By Beverly Parayno
Joe Brady had no car, no job, and, sometimes, no home. When he wasn’t fighting with them, Joe lived with his parents, grandmother and younger sister in a sparse, one story house in Poughkeepsie. Their front door gaped wide open, an invitation for a multitude of mosquitos and flies. On weekends, Joe and his parents hung out on the porch drinking beer and smoking pot while his little sister struggled to balance herself on a bike across their dried up lawn. To piss off his grandmother, Joe often raced around the house in her squeaky wheelchair. He was adept at making sharp turns and doing long wheelies across the living room floor.
After one of his many explosive blowouts with his mom, Joe turned up at our doorstep on Roosevelt Court off Main Street in Poughkeepsie. Jimmy and I had just moved into our first apartment together. When the landlady first showed us the place, I told her Jimmy and I were married, even though we’d only just gotten engaged. I thought it would increase our chances of getting the apartment. It turned out half the building lived in sin and nobody cared.
Jimmy and I landed a top floor apartment in the three-story brick building. The kitchen window looked out on to a crumbling wall and the rear window looked down into an empty dirt lot with a broken chain link fence, but we held the keys to our own place—our palace. The apartment was scarcely furnished, but we had grand plans for it. We hoped to fill it soon with a lamp, a new TV stand to replace the stack of Bell Atlantic Yellow Pages and possibly a shelf that held framed pictures of us two smiling in each other’s arms. Jimmy got hired to change oil and fix flat tires at BF Goodrich, and I got a job as a dental assistant, even though I had no experience at all, because the dentist who owned the practice was, like me, a Filipina.
The night Joe arrived, I baked a large square pepperoni pizza I had picked up from Grand Union for three dollars. Jimmy and Joe sat stoned in front of the TV while they ate, a pile of Marlboro Lights butts crowding the ashtray. A small fan in the corner pushed the hot air around. A commercial with Crazy Eddie wearing a cowboy hat lit up the screen as he rattled off the latest car deals that could be had at his dealership. Finally, it was nearing midnight. Jimmy and I had to go to work early the next day. I cleared their plates, washed the dishes and performed my nightly ritual: I placed several Raid roach baits on the counter, small black discs filled with enough poison to yield a pile of carcasses the next day. I imagined a colony of roaches festering in the basement, though, reproducing faster than I could possibly kill them.
“I’m going to bed, baby,” I said. “You coming soon?”
Until we could afford a bed, we slept on an inflatable mattress in our dark, clammy bedroom. So many layers of brown paint had been slopped onto the wood floors of our bedroom over the years that they had a bouncy, rubbery feel.
“Yeah, baby. Is it okay if Joe crashes on the couch tonight?” said Jimmy.
Joe had a tight, muscular body that gave the impression of him being firmly rooted in the earth, like an old tree. His delicate, pale skin and thin, light brown hair with soft, subtle curls clashed with his masculinity. A natural rouge on his lips made me want to kiss him.
“Sure,” I said.
Several days later, our couch had transformed into Joe’s makeshift bedroom. Into one corner, he had stuffed a few shirts and pairs of socks. His boots lay at the foot of the couch where he’d thrown them, laces untied just as they were when he wore them. A thin pillow and blanket were folded over the sofa back. While Jimmy and I worked all day—he pumping air into patched up big rig tires, and me scrubbing dried blood off dental instruments—Joe slept in, watched TV, and got high. Then he’d light up again with us after dinner and stay up all night.
I browned the ground beef for the Hamburger Helper and toasted a few slices of Wonder bread. Jimmy and Joe ate in front of the TV watching Alf while I sat alone at the table. Around these boys, I played the same role as my mom had at home: feeding the men, making sure their needs were met.
“Hey, is it cool if a friend stops by?” said Joe.
“Yeah, tell him to ring the can,” said Jimmy.
Our apartment building didn’t have a buzzer system, so Jimmy had crafted a homemade doorbell by filling an empty beer can with coins and tying it to a telephone wire outside our kitchen window. When people stopped by to visit, they had to walk down a narrow alley to jiggle the beer can. Then, either Jimmy or I would run down three flights of stairs to let them in.
When Joe’s friend Daniel arrived, I knew we weren’t in rural Hyde Park anymore. Jimmy and I had lived with his alcoholic mother and stepfather in the sticks before we moved to Poughkeepsie; we’d never met anyone like Daniel out there. He sported slick dark hair and talked about friends in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Just the sound of the word when he said ‘Bronx’ made me feel like I was in a Kojak episode. Daniel had close ties to New York City—a city only eighty miles south but, to me, so far from reach. I yearned to touch his sleeve, breathe in the lingering scent of Manhattan from his pores. Like a sprinter who’d just competed in a race, Daniel radiated an energy that filled our apartment.
From his coat pocket, he pulled out a tinfoil packet and a razor blade. He rolled a crisp dollar bill into a tight straw.
“Got a mirror?” he said.
I found one in the Hefty garbage bags where we kept our belongings. Daniel poured a mound of white powder onto the mirror and began chopping it with quick precision, careful to work out all the tiny lumps. I’d never done coke before. The cat walked by, so I pulled at his ears and squeezed his tail until he ran off in confusion and hid under the couch. Once Daniel felt satisfied with the consistency of the powder, he cut four fat lines, one for each of us. Daniel did the first line in one quick snort, and then handed the rolled-up dollar bill to Jimmy.
“You want to go first babe?” he said.
“No, you go ahead.”
That’s what I loved about Jimmy. He always looked out for me, thought about me first. When he’d asked me to drop out of high school and run off to upstate New York with him, I had done it because I knew Jimmy would always take care of me. He sniffed up his line of coke like a professional. Had he done this before? I knew he hadn’t. Jimmy had perfected a street persona as a young boy.
