, and yesterday gave us a preview of what the next few months will bring. Half a dozen squirrels ran around on lawns, burying and digging up acorns. Tiny finches chirped and whistled and sang as they hopped along the mostly-bare branches of a sycamore tree.

“Judging by the pollen in the air and the birds I hear every morning, nature thinks it’s already spring here, “Anne said. “If we get a real cold snap, they’re all going to be very upset.”

In my brain, the words “cold snap” and “very upset” joined together to form a key. That key slipped into a lock and turned, opening the door on a memory from 3rd grade that I’d forgotten lived inside my head.

“Remember how you’d go to school on Valentine’s day, and you’d make the little mailbox out of a bag?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I choo choo choose you, remember?”

“Right,” I said. “Well, at our school, the rule was that you had to bring valentines for everyone, which was the only way weird, awkward kids like me got valentines.

“So it was 3rd grade, and my mom took me up to the Thrifty on Foothill by the park to pick out that little box of valentines. I got some that had superheroes on it, like from Challenge of the Superfriends, and a little bag of those chalky candy hearts.”

“Why do I like those chalky candy hearts so much?” She said. She took a drink of her water.

“I don’t know, but I love them, too, which is weird because –”

“You don’t like sweet things. You’ve been telling me that for almost nineteen years.”

“I think it’s the texture, and the way they sort of snap in your teeth, and the fact that they’re not too sweet,” I said.

“Probably. Continue,” she said.

“So I went home with my valentines and my candy hearts, and I got out my class list, and I sat at the breakfast table and wrote out my valentines.

“And there was this girl in my class, and I had a little 3rd grade crush on her…” I paused for a second and that classroom flashed into my memory, almost like an old Polaroid snapshot developing and then instantly disintegrating. I could see the desks, the chalkboard, the cursive alphabet above it. The American flag and the cubbies in the back, by the bookshelves. I saw her name, written in the corner of the chalkboard, under “Line Leader” for that week: Mindy. She wrote her name with the tail of the “y” looping down and around and underlining her whole name.

“Her name was Mindy,” I said. “Mindy …” I thought for a quick second, “…Patterson*. Wow, I can’t believe I remember that.

“So I filled out my valentines, and I started putting the candy hearts into each envelope, and when I got to Mindy’s, I carefully sorted through them until I found one that said ‘kiss me’ or ‘hug me’ or something like that.

“So I had this perfect, foolproof plan to let her know that I liked her, in the one way that was … safe … I guess, for me. I put that heart into the envelope, and in the most sophisticated act of secret admirer genius, ever, didn’t sign it.”

“That’s so cute,” Anne said.

“Yeah, well, we did our little valentine exchange the next day at school. There was a little party thing that afternoon, with that sugary grocery store punch that’s so sugary it burns your throat, and one of the room mothers made cupcakes with little hearts on them. When it was time to pass out the valentines, we walked around the room, dropping them into the mailboxes we’d made the day before, that were taped to all of our desks.

“When I got to Mindy’s desk, I was very careful to make sure that nobody saw me, and I dropped her valentine into her mailbox thing.”

“You were quite the superspy in third grade,” Anne said.

“Yeah, I was James Bond Junior, for sure. So I finished delivering my valentines, and went back to my desk to open mine. While I did that, I kept sneaking little glances at her desk, wondering if she’d opened mine, and hoping that when she did, it would set in motion the Rube Goldberg machine that kids use in elementary school to tell someone they like them.

“But even though Mindy was really nice and sweet and friendly, she was friends with the Mean Girls.”

“Uh-oh,” Anne said.

“Yeah,” I said. “So I left out one crucial part of my foolproof plan, and didn’t realize that a little deductive reasoning could help even Ralph Wiggum figure out who handed out the only Superfriends valentines in the classroom.

“If I were writing this as a script or something, this is where we’d see the Mean Girls and Mindy gasping and then giggling and then turning around to face me, but all I remember is that the four Mean Girls and Mindy were standing at my desk, and one of them told me I was ‘gross’ and someone called me ‘Wil-the-Pill’, which was the delightful nickname I’d been given by the goddamn teacher in that class, and one of them said something about how she’d never kiss me.”

