, September 2023

Autumn 1990, heading west on the Belt Parkway, Carl navigating the ’78 Volkswagen Rabbit into the Brooklyn sun, Pete riding shotgun, Jim in the back squeezed behind the driver seat to avoid the softball-sized hole in the passenger-side floor. The Friday afternoon traffic was heavy in the eastbound lanes back to Long Island, but the westbound lanes were light and the potholes were shaking the rusted little car to where it seemed about to break apart, driver and passengers clenching teeth and squeezing hand straps as they continued forward towards the promised land.

Pete’s cousin, Tommy, lived in Marine Park, and Pete had suggested they hang out with him in Brooklyn because it was boring spending Friday and Saturday nights in Massapequa drinking beer in the same old parking lots or cruising Spit lot with the cheeseballs, but, most important, Tommy knew a lot of girls, and, supposedly, unlike prudish suburbia, Brooklyn girls put out.

Tommy was also a senior in high school and his family lived in a townhouse. His mother used one of the rooms for her hairdressing business and his father worked in a lumber yard. His older brother was away at college and there were a pair of twin beds where Carl and Jim would sleep, while Pete would sleep in the extra bed in Tommy’s room.

Tommy’s mother made sausage and pepper subs for dinner. It was a family favorite and Pete and Jim had grown up in Italian households where it was a fixture, but Carl hated peppers, and the smell from downstairs was making him nauseous. Unlike home or at one of his own relatives’ houses where he could refuse what he didn’t like without concern of offending anyone, the gravity of being a stranger in someone’s home was weighing on him, and Tommy’s mother, despite meeting he and Jim for the first time, was treating them all like they were hers and that the four of them were brothers. Tommy was excited that they’d all get to experience the very favorite of his mother’s meals and he playfully hugged and kissed her on the cheek, and Carl knew he couldn’t dare refuse or even pick or nibble at it. He was going to have to take big bites and make it look like he was enjoying it as much as everyone else and eat the whole thing without throwing up.

The sausage and bread weren’t bad, but there were a lot of peppers, and onions, which he hated even more than peppers. Their smells had become so overpowering that he couldn’t even taste them, but their soft crunch was a reminder they were there. He sipped his frosted glass of Coke after every bite and emulated the others’ nods and Mmmms and grunts as they chewed until there were only crumbs and grease on his plate.

“So, what do you Long Island clowns think of Ma’s sausage and peppers?” Tommy asked.

“Better than my mother’s,” Jim said.

“Delicious as always,” Pete said.

“Good,” Carl nodded.

“Come on, they’re better than good,” Tommy said.

“I thought you didn’t like peppers,” Pete said to Carl.

“Well, I’ve never had any as good as these,” Carl said.

Tommy’s mother smiled and Tommy laughed.

“Thanks for making this delicious food for us, Aunt Marie,” Pete said. Jim and Carl also thanked her.

“Yeah, thanks, Ma,” Tommy said, sliding out of his chair. “We’re gonna go out for a while now. Don’t wait up.”

“Don’t stay out late and no drinking,” she said, and Tommy kissed her on the cheek, then kissed his father’s bald forehead and said, “Night, Pop, don’t drink too much wine,” and his father, chewing, mumbled something back in Italian and sipped his Chianti, then the Long Islanders followed Tommy outside.

The Rabbit was parked up the street and Tommy said to leave it because they wouldn’t be driving anywhere.

“Did you take the stereo out?” he asked Carl.

“Yeah, I left it in your brother’s room.”

“Good, because it would be gone in the morning if you left it in the car. And make sure there’s nothing else valuable in there and leave the doors unlocked so nobody breaks your windows. And don’t worry about the car getting stolen, the chop shops won’t want this thing.”

Their first stop was the Carvel over on Flatbush Avenue, where Carl got a cup of orange sherbet to try to get the pepper taste out of his mouth, then a large vanilla soft-serve cone with colored sprinkles.

It was dark by the time they finished, Carl taking in the headlights and honking on Flatbush Avenue as he attempted to wipe his sticky fingers with a small, thin napkin. Tommy’s pager started beeping and vibrating and he pulled it from his belt clip and looked at the number. Pete had also recently bought a pager, but out in Massapequa it was still pointless since so few people had them, while in Brooklyn everyone seemed to.

“Gimme a quarter,” Tommy ordered his cousin. Pete reached into his pocket and pulled out some change and handed one over. Tommy then went to one of the graffiti-markered pay phones at the side of the Carvel and dialed the number on the pager, which turned out to be a pay phone around the block, where his friend Mikey picked up the receiver the instant it started ringing.

“Tommy, where the fuck are you?”

“Carvel. Where the fuck are you?”

“Around the fuckin’ block.”

“What the fuck is everybody doing?”

“Just fuckin’ around, but everyone’s going to Freddie’s Playground. I’ll be there in about an hour.”

