Joyland

New York |

At Full Capacity

by Kate Axelrod

edited by Kyle Lucia Wu

On their third date, Jack and Abby drive to Atlantic City. It’s eleven-thirty on a Wednesday night. Earlier in the evening they’d met at a bar in the West Village that masqueraded as a barber shop—complete with upright leather chairs and combs suspended in blue liquid—but the bathroom door opened into a darkened bar with velvet coated stools and black, textured wallpaper. They had two drinks and then wordlessly got in Jack’s car. He turned onto Sixth Avenue and it was two seconds too late when Abby realized they were going through the Holland Tunnel.

“Well, fuck, where are you taking me?” she asks.

“We’re going to A.C., baby.”

“Are you serious? That sounds like a terrible idea.”

“That’s a silly thing to say. It’s just a beautiful sea-town community for families. There’s the boardwalk, the Ferris wheel, little kids walking around eating churros and shit.”

“And that’s why you’re taking me there?”

“It’ll be fun,” Jack says. His voice is calm but he’s grinning. “We can gamble a little and then get some rest in a super fancy hotel. We’ll drive back in the morning. Plus, how can you resist all that oxygen pumped into the casinos?”

“You’re crazy, Atlantic City is a black hole of despair.” Abby has never been to Atlantic City and her resistance is mostly an act. She can’t tell if Jack is arrogant or reckless or maybe both, but she edges toward him and kisses the side of his face.

***

Jack plays a couple rounds at the blackjack table while Abby fumbles with slot machines and sips on a gin and tonic. She feels a flicker of guilt about calling in sick the next morning. She works in the fundraising department of a homeless services non-profit, but she’s not indispensable—someone else can make the same phone calls telling the stories of their resilient clients, asking for money so they can continue to provide the best services possible.

Jack and Abby go upstairs and he strips the comforter off the bed and they fuck with their clothes still on, just their jeans unzipped and pulled down low. She loves having sex with him like this, like their need is too urgent to take the time to undress. She gets on top and clenches the headboard with her fingers and they both come, quiet and breathless. They turn on the TV and Sister Act is on NBC, which they agree is amazing because of that wild casino scene at the end.

“We can go right back down there and act it out,” Abby says. “Back in the habit!”

She’s drifting toward sleep but Jack kisses her shoulder so gently, she holds her breath for a moment. She can’t believe she hasn’t texted a single person to say she’s left the city. But with Jack she feels like if she utters any of it aloud she’ll destroy it.

She wakes a couple of hours later, sweaty and disoriented, an infomercial blaring on the television. Someone is advertising knives that can slice a penny in half. Jack isn’t there.

Abby turns on the lights and in the yellow glow of the room she feels fucked. He has driven her ninety minutes out of the city and has left here there. She is a moron for being so easily charmed. It is six in the morning and the sun is just starting to rise, the lights of Atlantic City glittering and sinister. She goes into the bathroom and sits down on the cream colored toilet seat, pressing the heels of her hands into her forehead. She could just take a bus back to Port Authority, the practicality in and of itself isn’t that big a deal, she supposes, but she feels weighed down by the facts; what it means to be left, by Jack, in a hotel room in the middle of New Jersey. Her mouth is so dry she can barely swallow. Then he walks in. He’s unsteady on his feet and his eyes are lit up and glassy.

“I couldn’t sleep!” he says, “but I won five grand. Breakfast on me!”

***

A couple of weekends later Abby goes away with her friend Claire from work, to her father’s place in Connecticut; a suburban home with a finished basement and an oblong swimming pool in the backyard.

“He just sounds irresponsible and reckless, or something,” Claire says, after hearing about the Atlantic City thing. “But it’s kind of hot, I get it.”

They’re out by the pool and Claire’s resting on a float that’s supposed to look like a big ice cream sandwich. Abby left her phone in the kitchen so she would stop staring at it, but every so often she goes back inside to use the bathroom or refill a glass of water, and she watches it charging on the ceramic kitchen floor, like a mother watching her newborn asleep in a bassinet.