I realized that we’d walked a few blocks since I started my story, but had no memory of actually doing it, because my body had been in 2014, but my mind had temporarily ridden a wormhole to 1980. Anne said nothing, but squeezed my hand, and I realized that at some point during our story she’d traded hooking pinkies for actually holding hands.

“What did the girl you liked do?”

I looked as closely at the memory as I could, tried to reconstruct the semicircle of kids around my desk, to remember the smells and sounds of that classroom on that unseasonably hot February afternoon 34 years ago, but all I could get was this image of Mindy’s face, possibly on that day, maybe at some other time, her blond hair at her shoulders, her blue eyes and slightly crooked teeth, just looking at me with kindness. I realized that the reason I liked her was that she was so kind, and even though she was friends with the Mean Girls, she wasn’t one of them.

“You know, I don’t remember specifically. I was super embarrassed and super mortified, and I felt really stupid. I didn’t even try to deny it. I just sat there and waited for them to leave, and then I felt sad.”

“Awwww, that’s so sad,” she said.

“Yeah. Isn’t it weird, though, how you don’t think about something for thirty-four years, and then this seemingly unrelated series of words can click together and blast a memory into your face like a firehose that turns on and then off again in a matter of seconds?”

I felt a few seconds of sadness for third-grade-Wil, and a few moments of wistful nostalgia, too. Then, I looked at my wife.

“Anyway, I said, “I choo choo choose you.”

She squeezed my hand. “It says that, and there’s a train.”

 

*not her actual last name.

from the vault: fireworks

This was originally written and published on July 5, 2002, which simultaneously feels like years and days ago.

When I was growing up, we always spent Fourth of July with my father's aunt and uncle, at their fabulous house in Toluca Lake.

It was always a grand affair and I looked forward to spending each Independence Day listening to Sousa marches, swimming in their enormous pool and watching a fireworks show on the back patio.

This fireworks display was always exciting because we were in the middle of LA County, where even the most banal of fireworks – the glow worms – are highly illegal and carried severe fines and the threat of imprisonment, should we be discovered by LA's finest. The excitement of watching the beautiful cascade of sparks and color pouring out of a Happy Flower With Report was enhanced  by the knowledge that we were doing something forbidden and subversive.

Yes, even as a child I was already on my way to being a dangerous subversive. Feel free to talk to any of my middle-school teachers if you doubt me.

Each year, the older children, usually teenagers and college-aged, would be chosen to light the fireworks and create the display for the rest of the family.

I was Chosen in 1987, three weeks before my fifteenth birthday.

The younger cousins, with whom I'd sat for so many years, would now watch me the way we'd watched Tommy, Bobby, Richard and Crazy Cousin Bruce, who always brought highly illegal firecrackers up from Mexico.

I was going to be a man in the eyes of my family.

This particular 4th of July was also memorable because it was the first 4th that was celebrated post-Stand By Me and at the time I had become something of a mini-celebrity around the family. Uncles who had never talked to me before were asking me to sign autographs for people at work, older cousins who had bullied me for years were proclaiming me “cool,” and I was the recipient of a lot of unexpected attention.

I was initially excited to get all this newfound attention, because I'd always wanted to impress my dad's family and make my dad proud, but deep down I felt like it was all a sham. I was the same awkward kid I'd always been and they were treating me differently because of celebrity, which I had already realized was fleeting and bullshit.

Looking back on it now, I think the invitation to light fireworks may have had less to do with my age than it had to do with my growing fame . . . but I didn't care. Fame is fleeting . . . but it can get a guy some cool stuff from time to time, you know? I allowed myself to believe that it was just a coincidence.

The day passed as it always did. There were sack races, basket ball games and water balloon tosses, all of which I participated in, but with a certain impatience. These yearly events were always fun, to be sure, but they were standing directly between me and the glorious excitement of pyrotechnic bliss.

Finally, the sun began to set. Lawn chairs were arranged around the patio, wet swimsuits were traded for warm, dry clothes, and I bid my brother and sister farewell as I joined my fellow firework lighters near the corner of the house. I walked casually, like someone who had done this hundreds of times before.

As the sun sank lower and lower, sparklers were passed out to everyone, even the younger children. I politely declined, my mind absolutely focused on the coming display. I wanted to make a big impression on the family. I was going to start out with something amazing, which would really grab their attention. I'd start with some groundflowers, then a Piccolo Pete and a sparkling cone. From then on, I'd just improvise with the older cousins, following their lead as we worked together to weave a spectacular tapestry of burning phosphor and gunpowder for five generations of family.

