New Year’s Eve, 1983.
When I was twelve, my parents took my younger brother and me to Florida for Christmas, for what reason I can’t remember (not DisneyWorld). But, just a short time in, something got stirred up between them, and next thing we knew the car was turned around and heading north again, days early, without explanation, leaving Chris and me in the back seat silently wondering what the fuck.
For the better part of the day, I listened to Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man album on my Walkman and looked out the window at nothing but bleak winter sky along I-95. Six or seven hours in, the landscape started to change a bit. It was broken up, here and there, by those corny signs for South of the Border. (“Pedro’s Weather Forecast: Chili Today, Hot Tamale!”; “You Never Sausage a Place!”; “Pedro’s Fireworks! Does Yours?”) I wanted to go. As you kid you always wanted to go. Even if you’d been there and knew what a bore it was, you still wanted to stop for some reason. So Chris and I started pointing to the signs and making half-jokes. “Hey, Mom, Dad — we could reeeeally go for some cheeeeli!” After a few minutes of this, without a smile or a word, my dad took the exit.
We ate dinner somewhere—Mexican, if memory serves (or, perhaps that’s just the most obvious answer to write into the blank spot in my mind)—and my parents checked us into a ground-floor motel room not far from the huge Pedro welcome sign. By nine o’clock or so, they were out cold.
Chris and I sneaked out and by the light of the TV and headed back toward the shops. There was only one vendor still there, a big sweaty guy who was in the process of shutting down. He had a hodgepodge of junk: Pedro knickknacks, pecan rolls, maracas, and, of course, fireworks. Chris—only nine-years-old at the time—had the balls to ask the guy if we could buy some. He shrugged and gave us a handful of loose firecrackers, in a real “Here, go knock yourselves out” kind of way. We needed a light, so we pressed our luck for a Pedro lighter. He made us pay a buck for that.
Chris and I ran away from the main strip and found a little playground off in the distance. It was a nothing thing: just a stretch of dirt with three swings flanked by a slide. We were far enough away from trouble, we thought, so we lit those things up, one strand at a time, giggling and hitting each other in the arm as they pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-popped off.
When they were all gone, we just sat there on the dirt and looked around. It was dark and empty. It couldn’t have been later than ten o’clock, but there wasn’t a light on in a single motel room, and most of the lights on the commercial strip had gone out. Anything you could see was illuminated by some combination of the moon and the big Pedro sign by the highway. I thought about Dick Clark and all the people on Times Square right now. Then I thought about a New Year’s Eve we’d spent a couple of years back, at the home of my parents’ friends, Don and Pat. There were lots of kids there, and music and food and bouncy talk and laughing. At midnight, everyone hugged and kissed. We got hugged and kissed by people we didn’t even know. It surprised you to get that sudden warm feeling in your face and chest from total strangers ... and it equally surprised you how suddenly the feeling vanished, and how much you missed it when it did.
I made a shape in the dirt with my heel. Chris and I went back to the motel room and fell asleep. We were asleep when midnight came and everyone everywhere hugged and kissed. It was just as well.
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