Tag Archives: growing pains

Growing Up George: Ch. 6 The Spanish Lesson

Classes started a couple weeks after the funeral and as I held my schedule in front of me, my eyes casually scanned the hallway for Cindy. I had auto shop first period and AP English next, followed by Journalism, so I probably wasn’t going to see her til way later in the day. I had gone with a new look that year, keeping my hair shorter in the back and combing the front forward. Shaving less often. Those were the only new things I had going for me. Same ol’ black backpack and Skechers I’d had since freshman year.

Auto shop was far from all my other classes, which was too bad because I’d really have liked time to wash up before I went back into the hallways. Since it was my third year taking the class, I was teacher’s aide, which meant I’d be walking around with elbow grease. But the way things went that first day was that I had to run to AP English, and wound up in the back, which would make it harder for the teacher to notice me. It was hard enough getting any positive feedback being brown in a room full of blondies.

I sat down as the bell rung and made myself at home while the teacher, Mr. MacArthur, passed role. He asked us to stand up and introduce ourselves, a pointless task indeed since we’d all pretty much known each other since grade school. “Say something new no one knows about you,” he replied to the groaning. I was glad I was last cause I’d have plenty of time to think about it.

Ten minutes later, I was coming up and still had nothing. Just then the door opened and a Latina girl whom I’d met after the funeral came in. She was my “uncle” Manolo’s daughter. They’d arrived to eat at Estefano’s just as my uncle Jorge and I had been leaving. I was trying to remember her name… Nestle? Messly? Leslie?

“My name is Meztli Carbajal. I was assigned to the wrong English class and had to fix my schedule just now at the office. Here’s my note.”

Mr. MacArthur pretended to look through stacks of papers on his desk. “Well, Messly, you’re not on my list. You’d have to have tested into this class.”

“I know I’m not on your list, that’s why I brought the note.” She held out her hand with the note facing the room so we could all see it was legit.

The teacher stood up and towered over her. He took the note, pulled up his glasses, and held it really close to his face, as if inspecting the ink quality used to write it.

“Alright, Miss Carbajal, I’ll pencil you into my list.”

“I’m not trying this class out. I’ll be here all year.”

“Yes, of course. Welcome. Class, why don’t we all welcome Miss Carbajal with a round of applause?” Some kids applauded awkwardly. “You see, Miss Carbajal, you can relax, you’re one of us now.”

“Yeah, I’m sure I’m blending right in.” And she marched toward the last open seat, beside me. I turned to look at her half way between utter amazement at the way she’d stood up for herself and also trying not to laugh.

As the role call/ introductions started up again, I passed her a note. “DANG GIRL. Can you be my bodyguard?”

She crumpled it and shoved it in her backpack, only to take it back out three seconds later, un-crumple it and write in purple ink: “What’d I miss?”

I replied in Spanish, mostly cause I wanted to test her bilingual skills: “Se estan presentando la bola de boludos.” The morons are presenting themselves.

She handed the note back to me with the letter “a” in the second word circled in red and an accent over it. Nice.

“George Lara,” the teacher seemed to holler.

Oh! I was up. Uhm. Still had nothing new. “Present! Uhm, my uncle died like last week.” That should merit some empathy.

“Nice to meet you Mr. Lara,” replied Mr. MacArthur.

“Please, call me George.” The class giggled. I wasn’t usually comfortable being the center of attention or anything, but I felt emboldened by Meztli’s presence.

“Take a seat, George. …Messly Carbajal? We already know you’re here. Tell us something about yourself other than you tend to run late.”

“I just moved here from San Jose and my uncle also just passed away.”

“Are you two cousins?”

Meztli and I looked at each other. It was weird, like I’d known her my whole life but definitely not in a cousin sort of way. We replied simultaneously. I said, “No,” while she said “Yes.”

“Well which is it? No or yes?”

I slowly nodded while Meztli shook her head.

“Well George and Messly, you have plenty of time to make up your minds. But not on our time.”

So I guess I got my English teacher to notice me after all.

After class, it turned out Meztli had Journalism too, so we walked down the hall together. I stopped at my locker, and it so happened that hers was near mine.

“Hey, I wanna ask you something,” she said.

“So ask it.”

“I wasn’t asking for your permission to ask the question.”

“Just ask already.”

“No. Now I’m not going to because you’re telling me to.”

“Loca.” Crazy girl.

Just then, someone standing behind my locker door knocked on it. It was Cindy, wearing a jean skirt and a bright pink strappy camisole with a white transparent cardigan over it.

