The Bench

by Steven LaBri

In 1969, Tommy Mullins and I lived in Hialeah, Florida. Across the Miami River north was Miami Springs. East were warehouses and the railroad tracks and West were cow pastures and farms. South, we would find Hialeah Drive and there, the end of our road. Travel beyond this summit guaranteed a blistered butt courtesy of our parents. With the two small towns in close proximity, we had our choice of schools - Hialeah Senior High and the rival, Miami Springs Senior High. We lived in Hialeah, but always attended the Miami Springs schools, elementary to junior high, since they were closer to our homes. This year, Hialeah Senior offered an earlier schedule. We both worked at the grocery and with an early schedule, we could work more hours. Our friends decided to school across the river in Miami Springs. Tommy and I were best friends and figured we had each other, so the choice was simple. Besides, we would make new friends - and we both needed the money.

Life in an ethnic blue-collar working neighborhood, without doctors or lawyers, or accountants as neighbors was different compared to our peers in Miami Springs. Our parents were mechanics, cops, butchers, construction workers, or welders. Some of our siblings made it to college, but most took local jobs right out of high school. Neighbors and friends were from Cuba, Poland, Puerto Rico, Mexico, San Salvador, or old southern families with generations in the US. The town was a mix of factories, manufacturing with some small farming in outlying areas. There were those with large families, others had just a mom, some families were better off financially, but most struggled everyday.

Playtime was outside unless it was raining; even then, our parents had a hard time getting us inside. There was an abundance of kids, ballgames or tag football would break out at anytime in the fields surrounding our homes. Time passed each day exploring our neighborhood, surfin' the beaches, hangin' in the Keys, enjoying our simple life. We never conceived our summers were beginning to extend beyond the horizon and out of our touch. Time passed unnoticed. Tommy and I were about learn there was more to life than surfboards, tans, long stretches of beach, and cute girls in bikinis. Nevertheless, there we were, two friends swearing allegiance to friendship forever, finishing our first day of public education headed to the bus bench and onto home.

The last bell of the day rang out signaling the end of a dreary day with teacher lectures and running up and down hallways trying to locate classrooms in an unfamiliar school. I met Tommy at the front entrance.

"Yo! Stevie!" Tommy yelled with certain enthusiasm as he rounded the corner of the building. "Man! Am I glad to see this end of this day."

"Yeah buddy! This was one long assed day!" I responded as we stepped out onto the sidewalk.

Looking up, Tommy shaded his eyes from the bright sun. "Ya know Stevie, I would much rather be at the beach!"

I nodded in agreement. "Sure, but we now have jobs and homework. That means responsibilities!"

"Screw responsibility," he said as he flipped his sunglasses off his forehead onto his nose. "Let's hit the beach."

"Ain't gonna happen dude! Besides, work awaits. So tell me about your teachers." I asked.

"A bunch of yahoos if you ask me." Tommy responded as he ran ahead of me towards the bus stop.

I caught up with him at the corner where he had stopped. He said, "Check out the babe on the bus bench."

Across the street, we spied a beautiful girl sitting on the city bus bench. It appeared she might be waiting for the bus.

Looking at Tommy I said, "This high school gig ...."

"ain't so bad after all!" Tommy interrupted.

Tommy and I devised our plan as we approached the bench. Our main objective was to dazzle this young splendor of womanhood with our quick wit and charming ways. I watched her as the soft breeze touched her long sandy blonde hair. She would brush her hair back from her sun soaked face with a wave of her hand. Her blue eyes peered at us, as we approached. Our thoughts were, a girl of this loveliness could not live in our neighborhood; perhaps heaven, but not in the blue-collar world we came from. The girls we knew were skinny tomboys and not a gentle creature like this. Hypnotized by her beauty, I stepped off the curb onto the street in my urgency to cross. I was jolted back into reality by the sound of a screaming horn. I guess it was my lucky day. The driver was paying attention. Realizing she just watched me make a fool out of myself, we approached the bench in a casual manner as if she wasn't there. Just another day, and another bus ride home.

We arrived with all the coolness we could muster and stood a few feet behind her left shoulder. Neither Tommy nor I were brave enough to sit next to her on the bench. So there we were, me looking at Tommy and Tommy looking at me, taking turns motioning our heads towards this beauty and telling each other without words to say something.

