In the late 70’s I attended a small Christian school in central Florida called Agape School. I’d never heard the word agape and the first time I said it, it came out wrong. I mouthed it as it appeared–a word whose definition was a “wide open mouth, esp. with surprise or wonder.” Unbeknownst to me, agape had another pronunciation and meaning. I formed the word, mouth ajar–with wonder–and said: AH-GAH-PAY. Florida was a culture shock. I was a Filipino-Black kid from San Francisco who barely found his way to class—homeroom or any room—flinching at the ubiquitous barking of gym teachers, suffocating in the stifling odors rising from locker rooms permeating with the ever evolving glandular functions of post-pubescent boys in a terrarium of Junior High absurdity. I was put on a plane and dispatched 3000 miles away to my mother in the sunshine state. Florida was palm trees, orange juice, Disney World and golf courses—that’s what I was told.
My father saw that my grades failed to rise above the C mark. He foresaw for me a janitorial future and constantly tried to motivate me to improve my grades. This strategic motivation strategy included the imminent threat of a foot (Namely his) up my ass, indefinite restriction (IE: No TV, No playing ball etc.) and something he referred to as Military School. “They’ll shape your ass up” he’d say as I analyzed my options in silence. My mother had remarried. I wrote her at the behest of my grandparents. She sent me birthday cards adorned with Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck that I discarded in search of legal tender. She lived in a home with a new husband, a swimming pool and a room waiting for me. I didn’t recall many moments being with my mother and father. As far as I knew, their split had been amicable: No hard feelings, right?
Florida—land of oranges. When I arrived I expected orange bulbs to drop like hail. Across the street was a house with orange trees in the front yard. Orange dotted the trees like shrunken suns. The fragrance eventually seeped into me. Lawns spread in front and behind every house. The sound of a sputtering mower always loomed. My mother was glad to see me after so many years. I had grown like a weed that needed yanking. “You’re gonna love it down here” she said. “The weather’s hot but you’ll get used to it. And you might see a roach or two.” My 6 foot stepfather added, “They’re called palmetto bugs. They live in the palm trees. They’re harmless.’’ Palmetto sounded like a tropical bug spray. I forgot about it when mom served a plate of red jello that had been elegantly shaped in a decorative mold–topped with a spoonful of whipped cream.
I had experiences with multi-legged creatures when I lived in the housing projects in San Francisco’s North Beach. They would crawl on the walls and across the kitchen table. I prodded them with a knife towards the silver toaster. My eyes would watch them dash up the side of the silver monster. I’d flick them into the gaps where they would fall into the coils, popping and crackling before ejected upwards towards the heavenly yellow ceiling. I wasn’t vicious or devious but when it came to roaches, I transformed. Upon my landing in Florida I had images in my brain of Mickey Mouse, oranges and space rockets. Roaches were the farthest thing from my mind.
Before bed my mother kissed me goodnight. I hadn’t seen her in a long time. I couldn’t see myself in her face but everybody else did. She washed her face with Noxema and I liked the smell. Her kiss was a blink, a small leaf landing in water. She exhaled a puff of air through her nostrils hitting my eyelids causing me to shut my eyes. I opened them and I saw myself in her face–for the first time. Mom turned off the light. The air was thick and sticky like wet cotton candy–the smell of orange trees and the symphonic drone of crickets that were seemingly stuck on the same tune. I woke in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. I opened the bedroom door and saw my stepfather—peeing. I was told that older men often peed in the middle of the night. I went back to bed. The toilet flushed. I got up again, turned on the light.
I heard a buzz. My eyes came into focus when I saw a dark object flying towards my face. Before I could blink I realized it was a cockroach. I flinched, attempting to shield my face but I was too slow, the roach flew square into cheek. My mother’s kiss was gentle, the roach’s was like a bottle cap. I hit the light switch and dove under the covers. It was steaming hot. There was silence then buzzing. Was it the roach? Or was it another type of bug? Had I known about these flying cockroaches…palmetto bugs, I would have stayed in San Francisco. I peeked from under the blankets, allowing myself a gulp of air but each time I did, the buzzing ensued. I kept myself airtight under the blankets. It was suffocating.
“Welcome to Florida” a voice
said. A raspy voice, the kind soothed
with a cigarette.
“Who are you talking to?” I asked
“Who do you think?”
I closed my eyes hoping that the voice
was my imagination.
“Leave me alone’’ I said
“What’s wrong, you afraid? I thought you were tough, from the big
city. All those cockroaches in the
“How you know about that?”
“Ahhhhh…everybody knows. Cockroach grapevine”.
Silence. I began to think. I am under a blanket, hiding from a roach—a palmetto bug—that I must outweigh by more than a hundred pounds—not to mention my height advantage. But in the area of wingspan, I was no match. I was suffocating in my cowardice. I felt like a worm–or worse–a maggot. A 13 year old boy—on his way towards man or maggothood. What kind of man was I going to be?
“Hey kid” the voice said.
