Tripp pants — that’s what they were called. You always heard the chains from Andy’s rattling before you saw him, and those deep pockets were perfect for soda cans and snacks as we collectively headed out the back door of the high school toward downtown.
Downtown was downtown when you were at school, becoming uptown once you got as far down as the pier. Which we usually did in warmer weather, but the one park in town — which was ocean front and — back when I knew it with its derelict playground equipment and tiny baseball diamond — the view was the most respectable thing about it.
But it suited us just fine.
The gazebo wasn’t always there; when it did pop up, seemingly overnight, it became our cover instead of the forest green, paint chipped, splintered picnic tables under a precarious stand-alone roof that had an impressive collection of Frisbees and used condoms. We carved penis onto the legs that held it up, while we stood on top of the picnic table we knew better than to eat off, while someone held us up so we could reach the cobwebbed corners.
The light ocean breeze would chill us in that sleepy, four o’clock hour when school had been out for a while but we weren’t hungry enough for dinner. We’d stretch out in that gazebo, the warm wood on our bare arms, not worn enough to splinter us. A few of us on the concrete floor where we could ash a cigarette and sneer through the rails at soccer practice, because the only person we cared about watching was Kitty, who was the best forward and Our Friend Kitty. The rest of the team were Preps.
Kitty’d score a goal and we’d hoot and holler and cough. She’d look up, her mouth opening around a neon, plastic mouthguard grin — then she’d flip us off and run back to center field.
E, with his soft, dimpled babyface would reach over me for the bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, and my heart would falter at his closeness. I’d sip my black coffee and turn my attention to the empty playground, which smelled like cedar chips until it was replaced with shards of rubber tires, then eventually cedar chips again. . .what was better for cushioning a fall?
Whatever. It didn’t matter. Once they got rid of the Merry-Go-Round it was never all that appealing a place (my fault and the town never let me forget it, either: My ankle got caught in it when I was like ten years old, nearly ripped off my leg. The town was afraid of a lawsuit so they ripped the Not-So-Merry-Go-Round out of the earth).
I learned to smoke cigarettes in the gazebo — pot was in the dugout, which was seedier and not near children. We might have been rough and tumble townies, but we weren’t total assholes. And we were only interested in trying to smoke cigs when the weather started to change and that breeze off the water became a wet and icy cold wind. By the time we even made it to the park on those days, my coffee would be a slushie and I’d’ve stuck a hand into the depths of Andy’s warm pants pocket.
He’d be humming Down With The Sickness, indifferent to me until I would loudly WA-AHAHAHAH into his ear.
Kitty was so fucking tough and cool. She had dangerous boyfriends with pocketknives and an ax to grind, and always knew where to get a pack of Marlboro Reds or Camel Crushes. I liked those better — the Camel Crushes. “Marb Reds” tasted like a muddy boot, I thought. Crushes were smooth and minty, and I liked the satisfying pop of the breath mint thing in the filter. For the first few years I didn’t even inhale, I thought you just kind of sucked the smoke into your mouth so you could do smoke rings. Then one day I inhaled by mistake and freaked myself out, turning my face up and hacking smoke straight up into the rafters.
Someone smacked my back.
The only thing I was more embarrassingly bad at was kissing, and my pals’ good intentioned attempts to coach me — the youngest, the group Baby — were futile. One time in E’s basement over several large pizzas and a horror movie marathon, Kitty came up with this game where the girls paired up with the guys and we had to see who could make them come first (Kitty won, she always won).
I was the only person who E had told he was gay — sweet E, with his conservative, oil-spilling, God-fearing parents — was so terrified and so alone, and he asked me (me, who loved him so dearly, in and out of the gazebo) to help keep his secret. And when he didn’t come and everyone laughed, I took the fall. It was my fault, I was so bad and awkward at being alluring. I didn’t know how to kiss a boy, I needed lessons.
That made sense! Baby Abby, the kid sister. Oh, of course it wasn’t E’s fault he didn’t come! I brushed damp, pastel streaked hair from my eyes and looked at him desperately. He returned a grateful glance, sat up and slung a sweaty arm around me, “Hey, don’t worry Abs, you’ll learn. Plus, ear biting is kind of silly and totally not my thing,” he nodded toward the rest of the gang, “Hey, let’s get out the Ouija board. Maybe we can find Abby a centuries-dead ghost boyfriend who doesn’t need touch.”
Years earlier he’d been my first kiss, too. In Kitty’s backyard on her 13th birthday. Funny, that party involved kissing and horror movies, too. What else did small town kids with dust in their eyes do but yank pussy willows from the sidewalk and rent Stephen King movies from the town library?
We stayed up all night in her garden shed, huddled together on the floor in blankets with a tiny TV and VHS player watching Pet Cemetery. In the night, some animals prowling the backyard started fighting and screaming, and then we started screaming — but before that, before sunset, E and I stood at the edge of her yard looking out over the gully.
He kissed me and missed, so I made him try again.
I stared at him, years later — they were all seniors, graduating, leaving me behind for a year of fending on my own. I stared at his sweet babyface, his babyblue eyes. He looked up at me, held my gaze, smiled. I knew, I was the only one that knew, why he’d missed. He’d meant to, probably, even if he didn’t understand why yet. When he came out right before graduation everyone said, “Yeah, we know — pass the ranch dip.”
That gazebo’s still there, we’re long gone though. It’s starting to get rundown and rickety like the rest of the park. Like most of us, actually. I don’t talk to any of them anymore; haven’t in years. The town put up a new, plastic playground that looks stupid and totally out of place. Most of us filled our lives with stupid shit that looks out of place, too, just to cover up what we’re not proud of.
The park is pretty unloved. So are we.
I don’t think anyone ever loved that gazebo, or needed it, as much as we did. It gave us a roof over our heads, the stability in the form of a cement floor. It kept our secrets.
It still knows a few of mine.
Abby Norman is a journalist and writer. She’s currently working on a memoir for Nation Books. Her work has been featured in The Rumpus, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen Magazine, The Independent, Quartz, Bustle and others. She lives in New England with her dog, Whimsy, and wishes Gilda Radner would haunt her apartment. She’s represented by Tisse Takagi in New York City.