Homecoming

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Years back, when I was fourteen years old, there was a place where the rustic countryside surrounded us from all around. Living enclosed by the fences of the military base, we all wanted to go get away from feeling like hamsters stuck in an endless time loop. But in Naples, Italy, we always found a way to make that endless time loop well worth the time. 

One October afternoon my friend Ryan and I left our high school and went to my place. It wasn’t too far. It was right across the street. Usually after school, I had volleyball practice but today sports practices were cancelled. Taking the opportunity, we hung out for the first time in a while because we weren’t busy.  

We arrived at the apartment that my dad was assigned. Filled with an array of ceramic flowers and marble sculptures, he moved with caution as I walked like I usually did. I asked if he wanted a drink or anything to eat. My mom used to tell me it was only rude if you didn’t make your visitor feel at home. He politely declined. I still gave him a drink.

For a few minutes, we talked about how our days went. He told me he was glad to have a day off, because practices were intense. I listened, rubbing my chin most of the time. Then all of a sudden, a thought passed by me. 

It was the week of homecoming, where the stakes for sports games were higher than usual. It was a time to ask out the prettiest girl in our school and pretend we had a chance. It was more than just a dance in a gym. It was a special time where we were able to go to a villa out in the countryside and act like adults who hadn’t seen each other in years.

Then, I remembered the announcement that was made before the final bell after fourth period.

“Dude, you’re the homecoming prince!” I said. 

“Yeah about that . . .” he replied.

He asked if I had an extra suit to borrow. He needed it for the dance. After all, a prince couldn’t show up to the homecoming with just anything.  

First, I checked my sister’s room to see if there were any tuxedos in her closet. Strangely, this had become routine, because her room was the closest to the living room. For some reason, the only thing that I found were both homecoming and prom sashes that she won as Queen. She had left for college a couple of years earlier. 

Next, I checked my brother’s room. Inside of his closet were varsity letters, dossiers filled with awards, and jerseys from his high school years. I sifted my hands through the leftover clothes of his high school days and found two hangars at the very right side of the closet, each enclosed in a zipped up linen covering. They were two suits from his homecoming and prom dances. I pulled them from the closet, and closed the door behind me. He too had left for college earlier that summer.

I came back to the living room and held them both up. “Do you want the stripes or jet black suit?” I asked. He chose the pinstripes, a bold choice. After he chose, he went into the other room to try out the suit. He walked out with the whole suit on, white gym socks on his feet, and asked how it looked. I gave him a thumbs up.  

“Your date will love it!” I said.  

“Yeah, I’ll probably get a tie to match her dress.” he said.

We hung out for the rest of the afternoon, talking about how our practices had been going. We ate, we walked around outside, and we talked about girls in our school. Then, he asked if I was going with anyone. I shook my head. 

When it was time for him to take the bus back to his home in Gaeta, a bayside military base about an hour west from the military base I lived in. He carried the suit on his shoulders like a letterman jacket. I waved to him as he got onto the bus. It drove away into the brisk autumn night.

A few days later he came to our group of friends with a terrible revelation. It was apparent by his silence as he sat at our lunch table. Although his date decided she didn’t want to go with him to homecoming, I tried my best to console him. I rallied in to make him smile. “You got us!” I told him. My other friends, Donnie and Tynan, joined in with the sentiment and gave him the expected pat on the back. “Let’s just go have fun and forget about it.” 

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A day later, a volleyball teammate offered a ride to the villa on homecoming night. I accepted his invitation and rode there in the cramped up tan van. There was his girlfriend, another teammate and his date, and Donnie. From the sound of their voices, there was a great expectation in the night. On our way there, he asked why the shirt sleeves in my suit were exposed. I didn’t give him a reason then, but the answer was that the shirt was too big.

When we arrived at the villa, a valet led us towards the dancehall. The girls exited the vehicle first, then the men followed along, making sure their coattails were not wrinkled from sitting down too long. I stared at my shoes to see if they looked alright. They were my dad’s shoes and we wore the same size. The girls quickly found their friends and chattered with big smiles on their faces. The boys stood in a circle and acted like a bunch of cool guys. Boy, did we think we were cool. 

