The nurse at the front desk knows his face, so after signing in and clipping a plastic badge that reads Authorized Visitor to his jacket, Davie makes his way alone down the long, pastel-tiled hall to the empty dayroom. There, he takes a copy of Newsweek from the magazine rack to have something to hold, checks the time on his phone, and sits down on the hard window seat to wait for his sister.
He’s never been early before. It’s midterm exam week at the Academy—special in that, as long as they show up for their tests with blue blazers on and number-two pencils ready, their teachers don’t much care where they are—and between the self-consciousness of being away from school in the afternoon, the pure winter light streaming through the bay windows behind him, and the room’s unaccustomed silence, he feels like he’s in some quasi-religious space: a church gym or his cousin Eli’s Hasidic temple.
Instead of heavy crosses or long, barbed passages of Hebrew verse, though, the white walls are home to medium-budget modern art. Vague green trees by a vague blue sea. A giant canvas framed with pocked driftwood and filled with bright splashes of orange and yellow. Something that may or may not be a horse on the run.
No red, though. No black. Despite the absence of fences or guards, the Reed Center for Disordered Eating is, as announced on the glossy brochure kept clipped to their fridge at home, a prayerful, careful place.
“It’s not a hospital,” their mother tells him the day Rey’s moved there, though he already knows this. A hospital was where his sister spent four days jacked into an IV full of sugar water and potassium phosphate, refusing, as she still is, to see anyone but him and those few friends loyal enough to miss swim team or cheerleading practice to visit.
From his spot at the kitchen table where he’s pretending to study for an Eastern Philosophy exam, he watches his mother’s long-fingered, usually precise hands clumsily peel a potato into the sink. He wonders, not for the first time, how stupid she thinks he really is.
“Can she leave whenever she wants?” he asks.
“Not exactly, no.”
“And they’re giving her pills, like before.”
His mother rinses the potato, badly gouged and still spotted with brown bits of skin, and places it in a colander alongside four others. Her graying brown hair is knotted back with a pencil, and every so often her right eyelid twitches involuntarily. He’d say she looks tired and distracted, not fully there, but he’s never seen her look any other way.
“Think of it as a medical vacation,” she says. “A resort run by people who can give her the help we can’t.” She turns away again to retrieve a pair of scissors from the junk drawer and begins to trim a store-bought piecrust down to size.
It’s Sunday, the one day both his parents—career researchers on MIT’s leukemia team—make even a half-hearted effort to stay out of the lab. While his father sleeps in the den with the New England Journal of Medicine still open across his chest, his mother is trying to recreate one of the classic American meals she and her five siblings grew up on as farm kids in Minnesota. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Fried chicken and corn. Tuna casserole. Dishes so full of saturated fat and simple carbohydrates that they make even his weekday staple—wontons and sugar snap peas from Mr. Po’s, paid for with the 75 dollars his father leaves every week in an envelope under the chronically empty fruit basket—look like wheat grass and tofu in comparison. At family dinners before she left, Rey would take fifteen minutes to eat an apple, then excuse herself with no consequence while he glared at her, still trying to choke down whatever half-baked mess their mother put on the table.
He misses her in unexpected ways.
Their mother asks when he’s going to see Rey again and he tells her Tuesday, after Quiz Bowl.
“Would you take her that pink sweatshirt she left in her closet and a letter from me and your father? I’d mail it, but if you’re going Tuesday it’ll be quicker this way.”
Instead of ignoring his sister’s mandate—expressed in a fit of half-coherent rage when she first woke up in the hospital—that they get the fuck out and don’t come back, his parents have decided to listen to the advice of a psychologist friend and honor her autonomy. Rey had snorted when she heard this, and written it down in the little blue notebook a nurse had given her to record things that made her want to scream.
“Sure,” he says, and closes his textbook. He’s tired of pretending.
