Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Every few days or so, when his loneliness becomes impossible to bear, Rodrigo leaves his Manhattan high school and goes to Central Park. He wanders off the paved roads and makes his way to the secluded, wooded trails, just a few blocks from the housing project in Harlem where he grew up. There he drifts and waits. He might lean against a tree or roam along a trail. Eventually a man will show up. He’ll be older than Rodrigo, as old as his father sometimes. They’ll stare at each other for too long without looking away. Then the man will ramble deeper into the woods, looking back to see if Rodrigo will follow. And he will. Most of the men want Rodrigo to crouch down in front of them, unzip their flies, but on rare occasions a man will want to service him. I imagine Rodrigo tilting his head back, staring at the clouds, trying hard not to look at the skyscrapers on the fringe of this dream, which would pull him back into reality. I imagine he wants to stay here, away from the noise of his life, away from how complicated everything has become; that he concentrates on the warmth enveloping him, on the clouds overhead that move and change and meld together. I imagine Rodrigo shares himself with this man, with any man he meets in the park, because he’s thankful for the attention, offering whatever it is they may want, hoping something elemental will be exchanged. Hoping this will make him feel whole.
I can hear the TV wafting in from the living room. It’s Wednesday night, which means America’s Next Top Model is on. Watching it has become a ritual for the teens in the group home, but tonight Rodrigo needs to talk to me. So here we are, in the office, under the purring fluorescent lights. Typically it’s his family or his struggles to fit in that he wants to discuss. I’m taken by surprise when he mentions cruising the park, and I try to swallow the embarrassment rising inside me.
“How long have you been going there?” I ask, forcing myself to make eye contact.
Rodrigo pauses for a moment to adjust the choker around his neck, then kicks the carpet with his combat boots. A metal-studded belt cinches his plaid shorts. He smiles, his spirited eyes reduced to slits.
“Awhile. Since I was twelve, maybe. I used to cut class and go to the park to draw.” He leans toward me. “I didn’t know what I was about to get into.” He pauses, his smile widening. “Or maybe I did.”
My throat constricts, but I try to appear measured. As a residential counselor I should be beyond the discomfort that the residents often cause me. Rodrigo tells me about his first threesome while I cross my arms over my chest. I’m not clinically trained; I’ve made that clear to him. Still, he’s asked if I can replace his regular therapist. He confides in me because I’m the only staff member at the group home who tolerates his constant chatter. But because I’m just a residential counselor, I can’t promise that what he tells me will be kept confidential. If he discloses something that compromises his well-being, I’m obligated to notify the administrative staff, and he knows it.
“Since then,” he says, “it’s like I can’t stop. I’d be there all the time if I could.” He laughs and shakes his head as if amazed by his own boldness.
Despite all Rodrigo’s outward rebellion, he exudes a heartbreaking naiveté. Although he grew up in the projects, he’s never become streetwise. Watching him fold one leg under himself and clasp his hands in his lap, I can’t help but see his contradictions. The spikes and chains and torn T-shirts are in contrast to his soft eyes and sensitive face. His revolt seems mostly cosmetic. He lacks his housemates’ anger.
The other Latino residents at the group home don’t like Rodrigo. Benny says, “He looks all cochino” — dirty — pointing out Rodrigo’s sleeveless Misfits T-shirt, his ripped jeans clad with safety pins, his unshaven face. I’ve learned that when you come from the projects, looking like you have money is nearly as important as having it. No one in the house gets why Rodrigo dresses so sloppily. The black residents call him “grimy” to his face. He’s an outcast, even in this group of outcasts, and maybe because of this I’m drawn to him.
“You ever been?” he asks me.
He laughs a goofy laugh that reminds me he is only seventeen. “The park.” He says it as if he were talking about carousels, jungle gyms. “There a lot of white dudes like you there.”
I get up and pretend to adjust the air conditioner. I hear the muffled sounds of America’s Next Top Model and wish I were sitting on the couch with the other residents.
“Cruising in parks is dangerous, Rodrigo. Especially for someone your age,” I say.
He nods. “I know.”
“If you know, why do you do it?”
I glimpse my reflection in the mirror on the wall. The face looking back at me seems foreign, an imposter.
Rodrigo spreads his arm out on the desk next to him, rests his head on it, and stares dreamily. “Go to the park?” he asks, scratching at his purple-dyed hair with his free hand, then rubbing the bridge of his nose, leaving a smudge. “Because I know I’m always going to find somebody who wants me.”
The group home is called “the 401.” It houses gay, lesbian, and transgender youths who are in foster care and is one of only a few such institutions in New York City. The kids are anywhere from fourteen to twenty-one. They’ve been placed in foster care because they were either neglected or abused in their homes or because their behavior was unmanageable. Most of them ended up at the 401 because, when their sexual orientation or gender identity was discovered in a general-population group home, they were ridiculed, bullied, and abused by other residents, and sometimes by staff.
