For the first few days, we lived in the car, more out of not wanting leave the freedom it gave us for a warm bed. We opted for the beaches and parks, ate fast food or snacks from the 7 Eleven, Superettes and bodegas. When the money ran out, he would collect more money from his customers then we would all hang out. I found Joey to be a little arrogant, a show off and obnoxious. He craved attention and even though I tried to keep to myself, he had a way of bringing about conversation. He did make me laugh and he made me feel good when I impressed him in some way.
A week on the road and I started to notice things change. We were in Christina’s house and I just came out of the shower. I walked into her room and was surprised to see Joey lying on her bed.
He was stretched out on her flowery yellow bedspread and I was in her robe.
“I’d like to get dressed, if you don’t mind.” I said to him. He smiled that easy smile.
“Go right ahead.” he said, folding his hands on his flat stomach. His attitude reminded me of Benny, so sure of his ability to convince and seduce. He made me wary because his life was dangerous, but he also
made me curious. I was not about to show him anything, but friendship. I held open the door.
“Get out.” I said, amused. He faked a shocked look.
“Such manners.” he told me with a chuckle.
“Get the hell out please.” I said and started to get annoyed. He reluctantly rose off the bed.
“I can help, you know.” he offered, walking slowly toward the door.
“Nice of you to offer, but no thanks.” I said, I couldn’t help but smile. He was out the door when he turned to me, close enough to kiss.
“Let me know, if you change our mind.” he said and smiled wickedly.
“You bet.” I told him sarcastically, grinning at our banter. I should have been angry, this man who took my friend’s heart so easily was flirting with me and behind her back. I wasn’t angry though, I thought that I wasn’t going to fall into his hands so let him flirt as much as he wants.
Late one night, we parked somewhere secluded. Christina and Joey were in the back seat fooling around. I sat in the driver’s seat feeling like a third wheel. I didn’t want to be a captive audience to her low moaning and when I heard him say “We have bush. I repeat, we have bush.”, I took that as my cue to find a store. I walked slowly, giving them enough time, but when I arrived, they were both sitting in their places in the front, looking very upset as I got in the back seat. I kept myself into my silence until I noticed the streets looking unfamiliar.
“Where are we going?” I asked. Christina half turned to me.
“I have to pick up some girlfriends and drop them off at Maggie’s house, for some party.” she explained distracted. I immediately felt a tightening in my stomach. Making friends with girls had always been a problem, the vicious gossip usually stemmed from them. Boys were easier to get along with and I figured I was safe as long as we kept it as friends, but they were trouble too, gossiping in their own nasty ways.
Losing friends was just as hard and being needy and trying too hard not to show what was going on inside only made it worse. Maybe girls sensed this and responded with distance.
The girls were the typical high school freshmen. Excited, giggly and dressed in clothes that I knew they hid from their parents.
They looked like the type of girls you see auditioning for cheerleader, flipping their hair and popping their gum. They looked me over and for most of the ride, they chatted with Christina while I watched the world pass out the window, lost in my thoughts. I waited for the inevitable. One of the girls leaned toward me.
“So where are you from?” she asked so catty that it burned my blood.
“The Bronx.” I told her. Joey’s laugh was the only one heard, it surprised me as I wasn’t trying to be funny. The girls were not amused and another girl cleared her throat.
“I think she meant, what are you?” she asked me like I was a strange specimen. I thought she was trying to embarrass me and I wasn’t going to feed into that and get dragged into a stupid argument. I was also disappointed that Christina didn’t reel her friends in or come to my defense.
“I’m Puerto Rican.” I told her as strongly as I could. Girl #1 gave a little laugh and the rest joined in. I turned my attention to the window again, but was a ware of the ball of fire bouncing throughout my chest. I felt a sudden hatred for my behavior, for the way I should’ve talked or the things I should’ve said. I grieved for the missed chance. I was relieved when we dropped them off. I was still stinging from the rude comments and bitchiness, so before we drove off, I stuck my head out the window.