In her emails Rey calls the Center Constable Reed’s Home for Wayward Girls, which puts him in mind of a Victorian asylum crowded with ash-smudged, tuberculosis-riddled orphans. The real place, though, is posh enough that their parents are shelling out four grand a month for her treatment, and when the girls come slouching into the dayroom it’s not in paper gowns or modest wool dresses but designer jeans and the tight, puff-sleeved shirts popular that year.
“Davie-boy,” his sister says, climbing up next to him and worming her feet under his ass for warmth. No matter how many layers she wears, she’s constantly cold. “What’s the weather like on the outside?”
“Colder than dad’s heart and wetter than a slut on Sunday.”
This gets a laugh and he ducks his head a little, pleased. She asks the same question every time, and he spends the days between their visits thinking up new twists on the old reply, the funniest, raunchiest things he can come up with, even if, on the train home, he feels guilty about what he’s said.
Rey hardly laughs anymore, unless it’s at someone else’s expense: stupid, physical comedy like the man they’d seen almost break his neck slipping on black ice, or the girl down the hall, who, two weeks ago, had gotten gum stuck in her dyed blue hair. They’d had to cut it out, and the girl had ended up looking, Rey had told him between fits of giggling, like a heinously ugly troll doll.
They talk a while about kids at school—she’s a senior this year, two classes ahead of him, although if she stays out much longer that gap will close by half—and play Mario Kart against a girl with short, peroxide blonde hair and skin so white he can see the veins tracing blue at her temples. The girl’s almost as thin as Rey, but he likes the long line of her neck and the way she touches him on the knee when he loses on purpose.
Like throwing a fox into the henhouse, an aide whispers to the supervising nurse when they first see him, but the other woman just laughs and shakes her head.
More like a calf to the wolves.
When the light begins to fade, a nurse in a brown cardigan comes into the room with a tray of pills in little paper cups, like appetizers, and calls out half the girls’ names. Norcross, Regan is somewhere in the middle, which means it’s time for him and Rey to hug goodbye. As he slips the two packs of Marlboro Reds she’s asked for into the loose pocket of her heavy sweater, he tries not to feel, descending like a climbing rope between the curving beams of her ribs, the hard knots of her spine.
In a photo—taken three years before—that his mother pinned to the fridge the day Rey was hospitalized, Davie stands with his visibly agitated parents in front of the shark tank at the New England Aquarium. Rey, still in the frame but clearly not part of the picture, sits on a low stone retaining wall with one arm plunged up to the elbow in the bright blue pool within. She’s trying to touch the stingrays.
Some parts of our personalities are decided even before we slip the womb, and the Rey in the picture is already on her way to fulfilling some unknown potential for trouble. She’s been the tough girl for years: first to skip and smoke, to drink and fuck. The real difference between the photo-Rey and the Rey of today, Davie thinks whenever he sees it, is not so much in their attitudes as their faces. Now, Rey’s face is sharp and spare, planed down to a truth of bone and skin incapable of hiding even the slightest of secrets, while the younger version still has vestiges of baby fat in her cheeks and chin. Some small, physical traces of innocence to tell you that whatever it is she’s done, she didn’t really mean it.
If he’d ever let himself think about it he’d be forced to admit that a Rey unable to lie—to so easily dodge the bullets of duty and responsibility that he always seems to take straight in the chest, to be good—is what he’s always wanted. Seeing her like this, though, only leaves him feeling cheated. It reminds him of cutting into the much-anticipated biology rat only to find that its blood had already been drained through a hole in its back, leaving nothing but a dead mass of spongy grey organs and yellow fur redolent with the tang of formaldehyde.
The rat, at the insistence of his lab partner, had been named Bonny Price William, but the comparison flashes across his mind every time he visits his sister and sees the bruised circles under her eyes, feels the brittle straw of her long brown hair brush the back of his hand.
