The thin strip of beach, which ran behind my house, was riddled with abandoned dinghies, dead fish and giant brown horseshoe crabs that looked both prehistoric and space age. Yellow foam washed up and no one ever went in the water because it was said to be nasty, with a mushy bottom. In some spots you had to hop up on the seawalls and walk them like a tightrope then dash across yards that came right up to the water's edge. In other areas big, craggy trees extended out into the water and you had to climb through them to make your way. But we didn't care. The little beach was a lawless corridor largely devoid of adults. That was important.
Returning home from Bryant Park in my usual way along that beach one day, I spied Richard Orjala. He and his brother were fishing near a seawall not far from my house. Richard was in my class at South Grade Elementary, one of many blond, fair-skinned natives of Finland who for some reason had immigrated to Lake Worth in droves. I hated Richard and he hated me in that way fifth graders do -- based on nothing. Because I was just a little bit more of a jerk than he was, I held the upper hand in the relationship.
I was a jerk in general. At the time, I saw myself as simply having a lot of bravado and being very worthy. But now I realize that really, I had gone on the offensive early on, sprouting prickly armor to protect me after my parents divorced when I was 3. My dad had moved out and my parents commenced child support and visitation fights. So I became a badass. Thankfully, I was never faced with having to beat up somebody. Nevertheless, I gave off the air that I had felled millions. This was especially useful in my town, which already had its share of broken-home bullies.
Part of my bad-ass profile involved being an occasional mild taunter of the weak. I think that may have been how Richard and I got pulled into our swirl of affronts: I recognized frailty in him and homed in, pushing him down to raise myself up. But Richard, who lived one street over, surprised me. He had some zeal in him, too, and his capacity for insult was unexpectedly high. This made him even more fun as prey, and thus was born a nearly even match for as long as we were in elementary school together. I kept the advantage, but just barely.
Most of our run ins have faded from memory, except the one on that cruddy little beach that day. Forgetting about our tempestuous relationship I guess, Richard asked me to watch his fishing equipment while he and his brother went home, maybe to eat lunch. I suppose I also forgot about our rivalry, and said yes.
But while standing guard there staring blankly at the condos across the waterway, blood suddenly rushed to my head and chest as I recalled that I was supposed to hate Richard, not do favors for him. Naturally, I now had to destroy something of his.
I hunted about. His fishing pole was too serious -- I wasn't that much of a meanie. Rooting around for a few minutes, I found a full bottle of rubbing alcohol, probably intended for cuts made by hooks. Likely his mom made him bring it out here, and his mom would want him to bring it home. Perfect. I opened the cap and poured the whole thing out onto the brown sand, feeling more than satisfied, wondering if it was stinging guppies.
I stayed until the boys came back, then made a hasty exit, running back to my house as if I was late for dinner. It was only a minute or so until Richard saw what I'd done. Normally, he was too docile to come after me. But this time was different; this time I suppose I'd pushed him over the brink. Maybe he'd had all he could take of me, the skinny little girl with the long brown curls subtly but steadily making his life miserable.
I heard his footsteps behind me mashing down dry brush in the huge empty lot next to my house. He was moving fast. I was moving faster. I took a quick glance back. Richard was red-faced, madder than I'd ever seen him. I dashed passed the old abandoned pit barbecue, the halfway point to my house. A few seconds later, I heard him pass it, too. I was scared. My heart threatened to leap out of my chest. It felt good.
Breathlessly, I reached my house, threw the front door closed and locked it, panting as though I'd just outpaced a mad panther. I looked out the window. He wasn't there. I half expected him to come leaping through the window shattering it like some superhero. But he didn't. He was gone.
* * *
After the sixth grade, my parents sent me to an all-girls Catholic school 20 minutes away, and I moved on physically and mentally, forgetting all about my South Grade classmates. For awhile I stayed in touch with three of them, and after a few more years, none of them. Certainly not Richard Orjala, my little nemesis.
Two decades passed, I moved out of state and when I thought of those South Grade kids, most of them scruffy little creatures from below the poverty line, I had this surreal assumption that they were all dead. Maybe because crack cocaine moved pretty heavily into that neighborhood and claimed a lot of people. Or, more likely because I had abandoned that troubling part of my little life; it was dead to me and so by extension part of my brain had killed off all my little classmates.
In an odd way, then, it didn't startle me to learn a few days ago that Richard Orjala was dead -- murdered randomly almost two years ago, at age 33. Horrified people all over Palm Beach County knew his name for a few days as he was the county's first killing of the new millennium, found at 5 a.m. New Year's Day having bled to death from gunshot wounds to the chest.
Richard had apparently just returned from Finland, where he'd gone back to live for 10 years. There, he'd gotten married, had a daughter, gotten divorced, came back. That night he was volunteering with his mom at a Red Cross dinner. They came home from the dinner in the wee hours and he was restless, wanted to go for a walk. At the same time, two predators were driving around ready to hurt the next person they came upon. A few minutes later, Richard was dead. That is all I know. And there's no one else to ask.
The thing is, I can't picture a grown man lying on the ground at 12th Avenue and A Street, his chest filled with lead. I can only see a blue-eyed boy with thin blond hair and a round face, looking apprehensive as he called me names across a classroom or chased me through a field with mild childhood vengeance on the brain.
My only hope is that after the sixth grade, no one treated him like I did.
Exit Stage Fright (2/26/2003)
Editor's note: With this installment we bid adieu to Germ Bag.
Cabin Pressure (2/12/2003)
Escape -- you might think it's what you desire. Until you've actually run somewhere.
New Traditionalists (1/8/2003)
It was Christmas Eve morning on Harvard Street. Marty and I sat on the hardwood floor near our...
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