She’d been going by Julius since the previous October, when a man cornered her after AA to ask how she got a name like Juke.
Before, she’d have explained that Juke was short for Jukebox, a nickname her daddy had given her, and when asked why Jukebox, she’d tell the usual lie—that it was because she was always singing as a little girl. Instead, she renamed herself on the spot.
Actually, she said, I’d rather you called me Julius.
It was interesting, lying less. Julius chalked up the change to a fight she’d had, a couple of weeks before the meeting, with a woman she’d been seeing, Ilyana. They’d broken up soon after—Julius had sent a text, Look, this isn’t working out and you deserve better—but that October they were still in the thick of it, blots of blood in an egg yolk, and Ilyana was finding out what it meant to date Julius.
So it turns out everything that comes out your mouth is fucking bullshit, she said.
At forty-six, Ilyana was a couple of years younger than Julius but looked older from the years of hard living. Julius had lived hard, too, but dark skin, chubbiness, and a lucky genetic allotment had protected her from the worst of the visible degradation. The toll had been primarily internal.
I’m honest about the stuff that matters, said Julius, and Ilyana said, It all matters, and Julius said, No it doesn’t, nothing matters really, we are all atoms arranged arbitrarily and soon enough we will die and come to be arranged differently.
Does what we’ve been doing—this—this relationship—does it mean anything to you then? Do you feel anything at all for me?
She shoved Julius backward, testing, then shoved again, this time so hard that Julius went into the wall of the bus shelter, where they were waiting for the 221 along with four other people.
Please just do something, say something, anything, Ilyana begged. She was crying now, her makeup smearing, wet mascara thickening her long eyelashes into black shadows thick as baby crow wings.
Stop it, said Julius.
She didn’t mind Ilyana getting physical. Julius lied a lot, fair enough, and Ilyana had the right to be angry about that. No one wanted to be in a relationship with a person who said they didn’t have kids, or siblings, and then find out, from someone they ran into at the supermarket, that they had both.
But for Julius, lies, however insignificant, flowed from her more easily than truths: whether she’d eaten that day or not, which places she’d traveled to or hadn’t, whom she’d voted for (she’d never voted). Julius understood why Ilyana was angry. She just didn’t want to be scrutinized in public—let the two of them do this whole thing at one of their apartments. That way, after they were done fighting they could have problematic sex.
Stop? Why the hell would I stop? It doesn’t matter, does it? Nothing does, right? It’s all just atoms? She gave Julius a little slap. Then another.
Ilyana breathed in a ragged, ugly breath. What are you afraid will happen if I know the truth? she asked.
Julius’s cheek stung where Ilyana’s palm had connected, but it was a minor sensation compared to the prickling heat of shame coursing up from her shoulders to her neck to her ears. She remembered, of all things, the film Good Will Hunting, in which Matt Damon plays a prodigy with a tragic backstory. He lies to Minnie Driver’s character about his past, and when she calls him on it, he accuses her of not wanting to know what’s really going on because what’s really going on is very unpleasant. She doesn’t want to hear that shit.
It was embarrassing that a Gus Van Sant film featured a character whose psychological profile wasn’t that far from Julius’s own. It made her feel not real, like a trope, like one of those paper doll things. But there it was, the pulse of it: her tendency to meet every personal inquiry with fabrications came out of a core belief that she was worthless and abject, and that if she let people witness her for who she really was, they would leave, or gut her like a dead doe for meat.
It was this realization that had disrupted the automation with which she typically lied, and the next week in AA, she told the man her new name.
She’d picked Julius on the fly because earlier that day her home health aide had been reciting Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech from Julius Caesar while filling up the pillboxes, and Julius had been listening, listening intently, rather than walking to another room to be by herself, which was what she often did when confronted with an object of cultured society.
Well, I’ll be damned, my mother’s name was Julia, too, said the man, who was the type to find significance in everything, especially where there was none.
It’s Julius. With a u-s.
Oh, my bad, my bad. Okay, so is Juke short for Julius? How did you come to have a name like that?
I made it up just now.
Julius was two years and three months sober and badly wanted to walk to the convenience store across the street from the meeting and buy a bottle of Jim Beam. It felt like a better use of her time than this conversation. That was why she’d tended to drink in the past, because it was a more appealing way of spending time than whatever else life had going on.
She pulled up her hood to signal she was done with the conversation and jammed her hands into her pockets, where her phone was awaiting her, full of notifications. She’d tried to kill herself the night before. The hospital was asking her to fill out a survey rating her care, and her next-door neighbor was asking her if she was all right, and Julius’s son’s girlfriend, who had been notified as next of kin, was asking if there was anything she could do.