I’m new here, the fifth residential counselor in just under a year. How I ended up with the job, I don’t know. At the time I applied I had recently received my bachelor’s degree, was about to turn thirty, and was in need of a seismic shift in my life. I had effectively whittled my days down to waiting tables at a Mexican restaurant and then drinking Scotch after Scotch until the blue light of morning broke. Lying in bed at mid-afternoon under the heavy weight of a hangover, I often dreamed of being plucked from my life like a chess piece and placed somewhere — anywhere — else. I’d come to New York to write. In my college creative-writing classes the dictum “write what you know” had been repeated ad nauseam. But looking around my tiny apartment, I had an overwhelming fear that all I knew was failure. So I stopped writing altogether. When I saw the job listing online, I convinced myself I wanted to work with troubled youths — in what capacity I wasn’t sure, but here before me was an opportunity. It wasn’t until Rebecca, the house manager at the 401, hired me that I realized how underqualified I was. I’d never worked with teens before, never paid close attention to social-welfare issues or given a thought to the foster-care system. My shift would be Wednesday morning through Friday night. I’d be the residents’ primary caretaker during the day and sole caretaker at night. For the entirety of my shift I wouldn’t be allowed to leave the premises.
When my friends, who still clung to aspirations of making it as artists, asked why I wanted to work in a group home, I answered, “Because I need to serve something greater than myself.” It sounded good, and I wanted to believe it was true. The residents dismissed me immediately. “A white residential counselor?” I heard Benny say to Montana in the hallway as I entered the group home for the first time. “I give him two months.” They knocked knuckles and laughed.
Rodrigo’s mother rarely leaves the couch, he tells me. She watches telenovelas all day in their dark apartment. Both she and his older sister are diagnosed schizophrenics and receive monthly disability checks that support the whole family. In the neighborhood they are the subject of fictions and ridicule. When Rodrigo’s older brother, John, lost their dog, a rumor began to circulate that their mother had boiled it and served it with fried plantains because she’d run out of food stamps. To walk into their house, the story went, was to wade through a sea of garbage and animal feces. When Rodrigo lived at home, the bullies John hung out with tormented him about his beat-up Converse sneakers, plaid pants, and feminine swagger. “Puto sucio!” they’d shout. Dirty faggot! “Tu hueles como basura.” You smell like garbage. John rose above the rumors by proving himself as a drug runner. Rodrigo and his little brother, Josef, rarely attended school, showing up only occasionally for free breakfast and lunch. Rodrigo told me that when he was younger, his father had made rules about chores and school, but he wasn’t around to enforce them anymore. Everyone knew their father had moved in with a second family in Brooklyn. He had kids with his new wife and had given them the same names as Rodrigo and his siblings. Rodrigo said he felt his father was ashamed of them and was giving himself a “do-over,” periodically drifting up to Harlem to collect money from the disability checks, then disappearing again.
As oldest male, John became the unofficial head of the household. He stopped defending Rodrigo from other kids on the street and told him to toughen up. He wasn’t going to look out for Rodrigo forever. John started seeing a girl down the block and spending less time at home.
Whenever his brothers came up in conversation, Rodrigo’s cheeks would flush, and his eyes would stare at nothing.
According to Rodrigo, everything started to fall apart when his brother didn’t want him to come out of the closet to his family. John brought girls over to the apartment and tried to persuade Rodrigo to sleep with them, even offered him money if he would. But Rodrigo came out as gay anyway. When John announced he was moving out to live with his girlfriend, Rodrigo felt he was abandoning their family, just like their father had. The brothers began arguing one day, not realizing their mother’s caseworker was in the next room for a home inspection. They fought, and John landed a punch square on his brother’s nose. Blood poured out as John held Rodrigo down and told him to stop acting like such a “faggot.”
Their mother and the caseworker entered the bedroom. That’s when Rodrigo said it, right there in front of everybody.
“I said, ‘If I’m all faggot, what that make you?’ I told him he was the one who made me like that. How he going to call me a ‘faggot’ when he the one doing it to me?”
John began to protest, but the social worker pulled out her notebook and started writing.
All their mother said was “Stop bleeding on my floor. I got my social worker here.”
Rodrigo was taken from the home and isn’t allowed to set foot in his mother’s apartment unsupervised until he turns eighteen.
I ’m still working one night a week at the restaurant because my checks from the group home barely pay the rent. Tonight after my shift I sit at the bar and order shot after shot of Dewar’s until the bartender finally leaves the bottle next to my glass so I can pour my own. I used to go to gay bars after work, but I always felt out of place. I didn’t like the overproduced synth-pop music, I stood out in my worn jeans and faded T-shirts, and I’m terrible at making small talk. I went with hopes of making a connection but found only meaningless hookups. Most of the time I’d stumble home alone, feeling defective, inherently flawed. The cycle was defeating. I stopped trying altogether.
