There are few choices left to choose from when you and your boyfriend of six months are thrown out onto the streets with no money, no provisions, and no one left to take you in. There are few choices, so we decide to test all of the possibilities:
What if we go downtown. Make a left at the convenience store that sells wine for $6.99 a bottle and guava-flavored bubblegum in a two-pack at the register. Then another left at the corner of Wentworth and Fyllagin, and continue straight until we reach Mike&Mike’s Subshop. There we can plead with Jonie at the register until she gives us whatever scraps of rye bread and overripe tomatoes and turkey slices are leftover from the day. I’ll say she can keep the paycheck Mike owes me if she lets us do this for the next few days—just until Juke and I can find jobs or enough cash to get us through the subway.
OR we hightail it to Juke’s friend Lee’s apartment. He’s always wanting Juke to come over and he likes me well enough. We’ll crash there for a few nights, earn our rent by cleaning and cooking for Lee and his fraternity brothers, and because living with the boys will be insufferable after a week, we’ll make off with some cash and catch a cab to the railway. From there, one ticket will take us out of the state to whatever lies beyond.
OR head north, towards the inner city. Everyone who wants to experience the trickling of wealth from NY’s richest goes to the city, following the stream of artists, musicians, librarians, and workers. The flashing lights and neon billboards, an effervescent beacon in the distance, will lead us to a plethora of opportunities. We’ll see if we can snag a good wage selling twisted soda cans like pieces of art or standing with our arms interlocked like those other panhandlers pretending to be statues in Central Park.
We go downtown. Juke knocks two quarters out of a parking meter and buys a pack of gum at the convenience store. He tosses me a piece and kisses me until the artificial aftertaste of guava stains our every breath. By the time we reach the sub shop, my head is dizzy from the thrill of freedom. We pass many disgruntled pedestrians who sneer at our public displays of affection, but their opinions are of no concern to two teenagers whose lives are no longer burdened with the pressure of discretion and obedience.
There was a time, of course, when I would have been embarrassed to embrace someone in broad daylight, when I would have hid Juke behind a pillar at the sight of my mother strolling down the other side of the sidewalk, and when I most certainly would not be caught roaming the streets of the city without supervision. The time between then and now stretches exceedingly longer with each hurried step towards the shop. Though such freedom was not readily obtained and more likely thrust upon me in an outburst of anger and a threat followed through, I stride now with no regrets.
At the end of the block, I glimpse Jonie’s round silhouette through the blurry storefront of Mike&Mike’s. The flickering sign strung up along the entrance shouts ‘OPEN’ in electric blue font, though Jonie seems to be clearing out the last of the day’s vegetables. When the entrance bell rings, her eyes meet mine and we both say nothing. She is halfway through dumping a tupperware of romaine and even in our presence, she does not stop.
“Back again?” Jonie mumbles.
“Missed it,” I say. “You know I didn’t want to quit.”
“Jonie, this is Juke. He’s the guy I been telling you about.”
To Juke, I explain, “Jonie’s a pal. She’s going to uni in the fall, somewhere nice and preppy. Jonie’s a good one.”
Jonie disappears behind the counter for a moment, rearranging boxes and organizing the sauce containers. She resurfaces with a plastic Mike&Mike’s To-Go container, partially soaked through with grease.
“I knew some day or other you’s gonna be stopping by. Mike tells me to tell you to scram. He already mailed your last check,” Jonie says. “You gotta stop coming here, kid, he’s got the cams going twenty-four seven. This is the last thing I’m doing for you.”
She smiles sadly, a final goodbye in the familiar crease of her eyes. She sets the container on the counter, pats me on the back, and continues closing up the shop. I take the box gratefully, weighing its contents in both hands, before heading out with Juke by my side.
The dull “WE’RE CLOSED’ sign waves its farewell as we reclaim the sidewalk, munching on damp lettuce and stale bread from the open box suspended between us.
We try to outrun nightfall—a tricky feat when the autumn dusk cools the streets hours before the sky truly darkens and the cars whizzing past slow for no one. It is a good thing Juke knows the back route to Lee’s like actors in a fight scene. He pulls me through an alley, and like an apparition, we are there.
Lee’s flat is larger than I’d originally thought. There may only be two rooms, but the parlor is sparsely divided by one hemp sofa, a birch coffee table, and a do-it-yourself bookshelf assembled from mismatched planks of wood. The predictable elements of a conventional frat house are still present—untidied laundry, an unfinished round of beer pong, trash bags nailed to the walls in various corners—but for all intents and purposes, Lee seems to have acquired one of the most coveted living spaces in the city.
