I once tried to count the times that Joey Crackers spat in my face. My therapist didn’t think that was such a good idea, but she didn’t order me to stop. Therapists don’t order, they guide. She said: “Erica Johnson: Do you really want to go there?”
“You know something? I don’t!”
And in the years since, I have given the Joey Crackers ordeal about the same amount of thought you might give to childhood’s night terrors. That is, hardly any thought at all.
For now, I am waiting for the train at Suburban Station and thinking about the shape of time when Joey Crackers bounds through the double doors onto platform 3B. I recognize him right away. He must also be there for the 2:12 to Fox Chase. That’s my stop, anyway. I am visiting a sick friend. Who knows where Joey Crackers gets off?
He glances around, sees no openings on the platform benches. As he pivots toward the tracks, his shoulders slump. I bet he just sighed, resigned that he must stand for an unconscionable seven minutes.
It’s been about 20 years since we graduated high school and he’s changed. Then: Tall, lanky, and handsome in a boy-next-door, aw-shucks way. Now, the wavy brown hair’s been replaced by a baldness that some men pull off beautifully, and he’s one. The extra pounds and beginnings of a Dad bod make him seem like he could be a friendly neighbor.
I wonder if he’s still evil?
I don’t try to catch his attention. He wouldn’t recognize me, for I am not — repeat: not! — the girl he abused. I too have changed.
Yeah, the shape of time. Does it in fact have a shape or is it just as linear as we live it: Second by second, always just this short of the eternal now? And what’s more linear than a train? Cars and trucks can change lanes, but trains? No getting off them tracks. Just like time, or how we think time is.
My nieces and nephews call me Aunt Ericane. I don’t try to take over the room at parties and other family gatherings; it just happens. Mostly because of my laugh which my boyfriend describes as addictive. But I am a good listener, too, because I am the strong one.
I’d gone through a rough patch back during the Joey Crackers hell and even for some years after, slogging through fogs of depression that sometimes kept me in bed for entire days. No one called me Ericane then.
Maybe therapy fixed me or maybe Mom’s prayers finally paid off. Or just maybe some switch buried deep in my DNA flipped. No matter. I made a decision and that decision began the evolution that would become Ericane. I found myself, finally, in my mid-20s. Don’t we all? I left behind the fragile, pimply-faced awkward girl who never quite fit in, the girl Joey Crackers abused.
The past is dead, and it should have the decency to stay dead.
Now, the past stood not 12 feet away from me, his feet planted on the yellow warning path. Careful, Joey. You don’t want to get too close to the edge. What if someone were to push you in front of the Fox Chase?
Time encircles us.
In high school, Joey went out with one of the girls who treated me with the type of condescending kindness that stung worse than the causal insults and offhand cruelties of the mean girls, the cool boys, and all the other sadists who devil kids like me. If you really want to deeply wound a girl, pity her.
Daphne Carlisle and Joey Crackers. Carlisle and Crackers. Sounds like a law firm, or maybe a wine-and-nibbles combo served at intermissions. She captained the field hockey team, sat on student council. Joey Crackers — Joseph Stanislav Krakowski — played basketball, and also sat on student council. He charmed people, that’s what Joey did. He became a salesman after college and then started his own company but, hell, that was no surprise. Joey could have started his own country. He and Daphne went their separate ways, as you’d expect (and would even hope) for two people enamored with each other in high school.
The first time Joey Crackers spat in my face was in his cellar after I’d gone down on him. He jolted up, furiously rebuckling his pants. We’d done it — I did him — on a moldy couch that his family just couldn’t part with, and as I uprighted myself, using that forlorn piece of furniture as leverage, Joey turned to me and growled: “You’re not my girlfriend.”
“Joey, it’s OK,” I stammered. “I love you.”
Then he spat on me. The spit landed just below my eye, and I felt abundant saliva trailing down my cheek. How could he have worked up so much warm fluid in just one nasty gesture? Of course, I’d thought that just moments ago when he’d gently patted me on the head.
“Why?” I stumbled back while wiping it off on my sleeve.
What did I do wrong? I must have done something to have caused this.
How many of the abused sing that refrain? Correct. Too many.
His face, with that old friendly grin, morphed like plastic in a fireplace. I’d never seen such disgust and self-loathing.
“Don’t tell anyone about this, Johnson,” Joey warned. “Skank!”
Then he spat on me again, the spittle this time embedding itself in my hair near my ear, and I realized, finally, that this was actually happening.
“Get!” he ordered.
I began groping toward the steps leading upstairs as if this scene had played out in the dark, though all the lights were on.