She texted back, Yeah, I’m all right. Gonna try to go to meetings more regularly again. That should help. Just left one.
Are you supposed to be out of the hospital yet???!! asked her son’s girlfriend.
Julius didn’t get why that mattered. Whether she was meant to be or not, she was out of the hospital.
All this was a while ago anyway, but Julius thought of it as she lay in bed—the fight with Ilyana, the suicide attempt, the meeting the following morning where she changed her name—because she’d just received a call from a coroner explaining that her brother, Petey, was dead, and so she would have to go to his funeral, and no one from her old life would know her new name, and they would all call her Juke.
With a name like Julius, gender came up. It had before, too, being that Julius was never a feminine woman in the traditional sense, and while she preferred to just get on with life, life itself never let her. It kept on harping and harping at her, in the forms of stares, paperwork, awkward conversations, slurs.
That’s not life, that’s society, said Wilbur the first time they’d met, at an LGBTQ+ sober social. It was the November after the name change, after the attempt. They were the only two over thirty—Wilbur thirty-one, she forty-eight. They were also the only two Black ones.
Wilbur was transmasculine and nonbinary, which Julius didn’t understand. She got it even less when he tried to explain it to her during one of their early hang-outs, because everything he said about being nonbinary also applied to her as a woman, but when she asked more questions, she could tell Wilbur found them invasive and that he was writing her off as a person who didn’t and never would get it, as a person with whom he could never be close, and this devastated her.
So Julius told him, as it seemed relevant and like something that would make him love her, that she’d had a double mastectomy. Breast cancer. And she wasn’t particularly upset about it. Had declined reconstruction. She’d never felt attached to her breasts anyway.
I’m sorry to hear that you had cancer, he said solemnly.
The next day he sent her a message, a picture of a very angry sodden cat in a bath. There was an arrow pointing to the cat alongside the words “me, trying to get on with my life” and there was an arrow pointing to the bathwater next to the word “society.”
Julius laughed and replied, Why are memes always so specific to my exact emotional state?
Because we’re all connected, Wilbur said, and you’re not alone. Would you like to go to a poetry reading with me tonight?
She didn’t reply, and that night she cried until she made herself sick and vomited in the toilet, God knows why, and then went to an AA meeting, which was useless, then walked all night until she could not walk anymore and fell asleep on a park bench, only to be woken at dawn by the sound of a jogger, music bleating from their headphones.
Wilbur was a poetry-readings type, and Julius wasn’t. She was a sick type. Her small apartment was subsidized by the state. She got disability. She looked after the babies and toddlers in her apartment complex for extra cash. She went to the hospital for treatments. She wasn’t a great reader. It took her ages to get through a page, and though her son had suggested audiobooks, she found them tiresome and dull.
Her son’s girlfriend, Georgia, was always trying to get her to go to things. It was she who’d suggested that LGBTQ+ sober social. A few weeks later, she told Julius about a local amateur basketball league for disabled people.
You like basketball, don’t you?
Julius did. Of course she did. It was a great game. For her birthday, her son and his girlfriend had given her season tickets for the Rockets.
Her son, Leland, was very successful. A lawyer. He worked for a nonprofit focused on supporting undocumented immigrants. Georgia was in medical billing and had lived with her parents until moving in with Leland a few years before. She was sensible, organized, and had a YouTube channel directed at millennials, about managing finances.
Julius and Leland had a strained relationship, and Georgia considered it her responsibility to mend it. Julius often wanted to say, The boy hates me and has every right. I was a shit mother, hardly there when he needed me, a bare minimum sort of mom. Let him have his hate.
But as she got sober, she’d found out the boy wanted to fix things as much as Georgia did. He longed for Julius’s approval, though Julius couldn’t fathom why. She wasn’t in any position to bestow judgment on anyone.
Even so, he yelled at her sometimes, and said snide things. Not long after October, licking his wounds over the fact that his mother had, once again, tried to abandon him, they got into a spat when Julius complimented him on how well he’d handled a case. He said, some of us actually care about people and will do what it takes to care for them, that’s all. Georgia said, Leland, her voice full of reprimand.
Julius said, No, he’s right. He’s right.
And Leland said, Oh, so now I’m right, I wasn’t right all those years I begged you to be better, but when it’s about you, all about you, you care and actually begin to clean up.
He was referring to the diagnosis of kidney failure she’d received a couple of years before, which coincided loosely with the beginning of her sobriety. In his mind, she’d started recovery to save herself from dying. She’d never told him that she’d stopped drinking before the doctor’s visit.
You can’t seriously think I care about myself, son, can you? Is that a fucking joke?
