The sound of three cell phone alarm clocks all going off at once was enough to wake the dead. One would have been enough, but my sisters and I figured that the chances of all three of our phones dying at once was nonexistent. I reached for my phone only to find it wasn’t there. Crap, I’d plugged it in last night and would have to get out of bed to shut it off. Sarah and Stacey, my sisters, had already shut off their phones and made their way to the bathroom to start getting ready for school. Since I slept in the top bunk, over Stacey, it took me a bit longer to climb out of bed, but something wasn’t quite right. My desk wasn’t where it should be, and my phone alarm was still going off, annoying the hell outta me.
Slowly the fog lifted from my brain and I remembered. We’d moved a few weeks ago. Together with my brother, Joshy, and my two sisters, there were four of us kids in the house and prior to the move, we all had lengthy commutes to school. We’d lived in the community of Manhattan Beach, an affluent community of small single-family houses, duplexes and quadraplexes at the east end of Coney Island. Comprised primarily of first- and second-generation Russian Jewish immigrants, calling it affluent was a relative term. My parents bought our house because it was just about the only thing they could afford within walking distance of their jobs, and because nearby public school 195 had an excellent reputation. They got it for a song when it was in foreclosure, after the 2008 financial crisis wreaked havoc on the New York housing market. Otherwise they could have never afforded a single-family detached house in Manhattan Beach.
When Mom died from a very aggressive form of cancer, we went from having two modest middle-class incomes to only one. What had been a comfortable existence became one of constantly skimping and saving, just to get by. I was only two when she died, so going without was the only life I knew. Our clothes were not from designer labels, and some of what I wore had first been worn by my sisters. At least we did have smartphones with unlimited minutes, text and data, even if they weren’t the latest models. Because of Dad’s employment through the City University system, we qualified for deeply discounted rates from our phone and broadband providers. Since our wireless phone plan included free streaming TV, we didn’t need to subscribe to cable either.
Another thing that helped was that Dad was a handiwork enthusiast and although he’d spent a fortune on a shitload of tools and a workshop he kept in the basement, he used all of that to build all of our furniture, with the help of my brother, who’d also taken an interest. They did excellent work too. When our house suffered extensive damage from Sandy – damage for which we weren’t insured, the two of them did all the repair work themselves. I think little Joshy was only seven then, but he was right there with Dad, the safety goggles practically falling off his nose and his hands barely big enough to hold the power screwdriver. Even then he had steady hands and did the work of an adult.
The situation started to change as we began to graduate from elementary school and went off to middle school. Sarah was bright – we all were – and she was able to get into I.S. 239, the Mark Twain School for the Gifted and Talented. It was located at the other end of Coney Island, three miles away, and whether on foot or by city bus, it took an hour from our house to get there. Stacey followed her there, and then so did Joshy. Later, we all started to go even further afield as we got into New York’s top high schools.
My older sister, Sarah, had put up with the worst of it the longest. She was now sixteen and a junior at The Brooklyn Latin School, one of New York’s elite public specialty high schools. It might have been in Brooklyn, but it was about as far as one could get and still be in Brooklyn. It took her ninety minutes each way by bus and subway via Manhattan. Then last year, my other sister, Stacey, who’s fifteen, got into the Fiorella H. LaGuardia School for Music, Art and the Performing Arts, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Of the four of us, Stacey’s the most talented and unique. She wears punk clothes and has a punk hairstyle, dyed in bright colors. She even listens to punk music, but man can she draw. She got her first graphic story published in a literary magazine when she was eleven. Since then she’s had a regular column in one of the major teen magazines and she’s working on her first graphic novel. Of the four of us, she probably has the best shot at becoming famous.
At the same time, I was lucky enough to get into The Salk School of Science, an elite public middle school in Midtown Manhattan that was hard as fuck to get into, ’cause they only take 130 kids a year. That was last year, when I started sixth grade, and ever since then I’ve faced a seventy-minute daily commute each way. This year, Joshy got into Stuyvesant High School, New York’s very best elite specialty high school, but it was also in Manhattan and required a three-hour round-trip commute every day. Next fall, when I’m in the eighth grade, I plan to take the specialty high school entrance exam too. My first choice would be to get into the High School for Math, Science and Engineering at the City College of New York, up in Harlem. If I don’t get in there, I’d like to go to Brooklyn Tech or maybe Manhattan Hunter Science High School, or Bronx Science.
“The shower’s free, Rob,” Sarah called to me as she exited the bathroom. I hated it when my sisters called me ‘Rob’. My name’s Robin and it really bugged me that they shortened it to a boy’s name. As it was, I was a bit of a tomboy. The fact that I adored science and math already labeled me as a geek, and I didn’t need the ‘lesbo’ label too, even if I was beginning to wonder if it might be true. We already had one gay member of the household and we didn’t need another. Dad was accepting of Joshy from the moment he finally came out, but would he accept a gay daughter too. I definitely thought some boys were cute, but the crushes I got on girls were just as strong. It was all so confusing! Was I maybe bi, or was it just the normal effects of fluctuating hormones and puberty?
Getting into the shower, I realized that there was little I could do about it if I were gay or bi. Like my brother, I’d just have to live with it. Stacey was at the sink, brushing her teeth, but my sisters and I shared the master bedroom and bathroom, and so there was barely enough room for one person to turn around, let alone two. Stacey had the good sense to finish up and exit the bathroom before I finished my shower.
So with all four of us kids spending two-and-a-half to three hours every day commuting to and from school, Dad had no choice but to look into alternatives for a place to live. The time spent commuting was such a waste too. With three of the four of us going to school in Manhattan and the fourth commuting via Manhattan, it only made sense that we live in Manhattan, but Manhattan’s expensive! Even the so-called affordable housing is expensive in Manhattan, so Dad concentrated his efforts on the parts of Brooklyn that were nearest to Manhattan, but that had just started to gentrify… places like Park Slope and Greenpoint.
Then two major things happened. The first was that Dad put in for a transfer to Manhattan Community College in Tribeca, right across West Street from where Joshy went to school at Stuyvesant. Dad was a professor of Russian literature back in Russia, but he could only get work as a community college instructor here. However, he had numerous scholarly publications in some of the top English language journals, and Dad not only got the transfer, but he got a promotion to a tenure track position as an assistant professor. Public university professors don’t make a lot of money in New York, but it made a huge difference in what we could afford.
The other thing that happened was connected to the first. One of the professors that interviewed Dad at Manhattan Community College mentioned that he lived on the Lower East Side. Not only was it an easy commute by bus, but it had some of the most affordable housing in Manhattan, yet it was rapidly gentrifying and even had a Target and a Trader Joe’s. It was a diverse community with a heavy concentration of Orthodox Jews and because of concern for the potential for terrorism, a strong police presence that kept it safe.
Unfortunately, most of the three-bedroom apartments Dad looked at on the Lower East Side were simply unaffordable. Costing well over a million, the larger mortgage on top of the co-op fees would’ve bankrupted us. He did mention that the views from some of the balconies and terraces on the upper floors we unbelievable though. Some of the apartments on the lower floors were more affordable, but they hadn’t been renovated since the buildings were finished in the mid-1950s. Most of them were in such crappy condition that we couldn’t have lived there until they’d been renovated, and that would’ve taken forever, even with Dad and Joshy doing all the work. We couldn’t afford to carry two mortgages.
Then Dad found a place right on FDR Drive and the East River that blew us all away. It was only on the sixth floor and it didn’t have a balcony or a terrace, but it was large and it had incredible views of the East River and all three East River bridges. We could even see a good part of downtown, including the World Trade Center, right from our bedroom. If anything, the apartment was even bigger than our house – big enough that we could live there while doing the renovations, but it needed a lot of work. The kitchen and bathrooms needed to be gutted and redone. By getting rid of several walls, we could really open the place up and make it much more modern.
It had never been renovated and had all the original crappy kitchen and bathroom fixtures and the like and was one of the few three-bedroom models we could find for under a million dollars. A million still sounds like a lot, but that’s close to what we got for the house. We sold it to an affluent Russian Jewish couple who wanted to tear down the house and build their dreamhouse on our lot. A very narrow dreamhouse, but one with a garage for their Mercedes, and a top-rated elementary school nearby.
The window steaming up alerted me that I’d spent too much time in the shower, and so I turned the water off, dried myself and got out. I applied deodorant and a little perfume, dried my hair and brushed my teeth. I noticed I had a bit of peach fuzz on my upper lip, and it was kinda noticeable because of my black hair. It was nothing like what Joshy used to have, before he started shaving a few weeks ago. I knew that girls entering puberty sometimes got peach fuzz the way some boys started to get boobs, but it didn’t help with the way I was questioning my sexuality.
I quickly dressed and then joined my sisters, brother and Dad at the breakfast table, pouring myself a mug of coffee. I’d tried my first sip back when I was eleven, when I started middle school, and I was instantly hooked. The funny thing was that while Dad, Joshy and my sisters all liked their coffee with varying amounts of milk and sugar, I found it sickeningly sweet that way and much preferred to drink it black. I only started drinking it in front of my family very recently, though, ‘cause Dad thought I was too young. After the move I put my foot down, since I’m almost thirteen.
We usually ate a typical Russian breakfast, consisting of a slice of heavy dark bread, a thick layer of butter and a slice of cheese, so I grabbed a couple slices of bread and proceeded to fix myself a couple of ‘sandwiches’ and scarfed them down. Grabbing a jacket and my bookbag, I headed out the door and dipped my student bus pass in the kiosk at the bus stop, then got right on an M14A-SBS bus. They came every six minutes during the morning commute, so there was little point in checking my phone to confirm that it was on time. I didn’t have long to wait, and then I boarded the bus and sat in my usual seat by the window and placed my bookbag on the seat next to me. The bus pulled away and drove around the block before emerging back on Grand Street, stopping at what I’d come to think of as the short street with a long name, Abraham Kazan Street.
Dave Schuster, a boy from the neighborhood who also went to my school, boarded the bus and smiled broadly when he spotted me. I moved my bookbag down to the floor by my feet and he sat down beside me.
“Another day of exciting new discoveries,” Dave said with a smile as he stowed his bookbag at his feet. Dave was in the eighth grade at Salk, a year ahead of me. He’d celebrated his fourteenth birthday on New Year’s Day. He and my brother were almost exactly the same age, but Joshy’s birthday was on December 30, which qualified him to start kindergarten at the age of four. Dave missed the cut-off by one day. Technically, I missed the cutoff too, but by two months.
“You get my text regarding my birthday party?” I asked.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he replied with a smile. Dave and I had been riding the bus together to and from school every day since we moved to Manhattan and we seemed to enjoy each other’s company. There were times like now when I thought he might be interested in me, but he never flirted with me the way a lot of boys do. Maybe I was just too young for him, or perhaps it was that I was a year behind him in school. If he did flirt, I wasn’t sure I’d’ve wanted to go out with him anyway. He was cute, though.
