Jodi and Alex came out of their bedroom to socialize. I felt some relief that Paulie would have another outlet for entertainment that night. Jimmy and I had been exhausting ourselves trying to keep him company night after night when we got home from work—smoking joints with him, watching TV, drinking beer and lounging around on his sectional sofa. I noticed that Paulie sniffed a lot, blew his nose often, and took many quick trips to his bedroom and shut the door. His wife had left him, but we didn’t know why. The subject was off the table. He looked a mess—unshaven, his curly hair unkempt, face ruddy from the freezing temperatures, and thin. Very thin.
For some reason, Jodi and Alex didn’t experience the same guilt Jimmy and I felt when Paulie was left alone. They could whip up a dinner for two in the kitchen without asking if anyone wanted any, and take the feast to their room with their giant bed and own TV as if they lived in a boarding house.
One night, Alex and Jodi decided to be social. They fried up a plateful of something that smelled delicious. I asked them what it was, and they smiled. “Just try it.” And then we all started to ask.
“Chicken?” said Jimmy.
“Liver?” said Paulie.
“Just try it,” said Jodi.
I cut a small piece with my fork and tried it. Jimmy and Paulie did the same. We chewed in unison. Our eyes grew wide. Our heads nodded.
“Wow,” I said, as I grabbed another piece.
It had the firm texture of a mushroom and a meaty flavor. I didn’t know what it was, but I wanted the whole plateful.
“So are you going to tell us what it is?” said Paulie.
“It’s deer heart!” said Jodi.
“Like a deer’s heart?” I said.
Growing up, I’d seen all kinds of organs and slaughtered or dead animals that would end up on our table or on relatives’ tables in the Philippines. The cow brain sitting in a bowl of water in our garage sink before a big party. My task to burn the hair off a dead goat with a torch and use a steel wire brush to remove the burnt hair off its body in preparation for a big celebration at my auntie’s house. The home video of my relatives in the province plunging a sharp knife into a cow’s throat and letting it bleed to death slowly while drops of blood dripped into a bowl underneath, to be used later for sauce. The deep moan of the cow. Everything I’d witnessed growing up had prepared me for tasting this piece of deer heart. But now that I had, I couldn’t stop thinking about the animal.
On a cool spring Saturday morning, several months into our stay at Paulie’s house, Jimmy and I were in our pajamas watching TV on the couch. Patches of snow still lay on the ground, but I could begin to imagine bulbs below the surface preparing to sprout and push their way up through the soil. Living on the other side of the bridge no longer felt like a dramatic change for me. In fact, in some strange way, I’d grown used to crossing the bridge, leaving Poughkeepsie behind me, and entering into the wilderness of Highland. With the weather change, I’d hoped Jimmy and I would be able to explore some of the heavily wooded areas that I had avoided due to heavy snow.
Out of nowhere, the front door busted open, and a stalky man with dark hair pushed his way into the house, walked straight up to Paulie, grabbed him by the collar and slammed him against the wall.
“Get your shit together!” he said. “What the fuck are you doing?”
Paulie tried to break loose but the man held him close and slammed him hard against the refrigerator.
“Look at you,” he said. “Just look at you.”
It was hard to look at Paulie’s face, all crimson and full of embarrassment and shame. This was his house, we were his borders. Up until that moment, he called the shots. He made the rules. And we abided. But in a flash, he’d lost his position and was now at the mercy of this man.
It was at that moment the man looked around the house and saw Jimmy and me sitting there. Jodi and Alex had emerged from their bedroom. The four of us realized this was not an intruder, but a family member, perhaps Paulie’s brother, who’d come to sort him out. Paulie didn’t need our help. You didn’t get involved in family fights.
Jodi and Alex returned to their bedroom and shut the door. Jimmy grabbed me by the hand and led me to our bedroom. We put our ears up against the door and heard more shouting. Paulie was trying to explain himself, making a desperate plea for the man to understand. But the man just kept saying, Get your shit together. Mom’s worried. Look at you. Look at you.
We heard Paulie crying. The man eventually left and the house went quiet, much like my house growing up went completely silent after one of my dad’s violent outbursts. I was used to this silence, comfortable in it even. But I knew what it meant. Everything had changed. Paulie’s family had gotten involved. Perhaps they’d been planning an intervention ever since his wife left, and this man, perhaps his brother, volunteered to be the one to ambush Paulie in his own home. From the looks on the man’s face, he didn’t even know we were all living there.
In our room, Jimmy told me that Paulie had been doing a lot of coke at work, and that he snorted lines in his bedroom at home. It was the reason his wife had left him. Jimmy had begged him to keep it away from us since we’d both gotten in trouble with it in the past.