Then she laughed, laughed harder than she had in a long time, certainly since being sober, and she had relished making her son feel a damn fool for saying something so stupid. Goodness knows she would’ve been happy to die, to go gently from this or that sickness. She got sober because she was bored of drinking, and it hurt. It hurt her whole body. And it was dull, and she wanted to find out if there was a way of living that was less dull. Drinking used to make her feel like she was more than just the cavernous gut of a starving jackal, but it had been years, decades, since it had made her feel anything like good.
You’re a real bitch, Leland said when she stopped laughing, then he left the table. It wasn’t the only dinner Julius was invited to at her son’s apartment that had ended this way.
But a couple of weeks later, he took Julius to her first practice with the disabled basketball league. There, she ran into Wilbur, whom she hadn’t seen in months, not since he’d invited her to the poetry reading. He came up to her after the practice was done and said he’d missed her.
She said, I’m sorry. I’ve had a lot going on.
I’m having some friends over for dinner tonight. I’d love it if you came.
She would’ve said no, but Leland was there, and she wanted him to see that she was putting in an effort. An effort to be less put upon by it all.
That night, Wilbur’s boyfriend served things Julius was not excited to eat. A watermelon salad with basil and vegan feta. A tofu-based stir-fry. Dessert was fine, a vegan key lime pie, but then it wasn’t fine, because Julius had the thought that it wasn’t as good as her mother’s key lime pie, not nearly, which got her thinking about her mother, which got her thinking about her father, then her brother, Petey, then life and life and life, none of the thoughts hopeful or helpful.
Now we commence the salon, said Wilbur. He deliberately avoided eye contact with Julius as he said this, because he knew if he’d told her this wasn’t just a normal dinner but a salon, whatever that was, she would’ve found a way not to come.
One of the guests played guitar, a young woman who had a pleasing singing voice. Listening to her wasn’t bad at all. It was nice, so nice that Julius closed her eyes and found herself in the elated, dreamy state she’d occasionally felt at church as a little girl when the choir performed. A kind of feeling like God was real, and so was Heaven, and so were things like purpose, meaning, beauty, connection.
But the song was over after about five minutes, and one couldn’t go on listening to music that made you feel like that forever, and worse, even if you found music that made you feel like that, it wouldn’t always make you feel like that. Everything had its life span.
Would you like to share something, Julius?
That was Wilbur’s boyfriend, Hank.
Share what? She’d spoken that day at AA. She could recycle what she’d said there, maybe, say it in a rhythm that gave it a poetic feel. She’d been quite impressed with some of her own turns of phrase. None of her insights were things that hadn’t been said many times before, but it was the first time they’d been said in that room, with that exact group of people, and that situation would never happen again, and, it occurred to her, that was something not so boring. That moment, that unique moment, would end. Like all things did. And most of the time that made things feel meaningless, but earlier that day, it had made things feel inconceivably precious. Everything was so heartbreaking.
You can share anything. A poem—any poem, doesn’t have to be one you’ve written. You can read it off your phone. Or sing a song. A knock-knock joke. Whatever.
Julius felt like she was back in school, which she’d been good but not great at—just short of being a star pupil, which was worse than being an awful student, because she was never the teacher’s favorite nor their least favorite. She was just Juke. That Reginald girl. Decent. A bit of a hanger-on and a know-it-all, though she didn’t actually know anything.
We’ll come back to you, said Wilbur, and you only have to share if you want to share.
They never came back to her because she pretended to go to the bathroom a little while later, then left. She messaged Wilbur to say she was sorry but it wasn’t really her scene.
Wilbur texted back right away, apologizing for ambushing her with the salon thing. Lunch soon?
After that, they became close. Wilbur told Julius about his childhood in Arkansas, where he was raised by his great-uncle Dennis, who was a long-haul truck driver. Julius shared her memories of growing up in Texas and only lied two or three times about specifics. She even told him painful things, like how her family could only afford school lunch for one of the two children and they gave it to Petey, because Julius needed to lose some weight anyway.
He came with her to dialysis and read her articles and blog posts and tweet threads.
She told Wilbur that she liked to eat sand, that she had since she was a child. She craved it more than bourbon.
Pica, he said.
Yes. It just—Wilbur, it tastes so fucking good.
I bet you taste so fucking good, he said, looking at her. She laughed, but he didn’t. Shortly after, they began having sex, mostly in the form of Wilbur going down on her for hours at a time. He’d tell her that she was his good little girl. He’d put her in the bath and wash her, then take her to his bed. He asked her to call him Daddy, and she did.
His boyfriend didn’t mind, they were polyamorous, and she once had sex with both of them at the same time. Hank licked Julius’s mastectomy scars, nibbled the mangled skin. After coming, she cried and shook, and Wilbur held her, and Hank kissed her cheek and whispered something into Wilbur’s ear, then left the room.