As the bus pulled away, we fell into an easy conversation as we usually did. We were both interested in cosmology and it made for some interesting discussion – not the typical banter of a couple of middle school students. We had a super-easy commute, taking the bus across Grand Street and up Avenue A to Fourteenth Street, then getting off the bus at First Avenue and walking six short blocks to Twentieth Street. We coulda taken a bus up first avenue, but there wasn’t much point. At two miles from home, it was close enough to even walk to school in nicer weather. Perhaps I’d suggest it to Dave when it got warmer.
There was nothing unusual that happened in my morning classes. Our school was unique in that it was a collaboration between the city and New York University Medical School, which was great. We had access to NYU facilities and were often taught by medical school faculty. Because we were housed on the fourth and fifth floors of P.S. 40, an elementary school, we shared facilities with them. There was a single lunch period for the middle school, separate from the elementary school, but in the same cafeteria at the same tables used by the elementary school. By the same token, lunch was whatever they served that day. The menu was posted online and some of the food was actually pretty good, but like most of my peers, I often brown-bagged it, and this was one of those days. The sloppy joes were swimming in grease and guaranteed to make a repeat appearance later that day, from one end or the other.
Sitting down in my usual spot with my friends, I opened my lunchbox and removed a chicken club sandwich, made with leftover chicken breast from last night’s dinner. My Dad wouldn’t let me bring real bacon into the house, so I’d substituted vegan bacon bits and a slice of Swiss cheese. My Dad would never mix meat and dairy, not because he kept kosher, but because the practice was ingrained. I was learning the ways of the rest of the world and had found that Swiss and poultry made an excellent combination. Rounding out my sandwich were lettuce and a slice of tomato, all on a Kaiser roll, and rounding out the lunchbox were an apple, a peach yogurt and of course a brick of blue ice to keep it all cold.
“That looks a hell of a lot better than what I’m eating,” my friend, Lisa, commented as she opened her lunch bag to reveal a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat, a bag of barbecue potato chips and a pack of Oreo cookies. “Let’s hear it for the Healthy Choice special,” she added to all our laughter.
“You should try making your own lunch,” I responded. “At least then you’d have only yourself to blame.”
“I did make it myself,” Lisa countered. “I need to learn how to cook.”
“It helps to have two older sisters,” I noted, “although truthfully, my brother is the one who knows his way best around the kitchen.”
“Is he gay,” Chris asked from across from me.
“Not that it has anything at all to do with his culinary skills,” I replied, and then I countered, “Why, are you looking for a boyfriend?” The surprising blush on his face suggested that maybe he was. Or maybe like me, he was confused about his sexuality, so I let the matter drop. His sexuality was his business, so long as he didn’t pick on my brother.
Then remembering the group text I’d sent all my friends, I said, “You guys all got the invite to my birthday party, right?” All the kids who ate lunch with me nodded their heads, so I assumed they got it. “The foods gonna be awesome,” I continued. Asher White, the head chef at the Ragin’ Cajun, is gonna do all the cooking. He’s just a kid, not quite sixteen, and he and his boyfriend, Seth, are gonna host it at their place. It’s on the top floor of one of the East River co-ops and you won’t believe the view.”
“See what I mean about guys who cook bein’ gay?” Chris interjected. That was the last straw.
“Chris, you know that the majority of the great chefs in the world are men, straight men,” I began, “Your attitude suggests that you’re either gay, homophobic or quite possibly both.”
“Ouch!” Larry, one of the other boys in my lunch group, exclaimed. Although in middle school, girls usually sit with girls and boys with boys, but like I said, I was a bit of a tomboy. Since this was a science-oriented middle school, there were more boys than girls to begin with and a lot of the girls were like me. Our table was a pretty even mix.
When Chris appeared to be on the verge of tears, I realized I’d probably gone too far, but then so had he. “Chris, it doesn’t matter to any of us if you’re gay or straight, bi or unsure. We still love you… just don’t go badmouthing my brother or his friends. Okay?”
“Sorry I said anything,” Chris replied. “It’s just that my dad gives me a hard time about being a book worm and interested in science instead of something more manly like construction. He’s a plumbing contractor and is always pointing out how he makes more money than his doctor does, without ever having gone to college.”
“Sounds like he’s the one who’s insecure,” Larry countered. “Besides, someday entire buildings will be three-D printed on site. The same’ll be true of bridges and roadways. Even farms will be replaced by high-rise hydroponic buildings where everything can be organically grown without the risk of disease or vagaries in the weather. The only farms left will be solar farms and wind farms, all of them automated. The only way to earn any money will be in things like the arts and sciences. You’re on the right track and he’s a dinosaur.”
“But how will everyone else earn money to eat?” Carrie asked, but then the bell rang and it was time to get back to learning about the world in which we lived, rather than the future world of Larry’s imagination. Perhaps someday I’d help build that future world, but first I had to survive middle school, and I had a birthday coming up.
Still, it made for interesting dinner conversation that evening when I brought it up.
“Wasn’t that the whole point of Andrew Yang’s campaign?” Joshy responded, “That automation was leading to massive unemployment, and that we needed to tax the rich so that everyone could have a universal basic income?”
“But unemployment’s negligible,” Sarah pointed out.
“With low-wage jobs,” Joshy noted, “and only for now. Housing costs have risen faster than inflation everywhere and even in the South and Midwest, people can barely scrape together enough to pay the rent. Homelessness is at an all-time high, and a lot of the homeless have jobs.”
“Why would anyone work when the government just hands out money?” Dad countered. “That was why communism failed in the USSR. As they used to joke, we agreed not to work and the government agreed not to pay us. Seriously, people were paid menial wages, regardless of whether they were a doctor or a janitor, or whether or not they showed up. They waited on long waiting lists for apartments they lived in, regardless of whether or not they paid the rent. Food and clothing were scarce and people waited in long lines for them. Then after communism fell, everything was too expensive for anyone to buy them. The fallacy of a guaranteed income is that there’s no incentive to work and without an incentive to work, nothing gets done and there’s nothing for people to buy.”
“But could you feed us on a thousand dollars a month, Dad?” Joshy asked.
“That’s one of the biggest problems with a so-called guaranteed wage,” Sarah chimed it. “A rural couple with no kids could eke out a living on two thousand a month, whereas a family like ours would have four mouths to feed on half that. We’d be out on the street, begging for food.”
“What kind of world would it be without artists?” Stacey added.
“But you’re missing the point,” I reiterated. “As long as there are people with enough money to pay them, there will be artists,” I challenged. “The arts will be one of the better ways to earn a decent income, but what if you really could 3-D print an entire building? It’s already been done with cars. The technology already exists and it’s just a matter of scaling it up. What if bridges, roadways or entire cities could be 3-D printed without the need for human hands? Maybe even the 3-D printers themselves could be 3-D printed.”
“And maybe the cities could be designed by A.I., and you wouldn’t need people at all,” Sarah suggested. “Welcome to The Matrix.”
“What a lame set of movies,” Joshy responded.
“I agree with you there,” I chimed in. “The whole premise of using the energy of human metabolism to power the machines ignored the fact that you had to feed the people. If there were a source of energy in the first place to grow the food, why bother with people and the matrix when you could power the machines directly with that energy. If sky’s been covered over by thick clouds that block the sun, why not launch a series of solar satellites into orbit and beam the power back to the surface using microwaves to penetrate the clouds?”
“You’d need to use radio waves,” Joshy countered. “Microwaves would be absorbed by the water droplets in the clouds. But the point I was making in the first place was the overall fallacy of most science fiction. Take Star Trek, for example. I’ve had this argument with my friends, Asher and Seth, who are practically Star Trek fanatics, but if the Federation had technology of such incredible interest to the Borg that they were so intent on assimilating us, why then did the Borg go back in time to try to disrupt first contact and prevent the Federation from being formed in the first place? Most sci-fi places an undue importance on humans and on earth, but there are undoubtedly much more advanced civilizations out there. Why the emphasis on us?”
“Because it’s humans on earth that are gonna buy the science fiction,” I replied.
“Exactly,” Joshy agreed.
When Dave boarded the bus, I could tell right away that something was wrong. I’d never seen him look so sullen and when he sat down next to me, he didn’t even greet me at all. It was January 28, the first day of the spring semester, and yesterday had been a clerical day – a day off from school for all the middle and high school students in New York City. I guess it was supposed to give the teachers a chance to prepare for the ‘horrors’ yet to come.
By the time we reached the stop in front of the Delancey street subway station, I was genuinely worried. He still hadn’t said anything and he looked so withdrawn. I tried to gently ask what was wrong, but when I quietly spoke his name, he flinched as if I’d struck him. And then he started shaking.
“Dave, what’s wrong?” I asked him in a bare whisper. When he didn’t answer, I tried prompting him by adding, “You look like your best friend died, but that would mean you’re talking to a ghost? That’s assuming I’m your best friend, that is.”
“My best friend?” he responded, seemingly bewildered, then he suddenly understood what I had asked and replied, “No! It’s nothing like that.”
When he failed to elaborate, I asked again, “Tell me what’s wrong.”
“You probably didn’t notice it in the paper this morning,” he finally answered me, “and it wasn’t even in the front section, but there was an incident over the weekend. When I got up on Sunday morning to retrieve the paper, there was a swastika painted on our door. It was so startling and unexpected that at first, I didn’t recognize what I was seeing. Then I noticed that there were swastikas painted on several doors up and down the hall… doors that had a mezuzah… and there was graffiti painted on the walls. Horrible antisemitic slurs. When it dawned on me what I was seeing, I shrieked like a girl. Mom came running and when she saw what had been done, she called the police. It turned out they were already on the scene. Several of the floors in Hillman had been similarly defaced overnight. The police think it was because yesterday was the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.”
(Note to reader: This incident actually happened.)
“That’s horrible,” I responded. “You hear of these things happening elsewhere, but not in New York and especially not here, where so many of us live. Did they catch the asshole who did it?”
Shaking his head, Dave responded, “No, but it’s only been a little over 24 hours. The police are investigating, but we don’t even know how someone could have gotten into the building at all, let alone got in unnoticed.”
“Didn’t the doorman see something?” I asked.
“We don’t have doormen at Hillman,” Dave responded. “There’s a guardhouse in front of each building and a single guard that watches all three entrances, but there’s a lot of shrubbery to block his view. There are security cameras in the lobbies and in the elevators, but not on each floor. The police have already gone through the recordings and they haven’t seen anything suspicious.”
“How could that be?” I asked.
“What they think might have happened is that the perp scaled the fence and got into the courtyard between the buildings,” he answered.
“But that’s a seven-foot high fence with sharp points on top,” I responded in surprise, “not that someone determined enough couldn’t get over it I guess.”
“People often prop open the door to the courtyard, so they don’t have to worry about getting locked out if they don’t want to be bothered with their keys. So the perp might not have even had to scale the fence to get into the courtyard, and the doors from there into the building often fail to latch closed. So if the perp got access to the courtyard, they could’ve gotten into the back hallway of one or both buildings. There are security cameras, but because the assumption is that people supposedly have to go through the lobbies to get to the courtyard, they’re not recorded. The guard has to be watching the right camera at the right time to catch someone who sneaks in that way. Once they get to the stairwell, they’d be out of view the whole time.”