I refill my glass, and the Scotch goes down like warm ribbons of amber until something inside me ignites. Dan, a bar regular, slouches on his stool next to me, his fat fingers toying with my pack of cigarettes before he asks to bum one. His eyes are red, their lids heavy. He rubs his unshaven cheek, and I think how he looks older than he is. I wonder if I do too. He lights the cigarette and asks me about the group home.
Rodrigo comes to mind. Just before I left the 401 this week, he told me he had to go to court to testify to a judge about how he’d been molested for years by his brother John.
“You nervous?” I asked him.
“Yeah,” he said. “My mom told me to drop it. She scared.” He needed to be reassured that he was doing the right thing, but I didn’t know what to say. I pulled him close and patted his shoulder, softly offering, “You’ll be OK.”
But I don’t tell Dan about Rodrigo. Instead I pour myself another shot of Dewar’s and talk about a harmless public meltdown Benny had last week at Jamaica Center when we didn’t see the movie he wanted. For now, I keep Rodrigo to myself.
When the bar closes, I walk home with uneven steps. Occasionally I have to steady myself against a garbage can. After a clumsy search for my apartment key, I stumble inside, hunt for the phone, and call the twenty-four-hour diner for a delivery. Minutes later I’m startled awake by a knock on my door: the Mexican delivery boy with my burger and fries. He struggles to say in English how much I owe him. His dark eyes and downward gaze make him look lost. When I ask in Spanish where he’s from, his face lights up. I invite him in while I look for my money. “Sentarse” — sit — I insist, and I brush the CDs and books from my futon onto the floor. He reluctantly parks himself and looks around the small room, his hands gripping his knees. I find my wallet, plop down close to him, and pass him a twenty for the food. “Y para ti” — and for you — I say, handing him twenty more. He smiles nervously and takes the money. His chin is copper brown and hairless. I lean in closer and let my hand casually fall onto his thigh. His body stiffens. I reposition my hand near his belt; he folds his arms in his lap, blocking me from getting any closer. When I try to reach into his pants, he stands up and thanks me and says he has to go. As the door closes behind him, the room swims. I wake up the next afternoon, glance at the half-eaten burger on the floor, and struggle to recall the previous night. Then I cringe and try to shake the memory.
When I return to the 401 the following week, everything is in chaos. Montana was fired from her job as a security guard after she was caught smoking weed. Sybella stopped going to night school. Caridad, who’s been AWOL, showed up high last night at 4 AM. And little Benny seems to have developed a Napoleon complex, not allowing anyone to use the phone or the TV without his permission.
By the time I get around to Rodrigo, I can tell something’s happened. He has trouble making eye contact and is high-strung. Earlier he snapped at Sybella when she tried to talk to him about organizing their joint birthday party. We sit together in the office, and he seems preoccupied. He wants to talk only about a man he’s met at the local gay-and-lesbian community center.
“He just my type,” Rodrigo says, followed by a stream of giggles. “He got a goatee.”
The house manager, Rebecca, suggested that Rodrigo check out the community center. It has an after-school program that offers art and music classes and gives lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youths a safe place to socialize.
The man with the goatee operates a food cart, Rodrigo tells me. His leg hammers up and down as he plays with the white-out on Rebecca’s desk, unscrewing the top and taking a quick sniff. “I told him he should invite me over to his crib after he finish work.” Rodrigo starts painting his thumbnail with white-out.
“You know that’s not a good idea.”
Rodrigo looks up. He seems to think I’m talking about decorating his nails.
“You don’t know anything about this guy,” I say. “Don’t you think he’s too old for you?”
He goes back to finishing off his thumbnail.
I try to find out what he likes about the man, but all Rodrigo will say is that he has a goatee. So I steer the conversation away and ask if Rodrigo’s been in contact with his father. He puts the white-out down, and something in his face hardens. “He back in Puerto Rico.”
“You told me he lives in Brooklyn with a second family.”
“Well, he got ghost when he heard I got put up in here.”
I ask why his father would move; Rodrigo shrugs. I can tell the conversation is making him uncomfortable, but I don’t stop prying. Something is being left out.
Rodrigo wraps his arms around his belly, glowers. “We almost done?”
I lean back in my chair. “Yeah, of course.”
He gets up to leave.
“You’re OK, though?”
Rodrigo nods but doesn’t look up as he walks out the door.
The residents are huddled around the TV, watching America’s Next Top Model. I’m sitting at the edge of the room on a chair I’ve pulled from the dinner table. Everyone stares at the screen with rapt attention — everyone except Rodrigo, who’s pacing the periphery of the room, his fingers flicking near his ears. He pauses, cocks his head. One hand covers his mouth, and he mutters something to himself. Montana and Sybella seem to have blocked him out, but Benny, I can tell, is annoyed. As Rodrigo begins to lap the room again, Benny blurts out, “What the fuck is your problem?”