“Ever heard of Kafka?”
“Don’t worry, you will”
And with that I sweated myself to
School was different. Unlike the large brick reinforced fortress of a school I attended in San Francisco, Agape School was situated in an office park. The building was a corrugated metal structure with a corporate facelift that suggested florescent lights, air conditioning and multi-stalled, air-freshened toilets fully stocked with toilet paper. I was a dot in a sea of white; a lone Filipino and black kid among freckled, pimply, innocent, sinister and other variations of white faces—boys and girls—from elementary to high school age. We began our days reciting the pledge of allegiance to the American and Christian flags. Our principal, Mr. Collins, led us in prayer and bible scripture recital. He was an animated guy who, had he gone into pharmaceutical sales or cruise ship hospitality, would have surely succeeded. We wore uniforms—red, white and blue. Some wore red shirts, blue slacks, while others wore white shirts, blue slacks. Plaid skirts for girls. The white shirt clashed with my skin which had, thanks to the burning Florida sun, darkened to the hue of burning sugar cane.
I sat alone in the lunch room. A few boys looked at me. One approached.
“Where you from?”
“Do you like snakes?”
“I’ve never seen one”
Kilmer was the class jokester. He had a laugh smeared across his face until it became a sneer. Brown hair hung damp on his head with a hint of a mustache struggling on his upper lip.
He produced a book, drawing it from
his pocket like a comb or knife. On the
cover: The Encyclopedia of Reptiles and
“I got a rat snake” said Kilmer. “And a corn snake, and a boa, and a black
racer, and an indigo snake, and a—“
“What do they eat?” I asked
“Rabbits and mice. They wrap around them and squeeeeezzzz them to death. Then they swallow ’em whole. It’s so cool. You wanna seem ’em sometime?”
“Yeah, I guess”
Snakes, I thought. How would I react to one up close? My duel with the flying cockroach was fresh in my mind. If I hid from a roach, how would I deal with a hissing snake?
“What’s your name?” asked Kilmer
“Anthony” I replied.
Another boy walked over. His name was
Johnstone. He was big. Over six feet.
He snatched the book of reptiles and amphibians from Kilmer’s hand.
“You and your snakes. You’re nothing but a toad. The only snake you have is a rubber
one—dangling between your legs”
“Hey, give it” said Kilmer.
I wanted to laugh at the rubber snake remark but didn’t. Kilmer seemed an oddball, but he was a nice oddball. The bigger boy handed the book back to Kilmer. He looked at me.
“You play football?” he asked
“Yeah, a little” I replied.
The boy had dark brown hair whose
strands teased his eyelids. He rubbed his palm into his reddened eyes.
“We play during PE”
“Yeah” said Kilmer
Johnstone looked at me. His eyes fell on my face as if looking into
it and coming out the other side.
“What are you, Indian?” Johnstone
“I’m Filipino and black”
“Filipino? Never seen one of those before”
Silence. Maybe I should have told him I was Indian. But in the movies I always rooted for the cowboys. I looked around and saw the glances. Maybe they were wondering what I was too. I began to feel like Cochise being pursued by those cowboys blasting everything in sight. I felt a warm chill spread across my face.
“We play football in the
afternoon. If you wanna play…”
Johnstone walked off.
“He’s an asshole” said Kilmer. Thinks he’s some hotshot athlete. Hey, do you
know what herpetology is?”
Kilmer opened his book again and we
looked at snakes until lunch ended.
Upon consulting the encyclopedia, I learned that herpetology is the study of amphibians and reptiles. The subject held my fascination when tossed in with a few things: 1) The story of Adam and Eve, 2) A TV movie I’d seen where a psychopathic scientist gives a serum to an unsuspecting man who gets transformed into a cobra and, 3) The stories I’d heard of pythons swallowing crocodiles whole. I was fascinated by snake’s ability to shed its skin and the decorative yet complex patterns adorning on their bodies. They, unlike us, had no pimples, dryness, or ashy residue that teens had to endure. Perhaps I had a future in herpetology.
I was under the blankets again. It was cool—75 degrees. A few minutes followed by the buzz, the
“How was school?”
“It was ok”
“Did you meet snake boy?”
“The kid with the reptile and
“How do you know about him?”
“I told you before, cockroach grapevine”
“Why don’t’ you go and fly to someone
“I like this house”
“Yeah, I know. That’s the problem. All you do is buzz around and keep me under
the blankets. You’re quite inconsiderate and you’re ugly too”
“I’m a roach. I’m supposed
to be ugly”
I tried to ignore his presence.
“I can’t sleep”
“Try counting roaches”
“Yes, instead of sheep. Count all those roaches you tossed into the
I closed my eyes tight and thought of
sheep. Baaah…baaah. They wouldn’t come.
“Did they ask you?” said the roach
“What you are?”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, you mean my nationality?”
“Did they think you were an Indian?”
