On Wednesday, April 13, 1977, Jose and Clara welcomed their fourth child into the world. That’s right, today is my birthday. With that being said, there are a few things I know will happen today.
My mother will call me to tell me the story of my birth. This is something she does for all of her children. When we were younger she would call us to her room, pull us into bed with her as she gave us kisses while she whispered the story into our ear. It’s a memory I will cherish, a jester I will appreciate until I die.
I will put on a smile and say thank you to those who will call, text, or tell me in person warm wishes of a happy birthday. I am grateful for them, truly I am. I will have cake with them. Have to have cake of some kind.
While all of these positives should make me happy, there is and will always be a sadness that haunts this day, no matter how hard I try to overcome it. For years I have kept this secret buried deep down inside and never told another soul, not even my best friend, who knows more than most.
I have seen death before in my young life, but I was too young to understand what was going on as we stood close to an open grave. I remember to this day thinking, I hope I don’t fall in as we all walked around, dropping a flower on top of the casket, then walking to say our sorrows to the family. I am not sure who it was that was in the ground but I think I know.
As I got older death touched my soul, awaking the demon inside that I would wrestle with for the remainder of my days. This was the year I lost the innocence of childhood and learned the world is a cruel evil place. I was silently spiraling out of control and there was no one who could help. How could they when I hid it so well. We didn’t talk about our problems.
I remained the “good son,” smiling, going to church, doing all that things I was suppose to do, all the while, evil was growing in my young heart.
That summer we migrated from Texas to California, something we would do every three years it would seem. It was always suppose to be just for summer vacation but it always turned into a full year. So here I was starting a new school, the ever dreaded Jr. High.
Students and teachers alike saw me as an easy target, picking on me, calling me out, smiling as I was being “punished” for being who I was. I just took it, having to bottle it up inside because it’s a part of growing up. I learned to endure it, to live with the pain it caused. I learned how to push forward until one day I didn’t.
I was in band and we had just coming back from our first marching competition. All the marching bands in three counties were competing and we came in last. I practiced and practiced as hard as I could leading up to the march. I memorized the music, I had the notes down flawlessly, I was perfect in the songs we were playing.
My problem is I could not walk and chew bubble gum at the same time, as the expression goes. My marching was always off by a half second. I got the snaps, the cues, the looks down, but my footwork was always off. I have always been a slow pace walker and could not keep up. I wanted to quit but if I did I would be out of the band I loved music too much to give it up.
Like a drill sergeant in the Army the marching band teacher, different from the band teacher, would treat me like a new recruit. I ignored the screams in my faces, the shoving me, the spit flying in my face as he called me names with bouts of “you’re worthless” added in for good measure. The other students started repeating his words and I took it. Sticks and stones. Sticks and stones.
As we marched through the streets of my city, I did my best. The instructors were not allowed to march along side of us so I did the entire march without someone in my face. This was our first competition and in my head I thought I was doing great. Heck I was even starting to have fun. Then one of the other students kicked my off beat foot and tripped me. As I fell and rolled to the side the band marched on, but not before a few stomped on my leg. Now you know why we lost.
The bus ride back to the school was long and silent, for me at least. Threats were made, things were thrown at me, and the instructors did nothing. As we got off the bus I overheard the drill sergeant tell his assistant that the world would be a better place if I just offed myself.
I had to walk home, since it was a Saturday the city bus did not pick up in front of my school. It was a long mile and a half. Alone with my thoughts, the voices of the other students running through my head, and the suggestion of the drill sergeant ringing the loudest in my head.
As I got home I put my happy mask on once again. Cousins had come in from out of town and everyone was playing outside. I gave such a good acting performance I could have won an Oscar. My demon, however, was not going to let me off the hook that easily.
I use to take the city bus to school. There was another member of the band who rode the same bus. She was always quite and played the flute. As I got on the bus, there she was, sitting at the back of the bus, her walkman headphones on as she stared out the window. I sat at the front. She was too smart and beautiful to ever be friends with me, besides, after what happened, I doubt she would ever talk to me at all.
The bus dropped us off at the corner of the school but I got off a few blocks early, trying to gather up strength before having to face the band for first period. As the bus pulled away I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. When I opened them there she was, standing in front of me. Without saying a word, she took my hand in hers and started walking toward the school, pulling me to keep up.
The next two weeks were bearable only because she always sat with me. I didn’t know any better, I was young and stupid and in love or at least what I thought was love.
As March was coming to an end, she asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I told her my family didn’t celebrate it and that something bad always happened to me at school on my birthday so I was going to skip school. She talked me out of it, promising to bake me a cake herself. How could I refuse?
On Friday, April 13, 1990 I was riding the bus to school alone. She had told me that her aunt would be dropping her off at school and that she would give me my cake in band class. As we were getting closer to the school we heard sirens passing us by. I got off early because the police were blocking the street and the bus could not get through. I thought to myself that there must have been another drive by shooting, since we already had two so far.
I was right. While no one had even been hit in the past two, someone had this time. She was standing in the doorway, facing the corner, holding a birthday cake that she had made the night before. She had wanted to be the first thing I saw as I came around the corner to school. Instead I saw an ambulance driving off, with her in the back. She died enroot to the hospital.
So while others are wishing me well wishes, in the back of my mind I think back to what happened and why I hated my birthday for so long. I know it was only a childhood crush but it felt so much more than that to me.