WORDS & IMAGE: SAM ORIACH '15
It was the middle of July and the temperature was somewhere in the high 80s. The kids from my hood were outside, running around in their worn out sneakers, soaking up and under the sun while the fire hydrants on the block spat water out of spouts like metal hunchback whales. Listened to closely, the sounds coming out of their bodies, the loud shrills and elongated vowel sounds, resembled a chant as if the children were melodically responding to the oppressive nature of the day’s heat. I refused to join in and I’m not sure why. Instead, I absorbed the screams like a sponge as I walked down the block. I noticed that most of the houses were white, gray, beige or some combination of the three, except for the one cinematic blue house with pink trimming that belonged to my aunt and uncle. I suddenly craved cotton candy. I checked my pockets and remembered my trip to the bodega earlier in the day. I had spent all my quarters on sour candy once again. Dispirited, I stared at the house in front of me, the cotton candy house, and tried to come up with a backstory. This is something I did way too often, perhaps out of boredom, perhaps deriving from a desire to create another world other than the one I lived in. Once upon a time, this house was originally of miniature size, blown up to fit the bodies of its inhabitants. A blown-up doll house, if you will, only this one was filled with––you guessed it––real humans! I was strange like that: a Dominican boy with a gringo’s voice.
I chuckled, shook my head and looked down as I walked up the block. The sidewalk, chunky and uneven, exposed multiple layers of sidewalk from years past as if someone had chiseled away at the ground. The specific site I was observing seemed to embody, although in chipped away pieces, years of construction. I can say shit like that now, a product of my elite education. I can say shit like the deconstructed texture of the sidewalk revealed chaos within and along its structure. But I can also hear voices telling me to shut the fuck up. I thought long and hard about what that image of the broken concrete means to me now and what I must have been thinking then, about how the sidewalk had another function that I couldn’t articulate. It was ruptured flesh. Downcast, each step forward brought me closer to the truth. As I repeatedly wobbled my right leg forward and then my left, I got the impression that I was filling the imprints of soles from the past.
I kicked a rock at a metal fence. The impact produced a high-pitched ringing noise that remained in the air for much longer than I thought it would. I could pick the notes from the air like a cherries. I spotted my uncle as he biked his way toward me.
“Montate,” said Tio in an accelerated Dominican Spanish, Jordans on his feet with a matching t-shirt and a baseball cap.
He told me to get on the bike, which lacked a logo or any identifier for that matter. Must have belonged to one of the kids from the block. It was the kind of generic hood bike you see leaning on a fence, or sprawled on a front lawn next to baby toys and trash. A BMX bike with pegs is not what Tio was sitting on, though, which would have made his command much easier to follow.
“Ven aca,” he said as he picked me up and placed me on the handlebars.
I sat there, wobbly, uncertain, afraid I was going to die. I imagined the strip of metal snapping and myself falling to the ground and cracking my skull open. He told me to hold on tight and to move as little as possible. I figured I would follow his orders. I could feel him breathing down my neck while he pedaled down the sidewalk, the chunky and uneven sidewalk. I found myself bouncing up and down like a moving Shake Weight suspended in air, with no idea where I was headed.
Tio was visiting us for an indeterminate amount of time. He had grown tired of New York City. It got under his skin and never ceased to itch, no matter how hard he scratched. He had grown tired of the people, the noise, the constant reverberations of arriving and departing subways, the cocaine, the drunken yet glorious bar fights, and the even more glorious stab wounds he was never scared to show me when I crashed at his place a year and a half ago. And getting up every morning to the same cry of the alarm clock to do it all over again was simply the icing on the proverbial cake. The city’s strict design emphasized his daily routine. Manhattan, a collection of blocks arranged in a kind of grid, a graph of right angles and perpendicular lines, of rectangular blocks and subway lines that seamlessly swim through it all. A system devised for convenience and efficiency, undeniably American in its implications. One day, after walking a few feet to the corner deli for a bacon, egg and cheese—over-easy, please—and heading off to work to fix a couple of sinks or adjust the showerheads of lonely housewives and Wall Street husbands on the Upper East Side, Tio made a decision to migrate north to Lawrence, Massachusetts. He was married then but he had to get out. All that did, though, was displace his demons, not remove them.
