I arrived in Jersey City with my mother and brother on a dark night in January 1986. Mom had fallen in love and had dragged us along to her new life with her new husband. We were transplants from Southern California, where our hometown had experienced a cold snap just a few months before. Temperatures had plummeted to fifty degrees. But this was worse. Even in my warmest coat, I shivered. My bare ears stung.
A few days later, my brother and I enrolled in our new school, PS 23. In California, our schools were named after mountains and fruit trees, but in Jersey City the education system had opted for utilitarian numbers. It made me feel like a number myself.
My teacher greeted the class. “How is everyone enjoying today’s warm weather?” She smiled. “It’s supposed to get up to fifty degrees today!”
We stayed in the room for recess—not that it would have been better outside, with the banks of dirty snow and bright crack vials littering the sidewalk. I was circled by a group of kids.
“Do you think you can beat up everyone in this classroom?” one girl asked me.
I hardened my face as much as I could, trying to hide my fear. “Yeah,” I said.
By the afternoon I had placed into the fourth-grade gifted class. I didn’t ever have to see those kids again. But my brother wasn’t as lucky. There was no third-grade gifted class, and so he was stuck, day after day, in a classroom full of bullies. On his walks home from school they would jump him, stealing his Garbage Pail Kids; his Starvin’ Marvins and Half-Nelsons were forcibly taken by Bully Idles. Mom signed us up for aikido lessons, and he tried to conjure the strength of his hero, American Ninja, but it was no help.
Not long after we moved, I was brushing my teeth when I noticed that something wasn’t right. I looked closely at the water coming out of the faucet. It was brown. I gagged and spit out as much as I could. We stopped using tap water for the next couple of days, and I learned that the water in Jersey City was sometimes polluted.
If Mom was worn down by the same things—the cold, the dirt, the meanness—I had no hint of it.
If Mom was worn down by the same things—the cold, the dirt, the meanness—I had no hint of it until I came home to find her, after too many glasses of white wine, leaning out of the window of our house and screaming at the top of her lungs, "I HATE New Jersey! I FUCKING HATE NEW JERSEY!"
But there were bright spots. We were now just ten minutes away from what felt like the center of the universe, New York City, and we spent as much time there as we could. Mom stopped cooking dinner, taking us to restaurants in Manhattan instead. One night, we met up with my stepfather’s best friend, Akiva, a bearded, big-bellied, opera-singing, yarn-spinning writer. He and my stepfather had met during their freshman year at the Bronx High School of Science, and they were both sons of poets.
Akiva would come over to our house sometimes, and he’d entertain me and my brother with his stories about growing up in the fifties and sixties in the South Bronx, fending off hoods. Like the time he was alone on the subway and a goon walked in from the next car. Akiva looked up to see a gun pointed at him.
“What did you do?” we asked, our mouths open.
Akiva grinned at us, a hint of bravado in his voice. “I just walked straight up to him and grabbed the gun.”
Akiva laughed. “See?” He stuck his hand under his shirt. “He wasn’t really holding a gun. He was doing this.” He pointed his finger.
Intentionally or not, he was letting us know that we were going to be okay.
I could hear my stepfather talking on the house phone in the hallway.
“Uh-huh . . . uh-huh . . .” he said. “I don’t see why not, but I’ll ask them.”
He hung up the phone. “Kids!” he yelled at the top of his lungs, his voice barely reaching my brother on the second floor. “Come, come, I’ve got something to ask you!”
I walked into the hall. My brother wasn’t too far behind me.
“Akiva’s been hired to write the sequel to a science fiction film called Re-Animator. It’s about a scientist who invents a formula that can bring the dead back to life.” My stepfather, a professor of microbiology, rolled his eyes. “Preposterous Hollywood fluff. Anyway, he figured since you two are so young and imaginative you would have great ideas. Would it be okay if he came over and watched the film with you to brainstorm?”
“Yeah!” we both yelled.