On a Thursday afternoon three weeks after she moves back home, Rey texts him to meet her at Boston Commons, where, since she’d been ruled ineligible to finish the school year, she’s found a job selling cheap jewelry and Harvard sweatshirts out of a wheeled kiosk. He’d visited her almost every day at the Center, and of the intimacy or dependency they built there enough has followed them out that a stranger, watching them walk across the city or sit reading in Starbucks saying nothing much at all, would have to be forgiven for mistaking them for real friends.
He’s expecting her to be alone as she so often is now, but when he arrives she’s talking to the girl with the platinum hair from the Center.
“Julia,” Rey says, “Davie. Davie, Julia.”
He holds out his hand and the girl laughs, but takes it anyway. It’s warm for May and he’s wearing shorts for the first time that year, but she’s dressed all in black. Tight leather pants, low felt boots, a men’s v-neck shirt, and a short coat with oversized silver buttons. He feels himself flush as her long fingers wrap around his.
“We’ve met,” she says.
“Sure have,” he says. It’s something his father would say, and from the slight curl of Julia’s lip he knows that almost any other phrase— hell yeah, true that, even simply I remember—would have been a better choice.
“Walk and talk, kids,” Rey says, herding them along with her arms and saving him from further embarrassment. “We’ve got a train to catch.”
The streets are crowded with people taking advantage of the weather, and the girls ignore him for most of the walk to the Boylston T station, preferring instead to compare ratings on the dreadlocked and tattooed college boys whose heads they turn along the way. At home, where their parents have taken to treating her with the same soft voices and over-bright smiles he’s seen them use on potentially dangerous dogs, Rey is either agitated or silent most of the time. Now, though, with one arm linked through Julia’s and the other miming smacks on the retreating asses of some of the better looking boys, all he sees is her former overbearing confidence.
They get off at Haymarket and pass two blocks of tinted-glass office buildings and modern boutiques with historic facades before turning into a brightly lit store whose windows are packed with vitamin supplements and ten-pound jars of protein powder stacked into pyramids. Once inside, Rey heads to the back, leaving him and Julia to browse the shelves.
“This shit should be illegal,” Julia says, scanning the back of a brown bottle labeled Malaysian Bonjo Fruit Extract. She makes a face. “Take with food twice daily until blockage is alleviated.”
“Total scam,” he agrees.
“That’s not even the best one.” She walks to the next aisle over and tosses him a small box. The aproned woman at the counter frowns. She hasn’t taken her eyes off Julia since they entered the store.
100% Authentic Asian Tiger Penis, he reads. Fine-Ground for Your Pleasure.
“I should probably hang onto this,” he says. The connection between his mind and mouth is almost completely shot.
Julia raises one of her almost invisible blonde eyebrows. “For the ladies?”
“Dozens and dozens.”
Even though it’s cold in the store, fat drops of sweat are forming in his armpits and tracking their way down his sides. He tosses the box back and desperately hopes that Rey hasn’t discussed him too much with Julia. There’d been some time spent with a few girls in the corners of parties and one month with Katie Margolis the year before, but never anything close to a serious girlfriend.
Rey buys a tube of all-natural mineral lipstick and leads them back to the T, where she takes two bottles out of the waistband of her jeans and flips one to Julia.
“Davie, Davie, Davie,” Rey says when she notices him staring. “You want me to be safe and happy, don’t you?”
He nods warily. With Rey, there’s always a catch.
“Well, there are laxatives and then there are laxatives.” She waves one arm expansively, encompassing the car’s grubby orange plastic seats, the two elderly black women reading romance novels in the corner, and the tree-lined banks of the Charles gliding slowly by outside the windows. One day, her gesture seems to say, all this will be his. “Good things cost good money. And it would have been absolutely criminal to waste that perfect distraction you and Julia were putting on.”
Surprised, he looks at Julia, who smiles and leans over Rey to pat him twice on the cheek. Her fingers smell like crushed mint and sour metal.
“My son, my son,” she says in a perfect Italian accent. Later on he’ll discover—along with so many other things—that she’s a Godfather fanatic, and hear this impression until he’s sick of it. But now it strikes him as strange and new and therefore beautiful.