“You’ve got some prime real estate,” I say as Lee herds us through the living room and then into the kitchen.
Lee laughs. Then his eyes light up with recognition. “I do believe some congratulations are in order?” His gaze dances between Juke and I.
I shake my head quickly.
“No, no. We took care of it pretty fast,” Juke says for me. I squeeze his hand tight.
Lee nods knowingly. “In that case, let’s all have a beer.”
It seems that Lee and his roommates live off of Budweiser, Modelo, and leftover takeout.
“We’ve also got Coors and Red Bull,” Lee says, rummaging through their fridge. “The Red Bulls are Jonathon’s, but I’m sure he wouldn’t mind sharing.”
Juke takes the long bottle of Budweiser and pops the cap with his shirt sleeve. The condensation runs down his arm, leaving wet streaks along the cotton fabric. He tips his head back, takes a lengthy swig, and places the bottle back on the counter. I didn’t take him for a drinker, but I suppose he isn’t one to turn down a beer when offered.
Next, Lee turns to me. “For the lady?”
I shake my head politely, like they taught us in school. “No thanks. I’ll take a water, though.”
“Come on, you’re free now. Let loose,” Lee insists. “One drink never hurt anyone. Unless, you know—” he lifts an eyebrow at Juke.
Juke nearly chokes on his beer. A little liquid dribbles down his chin as he hastens to defend himself. “I ain’t ever been drunk. Not when we…not ever.” He swipes his sleeve across his mouth. “I may have forgotten a few things, but I’d never do her if I thought I was gonna blackout.” He hooks his free arm around my torso and yanks me close. “I like to remember things, you know?”
Lee simply chuckles. He sets aside a Coors Light for himself before closing the fridge. For me, he takes a plastic cup from a stack near the sink and fills it to the brim with tap water. “It’s all we got,” he says matter-of-factly, sliding me the cup.
I take a grateful sip, hiding my disgust when the water tastes slightly salty.
“To my boy Juke,” Lee raises his beer to toast. “A terrible would-be father, and his hot girlfriend.” He winks at me, but there is some truth to his words that should have been a joke.
“To us.” Juke hollars. The poor boy’s grip begins to loosen.
Soon I am made aware of just how Juke and Lee became friends. Juke used to clean tables at the restaurant that Lee’s father owns, and both liked to cut out when things got dull. Lee would leave school during the day to snag a bottle from his father’s beer cabinet, and Juke would clock out early to play billiards with his boss’s son. I always did wonder how a college sophomore and a high school dropout came to know each other.
As the night wears on, it becomes increasingly more obvious that Lee’s apartment is unequipped to accommodate two more people. From the one bedroom all four brothers share, Lee drags out a stained mattress that belongs to his roommate Todd and forces it between the coffee table and the sofa.
“One of you can use the couch,” Lee explains. “Or both of you could share the mattress…just don’t do anything, at least not until all the guys are back and asleep.”
“That’s fine. I’ll have the sofa,” I say.
Since we didn’t bring anything but the clothes we’re wearing, Juke and I borrow a few towels for blankets and clean up in the single bathroom. I rinse my mouth out with saltwater and return to the sofa for a night’s rest. It isn’t long before Juke is knocked out below me on the mattress.
Sometime between 11:00 and midnight, Lee’s frat brothers return. The blinding light from the doorway pulls me from a hazy dream and I find myself shaking hands with three hairy blond men. Introduced by a red-faced Lee are Jonathon, Todd, and the final roommate, Marco.
Lee explains our situation in a whisper. Something about a friend in need, his disowned girlfriend, and a couple of nights. There are some disgruntled murmurs, but little protest. The brothers return to their room and there they remain for the rest of the night, leaving only to use the half bathroom next door or retrieve something from the kitchen. My memory of the morning’s earliest hours are foggy, marked only by the whiny creaking of the wood floorboards at random intervals and the heater whirring on and off.
By eight o’clock, the men are gone again. Lee has departed, too, leaving behind a note on the kitchen counter that welcomes us to any food in the fridge but warns us not to leave anything out too long. Things go rotten pretty quickly, the note says.
On the top shelf, I uncover a box of rice and mystery meat cutlet, and behind that is a tray of cold soup. Neither looks appetizing, so we instead share a cup of lukewarm ramen from the pantry.
At midday, Juke leaves to find a vending machine. He takes one of Lee’s spare keys and a $10 bill someone left by the beer pong table. While he is gone, I take a shower using a sample packet of shampoo from the collection in the medicine cabinet and the communal bottle of shower gel standing on the soap ledge. The water spills out of the shower head in an uncontrolled torrent until I figure out how to adjust the nozzle. For a moment, I let the warm water pour over my head and shoulders, washing with it days of sweat and sorrow.
