I never went to 3rd grade.
When I tell people, their first assumption is that I had Leukemia or something. The conversation goes roughly like this:
“Oh, were you sick?”
“No, I just sat out for the year.”
“Did you have to make it up?”
“No, I went to 4th grade the following year. My parents were in the military and we moved to Spain just as I was starting 3rd.”
“So what did you do for the rest of the year?”
When you’re nine and you move to a new country the first things you notice are the similarities. “They have streets here too! And cars! And people!” The nine year old mind finds comfort in things it recognizes as normal. After you establish that this place isn’t so different from the place you just left, you begin to notice everything that’s different. Some differences are exciting: “Wow, people stay out really late here!” and “Hey that kid is drinking wine!” Others, not so much.
In the 1980’s Spain was a different place than it is now. When I visit now, it’s not so different from Texas. They have McDonald’s, Taco Bell, KFC, and all the same stores we do, and everyone speaks Spanish. But when I was nine there were only two McDonald’s in the whole country and the closest one to us was in Madrid. When I found out the nearest Happy Meal was three hours away I started bawling. It was the 80’s and I was a child. McDonald’s was life.
In addition to losing the culinary masterpiece known as a four-piece chicken nugget Happy Meal, I also learned that all of my toys had been put into storage along with all of our furniture and other household goods for the entire 6 months we would be living in Spain.
“I don’t get to bring my bunk beds? What the crap!” I said to my mother.
“Don’t be such a baby and watch your mouth!” she replied. The prevailing attitude coming from my parents at the time was that this would be a “good experience” for me.
Then they notified me that our TV would also be in storage.
It’s a unique milestone to be a nine year old in America the first time you realize how totally fucked you are. I’d assumed that experience was reserved for children in Uganda… or Haiti.
Between my mother and stepfather, my mother was usually the more sympathetic of the two. But even she was getting tired of me bursting into tears over having to leave my G.I. Joe collection and my Transformers.
“You’ll get them back. Quit being so dramatic for Christ’s sake.” she’d say.
Me sobbing, “What are we supposed to do without TV? What about my Atari?”
“We’ll just have to stay busy. It’ll be fun.” she’d say confidently.
Sure I thought. Let’s see how well you do without your soaps.
My mother’s idea of “staying busy” involved sleeping a lot. She tried various things in the beginning. She worked for a few weeks in the Navy Exchange which is a retail store for families who live on the Naval base. Then she was something called an ombudsman for a while, but that didn’t work out either. Finally, she took to frequent napping.
This left me with an inordinate amount of time to myself. And it wasn’t all bad. Our first apartment was right on the beach. I didn’t even have to cross a street or anything. I could just walk out my front door, make a left, step down an ancient cobblestone stairwell and my feet were in the sand. In those early days, I spent hours wandering up and down the beach. I hunted for shells and sea glass–pieces of colored glass that had been worn down by the ocean until they were perfectly smooth oval shaped stones. I would collect these and pretend they were valuable gemstones. During the week I pretty much had the whole beach to myself if you didn’t count the bums who slept there. Having an entire beach to yourself is just as cool as it sounds until you realize that without anyone to share it with, it’s like playing by yourself in the desert.
Sure, it was lonely, but I made friends with some of the Spanish kids in the neighborhood. The problem was they were in school while I was at home all day long. I would count the minutes until Miguel and Vicente would arrive home everyday. In the meantime, I continued wandering the beach, searching for something to show my new friends when they got home. My life had totally transformed from what it had been only a month earlier.
The hours until my friends returned from school would grow longer with each passing day. I started to go a little stir crazy. When they did get home, I was so desperate for someone to play with that I became that suffocating little kid who knocks on your door the second you get home. They didn’t even have a chance to get their backpacks off before I was asking if they wanted to come out and play. It got to the point where they would have their older siblings come to the door and tell me to fuck off.
Just as I was beginning to contemplate methods of drowning myself in the ocean to escape the endless afternoons, I began a relationship with a 70 year old woman. It saved my life. Her name was Edla. She was a retired American school teacher who was both our next door neighbor and our landlord. She was also an alcoholic and a crazy person, but it took me a while to catch on because I was nine. Despite all of that, Edla and I had much in common. We both had lots of free time during the day, spent most of our time outside, and were both very lonely.