Dusk arrived, the family was seated, and the great display began. Some of the veteran fireworks lighters went first, setting off some cascading fountains and a pinwheel. The assembled audience cheered and gasped its collective approval, and it was my turn.

I steeled myself and walked to the center of the large patio, casually kicking aside the still-hot remains of just-fired fountains. Casually, like someone who had done this hundreds of times before.

My hands trembled slightly, as I picked up three ground flowers that I'd wound together. My thumb struck flint and released flaming butane. I lit the fuse and became a man. The sparkling fire raced toward the ignition point and rather than following the directions to “LIGHT FUSE, PUT ON GROUND AND GET AWAY,” I did something incredibly stupid: I casually tossed the now-flaming bundle of pyrotechnics on the ground. Casually, like someone who'd done this hundreds of times before.

The bundle of flowers rolled quickly across the patio, toward my captive and appreciative audience.

Two of the flowers ignited and began their magical dance of colorful fire on the cement, while the third continued to roll, coming to rest in the grass beneath the chair of a particularly old and close-to-death great-great-great aunt.

The colored flame which was creating such a beautiful and harmless display on the patio was spraying directly at this particular matriarch, the jet of flame licking obscenely at the bottom of the chair.

The world was instantly reduced to a few sounds: My own heartbeat in my ears, the screams of the children seated near my great-great-great aunt and the unmistakable zip of the now-dying flowers on the patio.

I don't know what happened, but somehow my great-great-great aunt, who'd managed to survive every war of the 20th century, managed to also survive this great mistake of mine. She was helped to her feet and she laughed.

Unfortunately, she was the only one who was laughing. One of my dad's cousins, who was well into his 20s and never attended family gatherings accompanied by the same date, sternly ripped the lighter from my hand and ordered me back to the lawn, to sit with the other children. Maybe I could try again next year, when I was “more responsible and not such a careless idiot."

I was crushed. My moment in the family spotlight was over before it had even begun and not even the glow of pseudocelebrity could save me.

I carefully avoided eye contact, as I walked slowly, humiliated and embarrassed, back to the lawn, where I tried not to cry. I know the rest of the show unfolded before me, but I don't remember it. All I could see was a mental replay of the bundle of ground flowers rolling across the patio. If that one rogue firework hadn't split off from its brothers, I thought, I would still be up there for the finale, which always featured numerous pinwheels and a Chinese lantern.

When the show was over, I was too embarrassed to apologize and I raced away before the patio lights could come on. I spent the rest of the evening in the front yard, waiting to go home.

The following year I was firmly within the grip of sullen teenage angst and spent most of the festivities with my face planted firmly in a book -Foundation or something, most likely- and I watched the fireworks show with the calculated disinterest of a 15-year-old.

That teenage angst held me in its grasp for the next few years and I even skipped a year or two, opting to attend some parties where there were girls who I looked at, but never had the courage to talk to.

By the time I had achieved escape velocity from my petulant teenage years, Aunt Betty and Uncle Dick had sold the house and 4th of July would never happen with them again.

The irony is not lost on me, that I wanted so badly to show them all how grown up I was, only to behave more childishly than ever the following years.

This 4th of July, I sat on the roof of my friend Darin's house with Anne and the boys and watched fireworks from the high school. Nolan held my hand and Ryan leaned against me as we watched the Chamber of Commerce create magic in the sky over
La Crescenta.

I thought back to that day, 15 years ago and once again I saw the groundflower roll under that chair and try to ignite great-great-great aunt whatever her name was.

Then I looked down at Nolan's smiling face, illuminated in flashes of color.

"This is so cool, Wil!” he declared, “Thanks for bringing us to watch this."

"Just be glad you're on a roof and not in a lawn chair,” I told him.

"Why?"

"Well . . . ” I began to tell him the story, but we were distracted by a particularly spectacular aerial flower of light and sparks.

In that moment, I realized that no matter how hard I try, I will never get back that day in 1987, nor will I get to relive the sullen years afterward . . . but I do get to sit on the roof with my wife and her boys now and enjoy 4th of July as a step-dad . . . at least until the kids hit the sullen years themselves.

Then I'm going to sit them in lawn chairs and force them to watch me light groundflowers.