For the first time since the procedure, I’m overcome with the undeniable sensation that I should be mourning, even though my loss is smaller than that of a seed to the wind. The wave of anguish that swells up around me heralds an agony far more painful than what I can consciously recall, and so I deduce that this sentiment arises not from one wound, but a combination of many submitting me to their grievances all at once.
The first, I know, is the loss of that part of myself that wasn’t completely my own to begin with—the part that could have been someone else entirely if I had decided to nurture it. The second, I suspect, is the loss of my family and their trust and expectations, which I have spent the better majority of my life trying to live up to. The third, which I can only guess at, is the mere possibility of what I could have been—a mother, a ghost, a daughter to my parents—and the loss of that impossible reality. In many ways, I am mourning myself, and the emptiness of the apartment draws closer attention to the fact that I am utterly and completely alone.
After rinsing off all the soap, I draw my shower short to avoid complicating the water bill. The steamy room leaves me hot with the scent of ocean breeze and creamsicle stuck to my skin, my clothes, my hair. I crack open a window, hoping that the crisp autumn air and city discord will scare away the overtly feminine aroma overtaking the fraternity brothers’ flat. To take my mind off the suffocating situation, I busy myself with a sundry of mundane tasks—counting the quarters in Marco’s spare change jar, drying the foggy mirror, throwing away abandoned beer cans.
Nearly an hour later, when I have tidied the kitchen and the sofa and have finally found solace on the old mattress, Juke re-enters the apartment victoriously.
“Guess what I found two blocks away,” he says, jingling Lee’s keys in the air. He tosses me a bag of sour cream and onion chips half-filled with air, a pack of rainbow-colored candies, and a bottle of cherry soda with a twist-off cap. For his own stash, he has acquired two protein bars, a tin of Altoids, and a pack of cigarettes.
“I thought you didn’t do drugs or alcohol,” I say.
“I never said that,” he replies, and it strikes me then that this must be the truth. “I know you’re kind of a prude and your whole family’s pretty conservative, but I had a different upbringing. You know that.”
And I did. I knew that Juke grew up between his mother’s single bedroom apartment and his father’s garage, and that both his parents had a considerably small impact on his everyday life. When we both went to the same public high school—him as a senior and me as a junior—I seldom saw him on campus, not because of our grade level difference but because of his infrequent attendance. I knew him instead from the park outside my parents’ townhouse, about a block from our school and two blocks from his mother’s residence. Back when he still had his mind set on graduating, he would catch up on his schoolwork under the Henry Seager memorial tree. I remember our first meeting in late October of that year when I approached the unfamiliar boy whose econ coursework was spread across the lawn. I asked what he was studying for, and why he was doing it in fifty degree weather.
“The cool air clears my head, you know?” he had said.
And because I did not in fact know what it was like to do homework with a steady wind biting your face, I dropped down on the grass beside him and opened a book.
“What’s your name?” he asked after a while, and I told him.
His real name was Jerrick, but he didn’t like how it sounded with a New York accent. “All these people will be calling me ‘Jerk’ and I can’t ever tell if I want to punch ’em or not. Call me Juke.”
Later, we grew tired of studying, so he led me to a cafe nearby and we talked about school and sports and new music. I had never met someone so relaxed, and yet there was this particular aura about him that kept me hooked to his every word, all the way up until we had reached my street and the idea of showing a stranger where I lived suddenly became worrisome.
My mother scolded me for being home late that day, but for once her disappointment did not kindle a flame of regret. And it did not keep me from coming home late the next week and many more times after that. Some would argue that it was only a matter of time before she eventually found out about my clandestine rendezvous with an older boy, but much to my surprise, it wasn’t until the very peak of our relationship that everything came toppling down—just over a year since we had met.
In the past 48 hours, I have learned just who I can rely on, and that is Juke. He may enjoy beer and cigarettes, but I permit myself to believe that such deeds manifest from the stress of our situation. Juke has been good to me. He has saved me from a great deal of trouble already, so I do not begrudge him his alcohol allowance, or now, his apparent smoking habit. Soon, I remind myself, we will be happy and secure, and this business will be behind us.
“Juke, what do we do now?” It is a question I was not ready to ask until now.
“S’pose we can go out?” he offers. “You haven’t had any fresh air in a while.”
“I was talking about the future.” Tomorrow, and all of the days that follow. “What can we do?”
