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To Be Myself

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1976

Kurt didn’t expect anyone to be at the playground near the hospital that afternoon. Now that it was winter, the coldness of the metal playground equipment tended to override its fun. So it was a surprise to find a girl in a matching pink cap and parka sitting on one of the lower rungs of the ladder leading up to the slide, crying into her mittens.

“Are you okay?” Kurt said, stepping closer to the girl. She was small – smaller than Kurt, anyway – but he guessed from her bell bottoms and the fashionable platform shoes she was wearing that she was at least in first grade. He wondered if she knew someone in the hospital, too.

She looked up, brushing away the blanket of straight brown hair hanging across her face. “Oh, I didn’t hear you.”

“Sorry. Do you want me to go away?” He hoped she wouldn’t say “yes,” because he didn’t really have any other place to go while he waited for his dad to finish his visit. It was against hospital policy for children under 13 to visit the floor where Kurt’s mom was staying, and Kurt was only eight. On her good days, Kurt’s dad would wheel her down to the cafeteria and Kurt would show off his latest craft project while the three of them ate Jell-O or ice cream.

Today wasn’t a good day.

The girl wiped the back of her mittens against her face and shook her head. “No,” she said. “I could use a friend.”

The phrase struck Kurt as quite adult and cosmopolitan. “Are you from New York?” he said, because it was the first thing he thought of.

Her sniffling turned into laughter – but the sweet kind of laughter, not the horrible mocking kind that some of the boys at school directed at him during gym class. “No, I’m from Lima. Why did you think I’m from New York?” The girl’s smile was big and toothy, like his mother’s. Despite his lack of a hat, Kurt felt warm down to his toes.

He shrugged and leaned his sleeved arm against the ladder’s rail. “You talk like a grown-up.”

“Oh, thank you,” she said, blinking happily and adjusting her knit cap over her hair like a crown. “Well, my mom lives in New York, so maybe that’s why. And Dad and Uncle Hiram say I’m ambitious beyond my years.” Her self-satisfied smile turned back into a frown and she let out a shuddering sigh. “Which is why it doesn’t make any sense that they won’t let me see A Star Is Born! I’m mature enough to handle an R-rated movie.” She burst into tears again.

“You mean the new one? With Barbra Streisand?”

She looked up, startled. “Are you a fan of hers, too?”

“My aunt has Funny Girl record. I listen to it all the time at her house.” Kurt reached down and patted the girl’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. My parents won’t take me to A Star is Born, either. Did you get to see the one with Judy Garland on Channel 35 last weekend?”

The girl swallowed a sob. “N-no. D-Daddy said it’s too distressing for a girl my age, but I know he watched it because I could hear him singing along with it after I was in bed.”

“My dad wouldn’t let me watch it either. Even though Judy Garland’s my favorite singer ever, and I promised to do all the dishes and not complain about his cooking for the rest of the year.”

The girl looked up at him with wide eyes. “Really? You love her, too? Not just Wizard of Oz?”

“I like the Wizard of Oz, but my favorite song of hers is ‘I Can’t Give you Anything But Love.’”

“That’s my favorite, too!” The girl jumped up from the slide and grabbed Kurt by both hands before he could back away, bouncing on her toes in time with her speech. “My dad’s favorite is ‘I’m Just Wild About Harry,’ though. He sings it at every family sing-along, except he changes ‘Harry’ to ‘H-’” She went suddenly still. “‘Holly. He changes it to ‘Holly.’”

“I’ve never heard that one,” Kurt mumbled, looking down at the toes of his unfashionable winter boots. “My aunt only has Judy at Carnegie Hall.

“Oh,” the girl said. She squeezed his arm through his thick parka sleeves. “Well, that’s okay. You can come over to my house and listen to it. We have a bunch of her records.”

Kurt’s heart sped up. “Really?”

“Sure!” she said.

“I’d love that.” He grabbed her hands and squeezed them and was just about to ask her to marry him once they grew up, when he realized he didn’t know the most important thing about her. “What’s your name? I’m Kurt.”

“Nice to meet you, Kurt,” the girl said with a smile that could light up Broadway – or at least the front of the Lima Community Theater, which was the closest thing to Broadway that Kurt had ever seen. “I’m Rachel Barbra Berry.”

* * *

Kurt thought he must have the wrong house when the door was answered by a middle-aged black man with a voice like maple syrup.

“I’m sorry, I –” Kurt was about to apologize, but Rachel came bounding down the stairs.

“Daddy! Is it Kurt?” She poked her head around the edge of the door. “Kurt! It’s you!”