“Be a good boy,” she continues, keeping her hand in place, the palm slowly warming to his skin. “And do it for the family.”
If at any point Julia, Rey, and Davie are a family, it’s that summer. He spends the clear mornings as a lifeguard at the school pool, but when his shift ends he doesn’t go with the others to the beach or the stale- popcorn dark of the movie theatre to escape the humidity. Instead, he goes back to their silent house and sleeps, waiting for Julia to call.
Over the phone her voice, unlike that of every other girl he’s ever known, is lower than in person.
“Davie,” she says.
He doesn’t have to ask who it is. That slight rasp, registered as much in his chest as his ear, is identification enough.
“We’re coming to get you, Davie.”
She says, “Don’t move.”
When he’s with them, laughing and high in the warmth and clutter of Julia’s old, electric-blue Corolla, holding in the smoke from their last joint until his lungs burn for oxygen and he has to let it escape before he passes out, he feels more completely present, in the moment, than he ever has in his life. And if they sometimes do things he wouldn’t have considered before—shoplift, fare-jump, score Chinatown weed after dark—there’s a giddy energy that stops him from caring.
He feels it in his chest like a cage full of wild birds, and, every time they walk away unscathed and Julia flashes him her feral grin, the cage crashes open and the birds fly out, all at once, to every part of him.
“Drink,” Rey says, handing him a shot glass etched with a picture of Mickey Mouse as a steamboat captain and brimming with what looks like thin maple syrup. He slams it like she’s taught him and almost gags on the sickly-sweet taste: amaretto liqueur from a dusty glass bottle found behind their mother’s blackened wedding silver.
“Chin-chin, motherfucker,” Julia says, clinking glasses with Rey, and the girls throw their drinks back with barely a wince, laugh, and pour two more. Someone’s put Whitesnake on the stereo as a joke, and he closes his eyes and leans back against the counter, head already spinning a bit, as the alcohol blooms in his chest and David Coverdale wails “Here I Go Again (On This Road).” It’s August—the night before Rey’s eighteenth birthday—and with their parents both at a conference in Phoenix they’re starting the celebration early before going dancing.
“Presents!” Rey cries, and when he opens his eyes he sees his sister sitting cross-legged on the kitchen table, back straight and glass upheld like a scepter. “Your queen demands presents!”
“M’lady,” he says, grinning, and sketches her a wobbly bow before heading for the stairs and his room, where he’s been hiding a pearl and rhinestone choker in the closet. Before he goes, he looks to Julia, hoping she’ll follow. She’s busy with a stack of CDs, though, sorting the good from the bad, sliding the worst across the counter to fall into the sink among what are mostly his own dirty dishes.
Rey leans towards him, perilously close to the edge of the table. A little liqueur dribbles over the lip of her glass and onto her jeans. “We are not amused by your dalliance, Sir Davie!”
Julia switches Whitesnake out for Jay-Z and turns the volume up to ten.
When he comes back into the kitchen with his present, Rey’s gone. He can’t hear the whir of the bathroom fan above the rap beating at his ears, but he knows she’s in there, vomiting up some vile mix of amaretto and the few bites of Mr. Po’s he’d managed to coax into her earlier.
Julia smiles at him from her corner by the stereo and says something he doesn’t catch.
“I’m drunk!” she yells, moving up next to him and leaning on the stainless steel of the refrigerator door for balance.
“I can see that.”
Her gray eyes are glassy, but they’re focused on his. She’s wearing a black, elastic dress that accentuates her small breasts and apple- perfect ass, and her mouth, above it all, is the dark red of a bitten cherry.
“Why aren’t you drunk, Davie?”
“I am,” he says. He can feel himself starting to get hard, and shifts his legs to hide it. Her body is a ripe fruit.