Slowly it was sinking in what a terrible thing this was. New York has the largest concentration of Jews of any city in the world outside of Israel. Only Tel Aviv has a larger Jewish population. Although there had been times when tensions had flared between the Jews of New York and other minority groups, they were rare and self-contained. In the few terrorist attacks since 9/11, more of them had targeted the gay community than the Jews, and all were isolated events. For the most part we felt safe.
This felt different because it was a spasm of hatred specifically targeted at us. It was a game-changer. It was a violation… a loss of innocence. Rather than say anything, I reached over and squeezed Dave’s hand. We both understood there was nothing that could be said. I couldn’t imagine what it was like for Dave to have discovered the graffiti himself – to have come upon it so suddenly and unexpectedly like that. This wasn’t Nazi Germany, after all. It was the United States. We were better than that. We rode the rest of the way together in silence.
I didn’t expect my friends to know what had happened, but no sooner did I sit down in my first class than Larry sat down next to me and asked, “Did you hear about the anti-Semitic graffiti that happened over the weekend?”
“That was in Hillman houses, right on Grand Street,” I replied. “The kid I ride the bus with to school every day opened the door Sunday morning to find a swastika on the back of it.”
“Oh fuck,” Larry responded so quietly that I barely heard him. I knew just how he felt. “Is it someone I know?” he asked.
Shaking my head, I replied, “You’d probably recognize him from seeing him in the hallway, or maybe you saw him at my party. He’s in the eighth grade and he sits with his own group of friends at lunch. We ride the bus and walk to school together because we live in the neighborhood and we enjoy talking. He’s become a good friend, but nothing more than that.” I could almost sense the feeling of relief that came over Larry when he understood that Dave wasn’t competition for me.
“I bet you’re both freaked out over the whole thing,” Larry added after a period of silence. “I’m a bit freaked out and I don’t even live where it happened.”
Just then the bell rang and the teacher got up to begin the class, putting an end to our discussion. I went through my morning classes in a bit of a daze, the thoughts of what happened over the weekend never far from my mind. But then there was an announcement that there’d be a special convocation for all the Salk students, immediately after lunch. Instinctively I knew it had something to do with the graffiti incident.
By the time I sat down for lunch, word had spread through the rumor mill that anti-Semitic graffiti had been spray painted all over the Lower East Side. Some of my friends had heard that it was on the outside of one of the synagogues in our neighborhood. Chris thought it was on the outside of all the synagogues. Brandon thought it was inside one of the synagogues, and Rohan even thought it was on the inside of my building. I corrected all of the misconceptions with the truth, which was bad enough. As kids, they were all shocked by the incident, and it seemed they were disturbed by it, but a bit excited at the same time. They probably would have been more open in talking about out, were it not for my being from the neighborhood where it happened. Because of that, no one seemed to know what to say.
When the lunch period was over, we dutifully took our trays to the return window, but then we were told to go to our seats in the cafeteria. The cafeteria doubled as an auditorium as it did in many elementary schools, and there simply wasn’t time to fold up the tables, put them away and set up the folding chairs for a traditional convocation. Because my side of the table faced away from the stage, I turned around to face it, as did all my friends on my side of the table.
When the principal walked out onto the stage, we all sensed the seriousness of the convocation from his demeanor. His stride was deliberate and his face glum. “Good afternoon, students,” he began. “No matter how safe we hear our city is, no matter how much we hear about our record-low crime rate or about New York being the safest big city in America, none of that matters when the one something happens to is you…. and then something happens to remind us just how fragile our lives really are.
“Many of you probably heard of the incident of hate that happened over the weekend. That it happened on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is undoubtedly no coincidence. Those of us who have seen this sort of thing before do little more than shake our heads, and we may not even think how it affects the victims themselves, especially when they are young. Thus it came as a surprise this morning when I was approached by one of our students who asked to speak to you. I asked him to write up his proposed remarks, never expecting him to have them ready in less than two hours.
“You may recognize today’s speaker or you may know him personally. He has been a student at the Salk School for three years now. Next year he will be a student at Stuyvesant High School, but that’s not what he’s going to talk about today. Some of the most important lessons we can learn cannot be taught in the classroom. Without further delay, please welcome David Schuster. Please hold questions until after his presentation.” Principal Roberts started to clap and of course we all followed suit, even though it seemed strange to applaud for a kid, much less one of our own.
“Good afternoon,” Dave began. “Thank you, Principal Roberts, for your insightful introduction. It is at times like these that we realize how little we know about each other outside the classroom. You probably didn’t know that my grandparents, my mother’s parents, were Holocaust survivors. They were infants when World War II broke out, but that didn’t matter to Hitler. They were hidden in the same convent in Austria and then brought here after the war by the United Jewish Appeal. Both of their parents perished in Auschwitz. They were adopted by different families, grew up in different neighborhoods and were later reunited in high school.
“My father was an engineer who decided to do something for his country by joining the army reserve. He was deployed to Afghanistan and killed by an AED before I even had a chance to know him. I’ve lived all my life on the Lower East Side with my mom in an apartment on Grand Street, in the Hillman Cooperative.
“Yesterday I got up early. Teenagers aren’t supposed to get up early on a long weekend, but I forgot it was a day off from school and set the alarm as I usually would on a Sunday night.” Everyone laughed at how Dave had gotten up early when he didn’t have to.” I went to grab our copy of the New York Times. Pulling on my jeans, I opened the door and reached for the paper, which as usual was just out of reach, forcing me to go out into the hallway.
“After taking a brief glance at the headlines, I turned around and only then did I see a large black ugly swastika spray painted on our door. At first, I didn’t even comprehend what I was seeing. I was still half asleep and the appearance of a swastika was just so surreal and unexpected. Then as my brain started to engage and react to what I saw, I noticed more swastikas spray painted up and down the hallway. There were words too. Words of hate so vile and profane that I cannot repeat them here.
“Finally I screamed and my mom came running, and once she’d calmed me down, she called 911. However the police were already in the building, as the graffiti had been noticed by one of the janitors on another floor. The police are investigating the incident as we speak. Unfortunately, there are few clues and the perpetrator remains at large.
“It has been a difficult thirty hours for my mom and me. Her parents, my grandparents, live in Florida now and just happen to be on a cruise, so talking to them is difficult. They offered to leave the cruise at the next port of call and come stay with us, but of course we wouldn’t hear of it. I have a pair of uncles in Seattle, my mother’s brother and his husband, and they’ll be arriving late this afternoon to help get us through this difficult time. For that we are grateful.
“My mom didn’t want me to come to school today. She thought I needed time to heal, and she may have been right in that regard, although for different reasons than she’d thought. She thought I’d have trouble concentrating in class and maybe that would’ve been true, but ever since I first got on the bus this morning, right through lunch, there had been a catharsis with my friends and for that I have been grateful. In a way this presentation is a continuation of that.
“But let’s talk about the significance of what happened. It was probably someone who acted alone, a so-called lone wolf. It was an isolated incident – an incident of hate on the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Nazi death camp. Such incidents have been increasing worldwide and the trend is disturbing. There have been a preponderance of hate crimes against gay men and against Jews in particular, but we’re all vulnerable.
“As New Yorkers we don’t like to think about it, but we’re probably the number one terrorist target in America. None of us were alive on 9/11, but the events of that day are a constant reminder of what can happen. The loss of my father is a very personal reminder to me and yet the graffiti yesterday was far more personal.
“Hate only thrives when it is tolerated. Time and again, New Yorkers have rejected hate and embraced tolerance. This is one of the most diverse, ethnic and international cities in the world, and we thrive because of it. All you have to do is look around this room. At times like these we need to come together and support each other. But most of all, we need to show those who thrive on hate that hate has no place here or anywhere.
What an awesome speech! We all rose to our feet as we applauded.
“Are there any questions for Dave or for any of us?” the principal asked.
Dave fielded questions from the audience, and the principal explained to the students what to do if ever confronted with a hate crime, on school premises or otherwise. I’d been subjected to active shooter drills since I was in kindergarten, but this seemed real.
“So why aren’t you having your birthday party in your own apartment?” Larry asked me as he pipetted the solution onto an auger plate. We were collaborating on a science project involving growing cells in tissue culture. “Don’t you live in the same building as the kid who’s gonna host it?” he asked.
“The same complex,” I corrected him. “There are four buildings in our co-op, and four co-ops in Co-op Village. Seth Moore lives on the top floor of the building next to ours. It’s not that we don’t have the room,” I added, “but we just moved in a month ago and we’ll be doing extensive renovations this summer. The place has all the original appliances and plumbing, and we’re gonna replace it all. We’re gonna enlarge the bathrooms and reconfigure the bedrooms, adding much larger closets, and we’re putting down hardwood floors. My dad and my brother will do most of the work, but my sisters and I will pitch in too, laying down the flooring, putting up the tile and painting.”
“So what does any of that have to do with holding a birthday party now?” he asked. “Is your apartment still filled with boxes from the move?”
“Nah, my dad’s too organized for that,” I replied. “He had all the boxes labeled not only by room but by closet or drawer, so everything could be put in its place and we were totally moved in the next day.”
“That’s insane, man,” Larry responded. The way he was concentrating on his task made him look so serious, yet there was something about his face that was endearing. I couldn’t help but notice the light dusting of hair on his arms, the curly blond hair on his head and the intensity of his vivid blue eyes. I’d known Larry for more than a year-and-a-half now, yet he’d never affected me in this way before. Just last week I was crushing on my best friend, Lisa, and now I was crushing on Larry. What was wrong with me?
“You still didn’t answer my question though,” Larry reiterated. “Why aren’t you having your birthday party at your place?”
“Mostly because my brother volunteered his friends,” I explained. “Joshy’s gotten close to a couple of kids that live in our co-op as well as their friends. Asher White’s just a kid, but he’s the head chef at the Ragin’ Cajun, which is a restaurant on Orchard Street at Delancey. The food critic at The Times called it the best Cajun food outside of New Orleans, and the couple of times we went there, it was jammed, with lines out the door. The food’s actually a fusion of Cajun and Asian cuisine. Asher’s Dad’s a black Creole and his mother’s Chinese. My brother’s friends are really great guys.
“Anyway, Asher offered to cater my birthday party, as long as we had it on the weekend so he’d have time to prepare, but our kitchen’s too small for what he needs. His boyfriend Seth’s apartment, on the other hand, is on the top floor and it’s newly renovated and huge, with a fantastic kitchen and a view of half of Manhattan that has to be seen to be believed.”
“Oh shit!” he suddenly exclaimed as he dispensed a bit more of the culture solution that we were supposed to. “I need to pay more attention to what I’m doing.”
“I can’t believe you were born on Valentine’s Day,” Lisa said as we made our way through the lunch line. “Maybe you’ll get a boyfriend for your birthday.” Today they were serving chicken Parmesan with spaghetti and baby carrots, and it was one of the better things they served in our cafeteria.