“Hi!” she said, standing over her tip toes to peer over my locker door. Suddenly, I was embarrassed I still had elbow grease from homeroom.

“Hey Cindy. This is my cousin, Meztli.”

“Nice to meet you.”

Meztli replied, “Oh, so now I’m your cousin.”

I gave her the meanest look I could afford. She strapped her messenger bag over her shoulder and yelled, “Nice to meet you too!” as she skipped off.

Cindy went on talking about her schedule and soccer practice but to be honest I didn’t hear half the stuff she was saying. As I walked her to her class, my legs felt heavier and heavier and were somehow muffling her voice.

 

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Growing Up George: Ch. 5 The Kid’s Menu

After the funeral, my uncle Jorge, whom apparently I had been named after, invited me to dinner at Estafano’s, the same spaghetti joint we’d gone to when I was a kid. I followed his Porsche into the city, texting Aunt Matty to meet us there. But I already knew she didn’t have data on her phone.

The waitress sat us in the patio and handed me a kid’s menu along with the regular one. My uncle asked if I’d gotten into the team. I had. He asked if I had a girlfriend. I hadn’t. What my plans were for college. The waitress brought over my scallop appetizers and I ordered tilapia. But suddenly I didn’t feel like eating.

“I’m just concentrating on the day-to-day stuff I got going on, you know. Not falling behind. Staying off drugs, outta gangs, that sort of thing. Takes up a lot of energy.”

“I’m not pressuring you, but I know kids just like you who’ve graduated from that same school who are making over two hundred ‘k’ per year. You just gotta get into the right schools. The right mentality.”

You mean the mentality where you ignore your nephew for years at a time and then try to make up for it with one meal? No birthdays, no Christmas, no nothing. Just be this figure on paper who shows up when his schedule allows him.

“Nah, I pass.”

“George, I’ve looked at your grades. You don’t have to settle. With the right connection, you can get into Princeton or Yale.”

I shook my head violently. “What do you think I wanna be? Some hot shot lawyer?”

My uncle bowed his head down but I didn’t pause. “Since I was twelve I’ve been fixing Tía Matty’s car. In fact I already have a job. That’s my future you’re asking me about. The stars already lined up for me. And you know what, I’m glad you weren’t around to help all these years, cause if you were, I might’ve never learned to do even that. I might be helpless relying on some letter of recommendation from some rich condescending sponsor I’ve only met once or twice. Not unlike yourself.”

I regretted the words darting out of my mouth but not in time to stop myself.

The waitress made her usual round. “Can I get you anything?”

“I WANT MORE LEMONADE!” I slammed my glass on the table not letting my eyes stray from my uncle’s.

He laughed. “I’m sorry, Miss. My nephew’s very passionate about lemonade.”

I turned to look at the waitress, all the blood rushing to my face.

“Oh man. I’m so- I’m so-” I hadn’t stuttered in ages.

“I’ll be right back.” The waitress turned around and left.

“Sorry!” The words finally made it out of my mouth. I stood there looking up at the sky, for what felt like forever, clenching my fists, wondering why the hell God didn’t just put me out of my misery.

Yes, I had made varsity. But now I wasn’t going to have time to work at the shop. I was never going to afford my own car, much less fucking college. My life would start eventually when I’d get a girl- Cindy- pregnant and her parents would force her to marry me. Then I’d be working 12 or 16 hour days, come home, yell at her “where’s my dinner,” have a couple beers and be too tired to have sex. She’d yell at me for never helping with the kids- we’d have five or six by then- and I’d turn the volume up on the soccer game on T.V. Pure bliss.

I sat back down and put my head into my arms. “At least I’ll be there. They’ll see me and know what I look like. They’ll ask me stupid questions like how come birds fly and what happens to light after you turn the switch off. I’ll make up the best answers any dad’s ever come up with. I’ll be a good dad. And when they go off to college I’ll take my wife to Europe and all that shit. And no stranger’s gonna come patronize them, cause they’ll be my kids, not yours or welfare’s or no one else’s.”

My uncle put his arm on my shoulder and didn’t say anything. I just sat there, head down, overcome by something utterly silent and much more powerful than me, not unlike tears.

Growing Up George: Ch. 4 The Funeral

“So, you’re seriously not going to the funeral?” I asked my aunt as she tried for the third time to fix the tie around my neck.

“I told you. I haven’t decided yet.”