“Alright, but beep me if you’re doin’ somethin’ else. I got my cousin and his Long Island friends and we gotta show them a good fuckin’ time.”

“Don’t worry about it, they’ll have a fuckin’ blast.”

There was a bodega up the street. They followed Tommy inside and he led them down a narrow aisle to the beer cooler in the back and watched as he selected a 40-ounce bottle of Olde English “800”.

“This stuff has more alcohol than regular beer,” he said, “and they’re only a buck fifty.”

They each selected a bottle, Carl going with Colt 45, Pete with King Cobra, and Jim with a green bottle of Mickey’s. They followed Tommy to the counter and he said to the cashier, “Gimme a nickel and some papers.” The guy put down a small stamp bag overstuffed with weed and a package of E-Z Wider rolling papers and Tommy paid with exact change, then the others paid for their forties and Carl splurged an extra $1.75 on a pack of Marlboros.

A few blocks away was “Freddie’s Playground”, as the park was known in the neighborhood, named after a beloved high school kid who was beaten to death there by members of a local gang, and where a large graffiti mural in his honor depicting him as Fred Flintstone now spanned the walls of several handball courts. A bunch of Tommy’s friends were already hanging out at one end of the basketball court, including some girls. Everyone had forties.

The Colt 45 was gross, especially when it got warm. For a while the Long Islanders talked among themselves, then Tommy rolled a joint out of the nickel bag and everyone formed a circle beneath one of the netless basketball hoops and passed it around. Carl started feeling it right away, a little dizzy at first, lightheaded, then, after the second hit, paranoid, and, after the third, pretty fucked up.

There was a bodega across the street and several of them went and bought forties. This time Carl bought a quart of Budweiser and chipped in for another nickel bag.

Back at the playground someone suggested playing spin the bottle. Everyone was into it and more people were there now and another circle formed. Tommy volunteered to go first and spun the empty Colt 45 bottle, the capped top coming to a stop pointed at a tall, blond-haired girl named Stephanie, prompting everyone to laugh and go Whoaaaa! Carl was expecting to see some awkward gesturing like kids at a school dance, but Tommy went right up to her and they made out for a few seconds as everyone cheered, then they raised their arms and took a bow.

There were no volunteers for the next spin, so Tommy spun to determine the next contestant and it landed on a pretty girl with short brown hair named Nina. She was shy compared to the others and looked a little embarrassed.

Her first spin landed on one of the other girls, resulting in a do-over.

The next spin landed on Carl.

Everyone went Whoaaaa! and Tommy laughed, “Long Island boy!”

A short girl with dark curly hair named Betty, the loudest of the girls and a true Brooklyn chick, eyeing Carl, said to the girl next to her, “I was hoping to kiss the one with the hair.”

Carl, stoned, a bit drunk now, watched as Nina, businesslike, approached, then gave him a quick peck on the lips and immediately returned to her spot.

“Oh, come on, Nina!” Betty exclaimed, leaving her spot and crossing the circle to Carl, who was nearly a head taller than she. “You have to put a little effort into it, like this—”

She reached up and put her hands on his cheeks and, for a moment, in the soft brown of her eyes, he was floating above the Brooklyn night and going higher, over the five boroughs, Nassau, Suffolk, the Tri-State area—and then he was back on the basketball court with her tongue all over the inside of his mouth and her thigh leaning into his crotch and everyone cheering in the background sounding a million miles away. He did his best to kiss her back, but her aggression had caused him to lose his balance backwards, then it was over and she was heading back to her spot.

“And that’s how you do it!” she declared, everyone cheering.

Then a guy named Billy showed up with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and the game broke up. Billy was a friend of the group who had already enlisted in the Navy and would be leaving for boot camp the day after high school graduation. He passed the bottle around and Carl took a small swig of the whiskey expecting to gag like he usually did when drinking straight liquor, but this stuff was smooth and went down easier than expected, and he took a bigger swig each time around.

The night became a blur and Carl laughed and clowned with everyone else and enjoyed Betty telling everyone, “Look at Long Island over there, he wants me to kiss him again,” then she’d pout her lips at him and look away.

Then one of the guys turned serious and said the same car had been driving by the playground for the past ten minutes. The basketball courts were surrounded by twenty-foot high chain-link fences with only one way in and out and they were worried about being rolled up on by one of the local gangs. Freddie’s Playground was turf belonging to the Avenue T Furies, which was okay to traverse if you were a civilian, but, if they thought you were somehow affiliated with another gang, even by distant relation, they wouldn’t hesitate to give you a serious beating, and a large crowd hanging out on their turf always drew their attention.

“I think it’s time to call it a night,” Betty said, then looked at Carl. “Good night, Long Island.”

“No goodnight kiss?”

“I’ll kiss you again next time you come to Brooklyn, so you better fuckin’ come back soon.”