“Not drunk enough,” she says, moving so close they’re practically kissing. In her platform heels she’s almost as tall as him. She runs a hand up his neck and combs through the hair at the back of his head, her fingers spaced and languid, caressing. “You’re always holding back, Davie. It makes me sad.”
He tries to ignore the head-buzz brought on by his racing heart and puts first one hand, then the other, on her hips. They’re both sharp and soft at the same time, a paradox he’d be content to explore for hours, but then her other hand is between them, fingers running down the length of his erection. Even through the fabric of his jeans her touch makes his scrotum contract even tighter. He watches her eyes, still locked on his, and wills himself to kiss her even though he’s afraid he’ll cum in his pants and embarrass them both.
It lasts only a few seconds: Julia, warned by something he doesn’t hear, bounds away and back to her corner right before Rey turns into the room.
“For me?” his sister asks, looking at the box still clutched in his hands and placing a hand to her throat in mock astonishment. “You shouldn’t have.”
It’s already eleven when the disinterested bouncer at Kamikaze waves them in, and the dance floor—lit from below by a grid of flashing multicolored squares like a psychedelic chessboard—is crowded with girls wearing glittery mascara dancing back-to-back and boys in polo shirts inventing new ways to show off their biceps in time to the throb of the music. The bass is loud enough that Davie feels it in his bladder.
Julia begins dancing as soon as they enter, pumping her fists in front of her with a tight little bench-press move.
“You still haven’t given me my present,” Rey reminds her.
Julia grins. “Good things come to those who wait,” she says in a sing-song voice, and, as they put him in charge of buying drinks, all he can do is watch them move towards the dancers and think please, God, let it be true.
In the strobing dark, the bar is an island of light: long and high and packed three-deep with underage and overdressed kids. Most of them are a few years older than him, college students from BC or BU, but the fake ID Rey and Julia had made for him a few months ago looks more real than his own newly-minted driver’s license.
Rocking from foot to foot, sliding in between two frat boys wearing flat-billed Red Sox hats and loafers, he’s not worried about getting carded. He doesn’t even want another drink; his buzz is mellowing and he feels good just as he is. All he wants is to be near Julia again, watching her and Rey slam into preppy college girls in hopes of spilling their drinks and waiting for more good things.
After almost a half-hour pressed up against the sticky wood of the bar he manages to buy two beers from a woman so harried she doesn’t even bother to card him, and, clutching a bottle in each fist, wades into the sea of dancers. Someone’s passed out glow-stick bracelets, and the luminous rings of green and yellow tracing patterns in the dark act on him like runway signals, waving him in deeper and deeper. He follows them eagerly, watching for the flash of white skin against a black dress. For evidence of long, smooth legs and platinum hair, thoughts of which are beginning to make his blood pound again, quickening in time to the music.
All night he’s been thinking there’s a space next to Julia’s skin, a thin, Davie-sized zone like the earth’s stratosphere that has been reserved for him alone. Invisible and indefinable yet more real than the shoulders he pushes past in search of her, the memory of it is so strong that when he finds her, swaying ass-to-crotch in the arms of a man who must be at least ten years older than her, he can do nothing but stand there, clutching his beers.
Julia smiles dreamily and sticks her tongue out at him, then looks around slowly as if she’s lost something. Her rhythm never falters.
“Go see if Rey’s okay!” she shouts above the music, not breaking contact with the man behind her, who has yet to open his eyes. He has a tattoo of a tiger clawing its way out from under his shirt to his neck, and his arms—hairy and muscular in a way Davie’s won’t be for years—cross over her breasts like a safety harness.
It doesn’t occur to him to wonder why Julia might be concerned for his sister until, on his way off the floor and out of the club, he finds Rey barefoot, with a fine rope of saliva trailing from the corner of her mouth down to her sparrow-boned chest, slumped unmoving on one of the vinyl couches lining the walls.
