I. The park at the center of our town has a little plaque with the names of the twelve residents who died on 9/11. The plaque is near a bald-eagle-topped pillar honoring those who died in World War I. I always feel a little guilty when I see it, because until that moment I’m never thinking of any of them. I didn’t know any of those twelve people at all. I know a few of their children, my classmates, but only vaguely. That day fifteen years ago is as hazy and hard to recall as the rest of my early childhood years, and I guess I’m grateful for that.
II. My best friend and her middle school boyfriend used to spend all their time in that park. We were excited when they started dating: the boy lived in a house next to the local ice cream shop, and our flawed logic told us this meant he’d get us free ice cream. He never did. Still, after they broke up, none of us could go near that shop for a while. Part of it was the fear of running into him, but for some reason the ice cream never tasted quite as good afterward.
III. When we got tired of hanging out in front of the Rite Aid, we wandered down the street, usually making our way toward the park. We went into the toy store and rearranged all the Rubik’s Cubes. We went into the beauty supply shop and debated which shades of nail polish had the best names: “My Vampire is Buff,” “Pineapples Have Peelings Too!” “My Dogsled is a Hybrid.” I still have some of those polishes, by now lumpy and long-expired.
IV. A bronze statue of a boy eating a two-scoop ice cream cone sits at the edge of the park, his little bronze dog at his feet. One morning someone pried him from his seat and ran off with him. We couldn’t understand what kind of monster would steal our boy, and nobody really knew where he could have been taken. Eventually an anonymous tip brought the little boy back home. His kidnapper remains at large to this day.
V. Some warm evenings, my friend’s father and his partner performed impromptu concerts on the grass. They played nothing but guitars. They sang lots of Simon & Garfunkel, though they could never seem to decide who was supposed to be singing which harmony part. People occasionally trickled in from the street to hear these two men with prickly grey beards make them nostalgic, but mostly they played for each
VI. The high school hosts dances in the park a few times every year, called “Backwoods.” Past themes include “Whiteout” and “Wild West.” Sweaty kids trample all over the grass. Some bury bottles of vodka in the park to dig up once they
get there, or so I heard. I only went to one of these dances: “Patriotic,” which commemorated the spirit of America with a sea of red, white, and blue crop tops and short shorts. Cops guarded the entrance of the park, making sure nobody entered already drunk. When the officers wouldn’t let my friend’s boyfriend in, he punched one of them. On Monday, he told everyone in school that he got arrested, and that it was the greatest night of his life.
VII. Santa’s Village is set up on one end of the park each December. My friends and I kept going even when we were far too old because we liked how the white fairy lights and garlands looked, and because it was a tradition we wanted to preserve for a little longer. It was exactly the same every year. Elves handed out hot chocolate and candy canes, though for some reason their candy canes always tasted like green apple instead of peppermint.
VIII. The park’s namesake, John Alfred Van Neste, is said to have played for Rutgers in the first ever intercollegiate football game. Names of other donors are carved into the bricks that form the paths, and there are so many of them I couldn’t tell you who any of them are. I remember when a friend and I thought it would be funny to carve our names into a tree, like they do in the movies. We didn’t have a knife, so we swore next time we came we’d bring one. I forget if we ever did; I wouldn’t know where to look for our names anyway