Something cool of course.

On this day however, wit was out the window and charm was on vacation. All we could muster were pokes in each other's sides and stolen glances. Tommy and I were so busy trying to figure out what to do; we hadn't paid close attention to this stunning beauty except from the distance when crossing the street.

What seemed like ages ago, as you pass from childhood to young adult, when you realize your life's focus is changing from playing the guitar and dreaming of rock stardom, surfin' and hangin' at the beach to more serious matters, there we stood. Rather than thinking about the next Led Zeppelin concert, or the waves, or sand between your toes, you're thinking about your life, and your future with the one that is the one you want to marry.

Marry? What was wrong with me? I felt funny in my stomach.

I was seeing every bit of innocence a young woman could possess. All it took was a glance my way, her radiance leaving me speechless. I was in love for the first time in my life and I didn't even know her name. Nevertheless, we stood there stupid with hope she was from the same school. We needed her here everyday until we could work up enough courage to talk. More important, we prayed she would say something, anything, which would initiate a conversation. We just wanted her to notice us and in what seemed like forever, she did. She turned and shook her head in annoyance of our clowning around.

"Hey! What does it take to get a hello out of you guys?" she said while looking at both of us. "Steve, Tom, either one of you going to say anything or just act like jerks until the bus arrives?

Our eyes popped out, our jaws dropped and I am sure we were the darkest shade of red anyone could be. Tommy and I looked at each other, then at her, and then at each other again! Then, the unbelievable thought: this girl knew us!

Stunned as we were, we searched our feeble memories. Neither one of us could have ever had the pleasure of meeting such an attractive girl. We stood there as fools would with our minds wandering.

"Hey it's me, Carolyn! Hello! What's wrong with you two?"

Then the epiphany: when all of a sudden you realize what is happening -- the moment where you slap your forehead in understanding as to what is happening!

She's the skinny little girl from the park? She's the girl you walked home, she can outrun you could and beat you shooting hoops. Carolyn? No Way! Can't be! We are talking about the love of my life, not the tomboy from our roughneck neighborhood. This gentle creature was far too soft and too pretty for nonsense.

After the embarrassment of a lifetime and a short conversation, the bus arrived and we all boarded. Tommy and I raced to the back seats. My future wife sat right up front glancing out of the corner of her blue eyes, at the two jerks giggling in the backseat.

I looked at my best friend and said, "That's it! That's the girl I am going to marry."

Tommy looked at me as if I had two heads and said, "Marry? Are you nuts? You're sixteen-years-old and there are bunches of girls out there waiting for us!"

I didn't listen to him. I had already found mine. We were still so young, but I knew this was it. She was the one and there was no longer a choice. There was no longer the option of wanting to, in love with, could there be another, maybe it is not the right time, and all the other reasons, and validations you go through in the mating process. Could it be at this young age I had found my soul mate? I still had a lifetime ahead of me. Heck! I didn't even have a drivers license! How could I know? I didn't even know what my career would be or where I would go to college!

Of course, there was still a hurdle to overcome. I knew what I wanted. I knew what I had found. She may be exquisite, but it was a sure bet she could not read my mind. Therefore, I had to have a plan.

As each day passed, we would see each other in the hallway and smile a pleasant smile. The three of us would sit at the bus bench together each day as I tried to build my courage. Is this the same girl I shared a soda with while sitting on a swing at the park? All of a sudden, she had become like the setting sun of summer " you could see it, you could feel the warmth, but it was going away fast beyond the horizon and out of your reach.

I thought, "Okay. This is not hard and I can do it."

We had played ball, shot hoops, walked home, and I knew her all of her family. What was the big deal?

After a couple of weeks, I decided to try tried some normal conversation. I took a deep breath and looked at her and with all the bravery I could pull from the depths of my soul and I sat down on the bench.

"So how was your day, Carolyn?" Then I thought to myself, "Aghh brilliant!"

She smiled and said, "Not bad, how was yours?"

"Good. Yep, good." I nodded my head and searched my mind for something smart to say. All I wanted to do was to muster the nerve to ask her to a movie!

She opened up and began chatting about everything under the sun. I didn't realize girls could talk so much. She talked about summer break, vacation, school, her family, and other chitchat about something this and that (I wasn't paying attention) then she said, "and I don't want to date anyone else for a long, long time.

