By: Rose Ellen McCaig
He’s sixteen, never been to a movie theater. But it’s Friday, the night before Valentine’s Day, and Eric has a date for the ten o’clock show. Her name is Jamie, and she’s one grade younger. In the same way that he understands she lives with her mother in an old, metallic-blue Chevy Nova, which may or may not be stolen, he knows that she knows he doesn’t have a home at all.
It’s dangerous to get attached. That’s what he told himself for the thousandth time since he and Jamie locked eyes a couple of weeks ago, on the fifth day of a toothache so awful he could no longer focus in class. Hoping for some ice, maybe an aspirin, he got into the line of kids for whom the school nurse is an angel and outside whose basement office they collect, a throng of last resorts, snaking down the stairwell to her door.
In the overcrowded halls and along the rows of dented lockers, there are girls prettier than Jamie, with their breasts, bottoms that he’d enjoy seeing naked, but she’s the one he watches, craves: she’s raw and ropy like he is. From the way her brown bangs bounce across her lashes or stick oily flat to her forehead, he guesses the day of the week she has gym and gets to wash her hair. At night, wherever he sleeps, he thinks of that hair, his face buried deep and warmed by its every version.
Otherwise, it’s freezing. That’s New England, no point complaining. He’s lucky that his hair, straight past chin-length, shields winter pale cheeks. His back on concrete, palms resisting brick, crunches and presses keep him strong. Still, when a scarf, a jacket goes missing, it’s not worth the fight. If he truly needs to, he can stop anyone with his eyes, dark clouds covering the place where he stores and protects his dream.
In class, he has the answer to every question before it’s asked, but can’t volunteer. Don’t invite attention. He knows what happens to a kid who gets found out, for messing with the wrong people or being honest with the right ones. They’re not putting me into the system.
He’s lonely, though; it pokes and chews, shimmies under his skin, a pointy-tooth mouse flattening its spine through a crevice he’d overlooked, didn’t seal. Ignore it. He has a career plan, to graduate early from high school with a scholarship to a college in New York City. There, he’ll keep a toothbrush in a clean cup on the sink, have a bed in a room in a dorm where he’ll sleep in peace, a poster of water lilies above him. After four years, he’ll achieve his goal, a college degree, and a career–in what he’s not yet sure–but he’ll figure it out. Then, I can fall in love.
So he’d kept his distance from Jamie. No distractions.
First, in a long list of steep steps, is the SAT. He’s almost out of time to register and doesn’t have enough money. No one around can afford to pay him much to shovel snow or repair a window. Even if he could find a regular job, he wouldn’t have a parent or guardian or custodian to sign his application for the work permit. Over and over, he’s begged for a chance, offered to work cheap: dishes, toilets, whatever no one else wants. As long as I can get to school on time in the morning.
Then this morning, he’d overheard his English teacher tell the nurse that she felt guilty, but she needed the money and wrote a term paper for a college kid. I can do that, and I wouldn’t feel bad. He already spends hours in the public library, sleeps in the basement when the janitor lets him. After homework, there are novels, pages of museum art, college catalogs, and a computer. He’d find the campus, offer his services. There’s no assignment I can’t complete, perfectly.
But at the eighth-period bell, Jamie strode right up to him. Standing close, red ribboned ponytail, a Chapstick tube across her lips, she asked him out. “My mom’s new boyfriend can sneak us in to see Mannequin tonight.”
Just this once.
He postponed his mission. They hung around, talked about nothing significant and everything that was.
He told her the terrifying grand total, four hundred thirty-nine dollars, he’d calculated countless times.
She told him what she’d seen her mother do for less, and he said, “She does what she has to.”
He told her what he’s never spoken aloud. Until eight months ago he used to be a hand- me-down, and she asked, “What’s that?”
It’s how he lived with his father who stayed at a girlfriend’s, the top floor of a triple- decker, and one day his father left him there with her. They waited for more than a year, but he never came back. Then, the girlfriend left him with her mother, who lived one flight below; they waited, but she never returned, phone ringing months later from somewhere down south. Then, he arrived home from school, the furniture gone; he hid in the backyard, entered the ground floor apartment through a cracked window. There, people came and went at all hours, and no one took care of him, but no one threw him out. He had an address; a sofa pillow he kept hidden, sniffed to feel better. And there was a television screen where he’d stretch his hand, flat and longing, a way to crawl into sunny kitchens and living rooms filled with families that would want to know how was your day?