Akiva arrived a few days later. He, my stepfather, my brother, and I headed down to the semi-finished basement to watch. I settled into the green La-Z-Boy and focused my attention on the TV screen. Eyeballs exploded blood onto the face of an unwitting bystander. The score, a Bernard Herrmann knockoff, began, and the title flashed across the screen: H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator.
A despairing young medical student leaned over a hospital bed, his chest compressions unable to revive his patient. I thought of Grandma Maureen, who had died of a heart attack just a year and a half before, and Uncle Johnny, who had died just a couple months before her, two days after his twenty-fourth birthday. I could still remember standing next to Grandma in her kitchen as she showed me Uncle Johnny’s obituary. I missed them so much.
A corpse had been reanimated. Blood streamed from his mouth as he thrashed around naked.
I turned back to the movie. A corpse had been reanimated. Blood streamed from his mouth as he thrashed around naked, attacking the medical student and his dean. A second medical student pushed a spinning autopsy saw through his chest.
The movie gave me a glimmer of hope. What if people could come back to life? What if Grandma Maureen and Uncle Johnny could come back?
By now, there was a beheaded reanimated corpse. He had strapped the first medical student’s naked fiancée to a table and was holding his head up against hers.
I looked over at my stepfather, the scientist. Could he invent a formula?
I looked over at my stepfather, the scientist. Could he invent a formula? Maybe if he understood how much it would mean to me, he could concentrate and work super hard and invent it. Mom had told me that he was a genius.
The film ended. “A scientist couldn’t really bring someone back to life, right?” I asked my stepfather. My voice grew higher as I added, “That’s impossible, right?”
I hoped that he would contradict me.
“Oh yes, of course it’s impossible,” my stepfather replied, waving his fingers to brush away such a silly thought.
Akiva jumped in. “What’d you think of the movie?” he asked. “What do you think is going to happen next?”
My brother spoke up, “What if in the next movie the guy has to fight ninjas?”
My brother spoke up, “What if in the next movie the guy has to fight ninjas?” He started to bounce up and down. “Like, instead of being in a room full of dead bodies, it could be a room full of ninjas that he has to fight off.”
Wow, I thought. Why hadn’t I come up with that? I tried to one-up him.
“What if aliens invade the earth and the guy has to fight aliens?”
My brother’s eyes grew big. “What if there were ninjas and aliens?” he asked.
The ideas were flowing.
Akiva interrupted. “Okay, those are all interesting ideas, but what happens at the end of the movie?”
“His fiancée dies,” I said, wondering why he was distracting us.
“All right,” said Akiva. “And then what happened?”
My brother answered. “The guy brought her back to life.”
“Great!” said Akiva. “So what do you think could happen in the sequel?”
I stared at Akiva, trying to think.
“I know,” my brother replied. “What if it turns out the ninjas are the good guys?”
I couldn’t believe how good we were at this! I pictured a crowded movie theater, the credits rolling: April Salazar’s Re-Animator II.
A few months later Mom turned thirty. My stepfather threw her a party at our house, inviting a handful of friends and family, including Alex, a friend of Mom’s, and Akiva, who brought a date. As the guests started to arrive, Mom pulled my stepfather aside. She whispered in his ear as she gave Akiva and his date an approving look. They had only gone out one or two times, but things seemed to be going well between them.
The party was winding down. Most of the guests had left and my brother went up to bed. I sat on the couch, struggling to keep my eyes open as I watched Mom, Alex, and Akiva’s date walk over to the piano, forming a semicircle around my stepfather, who was playing, and Akiva, who stood next to him singing opera. I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore and decided to go to bed. I made my way over to Mom to say good night. “I’ll be up in a few minutes to tuck you in,” she said.
I had just drifted off to sleep when I heard the door to my bedroom open. It was Mom, coming to tuck me in. She sat next to me on the edge of the bed. “Say a prayer for Akiva,” Mom said. “He’s not feeling well and resting on our bed. His date is keeping him company.”
“Somebody come quick!” The words woke me up. Akiva’s date had yelled them from Mom’s bedroom. I threw on my pink party outfit and ran down the hall to her room. Akiva was on the bed, unconscious. My stepfather and my mother were stooped over him, trying to perform CPR. With each push on his chest, he sunk into the bed. Akiva’s date was on Mom’s private telephone line, dialing 911.
