Nerdette was in the bathroom putting on her makeup in the mirror. I was sitting at the kitchen table struggling to see my reflection in a small little compact. We were running late. There was nothing new about that, but this time there was a reason behind it. Getting Nerdette to agree to go to the New Year’s Eve party out someplace in Queens took a bit of arm twisting.
“Is his friend going to be there?”
“Yes, of course. He’s his best friend.”
“You’re not trying to fix me up again, are you?”
A few months ago the four of us had gone out together. Tree Top’s main reason for asking his friend was because his friend had that New York City rarity, a car. Somehow, Nerdette got it in her head that we were trying to fix them up. She let me know in no uncertain terms that she did not like Tree Top’s friend, whose name I no longer remember. She also let Tree Top know. So, Tree Top now thought that Nerdette was a snobbish asshole. Nerdette assumed that, because Tree Top was handsome beyond belief, that he must be a vain arrogant asshole. The were both wrong. Nerdette was painfully insecure. Tree Top was a sensitive, smart guy who just happened to be born tall, muscular, with coffee-colored skin, golden brown eyes fringed by thick black lashes, soft curly hair that hung down in ringlets, high cheek bones, a strong jaw line and a deep, resonant voice. It’s tempting to roll one’s eyes and say, sarcastically, “What a burden,” but sometimes it was. Just like gorgeous women have people underestimate their intelligence and competence, gorgeous men have that problem too. However, Tree Top probably was the handsomest man I ever dated.
Only an hour or two earlier, Tree Top phoned and asked if we were definitely coming. Finally, Nerdette relented. Tree Top gave us painstaking directions. The A train. Our to Rockaway Boulevard. Sit near the front of the train. Get out at the station exit closest to the front. He’d be waiting for us near the station. Then we could all walk over to a party some friend of his was having. We took turns showering and started getting ready. With luck, we’d be at the party before midnight.
It was a shame that Nerdette hadn’t decided earlier because we could have gotten a lift from his friend with the car. Instead, it was going to be a long haul. The F train to Jay Street Borough Hall where we’d change for the A. Then out to the deepest darkest Queens. It was going to be a long trip. When we got onto the A train, I told Nerdette to relax and settle in. There were more people than you would expect riding the train at that hour, of course that was still not many. Few people were alone. Mostly, people sat clustered in small groups. An odd hour. People going from one party to another, or going to a party late like we were, or maybe just heading home not caring too much that it was New Year’s Eve.
Nerdette and I got deep in conversation. Suddenly, I looked up. We were pulling into a station. Through the windows of the subway car the darkness of the tunnel turned into the brightness of a white tiled subway station. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the word “Rockaway.”
“Oh, my! This is it!” I shouted and we both jumped up and hurried out of the car. As the doors closed and the train pulled away, I said, “I expected we’d be above ground at this point.” I shrugged. What did I know about Queens?
We left the station through the exit near the front of the train like Tree Top had told us and emerged onto the sidewalk. It was a comparatively warm night for late December and, with our coats on, it wasn’t at all uncomfortable. I looked around.
“Not what I expected.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. It looks a little scuzzier than I expected. A little more urban.”
I scanned the street for Tree Top. At six-foot five he was hard to miss. I told him that I couldn’t predict when we’d get there and he had promised to wait.
“Are you sure we’re waiting in the right place?” Nerdette asked.
“He said to sit near the front of the train and to get out at the closest exit.”
“Did he say what the name of the street was supposed to be,” she said, examining the sign on the corner.
“I asked. He said that it wasn’t really a good way to choose a place to meet and that’s why he was going to wait at the subway entrance. He said that the station was located at an odd intersection. We wouldn’t actually exit on Rockaway, but onto Liberty or something.”
“Hey, Kid,” Nerdette said, “Don’t want to say anything, but that sign says ‘Fulton and Rockaway.’ This doesn’t look like the place. Do you think he could have meant the other entrance?”
“That sounds odd, but let’s check that out.”
