As a teenager, night after night, I climbed out of my window on the second story, crawled across the roof and then dropped down into the yard, where my family’s German Shepherd, Schultzy, slept. I tried not to rile up too many dogs as I crept through my neighborhood to meet up with my friends at Jurupa Vista Elementary School. At first I was afraid of getting caught — the roof to my house was visible from a distance. But my best friend Rene, a year older, told me not to worry because we were quieter than passing cars and the poor lighting made it easy to hide. A wrestler in high school, Rene had brown eyes, brown skin and spiky hair. My older brother said that if the cops ever showed, run into the hills so they wouldn’t follow. Still, night after night, we played tag for hours on the playgrounds and across the roofs of Jurupa Vista.
The summer before I started high school, I played Nintendo 64 until Rene, a year older, got back from wrestling practice. My favorite bands sang about losing your brother, being on an airplane and wandering a city described as a warehouse. I read “The Wasteland” and understood nothing.
“At least you don’t have to do summer school,” Rene said as we ran in the hills in the late afternoon. All my life I ran on the lower trails of the Jurupa hills, which offer broad views of the Inland Empire — churches, eucalypti and a ring of red surrounded by asphalt: the California Speedway. I told Rene, a natural athlete, that he had a perfect life. He said darkly that he didn’t.
Some afternoons Rene and I revisited the playgrounds of Jurupa Vista with little kids from our neighborhood. Rene and I stood on top of the slide and shouted orders through a construction cone. We made them throw woodchips at each other and run through a line of moving swings. While their little war took place, we shouted at passers-by, “You’re living in a consumeristic world! This life is an illusion! The only escape is television!” Once the little kids grew bored and Rene and I had pissed off enough people, we went home.
Sometimes we hated on the ice cream man because there was nothing else to do. He made his living ripping off us kids who barely could read by selling us sweets that never looked as good as their packaging. He blared his happy songs, collected our money, then left…We pegged his blue van with the sticky orange fruit of palm trees. We hitched a ride on the back of his van until he noticed. We yelled at him to stop, then hid. We did this several times, each time yelling more desperately and hiding just the same.
One afternoon, we came across a trail that led to the back of a local waterpark, which had tall, winding slides. The pools were so clean. It was so quiet that you could hear the filters humming. No one could have peed in the water. The park was empty. The next day, we found the waterpark the empty again, but we were wearing trunks. We hopped the fence and dived in. After a while, I pulled off to side and told Rene that I was body-conscious. He made fun of me because it was stupid and then gave me advice. There was the sound of us swimming, the filters and wind. A while later, a park attendant marched toward us, but we escaped.
“Woohoo, I never have sweated this much in my life!” Rene shouted as we bolted past others on the trail. Running back, I said a joke less funny, but we laughed anyway.
One trail by the waterpark led to a cave blocked by dead white branches: the place where Rene and I saw a coyote in the middle of the day. It was the only time that I ever have. Yet, everyone sees them driving home — their gray-yellow eyes flare up in the headlights. Schultzy once chased a coyote that approached my mother across an abandoned parking lot and into the hills. We thought Schultzy was gone for good, but he showed up on our porch later that day. There was an idiot who loved walking his pit bull and laughed whenever the pit bull lunged at the little kids. Coyotes were like pit bulls unleashed.
As a freshman, I read the “The National Geographic: Traveler” on the bus ride home. Anna, a girl with dyed black hair and green glasses, sat next to me, and we looked at the Amalfi Coast in Italy. She remembered me from when I was little, but I never could remember her. She made me promise to take her to Europe and never do drugs. I still wanted to learn about drugs even after she described her neon phlegm. In his garage, Rene and I watched a show about puppets who searched for buried treasure while drinking liquid imagination. We ran wearing suits made out of trash bags “to lose water weight,” drank his dad’s tequila and listened to Nirvana. Rene wanted me to join the wrestling team at Blooming High.
Some of my friends back then looked like gangsters. When we sat together in class, we goofed around until we got in trouble. And by we, I mean they: Teachers considered me a good student. “You shouldn’t hang out with these friends,” one of them said.The coyote I saw on the dead-end trail was a black mouth snarling, as the rest of its body was covered with white branches. Rene said not to move. We waited until weren’t even sure whether there was an animal there or it was just our imaginations. I kind of wanted to see it. The few times I had run to the end of the trail by the waterpark, I had still expected to see it there, whatever it was.
After I had some family issues, Rene and I stopped hanging out. I saw him a year later at summer school. The teacher got mad at him for missing too many classes, but Rene pulled out his wallet and showed her a photo of a laughing baby boy in Cookie Monster pajamas.
“I have to take care of him,” he told her. “He’s my son.” It was his nephew, but she believed him. By that time, he was hanging out with Jason, whose dad let him smoke in the garage and drive a white Suburban. Jason was lean, had pale skin and light brown hair. One afternoon, he made fun of my Spanish while I made fun of his grades.
“Why don’t you hang out any more?” he asked out of nowhere. “Do you think you’re too good for us?”
“No, man. Not at all,” I muttered. “I would hang out more, but I feel like I am always the one who drags Rene out to do things. Our friendship is totally uneven.”