“A boyfriend?” I responded. “I don’t think so. Anyway, it’s not like I was born on February 29, or something,” I pointed out. “The odds of that happening are only one in 1,461. The odds of being born on Valentine’s Day are four in 1461, or a little more than a quarter of a percent. For someone born in February, the odds are one in 28-and-a-quarter.”
“You’re a weirdo,” Lisa countered, “but if the odds of being born in February are one in twelve and the odds of being born on the 14th are one in 28-and-a-quarter, as you put it, wouldn’t the odds of being born on Valentine’s Day be one in 339, but they’re not, so your logic is flawed.” I wasn’t falling for her trap.
“No, yours is,” I replied. “The odds of being born in February are actually 28 times 3 plus 29, out of 1461, which is 113 out of 1461, ’cause not all months have the same number of days. And the reason it’s not 28 out of 365 or 29 out of 366 is you have to account for leap year.”
“But there is no leap year in centennial years,” Lisa said as we put our trays down at our usual spot on the long table, “except in millennial years, when there is. So if you want to be exact, the odds of being born on February 14 are 1000 divided by 365,241, which is… 0.2738 percent,” she calculated after whipping out her smartphone.
“I could point out that you’d get the same answer by dividing one by 365.25, so the lack of centennial leap years doesn’t really matter, but I won’t,” I responded and we both laughed.
“Only the two of you would come up with something like that,” Rohan commented as he took a bite of his chicken parm.
“Hey, how many of you get two cards from everyone for your birthday,” I countered, getting a few laughs around the table.
“Hey, this year my birthday’s during Passover,” Brandon interrupted, “and I’ll be thirteen and have my bar mitzvah too. If we even bother to have a cake, it’ll be an unleavened birthday cake.”
“Is there such a thing as an unleavened birthday cake?” Rohan asked.
“Yeah there is, and it’s nasty,” Larry answered. “Anything that’s made for Passover is pretty awful,” he added.
“Matzo farfel mixed with milk and honey isn’t a bad substitute for a breakfast cereal,” Brandon suggested.
“Farfel, you mean the stuff they put in soup?” I asked. “You eat that as a breakfast cereal?”
“When the only alternative is to eat matzo, it’s not half bad,” Bran responded.
“It sounds too sweet,” I countered. “Why not have scrambled eggs and turkey sausage?”
“Because that involves cooking,” Bran replied, “and Mom’s idea of preparing dinner is choosing a restaurant to order from on Seamless. In the morning, I’m on my own.”
“But you still keep Passover?” Larry asked.
“I’ve asked that question too, many times,” Brandon answered. “It’s not like we keep kosher otherwise, but Mom insists on my sister and me being exposed to Jewish culture. By the way, you’re all invited to my bar mitzvah. It’s the week after Memorial Day.”
“Oh, cool,” Lisa responded.
“For what it’s worth, my dad insists on keeping Passover too,” I mentioned. “We haven’t even had a Passover Seder since my mom died. I can’t even remember what they’re like and my older sisters can barely remember them, but Dad insists on getting rid of every trace of bread in the house and eating only Passover foods during the holiday.”
“But do you keep kosher otherwise?” Larry asked.
Shaking my head, I answered, “That would mean keeping four sets of everything… a set of dishes for meat and a separate set for dairy, both for Passover and for the rest of the year. The devout even have separate stoves, ovens and dishwashers for meat and dairy, and the ultra-orthodox have separate kitchens. My parents were never like that. We still don’t mix meat and dairy, nor do we eat pork or shellfish at home, but we don’t keep kosher otherwise.”
“What’s the point?” Lisa asked.
“I guess it’s just a way of connecting with our roots,” I replied. “Or maybe Dad’s just being stubborn in sticking with traditions, even though he doesn’t want to put any effort into them.
“What about you, Kevin,” I asked another of my friends. “Your dad is Jewish.”
“And my mother’s Catholic,” he replied, “but we’re not religious at all. We don’t observe Passover or Easter.”
“Passover’s a big deal in my family,” Larry interjected. “We all get together at my grandparents’ house in Peekskill… not just my parents and I, but all the aunts and uncles and great aunts and uncles and all their kids from my mom’s side of the family. There must be like thirty or forty of us around a long table they set up on their back porch. My great grandpa leads the service and we all take turns reading from the Haggadah and even the kids get to sip the wine. The Passover meal’s a potluck with everyone tryin’ to outdo the other, so it’s a real feast, and then afterward there’s the search for the afikomen, and it’s like a real treasure hunt. Last year it was wrapped in a plastic bag and inside the tank of one of the upstairs toilets. Man, no place is off-limits when it comes to where Grandpa hides it, and the kid that finds it gets a real prize. Last time, my cousin Rachel won tickets for her and her family to see Aladdin on Broadway.”
“What the fuck’s an afikomen?” Rohan asked.
“During the Seder, you have three matzos that are placed on a plate and covered with a napkin,” Larry explained. “They’re symbolic and represent the challah, or ceremonial bread that would normally be eaten with the meal. Anyway, during the service, the middle matzo is broken in half and one half of it, called the afikomen, is then hidden, to be found later by the children and served as dessert.”
“You serve thirty or forty people a half-piece of matzo for dessert?” Rohan asked.
“It’s symbolic,” Larry went on, “and we supplement it with additional pieces of matzo, and there’s a real dessert too, but by tradition, nothing can be eaten after the afikomen is served. Then we all do a lot of singing. Maybe it’s the wine, but everyone hams it up as we sing Dayenu, Adir Hu, Echad Mi Yodea and Chad Gadya, among others. I love our Seders. They’re the reason Passover’s my favorite holiday.”
“That sounds like a lot of fun,” I acknowledged without much enthusiasm. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the sound of Larry’s family Seders, or that I didn’t care. If anything, I was envious. I felt like I’d been missing out on something special all my life. At a fundamental level, I understood that most Jewish kids didn’t have an experience like Larry’s for Passover, but that still didn’t make it any easier when it came to my utter lack of experience.
Larry seemed to pick up on what I was feeling, ’cause the next thing I knew, he suggested, “Hey, why don’t you celebrate Passover with my family this year!” And then he added with even more enthusiasm, “Why don’t you bring your whole family? You’d get to see what a big family Seder is like. Your whole family could. It’d be great!”
As much as the idea of experiencing a real Passover Seder with Larry’s family appealed to me, the thought of doing it with thirty or forty strangers didn’t appeal to me at all. I really liked Larry – just being near him brought me warm fuzzy feelings – but I’d hardly get near him during his family’s Seder and meeting all of them en mass was definitely not something I would enjoy putting it mildly. I’d just as soon attend a community Seder at one of the synagogues. Still, it was a very nice offer and I needed to say something without hurting Larry’s feelings.
Finally, I replied, “You do realize that I have four siblings, Larry, right?”
“So there are five of you.” Larry responded. “You’ll hardly make a difference at all. Just bring a dish to share. I’m sure you’ll be more than welcome.”
Smiling, I pointed out, “You probably should discuss it with your parents and ask your grandparents first, don’t you think? And I need to ask my family about it too.” Then in a stroke of inspiration, I told a white lie. “Besides which, I think my brother may have an invite from one of his best friends up in Riverdale. I think we may all be invited.”
“Then why don’t you come by yourself?” Larry suggested. “I could have someone pick you up at the train station, or we could go together.”
“Much as I’m flattered by your offer,” I answered earnestly, “Dad’d never let me take the train by myself.” Truthfully, Peekskill wasn’t that far – about an hour by train from Grand Central Terminal – and compared to the subway, Metro North was child’s play, but Dad wasn’t about to let his little girl go so far away on her own. However, the blush on Larry’s face told me that maybe he liked me as much as I liked him. The tingly feeling inside grew even stronger and I added, “I’ll ask him though.” The smile that lit his face told me I’d hit a bullseye.
“I can’t believe this food!” Lisa exclaimed as she took a bite of the spicy lobster creole. “I can’t believe the sausage isn’t real pork.”
“Asher makes his own sausage from scratch,” I explained, “and he only uses turkey. I told you he’s an incredible cook.”
“That’s an understatement,” she replied. “This is a great party!”
“Thanks,” I responded. It was the middle Saturday in February and my family and friends were enjoying a feast of Asher White’s Asian Creole cuisine. There were 22 of us, including Asher and Seth and Seth’s parents, and their friends, Freck and Kyle. I’d invited fourteen of my friends from school, but three of them couldn’t make it. I’d also invited some of my old friends from Manhattan Beach, but all of them had sent their regrets. I guess I no longer rated with them, now that I was no longer a part of their lives.
I guess Lisa took my dad’s sitting down next to me as her cue to leave, as she got up and headed back to the buffet table, even though her plate was still half-full.
“At first I thought I’d stick to eating things that don’t contain any shellfish or dairy,” Dad began. “I appreciate that Asher made sure there was plenty for me to eat, but everything smelled so good and like with Chinese food, I had to try a little of everything, pretending I didn’t know what was in it. It’s hard to pretend that the thing with a tail isn’t shrimp though, and it’s delicious. Maybe it’s time for me to adopt a more worldly view and let Joshy and your sisters experiment more with their cooking.”
“I think we’d all like that,” I responded. Then remembering Larry’s invitation from earlier in the week, I asked, “Dad, why did we stop having Passover Seders after Mom died?”
Sighing, Dad began his answer with, “I bet you don’t even remember them, do you?” I responded by shaking my head and he continued, “It’s a bit complicated, but the real reason was that Passover was my Hana’s favorite time of the year. She loved tending to her garden in the spring…”
“I don’t even remember having a garden,” I interrupted.
“It was one of the things she missed from the old country,” Dad continued, “and even though we only had a tiny patch of a back yard with barely enough sunshine for anything to grow, she loved working in her garden. And she loved making the Passover meal. Most women considered it a pain in the ass to cook without leavening,” I couldn’t help but giggle, ‘cause it was the first time I’d ever heard him use a swear word, “but she loved the challenge. She invented the most incredible recipes and they were every bit as good as what she served the rest of the year. Even the mere thought of having a Seder was too much without her being there.
“And I was so angry at God for taking your mother from me… from us,” he continued. “At first I blamed him and then I turned my back on him and decided he didn’t exist, but then I realized that the loss of my wife had nothing to do with God, but then I couldn’t feel the same way about God and religion after that, so religion hasn’t been a major part of our lives ever since. Even still, I wanted you to be exposed to your cultural heritage, and so we went to services on the High Holydays, but not at the Russian Orthodox Schule we used to go to. Instead, we went to a reconstructionist congregation, because they honor tradition, but treat God as more of a power than a deity. It fit a bit more with the way I felt at the time… maybe the way I still feel.
“And I tried to observe some of our other traditions too, such as saying the Kidish over the wine on Friday night, and the Ha Motzi at the start of the meal, and the Birchat Hamazon at the end. Those were my traditional roles, but I could never bring myself to light the Shabbat candles, or to light the menorah at Hanukkah. Those were always the things your mother did. I’m sorry you missed out on so much.