“He’s vomiting. What am I supposed to do if he’s vomiting?” my stepfather cried out.
“I don’t remember,” Mom cried back. “My last CPR class was in high school.”
He brushed the vomit from Akiva’s mouth with his hand. Somehow a roll of paper towels appeared and he began to use the paper towels instead.
Akiva’s date called out, loud enough for the whole house to hear, “I keep getting a busy signal from 911!”
My mother’s friend, Alex, yelled from the downstairs hall, “Me, too!”
“I’ll try it on my phone,” I yelled, running to my bedroom. Mom had gotten a private telephone line for me and my brother just a few months before. I dialed 911 and got a busy signal, too. I pushed down on the receiver and dialed again, but heard the same familiar sound.
“I’m getting a busy signal, too,” I yelled to everyone.
I kept trying. I could hear Alex coming up the stairs. I followed him into Mom’s bedroom. He was shaking.
“This isn’t working,” he said. “We’ve got to try something else.”
“Maybe we could . . .” I started to say.
Alex was looking at me intently.
“Never mind, it’s a stupid idea,” I said, my voice trailing off.
“What?” Alex asked.
“Well, there’s a fire station down the street,” I said. “Do you think we should go there?”
“Can you show me the way?” Alex asked.
“Yes,” I said.
Alex took off down the stairs. I ran after him. We got to the front door of the house and he stopped. “Which way?”
I pointed to the left and he started running again. I ran as fast as I could, but I couldn’t keep up with him. Finally, about halfway there, I stopped and stooped over, panting and grabbing the stitch in my side. Alex was several feet ahead of me before he noticed. He ran back to me.
“We can’t stop,” he said.
He’s right, I thought. We needed every second.
I looked down at his stiff dress shoes. He’s right, I thought. We needed every second. We started running again. We got to the end of the next block and I pointed to the fire station across the street, which was dark. Alex ran over to its side door, looking for a bell or a buzzer. He started pounding on the door.
“Help! Help!” he yelled. “We need help!”
Where were they? I wondered. Why can’t they hear us?
A fireman opened the door. Alex was still out of breath. “There’s a man. He’s having a cardiac arrest.” I had never heard that term before. Cardiac arrest.
By the time we got back to the house, the paramedics had already arrived. They were upstairs with Akiva, and the first thing that they did was put him on the hard surface of the floor so that they could properly administer chest compressions. Akiva was finally getting real help.
My brother was awake by now, and he and everyone else sat in the living room in silence, their eyes red and swollen. I looked over at Mom, who was sitting in the rocking chair, clutching herself. I crawled into her lap and she wrapped her arms around me. I prayed. Please, God. Please let Akiva be okay.
Akiva’s fate had yet to be determined. It hinged on what the paramedics chose to say.
I heard slow footsteps come down the stairs. The paramedics appeared in the entryway of the living room. We all heaved forward in expectation: half hope and half dread. Akiva’s fate had yet to be determined. It hinged on what the paramedics chose to say. My eyes pleaded with them. Please say that he’s going to be okay.
The first paramedic hesitated before speaking. “I’m sorry.”
I burst into tears, letting out all of the feelings that I had been stifling.
My brother and I had developed a stoic exterior to brace ourselves against tumult. But when Akiva was around, we could be kids: lost in a fantasy world, laughing at silly stuff, or marveling at the unexpected good things our new life had brought us.
When we drove to Akiva’s funeral, my brother stared out the car window, his head tilted toward the canopy of leaves overhead.
Mom started to speak. “You’re being awfully quiet.” She turned around to the backseat. “Are you thinking about Akiva?”
“Nuh-uh,” my brother replied. “I’m looking for ninjas in trees.”
April Salazar has told stories at The Moth StorySLAMs, Kevin Geeks Out, and RISK!, and she was one of the 100 guitarists who participated in the world premiere of Glenn Branca's Symphony No. 13 (Hallucination City).
Photo by Rachel Nuwer.