“Adios!” I yelled to them and laughed the most loudest and crudest laugh I could manage. This made Joey laugh and I caught the anger in Christina’s face when she looked at him.
I had settled down and wondered about that look, but I didn’t want to think it had anything to do with me. I didn’t like the silence that was heavy though Joey tried to lighten the mood with music as we drove through the Bronx.
“I need to stop and collect.” he told her, who began zippering up her acid washed jacket.
“I’m going to introduce them to Susanna since they met you already, okay?” he asked with a smile. She relaxed and nodded, but was still not liking the thought of separation. He looked at my surprised face.
“You mind?” He asked me. I shook my head. Maybe these people would be a help to me at some point. We walked up a few flights until he stopped me.
“Sit down.” he said. I did and figured he met his customers in secret. I felt like I was being pulled in and part of me didn’t mind, what could be worse than what had already happened? He stood on the landing, looking nervous and leaning up against the wall.
“Something’s happened and you need to know about it.” he started then paused leaving me feeling a little anxious.
“What?” I tried to hurry him. He sat down next to me and leaned on the rails.
“Remember that night when me and Chrissy were in the back seat and you left to the store?” he asked and I nodded.
“Well, for the first time, I couldn’t do it. That’s why we looked like we did when you came back.” I didn’t know what he meant and probably had the question on my face.
“I couldn’t have sex with her and it’s because of you.” he said simply.
“Me?” I asked very surprised and then I knew the angry look on Christina’s face.
“First, I need to ask you some questions, okay?” he told me very straight and serious. I nodded, even though I knew I didn’t have to answer if I didn’t want to, but the more time we spent together the more I comfortable I felt around him. Even though he was older, he didn’t act like an adult. He acted like a teenager and loving the freedom of that. He treated me like an adult, he didn’t tell me what to do. He tore down my defenses when I wasn’t looking.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
I thought about it for a moment. I could’ve said yes and ended the whole thing, but I didn’t want to lie to him.
“I had one, but we broke up.”
“May I ask why?” I nodded, but was embarrassed.
“Well, we were together for over a year and I guess he got tired of waiting.” I explained.
“What do you mean waiting?” he asked.
“Waiting to have sex and I guess he couldn’t wait anymore. He found someone else.” I told him, but it was still a sore spot. He was quiet longer than I expected.
“You mean, you’re a virgin?” he asked hopefully.
“Yes, is there something wrong with that?” He laughed a little.
“Nothing wrong with that. As a matter of fact, it’s good.” he told me suddenly excited.
“It is?” He just nodded. He stood up in front of me with his hands in his pockets.
“What about your family? When are you going home?” I stared at him.
“Never.” He looked at me curious.
“Never?” I shook my head. He sighed deeply.
My memory began to lay out how I got there, step by miserable step. My hurt yawned awake, it bowed my head.
“What happened?” he asked me quietly.
“I don’t want to talk about it, alright?” I said firmly.
He put up his hands in surrender, then continued on with his pitch.
“Look, I know Chrissy tells you that we’re in love and everything, but you have to know that I don’t love her. I mean, I do, but not what I feel about you. I want to be with you.” He told me and I was speechless.
“I’m not trying to give you a line, I know what you think, but this is real. That guy was a dumb motherfucka who didn’t know a good thing, but I do. If you’re with me, I’ll make you happy.” he told me with such a sincerity that I was compelled to believe him.
This put me at a crossroads where I could see each path in dimness. I didn’t feel in control because people made my decisions for me and I got hurt. Now, I had to make a decision and someone was going to get hurt and I didn’t like not knowing what to do. It was my first lesson about being on own and away from my family. My first hard decision and I would have to carry it on my own. A part of me missed the carefree days that I had left behind, all because of my pain and no way to heal. It made me angry, but I buried it.
“Can I think about?” I asked him. He looked a little disappointed, but didn’t press. When he showed so much care not to resort to manipulation, like most guys, I took that as a sign of his feelings for me.
I thought that this worldly man wants to be with me, it was like an adventure and that the sacrifice of my friendship with Christina would lead me to happiness.