Jamie got it, no questions or meaningless murmurs. She sought out his hand in his sweatshirt pocket. On her thumb, he found a sharp hangnail that he tenderly tugged, bit off so it wouldn’t catch and cause her to bleed and hurt.
Her mother picked them up in the Nova. On the way to the movie, he sat in the backseat. He ate some fries from the Burger King bag they shared with him, listened to their high voices mix with the car radio. And when Madonna sang open your heart, he already had.
“Aren’t you the handsome one,” her mother had said to him. “Look at that beautiful black hair. Maybe I can trim it sometime if you want.”
“Mom’s a hairdresser,” Jamie said.
“Here and there,” her mother said.
Now, he and Jamie find seats in the back of the theater, amazed to be there, together, in the middle of an almost empty row. The air is buttery, sweaty from the previous show, the radiator, and Jamie Jamie Jamie.
He watches as she unzips her jacket with its bracelets of dirt around each wrist. She undoes three buttons of her blouse. “It’s from Victoria’s Secret,” she says, showing off a leopard bra that snaps in front. She’s mostly flat, but the bra is padded, and it squeezes to the center what she does have, and she’s so beautiful if he could touch her he’d happily die right after.
It’s an agonizing choice, in the dark, to kiss for the next two hours or escape into the screen. His mind flips around money-test-money-test. He can’t shut it off, needs a rest. He straightens up and loses himself in the movie.
But Jamie is tracing a heart on his thigh. Her fingers dance between his legs. He’s hard all the time on his own, but nothing like this out of this world incredible. He should whisper let’s not but thinks just a minute longer. Her pace is steady. It’s no use. He gives in to what’s behind his closed eyes, an abstract of swirling shapes in iridescent blues and green.
She continues, and he imagines what’s inside her tight jeans, the pink rose from the edge of a bakery-window cake he’s never tasted. With a faded flannel cuff he covers a moan; his free hand clings to her arm, a musical giggle in his ear. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
He kisses her shoulder bone, sniffs her neck, caramel color, caramel sweet. “Can I make you happy, too?”
“Next time,” she assures him.
Jamie. On Saturday, he’s glad about her. But sad too, about how important her bra was to her. She deserves a future more special than that. When they meet later, he won’t mention it; let her keep her proud pleasure edged in lace. They’ll curl up, and he’ll read to her from his new library book; she wants to hear the story, not discover its secrets for herself.
Monday, he wants another next time with Jamie, but he’s not going to delay his mission again. He rushes out after school, a train to North Station and another to Commonwealth Avenue to a university where there must be at least one rich kid who needs my help.
Over two hours to get to the Student Union. But he made it: a packed cafeteria strewn with headphones, parkas, and forgotten candy hearts. He chooses a seat on the periphery and opens his library book. He’s patient, will observe the scene and listen for clues until he figures out whom to approach and how.
Students, they’re studying, laughing; glass plates and Pepsi cans. Most don’t bother to bus their tables, and it takes a while for the maintenance crew to clear the trays. His stomach is empty. Jesus, they leave over so much. When the crowd thins, he’ll skim around, eat just enough, and stuff the rest into his backpack for Jamie and her mother.
Eight-thirty. So far, no opportunity for research or writing, but there’s a circle of male foreign students, a large, cluttered table to forage. It’s fascinating, the amount of time and money they have, gold watches and wild colors like kings and December decorations in storefront windows. Animated, they gesture, speak fast and loud in what sounds like Arabic. Maybe they could use a translator in the lecture halls? But when they call out comments to girls passing by, it’s obvious their command of English is clear and precise.
In Eric’s line of vision, one of them holds court: enthusiastic, argumentative, he swipes to the side sandwiches and chips to make room for The Boston Globe. Eric wants to call out, I read the news too. Can I sit with you guys and talk?
All he can do is wait.
Finally. They get up and make their way toward the exit. He’s hungry, a long trip ahead. He wants to find Jamie, fold her in his arms wherever her mother parked the Nova for the night.
He hurries to their vacated table. But that same student is returning, motions to his posse to go on ahead. Eric halts between the tables while the guy glances around, annoyed, as if he’s lost something valuable.
He approaches Eric. He’s shorter but bulky, with muscular arms that show through his shiny shirt.
Eric tries to catch his eye you don’t scare me, but the guy looks beyond Eric. Whatever his problem is, I’m not leaving all that food.
Then, the guy steps closer, pokes Eric’s chest with a thick finger. “Why have you been staring at me?”