The night was filled with a lot of dancing, a lot of eating, and a lot of awkward pauses. There was a couple that navel gazed and talked near the bushes, exchanging heartfelt words. They stared into each other’s eyes the way that a child watched cartoons. Oh dear, I thought. 

I stagged, much like most dances in my teenaged years, and drank my cup of mineral water coolly in lonesome. I struck up a conversation with a person that I didn’t even know. The next time that he saw me, he didn’t say hi.  

Outside the venue, I took pictures with the volleyball team that I played for. We were fresh off of an undefeated season and were eying our ascent to the Mediterranean Championship. We shot the shit and joked around at how badly we were going to give it to all the other teams. Sooner or later, the breeze picked up. We carried ourselves back inside to watch the homecoming court dance. 

As a homecoming prince, Ryan danced with the homecoming princess of our grade. Everybody else loved her although I wondered why. She smiled and they both talked swaying to the song “One Wish” by Ray J. Knowing what Ryan had been through, I was able to tell that he didn’t want to dance with her. I looked over to a table next to ours and saw the girl that didn’t want to go to homecoming with him. She wore a red dress. He wore a black tie.

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Cicadas

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After the cicadas were done hissing, I went to go skate. On a Tuesday afternoon in the summer of 2013, the weather was humid as heck, and on average, I had to take a shower twice a day. After that day, I was on the road to a third. 

I took my board and headed over to one spot that was shaded from the sun. I practiced skateboarding there because it was a big open space where I wouldn’t hurt anyone. No sweat no harm I thought.

As usual, I was embarrassed to skate outside because I wasn’t very good. Every time I fell off my board, I was open to view by hundreds of high-rise windows. There’s nothing more frightening than stranger scrutinizing what you like to do, no matter how good or bad you are. This one time, I tried to skate down a hill, weaving in and out of it. To get a proper image, imagine the way a surfer carves a 20 foot wave. Except, I wiped out onto the grass like a little kid trying to copy. A couple of college kids nearby laughed at me for even trying. 

When I was outside, my skateboarded grated the cement underneath, making a sound that asked for attention. Noise was an intrusion in this quiet suburb. In the area of Seoul that I lived in, the suburbs were 5 high-rises standing in row.  

I headed towards the central high-rise where there was a large plaza. It was usually empty when the sun blazed in the afternoon. It also had a water fountain with water shows during the hotter months of the year. Gingko trees with their strong aroma added some shade that stretched over the plaza. 

On my way to the central plaza, an older woman and man, two grandparents I assumed, took an afternoon stroll. I skated near them. They turned around. The grimace on their faces told all that I needed to know. They spoke in their native tongue, walking the opposite direction as me. I zipped past them, leaving a trace of annoyance. Restaurant workers that ran the stores below smoked their cigarettes. I zoomed through their smoke, coughing in the process. They stared at me as I sped around the corner. I carried the smell of their smoke on my clothes. 

When I turned the corner, I heard a bunch of pops and cracks nearby, and my heart immediately sunk. There were other kids at the usually empty plaza that I lingered around. From what I remember, there were about 7 kids, each one of them riding a skateboard of their own. 

I tried to divert the situation by going to a different shaded area. I skated with ease so that my wheels wouldn’t make too much noise. That is until one of them spoke up.

“What’s up man!?” a lanky kid said to me. “Hey guys, we got another one!”

“I’m not very good,” I said. 

“That’s okay. None of us are that good anyway,” he said.

The fountain in the plaza was turned off today even though it was hot. Since it was dried out, the teenagers attempted to jump off the 4 set of stairs. They practiced their form and hang-time.  

One of them, a brown kid with some fuzz on his face, kick-flipped down the stairs  although he didn’t catch the board under his feet. He flicked his fingers like he expected a genie to appear. Another kid, a little black kid who looked 12, varial heel-flipped down and almost landed the trick. It was apparent that he was the Wolfgang Amadeus of the bunch. He was quiet but focused. 