“Watch the show,” Montana says to Rodrigo.
“ ‘Watch the show,’ ” Rodrigo mimics, then begins to laugh. It’s a hollow, artificial laugh that goes on for too long.
The residents begin talking about Rodrigo as if he weren’t there. Benny jokes that he might snap and kill them all in their sleep. The other residents laugh, and so does Rodrigo. Then his face turns stony. Then he laughs again, starting to howl, clutching his gut and bending over. I’ve decided not to jump in just yet. I’m hoping the residents can work out this dispute on their own.
“Fucking freak,” Benny says, turning back to the show. “People be treating you better if you stop being so backwards.”
This prompts Rodrigo to run up to the TV with exaggerated, faux curiosity. He looks back at the other residents and pretends to bite his nails. “Oh, my God, who they going to vote off tonight? The anticipation is killing me!”
“Shut the fuck up, bitch,” Benny says, sitting up, his shoulders tight. The room feels tense.
Rodrigo rushes over to him, stopping just short of colliding with his legs. “You mad funny!” Rodrigo screams, only inches from Benny’s face.
I get up.
Benny turns to me, his fists clenched. “This punk better get outta my face, or I’ma make him get outta my face.”
I grab Rodrigo by the shoulder, bring him into the office, shut the door. He plops down and smiles so big his eyes are hidden behind mounds of cheek. I ask him if he thinks this is funny and warn him that one day he’s going to push someone too far and get punched.
I stare at him until we’re both uncomfortable. “What’s going on? This isn’t like you.”
He shrugs and says he was just playing. He picks at the scabs around his wrist left by a too-tight leather wristband. If he’s feeling anxious, I tell him, he needs to talk to a staff member or his therapist.
Rodrigo mouths, “OK,” his fingers now interlaced in his lap.
I get up, ask him to apologize to his housemates, then pat him on the shoulder, indicating he’s free to go.
Rodrigo nods and gives me a smile that says, I’m sorry, then goes back to the living room.
I open the logbook and start writing up the incident. Rodrigo will probably get a “level drop” because of this, ending five weeks of continued success. Often a change in status can send a resident into a streak of bad behavior. I write that I think we need to keep Rodrigo focused on his positive accomplishments. I want him to know he has a confidant in the house. I want to tell him I know what it’s like to feel alienated, different.
A noise comes from down the hall. Then a scream.
“Fucking freak!” Benny yells.
I run into the living room to find Benny on top of Rodrigo, one hand around his throat, the other reared back in a fist.
Rodrigo’s lips are moving, saying something over and over that I can’t make out. Not until I get close enough to separate them can I tell that he’s pleading with Benny.
“Please,” he begs. “Do it. Hit me.”
The linden trees are thick with rubbery leaves, and their pale flowers hang like ribbons. You walk along the dirt path through the park. Twigs snap underfoot. Sunlight breaks through the cowl of tree branches, falling onto mossy patches of earth. The wind picks up. You hear the rustle of leaves and the chirping of sparrows.
Parallel to this path, down a bramble-covered hill, is a paved trail. A family of three ride by on their bikes. The kid — a boy of twelve or so — is wearing a helmet with the strap pulled tight under his chin and an orange lightning bolt on the side. You’re sure they don’t see you shadowed by trees. The paths diverge, their paved one heading down toward the lake, your dirt one wending to a narrow footbridge, then continuing to a densely wooded hill. The family’s laughter sinks away until, once again, you’re alone.
You climb the hill, and the higher you ascend, the more your heart pounds. The only remnants of the city are crushed beer cans, plastic bags, and candy wrappers. The path seems to all but disappear until you’re caught in a tangle of branches. Thistles prick your ankles. At your feet is a condom wrapper, the sheath draped over a cluster of leaves.
There’s movement, a snap. You turn your head to find a man only a few yards away; his stride breaks when he sees you. He’s older, with graying dreadlocks, sunglasses, and inky dark skin. You don’t look away, silently daring him to give you a sign. At first it’s hard to read his intention. But then he leans back against a tree, looks around to make sure it’s clear, and reaches down to cradle his crotch in his palm. You do the same and walk in his direction. He kneads himself; you see the rise in his pants. There’s a pounding in your ears.
But you don’t stop, just drop your eyes and walk on, squeezing your crotch to tease him. You can feel him staring at the back of your head, but you never look back. You’ve turned him on, and just knowing that is a thrill.
There are others too, older men with wedding bands, beer bellies, and leathered faces. You don’t make eye contact. You continue to the top of the trail and begin the descent into the ravine, toward the footbridge.
