Reflections of the ceiling fan were captured in the shattered glass beneath the window frame. Dad was in the middle of the room holding a saucer identical to the one he’d just thrown on the floor. Mom was barely inside the doorframe, her legs were spread wide. She looked domineering, even though she was without a projectile. The nightstand next to the bed was toppled over, an array of magazines lay cozily on the hardwood floor, a closed tube of lipstick beside them.
I hid behind mom, wrapping my arms around her thigh. She spat at dad; the loogie landed before him. He gazed at the dampened section of the carpet with a look of cross indifference. Then, he noticed that I was sidled up beside mom—before then, I’d been out of sight, crouched, hiding in the hallway.
He stepped towards us as a bear would a campsite.
“What’s Joey doing in here?”
Mom looked at me askance, “I don’t control him.”
Dad blindly tossed the saucer onto the pile of magazines. “You best,” he said. Then to me, “Why’re you here?
In a voice that hardly sounded like my own, I shrieked.
~ ~ ~
A fleet of boats hugs the dock of the Boston Harbor Hotel, their bows rising and falling at the whim of the undulating bay. It’s nearing midnight on Saturday night. Bethany pulls her lengthy jacket across her chest while keeping her focus on Joey’s tall, chapped lips. Her disdainful glare sinks into his skin like a flat stone thrown into a still pond.
“I shouldn’t’ve—” Joey starts.
Bethany is leaning against the railing that divides the dock from the deck, trying to collect her thoughts; they keep spilling into one another, soupy, creating an indecipherable, inseparable mass. She holds her hand up as if to say Leave me my dignity.
In his eighteen years, Joey has come to see himself as a disaffected young man, a boy immune to the wants of others, his interior world so secure and cramped as to resemble solitary confinement—he thinks this a positive; but he can’t deny the—what he deems shameful—urge to step besides Bethany and place his hand on hers. Her fingers would feel velvety against his own. The spearhead tattoo on the outside of her middle finger, although appearing 2-dimensional, has slight ridges from improper healing, and he wishes to map out its every irregularity.
~ ~ ~
Bethany came from Irish-Catholic parents that did not approve of much: they didn’t approve of Catholics that didn’t attend mass, the comingling of races in Bethany’s high school, sex before marriage, or, really, any deviation from their stiff cultural norms. Bethany was barely eighteen when her parents had given her permission—not that their lack of permission was an infringing presence—to ride the T unaccompanied.
It was the afternoon when she received permission and ventured off to get the spearhead at a tattoo parlor in Allston where she knew the artist, an old friend from grammar school. Her familiarity with the artist assuaged her guilt; she could use it to comfort her parents when they eventually found out.
On her return—in pain, the adrenaline wearing off, an undeserved shame setting in—she saw Joey sitting alone in the hallway with his backpack leaning against the door of his family’s apartment. He looked ghostly, lost. He was nearly fourteen. There was no sound leaking from Joey’s apartment, and he didn’t look like he was waiting to be let in—he’d set up camp: his backpack was unzipped and he had a notebook and a colorful textbook on the floor, a planner flipped open to the appropriate date, and a Monster Energy, cracked and fizzling.
As Bethany shuffled out of the elevator, Joey pointed to her with a vacant grin.
“What?” she asked.
Bethany’s middle finger was wrapped in plastic, and she was trying to slip a glove over her hand. He pointed again.
“This?” She lifted her hand with its outside facing Joey.
Without expression—curious, fearful, excited—he nodded.
Joey got up from his seated position and bent forward to further examine the saran wrapped tattoo. She extended her arm and tilted her middle finger downwards, “I wanted my first one to be simple. It looked—I don’t know—elegant.”
Joey looked up, his hollowed, acned face before hers, and whispered, “Elegant.”
Bethany forced a smile to match the one that had sprouted on Joey and pulled her hand away. She popped the glove on and turned around, hurriedly leaving without a response.
After the door shut, Joey, insulted but pleased to have gotten a reaction, sat back down and continued his work.
When they ran into one another over the next few years, the first thing Joey would say was, “That bracelet looks elegant,” or, “Your hair, it looks elegant.” He always seemed to appear out of nowhere: in their building’s parking lot, Star Market, waiting for the T. Alone. Aimless and questioning. His cheeks, his entirety, still retained the innocent fleshiness of boyhood.