Eric steps back and holds up his hands. “Not staring at you, man.”
“Sure you were,” the guy says.
I can’t be bothered to lie. “Look, I just want the food that you don’t.”
“You’re going to eat our garbage?”
Eric is dizzy from the fluorescent lights, the combination of the guy’s brash cologne and vague tobacco. Don’t give me this crap, buddy. “It’s not yours once you leave it.”
“That’s pathetic,” the guy says, but his voice, it’s not as mean.
He’ll run out of steam. But the guy blocks Eric. What now?
He motions toward Eric’s book. “The Prince of Tides. I read that last year when it came out. What do you think of it?”
“I like the characterizations of New York City. That’s where I want to live,” Eric says.
This guy won’t need me to do his homework but maybe errands?
“A fantastic town,” the guy says.
“Sure.” Pause. “You don’t go to school here, do you?”
Eric shakes his head, no.
“You can call me Frank. I’ll buy you a burger if you’d like.”
Like the surprise steam from a vent or fire in a can, the invite is a relief, heat on a cold street. He’s about to say that’d be great, thanks when he feels Frank’s palm flatten, careful and light, on his arm, fingers splayed, settling there.
Oh gross. He’s never been in this situation but no mistaking the touch: the painful wistful wanting of something you cannot have. Too bad. He lifts his hand to brush away Frank’s, ready to say no offense, I’m not into that.
There’s the cost of the SAT and college applications and interview clothes and, for Jamie, a never-before-opened bottle of shampoo of her very own.
He finds Frank’s eyes, the longing. He taps Frank’s middle knuckle.
I am going to do this.
He holds the look, stokes the need now unguarded. “Five hundred dollars,” Eric says.
“I’m not a faggot,” Frank says, but he doesn’t move.
“I don’t care what you are, or you’re not.” He’ll probably take me into the men’s room.
Soon I’ll be on the train home to Jamie.
“I have a single at Campus West,” Frank says.
“Cash first.” Eric shifts his body away, holds the eyes.
But Frank looks at the floor. He pulls out a wallet and gives Eric bills that equal three hundred dollars. He shows Eric there’s nothing left.
Eric doesn’t move.
“I have more in my room.”
He follows Frank’s lead, trails him outside. They travel the white dusted sidewalk, casual, with no indication that they’re acquainted. Don’t worry. I’ll act whatever way you tell me.
Frank glances back at him. “Aren’t you cold in that sweatshirt?” Franks unwinds, rewinds a red scarf. Jamie, ribbon.
“I’m good,” Eric says. I’d give it back, Frank.
They arrive at a busy dormitory complex. I’m not even that nervous.
Frank ushers Eric through a door at the end of a long hall of doors. Eric hears the lock grip click behind him.
He doesn’t know where to look first. The room is a small rectangle filled with so much interesting stuff, inviting titles on unbroken spines, a seductive game on a Macintosh Plus. For a moment, he forgets why he’s really there.
Pressure on his shoulder. Frank turns him, coaxes him near, strokes his cheek.
Eric retreats. “My money.”
“It’s not your money while I still have it.”
In a flash, Eric grabs Frank’s wrist and twists it against a wooden bureau. “Don’t fuck with me.”
Frank wrestles free. His face bright with excitement, he tries to kiss Eric.
A violent cognition rises. I want a treasure of my own, too. Jamie’s mouth only, pure.
Frank stops. He removes the lid of a leather box on the bureau and gives Eric two hundred dollars.
“Who do you think you are? A movie star?” Frank says. “Pretend I’m your girlfriend.”
Don’t you dare bring her into this.
Frank reaches for the back of Eric’s head, draws him in, and kisses him with his tongue.
Do not cry in front of him.
“Take off your shirt. Sit on the bed,” Frank directs.
How bad could it be? It’s worse. Instead of what he’d expected, awful but quick, Frank is hugging him, slow kissing, playing with his hair like they’re on a date. If he had anything to vomit up, he surely would. Please, let’s just get this over with because the trains stop at midnight.
“I want you to do it to me,” Frank says.
What I am I supposed to do? He doesn’t know this answer, is not going to guess. This whole enterprise is off balance.
“I liked it when you got rough before,” Frank says.
“Look, just spell it out.” Frank explains.
No way. No way am I going to be able to get it up. What if he decides I’m not worth the money? Think, think. Rough?
He pushes Frank on his back. He rubs Frank’s crotch; it’s short and wide. Probably looks like him. He attacks the belt buckle, the zipper, the pants, the black briefs that say Calvin Klein. He lowers his head. Frank guides him. She does what she has to.