Eventually there’s a text from Jack that says, what are you doing?

She goes back outside and picks up Breakfast of Champions, which she borrowed from Jack’s place last week. She’s not particularly interested in it, but Jack isn’t a huge reader and he said he liked it, so she’s curious to be in his head for a minute.

“Oh my god,” Abby says, “he underlined something.”

“Congrats! You’re dating a regular human who underlines things in books.”

“You know what I mean!”

“I don’t, really?” Claire flips over onto her back and the float dips down, water rising over her manicured toes.

“Just like, to have any insight into his thoughts feels huge. The idea of him sitting there and feeling moved by a sentence, you know? He’s so opaque. It’s like a tiny window.”

“Into his soul, or something?”

“Don’t mock me!”

“Sounds like another boring privileged white dude to me. Only frat boys go to Atlantic City.”

“He’s not! That’s the thing. He’s from this cool Quaker family and his parents are super progressive and he’s just trying to find his own way or something. Also, you’re kind of being an asshole.”

“I’m not! I’m just saying, you’re like, obsessed with this idea of figuring him out, but what if there’s nothing to figure out. What if there’s no ‘there there’?”

Abby thinks back to Jack’s text, What are you doing? She loves these kinds of messages because they’re not flowery or emotive but convey his plain interest in her.

***

They get back to Brooklyn on Sunday night. Abby lives in a ground floor studio apartment in Crown Heights. Her cousin’s father-in-law owns the building so she gets good deal. There are rusted steel bars on all the windows, and a slight slope to the wooden floorboards, but it’s on a beautiful, leafy block, and there are built in bookshelves in the living room, an ornate non-working fireplace and mantle. She unpacks from the weekend and texts Jack, you coming over soon? I have to get up early.

Coming , he says. And then a few minutes later, actually need you now.

What’s up? she asks.

Outside.

She unlatches the metal lock and the gate scrapes along the concrete. Jack is lying on the sidewalk, his sweatshirt unzipped and spread out beneath him. He’s like a child making a snow angel, but he’s twenty-seven and it’s the end of summer.

“What the fuck? Are you okay?”

“Drunk,” he says, pulling Abby toward him. Across the street two terriers circle each other, delicately examining each other’s assholes. Their owners, two men -- one elderly -- are looking over.

Abby kneels down beside Jack.

“Let’s get you inside, you little freak.”

“I love you,” he says. His eyes are closed. “You’re my sweet girl. My girl with sweet tits. My sweet tits.”

“Okay, okay, come on now. Inside.” He is twice her size -- not fat but big and hefty.

Sometimes she calls him bear because he’s so big and his entire body is covered in a soft, downy fur.

“I’m comfy here,” he says.

“Impossible.” She stands up and reaches for his arms, and then Jack reluctantly follows.

He falls asleep on top of her comforter, white cotton with black geometric shapes. His mouth is slackened, his breath smoky from scotch. She kisses his face, presses her lips against the prickliness of his stubble. He is drunk, she knows, so drunk, but still, he said it!

***

Jack’s lease is up in the winter and he ends up staying over a few nights in a row and then doesn’t leave. Abby’s still working at the development office at Healing the Homeless, calling corporate sponsors all day telling them rote redemptive stories about their clients. Jack is working on “projects.” He has a bunch of friends who run their own startups and they hire him to develop their website for a few weeks at a time, or he’ll respond to a Craigslist ad where for a

month he’ll do research for a book on 19th century architecture. But he also gambles a lot. Some days Abby comes home from work and he’s hunched over the kitchen table, a dozen browser tabs open on his laptop. He bets on things she didn’t even know one could bet on: local elections in random cities across the country, minor league baseball teams in the pacific northwest.Sometimes an envelope arrives in the mail from his father, but they don’t discuss it.

