Escape to the Tip of the Island

by

11/10/2008

Indian Road Playground and Isham Park in Inwood, 10034

Neighborhood: Inwood

When I was 14, and living in an affluent, gated community in Manila, a handsome young boy from our neighborhood gave me a sapphire pendant. We were both members of a church youth group and were attending a party for new members. It was early evening. As our friends ate pork kabobs by the pool, the young boy asked me to join him under a jasmine covered trellis. “Will you be my girlfriend?,” he asked and then put the pendant discreetly around my neck. Before he could close the clasp, I quickly admired the deep blue gem and pulled it off and gave it back to him. I don’t remember what I said to him exactly. It was such a sweet gesture, I felt sad and embarrassed for him. But I liked somebody else. That evening, I told two of my closest friends. I asked them to keep it a secret.

“So why didn’t you take the necklace?” my mom me asked a few days later. The boy was the son of a popular Congressman and from a well-respected family. I didn’t answer. I knew she was fishing to see who my “somebody else” was. She said the boy’s mom had told the other mothers at the neighborhood association meeting that he had asked her for the pendant, and my aunt, who also lived in our subdivision, had heard about it and passed along the news to my mom.

When I think about all the reasons I ended up living in New York City rather than the comfortable, close-knit neighborhood I grew up in, this is one incident that stands out. It is said that the Philippine upper class is made of a hundred families who are related or went to school together. My parents’ neighborhood is a quintessential example. My mother’s sister and her husband live around the corner from my parents. My dad has former schoolmates at almost every street in the subdivision. The Vice President of the bank from where my parents got their mortgage lives next to my aunt and uncle. She is also my godmother.

Growing up, I was always hearing “You should set a good example!” and “You are a reflection of our family!” I am the oldest of four girls and as is standard in Filipino families, my parents kept tabs on me the most. The thinking is if the oldest is well-disciplined the rest of the children will follow. I left the role I was born into when I moved to New York.

In my early 20s, I was accepted to grad school at NYU and found myself in an apartment building on West 56th Street and Broadway, where I didn’t know my neighbors and the faces of people on the street hurrying to the theater changed every night. I felt that I could breathe easier.

I could have dinner and drinks and return any time I wanted. I could run in Central Park in a tattered t-shirt and no one would care. I could skip church on Sundays and not be reminded that I had added another day to my stay in purgatory. My roommate and I exchanged pleasantries once in a while but for the most part I came and went as I pleased. Sure, my parents and my sisters from Manila called and visited. But most of the time they were 10,000 miles away.

Shortly after graduate school, I married my American boyfriend who I met at school. It was a bittersweet moment. Now the distance I had put between me and my family, cousins, and the friends I had known all my life was permanent.

A job in New Jersey and the strong desire to remain in New York City led us to move to Inwood, the northernmost neighborhood in Manhattan and a short drive away from Mahwah, New Jersey by car. Inwood consists mostly of six and seven storey, pre-war buildings. Formerly an Irish, working-class neighborhood, Inwood is now populated mostly by Dominicans and former residents of the Upper West Side and Park Slope, who were driven uptown by the high rents and co-op costs.

Inwood is also known for Inwood Hill Park which has almost 200 acres of hills, baseball fields, and walking trails. In the middle of the park is Shorakapok Rock which marks the spot where the Dutch “bought” Manhattan from the Native Americans.

When we first moved to Inwood, my husband and I didn’t make much use of these amenities; since we had no friends in Northern Manhattan. We spent most of our leisure time eating at restaurants on the Upper West Side and watching movies and performances at Lincoln Center. Then I got pregnant.

A neighbor in my building noticed my growing belly and gave me her son’s bathing tub. She also invited me to join her mothers group. After our son was born, whenever my husband and I took him to the park to feed the ducks or pushed him on the swings in the playground we met parents with kids the same age, and they soon became our friends. Now that our kids are older, we walk to the park most summer evenings and share a picnic dinner with other families. While the parents drink wine and exchange stories, our kids catch bugs and climb trees.

Like most New Yorkers, my fellow Inwoodians are “immigrants” as well. They come from all over the US, and in our immediate circle, from 16 different countries. And because our own families and friends are so far away, we have become each other’s surrogate siblings and “best friends.”

This was vividly brought home to me a few weeks ago. I was in our kitchen making Kaldereta (beef stew) for dinner when my husband and our son, now 4, came home from the park. While our boy was washing up in the bathroom, my husband told me that one of the mothers of was complaining in the park that she hears the couple upstairs from her having sex—everyday.

“But we know them!” I replied in shock. I couldn’t believe I knew something that intimate about our son’s buddy’s parents. (Not to mention that a couple with children had sex everyday! Where do they get the energy?)

That night, after our son went to bed, my husband and I talked about the other intimacies we’ve learned about our neighbors over the years: what they wear to sleep, their Zoloft dosage, the homework assigned by their couples’ therapist. As we spoke, I had a chilling yet also strangely comforting sense of déjà vu. I felt that fate had given me another gem signifying the treasure of extended family ties. This time, I am not giving it back.

 

Tricia Capistrano is a writer living in Manhattan. This article originally appeared on Hybridmom.com.

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