“You’ve just turned thirteen, Robbie,” Dad continued, “but even still, it’s not too late to study and catch up. You can still go through a bat mitzvah ceremony, perhaps when your fifteen if you’d like.”
Shaking my head, I replied, “I don’t know, Dad. I’m interested in Jewish culture, but organized religion doesn’t really appeal to me. I’m not sure if I believe in God, but the stories in the Bible don’t jive with science. The evidence for evolution is about as strong as it gets. We can trace our evolution in the very DNA within us and within other life on earth, yet we can’t explain the origin of life in the first place. The theories are pure conjecture, but was God responsible, or was it pure chance? Nearly every civilization… every culture… has a belief in some sort of god or gods, a creation story, a belief in a soul and in an afterlife. Yet all of the creation stories and all of the beliefs in an afterlife can be disproven. Could it be that there’s something to the universal belief in god and a soul, but the rest is nothing more than mythology?
“One of Joshy’s friends, Freck, calls himself a radical agnostic. We may never know why the universe exists, or what may or may not exist outside of it, or what may have come before it. These things are unknowable. Could the universe have been created by God? Does it matter? That’s where radical agnosticism comes in. Belief in God or a particular religion doesn’t matter… it’s what we do that matters.”
“Sounds like you’re talking about radical agnosticism,” Freck said as he passed by.
“I was just explaining the concept to my dad,” I told my brother’s friend. “We’re loosely observant but not religious Jews. We don’t belong to a synagogue, but we attend services at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Now that we’ve moved, we’re in the market for a new place of worship.”
“We belong to a really cool congregation near where we live in Riverdale,” Freck related. “It’s affiliated with Reform, but a much stronger emphasis on traditional observance, and with an emphasis on social justice. Kyle and I are studying for our bar mitzvahs there. By the way, you can pencil in the Saturday before Christmas. Of course you’re invited.”
“There’s a Humanistic congregation on the Upper East Side,” Stacey added as she joined me and our dad. “One of my friends in the music program at school goes there and she likes it a lot.”
“Is it near your school?” Dad asked.
Shaking her head, she replied, “They meet in the faculties of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism on West 86th Street.”
“That’s not far from the Russian Arts Theater,” Dad exclaimed. “I’ve been meaning to check it out since we moved. Maybe we can check into both at the same time.”
“Where do you go to school, Stacey,” Freck asked.
“Fiorello H. LaGuardia…” Stacey started to answer.
“By Lincoln Center?” Freck asked.
“That’s the place,” my sister answered.
“I guess that explains the hair and clothes,” Freck responded with a laugh.
“Don’t remind me,” Dad chimed in. It was still a point of contention between the two of them, even though she’d been into the punk scene since the beginning of middle school. “I’ve been trying to ignore it for the last four years, but I must say, Stacey got all the talent genes in the family. Her drawings are incredible, even if I sometimes don’t get the meaning of them.”
“She’s about to publish her first graphic novel,” I related.
“That is incredibly cool,” Freck exclaimed. “You know, I’m gonna be an architect, which is kind of a blending of art and engineering. I can really appreciate those with major artistic talent.”
“Which leaves me out,” I related.
“And Stacey certainly didn’t get her talent from me,” Dad added.
“By the way, happy birthday, Robin,” Freck remembered.
“Thanks Freck,” I replied. “I’m finally a teenager.”
“I crossed that threshold back in December,” Freck responded. “By the way, do you guys have big plans for Passover? This’ll be my first time at a Passover Seder and I’m excited.”
What followed could only be characterized as an uncomfortable silence. Unfortunately, Joshy chose that particular moment to join us.
“Looks like I interrupted something,” he commented as he sat down next to Freck.
“You did, but I’m not sure just what,” Freck responded. “All I did was to express my excitement at attending my first Passover Seder with my boyfriend’s family, and then I asked what you guys are doing, and this is what I got.”
“Ah, that explains it,” Joshy replied. “The fact of the matter is that while we keep Passover after a fashion, we don’t actually hold a Seder. We haven’t since our mother died.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Freck responded. “What has it been, ten years?”
“Good memory,” Joshy answered. “It’s just too painful, I guess. It was Mom’s favorite holiday and she always made a big deal of it… not that I remember what it was like now. I was only four when she died.”
“I feel bad about it,” Dad chimed in. “The kids deserve better, but I just couldn’t bring myself to make a Passover Seder for them.”
“We’re old enough that we could make it ourselves, Dad,” Joshy suggested.
“You, know, that’s an excellent idea,” Dad replied. “In fact, we should make a point of it, but putting together a Seder takes a lot of planning.”
“Well, we did get an invitation from one of my good friends at school,” I interjected, though I wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t like we’d be going. “He hadn’t cleared it with his parents and grandparents, who live up in Peekskill and actually are the hosts. They’re already having thirty or maybe forty relatives attending, and I didn’t feel comfortable getting involved with that. It’s a potluck, so food wasn’t the issue, but they’d all be strangers to us and we to them, and I probably wouldn’t even get near my friend, so it’d be awkward.
“Sorry, Freck, but he’s here at the party,” I suddenly thought to say, “and I used the excuse that your family had invited us as an excuse to politely decline. So if Larry Sanders says anything, that’s why.”
“Hey, that’s a great idea,” Freck exclaimed. “We have plenty of room and it’ll be my first Passover with my boyfriend’s family, and it’ll be our first Passover with my two dads being married and all, so why not? There’ll already be too much food, and if you wouldn’t mind bringing a dish to share, food won’t even be an issue. We’ll provide the matzo and the wine.
“Let me text my dads and see if it’s okay with them…”
“Before you do that, Freck, I don’t want them to feel pressured into making the offer,” Dad interrupted. “I certainly wouldn’t want to impose either. They might be looking forward to a simple Seder with just the two of them and their kids. After all, as you pointed out, it’s their first Passover together.”
“Why don’t I text them and say I thought it might be a good idea, but that I hadn’t mentioned it to you yet,” Freck countered. “That way, there won’t be any pressure.”
“Kids, what do you think?” Dad asked.
“I think it would be a lot of fun,” Joshy replied and Stacey and I nodded our heads in agreement.
“Okay, I’ll send a text and I’ll get back to you if they agree,” Freck related.
“Tell him there’ll probably only be four of us,” Dad interjected.
“Dad, you should come,” I responded. “You’d enjoy it too.”
“If Freck gets the invite, I fully intend to go.” Dad answered. “It’s you who won’t be going.”
“What?” I exclaimed. “Why not?”
“Because if the offer from your friend still stands, you should take him up on it.”
“But Dad,” I responded, “I just told you why I didn’t want to go.”
“But you said he was a very good friend, and for him to ask you, he must like you too,” Dad explained. I could feel myself blushing furiously, but at least no one made fun of me for it. “As I recall, your biggest worry was that you’d never get near your friend and we’d all be strangers at the table. But if you go by yourself, you’ll very likely be seated next to your friend and you’ll spend the whole evening there with him. You’ll have a great time and you’ll meet his family in a non-threatening manner. You should definitely go.”
“But I told him you’d never let me go alone.” I countered. “Did you hear me say it’s in Peekskill?”
“And you think I won’t let you travel alone to Peekskill?” Dad asked. “It’s only an hour from Grand Central, and certainly it won’t be any worse than when you travelled an hour by subway every day. Like you said earlier, you’re thirteen now, and a teenager. It’s time for me to trust you and to treat you like the young woman you’re becoming. Just make sure there’s someone at the station in Peekskill to meet you when you get off the train. I don’t want you searching for their house all alone or taking a taxi or Uber by yourself. That’s probably way more dangerous than taking the subway or the bus these days. You hear things about that.
“So if he’s here, I’d like to meet him. Go ahead and ask him if the offer’s still valid. Oh, see if you can bring a bottle of wine instead of a dish to share, since it’ll just be the one of you, and then bring him to me so we can chat.” Poor Larry!
As I got up and looked around for Larry, I heard Freck exclaim, “All right! It’s a go for the Seder. You guys are all invited.” Truthfully, I’d have preferred to go to the Seder with Kyle and Freck’s family, but that was before. Spotting Larry in the kitchen talking to Rohan, I couldn’t help but smile as I approached. His whole face seemed to light up as I approached him. He’d been doing that a lot lately and it made me feel like a million. I wondered if my face did the same thing when I saw him.
“Hey,” he said as I approached. “It’s a great party. Thanks for inviting me.”
“I’m glad you could come,” I replied, and then I changed my expression and lowered my voice. “Could we speak for a minute?”
“I’ll go get some more of this wonderful food,” Rohan said as he snuck away.
“Is the offer for Passover still good?” I asked. “Could I still come? Did you clear it with your parents and grandparents?” I added as I remembered he hadn’t done that when he asked me.
“In answer to your second question first,” Larry responded, “I’ve invited friends before and it’s never been a problem. It would be the first time I brought a girl, though.” My god, was he flirting with me? “I take it it’ll just be you alone, but didn’t you say your dad would never let you travel alone to Peekskill?”
“He said I’m a teenager now and I’d be fine on the train, but he insists that someone meet me at the train station,” I answered. “He doesn’t want me trying to find your grandparent’s house on my own or taking a taxi or car for hire by myself.”
“You can tell him that it won’t be a problem at all,” Larry responded. “Since it’s on a school night this year, we’ll leave directly from school and take the train together to Peekskill. Their house is a short walk from the station. I’ll escort you to the station after the Seder, or if he’s worried about you traveling alone late at night, you can stay the night at my grandparents place.” When he saw the look of near panic on my face, he quickly clarified, “That’ll be in one of the guest rooms with some of my cousins. Girl cousins, that is. Then we could maybe spend the day going around Peekskill. I take it you’ve never been and I could show you around, sans cousins of course.”
“Sounds like a date,” I said before my mind engaged and realized how that sounded, but before I could apologize, Larry got a huge smile on his face, which turned a deep shade of red that I’m sure matched my own.
Taking my hands in his and drawing me close, he said, “It could be… if you want it to be.” For a moment I thought he was gonna kiss me, but then the situation got a bit awkward and instead, he looked away. It was cute. He was so embarrassed. I’d had crushes before on both boys and girls, but this was different. Was this what it was like to really fall for someone?
Then realizing he was waiting for a reply, I answered, “I’d like that, very much.” But then remembering my dad, I added, “by the way, my dad would like to meet you.”
“Well, you’ll be meeting a whole shitload of my family, so I guess it’s only fair that your dad meet me to be sure my intensions are pure,” he quipped.
“Oh, and he suggested I bring a bottle of wine instead of a dish to share,” I related.
Laughing, Larry responded, “I guess your father really does think you’re mature. It’s illegal for a minor to transport any alcoholic beverages, even in a sealed bottle.”
“Oh, I know you’re right.” I agreed. “In Russia, when he was growing up, kids our age could get hold of vodka and no one would think anything of it if they sat around drinking it in the open. Yeah, I’d rather not get in trouble for transporting wine.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Larry countered. “Just bring yourself. There’ll be plenty of food for everyone. There’s always enough left over for lunch the next day and for the second Seder the next night.”
“You’re inviting me for two nights?” I asked in what was a much higher voice than normal for me.