Just on the other side of the woods is Prospect Park’s Long Meadow, where people lie out on blankets and kick soccer balls. You hear the murmur of laughter and think, Why am I doing this? But the shame is squelched by desire when you see two Latinos balancing on the metal railing of the overpass.
They’re younger than you, in their late teens or early twenties. The thin one is wearing a tank top, his tanned shoulder covered by a Virgin of Guadalupe tattoo, his forearm inked in the image of praying hands wrapped in rosary beads. His pants are buckled low under his ass, exposing white boxers. The thicker one is dressed more conservatively in shorts and a blue T-shirt. His black hair flops down into his eyes after he runs his fingers through it.
They stop talking as you approach.
The thin one wrings his hands. His friend turns away from you, acts disinterested, then looks back, seeing if you’re playing the same game. When you don’t shy away from his gaze, he brushes his hand across his zipper; you do the same. You pass by them indifferently, count to ten, then stop and turn. They’re both staring, both gripping their groins. Without a word they get up, and you follow them to a secluded spot not far off the trail.
Up close they’re shorter than you thought, the tops of their heads only coming up to your chin. Both have red-clay complexions and dark, deep-set eyes. The scents of fabric softener and cologne drift up from their clothes. They fumble with your zipper, and your shorts drop to the ground. Their hands run up under your shirt and brush against your thighs until they finally land at your groin. They crouch down, and you feel their breath on your skin.
This is the sustenance — that unnamable queer food. The only thing, besides drinking, that relieves your loneliness.
The thicker one works himself out of his shorts, turns around, and presses his backside up against you. The skinny one is less aggressive. He looks a bit lost as his fingers locate your nipple. He rubs a little, but his touch seems tentative. You get the feeling he’s new to this. You imagine he’s recently crossed the border. His friend must have discovered his secret, decided to initiate him into this closeted world inside the park.
“Bienvenido,” you say. Welcome.
He looks at you, startled.
What a stupid thing to say, you think. Welcome to what? This country? Certainly not to this.
He offers a pained smile; his hand drops from your chest. He seems disappointed to find out that the two of you share a language. There’s shame in his eyes.
His friend, still backing up and grinding into you, senses something is wrong, and he reaches over, grabs the thin boy’s hand, and places it back on your chest. The contact shakes the boy from his torpor. He reaches down with his other hand and releases himself from his pants, then moves in closer and shuts his eyes as his lips close around your nipple.
In accented English the thicker one asks you to fuck him. He doesn’t have a condom, and you tell him no. He turns his head and looks back at you, his eyes haunted, and pleads, “Please, fuck me.” His friend nods his head; he wants to watch.
The thicker one is bent over in front of you, his skin a rich red. His friend’s shoulders shake as he masturbates. There’s a hunger on their faces, and you wonder if you look the same.
The boy bending over reaches back and grabs hold of you. You push his hand away, say no. The edge in your voice is surprising. But you compromise and press your finger into him. He gasps, falls back onto your hand. His friend’s breathing escalates; his body tightens and trembles. He leans into your chest, his breath hot.
You hear voices in the distance. You tense but see nothing through the leaves. Your companions don’t seem to hear. The thicker one’s body quivers. His friend’s jaw clenches.
And that’s when you look up and spot the white bike helmet with the orange lightning bolt, the boy’s unblinking eyes locked on yours.
You stop breathing. Although the boy is far away, you see him as if he were up close: the light freckles that pepper his nose, his flushed cheeks, the wisps of hair, his bright, confused eyes.
Your partners haven’t noticed the boy and continue to rub and pull on you.
Then a man’s voice calls out, “Let’s go, Ryan. We don’t have all day.”
The boy looks in the direction of the voice, then looks back to you. For a disorienting instant you think you’re staring at a younger version of yourself; that somehow the twelve-year-old you has come to bear witness to who he’ll become.
Your Latino friends hear the voice and scramble to cover themselves, then disappear into the trees.
You slowly reach down to pull up your shorts, afraid that any sudden movement will cause the boy to panic and point or scream. But he simply adjusts his helmet and grabs his handlebars.
Go, Ryan, you think. Get out of here.
The boy pedals off without looking back.
In the office I put out extra folding chairs that I bring up from the basement, set out soda and bottled water and individual bags of chips. Rodrigo’s caseworker, Steve, is meeting with Jessica, the director of social services, Rebecca, the house manager, and Laura, the program therapist, to discuss Rodrigo’s incident with Benny. Steve informs the group that Rodrigo’s behavior was a result of what had happened at his hearing with the judge earlier in the week. Rodrigo hadn’t realized the repercussions of his allegations against his brother. John is now nineteen years old, so a criminal case will be mounted. If convicted, he will go to prison. Rodrigo returned to the group home frightened and confused. Steve, overburdened with eleven other cases, forgot to inform the staff at the 401 of the outcome.