“Don’t worry yourself,” he says. “I’ll ask Lee later, and then we can plan ahead.”
“But we don’t know when Lee’s coming back.”
“I got a key.”
“Let’s stay in.”
Juke reaches for a deck of cards mounted on top of the crude bookshelf. He plucks them out of the package and sets up a round of Blackjack. The cards appear to be part of a custom deck, though, with characters and symbols I don’t recognize. We quickly figure out that jokers are vikings wielding double-edged axes, and instead of hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades, there are daggers, crescent moons, stars, and crests.
“This one reminds me of Medusa,” I say, holding up a mermaid with large blue serpents slithering down her scalp. “Or that siren from the Odyssey.”
“Homer’s sirens didn’t have snakes for hair,” Juke says plainly.
“No, but the face looks somewhat familiar,” I say. “Perhaps it’s the expression of feigned innocence.”
I turn the card over, scrutinizing the iridescent daggers. “Perhaps.”
Several rounds later, Juke and I have grown terribly bored of Blackjack, Three-card Monte, and even Go Fish. It is the time between late afternoon and early evening that is the most wanting of entertainment. Around this time, we would normally be at a cafe somewhere, or biking home from the park. But locked in the apartment all day, we can only await the arrival of Lee and his roommates for fresh company. When they do finally arrive, we are exiled into their cramped bedroom while the fraternity brothers and their university friends blast Zydeco music from Todd’s stereo system and smoke weed.
The whole night strikes me as a fever dream. Paint begins to streak down the yellow walls and the stench of Marijauna seeps through the floorboards. At one point, the light fixture dangles from a thread, and I fear any movement could send the whole room veering sideways. Thus, I sit still on the corner of Jonathon's (or was it Marco’s?) mattress, with my knees pressed tight against my chest.
Juke remains more grounded than I, kneeling resolutely by the dresser. His hands are clasped, raised towards the ceiling, an image straight out of the parishioner’s guide to holiness. I laugh at the thought of Juke being religious, though I’ve never heard him refute it.
A few hours, or minutes, later, the whole ordeal is too stifling. Juke cracks open the door and finds the rest of the party absent. We crawl into the parlor, perceiving only the deafening Zydeco music and the hazy fog left behind by the group. There is a new note stuck to the fridge, its message bordering on undecipherable. It prompts: enjoy the music, be back by 1 am.
Plucking the sticky note from the stainless steel surface, I toss Lee’s thoughtless words into the sink. We decide that we will leave tomorrow afternoon.
Times Square is four miles from Lee’s apartment. On the way, we stop by a vending machine and use the remainder of the cash Lee gave us to construct a lunch of Cheez-Its, granola, Powerade, and Juke’s last protein bar. I am so hungry that the mottley of flavors appear harmonious to my taste receptors.
The closer we get to the city junction, the stronger its call becomes. Before long, both of us are captive to the unrelenting grip of the flashing lights. While we had once hoped to escape the urban landscape, it is clear now that the place where we belong is just within walking distance.
Hordes of people flank each road, undeterred by the barking vendors, the incipient rush of nighttime tourists, or even the breakneck traffic. I remember visits to the city throughout my childhood and recall evening strolls past the luxury brand storefronts, warm bags of almonds toasted lightly in sugar, and outdoor cabaret performances along Broadway.
The familiar scents arouse fond memories of my time spent alongside my parents, and for a moment I long for the familial company I grew to resent during adolescence. I even imagine the reality in which Juke and I shelter a kid of our own from the scarring prospects of the city. It is an impossible notion—returning to the safe enclave of our youthful perceptions.
In plain sight, there is an image that deeply vexes me—afflicts me even. By a reflective statue sculpted like a lone drop of water, a young man and woman are locked in embrace, trading kisses that blur the line between amorous and immoderate. Not far away is a lonesome beggar raising a cup to anyone who passes in close enough proximity. There are others nearby with similar encampments, grasping at coattails, purses, trash bags.
Slowly, surely, I see a new city replacing the little details I once cherished: deceased rodents instead of white-feathered birds, patchy clothing instead of grand costumes, empty coffee cups instead of jangling instruments. On the sculpture's surface, our faces fade into the backdrop of the bustling metropolitan, and I see ourselves not as the content couple romancing down 46th Street, but as the wayward outcasts struggling to survive. Without warning, the elements begin to corrode my memory, splitting my mind into a jigsaw. Enduring an overwhelming awareness, I scramble to assemble the renewed parts.
The pieces come together quickly, and I realize that the city is no place for a child.