It was the summer of Luke and Laura. I was thirteen, my brother, Carlos, eight, and we watched their soap-opera exploits daily. I can’t say why we were so drawn to them, but I think we watched because their fictional lives were even more chaotic than ours were those days. Their over-the-top adventures made our own obstacles commonplace in comparison.
That summer, the reality, the finality, of our parents’ divorce loomed over us like the daily thunderstorms we lived with in Miami. We knew what to expect, but were always surprised by the rain that seeped into our skins, surprised that the thunder was so loud, so devastating, surprised to discover we weren’t really safe after all.
In July it was a pair of gray Levi corduroy pants (for me) that we couldn’t afford. I remember she stood fingering blouses on a round K-Mart rack when she refused. I thought of the ice-blue checks that I couriered from Papi to her on a weekly basis and felt the flush of fury spread across my face like a fresh sunburn.
In August, it was the skating trip.
Every day we crashed the summer camp program hosting that coveted trip. Carlos and I showed up every day, not having the $30.00 weekly fee we needed to really belong. No one said a word, and we coasted on my bravado for weeks. We weren’t really fooling anyone: not my friends who lent me their clothes and bought me sodas and bags of Hot Fries from the ice-cream truck on the corner; not the camp counselor who scanned our faces, but never called us out when she took roll every morning; and certainly not ourselves as we practiced the precarious art of blending in without hiding, joining in without really being seen. We agreed: we wanted, no, needed to go skating, but we’d have to pony up the cash.
Perhaps my mother didn’t know how important it was to us, or maybe she didn’t care to know, but when I asked her for the $9.00 we needed she gave me the dreaded vamos a ver, a “we’ll see” that meant no. When I suggested she take it out of our child-support money, she informed me that money was for the mortgage, my braces, chicken thighs, but definitely not “stupid skating trips.” Her refusal stung, but did not deter me.
“We’re going,” I assured my brother, unable to fully explain how determined I was to add a shred of normalcy to our dismantled lives. “We’re going.”
We ravaged the house for all the coins we could find, including the plastic Porky Pig bank I had been dropping coins into since my fourth birthday.
“Are you sure?” Carlos whispered, awe-struck as I uncorked Porky and emptied him out on my bed. “Of course,” I answered.
“Do we have enough?” he asked, and in my fear that there wouldn’t be, that I’d let him down, I glared at him and yelled, “Just shut-up and count!”
We counted—one hundred, two hundred, three hundred, three times over, and packaged the coins in a beige plastic bag that bulged like a small ransom, and in a way, that’s exactly what it was: a ransom paid in an attempt to stay normal; an answer to the shame that settled over us among those who carried dollars; an answer to those who were free from the burden of ice-blue checks.
The walk from our house to the park must have done it. I can see it now, a lone penny nestled at an angle, just so, mercilessly wearing a hole in our relentless need to belong. In my hurry to the bus, to my friends, I did not notice Carlos was dropping them until he cried out. I turned in time to see the last of them spill onto the sun-scorched, weed-spattered grass that suddenly reminded me of the old, green carpet in the living room before the divorce, the same carpet that had worn beneath our playing and growing in a pattern similar to the earth before me. The same earth that now twinkled with the currency of children.
For an instant I stood frozen, caught between the impatient bus driver who rolled his eyes and muttered “Jesus Christ” under his breath as Carlos cried out and the weighty responsibility strapped to my adolescent shoulders.
“Wait for us!” I said finally, in a loud, trembling voice, feeling an unfamiliar tide of conflicting emotions wash over me: a terrible sorrow felt for the loss of the childhood I would know no more; a terrible rage that threatened to consume all those who overlooked us and hurried us along as we tried to rise from our knees and keep up; and a love so fierce that it was almost terrible as well, for my baby brother, crawling on the grass, searching for our treasure.
How I longed to take us away to a place where we would not have to crawl for spare change. In the end, it was his hair that got me moving, dark but alive with streaks of copper-glinted fire. His tear-stained faced turned toward the sun as he clutched the pennies in his chubby fist and cried, “Here, Cary! Here they are!”
I wanted to tell him that we’d be okay, that someday we’d look back at those pennies and laugh despite the tears that rose in our eyes as we pushed them back down our throats. I wanted to tell him that next month there would be money for movies, just like Mami said. I wanted to tell him that I would make everything all right again, that it wasn’t us against the world, that we were just dreaming. Instead, I smiled and knelt beside him.
“We’re not going to make it, ” he said as we hurriedly re-packaged the pennies.
“We’ll make it,” I whispered, “we’ll make it.”
And the skating was good.