In fourth grade we took a tour of East Rock Park, though everyone in school had already been, since everyone in school lived in East Rock Neighborhood, or so I thought at the time. Our guide was Ranger Dan, who was dumpy but handsome in that once-cute Dad kind of way. He knew a lot about birdwatching, could even tell apart the Connecticut birds that all looked like brown wet things. Our class was only there for the morning, so Ranger Dan just took us around the park area some and identified the trees (oaks, mostly), showed us his truck (green with a worn Parks Dept. logo), then took us to the invasive species he was going to hack out later that day (a sprawl of weeds).
East Rock split in a few rambling sections. There was the park with the field whose pocked surface sent soccer balls at all angles. Then the woods lined with trails and the Mill River where the O’Brien-Udrys went kayaking sometimes with my sister. Then East Rock Mountain, which was not much of a mountain, but majestic just the same. On afternoons the sun would dim last on East Rock’s cragged face, leaving an orange beacon looming bright over the darkening neighborhood.
Ranger Dan stopped at one tree by the brick bleachers that stood disembodied before the unmarked field. A couple of birds were making a racket, rocketing into each other, flitting away for a second, then going back in.
“That’s the real birds and bees, kids.” Ranger Dan said. Our mouths dropped in sync. We looked apprehensively at each other, making sure we’d all just heard the same thing: Ranger Dan had just talked about sex.
We passed the giggles like a hot fever until lunchtime.
In spring of middle school, everyone came to the park as soon as the cold broke. Everyone in the neighborhood grabbed a dog, a kid, and a ball and headed down to the field. It was like a block party every day, a grand excuse to drop everything else and go outside.
We started liking boys. A lot. This was equal parts thrilling and terrifying. For years we used intermediaries to deliver our valentines, then in sixth grade we would meet in person by trees: boys on one side, girls on the other. We started scrawling our secrets in the Black Book: who was cute, who was a good kisser (we imagined), who Sophia Gantenbein wanted to ask her out on the school-wide field trip. The boys started a Brown Book out of trite revenge, filled with all of their secrets about us. We grew immediately anxious of its contents. We fled to meet them on Willow Street, where the sidewalk drops off into riverbank. Owen, designated bookkeeper for the boys, set the Brown Book forward in one fat fist, switching it for the Black Book in Emma’s birdish fingers.
The Brown Book was mostly doodles. This was their favorite one:
Mountain with snow.
Butt with poop.
I am fourteen the summer I meet Egypt Baze—at an arts camp they let New Haven kids attend for free because we’re “disadvantaged.” In the picture they sent to the scholarship donors, they’d made me stand in front—small white girl smiling against a wall of brown boys.
Egypt is his own explosion. Every one of his features is huge: his hands, his eyes, his lips, his voice. He’s a benevolent black punk so massive he makes his own gravity. We spend the summer breaking the rules: sneaking out past curfew, exploring off grounds, breaking into the campus’s infamous tunnels where generations of students have layered sagas of graffiti.
The camp’s been over for two weeks now and we’ve been trying to kill time ever since. I meet Egypt under East Rock Park’s gazebo one night in late July. The only lights in the whole park are dying above us, throwing sickly shadows across our sweating skin. Egypt finishes a Black & Mild and casts it under a far picnic table. Its orange butt glows, then fades.
Egypt’s dad used to work for the Police Department, but now owns a big house and grows weed in the backyard vegetable patch. Egypt’s heard all sorts of crazy stories from his dad—especially, it turns out, about East Rock.
“Shit’s a hotbed for gay sex, Negro,” he tells me.
(Egypt calls everyone this.)
“I’m not even playing, police gotta pull mad random dudes out the woods all the time.”
I laugh. Egypt’s the kind of guy whose stories are so good that you can’t tell if you believe him, or if you just really want to.
I’m a high school sophomore that May when Mateo calls IDGAF. IDGAF means “I Don’t Give a Fuck” and it’s a sacred tradition. We skip school in solidarity.
I don’t want to get suspended, so when I leave after first period I duck around the gazebo, into the woods. Everyone else is cutting out later, including Mateo, so I decide to explore the path around the mountain’s base.
The trail is wooded and lovely and right on the river, which has its own sort of silver light. On the other side is a steep jag of rock and a road up top that winds its way up the mountain. I can hear the cars revving too fast for the bending road. After a while I get to a little field of yellowed stalks that Egypt once showed me. His best friend has a mean streak, once stabbed a man in that field to get into the Latin Kings. Egypt had picked him up on the side of the road, blood still on his sneakers.