I’m starting to think that you have a little cockroach in you. In this Florida sun you’re as brown as me–a cockroach. That’s what I’m gonna call you—cockroach brown. How ya like that?”
“Ha ha ha!” the roach laughed, on his
back, wiggling his little legs.
“What about you, you got a name?”
I lie in silence as the crickets
I was in my room looking at the blue
paint on the wall. I’d caught a turtle
that I’d kept in my desk. I’d snuck it
in without mom or my stepdad knowing.
My stepfather walked in. His afro had grown wide. Wet spots announced themselves from under his
“Are you gonna sit there all day?”
“There’s nothing to do, I’m bored.”
“Boredom…is a luxury”
He always had things for me to do;
pulling weeds in the backyard, cleaning the swimming pool. I was lazy in San Francisco. The Florida heat didn’t make me any more
energetic. I went to school but I procrastinated on assignments. When he saw me he was always shaking his
head. He told me stories of when he was
a young man. He worked all kinds of jobs
and in every job, he was the best: the best dishwasher, the best busboy, the
best shoe shiner, the best…
The phone rang from the kitchen. I heard my mother’s muffled voice.
“Anthony! Mom called out. “It’s your dad”.
I went to the phone, mounted on the
wall near the kitchen counter.
“How come you don’t call?”
“Mom says long distance calls are
“She can afford it”
“Anyway, how’s school. You learnin’
“It’s a Christian school”
“Christian? They teaching you catechism?
“No, it’s not Catholic. We say the pledge allegiance to the Christian flag”
“Christian flag? What kinda goddamn school she sending you
“It’s a good school, with nice
kids. One of them has snakes”
“You better stay away from them snakes. They liable to crawl up your ass”.
“Any hurricanes, Mickey Mouse, palm
Dad’s voice grew fuzzy in the static
of the phone. His voice grew distant and
“No” I replied. But they got roaches”
“Roaches” I repeated, louder.
“You smokin’ a roach? What the hell is
going on down there?
Dad’s voice grew louder, cutting
through the static.
“I said, there are roaches down here”
“Smokin’ a roach? Your mom’s got you smokin’ weed?”
“Don’t raise your voice to me or I’ll put my foot in your ass”
Dad’s voice rose. I had no doubt–being the omnipresent force in my life that he was–in his ability to somehow transport his size 7 1/2 shoe (With his foot in it), and insert said foot in my waiting and deserving ass.
Dad said something I couldn’t make
out, perhaps speaking to someone close by.
“Put your damn mother on the phone!”
“I said, put her on the damn phone!”
I called mom over and handed her the
Our principal Mr. Collins was a nice
man. He wore a red short sleeved shirt,
blue clip tie and blue slacks. A small golden cross was pinned to his tie. He gathered the young men of our school in
monthly discussions on topics that would mold and shape us for the future. Staying away from drugs and alcohol was
stressed, naturally, as a path towards a Godly life. One day he asked our group, all of us—hormones,
sweaty armpits and all—what is love? One of the boys, a limp haired blonde named
Wilbur blurted out “Tammy!” Laughter swelled in the room which Mr.
“Ok, ok…we know Tammy”, said Mr.
Collins. “But I want us to think of love, what is it?”
I sat with my tongue melting into the
roof of my mouth. I’d never had a
girlfriend but I liked the girl who sat at the cubicle next to mine, a blonde
girl who always caught my glance—terrifying me.
“Young man” said Mr. Collins,
gesturing at me. “Can you tell me the
definition of love?’
I looked around. Why was I always being put on the spot–first by a flying cockroach and now a guy in a red shirt and bad tie.
“Love is, uh, I think it’s…”
The overhead florescent lights buzzed as
my pimple faced schoolmates waited for me to say something foolish.
“Love is…” I said, “Being kind”
One of the bigger boys rolled his eyes. Another formed a weak fist and moved it in a lewd up and down motion.
“Ok, ok boys…knock it off” said Mr. Collins. “It’s true. In the bible it says that love is patient, love is kind, love holds no grudges. It’s agape…from the Greek. It means God’s love.
He went on about love and the golden
rule. I truly paid attention to what he said, sensing that it held some kind of
value. We were given a book called “Man
in Demand.” In it were practical things
that young men should know: Table manners, good grooming, good posture, how to
tuck in your shirt. It included a useful
equation that went something like this:
intake + no exercise= Weight Gained
food intake + sufficient exercise= Weight maintained
food intake + Sufficient exercise= Weight drained
I flipped the pages of “Man in Demand”. I came to a page on grooming one’s hair. There was an illustration of properly groomed hair and unkempt hair. The unkempt hair looked like mine. Why couldn’t I be a straight haired blonde boy? Perhaps it was a question I could pose to my friend, Metto, the cockroach or, palmetto bug later in the evening. Man in Demand–a book that was supposed to mold young men. Some good stuff was in it. And with a bit of herpetology tossed in, I learned that people, like snakes, can shed their skin. Perhaps even a cockroach.
© 2019 Tony Robles