“Well it’s in half an hour. So now might be a good time to decide.” She pulled the knot really tight around my neck, turned around and walked out the room. Grandma rushed to my rescue. She pulled the whole thing off and then walked me through the steps one by one.

“Así, ira, así…” Like this, look, like this. I looked in the mirror and she complemented my looks. “Ira no más que guapo.” Then she pulled the whole tie off again and made me do it myself.

The funeral I was going to was that of Tío Ben’s, my dad’s brother. I don’t remember ever meeting the guy. Supposedly I did for a few months when I was a baby. What happened after that, I’m sketchy on the details. I guess no one wanted to see me after my parents died.

“Tía Matty, I’m gonna get a ride from Tío Jorge so if you wanna show up later you can take the car.”

She yelled back from the kitchen. “Oh really? I can use my own car? That’s so nice of you George. Thank you for letting me use my own car.”

“Dude, that’s not what I meant.” A rubber chancla flew by my head.

“Pendejo, no voy a ir.” Dumbass, I’m not going. “And I’ve told you a thousand times not to call me dude.”

“Well I don’t like being called ‘pendejo.'”

“Did I ask you what you like?”

I rolled my eyes and ducked. I knew she swatted at me every time I rolled my eyes at her. “I’m just gonna wait for Tío Jorge outside.”

“Go do that.”

I waited by the curb so the Navigator wouldn’t push a cloud of dust all over me coming down the dirt driveway. I must have been standing there like fifteen minutes. Should I text him? Should I call because he’s probably driving? But then I’d have to talk to him and I didn’t know what to say. I looked at my phone. Ten minutes til. Zero messages. What’s the point of even going or trying to get to know my other side of the family if I was obviously not that important to them? I texted, “Hey, you coming for me?” but was deliberating on whether or not to hit send when my aunt’s station wagon covered me in a cloud of dust speeding down the driveway.

“Hey, I just came out here to tell you your uncle’s running late.”

“You couldn’t walk or call me?”

“I brought you the car menso.”

“I don’t even know if I wanna go anymore.”

“Listen, George,” she said getting out of the car, “I know there’s a lot of things I haven’t been able to explain to you over the years, a lot of gaps in your life I haven’t been able to fill. You didn’t have the childhood you were supposed to have and there’s been a lot of important people missing. But I did not pay for that suit rental just to have you skip out on that funeral.” She shoved me into the driver’s seat and slammed the door.

The church was on the classier side of the barrio. There was a police car there. A black Porsche. A green El Camino and a pick-up truck with a landscaping logo on it. I guess turn out wasn’t amazing. I wondered if my uncle Jorge was showing up or not. Maybe he hadn’t found the right suit to rent. Yeah, right.

But he was already in there, waiting for me. He fixed my tie and walked down to the front with me, saying “Sorry I didn’t pick you up. I had to stop by my client’s- it was an emergency-”

“Ah don’t sweat it, I’m here ain’t I?”

“These are your other uncles, Freddy and Manolo. Their wives and daughters.”

“Mucho gusto.” Pleased to meet you.

“How are we related?” I whispered in uncle Jorge’s ear.

“My grandmother had a son from her first marriage, your Tío Juan Miguel, who married a woman who was already the mother of Freddy at the time, and Manolo is his first cousin.”

“Sorry I asked.”

“Yeah, me too.”

There was another man I was not introduced to who wouldn’t stop staring at me. There was a cop sitting next to him. “Who’s that?” I whispered.

“The cop?”

“No, the other guy.”

“That’s your uncle Pablo.”

“Distant or blood related?”

“He’s my brother.”

There was an open casket and I went to pay my respects before the mass started. The guy was about fifty, though the pamphlet on the podium next to the casket placed him at thirty-seven. He had large eyes, I could tell, though they were closed. A skinny face and broad shoulders, kinda short, but a medium build. Black hair with silver streaks and a scar down the left side of his forehead. They had dressed him in a black shirt, ivory suit and gold tie. The dress shoes looked brand new. He emanated anger. At least that’s what it felt like to me. So much for rest in peace.

The pamphlet talked about how he’d graduated from Potato Falls High (that was my school), been engaged and had a son. Outlived by a son and two brothers. He was “friendly and charismatic, left a lasting impression on all who met him.” Well he hadn’t left one on me, that’s for sure. Lifetime: 1975-2012.

I looked around the people in the church. Some neighbors had trickled in and were kneeling, toward the back rows. Probably just religious folk who came there every day to pray for those of us who don’t. No kids though. Apparently, my uncle Ben didn’t leave a lasting impression on his son, either.

