Riverfront Rain

July 12, 2023

As a teenager living in northern Delaware, I yearned for blue skies. Their presence outside my bedroom window was a delight, signifying possibility for all good things. Their absence didn’t guarantee disaster, but I had little hope for a good day when I saw no blue through the blinds. I recognize that this reliance on weather patterns as the sole predictor of the day’s quality makes me sound like a 9th century villager gazing at comets or – worse – a millennial astrologist. I kid! There is no need to judge people who place stock in horoscopes. Human beings have survived for millennia by recognizing patterns and adapting their behavior accordingly. And I found deep, rejuvenating hope in blue skies. I felt truly alive under them.

But placing such importance on seeing the sun meant that I was hopeless on days of rainstorms. Everything dry gets wet, no matter the quality of your umbrella. Slight dips in the pavement, caused either by shoddy construction or the shifting stability of the ground itself, became dirty puddles. Guess wrong about the depth of the dip and your socks are soaked for hours. These are days when you just want to stay where you are, safe, warm and dry. But being a high schooler required me to head straight into the storm. And so I’d leave the cocoon of my bedroom, doubting that good things lay ahead.

18 years after moving out of this room, I have returned for a long weekend. Jackie, my wife, has remained at our home 330 miles away in Lowell, Massachusetts. This is a solo trip made mostly by public transportation. From the commuter rail and subway in Massachusetts down Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor railroad tracks, I arrive in Wilmington, Delaware. This is where the public portion of my transit terminated. Instead of taking the bus, I’m picked up in a car by my mother, Lisa. She bought the car a few months ago, when prices for used cars were peaking. Lisa is convinced that this car was involved in an accident, resulting in somebody’s death. We thankfully make the trip from downtown Wilmington to suburban Bellefonte without issue.

That evening, I eat pizza and complain angrily about all the injustices I’ve borne and witnessed lately. Lowell’s city councilors have been raising objections to proposed zoning changes which would allow construction of accessory dwelling units (ADUs). A number of city residents have also voiced objections, fearing a change to neighborhood character. These people, I explain loudly to my parents, are idiots. They have forgotten that the only constant in life is change, likely because they are close to death and are hoping it won’t come for them if they stay as still as possible. But I’ve seen Jurassic Park; something out there is going to eat you.

Now, I’m not worried about mortality. My primary source of anxiety is looming unemployment. Two weeks ago, I was told that my position at work will be eliminated on June 28. Until then, I will be on administrative leave. I’ll continue to receive paychecks and health insurance, but I won’t be responsible for any actual work. This is the first time I’ve experienced such a thing. Mostly, I am glad to no longer have to convince incurious people that equitable hiring practices are worthwhile. Yet I am also mad that I will have to find a new job and scared that I won’t be able to. I express this combination of feelings by calling the new executive director a fucking loser. But after dinner, I’m the one walking up the stairs to fall asleep in my childhood bedroom.

I awake the next morning with my head by an open window. It is raining. You know what this means: melancholic lamentations and disappointment. While I am now a full adult and don’t rely on the power of blue skies like I once had, I am also meeting some of my best friends from high school for a late afternoon lunch and would prefer to sit on the restaurant’s patio with a cloudless background. Instead, I drive toward the gray horizon in my mom’s possibly haunted car.

I arrive at the Wilmington Riverfront and remember my earliest visits to Kahunaville. I’d walk through doors adjacent to the building’s giant volcano and find myself in a gargantuan arcade, restaurant and music venue. Most of my birthdays in grade and middle school included a visit to this place. I wanted so badly to win the TV/VCR combo for my bedroom, but never got nearly enough tickets for it. Alas, I never will. Kahunaville is, perhaps unsurprisingly, gone now. I see its former spot is now occupied by the Delaware Children’s Museum. Different vibe, same clientele.

One day in February 2004, our high school principal died. It didn’t bother me much. I didn’t really interact with her, and she was a nun. I attended St. Elizabeth’s High School, a Catholic institution that wasn’t too oppressive as far as religious institutions go. Still, a number of my friends were obligated to attend the funeral mass. I joined them in solidarity. That’s the thing about Catholic school – it’s a lot of deference for people who don’t actually give a shit about you. But after the mass and reception, we headed down to Timothy’s Riverfront Grill. It felt good to be with my friends, breaking bread and laughing. Eventually, we had to split up for home or afterschool activities. I drove some friends back to St. E’s, to their cars and basketball practice, confessing feelings inarticulately. It ended up being one of the most important and joyous days of my high school years. (As I write this, I remember that it was also raining that day.)

Back in 2023, I arrive at the restaurant and see one of my high school friends parking his new car. I have known Jon for nearly 22 years, have been friends with him ever since I heard him singing blink-182 behind me in World History class. His wife, Alex, didn’t attend St. E’s, which is fortunate. I can’t rely on shared nostalgia for conversation topics; we talk about the actual world. I hug them both, just excited to be with these human beings. It is good to be with people you love.

We walk into the restaurant, up to the covered patio, and see more friends. Sara and Scott did not go to St. Elizabeth’s either, did not go to the funeral mass for a dead nun. Zak, another St. E’s alum, arrives shortly after we sit; Lauren (nun), Matt (no nun) and their baby Audrey (nun TBD) take the remaining chairs a few minutes later. We spend the next 90 minutes doing what all groups of friends around a table do: we bullshit. We tell stories about work, quote television shows, share plans for the future. We are breaking bread and laughing. Eventually, a tired toddler and tired Jon lead us back to the parking lot. But I am not ready to go home.

I follow the same route from the Riverfront to St. Elizabeth’s campus that I had driven back in February 2004. There are only ghosts with me this time, nobody to hear me fumble through feelings. I pull into the parking lot and look up. The trees along the edge of the lot are gone, but the buildings haven’t moved an inch. The church towers over me, ostentatious as all cathedrals are. The school across the street, however, seems smaller. I walk up the stairs to its front entrance, steps I’ve climbed in dress shoes 400 times. Today, I’m wearing Chuck Taylors in homage to my school’s colors: one maroon, one gold. I have no books, no classes – which is just as well, considering the door is locked and it’s Saturday. But I linger anyway.

As I walk around the building, I remember. There’s the room where we met during lunch with Mrs. Shenvi to practice for Academic Bowl. There’s the hallway where I got lost my first day and actually asked someone for help. There’s the classroom where Mr. Bellomo started every physics class with a meditation.

I come around the building and climb the small hill, returning to the parking lot. I look down to Canby Park and see a pink sky. There is no rain now, just the “Poo-tee-weet?” of birds. Every few minutes, a car turns onto Cedar Street. I half hope that one of the drivers, reacting to my presence on this empty Catholic campus with apprehension, will stop to ask me what I’m doing. “Oh, I’m an alum. This is my home.”

But nobody does. I realize that nobody can interrupt me here. Not the executive director of some myopic nonprofit, not city councilors visionless in their role. I realize that interruptions are only temporary, that the vast span of my life consists of the moments I choose to remember, the people I choose to spend time with. Of course that comes to me here, the place I first fell in love, the place I first became myself. And I remember freshman science fair, and Winter Ball, and the 2004 Talent Show, and the wall where we stood after school. I remember Lauren and Jon and Zak and Dave and Joey and Kirby and Mike. I know who I am: a friend, a convener, a beacon of light. And so I get in the car, pull out of the parking lot, and go.

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