Edla spent most of her day sitting in a lawnchair just outside her front door. She was a permanent fixture of the apartment complex. All day long she sat outside sipping gin through a straw and browsing the Reader’s Digest. The only parts of her body exposed to the sun were her hands and feet. She wore huge Liz Taylor sunglasses to protect her face and a cloth diaper that she formed into some sort of hijab to cover her head. My curiosity in her Reader’s Digest is what led to her asking me to read to her.
Reader’s Digest, for those who don’t know, is a small magazine about the size of a TV Guide, that is sort of a “general interest” publication. It has stories about things that would generally interest housewives and other people who like to read and who have too much free time during the day. I fell into this category. It mostly interested me because of the jokes. It has two distinct joke sections from what I remember. The section titled “Laughter, the Best Medicine” focused on medical jokes or jokes about doctor visits. The other section was more general knock knock type stuff. None of the jokes could be considered edgy or complex, even by 1980’s standards. They were all written at about my age level for adults who are willing to accept nearly anything as entertainment.
My new daytime routine was to sit with Edla and read the joke sections to her out of the Reader’s Digest. She would bask in the warm salty breeze coming off the ocean and sip gin while I read out loud. Occasionally, we’d both giggle at one of the jokes. As we laughed, we’d both look up and make eye contact for a second. Then she would take a long sip of gin and I would go back to reading. Sometimes, I would giggle at a joke I’d just read, expecting her to giggle too, only to look up and find her gently snoring. But the moments we did make eye contact were crucial. We were so starved for human interaction that when we connected, even for a brief moment, our souls could take a breath.
She would tell me stories, most of them not true, about how the neighborhood kids were attempting to break into her apartment at night. If it was late enough in the day, she would use language that I wasn’t used to hearing from a woman of her age. She would call the neighborhood kids “little assholes” and I would cackle like someone tickled me. There was an old man who called on her from time to time. He may have been her boyfriend at some point. She had stories about him too. Not all of them were age appropriate. I liked her. The pair of us would sit for hours sometimes. We were the new fixture of the apartments. She in a drunken haze, and me with nowhere else to go.
After six months we received orders to stay an additional three years which made me eligible to attend school on the base. These days, parents act like their kids won’t go to college if they miss even a week of 3rd grade. They phone the principal to “ask permission” before taking their kids out of school a day early for spring break. Teachers are even worse than parents, with standardized testing hanging over their heads like the sword of Damocles, but I caught up in 4th grade without any issues. I did get my first D, but that was more due to undiagnosed ADHD than being behind in any subject. Back then my parents would put me in a room with 40 long-division homework problems and when they came back to check on me three hours later I would only have two problems completed. My stepfather would be furious, yelling “What have you been doing all this time?” I never had a good answer for that one.
We eventually moved away from Edla to an apartment that was closer to the base. I forgot about her for awhile until we moved back to our old apartment a year later. Edla had aged more and she didn’t spend as much time sitting outside. I was starting 5th grade now. My days were once again filled with school and friends. Friends who I wanted to think I was cool. One day, I was hanging out with some Spanish kids and another American boy who was a year older. Despite having a beach at our disposal we were all at a loss for what to do that day. It was my idea to knock on doors and run away. I think I wanted to impress the other American kid. My Spanish friends didn’t seem interested, but went along with it anyway.
Edla was of course our target. Her apartment was on the first floor so it was the most accessible, plus everyone knew her as the “crazy old lady.” Everyone except me. Not that I gave it much thought. We all waited, peeking around the corner to see if she would answer but she didn’t. Thirty minutes later we forgot about it and started playing street ball in front of the apartments. Edla finally came out of her home. Her body was hunched over and she moved very slowly, as though the effort to get from her couch to her front door had taken everything she had. She asked an exhausted voice, “Did you knock on my door Johnathan?” I just looked at her and silently shook my head no. It was the last time we ever made eye contact.