“Do you do stairs?” the lanky kid asked. 

“Never have tried them,” I responded.

Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was that the stakes were higher, maybe it was because the kids were getting better as I got older, but I decided to jump off the stairs. I didn’t warm up but was worth well the shot.  

I proceeded to walk up the stairs to measure the distance. Without taking a deep breath or telling myself I’ll have a smooth landing, I pushed the board in front of me and hopped on. As I neared the edge of the fountain ledge, the stairs beneath stretched out. I squatted and gained momentum. I hopped up as high as I could.

Oh shit I thought.

My board escaped from me. It flew from my feet mid-air. I did a dive roll, knowing that this was the first bail of the day. 

The kids laughed and jeered in support. 

“You’re close man!” one of them said.  

For some reason, I felt compelled to do it one more time. However, I came close but nipped the last stair. Instead of a dive roll, I fell straight on my ass. 

Sooner or later, the fuzz came around to kick us off the property. We decided move to a new location that was at a different property. I followed them as they skated along the brick ground. My wheels nicked a pothole and I managed to stay on. After cruising for a few streets, we arrived at the spot – a three-stair set.

Then, as if a light switch lit the room up, light rain started to pour. The weather did not stop them from skating. They immediately practiced jumping off the three-set. They went through trial and error; some of them slipping, some of them losing the board under their feet. They too did not land the stair set on their first try. That’s when I realized that they were just like me, except younger. They fell with grace and picked themselves up for their second or third attempts. 

Feeling spirited by their synergy, I attempted this stair set.

“Dude, you got this!” 

The group cheered. The cicadas shrieked and silenced everyone. I heard only the cicadas hissing away. Sweat beads dropped on the concrete like rain. I pushed off once again, this time taking a deep breath and focusing on landing. I squatted and gained momentum, and I hopped up as high as I could.

I didn’t see what was in front of me, but I was able to tell that my feet were still on the board. The gray concrete beneath me kept moving. I lifted my eyes and I saw them snapping their fingers, howling at me like a bunch of wolves. I heard my wheels smoothly roll over the gravel.  

I quickly turned my board around. I skated towards the stairs and climbed up to try again. 

Commuting: Seeing the Little Things

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The Little Things

After these past few days of snow in NYC, I can’t help but go off on a tangent and explore this idea of commuting. In a few words, I could sum it up: it’s a grind.

Just a little insight of my experience with commuting, I commuted over 15 hours a week my first semester in New York, a tiring task that demands energy and motivation.  Normally, most people don’t even live in the city, so I share this journey with hundreds of other people trying to get to the 9 to 5.

First things first, I would like to take a moment to pat myself on the back after the previous semester’s commuting time. Hell, nobody in the city is going to pat you on the back for it. In fact, living in one of the most stressful cities in the nation, I commend each and every one of you that takes the time out of their day to get from point A to point B. Sincerely, this is the most that I can give you as a broke college student.

This commendation includes my fellow college students that have dorms just a few streets away from their lecture. In the morning when the weather is absolutely atrocious, I probably wouldn’t have the desire to go to class.

However, I don’t have time to keep dreaming. I got to keep moving, wake up and remind myself that I’m alive.

Since I have class at 9:45, I try to wake up at least two hours before it starts. After showering the previous night before and preparing my next-day clothes, I wake up and get dressed. I make sure that all my books are in my bag. When I get finished second-guessing myself, I bolt out with the thought of my bed later on.

The toughest part about this commute is wishing for a fast commute. Most of the time, it isn’t going to happen. In fact, when you think that you have gone as early as you possibly can, chances are hundreds of other people had the same idea. This is a humbling experience that reminds you that: “You’re not the only one that has to get up early in the morning to do something that you probably don’t want to do.”

Fortunately, I remind myself that an education is worth the hour commute. Unlike last semester when I was bussing tables in the city, I would tell myself “This is bloody miserable.” As a student of life, it demands hard work. You could imagine the look on my boss’ face when I told him I was done. He replied “But you’re one of the hardest workers I have!”