During my first summer in New York City back in 2013, I was working on the High Line selling gourmet brisket sandwiches to stingy tourists. One of those nights, during one of our beer drinking sessions, Tio confessed to me the real reason behind moving from the Bronx to live with my family in Mass. It was a dream of his to attend Boston University. He used to be obsessed with Boston, his own little paradise. Homeboy repped Boston sports gear like it was his job. He was never not wearing a Red Sox cap or talking about Manny Ramirez. He kept up a good habit of buying that stuff too. So work to make a living he did, for himself and to support his wife. Every week, he took a portion out of his check to pay my parents a portion of the rent. Soon, the new routine became the old routine and he quickly realized that there is no escaping. Like all dreams we have, his dream of going to college fizzled away before him. Rarely do our dreams become real because they are always already out of reach.
After making a handful of turns, circling round a water fountain, and riding the length of a graveyard, we finally arrived at our destination. When we got off the bike I saw the sign in front of me. Community Pool. Tio was wiping the sweat off his forehead with the brim of his hat while I talked about how happy I was to be going swimming. I was elated. It was naiveté that brought about my ignorance of the unsanitary reality of the place. I should never have been so excited to enter a community swimming pool filled with strangers and even stranger substances. I was among ticking bombs of bodily fluids and excretions, and, at any moment, they were due to explode and release an eruption of bacteria into the stagnant body of water I was about to enter. The sweat couldn’t have been good either. All kinds of bacteria, undoubtedly, found their way into my mouth as I jumped into the pool and into Tio’s arms. But it was hot outside and the water cooled me down. Besides, the water smelled like bleach, so it must have been clean enough.
The site of the community swimming pool of Lawrence resembled an Amazonian jungle, primal and borderline violent. People of all ages and sizes jumped up and down, revealing and submerging their bodies over and over and over like a supersized game of Whac-A-Mole. The sun was the mallet, but upon further reflection, it was the heat, the sweat, the friction of their bodies that drove them underwater. Arms flailed, moved from side to side, and in angles I could not describe. And with each whip of the arm, they displaced the air around them, and often splashed water into each other’s faces. Children screamed unabashedly and it was hard to discern whether these sounds were of pleasure or pain. They called out each other’s names or simply shrieked for the sake of the shriek, as if the entire collective was waiting for someone to understand their language and join in. Adults communicated with their children with waves of the hand, signaling them to back away from the deep end. They acknowledged their child’s accomplishments with a thumbs-up and continued chatting amongst themselves.
Above me, some indistinguishable figures stood on diving boards as high as the roof of my house and I was afraid to even look at them. Tio stepped out of the pool to join them. I rejected his decision, afraid he might hurt himself. Scrunching my eyebrows and pouting my lips like a toddler who had found out prematurely that Santa Claus wasn’t real, I got out of the water and stood in front of Tio with my arms crossed. He asked me to join him. No, I said, shook my head, and sat down. He walked over to the far end of the pool and began to climb up the ladder. I watched as he pushed his past further into the ground with each step. During his ascent, he transformed into a fearless man, a man with courage and convictions in my eyes. He became a man who made up his own rules instead of one who simply followed them. Dark, fit, hairy and handsome, Tio looked like a Greek Olympian. When he reached the top, he had acquired a divine aura. With the sun lighting up his body from behind, he was Jesus and the community swimming pool was the site of the Second Coming of Christ. I couldn’t help but think Jesus was about to jump into a sea of shit.
Tio left his mark with his dive. He breached multiple thresholds over a matter of seconds, the splash etched on the tablet of my memory. On our way back from our trip, I knew that what we had left behind was more than just spit, a couple strands of hair, a few dead skin cells. We had left part of ourselves in the water, and became microforms of a unified whole, in a beautiful yet utterly disgusting way. The divine and the filthy, the beautiful and the ugly, became inextricable. We rode down Springfield Street and I jumped off the bike, the spinning front wheel about to slide into my ass. Luckily, I lunged forward and hit the ground running before anything painful happened. As Tio sped down the middle of the street and I walked along the sidewalk with one hand on my hip, breathing heavily, an overwhelming sensation overcame me. I felt then what so many people like myself feel upon their arrival on this foreign land: that I was treading on new ground.