Had I known that Paulie was doing lines in his bathroom, I would’ve insisted we move out. The last thing we needed was any sort of temptation. Jimmy and I promised each other we’d never touch coke again—not a line, not a toke on a pipe, nothing. If we were serious about quitting, we couldn’t do it halfway. Our bodies liked it too much. I felt angry that he hadn’t said anything to me about Paulie’s drug use, but understood why he’d kept it from me. We had nowhere else to go.
Jimmy went into the closet and pulled out our Hefty garbage bags and started packing some of our things into them. We didn’t even need to talk to Paulie about what had happened. Our welcome was over. Even so, I felt some slight comfort in what I had witnessed. A brother who cared. Someone who cared enough to bust into Paulie’s house and scream at him like a military sergeant. Someone who refused to let his brother carry on in a self-destructive way. Although Paulie seemed to be a mess at the moment, I had the feeling he would clean up because family members were going to watch over him. Maybe his wife would even return one day.
Jimmy didn’t have anyone in his family who would play that role. His mother and stepfather were too drunk to notice anyone else’s problems. His sisters and older brother had issues of their own, too. My family had tried to intervene in my life but that just drove me away, three thousand miles away. And now they were too far to try to stop me from doing anything harmful to myself. They weren’t going to jump on a plane and drag me back home. Was it because they knew I would refuse to go back with them or because they’d given up on me a long time ago? Would I feel better knowing they tried to come get me, even if they weren’t successful? Why hadn’t they made the effort? If they hadn’t come by now, they weren’t ever coming. There would be no intervention for me. No one from my family would be coming through that door at any moment, hoping to save me.
One morning, when we were living at Paulie’s house, Jimmy said we could car pool together to work since BF Goodrich and the dental office were both on Main Street, just a few blocks from each other. Later that evening, when I was running late with patients, Jimmy said he’d ride home with Paulie, and that I could drive the car home on my own. It was past seven o’ clock and I had just finished cleaning three exam rooms, tidying up the bay area and wiping down the x-ray development room. I felt tired and hungry, and walked alone to our car parked in the BF Goodrich parking lot. I was still in my white scrubs. As I entered the parking lot, a small group of three men started calling out to me. It was dark, with just the faint illumination from the dull street lamp above. There were no other cars left in the parking lot. The men were on the other side of the parking lot, so, at first, I didn’t feel too threatened. They continued to call out to me, and when I turned around a second time, they had moved much closer. They were briskly walking toward me, poised, it seemed, to take off in a sprint at any second. What were they doing? Were they trying to scare me? I’d experienced cat calls in the past but for the most part they’d been harmless. The trick was to ignore the men, to act as if you didn’t hear the whistling or the descriptions of what they wanted to do with or to you. But this was the first time that ignoring them didn’t work.
I picked up my pace and before I knew it I was running to the car and they were trying to catch up with me. The driver side door had been busted for some time, so we either had to crawl in through the window or enter from the passenger side door. But at this moment, I didn’t have time to fuss over how to get in. My hand shook as I got the key in the lock and managed to open the door. I looked up again and the men were just yards away from me, still making sexual remarks. I prayed the car would start. There were many times when it hadn’t lately.
The loud throaty engine of our Super Sport Nova was the best sound I’d heard in a long time. When I fishtailed out of the parking lot, the men chased the car and my driver side door flung open. I grabbed the door handle and tried to slam it shut several times as I pushed my foot on the accelerator, but the door wouldn’t close. It didn’t matter though. I got out on to the Main Street and kept going without looking back. My whole body was shaking. I tried to drive straight while holding the door but I swerved back and forth, unable to multi task while speeding along toward the bridge. The chase was over.
My heart slammed around in my chest and I cursed Jimmy’s name for leaving the car in an empty parking lot at night, for an unreliable engine and a broken driver’s side door. I tried to calm down. At a red light, I open and slammed the door over and over again, trying hard to get it to catch just in the right place so it would stay closed. Still no luck. When the light turned green, I proceeded to the bridge. A man next to me rolled down his window and started screaming something at me. He made a motion for me to roll down my window. What’s going on? Could it be possible that another man wanted to harass me tonight? The man kept pace with my car, and then he finally held up a rope. “Roll down your window,” he said. I realized he was only trying to help. We both slowed down a bit, and as I rolled down my window, he threw a small rope into my car and sped away.
When I got home, I broke down crying to Jimmy. “I hate Highland, I hate living here.” It was because we lived with Paulie that Jimmy could find his own way home instead of waiting for me to get off work so we could ride home together. “I’m so sorry baby,” he said. “It’ll never happen again.”