I liked Joey, he didn’t waste a day. Stealing or not, he was out there living. His laid back attitude was contagious and he didn’t let people get over on him.
Now, he was grinning at me, a wild Cheshire there to guide me through it’s Wonderland.
“Sure, just don’t take too long.” he told me softly and leaned over and kissed me gently on the lips.
“Mmmm, very soft.” he whispered and licked his lips. “And sweet.” he added seductively. I could nothing but blush my damn head off.
When we returned, Christina was in a sour mood.
“What took so long?” she asked sounding worried.“ I was going to go up, but I couldn’t remember the apartment number. I thought something happened.” she was almost near tears. I immediately felt guilty. He looked at her patiently.
“Relax, Chrissy. Everything is fine, okay?” he touched her arm and she moved to cuddle next to him, while singing along with the music.
He looked at me through the rearview mirror, like he was peeking at something naughty and I felt on display. At some point, I was lying down watching the street lit highway go steady blinking in and out of my vision and I thought about Christina.
I imagined I was in her place and thought that perhaps she knew what was forming in front of her and she felt powerless to stop it. I could’ve related to the feeling helpless, hating what you saw in the mirror and wondering how anyone could touch let alone make love to you.
Joey had acted like he didn’t notice the heaviness of her ass and breasts, where as I was slender. Even at that point, I was aware that in a lot of respects, Christina was a better friend and the better person. I was envious of her loyalty and capacity for love.
She loved him and he was offering me a life with him. I imagine that for her it must’ve been difficult not to mention any concerns for fear of rocking the boat and ruining a good time.
She kept wanting to be near and he kept pushing away, it wouldn’t be hard to figure out that I would be the cause. And then what?
My guilt told me all of this before going off into silence and leaving me to dream snips of symbols and weird things.
Joey nudged me awake the next morning and the first thing I felt was the piercing cold.
His face looked tense.
“Come and sit up front.” he said. As I was climbing over to the front seat, I noticed Christina standing outside the car. Fat flurries of snow were stuck to her long hair and the wind brushed at her cheeks until the they were a deep rouge. Her eyes were red as she panted through the rough winds. I looked at her, but she avoided my gaze.
Joey sighed hard.
“Look, you need to give me your answer now. If it’s yes, then we are together. If it’s no, then neither one of you will see me again.” he told me. I felt pressured, anxious and unsure.
I looked at Christina once more and thought, what would she do in this position? If she felt for him as much as she said, there was no doubt I’d be thrown aside quicker than you say can say Susanna who?
I turned to him again.
The snow had stopped when he put her in a cab for home later that night. She wept into tissues while he whispered things that were intended to soothe. As the cab pulled away, I watched her through the rear window. She dropped her head back and was lost in full blown hysterical cry.
My conscious kicked at me again. I stood firm in my static and sailed through the moment guided by my Auto Pilot, it shut me down. I had gotten used to being the bad one, one more person didn’t make much difference.
Joey took me to 170TH Street in the Bronx.
He had moved in with his aunt, Monique who lived in one of the many Projects. He moved in after he separated from Gabriella.
The apartment was quiet as he unlocked his door to his room. It contained a twin bed and a small old end table. He also had a radio, alarm clock and several tapes. On the wall were several framed photographs, some black and white, others in color. I started to grow nervous as I eyed the neat bed. There was no changing my mind at that point and secretly, I was afraid what his reaction would be if I had. It faded away when he began to make me comfortable.
“You know, I wanted you from the moment I saw you walking to me. I love the way you walk, confident and sexy. You’re so beautiful.” he said as he touched my face.
My heart paused at the same word my father used, beautiful. I knew what beautiful was and I wasn’t it. I felt my insides collapse and I started to cry. I was literally in his arms, crying out my fear and he held me until I was done.
“Feel better?” he asked me. I brought myself as close as I possibly could to his kindness. He sat down with me on the bed.
“I’m sorry.” I said quietly. He held my hand firmly.