One morning he wakes up and decides he wants to join the Army and says he made an appointment at a recruitment office in Midtown. Then he wants to go to med school and enrolls in an online organic chemistry class. For a few days he’s be amped up and hyper-focused, doing research and talking out logistics with her. If I started studying now and signed up for the MCATS in April, I could start applying in the fall. But inevitably the frenzy passes and in its wake is something like depression. It’s not that his mood is low or that he’s irritable and quick to anger, he’s just gone; like his body’s a motel he can check in and out of for days at a time.

One Sunday afternoon in April they sit beside each other on the couch and Abby makes a Google Doc that they can both access. The idea is that they’ll both add to it, writing down ideas about possible jobs or posting links to applications and grad school deadlines.

“It’s just so hard being a struggling artist,” he says. “Especially when you’re not an artist.” He laughs at himself, then bites at his cuticles. She wants to say: I don't think I could possibly love you more. Instead, she places her computer down on the woven rug beside the couch and climbs on top of him. His fingers are icy against her skin and he cups her breasts, one in each palm, then lifts up her sweater and kisses the skin beneath her nipples. Later that night Abby goes to the movies at BAM with Claire and her boyfriend Paul.

Jack’s out getting drinks with “some buddies” when she gets home. She’s in bed by eleven and texts him to say goodnight. But then she wakes at four when he lumbers in. He flips on the light and just stands there with a blank expression on his face.

“Jack, what the fuck?”

His nose is caked in blood and his left eye is swollen shut.

“What happened?”

“Huh?”

Abby gets out of bed and walks to the kitchen. She’s pretty sure they have an ice-pack around from when she’d gotten her wisdom teeth out last year. She finds it beneath a Celeste pizza and wraps it in a checkered dishtowel. But when she gets back to the room Jack’s passed out on the bed. His jeans are spotted with blood and his feet are planted on the floor. She unties his shoelaces—he’s wearing these black ADIDAS that look like soccer cleats—and maneuvers his feet out of the sneakers. His socks are damp with sweat and the odor is so pungent she almost gags. She feels something like contempt, blunt and heavy against her chest. At work the next morning she writes Jack a carefully constructed email. She tells him she loves him and doesn’t want to keep enabling him. She says something has to change. She’ll help him find a therapist, get to the root of whatever’s going on.

Jack is green on Gchat all day but he doesn’t respond to the email. She stares at his name on her chat list for a long time, at the curvature of the letters; their very own miniature skyline, haunting her in its stillness. That night they eat penne with eggplant and ricotta and she places a bottle of cranberry seltzer on the table. Jack’s face is cleaned up but his eye is still swollen and rings of purple are beginning to emerge above his cheek.

“What did you mean by, ‘get to the root’?” he asks. This is classic Jack, to not acknowledge some significant gesture of hers and then casually refer to it later.

“I don’t know. Just like, explore where all the drinking is coming from or if you’re self-medicating, figure out what it is you’re trying to medicate.”

“I’m fine, sweet tits, but this eggplant is way overcooked.”

They don’t talk about it again for a while, but she spends whole afternoons at work googling therapists to try to find one that might seem like a good fit. Claire tells Abby to get over her savior complex, because he’s never gonna change. But then things seem to be better. Jack has begun volunteering at an animal shelter and brings home fosters on the weekends. He falls in love with a sandy terrier mutt named Bobby and then refers to the two of them—himself and the dog—as The Kennedys. “The Kennedys are going on a walk, do you wanna come?” “The Kennedys are exhausted from the dog run and they’re going to nap.” Abby finds his unadulterated affection for the dog a bit grating but she is also moved by the simple way Jack cares for him; dutifully walking him four times a day, regularly filling his bowl with Brita-filtered water, and brushing his coat absently, while watching TV.

“You’ll be a good dad,” Abby says, as they’re falling asleep.

“Especially for one weekend before I bring my baby back to the pet store,” he says, adjusting his pillow and turning away.

