by Matt Dellapina
Your friends might’ve seen you. You’d wanted to show Dmitry a taste of the old neighborhood at your favorite bakery on Nostrand Avenue. A taste he could never get in Russia. Rich red velvet cakes. Not that cupcake crap that litters every corner of Manhattan – but cakes cakes, cakes to fit a plate. The kind that need a fork. The kind that make you fat and happy. The kind you share. The bakery was now called Delilah’s Bakery. You and Delilah had gone through almost all your grades together before you left Crown Heights for those Chicago years of yours, when a cousin you barely knew caught word of your troubles at home and offered to take you under his broken wing for a bit.
But when you walked into Delilah’s Bakery almost a quarter-century later with your tall, pale beau Dmitry, looking for cake and maybe conversation, you didn’t see your old friend Delilah. Instead, only a few strange glances from behind the counter, lingering eyes that seemed to say, “Do I know you? I know you, don’t I?” And maybe they did, because while a teenage boy rang you up, you recognized the woman down the counter boxing up your cake. She had a hairstyle you were certain you’d captured on a Polaroid once and now was likely sitting somewhere in your photo drawer in the sunny new master bedroom of the old fixer-upper brownstone you and Dmitry had just bought and were slowly making into a home.
Kimberly was her name. You were sure of it. So as Kimberly strung up your box of cake from the spool hanging over her tall head of hair, you waited for her to make the first move, to mention something like, “Wow it’s been too long! How you been?” But she didn’t. Perhaps she wanted to, but then caught sight of the new Midwestern weight around your middle and the lanky white guy by your side and thought better of it. And in fact, you never really were friends. She was more of a passing classmate you’d happen to photograph once at the school picnic in Prospect Park. And after an absence of decades, while friends like Delilah may downgrade to acquaintances, acquaintances like Kimberly just trail off into oblivion. So you each silently agreed on oblivion as you and Dmitry paid up and headed out the door, the bell above it dinging to remind everyone inside that at least you’d been in there.
You and Dmitry walked back down the hill to Eastern Parkway towards your new home in the old hood. You parked yourselves at a bench to tear into the cake. It was rich and buttery with that touch of cinnamon just like you remember back when Delilah’s Bakery was Albert’s Coffee Shop. Of course you loved sweets, but this was really Dmitry’s treat, who despite being a generally agreeable man, his dreary Slavic-ness could often get in the way of actual smiling - the kind of person who, with downcast eyes and a pained frown, could tell you, “Yes I really am thrilled.” Desserts, though, always had a way of brightening his face like a kid’s and getting him to show some teeth.
The cake finished, Dmitry got up to move. Once any last bite was chewed, he never saw any point in lingering. Besides, you’d closed on the house just hours before and he wanted to get cracking. But you were enjoying the scene here on the parkway, so told him you’d hang back a bit longer. It’d been so long, anyway. So with a meaningless frown, he nodded, kissed you a short goodbye and walked off.
Once he faded to a speck among the joggers and dog walkers, you got out your pack of smokes and lit a long Camel Light. The best relationships you knew kept at least a few secrets, and if an occasional cigarette was your worst little lie, well, then your marriage was doing just fine. “They’re for digestion,” you’d tell him.
That first great drag sunk you back into the bench even deeper. Nothing like that first one, always reminding you to breathe deep, slow it down, take it in. Cigarettes were a great life coach.
You blew out that first puff and gazed westward toward Prospect Park and took in the faces bobbing along under the canopy of elms and maples. It was a beautiful picture. Lucky you’d brought your camera along. Well, not “lucky” exactly. Your camera had never really left your side since high school, when the kids would tease you daily in the cafeteria for always dangling that janky Polaroid around your neck. Your brother David recovered it from a junk yard and gifted it to you the day before he went overseas. But after every tease from a kid, they’d still ask if you could take a picture of them. So you’d set them up against the basketball hoop or into a group shot in front of The Islands burger shop, ask them to smile or not, and snap away. They’d often ask, “Why you always taking pictures anyway?” “Cuz they never change,” you’d say.