“Don’t be sorry for that, Susanna. You wanted to cry, so you cried, but I’m here when you do. Always.” he told me this so sagely that I felt good about what I had done.
I wanted to explain why I cried, I wanted to be honest.
“My father molested me when I was twelve and my step father tried to when I thirteen.” I waited for him to push my hand away and hand me my jacket. My eyes filled again with the shame I felt.
“I’m damaged.” I said, my voice thick with tears. He squeezed my hand tightly.
“Hey! You’re not damaged. Don’t let anybody say that you are, hear me?” he told me sharply. I nodded my head, but I knew no one understood except those who lived through it. I no longer expected understanding, just acceptance.
He leaned closer.
“I want to be the first person to show you how undamaged you are.” He kissed me tenderly. The kisses were not menacing, just deep and long. I felt lightheaded, but excited and scared.
It was very different from the private moments with Diana, there wasn’t the similar softness.
With Diana, the familiarity and the sweet feeling of want dominated any other feeling. It was overwhelming and I didn’t mind being dragged down into it.
He brought out other sensations that I couldn’t ignore. One strange sensation pounced after an orgasm, it started to feel wrong. I got the strongest urge to push him off of me, run and beg grandma to take me back.
Instead, I concentrated on what his tongue was doing and the electric current that shifted through me. Being with him made me feel like I had a companion who was worldly, someone to take care of me and teach me about life. I opened myself to all of it.
The next morning, I woke up in a panic. I was sure that Joey was going to break up with me now that he had what he wanted.
I got up and got dressed, determined not to be caught off guard. I was fumbling with my buttons when I came eye level with one of the framed photographs. This one was black and white of a woman half covered by a sheet, her legs were slightly open and it was just so provocative to me. There was something about the way the light hit her skin that it almost glowed. Then I saw Joey’s sleeping form and jolted myself awake from my daze.
I was putting on my makeup when he woke up.
“Hi.” he said lazily. Joey loved sleeping naked. At first, I was embarrassed but then I took it as a sign of self confidence. He helped me look at my body in a new way, with pleasure and love.
“Hi.” I continued to act busy. I didn’t want to look immature by carrying on about being dumped. Again.
I wanted to show him that I had entered as a girl, but awoke as a woman and that I could handle the consequences to my actions.
“What are you dressed for?” he propped himself up against a pillow.
I stopped and faced him, I recited what was in my head, my heart was on stand by.
“Look, you don’t have an obligation to me because we had sex. So, let’s just leave it the way it is and I’ll go.” I silently prayed that he wouldn’t hand me money, it would’ve killed me. He smiled a little.
“You’re not an obligation that I would hate.” he joked. I didn’t laugh. He held out his hand, which I took and he sat me down next to him. He looked into my eyes.
“I meant everything I said last night. I’ve been looking for someone like you for a long time and now that I have my own virgin, I’m not letting you go.” he told me and kissed me with the same intensity that he had when he brought me into womanhood. He pulled away suddenly.
“Actually, I’m glad you’re dressed. We have to go to the clinic.” he told me as he got up bare assed to look through his closet.
“For what?” I asked. He turned to me, like I had asked a silly question.
“To get you on the pill. I hate condoms.” he said and resumed his search.
Growing up, we moved around a lot and lived in some rough places, but somehow you didn’t always see the bad elements. They were hidden by darkness or a gauzy haze and I was not surprised by the sights of poverty, but living in the building, boxed in by the decay and the vice showed me another world.
Among the dealers and the desperation that was fed to babies through the smoke of the drug.
It didn’t repel me, only intrigued me. I viewed people and their lives like watching dangerous wild animals in their native habitat. I was a cautious observer.
Monique wasn’t thrilled about having a stranger living in her small apartment and Joey being jobless was fueled many arguments.
“When you going to stop boosting and get a real job, Joey?” she’d tell him, to which he would sigh.
“You’re getting money, right? So don’t worry about it.” He’d answer and I’d always be in the background somewhere, silent.
