Leaving Newark Behind

Joanne Zarrillo Cherefko
3 min readOct 6, 2022

Leaving Newark Behind

The musty smell of moisture-laden

Cotton and wool upholstery

In 50s sedans

Produces an irrational

Revulsion…

Perhaps it was the

Motion sickness while

Listening to “Three Little Fishies”

Playing on the radio,

The smoke from

My parents’ L&M’s, and

My father’s press and release

Of the gas pedal again and again

For no apparent reason

On the ride from Middletown

To Manahawkin.

Sitting forward and opening the window

Did not prevent the release

Of gastric remnants

Along the Parkway.

A certain preacher on TV

Provoked revulsion too.

Why this man of God

Sent me reeling and running

In fear was a mystery.

For decades, I thought someone like him

Was the architect of my nightmares,

Until the family picnic

When secrets unknowingly buried

Poked through the surface

Of membranes to pierce my skull.

My unknowing had painted a portrait that

Vanished under scrutiny.

The knowing must be that

My parents left Parker Street

To own a house in the suburbs,

Like other families who formed

An exodus from cities

Once cars became the norm

And the GI bill, the prize.

The knowing must be that

The butcher on the corner

Was stabbed, and my parents were afraid.

There was a shootout in our backyard,

And my parents were afraid.

Men with machine guns went into

The warehouse on Garside Street,

Across from Aunt Rosie’s place,

And my parents were afraid.

The long walk down a dark hall

With curtains concealing scary monsters,

And the stern-faced aunt at the end of the hall

In a kitchen that smelled of pepper and egg

Sandwiches in olive oil stained bags

Was what scared me.

And then, while 7, 6, and 5,

Barbara, Janice, and I

Played on the sidewalk while two

Heavily-bodied, smiling strangers

Approached us on the street,

Offering Janice candy in exchange for a ride,

And our parents were afraid.

At the picnic 30 years later

I started the conversation

About the men, my cousin,

The sedan, and the candy.

Janice looked at me curiously,

But my sister’s response was

Unexpected,

Shocking,

Revelatory.

I was the one offered the candy;

I was the one heading for the car

Until my sister and cousin

Stopped me,

Saving my life,

Or so they said.

I denied their shared memory

Until their raised voices

Blended in harmony

To tell me my past was a lie,

My memory, a hoax.

It would take years to untangle

The slender strand of thought

That drifted

From knowing to unknowing.

There was no trauma

In the memory of candy

Or a ride offered by

Smiling gentlemen in suits.

There was, on the surface,

No trauma deeply suppressed,

And yet, the aroma of cars

And a preacher’s likeness

Held secrets.

The epiphany, late in arrival,

Suddenly pierced the membrane

That shielded the idea of it,

Though I’m not sure of its truth.

The trauma of aromas

And the preacher’s likeness

Didn’t come from the offer on the street.

It was borne of the dissociative union

Of frightened parents and lessons

To be learned by a little girl.

Well-meaning guardians,

Afraid of the darkness on the streets,

Assaulted my sense of being

And excised the event

Into the place of unknowing.

After the picnic, the preacher’s image

Ceased to cause a reaction;

He was now indistinguishable

From any man of any size or face,

No longer the symbol of a looming monster

Of which suppressed dreams are made.

But the smell of old sedans

Still has a visceral effect.

I guess that has more to do with

Listening to 40s songs

And gagging on secondhand smoke

While waiting for my father to pull over

So I could purge and pause

The ceaseless back and forth

Of his foot on the pedal.

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Joanne Zarrillo Cherefko

Award-winning educator and published poet: A Consecration of the Wind, Fragmented Roots, and Souls Tilled Like Soil. Website: www.joannezarrillocherefko.com