Joe went next. When it was my turn, I pulled my long hair away from my face and rehearsed the phrase ‘Don’t blow out’ over and over in my mind. No one, especially Daniel, needed to know I was an amateur. I pushed my left nostril down with my index finger just like the boys had done and placed the straw into my right nostril. I wondered what I looked like at that moment. When I inhaled, I felt a sharp burning sensation followed by a numbness at the back of my throat. We all stood around the kitchen table sniffling.
“This is some good shit,” said Jimmy.
Tiny angels fluttered throughout my body, up my legs, torso and arms, rising through my head until they were floating high above me. They multiplied by the thousands until they filled the entire room. The couch levitated as I lit cigarette after cigarette. If I could’ve smoked three at a time, I would have. And then an overwhelming feeling: complete harmony. The sound of crumpling paper. Horses walking on wet pavement. Fortune cookies. Rabbit fur. My sister Niche. Jimmy. Everything I loved, had ever loved.
“You alright, baby?” said Jimmy.
“Yeah,” I said. “Totally.”
Jimmy, Joe and I stayed up late that night watching Honeymooners. No one could sleep. I thought about how, as a young girl, I used to put on my mom’s high heels and walk down a cement path in the backyard that led to the side door of the garage. Click clack. I’d knock on the door and visit with imaginary friends in their make believe garage-apartment. Now, people came to visit us—in our very own place. The world I had dreamed about had come true.
Joe’s girlfriend Tammy resembled a petite Olive Oil, with a thin, frail body, dark, shoulder-length hair pulled back in a low pony tail and light freckles around her nose. She clung to Joe’s muscular arm like they were navigating a haunted house together.
“You guys hungry?” I said.
Filipino custom dictated that you always fed guests in your home. No matter how far away I ran from my family, I couldn’t shake this practice.
Tammy never spoke to me directly, but, instead, whispered into Joe’s ear.
“Yeah, we could eat,” he said.
I put a frozen Salisbury steak in the oven and made instant mashed potatoes. In the cupboard, I brushed away dried up roach wings next to the can of peas. Although I’d just showered, a new layer of sweat had already begun to form. Joe and Tammy ate their meal in front of the TV. Jimmy and I sat at the table, where we stayed all night, as there was no longer room on our own couch.
Later that evening, Jimmy called me into the bedroom to let me know that Tammy needed to stay the night, too. She’d been in a fight with her dad and couldn’t or didn’t want to go home.
“How old is she?” I said.
Jimmy and I had just turned eighteen, our birthdays only a week apart. I remembered how many times I’d been an underage runaway in need of a place to stay, how many times I had felt thankful for a safe, warm bed in a friend-of-a-friend’s place.
“One night,” I said.
Jimmy whispered into my ear, “That’s hundreds of dollars’ worth of coke.”
Joe had invited Daniel over again. The five of us sat around the table all night, doing lines as Daniel carved them out for everyone except Tammy, who we all agreed was too young. It’d been over a week and Tammy still had nowhere else to go. We drank Genesee and listened to the Eagles sing about a dark desert highway. At one point, Daniel emptied out half the tobacco of a cigarette and sucked a line of coke into it. When I took a drag, a sharp, metallic taste filled my mouth. Don’t waste the precious coke this way. I want it straight.
“I want them out,” I said.
Joe and Tammy had been living on our couch for weeks. I’d been making them dinner every night. They got high and slept all day—Joe in cutoff jean shorts and no shirt, Tammy in underwear and a loose tank top with no bra. Their groans in the middle of the night kept me up; once I heard them, I couldn’t stop listening.
“Okay, baby,” said Jimmy. “I’ll talk to him.”
When I came out of the bedroom, Joe and Tammy had already packed up their things. I didn’t know what Jimmy had said, but he’d taken care of the problem. Jimmy could handle anything. I let Joe and Tammy borrow a grocery bag for their belongings.
“See you guys around,” said Joe.
“Bye,” said Tammy. That was the only word she’d spoken directly to us during her entire visit.
Our apartment felt clear and spacious again. I draped my body over Jimmy’s on the couch.
“Do you think Joe’s still your friend?” I said.
“This is New York, baby,” he said. “People are your friend until they’re no longer your friend.”
As I took a bite of SpaghettiOs, the beer can rang. Daniel had returned. From the kitchen window, Jimmy yelled down that Joe was no longer staying here.
“Invite him up!” I said.
Daniel cut the first set of lines and handed a short straw to Jimmy. This time Jimmy didn’t ask if I wanted to go first. Instead, he took the biggest, fattest line. Did he really just do that? Why did he do that? I’d never seen this side of Jimmy before. I didn’t know he had it in him to be so selfish. I glared in his direction but he wouldn’t look at me. Instead, he leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. I snorted my ultra-thin line, tossed the straw on the table and got up to sit as far from Jimmy as possible.
Daniel talked about driving down to New York City that evening. Some “killer shit” would be arriving from overseas. In my mind, I pictured a secret cargo ship docking in the middle of the night. Tight packages of fresh cocaine unloaded into an unmarked car. Before Daniel left, he did something he hadn’t done on his previous visits—he wrote his phone number down. “Call any time.”
“See baby,” said Jimmy. “Joe hooked us up with a new friend.”
“Don’t lose that number,” I said.
Beverly Parayno was raised in San Jose by immigrant parents from the Philippines. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Memoir Pool, Narrative, Huizache, Warscapes and Southword. Parayno earned a BA in English from San Jose State University, an MA in English from University College Cork in Ireland, and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is a freelance grant writer and development consultant for Bay Area nonprofit organizations.