“Yeah and talking about money, I didn’t get any rent this month.” She reminded him. She was slightly overweight for her average frame, her dark chocolate skin was shiny and pimple ridden, she tried to cover it with make up. Her generous mouth was painted a hot pink and pulled back her tight black curls into a large clip.
“I’ll give it to you Friday.” he told her. She turned her eyes to me, as if I were the reason for her not getting her money.
When she didn’t get her money, she threw all of his clothes in the dumpster in the parking lot.
It had rained hard that night and Joey had to climb inside and dig through the trash, picking out what could be saved and cursed a blue streak while doing it.
I was standing by the rancid smelling dumpster with a flashlight and it’s didn’t surprise me that she did this. It was a cruel thing to do, especially to family. It bonded us because we both had people had in our lives who seemed hell bent on making us miserable and weren’t sorry for doing wrong things, scarring us.
Joey came from a long line of thieves. His grandfather brazenly walked into a bank and demanded the money by gunpoint. He was caught and spent his life in prison.
His father tried to do the same in the late 1960’s, but shot himself in the foot. Literally.
He was caught and died in prison. He left behind a wife, a daughter and an eight year old boy who waited for his father to bring him the ice cream he promised.
His mother has passed away some years later and brother and sister were sent to live their aunt in Queens. Joey ran away and began stealing to live until he was caught and was sent to a Juvenile facility Upstate. There he met a nice couple who volunteered to mentor troubled teens.
Stephen and Joy Cabot were the typical California couple you saw in magazines frolicking through the surf of St. Bart’s.
They donated to charities, (money from unknown source) worked in Africa and other programs for the poor, the ill and the desperate.
They talked with the teens easily, they created art classes and it was here that Joey found his love for Photography and Self Defense.
It sated him in a way that I could see the physical change in him. His shoulders would relax, his hands were nimble and this slight frown only meant that he was in deep thought about the shot or the next hit.
Joey found a crack addicted couple willing to rent us a bedroom for about twenty dollars a month. It took some time to clean and disinfect the room and the worst thing about living in the projects is the roaches. After we left a bomb for them, they would ooze out of cracks and corners. We still had to shake out our clothes and shoes before we put them on.
Joey bought a lock for the door and installed a phone, in case he got busted I would be safe.
I tried once in vain to clean the apartment, a gesture of appreciation. I worked all day on the bathroom and kitchen, yelping at anything that crawled. Grease stuck to every surface and I tried not to suffocate from the fumes that burned my eyes. It was a thankless and useless job, so I concentrated on my room.
The first time that Joey got arrested, he was gone for two weeks. I went to his arraignment to hear them deny release and remanded him to Riker’s Island.
“I don’t want you to come visit me at Riker’s, the funds are too low.” He told me during a collect call.
His voice got low.
“I’m so sorry, baby. Are you alright?” he asked me. I was touched with how concerned he was with me while he was in a place like that.
“I’m fine and it’s okay. I just miss you.” I told him, trying not to cry so I wouldn’t upset him.
“I miss you too, I love you.” He said, sounding sad.
“I love you too.” I said tearfully. When I hung up, I did cry. I was alone again, with strangers.
I wasn’t afraid of being alone, Joey had built for himself a reputation of being weird and scary, thanks to the twists and turns of the grapevine. He enchanted them with small demonstrations of his self learned martial art and buying items that were unusual and extraordinary.
One of these was a medium sized boa constrictor. I admired the ivory and yellow shiny scales always from afar. One day, it bit him because he was trying to use it as jump rope, to amuse a small crowd that gathered. Joey got off on that kind of attention.
He took a quick look at the damage then took the snake by the tail and slammed it against a tree.
Soon after that, he bought a shiny black staff and he would practice in the park, by the handball courts. He walked with it proudly over his shoulder. If someone he knew wanted to see it, he would fake them out with a move before reluctantly handing it over to be marveled at. He would grow impatient and snatch it back quickly like a child. I was captivated by his quirks and raw humor.
He was not above dressing in drag for Halloween. Dress, shoes and all. He thought it was hilarious and even one else did too.