"What was that?" I asked looking at Tommy.

"What was what?" she responded.

"You said something about dating." I said with a wince.

"Oh. I said after breaking up with Sam, I don't want to date anyone for a long time."

"Anyone?" I thought. Crushed with hopes abandoned! My sun had set! Here sat the girl I had to marry and she wasn't the slightest bit interested in me?

Tommy and I got off the bus when it hit our stop and walked towards home.

"What was all that about Tom?"

"Whadya mean?" Tommy asked.

"That not wanting to date thing Carolyn was talking about."

"Oh! She's a girl dude and girls are confusing. Don't try and figure it out."

"But Tommy, I think I really like her."

Tommy chuckled back and said, "Sure ya do. Yeah. Sure ya do."

Tommy told me I was nuts to think about just one girl.

A few weeks passed I asked, "Hey Carolyn, how about a movie this weekend?

"No thanks," she said.

"Nothing serious! Maybe a pizza?" I asked.

"No thanks." she said.

Heck Carolyn! We were friends before all this!

As time moved forward, I would stop by her house on the weekend, and her sister would tell me, "Carolyn isn't home. "

She was there, hiding behind the door, looking through the frame watching my face of disappointment. I could hear the giggling of young girls as the door closed. Nevertheless, I knew I would not give up.

Still each day we would pass in the school hallways and at the end of the day, we would walk to the bus stop together. Each day through our sophomore year, I would muster the nerve to chat. We were just friends, which was okay with me. Summer break arrived, we shot hoops at the park and I walked her home in the afternoon. We would stop by the Dave's Pharmacy for fries and a cherry coke. Tommy, Carolyn, and I were a common sight together in the neighborhood, but near the end of summer and the start of our junior year things changed. Tommy stopped by my house one evening.

"Hey Stevie!" He yelled as he pounded on the screened door.

I jumped up from the kitchen table, "Come on in!" I yelled back.

"My mom told me we are moving across river." Tommy told me.

"What for?" I asked.

"She said the landlord sold our house and she found an another place."

"That's not so bad." I said. "It's not far and we can still be best friends."

Tommy said, "Yeah, of course, but mom said I will have to change schools."

Carolyn and I started our junior year without Tommy. We continued our friendship at a cautious pace, and after what seemed an eternity, I asked once again.

"Hey Carolyn, how about a movie this weekend?

"What's playing?" she asked.

We shared a movie, a pizza, a soda " still, just friends.

It was a year of cautious affection. I had to be so careful and I didn't want to push. I was sweet and kind yet waited with impatience to press my lips against hers. A passion burned, knowing one day we would be together. Our dating became more frequent. Our friendship became stronger. Love grew in both of us. We held hands. We kissed. During our last year of high school, there was no one else.

We continued to date as our love became more serious. We worked our way through college, afterwards both of us found good jobs. It was time to settle. We had sown our oats, experienced life as it was, and remained friends all this time. I picked a time, a spot, and our special place. We didn't have much money and our parents had less. However, we were in love and nothing else mattered. I asked Carolyn to be my wife.

Soon after, we married moving into a small apartment on the north end of town. We had a simple life and interesting neighbors. Joe DeCarlo lived below us and had a bit of a drinking challenge. Often we would rise in the morning finding his car parked in the garden area separating the buildings. His apartment door open and the latest Willie Nelson album would be blaring through the stereo. Sometimes we would be jolted from our sound sleep at three in the morning, serenaded once again by Willie. As usual, we'd find Joe on his couch passed out -- the culmination of a night of revelry. Most of us would just walk to his apartment and turn the music down.

A promiscuous young woman lived next to Joel, and would often bring a young man to her home for an evening of pleasure. It was evident she needed some work done with the headboard of her bed. It was loose and would knock the wall in a rhythmic pattern during the wee hours of the morning. I would always find it difficult to sleep during these escapades.

Our neighbors would gather at the pool each weekend for libations and a game of pool volleyball. Belinda, an affable flight attendant lived across the courtyard from our apartment and would attend the weekend merriment. During the games, she would drink a wee bit too much and end up losing the top of her bathing suit each time she jumped for the ball. It made for interesting weekends, but after a couple of years, we were able to save enough money to buy a house in the suburbs.