“Not that way!” he said, stepping in front of me. His chest and shoulders expanded, his hands clenched. “My folks might be coming home and bump into you. That way!”
Such a strange word to come out of the mouth of someone who’d just did what he did. And yes, hearing it, I thought: Is the old Joey Crackers coming back to save me from this monster I now confront?
He pointed toward the back door in the cellar that led to one of the narrow alleyways that dissected our row home existence, and that’s where I fled sobbing. I didn’t slam the door as I left. That would not have been polite.
I wish I could tell you that that ended it. I wish I could say that I would never let Joey Crackers do something like that to me again. I wish I could have brought him to light, let everybody see the real Joey Crackers.
But no. He would call, mumble something that I mistook for apology (and I would profusely apologize back) and then I’d run to him. Even the night after senior prom (which I did not attend) which Carlisle-Crackers treated as their coronation. I went back again and again until finally after graduation we went on to different colleges and he ghosted on me.
And though I call Joey Crackers evil, I do not absolve myself.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn said (and I have memorized this) that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.”
So, yes, I am capable of evil. And, yes, Joey Crackers has probably done much good in his life. Still, it would be so easy to shove him in front of the train that I now hear echoing through the tunnel. Would I be caught? Definitely. So how to do it and make it seem like an accident?
I could pretend to trip and shove him onto the tracks. No, that wouldn’t work. I glance about looking for cameras and though I see none, I know they’re there somewhere. I look at my fellow commuters, each with a phone that can take pictures or video.
I’d get caught. I’d be sent to prison. And the people who depended so much on Aunt Ericane: What would they do? Who could they lean on? What about my boyfriend?
But here’s the thing. Before I’d gotten Joey Crackers out of my head, mixed among the swirl of emotions was the regret that I’d let a string of unknown women down. I never taught Joey Crackers a lesson, so he must have felt cocooned enough in privilege to abuse other women. And he did abuse other women, of that I have no doubt.
Time to rid the world of this critter.
I stand as the echo of the train’s brakes heralds its coming arrival. I walk over to Joey Crackers. It would be so easy….
I tap him on the shoulder. He turns.
“Hi!” I see the look of a man who thinks he might get lucky. The smile, the mischievous glint in the eyes, the charm starts in like something being illuminated from behind. Did he just slip off his wedding ring? Wind rushes down the tunnel. The train bears down.
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
His predatory brightening goes dark as if someone had thrown a blanket over a lamp. He glances quickly down the tracks.
“I don’t,” he says, stepping back from the platform.
I raise my hands and he flinches. Then I do the most unladylike thing. I spit right in his eye, a hard poke to the iris in which I’d seen my abused self reflected so long ago.
“How about now? Remember?”
The front of the train passes, as it eases into the station, shadowed figures of passengers in the windows rolling by.
“You’re still a crazy skank!”
Ah, yes. He remembers me.
Joey Crackers wipes his eye as he scurries along the platform toward the last car.
Oh there are witnesses.
“Did you see that?” I hear someone say.
I move to the next doorway down, careful to not make it seem as if I am in pursuit of Joey Crackers. Though I try to block out everything, I can’t help but notice eyes squinting and disapproval head-shaking. I also notice, however, some are nodding and hear a few “um-hums.” Women who’ve quickly deduced who’s really the wronged party her.
I board and settle into my seat, convinced I won’t get away with it. I pretend to concentrate on my smartphone. Transit cops or a conductor might come and escort me to that place on moving trains where they take troublemakers while deciding just what charges should be filed.
And the conductor does come.
“Yes?” I look at his forearm.
“Oh! Sorry!” I thrust it into his hand.
He punches the chad — click! — then tucks it into the seat holder.
“Um-hum,” he says, before moving on.
He knows, but he’s seen worse. And I am behaving now. So maybe no assault charges?
In a little while, the train rolls up out of the tunnel and into the sunlight. I dare to look around then and see the ordinary; my fellow travelers staring out of windows, or talking, or texting. Everybody tucked snuggly into their lives. I feel tension in my shoulders uncoil.
I don’t see Joey Crackers disembark; perhaps he gets off after me.
In fact, I never saw him again after that, even though I kept visiting my friend at least once a month until she finally died of cancer.
And I know on my best days that I should be ashamed of myself for stooping to Joey Crackers’s level; a level he may have long ago transcended. How could I have done that to another human being? Holding a grudge when you’re supposed to forgive your enemies?
But I can’t quite get there. Not yet. Can’t quite hold myself to account.
Some day, perhaps, I’ll reach that level of enlightenment.
Meanwhile, I wonder what I’d do if I ever bumped into Daphne Carlisle?