Four years his senior, Bethany giggled at his remarks, allowing him his prideful moment of open admiration, always quick to scurry away soon after; however, as Joey grew taller, producing sinewy arms and a vascular neck, and as he started showing up outside her apartment with welts on his forearms and thin, lengthy scabs that ran from his temple to his jaw, Bethany put a stop to his humoring.
~ ~ ~
The bay between Boston and East Boston looks gaping, endless even. Bethany can see the towers on Eastie’s coast, but she can’t see the space where the water meets the land.
Joey stands motionless besides her. “Your parents are going to be so pissed.”
Bethany regards him with a cool glare. That besmirching face of his: the anchored jaw, the glittering studs on his ears and the one on his nose, the baleful eyes. He looks so childlike. So pleading. Had he ever grown?
“I’m going to the car,” Bethany says.
~ ~ ~
When Joey was sixteen and Bethany twenty. Joey had slipped out of his apartment and shut the door quietly, as if trying to not wake a colicky infant. He ambled over to Bethany’s apartment with a stiff gait, an arm slung over his head. The streetlamps glared through the hallway’s bay window and from outside Bethany’s apartment Joey could see 747’s fall from the speckled evening sky into Logan.
He banged on Bethany’s door. Calmly at first and indignant soon after.
Bethany answered, irritated, “It’s after six,” and stepped out into the hallway.
Joey put his hand on the wall, hiding a sheepish smile beneath the bangs that drooped over his face. “You’re not going to believe it.”
“You can’t keep coming here.”
He kept his head bowed. He was patient.
“Did you try and stop them?” she asked.
Joey laughed, “Christ on the cross.”
“Are they okay?”
Joey mimed a punch. “Mom threw a hook to his chin, over the shoulder like she was chucking a sack of potatoes.”
“Are they still in your apartment?”
“Can I come in?”
She shook her head, “The stairwell.”
They snuck across the hallway and into the stairwell. Their building was erected in the early 1970’s—around the same time Boston acted upon its decade-old desegregation plan—and it hadn’t been touched since. The original paint had chipped, and its stateliness had disintegrated into a decrepitude that the realtors touted as a selling-point for Boston’s countless incoming students.
It wouldn’t be long before their families would be forced to move.
“I don’t feel much safer here.” Joey said.
“Sorry,” she mussed her hair into place. “Where are they now?”
“Mom was on the couch when I got out of there. Dad took her punch and then swung back with his own. Got her in the forehead. Have you ever seen anyone get hit in the forehead?”
“Me neither. She went straight back and hit the armchair. She was limp for a minute. I helped her onto the couch and she got talking after a little. Dad sat down next to her. Mom pushed him away but he insisted. Soon, he was stroking her hair and she was curled up in his lap.”
Bethany had her fingers interlocked. Her eyes were focused on the stair between her legs: black, flattened gum and pale yellow concrete.
Thinking on it, Joey chuckled, “Christ, did she get it.”
“It’s not funny, Joey.”
Against his wishes, Joey’s smirk vanished. Shortly thereafter, almost instantaneously, he became sorrowful, receding into a damp, cold place within himself, a place he’d built out of Legos and hot chocolate years ago when he hadn’t the confidence to tell anyone what was happening in his apartment. It was safe there, albeit temporarily.
Bethany watched plaintively, unmoved. She didn’t want to encourage this relationship, wherein he comes running to her after the fights in his apartment. It was becoming too much to bear. But the despondency in his posture—sitting upright, rigid, staring at the sloping ceiling, his right hand clung to the railing of the stairwell as if it would keep him from falling over—was testing her.
“We can see if anyone else is around,” she suggested.
“They’re my parents,” he said, as though that wasn’t already clear.
~ ~ ~
The backlight of the Chinatown Gate shines across Atlantic Avenue. Luxury SUV’s crowd one another as Bethany leans against the hood of her car. She traces the cut that ran up her left forearm; it hasn’t scabbed over yet—that would take a couple days. The clock strikes midnight.
Joey runs up to the car. He looks flustered.
“Your mom just called.”