Laughing again, he explained, “I meant for my grandparents and great grandpa. They’re the only ones in the family holding a second Seder.”
“What about school?” I asked.
“It’s nicer when Passover starts during spring break, but spring break doesn’t begin until Friday, Good Friday, but the schools have always been great about giving us time off for Passover. I’ve already requested it off and there’s still time for you to request it off too. Neither of us needs to worry about missing anything that we can’t make up over the break.”
“That’s true,” I agreed, and then I said, “Come, meet my father,” as I let go of his left hand and pulled him over to where Dad, Freck and Stacey were still sitting. “Dad, this is Larry Sanders. Larry, this is my dad, my sister, Stacey, my brother, Joshy, and Joshy’s good friend, François ‘Freck’ San Angelo.”
“You look entirely too young to be in high school,” Larry said as he looked at Freck. “You look like you’re even younger than we are.”
“He is our age,” I responded, “and he’s a senior at Stuyvesant. And if you think that’s something, I’ll introduce you to his boyfriend, Kyle, who’s only eleven and also a senior at Stuyvesant.”
“How does an eleven-year-old know he’s gay?” Larry asked. I was sure he meant it as a rhetorical question, but Freck didn’t take it as such.
“Kyle?” Freck called out after spotting his boyfriend across the way, “Could you come here please?”
As Kyle approached, Larry said, “If anything, he looks older than Freck.” Then blushing, he added, “Sorry, Freck.”
“No, it’s true,” Freck responded. “I’ve always looked at least a year younger than my age and Ky’s always looked at least a year older. I’ve just hit my growth spurt, but Kyle’s father and brother are both well over six feet, and I’ll probably top out around five-and-a-half feet. Kyle’s gonna turn out to be taller, harrier and with a deeper voice than me, and I like my men that way. I also love the long hair you were too polite to comment on.”
Blushing again, Larry asked, “How long did it take to grow your hair that long? I mean on most guys, hair that long would look girlish, maybe even ridiculous, but on you it looks pretty good actually. It accentuates your leonine features and makes you look more masculine if anything.”
“That’s actually one of the nicest things anyone has said to me,” Kyle responded, “and thank you. I’ve been growing it long for over a year now, and since Freck likes it long, I’m not planning to cut it anytime soon.”
“Could I ask you how you know you’re gay at such a young age?” Larry asked.
“Of course you can ask, and I might even answer you,” Kyle laughed. “Seriously, why is it always the straight boys who ask this? A lot of kids are unsure of their sexuality, well into their teens. I’m not one of them. Sometimes a boy just knows from a very young age. I was eight when I realized I was gay, but I began to suspect it when I started reading at the age of three. And yes, a three-year-old can understand the difference between gay and straight and recognize how their brain responds to the sexes.”
“Wow!” was all Larry was able to say.
“Oh Dad, I can’t take wine instead of a dish for Passover because I’m a minor,” I interjected.“I’m not allowed to transport any alcohol at all, even if it’s in a sealed bottle.”
“More than twenty years I’ve been in this country and I still can’t get used to some of the rules,” Dad complained. “But then we didn’t have teenage drivers in Russia. A twelve-year-old could get away with buying a pint of vodka over there, and no one would give any thought to the drunk young teenager on the street corner. Yes, it’s much better to keep kids out of trouble, even though they seem to find it anyway.”
“I saw a recipe on the internet for halvah brownies,” Joshy, suggested. “It looked like they’d be easy to make, and they’re kosher for Passover.”
“What’s a halvah brownie,” Freck asked.
“Halvah is a Middle Eastern confection made from sesame seeds,” I explained. “It’s extremely dense, extremely rich and very, very sweet. It has a bazillion fat calories too, but it contains absolutely nothing that can’t be eaten on Passover. Passover brownies, on the other hand, are made with Passover flour and are pretty awful. Combining the two would probably make for a delicious dessert.”
“We could try making a batch,” Joshy suggested, “and if they don’t turn out okay, we’d still have time to come up with something else to bring.”
“That sounds like a plan,” I agreed.
“If you’re done with me, I’m gonna get some more of that wonderful food,” Larry announced, and then not getting any objections, departed.
Once Larry had left, Joshy asked, “Dad, I know you know I’m gay, but would you object to me asking a boy out on a date?”
“Of course not, Joshy,” Dad answered. “What kind of father would I be if I didn’t let you date? Is it someone I know?”
“I don’t think so,” Joshy responded, “but he’s here at the party if you’d like to meet him.” That sure piqued my curiosity. “He lives in the neighborhood but goes to Robbie’s school.”
“Dave?” it suddenly dawned on me. “Dave Schuster?”
“You know this boy?” Dad asked.
“I sit next to him on the bus on the way to and from school every day,” I explained. “He’s in the eighth grade, but because his birthday’s on New Year’s Day, he just missed the cutoff for starting school a year earlier. He’s Joshy’s age, almost exactly. He’s become a good friend. It just never occurred to me that he might be gay.”
No sooner had I said that than Dave appeared from behind us. Shit, had he been there all along?
“Did you call for me, Robin?” he asked. “I heard you call out my name, even from the other side of the room.”
Breathing a sigh of relief, I responded, “It wasn’t intentional. Your name came up and I repeated it just a bit too loudly.”
“My name came up as someone who might be gay?” Dave asked. Yikes, he did hear.
Just as I was trying to come up with something to say, Joshy took the lead. “I’m sorry, Dave, but that’s my fault. I really enjoyed meeting you and talking to you, and there were times I thought you might be flirting with me, but I wasn’t sure. I thought maybe you knew about me being gay because of my friends, so I kinda flirted back just a bit. I tried to keep it subtle, just in case I was reading more into it than was really there, but if you were flirting, I wanted you to know I’m interested.”
“Wow!” Dave responded. “I’d no idea you’re gay. None at all. If I was flirting, God, I wasn’t aware of it. Maybe at a subconscious level. I guess you could say I’m still coming to terms with it. I haven’t told anyone. Not yet.”
Then tilting his head slightly, he said, “You really want to go out with me?”
“If you’re ready to date boys, then yeah,” my brother responded. “Very much. I like you Dave… a lot.”
“I like you too, but I need to talk to my mom first. I’m gay. Wow, it’s weird to say it. I’m gay. I like boys. And I want to go out on dates. I want to go out with you. Yeah, let’s plan on it, but I’ll have to get back to you. I have to talk to my mom.”
“Would you like me to talk to her?” Dad asked.
“No, it’ll be fine,” Dave responded. “Her brother’s gay, so I don’t think she’ll have a problem with accepting a gay son. I just don’t want her finding out from someone else or being surprised at seeing me holding hands with a boy. Holding hands with Josh.”
“Maybe we could take in a movie and go out for a bite afterwards, or something,” Joshy suggested. “We have the next week off, so maybe we can get together during the next week.”
“Definitely,” Dave agreed.
“People are really spooked by the virus,” Larry began. “It’s already been a bad flu season and we had measles epidemics earlier in the year, all because of the anti-vax movement, but the threat of a new global pandemic has everyone running scared. There have been several new cases every day.”
“Well, Seattle was the site of the first major outbreak in the U.S.,” Dave’s Uncle Alan pointed out. “We left just before it got started, but if we don’t return now, we might not be able to return. It seemed so far away until it affected us personally. At least it has barely infected New York.”
“That you know of,” Dave chimed in. “Let’s face it, we’re all gonna get the virus eventually. We lost our chance to contain it and they won’t have a vaccine fast enough. Look at us. We live right next to Chinatown and half the faces on this bus are Asian. I’m surprised we aren’t already in quarantine.”
“At least the MTA is going to extraordinary measures to ensure that every subway car, every bus and every turnstile is totally disinfected every night,” I mentioned. “Of course that doesn’t help if the someone who sat in the your seat before you had the virus, or if someone coughs on you. Some people are so paranoid that they won’t sit in any seat on the subway or bus, and they use gloves to hold onto the straps and the poles.”
“The bus seems no less full than usual,” Dave’s mom chimed in, “and my guess is that the Met will be crowded as usual for the mid-winter break,” she added. “Most New Yorkers aren’t deterred, not even by the threat of a global viral pandemic.”
“That could change in a heartbeat,” Uncle Alan suggested, and I couldn’t help but agree. It was the start of the New York City schools mid-winter break, and Dave’s uncles were getting ready to return home to Seattle in spite of the spread of the Coronavirus there. Before they left, however, they wanted to spend a day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They asked Dave and his mom if they’d like to go along with them and offered to treat them to dinner. They also asked Dave if he’d like to bring a date and so he invited Joshy, but he also asked if I could come along since I was a good friend, and if I could bring a date too. Naturally, I asked Larry. This was our first date.
We reached Union Square, where we took the escalator down and boarded a number four train. Because it was an express, it took only twelve minutes to go the three stops to 86th street, where we got off and walked the remainder of the way to the museum. There were only three blocks from Lexington to Fifth Avenue, and even though the museum bordered on 86th Street, we had to walk another four blocks south just to get to the main entrance. I guess there’s an accessible entrance too, but we had to walk up a huge cascade of steps, just to get inside.
“I’ve traveled all over the world and visited some of the finest museums,” Uncle Alan began. “I’ve been to the Louvre in Paris and the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, the Prado in Madrid and the Ufizzi in Florence, the British Museum in London and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The Met isn’t the largest, nor is it the most eclectic, but none of them can hold a candle to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It has the most diverse, extensive and magnificent collection anywhere. And no museum has so many special exhibitions at one time, and they’re all included at no extra charge. I appreciate that other museums are free, but they charge a fortune to see the one or two special exhibitions they have. I love coming home to the Met.”
“Living out on Coney Island, I never had a chance to visit the Met,” Joshy interjected. “This is my first time.” It was like a horror movie in which all heads swiveled to look at my brother. “My poor deprived boy,” Uncle Alan responded. “You must come here, and often. You need at least a week to see the full scope of the collection here at the main building, and then there’s the Met Breuer, and the Cloisters. You must see the Cloisters.”
“Okay…” Joshy responded, but then he noticed me nodding my head and he asked, “You’ve been here sis?”
“Are you kidding me?” I replied. “Of course I’ve been here, many times. The American Museum of Natural History too.”
“When did you ever find the time?” Joshy asked.
“After school,” I explained. “Our student bus passes cover three rides per day. That’s enough to get from home to school, from school to the museums and from the museums all the way home on the B Train or the Q. Kids under twelve get free admission, but no one ever stopped me after I turned twelve. The student admission’s only twelve dollars anyway.”
“You know, rather than holding you guys back, maybe I can show Josh all my favorite places at the Met,” Dave suggested. “That way you can concentrate on the new stuff and special exhibitions, while I take Josh around to all the stuff you’ve seen a billion times already.”
Laughing, Dave’s mom said, “We figured you kids would go off on your own anyway. The museum is open until 9:00 tonight, and Uncle Alan and Uncle Peter have generously agreed to take us to the Fourth Floor Dining Room afterwards. The last seating for dinner is at 9:00, which I thought was a bit too late, so we have reservations for 8:30, which gives you more than ten hours to explore the museum. Why don’t we meet in the Patrons Lounge on the Fourth Floor at 8:20 and we’ll go to dinner from there.”