And around the back end of your high school years, a lot of things were changing. Reagan’s trickle-down economics never really drizzled over outer Brooklyn and so the mid-80s American shopping spree came to a grinding halt by the decade’s end, putting a freeze on the cash registers at the gaudy Sears Roebuck building in Flatbush, itself a product of a booming decade a half-century before. The writing was on the wall. Your mother knew lay-offs were coming. What she didn’t know is how your brother would take it. David had graduated high school a year before and was pulling in a decent rate at a rubbish removal lot in Bed-Stuy, but the work was filled with “idiots, just idiots,” he would tell you. He’d also seen one too many whispered handshakes among his grimy bosses to feel like he was getting a fair shake. So when Bush I officially declared war on Iraq and the front-line reports beamed in through your TV, David saw a way out. And with no current income of her own and what looked to be a quick and overmatched war in our favor, your mom found it tough to argue.
In the middle of your cigarette now, the clouds up above were seeming to gather and conspire a little storm. You watched them inch closer, shy but inevitable, as the August heat drew your mind back to that wretched summer of ‘91 and the unfortunate series of accidents that wedged you out of this place for a long time.
You’d come home from school and were nearing the end of your science fair project. Most kids would phone it in and do some obvious, moronic test like, “The Effect of Motor Oil on Plants” or “How Wheels Work”. But you were going for gold with a step-by-step diorama on how an image turns into a picture. You even sacrificed an old camera to help demonstrate, sticking the lens here and the aperture there, across descriptions of each magical process. As the war played on the TV, extra credit seemed to be calling you. You hadn’t heard from David much lately, but that wasn’t so unusual. Also the news kept saying a cease-fire was in the works. But the phone rang and your mother picked up and as you glued a picture to an old shoebox, your mom repeated something like, “Friendly? Friendly what?” into the phone, then just listened and listened and for a talker like your mom, that silence caught your ear.
Months later, you were out taking photos of the spots David used to frequent – Brower Park, The Islands Burger Joint, Mazon Candy Shop. Next was a spot along Eastern Parkway where you knew he’d sneak a cigarette now and then. It was to be the last in a series of photos called, “David’s Places.” As you neared the parkway, sirens were blowing and emphatic voices seemed to be trying to top each other as the melting pot of your old neighborhood boiled over into the streets. You asked an onlooker what was up, he said something like, “They hit a boy. These fools run over a boy and think they own the neighborhood.” By fools, you took him to mean the motorcade of Hasidic men looking like they’d just come back from some kind of funeral. And were maybe headed to another one they hadn’t planned on.
So Crown Heights erupted for three days and your mom wouldn’t let you outside. After David, your heart had already started caving in and now the few city blocks around it were too. So you mother got on the phone and called a cousin in the midwest with a real house, who’d caught wind of the family news and offered to help. Mom loved you too much to let you suffer here with her. And she’d be damned to let the brightest light of the family dim. And so you flew off from this dying city and began the second act of your American life.
At the nub of the cigarette now, you let it dangle it by your side as the heat neared your fingertips. People passed. It was a Saturday, so the Hasids strolled along, living off-grid for the day. Your Caribbean kin let the kids scooter down the honeycombed bricks of the promenade. And then this newer element again. These paler faces – the men in plaid shirts and old sneakers speaking to each other about binge-watching and duck sausage; the ladies with short haircuts and high shorts, voices lilting up and down like the California hills. This was not twenty years ago. It didn’t feel like you were moving back home at all, but to some glossier land caught in a perfect middle space. If only you could put a pin in it and ignore the thorns for the rose you saw. And now, the strange stares from the bakery toward you and the gawky Dmitry made a bit more sense.
But he was who you loved. And really, it was time to be getting back to him. The clouds had turned into a drizzle and a storm would be next. So with this overcast light just right, it was time for a picture. You stubbed out your smoke and flicked it away – the only littering a New Yorker allows themselves. You got up and crossed to the other side of the walkway, turned to face the bench you’d just been sitting on and set up your shot. Your eyes off the ground for a moment, you tripped over a stone embedded in the grass - one of the hundreds of stones at the foot of the hundreds of trees planted for those who died in The first World War. Instantly, your brother David’s sneaky cigarette breaks out here made a lot more sense.
You adjusted the focus, took a breath, and didn’t need to say “smile”, because behind that camera, you already were. And in a split-second, you finally grabbed that elusive last shot in your photo series, “David’s Places.”
MATT DELLAPINA is an actor and writer. He helped found ON THIS ISLAND - a live storytelling series at Ars Nova in NYC and created and starred in the digital series ADULT ED. (2019 Tribeca Film Festival). In addition, he currently appears as Tom Hansen on the ABC hit drama, FOR LIFE.