To Joey’s surprise, Bethany is unfazed. “Did you pick up?”
“No, no. She left a voicemail asking where you were.”
“You didn’t respond?”
“Of course not.”
“Then why do you look so worried?”
He holds his hands together; it keeps them from shaking, and the tactile sensation of one hand touching the other grounds him.
“Because they know you’re missing.” Joey insists.
“I’m not missing. I’m out of the house.”
Joey scoffs. Bethany remains poised against the car.
“Let’s just go back,” she says.
“What about your parents?”
Bethany opens the car door, “You can sleep on my couch for the night.”
“They’re going to want an explanation.”
“At this point, I’d be happy to give—,”she steps inside and closes the door.
~ ~ ~
When Joey was ten, trapped within the four pitiful walls of his bedroom, hiding from the distasteful sound of his mother’s ever-present hacking cough, he would kneel by his bedside window with his fingers gripping the windowsill. Only his eyes and forehead would enter the frame. He was waiting for the return of the purple-haired girl that lived down the hall. She looked like she could be his sister: she had the same freckled skin, narrow shoulders, and deep-set eyes as he did. They each had thin hair that parted in the middle, and she had the same shape of his mother’s face, but without the foul words that came from it.
In the precious seconds between when the bus dropped her off and when she entered the building, Joey would be preoccupied by something resembling faith.
~ ~ ~
Earlier on Saturday night before Joey and Bethany went to the harbor, Joey’s parents had returned from a night out in Mattapan. Joey got home from work only a few minutes after them, exhausted, his ability to focus slipping as he stumbled into the building. His day was long: school then work, it was all he could do not to fall asleep on the red line, resting his sprawling forehead on a stranger’s shoulder. His feet had dragged along Fields Corner’s grated platform and the murmuring darkness was quick to envelop him; but he had a tenuous plan for his future, which made his exhaustion just a bit lighter: he was going to save up and rent a room in Jamaica Plains. Yes, that was the dream and Joey thought of it often. He imagined himself living in a three-story Victorian, ornate but weathered, steep wooden steps leading to a front porch, with his room on the top floor, maybe in a spire, in a four-bedroom apartment. His three roommates, college students, probably, would be busy, feverous, and they’d invite him to their parties and their collegial hangouts. They’d come from rich families with warm and distant parents that doled out affection in the form of unlimited LTE and transcontinental vacations, and they’d pay for all the things Joey wouldn’t want to: weed, snacks, booze.
In that apartment, Joey would be free from his family.
The tight living room in Joey’s apartment held the remnants of a get-together Joey’s parents arranged: a scattering of cups on the available counters, the lights dimmed except for the standing lamp alongside the television, the stale smell of smoke clinging to the room’s fabric surfaces. Joey had fallen into the apartment with dried sweat around his collar, a ring of salt, and his hair was draped along his brow in damp clumps. Across the room his mother lounged on their velvet sofa with her face snuggled into its pleated armrest, hugging a century-old throw pillow, virtually immovable, the room probably spinning. His father emerged from the bathroom and stood beside Joey, his forehead rumpled into folds of consternation.
For a flash, all Joey could hear was the sound of his own breathing.
“Where were you, Joe-bags?” his father asked.
Joey scanned his father from the corner of his eyes, trying to keep him from registering his fear, his instinctual flinch. Joey’s father had a loose gaze that traced Joey’s languid form, a hunched posture, and a button-up tucked into pale jeans. He looked—if one could—like a stalk of wheat, clipped and rustling.
Joey decided it would be better not to engage, not to challenge the status quo, his predacious father, but when he turned towards his father, his roiling resentment, his disgust, his bitter remembrance, like his cowlicks, obstructed his vision. Joey followed his natural urge—his filter was turned off. The dream of moving clouded his judgment.
“Not tonight, Pa.”
“What’s that s’posed to mean?”
A lump emerged in Joey’s throat and he forced it down into his chest. He felt immediate regret. Joey tried to edge his way out of the kitchen to the safety of his room before anything else could be said; but his father stepped in front of him, blocking the pathway through the center of the living room.
“Nothing. It was nothing.”