***

In the fall, Jack and Abby go on an “eco-friendly trip” to Puerto Rico with Jack’s dad and his step-mom, his sister, Zoe, and her wife, Lydia. They stay in bungalows by the beach, where the rainwater is recycled, the whole thing is solar powered and resort staff composts the leftovers when guests leave the table.

They eat dinner in a tent shielded from the sun—each night it’s a buffet of organic vegetables and grilled fish. Jack keeps rolling his eyes but Abby and Lydia marvel at the luxury.

“This is amazing, and very bizarre,” Abby whispers, as they’re waiting for a fresh pitcher of mint lemonade.

“Get used to it,” Lydia says. “They take us on vacations like this every year. Zoe keeps complaining about golden handcuffs but I’m just like, whatever, it beats the one time I went to Orlando with my family when I was seven.”

Back at the table Richard, Jack’s dad, is talking about a new doctor in his department.

“He’s brilliant, truly. Did this fellowship at Mass General last year and came up with a new valve-replacement procedure. He’s your age! I can’t believe it.”

“Wow, Dad,” Jack says, “that’s awesome.”

“He must’ve gone straight from college to med school, which is less and less common these days. These admissions boards want to see that people have really done things, have spent time abroad, volunteered. Maybe Matthew just compressed all that stuff into college summers, who knows.”

“Abby, tell us more about what you do,” Jack’s stepmother says. She is piercing blackberries with the tines of her fork.

“Tell us what you do is the most boring, American question,” Jack says.

“Oh my god, Jack, you’re too annoying,” Zoe says. “Why are you acting like a sullen teenager?”

“It’s okay,” Abby says. “I work in the fundraising and development office for an organization that works with homeless people and tries to get them off the streets and into supportive housing.”

“Did Jack tell you I do work for Doctors without Borders?” Richard asks.

“He didn’t. That’s great. Where do you go?”

“I’m going upstairs for a bit,” Jack says. Richard drains the gin and tonic from his glass and chews on some ice while Abby smiles sheepishly and follows Jack inside. She thinks he’s being a brat and wants to tell him so. He lies down on top of the white linens, the heels of his sneakers flat against the comforter, and closes his eyes.

“He’s so insanely self-absorbed I want to vomit. Like, he asked what you did and then he just starts talking over you.”

“It’s fine, Jack.”

“It’s not fine.”

“You’re being kind of dramatic,” Abby says. “This really isn’t that a big deal.”

She is tempted to text Zoe and ask her why she’s so fucking well-adjusted and Jack is so difficult about everything. But she also understands that she’s drawn to other people’s families in part because there is no subtext, only the humor and affection that she takes at face value. She knows she doesn’t see the decades of built up resentments, the hundreds of times that Richard has probably done the same thing, slighted Jack by comparing him unfavorably to a classmate or a peer, or interrupted someone to tout his own accomplishments.

Jack unties his shoes and slips them off, a tiny conciliatory gesture, Abby thinks. She lies down beside him and combs his beard delicately with her fingers, plants kisses along his jawline.

***

The next morning they’re out on the beach and the sun is brutal. Abby shifts on her towel to find an angle where it’s less bright.

“You need to be careful, sweet tits,” Jack says. “You always think you burn less than you do.” Jack’s mood was so foul after dinner that they didn’t touch all night, but she leans over to kiss him. Twice, three times.

“What’s with you, girl?” he asks, but he kisses back, plants his palm against her rosy thigh. They go back upstairs and Jack pours a drop of bourbon into their iced coffees. He lifts her up and places her gently onto the bed, removes her floral bikini bottom and eases her legs apart. Later, still in the glow of sex, they rent a jet ski and take turns driving, the Atlantic parting and roaring beside them.

The next afternoon they go on a zip-line tour of the rainforest. For two hours a guide leads them, one by one, on suspension cables through the jungle. It’s foggy and humid but once they are hoisted up and sailing, it is a magnificent view; the jungle beneath them is lush and green, dotted with pockets of dark, glistening water. Jack squeezes her hand when they are finished. “That was pretty amazing, huh?”