As a result of the incident, Steve says, Rodrigo had to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and was prescribed Risperdal.
“Risperdal?” I ask.
My colleagues scribble in their notebooks. No one seems troubled by this news. My throat tightens. I’m irritated with Steve’s complacency, his monotone voice under the purring lights. The clinical words don’t do justice to Rodrigo’s pain.
“Medicating him seems like a drastic response to the situation, don’t you think?” I ask.
The scribbling stops. I suggest that Rodrigo’s acting out was a cry for help. He felt overwhelmed by what he’d heard at court. I don’t mention that he probably also felt let down by the program’s failure to provide support. Aggravating Benny was his way to eclipse the pain he was feeling.
Jessica gives me a gentle look. “No one wants to medicate the residents unnecessarily,” she says. “This is a doctor’s diagnosis.”
The concern I’ve raised has been passed over, and the conversation moves on. It becomes clear from listening to them that a diagnosis — even a misdiagnosis — reads as due diligence to the powers that be.
I’m ordered to continue my talks with Rodrigo because he trusts me. Jessica reminds me that I’m not a trained clinician. The talks are to remain casual, and I should not attempt to simulate a therapeutic environment. I need to keep the team informed of what we discuss.
For the joint birthday party I’ve decorated the backyard with pink and blue streamers and balloons. There isn’t much to tack them onto, so the dented charcoal grill gets dressed up the most. Rebecca has bought the cakes — chocolate for Sybella, white for Rodrigo — and had the first decorated with musical notes, the second with comic-book characters. I’ve ordered four cases of Pepsi, not the generic soda we normally have. Rodrigo is dressed in basketball pants that snap up the side and a long-sleeve gray T-shirt. His hair is shaggy, the copper from his recent peroxide job already growing out, the black roots emerging. He slogs around the backyard, occasionally sipping from his plastic cup of Pepsi, alone at his own party. The other residents have shunned him completely since the incident, calling him “Tick Tick Boom.” He ends up over by the toolshed, kicking at some mulch. I offer him a slice of his birthday cake, but he refuses. Not until the program van pulls into the driveway, the horn honking, does he perk up.
The side door opens, and Rodrigo’s mother gets out. His sister, holding her baby, lumbers behind. Josef follows but doesn’t stray far from the van. Benny puts on a CD, and Sybella and her best friend dance on the lawn. Rodrigo’s sister sets down her toddler, who stumbles through the tall grass after a stray balloon. I try to introduce myself to Rodrigo’s mother, but she won’t look up from her plate. His sister smooths out her greasy nub of a ponytail as she watches her child dig in the dirt with his fingers.
Rebecca walks over, toting a case of Pepsi under her arm and scanning the lawn full of teenagers.
“Where is Rodrigo, anyway?” she asks.
Inside, the living room is cool and quiet. Rodrigo and Josef are sitting on the love seat, away from the crowd. When I sit down on the arm of the chair next to them, they grow silent. I ask Josef if he’ll be in high school this fall, and he seems to recoil from my words. There’s no eye contact, not even a hint of a smile. Josef still lives with his mother because he’s refused to corroborate Rodrigo’s story. According to Steve, Josef said Rodrigo had lied, that John had never touched either of them.
“Wanna see something?” Rodrigo asks me.
He pulls a picture from his pocket and says Josef gave it to him for his birthday. In it a young man stands with his arm around a woman holding a baby, but the woman and child are hidden under Rodrigo’s thumb. “That’s John,” he says of the man, who has long brown hair and a goatee.
Rodrigo’s mother becomes restless after we’ve given Rodrigo his gifts, and she abruptly asks to be taken home. I got Rodrigo a book about how to draw comics and a new sketch pad. When he showed his mother, embarrassment flashed across her face, and Rodrigo’s momentary joy faded. I suddenly felt guilty for giving him a present in front of his mother, knowing she was unable to afford one.
Rebecca asks me to drive the family back to Harlem. In the van Rodrigo’s mother sits in the passenger seat and stares silently out the window. As I drive across the Queensboro Bridge toward Manhattan, I occasionally look in my rearview mirror to find Josef resting his head in Rodrigo’s lap. Rodrigo runs his fingers through his brother’s hair and brushes his cheek with the back of his hand. They whisper to each other, occasionally laughing.
I drop Rodrigo’s family off in Harlem, and he and I make our way back to Queens. Rodrigo is quiet. The sun has just set, the last orange and plum streaks of daylight stretching out from the horizon. He flips on the radio, searches the stations, then turns it off.
© Mark Townsend
“Eighteen years old,” I say and reach over to pat his back. This is a big year, I tell him. He’s going to graduate from high school, maybe take more art classes at the center. He’s making healthier choices, not cruising the park anymore.