As Joey moved around his father, he felt a pressure form near the back of his neck. Firm, burning—his father’s palm. He was pushed to the floor: knees on the hardwood, head bucked backwards, palms holding up the weight of his torso. A drop of spittle fell from his mouth and landed on the carpet’s floral patterning. His father kicked at the heels of Joey’s boots and said, “Speak up, Joe-bags—‘member to speak up.”
Joey lifted himself to his feet and kept his back to his father. He felt his stomach shrink, his lungs expanding to fill the empty space. The spot on the floor before him shifted in and out of focus, and he held and released each erratic breath reverently, squarely.
His thoughts cleared—there were none. There was only ticking static.
Much like the unfurling of a garden hose, Joey whipped around and, to his surprise, hurled a fist at his father. With a limp wrist and a wide swing, he hit the base of his father’s skull. His father crumbled against a cabinet next to the television, knocking a row of DVD’s in the process.
Joey’s mother clambered off the couch as the pillow and the sheath covering the arm rest slipped to the floor. “What’d you hit him for?” She yelled. “He was roughhousing!” She crouched over his father like a monkey burrowing through a bush, her arms cradling his torso. His father held himself, a palm gripping the reddened patch on his head.
Mesmerized by the commotion he’d just caused, Joey was still, shocked, like his mother. His knuckles hurt, they throbbed. His cheeks flushed and his ears started to burn. He didn’t know what to do. He watched his father regain his bearings, clenching and unfurling his hands, massaging his temple.
A sickening shiver spiked the back of Joey’s neck and suddenly, his toes got very cold and he really needed to pee. He imagined his father’s torrential rage, his mother’s backing, that he knew would be waiting as soon as they were back in shape. His palms grew clammy in wait. In his worrying, he felt like a boy, shamed for having spoken, for having knocked something over by accident. He was sequestered, without agency, affectless and fearful. From the corner of the room, slipping out of his body, Joey saw himself: naked and brittle, waxy and fragile.
Joey thought—no, he was convinced—that he would collapse in on himself, like a star gone supernova.
But then, as if retrieved by some self-righteous spirit, a new idea came to him. It pulled him from his quivering sheath and placed him in a body with vigor. He was infused with hope, with the thought of peace.
Empowered, Joey thought: I hit back—could I—yes, I hit back! This is it! This is the moment everything changes. My retaliation will even the playing field. They’ll see that they can’t push me around anymore. I’m grown, now. That’s it. I’m grown and now they know it. I can leave. Fearless, I can leave. It’s safe. He’s not indestructible.
An unanticipated rush bled through Joey. Was it joy? Vengeance? Vindication?? Joey wasn’t sure, but the feeling had too much life to be contained in their apartment—it demanded a witness.
He ran into the hallway and walked over to Bethany’s.
Using his newfound gumption, Joey stormed into Bethany’s apartment. Unfortunately for Bethany, her father forgot to lock the door when he left earlier in the day. She had been alone in her living room nursing a mixing bowl of Mac & Cheese as she watched reruns of Family Feud.
When the door whipped open, Bethany bellowed through a full mouth, “Zchoey!” and scampered to the corner of the couch, clutching the remote, ready to throw it. “What do you want? Why are you here?”
Joey shook his right hand, wringing out a knot in his palm. His expression held contradictions: welled-up tears, an open-mouthed smile, tensed upper body. He bumbled over, sat down at the other end of the couch, and extended his swollen knuckles over to her. “I fought back.”
She examined his hand, “You hit him?”
He smiled. “He hit me so I hit back.”
“Joey,” she mumbled incredulously, “you should’ve called the police.”
He shrugged and smiled harder. “Too late for that. Much!” he yelled. “Too late for that.”
Joey fell backwards onto the couch with his arms splayed wide. Bethany lifted herself up and regarded his open posture: he looked like he was bathing in a pool of lotion, cool and relaxed.
A noise—stomping— came from the hallway. Shortly, the door to Bethany’s apartment flew open again. Bethany jumped off the couch, crouching by the coffee table, while Joey remained motionless, basking in his triumph.
It was Joey’s father. His button-up shirt was no longer tucked into his jeans, and when he gritted his teeth, a tiny pocket of blood by his canine exposed itself, his ferocity highlighted by his arched back and twitching fingers.