After establishing Rey’s still alive, only unconscious from a combination of alcohol and the ecstasy she’d taken with Julia, the paramedics allow Davie to ride in the back of the ambulance to Mass General. One of the medics peels back Rey’s eyelids every few minutes to check her pupils and he holds his sister’s cold and bony hand the whole way. This close, he can see that most of what little weight she’d gained back at the Center has melted off again: the hard florescent wash of the ambulance’s lights drains the color from her skin, and the sharp lines of her face remind him of the death’s heads carved into the old graves of Plymouth and Salem.
They reach the hospital and he calls their parents in Phoenix. They buy tickets for the first available flight, but it will take them almost a full day to arrive.
When the nurses force him, kindly but firmly, out of Rey’s room for the night, he rides the elevator down to the hospital cafeteria and buys coffee from a vending machine so he can stay awake until morning. His phone vibrates every ten minutes for an hour until Julia shows up eating a Twix bar and sits down next to him. She eats the candy messily, not stopping to wipe caramel and crumbs from her lips before taking another package from her pocket and ripping it open. He can tell she’s still high.
“Isn’t that going to make you fat?” he asks. He’s intending to be mean, to begin punishing her for what she’s done to Rey, but she takes the question seriously and slows her chewing long enough to nod and answer him.
“That’s the thing, Davie, that’s the weird thing about it. You have to get fat to be skinny. You have to go low to get high.” She laughs at her own joke, a hiccupping burst that bounces off the walls of the almost-empty cafeteria and causes a few of the hospital workers in scrubs and white orderly’s uniforms to glance their way.
“She could’ve died, you know.” He says it softly. The words are hard to lift from his throat; he’s only heard them in movies. “You could’ve killed her.”
Julia nods seriously. “But she didn’t. She didn’t and we’re here and we’re together, Davie. It’s like an adventure.”
She tries to take his hand in hers, but he shakes her away and stands up, sick and confused, unable to look at her. Her upturned face smudged with chocolate and mascara. Her expression sincere as a child’s.
He sees Julia only once after this night, sitting across from him on an East-West bus the winter of his senior year in college. He’s on his way to meet the girl he’s thinking about asking to marry him, and Julia looks like she’s on her way to a crack house. Her body’s as thin as ever, but there’s a new puffiness to her face and her hair’s faded back to what must be its natural color: a stringy, noodle-soup blonde. A long, dark scab runs down the side of her neck, disappearing past a loosely tied scarf into her dirty red coat, and every so often she puts down the worn paperback she’s reading to scratch carefully around it with two fingers.
If he didn’t know she was the same age as Rey—twenty-three last month—he would have said she was closer to thirty-five.
The bus brakes hard and Julia leans down to stop the bag at her feet from sliding under the seat in front of her. When she looks back up and catches him staring, the small doubts he’d had about her identity vanish. There, he sees now, are the slate-gray eyes he’d spent half a year trying to draw towards him, there the broad forehead, there the tapering, almost elfish ears.
She stares back, her eyes holding his and narrowing as she tries to remember where she knows him from. He has an uncomfortable image of her crossing the aisle to embrace him, leaning down and pulling his chest to hers until his mouth is full of greasy yellow hair while the other passengers clap and cheer, sure that they’re witnessing a grand and beautiful reunion.
Davie, she’ll say, her voice as low as it was when he used to wait for her calls, where have you been?
And as soon as he imagines this, he knows it’s going to happen.
I’ve needed you, Davie.
He braces himself for her touch, but it doesn’t come. After a few seconds her eyes relax; she gives him the wan, thin-lipped smile invented for strangers on the bus, and, just as suddenly as he’d spotted her, turns back to her book.
He’s free to look anywhere now: at the girls his age exchanging gossip in the back, the defaced public safety announcement that reads Priority Seating of Elderly and Handicapped, or out the window where the snow is falling slow and silent.
All this choice is just another way of saying he has something to avoid, though, so he gets off at the next stop and walks the last eleven blocks to the restaurant, where his girlfriend will complain his hands are too cold and make him sit on them for the better part of ten minutes before they’re finally warm enough to hold.