I keep hiking for a long bit up trails I’ve never followed before. They get skinny for little stretches and then burst out in bare clearings, in great fences overlooking the dam, in one guy’s backyard chicken coop. Every time I am sure I have broken fresh ground, fallen private witness to some beautiful phenomenon. And then, a condom wrapper on the ground. An empty bag of Hot Doritos, waving on a branch like a national flag.
A couple hours later I head back to the park, sneaking around the gazebo to find Mateo on the swings. He’s late ’cause some customers were late for pickup. Mateo’s dealing, which isn’t good but isn’t so bad. It’s sort of a rite of passage at our school. It’s a way to make friends, or money, at least.
Mateo sits on the swing and grabs its chains. His arms are lined angrily where he has cut himself over and over. This is not something we talk about. Later tonight, Mateo’s father will kick him out of the house for being high, and the police will find Mateo gutted like a fish at the nearby train stop. This will be the second time that Mateo fails to kill himself. This is not something we will talk about.
I give Mateo a push and soon he’s soaring, audibly panting from his pumping legs. He lets go. For a magnificent second, he is suspended above us, wonderfully and terribly still.
My high school boyfriend has a busted Mercedes and nothing to do, so we drive to the base of East Rock Mountain where there’s a parking lot with an occasionally staggering view of the moon.
He chugs into the lot and parks. The moon in front of us is enormous and white like a giant glass eye. It sheds a white-blue light over the lot. We thought we’d be the only ones here, but a few other cars are parked too, evenly spaced down the line. An old green minivan sits a couple dozen feet from us. Its lights are off. A white-haired man sits upright in the driver’s seat, alone. The car on our right is an old Corolla: lights off, middle-aged guy sitting alone in the driver’s seat.
Suddenly there are headlights and the dim hum of an engine. A sedan, previously parked at the far end of the lot, pulls in tight against us. Single driver. Middle-aged man. He takes a quick glance into our car, sees us, then cuts the engine. A few minutes later he backs out and re-parks at the end of the lot.
So that’s how this works.
I wonder if Egypt’s dad has ever come to this lot at night, found two dads horsing around in a minivan, shined a flashlight on their stubbled, worn faces, and told them to cut it out.
My first summer back from college I take an internship designed for people who don’t know New Haven. Our orientation is two weeks of field trips and picnics and museums. The guide for our tour of East Rock Park is Ranger Dan. I don’t ask if he remembers me.
I mishear the preposition each time Ranger Dan says, “We’re going to go in the monument,” so I’m shocked when the gates are open at the monument’s base. I had always thought it was a myth that you could go inside. I’m not sure I even believed the thing was hollow.
The monument’s been there my whole life—a great, gray phallus topped with a soldier on horseback, or a woman holding a book—I can’t remember now, though I’ve seen the thing countless times. Whenever we pulled slow up the bend of Exit 6, the monument was waiting for us, welcoming us home. A few years back the city invested in some lights to illuminate the monument after dark. When the moon’s not out, the monument appears to be floating in space, some mystical star of Bethlehem claiming the whole neighborhood sacred.
We go in five at a time. Ranger Dan says it’s policy. It’s also policy to have another Ranger at the top, overseeing everyone. Inside there are seven rickety flights of stairs that end in a wee tower. There are two windows so heavily screened that you can’t entirely make out the view. We’re only sixty feet off the ground but the wind is exponentially fiercer than down below. I make a joke about my fear of heights.
“You’re not scared of heights,” Ranger Rae says from his corner chair. “You’re just scared of falling.”
Ranger Rae says he works with three kinds of fears: heights, snakes, and ghosts.
“How do you work with fear of ghosts?” I ask.
“I’m a ghosthunter,” he says. He pulls out his card and hands it to me. For the next ten minutes Ranger Rae explains how he and the team go into haunted houses and appease their ghosts through mediation—the special bracelets they wear to trap the spirits, the one time he and his team couldn’t resolve the problem, since the ghost was an old racist and the tenants were black. He tells us New Haven is full of ghosts.
East Rock’s got a view of the whole city. My dad taught me where to find our house when I was little. I point it out to the other interns. I imagine my dad inside of the house, where he and my mother have been painting the kitchen walls whiter, ripping up floorboards and donating all the chapter books. My parents are getting ready to sell the house come fall.
Sophie Dillon is a sophomore in Davenport and a New Haven native. Send her an email at email@example.com.