The next day, Rene came over, but I told my mom to say I wasn’t home. By that time, my twin brother and I had transferred to a high school styled like a Spanish mission, where the hallways never flooded and small olive groves shaded the lunch areas. In a forensics class, in which we looked at rabbit blood and bull semen, I told one of my new friends about the night Rene went to the hospital, and she asked why I had abandoned him.
I was jealous of Jason. Jason looked like James Dean, and he had friends who were older than us. His little brother told us that girls went up to Jason’s room just to use Myspace. I learned a lot from him. People do this thing when you don’t speak Spanish: They tell you you’re not a true Mexican. Yet Jason, when bored, asked me to sing canciones, so I sang with my 9th grade Spanish about my love for cheese, sitting at a table and yellow cats while we rode around in his Suburban. Jason considered me a genius. But I was lucky, he said, if I got laid before I was 25.
On a humid and smoggy afternoon in his garage, Rene told me that his friends in the locker rooms were chanting for him to hook up with this girl. I told him that was the coolest thing ever.
“It’s not,” Rene replied.
“Dude, I’m jealous,” I said.
“It’s weird,” he insisted. “My dad gave me condoms because he thinks I’m a reject.”
“That’s better than what my parents do. They want me to be a virgin until I’m 25.”
Rene was distracted. He put on “Karma Police.” Life is so confusing. Most of the time, we don’t know what’s happening to us or what we’re doing. Yet we have to act like we do.
While running, Rene and I spotted more bulldozers in the hills.The foxtail was gone. Construction crews watered mounds of dirt to keep them from blowing away, and some afternoons, we ran through the rows of sprinklers and wooden stakes. For weeks, Rene and I would grab a stake and knock the others down into the mud until they set up cameras strapped to floodlights, barbed-wire fences and signs promising big money for reporting vandals.
Summer ended and autumn came, and I kept to myself, sort of. My friends and I made CDs of Depeche Mode, Bright Eyes and Blur. We played baseball for grades. Flocks of seagulls bombed everyone. Rene and I joked about forming a gang, but didn’t know what to call ourselves.
One afternoon, Rene caught me walking home, and we soon met up with the brothers Max and Gabriel who had the house to themselves most of the time because their mom worked and stayed out in Los Angeles. To make a fire break, construction crews had to blow up the hillside we wanted to hike.
“We can still get up there without jumping any fences,” Gabriel noted with a mean smile. “If the cops say anything, we’ll tell them that we’re helping them blow it up.”
On the way, we talked about high school. My chemistry teacher told us that she hated teaching and the girl her son wanted to marry. Jason got ringworm. A mark of popularity was how badly somebody wanted to fight you. When two students got caught having sex in the bathroom, the female security guard wouldn’t let the girl wipe the come off her face. I had read a New York Times article about the use of witchcraft to disown stepchildren in Africa.
Cars sped by. Rene ripped out a few saplings on the side of the road, saying, “Look, I have a Gameboy! Paper! A motorcycle!” We laughed. The fields with bulldozers and water trucks crept into view. Dirt mounds were fenced off and under surveillance. The hillside we hiked to had an oblique view of the construction site, and overlooked the chicken farms, electrical towers, freeways and warehouses of Fontana. We doubted the workers would say anything if they saw us. The hillside itself was partially shattered now. Bright boulders had settled on the slope above a pit of gravel.
“Whoever makes the biggest explosion wins,” Gabriel explained.
Then we talked about “The Pregnant Girl,” her belly round like the moon. Max told us his sister, a tank mechanic in Afghanistan, was moving to the Pennsylvania when she finished serving. Tired of seeming relatively weak, I played to be the most daring. I put my arm beneath teetering boulders to raze their foundations. At some point I launched a rock the size of a refrigerator down the hill. It wobbled midair and then shattered into energetic pieces. All of us lay back, tired, and looked out at the San Bernardino Valley, where the smog made things seem farther away than they actually were. Rene told me again that he wanted to start a gang but he didn’t know what to call ourselves. I told him that it was cool idea when all I really thought about was prison. A year later would be Rene aimlessly stalking other people’s yards with broken eyes and a dozed expression. The police would force him to the ground, then rush him to the hospital where his stomach could get pumped. Max got up, worried about his facial piercings. I was covered with dust from sliding all over the place. I had turned darker than everybody. There were more boulders, but we couldn’t knock them down without getting in their way, so we left.
Sometime later, Rene caught me walking home on a warm winter afternoon. I said I was just visiting, doing fine. He told me that he had to do 40 hours of community service because the cops had caught him and Jason smoking at the railroad tracks. When I visit the house in the Inland Empire, I look at his backyard to see whether he’s taking out the trash or whether they still have a Shih Tzu. Standing on the curb, Rene had something of a goatee, and his hair was fiercely spiked the last time I saw him. He wore a white shirt and long khaki shorts. His eyes were faint red against the pink desert sky. For being such a sweet place to grow up, the suburbs offer nowhere once you do.
“Josh,” Rene said. “Let’s hang out again.”
“Yeah, man,” I said weakly. “We should.”
Contact Josh Escobar at [email protected]