“Come on, let’s get the fuck out of here,” Tommy said to the Long Islanders, and everyone streamed out of the court and went their separate ways.

It was after midnight and little was said during the walk back to Tommy’s house. He told them to be quiet so they wouldn’t wake his parents, and, drunk as they were, they managed to get into their beds without making much noise, Carl passing out blissfully with thoughts of kissing Betty again.

At some point in the night, though, he woke up and the room was spinning. It was slow at first and he tried to will it to a halt, but that only made it go faster. Upon realizing that puking was inevitable, it was too late.

He puked in the bed, on the floor, in the hallway, and all over the pink-tiled bathroom across the hall, before finally managing to direct the flow into the pink porcelain, bits of sausage, pepper, onion, and colored sprinkles floating in the bowl. Then he dry-heaved for a while, bursting blood vessels in the whites of his eyes and leaving Satanic-looking red spots that would last nearly a week. He waited until the spinning slowed and he could no longer hold himself up before heading back to bed. Cleaning the mess was not a consideration and making it back across the hall was far from guaranteed, but he somehow made it without waking anyone, then fell onto the bed and passed back out.

He was awakened at first light by a scrub brush outside the door and Tommy’s mother mumbling in Italian.

Across the room, Jim made a sound from his bed.

“What’s that smell?” he groaned.

Carl opened his eyes. He didn’t know where he was. The room was hot and smelled of vomit. It was on the pillowcase, the sheets, the floor, his t-shirt, his jeans, his socks, caked to his face, stiff in his hair.

The bedroom door flew open. It was Pete.

“Oh, man, it reeks in here!” he exclaimed, holding his nose, turning away.

Tommy came in and exclaimed, “Dude!” and laughed.

“I’m so sorry,” Carl moaned, pushing himself up, head pounding, mouth dry.

“Go apologize to my aunt,” Pete ordered him like a big brother, really pissed, but Tommy was laughing.

“I’m usually the one who pukes around here,” he laughed, then turned and said to his mother, on her knees scrubbing the bathroom floor with her feet sticking out of the doorway and into the hall, “Hey, Ma, Carl is sorry and he feels really bad.”

She mumbled something in Italian.

“Go!” Pete said to Carl.

Carl rose from the bed, looked down at the mess, then, feeling the dried vomit on his face, went out to the hall. He stopped at the bathroom, standing above Tommy’s mother as she scrubbed the floor around the toilet.

“I’m really sorry about the mess,” he said. “I can help clean it up.”

“No, it is okay,” she said without looking up. “I am finished in here, so you shower now and I will get you some of Tommy’s clothes to borrow.”

She gave him a washcloth and an amber bar of Dial soap and came back with a white tank top and white sweatpants and, for his soiled clothes, a plastic shopping bag that said Have a nice day! on it and had a big yellow smiley face. His boxer shorts were clean, if not a little crusty in the middle. He turned on the water and waited for it to get warm, then got in and washed himself as fast as he could and shampooed with the Head & Shoulders on the shelf. She hadn’t brought socks and he went without them. He stuffed his soiled clothes into the plastic bag and tied it closed at the handles.

She was waiting outside the door.

“Now go downstairs with the others and eat breakfast,” she said.

They laughed when they saw him wearing Tommy’s clothes. Tommy’s father had prepared a feast and the table was covered with scrambled eggs, sausage, prosciutto, bacon, toast, orange juice.

The food helped, but Carl still felt like he’d been hit by a bus.

“Thank you for the food and I’m so sorry about the mess,” he said to Tommy’s parents across the table.

“Don’t feel bad,” Tommy’s father said. “We’ve all been there. This one,” he said, pointing his fork at Tommy, “he’s been sick three times in this house. And me too, every now and then, one too many glasses of vino, and then I am making friends with the same toilette you did. I call her ‘Rosa’.”

*     *     *

Heading east on the Belt Parkway, Carl navigated the Rabbit towards the rising Long Island sun, still early enough on a Saturday morning for the traffic to be light.

“How are you going to explain your new clothes to your parents?” Pete asked.

“And your eyes,” Jim added.

“I’m gonna park around the block and go through the old lady’s yard behind us, then sneak in the back kitchen door, go up to my room, change and put on some shades, then sneak back out and get the car and drive up front to my usual spot, then stroll through the front door cool as a pool cue.”

“Jeez,” Pete laughed.

“What are you gonna do with the puky clothes?” Jim asked. “The smell is gonna give you away.”

Rabbit in the left lane, Carl rolled down the window, grabbed the knotted plastic bag from the passenger-side floor, and made a no-look pass out of the car to the parkway shoulder barrier. He watched in the rearview mirror as it bounced along the broken asphalt, then his eyes shifted to a nearby cluster of buildings.

She was back there somewhere, and she was gonna kiss him again when he came back. ▪