“Sounds good, Mom,” Dave replied. Then turning to Joshy, Larry and me, he said, “Come, let’s get our tickets, and then let’s get something to eat. I only had cereal for breakfast, and I’m starved.”
Laughing, I responded, “I had even less, so I’m definitely ready for brunch.” Joshy and Larry nodded their heads in agreement.
After saying our goodbyes to Dave’s mom and uncles, we stopped first at the Members’ desk and picked up tickets for the day. It turned out that Larry’s family were members and so we all got in for free. There were stickers on the end of the tickets which we peeled off and stuck on our shirts. They would allow us to come and go as we pleased. Although the price of a student ticket would’ve only been twelve dollars, Larry’s membership card not only saved us the cost of admission, but it gave us a ten percent discount on food at the restaurants and on purchases at the extensive bookstore and gift shop. I guess Dave’s mom and uncles were getting in as members too, ’cause the Met had reciprocity with the Seattle Museum of Art.
“Okay, we have a choice of restaurants to eat at,” Larry began. “I figure we’ll grab a bite in the early afternoon too, so we can eat at a couple of them besides the dining room tonight. There’s a very large cafeteria downstairs with an extensive selection of different kinds of food, and it’s all pretty good. The cafeteria has the best selection by far.
“There are a couple of smaller cafés overlooking the park where we can get an afternoon snack later on, or there’s the Balcony Lounge, which is only for members. Since we’re all starved, why don’t we start the day with the cafeteria? We’ll have no trouble getting a hearty meal there.”
“Sounds perfect,” I replied.
Dave led us through the center entrance of the Great Hall, around the huge marble center stairway and into the Medieval Art section. As soon as we reached it, however, Joshy stopped dead in his tracks and exclaimed, “Woah!”
“You like?” Dave asked.
“This is incredible,” Joshy enthused. “I was was expecting a bunch of boring paintings. Nothing like this. It looks medieval.”
“That’s exactly what it is,” Dave responded. “And this is only a teaser for the Met’s medieval collection. Most of it’s up at their museum at the Cloisters. We’ll have to go there sometime. But this is very cool, don’t you think?”
“It’s amazing,” Joshy replied. “I’d no idea this stuff was here.”
“Wait ’til you see the African art, the indigenous American art, Greek and Roman art, the Egyptian art and the Islamic art. The Met’s collections are some of the best in the world.
“But first let’s eat,” Dave concluded.
Larry was right, there were all kinds of food available, ranging from breakfast items to full-course meals. It was my first time eating at the Met. There were stations with soups, hot and cold ready-made sandwiches, salads and there was a serve-yourself salad bar. There was a deli counter with every kind of made-to-order sandwich one could imagine. There was a grill with hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken breasts. There was pizza by the slice and by the pie. They also had an incredible selection of desserts. I got the rosemary chicken with roasted potatoes and creamed spinach. Larry got a pastrami on rye with coleslaw and French fries, and pecan pie for dessert. My brother and Dave got a large pizza to share.
Taking a bite, I said, “This is really good.”
“There are a few things I wouldn’t recommend,” Larry responded, “but most everything they serve is good or even great. Not gourmet, but excellent nevertheless.”
“You guys ever eat at a place called the Good Stuff Diner?” Joshy asked.
“They’re so desperate, they have to tell you it’s good in the name?” Dave asked.
Shaking his head, Joshy replied, “In this case, the name’s accurate, although I’d probably call it the great stuff. It’s located on Fourteenth Street, just west of Sixth Avenue. The F Train stops right in front of it.”
Laughing, I asked, “You mean the subway comes above ground and stops right in front of the door?”
“Jerk,” my brother replied. “There’s a subway entrance literally right in front of the door. The B, D, F, L and M Trains all stop there. Path Trains from New Jersey too. The 14A bus stops right in front of it as well. Seriously though, the food’s excellent and it’s an easy bus ride away. Maybe we can double-date there sometime,” he added.
“Is that a request for a second date with me?” Dave asked.
“Maybe a second, third and fourth,” he replied with a blush.
It was really cute, but I couldn’t let it go without teasing him. “That’s ’cause no one else will date you, and since Dave’s my best friend, he feels sorry for you.”
“And you’re not interested in a second date with Larry?” Joshy asked.
Now it was my turn to blush. “And a third and a fourth,” I agreed.
“I hear you guys have big plans for the summer,” Dave interjected.
“You mean our plans to renovate the apartment?” I asked. “We’re actually doing some preliminary work this week, installing built-in bookcases in the living room.”
“I can’t imagine the work involved with that,” Dave said. “Breaking down walls, electrical wiring, plumbing and drywall… Man I can’t imagine doing even one of those things.”
“Well if you want to learn how, we can always use another set of hands,” Joshy replied.
“Are you serious?” Dave asked.
“Very,” I responded. “Do you have any experience using tools?”
“Other than using a screwdriver to drive screws into the wall for hanging pictures, none,” Dave answered.
“Um, are you sure you used screws for that?” Joshy asked. “I mean usually you have to drill a hole first to use a screw.”
“A screwdriver is the thing you use to hit the screw with, right?” Dave responded as he used his arm to demonstrate a hammering motion. Oh shit, he might be more trouble than he was worth.
“Are you sure you don’t mean a hammer?” Larry asked. “You use a hammer to hammer in a nail into the wall.”
“A screw has a helical tread and you use a screwdriver to turn the screw.” Joshy added. “You need to drill a hole first so the tread has something to dig into.”
“Oh, you may be right,” Dave replied. “I guess I have a lot to learn.”
“Now if you help, there’s a rule that you have to work naked,” Joshy added with a straight face.
“Are you serious?” Dave asked in surprise.
I nodded my head as I tried to keep a stern face, but I finally lost it and burst out laughing.
“My sisters might like it if you work naked, but I’d prefer you save the getting naked for the nights,” Joshy added.
“Ooh,” Dave responded.
“Seriously,” I explained, “Most of the time we hafta keep the windows open and the air conditioning off for proper ventilation. It gets hot, so we usually wear skimpy shorts. You’ll probably want to do the same if you decide to help out.”
“Even the girls only wear skimpy shorts?” Larry asked in surprise. “Can I volunteer too?”
“You’re welcome to help out, Larry,” Joshy responded, “but my sisters also wear tank tops.”
“Oh, for a chance to see Robin, practically naked every day, I’ll definitely want to help out,” Larry responded.
“Ditto when it comes to Josh,” Dave chimed in.
“Perve,” came Joshy’s response.
Finishing up the last of his pizza, Dave asked my brother, “Are you ready to see the museum?”
“I’m not sure what we’ll do with ten hours to kill, but I’m more than ready,” Joshy replied.
“Trust me, Josh,” Dave responded as he got up from the table, “by the time we stop to meet my mom and uncles, you’ll be wondering where the day went and begging me to bring you back,”
“I’ll believe that when I see it,” Joshy countered as we all stood up.
“He’s right, Joshy,” I chimed in.
“Could you please call me Josh, Robbie,” he asked
“Robbie?” Larry asked with a bemused expression.
“Point well taken, Josh,” I responded.
Disposing of the remains of our brunch, we headed back upstairs and then Larry and I went off on our own as Josh and Dave did the same.
The time I spent with Larry seeing the Met was the best day of my life. Although our tastes differed on a lot of things, we both enjoyed hearing each other’s perspectives on art as we toured our old favorite exhibits as well as the new ones we’d not yet seen before. We both agreed that the new British Galleries were outstanding, and way better than what they’d had before. We also learned a lot about each other – things we’d not known from our casual conversations at school. I was falling for him and increasingly realized I wanted him as more than a friend.
But then it dawned on me that I didn’t even know where he lived! I got the impression he lived in Manhattan, but that could include everything from a tiny flat in a housing project to a penthouse apartment. Finally, I just asked, “Larry, I just realized I have no idea where you live.”
Laughing, he answered me, “I guess we never did discuss it, and I don’t like to bring it up because most kids, and adults for that matter, have preconceived notions about people who live where I do and I don’t like being treated differently from the other kids. I just hope you don’t freak out when you meet my parents.”
At first I thought he might live in a horrible neighborhood or have parents who were in prison, but then I thought about where I lived, in a moderate income co-op surrounded by low-income housing projects and I realized he must mean just the opposite. Swallowing, I responded with, “I told you about my good friend Freck and about who his parents are, so I seriously doubt you can beat that.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Larry replied.
“Where do you live?” I asked.
Sighing, he said, “I’d have rather waited until you’d gotten to know me better, but then since you’re good friends with Freck, who not only has famous parents but is a super genius, perhaps you’re one of the few kids to whom wealth and fame aren’t important.”
Laughing, I replied, “Unless you’re related to the president, whom my father adores but I can’t stand, by the way, I could care less who your parents are. You could be Ed Koch’s grandson for all I care. What matters is the kind of guy you are, and that is something about which I think I have a good idea.”
“Koch never married and was almost certainly gay,” Larry responded, “but you’re not far off the mark. I live in a brownstone on the Upper West Side. My parents are pretty well known in the music world and in New York’s social circles. My parents spend a lot of time with New York’s super-elite, but they aren’t like that at all, however it comes with the territory, especially when a good part of their jobs involves fundraising. Both my parents spend a lot of time teaching at Juilliard, but they can only teach as time permits. Unfortunately, they’re often on tour, sometimes at the same time.”
Thinking about well-known musician couples, at first I drew a blank until I broadened my thoughts beyond my usual interest in classic rock. Then instinctively I knew. Rather than make a fool of myself, I approached it obliquely by saying, “Freck would love to meet them, especially your mom I think. He loves classical music, but absolutely adores opera. His real parents have season tickets to the Met, but he’s the one who uses them. Your father, if I’m right, has conducted some of the best symphony orchestras in the world, including the New York Symphony.”
Getting a broad grin on his face, Larry said, “I’m impressed you figured it out so quickly. Could it be that you’re a classical music fan?”
“I mostly like to listen to classic to rock from the likes of The Beatles and The Who, but I do like classical music too. I just don’t have as much experience with classical music and have a lot to learn.”
If anything his grin grew broader as he said, “Damn, does it get any better? My parents tried to interest me in the piano. I think they hoped I’d round out the family as a concert pianist, but I’m much more interested in playing the guitar and in music from the likes of The Beatles and The Who.” If there was a moment I could point to when I fell head over heels for Larry Sanders, that was it. We spent the remainder of the day talking about music. It was evident that we both were very knowledgeable and had very strong opinions that didn’t always jibe, but our shared love and passion for the greatest music ever written was extraordinary.
At one point I realized we were holding hands and smiling, I suggested, “It almost feels like you’re asking me to be your girlfriend, or something.”
“There’s no ‘almost’ about it,” Larry replied, and then he pressed his lips to mine. I’d never kissed anyone on the lips before, much less a boy, and what I think he’d intended to be a quick peck on the lips nearly became a full-fledged make out session. The kiss might well have gone on forever, but then we both realized where we were. How embarrassing!