I felt slightly uncomfortable walking away from the subway entrance. What if Tree Top was delayed for some reason and he’d come and we wouldn’t be there. On the other hand, we’d been standing around for some time now. It was all just odd. The streets weren’t quite deserted, it was New York City after all, but they were pretty damned quiet. Occasionally, we’d see young men in groups of three or four walking by. I didn’t want to worry Nerdette, but it didn’t look like a good part of town to me. As we walked past an abandoned lot, she noted the same thing. “Do you think this area is safe?”
“Are you kidding? Tree Top wouldn’t tell us to get off at a dangerous location.” But I was beginning to have my doubts. I was bothered by the fact that we saw no women on the street and the men we saw were all in groups.
We found the other subway entrance along Fulton Street a few blocks away. Again, no Tree Top and no Liberty Avenue.
We saw a group of about four or five young men cross the street about half a block before us.
“Let’s ask for directions,” Nerdette suggested before stepping forward purposefully and shout, “Hi, there! Can you help us.”
The young men through a glance over their shoulder and hastened their step. “We’re lost!” my five foot one inch hundred pound friend yelled as she took several quick steps that wasn’t quite a run in their direction. It was faintly ridiculous to what several average and larger than average men run away from my tiny friend, however it added to the sense of being in a dangerous place. Wherever we were, we were someplace where people didn’t trust strangers. I don’t know how long we spent wandering back and forth between the two subway entrances, but at some point we heard a bang, and then another bang.
“It sounds like a gun,” Nerdette observed.
“Don’t be silly,” I said, just making up bullshit to make us feel better. “It’s probably a firecracker.”
“I’m from Israel. I know what a gun sounds like.”
Now a cluster of bangs rang through the otherwise quiet and deserted night.
“I guess it’s midnight. I don’t think your boyfriend’s going to show. Let’s go.”
We headed back to the train station and headed underground. Right on the other side of the turnstile were a cluster of teenagers. Several boys and the first girls we’d since we’d gotten off the train. One of the girls approached us. “Has everyone shot off their guns yet.”
“Yes,” Nerdette said giving me a glance that said, “You see I was right.”
“Good,” the girl said. “We can go home now. We wanted to get back before midnight, then when we realized the time we figure we ought to wait here a few minutes. You know,” she said giving us a look like we weren’t quite right in the head, “you really shouldn’t be on the streets at midnight on New Year’s Eve. You could get hit by a stray bullet.”
“Before you go,” Nerdette interjected, “Is this Howard Beach?”
The teenage girl who had been talking raised her eyebrows as did all here companions. “Wow… I know what you did. You wanted the Rockaway Boulevard stop. This is Rockaway Avenue. You want to go to the other platform and get the train going in the other direction.”
“Yeah, well, I think we’re just going to go home now,” Nerdette said. At this point, continuing onto Rockaway Boulevard seemed futile. Tree Top certainly couldn’t still be waiting for us.
“Happy New Year,” the girl said, “and get home safely.”
“You, too. And Happy New Year.”
All the other teenagers called out “Happy New Year” as they headed for the exit.
Almost immediately after arriving at my place the phone rang. Picking it up, I heard Tree Top’s voice on the line, “Are you okay?”
“I wouldn’t be picking up the phone if I wasn’t. You’re not mad?”
“I was, at first. I was waiting. A train came in the station shortly before midnight and I watched while everyone got off. Then I just stood there. It was a long time until the next train. I was a little annoyed, but then you didn’t get off of that one either. Then I was furious, and then….”
“Do you want to know what happened….” I began
“You got off at Rockaway Avenue.” He said.
“Jeez. I was so worried when I realized that you were probably standing on the corner in Bed-Stuy. No one bothered you, did they.”
“There was barely anyone on the street to bother us.”
“Well, good. I’m glad you’re okay. My family is getting together for a New Years Day dinner tomorrow. Why don’t you stop by?”
The next day, we were back on the A train, this time headed to the Howard Beach stop. We passed by both the Rockaway Avenue and the Rockaway Boulevard stops. Tree Top still lived with his father in a Cape Cod style house. His whole family was there. Although Tree Top was born and raised in New York City, his father had roots in the South and insisted that we had to eat some black-eyed peas and collard greens on New Year’s Day because it was supposed to be good luck. The beans stand for health and the greens stand for prosperity.