Growing Up George: Ch. 2 Cilantro Seeds

You ever get the feeling you’re capable of more than people give you credit for? It’s like I always surprised people that I could read and write.

And then there’s the opposite. People giving me too much credit because they expected a lot outta me. They expected me- little George from the Barrio- to grow up and become Cesar Chavez and then president and come back, repave the alleys and build a bridge to paradise. And I couldn’t even figure out who my dad was. Much less, college scholarships.

Not that I was even trying. Not for the scholarships, anyways.

My auto shop teacher knew a guy and I was going to start working there twelve, maybe sixteen hours per week. Help my aunt with the bills. Get a decent phone. Maybe buy my own ride. Eventually get a girlfriend. Girls didn’t want to ride bikes by that age. It’s like they grew up too fast and that killed part of the magic. But you couldn’t date a freshman cause then you knew eventually you’d break up cause you’d be 18 and she’d be like 15 or 16.

But if you had a nice ride, then you couldn’t lose. You’d get a girl your own age and if you really liked her you could get really down with her in the car. But then if it didn’t work out, eventually she’d go to college or move closer to the city and you wouldn’t even have to break her heart. That’s what the guys on the varsity team said.

I was going to try out for varsity soccer that year but I wanted the job more than the extracurricular credits.

I guess what I wanted was the girls. Or maybe just one girl.

Cindy Nuñez had moved to the other side of the neighborhood along with her seven brothers and sisters back when we had started middle school. She didn’t speak English back then but she didn’t have to say much to get to know her. It didn’t take her long to fit in or become popular because she was so sweet. Her straight long brown hair just barely covered her bare waistline when she’d wave at you and then turn around hurrying off somewhere. I had been studying her summer schedule and figured out she always went grocery shopping with her oldest sister on Wednesday mornings.

So the following Wednesday, I asked my aunt Matty if she needed anything from the store.

“I just went Monday.”

I was afraid she’d say something like that so I had drank half the milk and orange juice the night before, and poured the other half down the drain.

“Yeah but we’re outta milk.” I opened the fridge. “Looks like we’re outta o.j. too.”

“Already? Jeez Louise, are you training to become a wrestler? You’re already tall enough. Stop drinking so much milk.”

I was really only like four inches taller than Aunt Matty, which wasn’t saying much.

“I was thirsty.”

“Alright alright, that’s not how I meant it. Here, get me cilantro seeds.” Aunt Matty handed me a ten dollar bill.

“That’s alright, Tía. This one’s on me.” I had been weeding out my neighbor’s yard and had about twenty dollars on me. I reached for the car keys by the door.

“What are you gonna take the car for? It’ll fit fine on your bike.”

I clenched my mouth and looked up at the ceiling with my eyes closed. Took a deep sigh.

“I did some work on your car last night and want to see if it’s running good,” and I shot out the door.

“Mentiroso!” she yelled behind me, liar, and I heard one of her rubber chanclas that she wore hit the door, but I was already backing out of the driveway in a cloud of dirt.

I scanned the grocery store parking lot and saw Cindy’s sister’s Corolla there under a magnolia tree. Checked myself in the mirror. My hair was too long and bushy, beyond the help of gel. I slapped on my Pirate’s cap and glided inside. I had to extend my two minute trip inside to be long enough to bump into her.

Luckily, she was in line at the register reading tabloid headlines when I walked in. Everything else seemed to fade in her presence. Sounds became faint and echoed, like when you’re under water. She was wearing her hair in a bun and had a strappy red camisole on. If I said her name, she’d turn around and smile, and I’d have enough to live on for another week. But then she might expect me to say something back to her, and I wasn’t prepared for that.

She must have felt someone staring at her because she looked up and our eyes met. I felt the soles of my shoes melting into the floor. She waved.

“Hey George. Are you trying our for varsity this year? I just got an email saying the girls’ tryouts are tomorrow and Friday.”

“Uh. Yeah. Of course.”

Because, duh, the girls’ soccer players always went to the guys’ games and vice versa and Cindy had played defense the year before. How could I have forgotten that minor detail?

“Good luck!” she went on, “Hopefully I’ll see you around then.”

“Looking forward to it.” Well, that was stupid. What a loser thing to say. ‘Looking forward to it.’ The words resounded in my head for like the next forty-eight hours. Cindy had just giggled and held up a magazine that said someone important had broken up with someone less important. I shrugged and went on my way.

‘Looking forward to it.’ Man was that stupid.