“No, I been there,” Rodrigo says. “Every day this week.” He stares out at the highway.
“Oh,” I say. “I thought you were trying to stop that.”
Rodrigo says he changed his mind and tells me about Rodney, a guy he met deep in the park. After having sex, they decided to offer older men blow jobs for twenty dollars.
Rodrigo pauses, as if waiting for a reaction. I ask if he did it, and he says Rodney did once, but he was there. Things got out of control quickly. The man was larger than them and became aggressive, wanting more than a blow job. Before Rodrigo knew what was happening, Rodney pulled out a knife and screamed for the man to hand over his cash. The man threw them all his money but said he was going to catch them and skin them alive. Scared, Rodrigo scrambled away.
I ask if anyone was hurt. When he answers no, I’m relieved. I’m trying to figure out a way not to report this. “What the hell is going on?” I ask.
He’s looking out the side window, but I can tell he’s crying. “I don’t know,” he says, wiping his eyes with his wrist. “Sometimes it’s like I can’t feel nothing unless I do something extreme.”
Rodrigo begs me not to say anything to Rebecca. He feels guilty about what happened. It won’t happen again. He just needed to tell someone. He asks me to promise not to tell anyone.
I don’t move my eyes from the road. Being held at knife point: I wonder how many times I’ve narrowly escaped that situation in the park.
I’m worried Rodrigo will end up in prison, or dead, if he continues on in this direction, but he begs me to keep his secret. His face is blotchy from crying. “Please,” he says. “Promise.”
A long silence builds up between us. I want to tell him that I know what it’s like — the search for something outside himself to make him feel whole. I’m desperate to find a way for Rodrigo to know that I understand without revealing my own secret.
“OK,” I say. “I promise.” A deep regret fills me as soon as the words leave my mouth.
Back at the group home, alone in the office, I pace. I want to disappear, to slink away into some obliterated shell of myself. I stop in front of the medicine cabinet and stare at its reflective metal door. Before I know what I’m doing, I unlock it and pull out a bottle of Xanax prescribed to a former resident. When focusing on the work at the group home, I’m able to forget that I lead a double life. Here I can play the part of a healthy residential counselor, keeping hidden the portions of myself that don’t fit the image. But I can feel my secrets blighting my body like a disease. I don’t want Rodrigo becoming a practiced liar like me.
I pop off the lid of the Xanax bottle and swallow two tablets. They scrape my throat like tacks. Then I sit down at Rebecca’s desk, impatient for the sedative to grip me, and I take the program phone directory from the top drawer of the filing cabinet. I find the extension I’m looking for and glance up to make sure there’s no one outside the door. It’s my duty to tell someone, for Rodrigo’s safety. My voice hushed, I leave a message on Steve’s voice mail, telling him about the new development in Rodrigo’s behavior.
A week later, when it’s time for Rodrigo’s service-plan review, Rebecca asks me to be the representative from the 401. I’m supposed to talk about how he’s adjusted to the program. I’ve been given a questionnaire to fill out, rating him on his willingness to follow rules: 1 indicating low functionality; 5, high functionality. If I were to score myself on cleanliness, doing chores, or maintaining an orderly room the way I have to with Rodrigo, I’d fail. And if my personal life were found out, I’d be put on “alarm.”
I wonder what Rodrigo would say if he could peer into my apartment window at night and witness me, alone in my mess of dirty laundry and empty liquor bottles: You supposed to be telling me how to live my life? Least I got one. Or maybe he’d look at my squalor and, embarrassed, slowly shake his head.
Rodrigo is sitting at the head of the table, flanked by his mother and Steve. Jessica is there. Rebecca too. A social worker rushes in late, wearing a suit and tie, finishing a call on his cellphone.
For the next forty-five minutes Rodrigo listens to us tell his life story. Steve says that, despite Rodrigo’s long absence from school before entering foster care, his teachers report that he’s catching up. If he continues at this pace, he’ll be able to graduate with his class. The independent-living specialist talks about Rodrigo’s art classes and his participation in the center’s youth program. There’s discussion about part-time employment or an internship. I talk about how Rodrigo’s been bathing regularly, keeping his room tidy, and socializing. Rodrigo follows rules well, I say, and is likable when he’s not provoking the other residents. I mention his successes and a few stumbles along the way. Looking over at Rodrigo, I say that he has a lot of potential.
Steve concludes the meeting by stating the agency’s goals for Rodrigo over the next six months: high-school graduation, art classes, and a part-time job. Just as we’re about to leave, Steve says, “We have one more order of business to discuss.” He looks at Rodrigo. “I hear you’ve been busy in the park again.”
Rodrigo’s eyes are fixed on the table in front of him. The room quiets.
“With all this success, why do you go to the park and have sex with strangers? You’re putting your life at risk. You know that, don’t you?”