We had been married for about six years, and six years of trying to conceive. Try as we might, each month there was nothing. It was fun trying, but there were no results. Carolyn always wanted children, but it didn't affect me either way. After six years of nothing however, it was becoming more of a concern. We decided to engage the experts and made a visit to the family doctor.

The doctor provided one option, "You need to go through a series of tests." He was our family physician and recommended a fertilization specialist. The experts will tell you it's the man with the challenge, so it was me first! It was quick and painless. The first test is the unpleasant one, checking the prostate. The doctor believed there could be a problem so he prescribed a strongest antibiotic possible. There was no change, but the result was an allergic reaction placing me in the hospital.

There were more tests and no positive results. The fertility doctor scheduled a final visit and began the conversation with, "After a careful study, it is my opinion you, as a couple are not capable of conception." He continued, "It appears your husband contracted the mumps at an early age. This affected sperm production needed to procreate." At this point, I am wondering why he couldn't have figured that out months prior. After a short conversation, the "expert" explained in terms we could understand; there was a "one in a million chance." To use his words, impossible.

Carolyn and I discussed adoption but the process was tedious. At the time, we were too stunned. We tried the In Vitro Fertilization (IVF). Once again, failure and nowhere near a fun as physical contact. We tried temperature, time of day, time of month, full moon, half moon, new moon and other remedies recommended by friends and family. The results were always the same, so after a while, we gave up and decided we would live with the fact, children were not in our future. It was time to get on with our lives.

One dream was we wanted to build our own home. It would have been better to do this with children, but we accepted our situation. Carolyn and I discussed our options with my parents. My father was a General Contractor and he and mom owned a large home. They suggested we move in with them while we built the house. We could manage the building of the house ourselves. We sold our home, purchased a parcel of property west of the city, and started a new chapter in our lives. Carolyn and I designed a floor plan, and an architect friend developed the plans. I walked the plans through the county zoning departments, hired the contractors, and planned for our future.

The property was semi-remote, overlooking a beautiful lake. Our neighbors were close and yet far enough away for privacy. The store was twelve miles away, but I knew after a long day at the office, this was going to be perfect! It was all so sublime. We had planned everything to the last detail! Our lives were moving in the exact direction of our choice. While in the middle of development, Carolyn began to complain about everything. Not some things mind you, but everything.

It appeared I could not do anything right. It also appeared I could not do anything wrong for that matter, but whatever the result, it may or may not have been my fault. Confused? I was confused as well. Coffee made her sick to her stomach, as did perfume, sweet aromas, flowers, food, and a litany of other things. Life in general was not pleasant. We would fight every morning, and each night before bed. She would begin to weep over nothing and she had frazzled nerves. She was sick in the morning, and sick at night. I was losing my mind and did not know which way to turn. I figured the pressure of building the house was getting to her, or worse, she had a brain tumor. I didn't know and it was starting to concern me. I made an appointment with our family doctor. She went alone, stating, "I don't need you trailing along."

She returned from the appointment, a smug look on her face. I asked about the appointment and she responded, "He said I'm pregnant."

"You told him this was impossible?" I asked.

"What do you think?"

I said, "Okay, I guess we will have to wait for the results?"

She flipped her hand in my general direction and said, "Whatever. He said he would call Saturday."

Saturday morning arrived without announcement. Dad and I sat at the dining room table enjoying the morning cup of coffee talking about the progression of the house. Carolyn was sitting at the kitchen bar next to the telephone, complaining about something smelled, looked, or tasted odd when the phone rang.

"Hello. Umhm" she mumbled. "OK, I'll see you on Wednesday."

She sat there " not a sound -- silence filling the room. I remember the day in slow motion as I turned in the chair to ask of the results. When I close my eyes, I can see Carolyn, my sandy haired, blue-eyed beauty, her beautiful face glowing red, tears streaming down her ruby checks. She was smiling -- not a little smile, but the kind of smile touching your ears. On a hot summer morning, August 1982, the impossible became a reality. Our lives changed forever.

"I'm pregnant," she said in a little squeaky voice, her shoulders scrunching up and her hands cupping her face.

I often think about where life would have taken us if Tommy and I had chosen the school across the river.

It all started on a beautiful afternoon while sitting on a bench.

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