The guide leaves to greet another family and Jack’s father says he wants to take a picture.

There is a brief pause. Abby is obviously the most expendable; she knows she should offer to take the photograph, but she does not want to. She wants, in her ridiculous outfit, with her bright yellow hard hat and a harness bisecting her body, to be planted beside Jack, if not forever, in this one, documented moment. She imagines the photograph in Jack’s parents’ living room, alongside trips to Turkey and Portugal, the British Virgin Islands. And years from now, somebody will ask , Who’s the girl standing next to Jack? But it is quiet a beat too long and so she cheerfully volunteers.

***

There are stretches of time—weeks, a month maybe—when Abby feels nothing toward him. She thinks she is done trying to excavate companionship with somebody who offers her so little. She’ll feel certain it’s over and then, like a generator in the basement of a hospital during a power outage, she’ll discover a well of love and desire, and somehow the whole building is aglow—operating at full capacity again.

It’s a Saturday afternoon in early March and for three consecutive days it had felt like spring; the sun closer, more radiant. But by now it’s winter again. The sky the color of slate, the air dry and cold. They’ve just finished having sex and it was the kind of sex where Abby knew she could’ve been anyone, she just happened to be there. Jack’s gaze was past her the entire time, staring blankly at the teak headboard.

He’s lying on his back, having just pulled out, when he says, “I think I wanna go on tour with Mikey’s band.”

“What would you do with them?”

“Be their manager or something?”

“I thought that guy Jake was their manager?”

“Well he quit. Are you trying to make me feel bad?”

“Why would I be trying to make you feel bad?”

“Cause you’re embarrassed that I don’t have a real job? Or did my dad email you and ask you to put the pressure on?”

“You’re being an asshole. I don’t care what kind of job you have.”

By then the sky has drained of color. The lights are off in the bedroom and it feels like the middle of the night but it’s only six-thirty. Abby picks her t-shirt up from the floor and slips it over her head, untangles the pile of jeans and socks and underwear that twisted together. Jack doesn’t move. When she turns back to look at him he’s on his side, his face illuminated by the dim light of his phone.

“I feel like you’re not in this anymore,” she tells him. “Like you’re just keeping me around because I’m constantly stroking your ego and doing your laundry.”

“I’m not keeping you around,” he says. “No one’s holding you hostage, leave if you want to.”

That night she gets ramen with Claire and Paul. She tells them an abbreviated version of the story and asks if she can stay over for a couple nights.

“Of course,” Claire says, teasing an egg from the broth with chopsticks, “but it’s your apartment. Shouldn’t he be the one to leave?”

“I know, I just feel like he has nowhere to go.”

“Honestly, Abby, Jack seemed like kind of an asshole. You really deserve better,” Paul says. This is the first time she has ever seen him assert an opinion.

“Thank you, that’s really sweet.” But she sort of wants to say, Fuck you, I know you’ve only gone down on Claire like three times in the last year.

Since Abby and have Claire have become friends, Abby has dated two other guys, neither of whom her friends really liked. There was Jesse, who only initiated contact if he was inviting her to see his band play at some space in Bushwick, and Pedro, who ignored her for days at a time and then showed up at her apartment with dumplings or a dozen bagels and acted as though his absence was entirely ordinary, expected. Abby wonders how much Claire’s (and by association Paul’s) rejection of Jack is the cumulative effect of shitty behavior, a response to everyone she’s dated in the last few years, not just him.

“It’s not sweet,” Claire says, before taking a sip of water. “It’s just a fact.”

***

Staying with Claire and Paul is like being at a charming bed and breakfast. Paul is a graphic designer and everything in their apartment is deliberate and curated. Colorful ceramic vases with succulents line the window sills, and the beds are fitted with violet jersey sheets that are softer than any she’s ever owned. The products in the shower are delightful and plentiful— lavender bath salts, an apricot scrub, a raw sponge they got from the Caribbean.