I slowly became aware of being in bed, but there was no mistaking it for my bed. My bed was the upper bunk of a bunkbed and I was always aware of the presence of a wall on one side and a drop-off on the other. Even if I wasn’t up against the wall or hanging over the edge, I knew where I was from the feel of the way the sheets were unyielding when I turned and probably from the reflected sounds off the wall. But now, I was nowhere near a wall and the sheets seemed to go on forever. And even with my eyes closed, I could tell that the room I was in was suffused with light.
Slowly I opened my eyes to see that I was in a large bedroom with elegant draperies on a pair of windows and antique furniture that was definitely not the hand-built furniture my dad had made for the bedroom my sisters and I shared. In fact, my sisters weren’t even in the room, and I was in the biggest bed I’d ever seen. It was at least a king-size four-poster bed. As I sat up in bed, I noticed I was wearing an oversize t-shirt I didn’t recognize and the only other thing I was wearing was my panties. I still had no idea where I was or how I got there.
Gradually, I began to remember spending the day with Larry at the Met. Just as the museum was about to close, we rejoined my brother and Dave, as well as Dave’s mom and uncles, in the fourth-floor patrons lounge. We then enjoyed an elegant meal in the members’ dining room, at a table next to a wall of glass overlooking Central Park. Even at night, the park was beautiful.
It was very late by the time we finished our dinner and although we sometimes took public transportation at such a late hour, Dave’s uncles insisted on hiring a car to take us home. However, there was no way nine of us could fit into a single car and besides which, Dave lived just on the other side of the park. When he suggested that Joshy, Dave and I spend the night in the guest rooms of his house, and that we then spend the next day together, we eagerly agreed. Of course I ended up texting my father and he insisted on talking to Larry’s parents, but before long we were on our way across 79th Street.
Just as I swung my feet over the edge of the bed, there was a soft knock on the door and then I heard a woman’s voice asking, “May I come in?”
“Sure,” I answered, and Larry’s mother entered the room and closed the door behind her.
“How do you feel, sweetheart,” she asked.
“Well, other than a mild headache and being a little sick to the stomach, I feel okay,” I answered. “I don’t remember much about last night though. Did I get sick or something?”
“You and Larry both had an entrée that contained a fair bit of alcohol. The alcohol is supposed to boil off, but not when it’s ordered rare. The server should have warned you. However, you look pretty well for someone so young and small who isn’t used to alcohol. Poor Larry didn’t do nearly as well. He spent much of the night in the bathroom.
The sound of a piano began to drift into the room and I went to open the door and listen to the notes as they filtered their way up the stairs. I immediately recognized the song as Because by The Beatles, one of the lesser-known songs from their Abbey Road album. Actually, it was one of their most beautiful songs ever and the rendition being played on the piano was one I’d never heard before. It was exceptional.
I made my way downstairs in spite of the way I was feeling and was barely aware of the way I knew I must have looked. My bladder felt like it would burst, but it could wait. I was drawn like a moth to the music, barefoot and clad only in an oversize t-shirt and my panties.
I walked down two flights of stairs before I reached the living room and found the source of the sound – a grand piano, and a full-size one at that. I almost couldn’t see who was playing it, but then I spotted Larry’s face as he intently played the music. It was so beautiful. When the last note played and faded away, I clapped for him as I walked around the piano to find Larry sitting on the piano bench, clad only in his boxers. When he saw me, he blushed, turning red not only in his face, but all over.
“I’m sorry, Robin,” he began, “I completely forgot you’re here.
“Speaking of which, how do you feel?” he asked. “I hope you haven’t been as sick as me.”
“I have a little bit of a headache and some mild nausea, but it isn’t that bad,” I replied. “I had a great time last night, if only I could remember it,” I added with a laugh. “But Larry, you played that so beautifully. Was that your own rendition?”
“Yeah it was,” he replied. “It sounds even better on guitar, but I can’t play the guitar worth shit when I feel like this. Sitting at the piano, on the other hand, makes me feel better and the music soothes me. Sitting here with my hands on the keys, the room doesn’t seem to spin as much.” Then Larry started to play the piano once again and I immediately recognized it was The Beatles’ Penny Lane. I couldn’t help myself as I broke into song. Larry joined me in singing the chorus. When the last note had faded away, Larry commented, “It’s too bad Penny Lane was never released on an album.”
“It’s on the deluxe version of the 2018 remastered release of Sargent Pepper,” I pointed out.
“Fifty years later,” Larry countered. “Originally it was released on a double-A-side 45 along with Strawberry Fields in what would be an EP release today. What really blew was the way Strawberry Fields was cut from Sargent Pepper in the first place. That song was critical to the album and without it, the story The Beatles were telling didn’t make sense.”
After a pause, I asked, “Play something else. Something a bit more contemporary.”
“Okay,” Larry said before hitting the keys once more as he played the Overture to Tommy, by The Who, followed by Every Breath You Take by the Police, to which he sang along. His singing was wonderful.
I think we were both startled when Larry’s mother suggested, “Why don’t you play something more serious?” I didn’t even realize she was there.
“Okay, why not?” Larry agreed, and then launched into a tune that I didn’t recognize at first. It definitely sounded like Claude Debussy, but no sooner did I make the connection than I recognized as Arabesques. He played it beautifully.
“You could play professionally,” I commented. “That was wonderful.”
“Yes it was,” his mother agreed, “and he could if he only took the time to practice, but my son would rather find a cure for diabetes than be an entertainer, and that’s what’s important.
“Now, I understand you have plans for the day and it’s already getting late. Why don’t you two get washed up, and then we’ll have a light lunch, alright?”
“That sounds great, Mom,” Larry replied. “I’ll show Robin where everything is.”
“Don’t forget to wake up the boys while you’re at it,” Larry’s mom added. As my brother and my best friend had shared a bed, I feared they hadn’t gotten much sleep last night. As far as I knew, Dave was a virgin, but Joshy had been sexually active for some time.
Grabbing my hand, Larry led me back up the two flights of stairs and showed me where the bathroom was for me to use and he started to show me the controls for the multiple showerheads, but I interrupted him and said, “Larry, my bladder’s beyond full. If I don’t use the toilet right now, I’ll explode!”
“Now we wouldn’t want that,” he responded. “Blood stains are extremely hard to get rid of.”
Chuckling, I said, “Larry, it’s not funny!”
“Okay, I’m sorry,” he replied. “I’ve been told I have a warped sense of humor.” He exited the bathroom and closed the door behind him.
I quickly dropped my panties and let loose into the toilet. Oh, that was a relief. As I was washing my hands, there was a knock on the door, and then there was the unmistakable sound of Larry’s mother’s voice as she asked, “Is everything alright dear? Is there anything you need?”
“I’m fine,” I replied, and then I quickly surveyed the bathroom and saw that there was already soap and shampoo in the shower, and there were clean towels stacked on a shelf, so I took one. I looked at the shower controls and saw that it was not all that difficult to figure out. There was a hamper in the corner with a few items of clothing in it, so I pulled off the oversize t-shirt I’d slept in and dropped it into the hamper, leaving me in only my panties, which I hung on the back of the doorknob. I was just about to step into the shower when there was another knock on the door. I assumed it was Larry’s mom and so I called out, “Come in,” but it was Larry who entered.
At first he was looking the other way and so he didn’t see me, but when he turned my way, he froze in place. His eyes got big as saucers and he stared at me as he turned a deep shade of red. For a moment it looked like he might actually pass out and so I ran to him and put my hand on his shoulder. I’d grown up in a household with three siblings, one of them a boy, and I’d never known modesty. Larry, on the other hand, was an only child and had probably never seen a naked girl before, at least not in the flesh.
“Larry, are you all right?” I asked. When he failed to respond, I shouted a bit louder, “Larry!” Finally, he looked into my face, but then his eyes got even bigger and his attempt at speaking was only a stammer.
“Larry, it’s all right,” I told him. “Really, it is. Your coming in here was an accident. When you knocked, I thought it was your mother at the door, so that’s my fault. It was kind of stupid of me, actually.”
When he still remained silent, I continued, “For what it’s worth, I grew up with two older sisters, who share my bedroom, and a brother, and we’ve all seen each other naked. There’s no modesty when you have four siblings and their dad in a tiny three-bedroom apartment. Just the other day I caught a glimpse of Josh walking across the hall to the bathroom in only his boxers, but his boner was sticking out of the fly. I don’t think he was even aware of it, but I couldn’t help but giggle and he responded by flipping the bird at me without ever looking my way. I’ve seen his boner and he’s seen my boobs, lots of times and it’s no big deal.
Finally, he said, “But I knocked.”
“Yes, you did,” I acknowledged.
“And you said to come in!”
“I sure did,” I agreed.
“I only needed to get my hairbrush,” he explained. “I’m so embarrassed,” he added.
“There’s no need to be,” I replied.
“You’re beautiful,” he said, and then he became self-conscious and looked down. I followed his eyes and he was rock hard.
Then suddenly I knew just what to do. I reached forward and slipped my finger under the elastic of his boxers and pulled them forward and then pulled them down. I couldn’t deny that it was exciting to see his excitement, but that wasn’t the point. “Now we’re even, and we both know what we have to look forward to when we’re ready for it,” I exclaimed. “Now go jerk off or something and get in the shower. We need to get going before your mother comes up to see what’s going on.” That got him moving!
I proceeded to shower, then applied the deodorant Larry’s mom had apparently left for me, brushed my teeth and brushed and dried my hair. I wrapped the towel around me and returned to my room, where I dressed in the clothes I’d worn the day before. I met up with Larry in the hall outside my room and he again apologized profusely for barging in on me, even though I kept reiterating that it wasn’t his fault.
We headed downstairs and Larry guided me to the kitchen, where Dave and Josh where already being served lunch by an older African American woman. It was a simple meal but very tasty. During lunch, we had a friendly conversation with Larry’s mom. I found her to be unassuming and approachable, and not at all what I would have expected of a world-famous soprano. Clearly, she considered being a mother an equal priority to her career, but poor Larry was perpetually embarrassed by some of the things she said about him and the anecdotes she related to us. Although she tried not to pry, she did ask quite a few questions and was impressed, both with my family and with me.
“So what’s on the agenda for today?” I asked Larry as we all headed out the front door and down the front steps.
“Do you like Alanis Morrissette?” he asked, and I smiled broadly.
“Who’s Alanis Morrissette?” My brother asked.
“You did not just ask that,” I replied.
“You got tickets for Jagged Little Pill?” Dave asked.
“For the matinee,” Larry confirmed.
I grabbed Larry’s hand and Josh grabbed Dave’s, and we headed together down Central Park West.
Disclaimer: This story is a fictional account involving gay preteen and teenage boys. There are references to gay sex and anyone who is uncomfortable with this should obviously not be reading it. The reader takes all responsibility for the legality of reading this type of story where they live. All characters are fictional and any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental. The author retains full copyright.