Heartbreaker

Beatrix M. Rooney discovers a tragic secret that may explain her brother’s descent into cruelty and violence.

Beatrix M. Rooney | Longreads | August 2019 | 7 minutes (1,544 words)

Mom and I stand hunched over The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni. She holds a box cutter in her hand as she flips a few pages into the book. The poem on the page is “Poetry is a Trestle.” She starts to carve, but quickly stops.

“Lock the door,” she reminds me. I do, and she relaxes.

Her fingers press into the pages, turning white as she cuts through inches of book. The pages’ centers slowly disappear, in their place a deepening rectangle. I quickly gather the scraps, putting them in the trash. From this point on, I am to keep my money in this book — my brother Liam discovered the old water bottle I’d kept in my junk drawer.

I have a lot of secrets to remember when I’m home. 0000 is the combination of the lockbox where Mom hides over-the-counter medicines like Advil and melatonin. The box is in the very back of the kitchen cupboard where we keep the cat food. Mom keeps a wad of cash in her wardrobe, buried underneath her underwear and socks. I’m not to open the drawer when Liam is around.

***

As a child, Liam’s favorite color is pink. He proudly wears my hand-me-downs even when I berate him for liking “girls’ clothes.” He takes karate and tap dancing and sign language. He wants to be a doorman, then a hairdresser, then president, and finally a baseball player. He stops to sniff every flower he passes. Strangers on the street comment on his smile and his impossibly long eyelashes.

Men in our apartment building invite him to Mets games, women on buses smile at him. His babysitter Michael (hired by our single mom as a positive male role model for Liam) takes him out for ice cream and buys him toys every day. He dazzles his teachers by reciting the presidents in order. He lists them forwards and backwards. If you give him a number, he tells you the corresponding president. Grandma thinks he’s brilliant because he can identify a song in its earliest seconds. Mom thinks he’s brilliant because he could eat an ice cream cone in his earliest years. My little fists always squeezed so tight the cone would crumple, all the ice cream leaking out.

Mom likes to tell the story of how he charmed a babysitter into working for the family. Mom couldn’t afford Mary Jane’s standard rate, but Liam, age 3, walked up to her, stuck out his hand, and said, “Happy to meet you.” She took the job.

I have a lot of secrets to remember when I’m home.

While waiting for the bus one day, an older woman turns to Mom and says, “He’s going to be a heartbreaker one day.” I ask my mom what that means. I can’t tell if it is good or bad.

His school photos start out the same every year. He wears a Mets shirt. His brown hair is a mop, spilling over his eyes. A performative smile rests awkwardly on his face. Over time, his hair gets shorter. By high school, it’s a buzz cut. He goes to the barber every three weeks to keep it close. He wears dark hoodies. His photos are unsmiling. Grandma says at least it’s nice that she can see his face.

Liam starts to make hideous faces at our cat, Charlie. He claps loudly in his face. He pokes him hard. He pulls his tail. It doesn’t take long until Charlie bolts at the sound of his voice and starts peeing around the apartment. He spends most of his time on top of the fridge. Liam enjoys the power and Charlie’s quiet terror. He relishes the way his entrance transforms a space.

***

It’s December, and I’m home for winter break after my first semester of college. Liam sleeps all day. He leaves the apartment for 30 minutes at a time and comes home smelling of weed. One night, he tells me to turn off the lamp on my side of the room. It’s a weak, faint light in the corner by my bed. Resenting his demanding tone, I say no. He turns off the light. I turn it back on. He unplugs the lamp from the wall and tries to carry it out of the room even though it’s taller than he is. I climb onto my bed where I have a better angle. I try to force the lamp out of his hands. A look spreads across his face.

“You wanna go? I’ll fucking kill you,” he says.

He’s smiling. I know this will be different from the times we slapped and pinched each other as kids. He pushes me, and I fall back onto my bed. Hunched over me, with one knee on each side, he begins to pound my face. He’s lost in it, wildly punching, smiling, challenging me to fight back. He hits me until I fall off the bed onto my back and hit my head. I cry. For the first time since childhood, I sleep in Mom’s bed.


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The next day I go to urgent care. I am certain that my nose is broken. Each time I put any pressure on it, I can feel it crack. It’s not broken, but the cracking lingers for a month.

Still, Liam’s reputation outside the family is flawless. The Egyptian man who works at the bodega asks where he is. Grandma’s aides light up when he stops by. Johnny, our doorman, wants to talk baseball with him. Our neighbors tell me how handsome he is.

***

It’s the July between my sophomore and junior year of college. I arrive home to find the living room askew. The couch has been pushed back, the coffee table is diagonal, moved off to the side. Charlie lies in the middle of the rug that’s normally covered by the table. No one’s home. When I get in touch with Mom I learn she’s at the hospital. She cries to me over the phone. When she’d arrived home Liam was sleeping on the couch, but he wouldn’t wake up. She pulled up his eyelids, and his pupils were pinpoint. The paramedics pushed everything aside so they could lift him onto the stretcher.

When he wakes up, she will ask him what he took. He won’t know.

“You bought something from a dealer without knowing what it was?” she will shriek.

He will mumble something and shrug. A hospital blood test will come back as inconclusive but determine that it was some sort of opioid.

I get off the phone with Mom. I move back the coffee table, push forward the couch. For a moment I’m catapulted into a memory that makes more sense than it did before. I am 12 or maybe 13 years old. I am either in the living room or in my bedroom. Fuck! Mom screams. It is loud and crisp. It sounds different than the “fuck” I hear when she finds a cockroach or can’t locate the phone as it rings. I approach the television where she’s frozen. She sits on the edge of the coffee table, an indescribable expression on her face. I look to the screen. It’s Liam’s old babysitter Michael, head down, being led away in handcuffs. At the bottom of the screen, the words read: “Manhattan Manny Accused of Sexually Abusing Boys.”

At the time, I am almost excited by the dramatic reveal, perversely intrigued by the startling development. The gravity of the situation doesn’t hit me and won’t hit me for many years.

In that moment, my only thought is that I want to interrogate Liam the moment he gets home. I want to know if those things happened to him. I want to know if he really did love Michael or if it was just an act.

Mom is suddenly calm and resolute as she tells me I am never to broach the subject with Liam. I will never mention it.

It’s Liam’s old babysitter Michael, head down, being led away in handcuffs.

And we don’t talk about it for years.

When I am in high school and Liam starts to spiral, my need to know resurfaces. I ask Mom if she ever talked to Liam.

She responds vaguely. She asked him some years ago. He denied that anything happened, and he even found the situation funny.

I picture Liam laughing as Mom asks him about Michael. To me, this feels like confirmation — overcompensating for his discomfort. If that isn’t a telling reaction, I don’t know what is.

And so I live with the quiet, unconfirmed, unspoken knowledge of what happened to Liam. We are estranged these days, and more often than not I loathe the person he has become — his toxic masculinity, his inability to be sincere, his selfishness, his sadism. But underneath it all is a sadness for what was likely stolen from him. No one talks about that though.

Sometimes I picture the Liam that the universe created and my mom nurtured — the one that might have existed. It’s hard for me to imagine, but if I push myself I can almost see him. He is passionate and sensitive, he still knows the order of the presidents and he reads their biographies, he isn’t afraid of appearing less-than-masculine. He has empathy. He is happy. He sits on the couch and watches baseball with Charlie curled up beside him.

* * *

Beatrix M. Rooney is a journalist and recent college graduate based in New York City.

Editor: Katie Kosma

Copyeditor: Jacob Z. Gross