“Yeah, but I’m tired as hell.”

My roommate mentioned yesterday that noticing the little things tends to be healthy on a long and miserable commute.

As I stand waiting for the express train to arrive, I think about this for a moment. For the past few weeks, it has always been the weather that’s on my mind. I notice how cold it is, and it is through this observation that I recall the cold places that I have lived in my life. There’s Alaska, there’s Korea, not so much Italy, but there’s also Virginia. These places are very cold during the winter, but at the moment, the thought of living there one time in my life makes me feel warm on the inside. How charming.

Then the train arrives.

When I hop onto a car that’s further down from the station entrance, I expect to find a seat. You guessed it, not many seats on this train. I stand from 30 to 40 minutes clutching a pole. Something little that I notice is how many children are going to school. Their parents are with them, and the kids are full of energy. I try to harbor their energy, because I remember how excited I would be to go to school when I was younger.

With my headphones plugged in, I try to listen to “sunny weather music.” A friend of mine coined this term when I was living in a cold and miserable place one time; the best way to overcome the misery was to listen to happy sounds, things that sounded like they were made on a secluded island somewhere far away.

Naturally, I look up after navel gazing and see that the car is filled up to its brim; we’re now going through Brooklyn where a lot of people live. Sooner or later, we pass over the Williamsburg Bridge and I can catch a glimpse of the skyline through the gap that two people’s shoulder blades create.

“Today’s going to be longer than an hour’s commute,” I whisper to myself.

When I arrive at Essex, I transfer to the F train going uptown towards Lexington – 63rd Street. The train is packed as usual, but at least it empties out around lower Manhattan. Once we hit 34th St. through 47th, most people work around these areas so the train car gets a little breathing space. I sit down on whatever empty seats are available and rest for a few minutes or so.

Once I hit my stop, I get off and speed walk up the escalators. I start to feel like a lab rat because I’ve been underground for too long. I can smell the cheese that is fresh air.

I submerge towards the surface and hear the honks and the heels of oxford shoes. Ladies and gents surround me in their best attire, or perhaps their worst, going to who-knows-where. I still have a bit of walking to do, so I walk 5 streets up before getting to my school.

I look at my watch. It took me 50 minutes to get to class today. It’s the little things.

When I finish the day, I go back to my place to complete a full circle. I feel like Campbell’s hero, going through the trials and tribulations that a hero goes through before making his or her change. I see a reflection in my phone; the only thing that’s changed is that there is fuzz on my face. I’m going to need to shave I think.

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I take a train uptown and it goes through Queens, until I reach this stop above.

While on the ride back, I see a lady on the verge of rest, probably thinking about what a long day it has been. I notice that the seat next to her is empty, and I wonder how she is feeling. Is she genuinely tired? Is she tense because she’s on a train that she’s not used to being on? Or did she have a bad day? These are the questions of our lives, my friend.

Once arrive at my stop, she too gets off hurriedly. I don’t know where she wanders off to, but I hope that she arrives safely to her destination. Point B is just around the corner.

Finally, I think. Seeing the J train sign is always a highlight of my day. It’s analogous to seeing the exit sign that says “Disneyland Left.” Yet, the journey is not over yet. I wait for what seems like an eternity for the transfer train to come. I review my thoughts over the day. I reflect on the assignments I have. I revel in the blank air that doesn’t feed my stomach. I stare at the ground, and then it happens – I feel the breeze on my face. The train is coming to take me back to my beloved bed. It’s here to rescue me once again!

At the end of the day, it is a rite of passage. For an individual, it is an earned reputation to be a commuter in New York. It also gives an insight to the tension that most out-of-towners probably see as “rude.” Perhaps it’s a question of “Why are we rude?” The answer I provide is that we are simply trying to get to point B unscathed, unbothered, unassuming.

Now that I’ve established that as indifferently as possible, an opinion that is different amongst many other commuters, let me give you a parting insight of what’s to come.

A train is coming, a train that will take you forward. Are you willing to hop on even if the commute will take a while? If you do, let me know. I’ll probably be there waiting to get to my destination as well.