All these white people with blankets and bottles of wine and bits of cheese were camped out along the river to see the tall ships. It was hot as fuck, New York summer wet, with the stink of garbage and something worse, something I don't have a name for.
Mom took me and my little brother to the West Side to see them. The boats were pretty cool, from all over the world. The best was the Amerigo Vespucci, from Italy--I had just learned about that explorer at school. The ship was huge and had more sails than I'd ever seen before. The closest I'd ever been to a sailboat was the models people played with in Central Park. We just went over to a railing and watched for a while. While we were watching, all of a sudden it started pouring. It had been sunny but we were drenched. We ran for a bus, and when we got back east, we saw it hadn't rained there at all. For laughs we told our older brother we'd fallen in the river, and he believed us. Dummy.
Not everyone was excited about the boats and the Bicentennial, though. No flag-waving. Plenty of illegal fireworks lit on rooftops uptown later that night, but not patriotism, not hooray for America.
Sitting with Indira and Saribel that night, after the heat of all the July Fourth celebrations, talking a little but mostly listening to their parents, we heard about Ray and his family. Kids knew to shut up. It was the best way adults would forget you were there and say all kinds of stuff—gossip, curse words, dirty jokes. Saribel's dad, Mr. Desoto, was saying that Ray's mom never took good care of him and that his older brother was a waste of space. "Of course that kid died. Ain't nobody looking out for him." But then Mrs. Desoto and Indira's mom started speaking in Spanish, real fast, "takatakatakak" and I lost the rest. But we looked at each other, like, Ray died? What?
Saribel said, "Mamí, did you say Ray died?"
Mrs. Desoto looked at us then like she just noticed we were there. "Pobrecito," she said, "he fell in the river, mi iha. He couldn't get back out."
We didn't know what to do. We just sat. No more talking. Sounds of adult conversation, iced drinks, traffic, radios, and basketballs ran together into a peace of white noise that held us, suspended. Seems like we were always finding out stuff that way, overhearing our mothers. The only protection from bad news was to walk away, to do anything not to hear. My mother was always talking on the street to somebody, no matter where we were going or what kind of hurry we were in. We'd be standing there forever, but I'd hear how my friend's father was a drunk, how they all got in a big fight and even the women left with black eyes (somebody hit somebody with a big, heavy telephone receiver). How he'd been drunk when he drove us across town to the movies, how he'd drink in the bathroom in the morning when I was there for a sleepover. I heard about my own dad's cheating. I heard how my brother was selling drugs to my teacher.
It's pretty amazing that most of these people are still alive.
But not Ray.
They were messing around, Ray and his brother ’Nesto, and ’Nesto threw one of Ray's sneakers into the water. They were laughing and all, I heard. I guess Ray thought he knew what he was doing, and I know he would've caught hell from his mother over the shoe, so he jumped in after it. While I was looking at boats, Ray was drowning. Kids kept talking for months about how an electric eel came and wrapped itself around him, but that didn't happen. The kid drowned, is all. But there always has to be some story.
I looked it up the other day. There are eels in the river. But they're not electric eels. Those critters pack around 600 volts, get to be eight feet long, and live in the Amazon. Different jungle.
After the Bicentennial, I thought about Ray a long time, not with the eels, but what it must be like to drown. The river wasn't clean, for sure. Not like some blue Caribbean paradise. It was dark green, and it was hard to see anything moving in it. Except for its flow, it looked almost like a solid, like Jell-o made from the liquid that runs out of the garbage cans on the corner. When I lay in bed at night trying to go to sleep, I'd imagine Ray suspended there in the deep dark green, and I'd panic. He didn't struggle. He floated there in my imagination, wide-eyed, looking straight at me while small fish nipped at his shirt, at his sneakerless foot. It haunted me in the dark--during the day I could shake it off.
Raymond was the kind of kid you were friends with at school but not at home. You might invite him to your birthday party, but only if you were inviting most of the class. He was small boned and light brown, and he had a scar near his right eye in the shape of a crescent moon. I asked him a couple times how he got it, but he said he didn't remember. I didn't believe him. It looked like something anybody'd remember. His older brother was kind of a jerk. Ray was nice and all, but he was a little hyper, and that just got annoying sometimes. Thinking about it, it isn't so surprising he jumped in the river. But he was the first person I knew who died. And he was just a kid, a little kid, like me.
After a month or two, the dream of him floating there in the river didn't scare me anymore. It became like a visit we would have. He didn't look sad or scared, and sometimes he even smiled or waved at me, so I'd know he could see me, too. I started to look forward to it. I think it made me feel better, like he wasn't really dead.
And in the fall, kids at school talked like it was gossip, not like something really bad happened. None of the teachers said a word about it, and there was no assembly or grief counseling. It was one of those things that happened, like when Meryl's sister got arrested for beating Meryl so bad she couldn't come to school for a week, or when Cindy's brother went to jail and got disowned by his family for stealing from St. Francis, up the street. Cindy's mom crossed herself every five seconds, but she couldn't erase the shame.
Claudia Isler is a New Yorker living in the South. Naturally, she writes about the city of her memories. She's the Vice President of Seven Cities Writers Project, a non-profit bringing free writing classes to under-served communities in southeastern Virginia. Previous publications include five non-fiction books for children and young adults.