Joey wasn’t the jealous type and there weren’t a lot of ‘rules’ in our relationship. He was my boyfriend, my teacher and my friend.
He would pick out my clothes sometimes, the sexy ones were only worn with him.
“You look great in anything.” He smiled at me proudly. I blushed under his praise and confidence. He would wear long dark trench coats and wide brimmed black hats. I thought it was a brave thing to be yourself regardless of any negative scoffing. I wanted to learn how to do that, not give a damn about what others say.
We were together for four months when Christina came knocking on our door. She made a beeline for Joey without even a hello.
“I’m pregnant.” she told him breathlessly.
He squinted at her.
“What? When did you find out?” he asked. She looked down at her sneakers. Her hair was limp and fell into her face.
“October.” she said faintly.
“Did you just say October?!” he asked in a fury. She took a step back from him. She turned her pale face to him, her skin was glossy and she looked like she was going to be sick.
“Please don’t yell at me, Joey. I was scared and I knew you’d be mad, but I had to tell you. You know, in case you change your mind.” She explained.
He looked at her suspiciously.
“You did this on purpose, to what, to trap me? Huh? You figure you were going to ‘surprise’ me and I’d be happy?!” He yelled.
I was still at the door, leaning up against it and possibly looking at breaking up with Joey.
He looked over at me, a little sad. I started to feel like I was always close to the prize and there would be a snag to snap me back to the beginning, back to having nothing. Christina broke the silence.
“Joey?” He looked at her tearstained face.
“You knew that I didn’t want anymore kids.” he told me. She nodded.
“Yes, I knew, but please believe me, it was an accident. I was lost in the moment. I swear to God, I wasn’t trying to trap you.” She told him desperately. He shook his head slowly.
“And when you found out?” he questioned. Her head lowered again.
“I should’ve told you right away, but I was scared that you’d be mad at me.” She began to cry and he looked away in frustration.
“Oh my God.” he muttered and moved to the other side of the room. No one said anything.
I debated whether I should interfere or not. After all, even though it affected me, it really wasn’t my problem. I decided to just plan for my graceful exit and not to get caught up in the mess.
“When, Christina?” he asked. She glanced at me before speaking.
“Um, was that time when we were at my house, after the birthday party. I was on top and I heard you say to get off, that you were going to cum, but I got lost in the moment and I didn’t.” she explained, wringing her t shirt. I looked at her belly and all I could think was, ‘she’s carrying his baby inside her. HIS baby’.
“That’s just great. Well, you came over here for nothing. I don’t want any kids, Christina, but you know, you always do what you want.” He told her angrily. Her eyes opened wide.
“Joey, I didn’t mean to..” she started, her eyes filling up and throwing out a fresh batch of tears.
“Stop saying that you didn’t mean to, Christina. First, you leave that fucking note in my pocket, you knew she would find it. I told you to wait, I told you to be patient, but you did what you wanted anyway. And now look where we are. Oh Jesus Christ! Stop crying!” He was in a panic, with voice crackled with it. I stood there, dumb and numb.
“I’m sorry, alright! It was stupid thing to do. God, I’ll throw myself in front of train if you hate me. I swear, I will” She wailed.
“I just want it out of me. Just help me find a place, please Joey.” She added miserably.
We spent two hours going through the phone book looking for a clinic that would do the abortion after the required weeks. We finally found one in Queens.
After she had the procedure, they bonded in a new way, as if they had a child and it passed on. Their grief drew them together and I saw it not as something that happened, but as a manipulative attack to gain some room in Joey’s life. It worked, Joey felt very guilty for Christina having to go through the abortion at all. Then after he was released from jail, he would stop and see her.
I was full of myself and pretended that I wasn’t scared out of my mind.
For four months, I allowed myself to feel for him, to fall into a comfortable place in his life. I believed that my heart was safe. Now this, like everything was just something else that was being taken from me.
“I love you, Susanna. Don’t worry about her. I’m just making sure she doesn’t do anything crazy because of this.” he told me and I believed him.