“Hi!” Kurt shook his head to recover from the shell-shock.

Rachel didn’t seem to notice. She grabbed Kurt by the hand and pulled him in. “Daddy,” she said, looking up at the man. “This is Kurt. Kurt, this is LeRoy Berry.”

“Hello, Mr. –” Kurt started, reaching out to shake hands. Looking into the man’s face now, he felt like an idiot. Mr. Berry had the same nose and bright smile as Rachel. Of course he was her father.

“Call me LeRoy. Mr. Berry makes me feel old.”

Another man’s voice came from the end of the hall. “Do we finally get to meet the famous Kurt Hummel?”

“That’s my Uncle Hiram,” Rachel explained, taking Kurt’s hand again and tugging. “Come. I’ll introduce you.”

They found Hiram in the narrow galley kitchen, mixing up a bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough. “For our guest of honor,” Hiram said, tipping the bowl toward Kurt. “I wasn’t sure if you prefered the dough or the cookies, so I haven’t put them in the oven yet.”

It was like Kurt had walked into a fairy tale. He was royalty and here was his private chef. “Um, both,” he said.

Hiram presented them each with spoons and set the bowl of batter on the counter. “Dig in, kids.”

“Thank you, Mr. – Is your last name Berry, too?” Kurt said.

“Just call me Hiram.”

Rachel hadn’t been kidding when she’d said they had a bunch of Judy Garland records at her house. Kurt counted almost 20 albums, and they had a couple books full of her singles, too. “I’m Just Wild About Harry” was on an old 78 rpm  printed in 1943, back before either of Kurt’s parents were born.

Rachel let Kurt hold it in his hands. He handled it carefully by the edges, angling the record so he could watch the light from the floor lamp shift across its surface, unmarred by scratches. “It’s beautiful,” he said, sounding exactly as his mother did when the first crocuses came up every spring.

“And you haven’t even heard it yet!” Rachel said, clapping. “Hiram changes the needle on the record player every other month. It keeps all our records flawless.”

He handed the record back to Rachel. “So is Hiram your mom’s brother? I mean, he’s not your dad’s brother, right?" He didn't add Because your dad’s black and I don’t think Hiram is. He wasn't sure about the etiquette of saying such things out loud.

Rachel rolled her eyes at him. "Does he look like my dad's brother?"

Kurt shrugged. "They both have curly hair."

Rachel laughed. "No. They're definitely not brothers." She smiled mysteriously before turning away to set the record on the player.

* * *

They got together again during winter break, after Rachel called Kurt to tell him that she’d gotten the soundtrack to the new A Star is Born on the last night of Chanukah. Listening to records soon became a weekly thing with the two of them; it was usually at Rachel’s house because she had the better record player and it gave Kurt’s dad a chance to visit the hospital without having to leave Kurt at the playground or with his perennially tipsy Aunt Mildred.

Kurt preferred Rachel’s house, anyway, and not only because he felt the absence of his mother less acutely there than he did at home. She had more records than Aunt Mildred, for one. Also, Rachel’s house was always clean. The music room had a deep auburn shag carpet that didn’t itch like the one in his own living room, but was so soft he could sometimes convince himself, when he lay on it, that he was sleeping on the back of a hibernating bear. In the bathroom they had Yves Saint Laurent hand towels, which were so beautiful in their graphic oranges and yellows and browns that Kurt almost felt guilty wiping his hands on them.

He and Rachel generally got left to their own devices: Hiram was often out golfing or playing tennis with one of his rotating cadre of casual girlfriends, and LeRoy always seemed to have some case he was working on in his study. Occasionally when Hiram wasn’t out, Kurt could hear the two of them in the living room, laughing and talking in a strange language that Kurt had never heard before.

“What language is that?” Kurt asked the second or third time he heard it. He was sitting in the music room with Rachel, taking a break from singing to play Milton-Bradley’s Game of Life.

Rachel tilted her head and listened. “Yiddish. They talk in it sometimes when they don’t want people to understand what they’re saying.”

“Yiddish? Where do people speak that?”

“New Jersey.”

“Oh.” Kurt hadn’t realized that New Jersey was so exotic. Maybe he could visit it some day.

“Sometimes they speak Hebrew or French, but they’re not as good at those.”

“People from New Jersey?”

Rachel shook her head. “Oh, no. I meant Hiram and LeRoy.”

“Are they from New Jersey? Hiram and your dad?”

Rachel nodded.

Kurt was definitely going to visit New Jersey someday.