Joey’s father barreled towards Joey, who by then had emerged from his indulgent haze. Joey stuck his arms out to keep his father from crushing him, but his father’s momentum pushed Joey deeper into the couch. Bethany stood up and struck ineffective blows on his father’s back; he shoved her off as he gripped Joey’s neck. Joey pushed against his father’s chest, shallow breaths escaping his nostrils. The strength of his arms could only shift his father from side-to-side. Bethany took hold of Joey’s father’s chest from behind and wrenched herself backwards. This released some of the pressure on Joey’s neck, just enough that he could push his father off of himself and onto Bethany. The studded ring on his father’s forefinger cut the inside of Bethany’s forearm as he fell.
Joey’s father rolled off Bethany and regained his composure opposite the two of them. He waited a beat, looking down at his petulant son. Joey braced himself beside the coffee table, his shoulders pinned back and his chest lengthened. Bethany had shuffled to the far side of the room. The Mac & Cheese had spilled onto the rug.
“D’you wanna feed this little shit?” Joey’s father said to Bethany.
“You disrespect me again and you’re dead, you hear?”
Joey shrank. His obedience was instinctual—any divergence felt alien, and it sent a nauseating wave of guilt through him. He felt the weight of his retaliation bearing down.
Joey’s father turned and traipsed out of the apartment. Couch cushions were strewn across the floor and the doorknob on the front door had punched a hole in an adjacent wall from when Joey’s father flung it open.
Joey and Bethany waited, trembling at the thought of his return.
Once they heard the sound of Joey’s apartment door closing, Joey went over to Bethany and helped her to her feet. “Your car,” he said.
They dipped into the hallway, ducked into the staircase, ran outside, and hopped into Bethany’s car. They drove around the greater Boston area, making erratic turns on and off of Storrow Drive and I-91, passing BU, riding alongside the Charles. Bethany pulled onto side streets in Brighton, Jamaica Plains, Roxbury Crossing, and parked.
How they wound up in the seaport district, Bethany wasn’t entirely sure. She wanted to be in a dense area—the seaport district was as good a place as any.
~ ~ ~
Bethany pulls into the parking lot outside their building around one in the morning. The lights to Joey’s apartment are off, Bethany’s on. The whispers of passersby creep through the car windows, and Joey trembles at their sound; his face is in his hands.
“We need to go,” Bethany commands.
Joey stays silent, and he starts to rock his upper body forward and back in the passenger’s seat.
“There’s no avoiding this, Joey. You can spend the night at my place, but then you need to make arrangements to move out: call a friend, call a realtor, call the police and tell them what’s been happening.”
“I don’t have the money,” he mumbles through his cupped hands.
“Money. I don’t have it. I have some, but,” he lifts his head, “it’s not enough to pay rent.”
“There’re ways around that. I don’t doubt that someone will take you in or lend you a few bucks for a deposit.”
“But I don’t have any stuff, either. No bed, no—”
“Details, Joey,” Bethany states firmly. “All of that will sort itself out. You’re working—the money won’t appear in your pocket instantaneously, but you’ve already got the ball rolling. You’ll be a high school grad in only a few weeks”
“But I,” he presses a palm against his forehead and tries to steady his breath, “I don’t have enough. I don’t—there will never be enough. There won’t . . .”
An eye pokes out between his fingers. “I can’t leave. It’s not possible.”
Bethany works to parse these simple statements, to find a chink. Despite his trembling voice, he spoke with such conviction. It’d been beaten into him: he was helpless. Bethany finds it unsettling how quickly Joey has regressed.
“Let’s go inside,” Bethany says, “we’ll figure it out tomorrow.”
Joey now has two palms pressing into his forehead. They’ll leave reddened indents when he removes them. Bethany places a palm on his thigh and gives it a squeeze. “Let’s go.”
He shakes his head lightly. “You first. I’ll be out in a minute.”
“We have to go together. I don’t trust you to not go back home.”
“But I have to. They’ll be mad if I don’t.”
“They’ll be mad either way. C’mon.”
Bethany gets out of the car, walks around to Joey’s side, and opens the door. He unbuckles himself, and when she tries to hold his hand on their way into the building, he pulls away.