The Watch

Rushing in to the living room I looked under the tree.  In my family, a “good” Christmas was not determined by the number of presents you got, but by whether you got what you asked for.  So that morning I was looking for a single box; I figured it would be no bigger than a deck of cards, just with more volume.  And it was there!  “Go wake up Mom and Dad,” I told my sister, as I waited impatiently, not daring to claim my prize until they were there to supervise me tearing through the brightly colored paper.

Christmas is a cultural rather than a religious holiday.  Every December, an obese, unshaven, middle-aged man wearing red velvet trimmed with white fur breaks into your house in the least efficient way possible, leaves a bunch of gifts from a sack he’s brought with him containing everything from bikes to dolls, and then instead of just walking out the front door decides to climb back up the chimney, where he’s carried off by a group of flying mammals to do the same thing over and over again at least a billion times more in the span of just a few hours, all over the world.  Remarkably, the soot from the chimneys does not soil his outfit!  Most of the homes have left him some cookies to eat along his journey in case he gets a bit peckish, which has led to his weight problem and to being diagnosed as diabetic.  He spends the balance of the year exploiting dwarves, forcing them to work around the clock preparing for the next year’s run; while he does provide room and board, he does not pay a living wage nor allow his employees to unionize (or leave the sweat shop).  Though he is in a childless marriage and living in a place known for its extremely cold temperature, he is said to be of a kindly disposition — even “jolly” — despite the deplorable work conditions of his elven slave laborers and his nagging wife.

Eugene Wood was one of the most popular kids in school.  He lived three blocks over on Norton Street, next to William Schultz.  For most of my boyhood, Gene and I were inseparable best friends.  Occasionally, we'd hang out with William, and sometimes Chris Esposito who didn’t have a dad and lived in something called an ‘apartment’ on Glenoaks with his mom and her boyfriend Carlos who had a cool van with a CB radio.

We played what we called “Copisons and Robbers.”  Gene and I were always the cops, William and Chris were always the robbers — which is ironic because Chris is a Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff now!

Gene always had the best stuff.  Not necessarily “expensive” mind you, but always name brands, the latest trends — whether in clothes, skateboards, or shoes.  His backyard was twice the size of William’s and mine, combined, with lots of foliage and trees — great for games of “Hide’n’Seek,” or for building forts.  He had a purebred Golden Retriever named — what else? — “Goldie,” and a talking bird in a cage in his room.  His dad worked in a hospital, and he had a gas-powered self-propelling lawnmower to cut his weedless grass with to earn his allowance which was way more than mine.

By the 7th grade, the other boys had started calling me ‘fag.’  It was less a statement about my sexuality than it was a way to differentiate themselves from me.  Something had changed.  Where once riding bikes to 7-11 to get a Slurpee together or playing “Marco-Polo” in Mrs. Masterson’s pool was a perfect way to spend a hot August afternoon, now they could barely stand to look at me.

Christmas morning, 1979.  Mom and Dad’s butts hadn’t even touched the cushions on the sofa before I grabbed my little box from under the tree and quickly liberated it from its brightly colored paper — exactly what I wanted… a digital watch!  It was awesome.  If I remember correctly, you pushed that button on the upper right corner once to display the time, twice to display the month and the day.  And I was going to be wearing this modern marvel of science and technology — on my wrist!

Yah, I can hear you thoughtful reader saying — what’s so impressive about that?  Well remember, at the time Jimmy Carter was still in the White House, the hostages were still in Iran, John Lennon was still alive, the space shuttle had never yet left Earth, and our idea of advanced video game graphics was to be found in a game called Pong.

The first day of school after Christmas break was over, I slid my wrist into my new watch band and walked the seven blocks with a jaunty spring in my step.  Wait till the guys see this!  My exile is over.  No more eating lunch on the wall by the bungalows with the deaf kids and pretending I liked that better than the benches.  I wonder what we’ll do after school?  Maybe Copisons and Robbers.  This is gonna be great.

Must have been after 1st period when William ambushed me by the stairs leading up to Mr. Pak’s science lab and threw me down hard on the asphalt, pinning my cheek so hard to the ground that my lips puckered as I screamed while his knee burrowed deep into my back holding me immobile except for my flailing arms and legs.  A pair of Chuck Taylor sneakers with spotless white soles jumped down from their perch on a railing, kicking my textbooks which had fallen all around me out of their way and stopped inches in front of my face.  "This is how I die,” I said to myself.

All turned quiet.  The Chuck Taylors crouched down — it was Gene.  As he reached for my left arm, I noticed something, there on his arm.  A watch, just like mine.  He took my arm and positioned my watch so the face was lying on the hot black asphalt that was beginning to burn my cheek.  Then he scraped it back and forth on the ground until the fake gold finish had completely worn off and the plastic covering the LED display had deep grooves carved into it.

Then he and William got up and went to 2nd period.

I tried to clean the watch in a drinking fountain at lunch, but you can’t wash away grooves carved by asphalt or restore luster with water.  So on my way to join the deaf kids by the bungalows whose names I never knew for lunch I tossed my watch in the trash.

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