“That’s good, that’s good,” Frank says.
His brain, it’s well-trained. Focus on photographs of Columbia University, a celestial point far beyond this never-ending night.
Frank’s body shakes.
Fast, thank God.
His hot fist pounds Eric’s shoulder. I’m going to choke.
“Swallow it. Tell me how good I taste.”
I got through it.
“Sure, sure you do,” Eric says. “So, we’re finished here. Is one of those doors in the hall a bathroom?” I could use a glass of water, too, maybe a candy heart if there’s extra lying around?
He tries to stand.
But Frank is pinning him down.
So confused, tired.
He’s worn out and sinking, his bare back on the puffy quilt, and there’s a fresh pillowcase, inches away. I want to sleep so bad.
“I paid you, and this is the third time you’ve attempted to renegotiate. You don’t seem to get it,” Frank says.
I get it, now, asshole. I didn’t know you weren’t satisfied. Not like I’ve done this before and never again.
He’s trapped. Frank holds Eric’s arms above his head with one hand. Don’t hit me. I can’t attract attention at school. “Whatever you say, Frank.”
“You don’t have to like me, but you have to do what I want.”
Right, I don’t like you, not the way you like me. But don’t you think I’d rather be discussing books over a burger, and not just because you were going to pay?
Frank pulls off Eric’s pants and lifts him up, arranges him on his back, legs on Frank’s shoulders.
He’s exhausted, starving. He could reason, argue, fight, but he couldn’t beat Frank. He could scream. Screw you, Frank, like that’s your name. None of these options is real, either, nor is stealing the gold watch, the red scarf. He already knows. He’d never risk losing the money or do anything where he might get found out.
More kissing, licking. And Frank starts to probe, back there. No, wait! You read the news use something.
It comes out a squeak. Like a whiny ten-year-old.
“Oh, pretty baby, don’t worry. We’re each other’s first,” Frank says, like a friend.
Maybe he’ll whisper, let’s not.
But the next minute, Frank’s pissed. He says things like open up sweetheart and you little bitch, and Eric doesn’t care what’s going to happen; he’s thirsty, chlorine throat, throbbing tooth, and the world, it’s going to go black any second anyway.
“So nice,” Frank repeats as he pushes in and it is motherfucking brutal, more after he was ordered look at me don’t shut those beautiful eyes.
When it’s finally over, Frank says, “Now I’m done.”
Somebody help me.
I can’t move.
“Go,” Frank says.
His shoulder aches, vision blurry. He strains to see the time on the gold watch on the bureau. What do I have to lose? “Is there someplace I can stay? There’s no train till five o’clock.”
“I’ll have my own problems if any of my friends see you. You have five hundred bucks. Call a taxi.”
Okay. Okay. He manages to get up. It’s normal not to shower, but there’s a blood paste and it’s sickening; he wants a wet rag. Forget it. I’ll live. I’m not asking for another favor.
He gets dressed. He feels Frank’s presence behind him, watching him.
“It was only cigarette money to me,” Frank is saying. “Learn economics before you go out and do this again. I would have paid two thousand to be with a straight boy like you, so tough and beautiful.” Then, sounding like he has to add it, Frank says, “You stupid piece of shit.”
Say it again, I’ll turn around, this time, I’ll snap that wrist. And, buddy, I’m not the one who’s ashamed of what I need.
The wind along Commonwealth Avenue is harsh, but walking is better than sleeping against a building in an unfamiliar part of town, one eye open. He appreciates that each step is a blade, stinging and burning. Now there’s nothing I can’t do, no pain that can break me.
In a few more hours the train will come alive, and he’ll be on his way to first-period; if there’s time, he’ll wrench out that tooth. After school, he’s going to buy Jamie a soft smiling teddy bear. Then she’ll have something as innocent as she is to hold on to, especially on the day that they’re no longer together, when the Nova disappears or when he moves away to a college in New York City, whichever comes first.
Rose Ellen McCaig is from Brooklyn, New York. She earned a B.A., cum laude with Distinction in French from Boston University and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. She practices Family and Business Law in Boston, Massachusetts. In the creative realm, through her Nantucket-based company, pretty strong girl productions, Rose Ellen produced a short film Twenty Minutes (2014) and a web series, Unsure/Positive (2015). Currently, she is studying fiction writing at Grub Street and is working on a novel. Economics 1987 is her very first short story!