Rodrigo nods slightly. His mother’s face is expressionless.
“And I heard that this time you were asking for money. You have too much going for you to start prostituting.”
Rodrigo glances up at me.
I can’t look at him. My eyes scan the questionnaire, the numbers that approximate his ability to live a successful life.
Steve tells Rodrigo he’s going to be put on alarm, then continues to talk about the park. “Is that the life you want to live?” he asks.
“No,” Rodrigo whispers.
The van sputters as it idles. Rodrigo and I sit silently, looking at his neighborhood. Boys in oversized T-shirts and drooping jeans gather on the courtyard benches. Two mothers who look younger than Rodrigo prop their babies on their hips and lean against an old Buick. Reggaeton music blasts and Puerto Rican flags flap from open apartment windows.
I don’t want Rodrigo to get out of the van. He’s about to take a course of action that could destroy any chance he has at a moderately normal life. Two days after his review he announced that he’d decided to sign himself out of care. He claimed it had nothing to do with the review; he needed to be back with his family. Rodrigo showed me the letter he’d written the judge, to clear up this mess he’d created.
“I made it all up,” he said boldly. “John never touched me.” In the letter he confessed that he’d lied to get revenge against his brother for abandoning the family.
I drum my fingers on the steering wheel and watch two boys in the courtyard sneak up behind a girl, pour a drink on her, and run.
I’m wary of Rodrigo’s sudden reversal of his story. The accusations of abuse rang so true, I rarely thought to question them. I can’t help feeling it was my breach of trust that prompted Rodrigo to alter his story and leave the program.
“You can still change your mind,” I say. “Just stay until you finish high school.”
Rodrigo smiles and shakes his head. “This is home,” he says.
I know he feels I’ve betrayed him — like his family, like the system — even if he won’t admit it.
“Or at least a trial discharge,” I say. “You’ll be at home but with the support of the program. You can sign out as soon as you graduate.”
Rodrigo looks at the fight that’s broken out between one of the boys and the doused girl. She takes off her earrings and throws them at his feet. People start to gather. The girl swings wildly at the boy. The crowd grows.
“They my family. I belong here,” he says as the boy pushes the girl, and she falls, blocked from view by the spectators.
Rodrigo shakes my hand, then gathers his backpack and sketch pad. “I’ll come by the house sometime.”
We both know that’s not going to happen.
“Finish school, Rodrigo.”
He nods and gets out of the van. “Wish me luck,” he says, then walks away.
He passes through the courtyard, past the fight that has all but ended, past the boys on their benches. One of them calls out, “Puto sucio!” and they all laugh. Rodrigo smiles at them weakly, tucks his sketch pad under his arm, and opens the battered metal door to the building. He looks back before entering and gives me that big-cheeked grin of his when he sees I’m still here, watching.
Names and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.
Ryan Berg should have told Rodrigo that he had to report his risky behavior. He should have dealt with whatever reaction the boy might have had, no matter how difficult. To betray Rodrigo’s confidence, no matter that the law insists on it, was a terrible act. I realize Berg was trying to save the boy’s life, but his actions only put Rodrigo in more danger by sending him away from supervision. Berg says he will continue to watch Rodrigo as the story ends. I hope he does.
I have long appreciated the ability of The Sun’s contributors to put into words the contradictions inherent in efforts to create justice in an unjust world.
After reading Ryan Berg’s essay “Tick Tick Boom,” however, I find myself angry over the author’s lack of effort to treat his own addiction and the high cost of his neglect for the gay youth named Rodrigo, who lived at the group home where Berg worked. I do not respect an author who seems to invest more time in wordsmithing than in seeking therapy and expressing his vulnerability where it matters most — not in the pages of a magazine his residents will never read but in person to Rodrigo himself, who needed authenticity, not platitudes.
I read Ryan Berg’s essay “Tick Tick Boom” [March 2012] during some downtime while working the night shift, and it left me reeling. Then I turned a couple of pages to find “Underneath the Armor.”
My son was an army ranger who served in Afghanistan and was left with 100 percent disability due to post-traumatic stress disorder. He was shot and killed by a police officer last November in Farmington, Maine.
I took a few deep breaths, read these marines’ stories, and looked hard into their faces. Reading it with others around was a test of my emotional strength.
When I was done, I walked down the hall and cried. I cried for the loss of my son, for these and all soldiers, and for a world fixated on violence.
I imagine that you have received a number of letters criticizing you for publishing Ryan Berg’s essay “Tick Tick Boom” [March 2012]. I’m sure that some people had a problem with the explicit details, while others didn’t like the subject matter in general. I found the essay quite moving, and I thank you for taking a chance on it. As a gay man, I enjoy seeing work by gay writers in my favorite magazine, even when the lives on display are very different from my own.