She and Jack meet for coffee a few days later and he brings her two pairs of jeans and a handful of tank tops. They’re at a cafe on Smith Street where everyone is dressed in neon running gear. The woman sitting at the table beside them is wearing a shirt that says, Namastay in Bed. Jack nudges Abby and then groans.

“Do you want to talk about anything?” Abby asks.

“I just finished the new Jon Krakauer book. It was good,” he says. “You’d like it.”

“Obviously that’s not what I meant.”

“What do you want me to say, sweet tits?” He smiles and squints at her. “Can I buy you a croissant or something?”

“I would do anything in the world for you to grow the fuck up.”

“But that’s sort of why you love me, right? You get to be the one who has all her shit together, you get to take care of me, the fuck-up.”

“Okay, I’m leaving. You can stay in the apartment for the rest of the month but then you need to find somewhere to go.” She feels a combination of rage and relief as she walks south on Smith, digging her fingernails into the flesh of her palms.

***

Abby is busy at work, preparing for a big fundraiser; making arrangements with the floral company and confirming details with the caterers; vegan spring rolls not egg rolls, and a double order of those spinach artichoke pies that had been such a hit last year. She loves this kind of tedious work where the results are so immediate and concrete. The best part is planning the presentation, when participants come to speak about the ways in which their lives have changed, how getting an apartment has allowed them to attain sobriety, reconnect with family, start therapy again. Many of the social workers are jaded by the stories—they know that these success stories are just a handful among thousands of homeless people in this city, most of whom are ignored, arrested, sent to jail for falling asleep in a bank vestibule. But Abby has so little interaction with the clients they serve, sitting in a corporate office in midtown, that whenever she actually meets with them, she is overcome by a renewed sense of purpose. And too, it makes her hate Jack, for how easy his life could be, by how little he grasps his privilege. At this lovely glass atrium on Sixth Avenue -- with yellow and white tulips decorating each table top—she feels excited by the prospect of meeting someone else, someone who gives a shit about the world. Abby gathers her jean jacket and tote the coat room at the end of the night and feels for her phone, which is buried at the bottom of her bag, with loose change and a sticky pack of Trident. Zoe has called three times. Jack has been in a biking accident, she says. He will live but there is lots of damage; many broken bones and ligaments, and they’re waiting to hear about spinal trauma.

At the hospital, most of Jack’s face and limbs are wrapped in gauze. A maze of tubes is draining to and from his body. Blood and saline and pain killers and so many things she cannot name.

“Thank God you’re here,” Zoe says. “I have no idea why they called me and not you. My parents are on their way, they’re somewhere in Connecticut.”

Jack’s eyes flutter open and he reaches just slightly toward Abby’s hand.

***

She goes back to the apartment that afternoon which, unsurprisingly, looks like shit. The floor is littered with cans of beer and piles of clothing. She collects some of his things; a toothbrush and deodorant, though really, what does it matter how he smells in the hospital. She walks around the apartment, which now feels like a crime scene. She imagines a detective beside her, with latex gloves and a black light, combing through evidence, trying to figure out exactly what Jack had been doing before the accident. His computer is open but dead on the kitchen counter. A copy of Harper’s is damp and bloated from a spill. There’s a lot of unopened mail. Beside the bed, a piece of gum is stuck to the wall. It’s dark pink and dimpled like a raspberry. Abby feels suddenly inert and nauseous and sits down on the floor next to the couch. On the coffee table is Breakfast of Champions—the novel that she had imbued with so much meaning. Later, after that weekend at Claire’s, when she asked him about it, he had laughed— I bought that used, sweet tits, why would I underline random sentences? Abby never knew if he was kidding, and some frantic part of her wanted to believe that he was. That he was so guarded, he didn’t even want her to see the lines that had moved him. She can no longer remember the specific sentences, but also it doesn’t matter: she would’ve read whatever she wanted into them anyway.