She liked Wilbur’s laugh, and he had good taste in memes, and he got her onto Instagram and sent her posts by mental health influencers, with eye-roll emojis and comments like: Julius, have you simply tried noticing your feelings, experiencing them, and letting them pass through you?
When Wilbur killed himself, Julius didn’t take it well, not at all, and while she didn’t relapse into drinking, it was only because she was too mentally sick to do so, unable to get out of her bed except to use the Tupperware her aide left on the side table for her to
His death brought on one of the bigger depressions of her life, which perhaps was unfair to say, since most periods of her life could be characterized as one of the bigger depressions of her life. Still, pissing in a bowl instead of the toilet—that was a low. Too lethargic from grief to walk to the corner store to buy booze was a special level of dire. And this because of someone she hadn’t even known a year. Life was full of possibilities.
Wilbur had never asked how she came to have a name like Julius, and she hated herself for the fact that if he had, as much as she loved him—yes, she loved him—she would not have been able to tell him the truth of it, that she’d made it up because the name she’d gone by most of her life had a history that outed the ugliness of her.
Juke was short for Jukebox, but Julius never sang, couldn’t sing, and the full nickname Daddy had given her was Broken Jukebox because, he said, she was always repeating things or stuttering over things or going silent for no reason or making noise when she shouldn’t, and even when you gave the old girl a few hard knocks, he said, nothing changed. And what was horrible about it all was not the nickname itself, or that her Daddy had given it to her, but that she’d gone by it for forty-three years and had not even thought to change it. That was what she’d never have wanted Wilbur to know about her, how cowardly and weak and pathetic she was, and now he never would know that, because he was dead. But that fact was not a relief; rather, it made her want to follow him to the grave.
Georgia worked from home, and she took to visiting Julius at her apartment multiple times a week. She helped the aide give Julius sponge baths and she cooked food that Julius sometimes did and sometimes didn’t eat. On the days Julius refused to leave the bed, Leland came over, carried her to his van, and drove her to dialysis. She was limp through it all, and for a few months after Wilbur died, she was silent, hardly able to speak, until the day the coroner called to tell her about Petey. A few minutes later, Julius’s aunt Dessie called and said, Juke, baby, I’m so, so sorry.
Had Julius been any kind of person at all, she’d have said, It’s Julius now, don’t call me that fucking name, especially when you know how I came to have it, and I’m not sorry, because it’s not a loss, I fucking hated Petey, and I’m glad he’s dead, glad he drank his liver to rot, and glad he was tortured to his very last moment, even though she wasn’t glad, she loved him, and she was already sobbing for the loss of him, as much as if not more than she had for Wilbur.
Thank you, Aunt Dessie. He will be missed, said Julius.
It’s gonna be so good to see you around here. It’s been a minute since you was home.
It had been twenty-six years. She’d left home for the final time when Leland turned five, the year Petey got out of his three-year sentence.
You’ve got to pull it together for the family, for all of us, said Aunt Dessie. Now, when are you getting here? Today or tomorrow? We’ve already got the body to the funeral home, but you’re the only one who can make the decisions, baby. You know he didn’t have no one in the world left but you.
Petey had been six years older than Juke, which was enough of an age gap that the two could’ve grown up without having much to do with each other, but Petey was in love with his baby sister from the very beginning. He doted on her and took care of her. He was musical, and he would play for her all the time—guitar, banjo, and fiddle. It was one of the few things that calmed her as a fussy, angry toddler.
Petey was mischievous and a troublemaker, but so charming that everyone loved him. He was the type of boy people said was smart as a whip, handsome, a ladies’ man. He never called Julius Juke; he called her by her birth name. Being that Petey treated her with such tenderness, of course she doted on him, too. He was fifteen and she nine when he started having sex with her.
I’ll be there tomorrow, Julius told Aunt Dessie. I don’t think I can get there any sooner. I need to arrange a ride.
Can’t that son of yours drive you? Or will he be too busy working? He’ll come down for the funeral, of course, but I understand if he can’t get down sooner than that.
How very gracious of you, said Julius.
Aunt Dessie snorted. There she is, there’s my niece.
I’m sorry, said Julius. It’s just—
It’s a lot. I know that, baby. Let it out.
Leland won’t be able to come to the funeral, Julius said.
Don’t be silly now.
I’m not being silly. He’s got an important job he needs to focus on.
He needs to say goodbye to his uncle.
At that moment, at that word, uncle, there was a small silence between the two women, and Julius knew for certain then that Aunty knew the truth, and Aunty knew now that Julius knew that she knew the truth about the relationship between Petey and Leland.
I love you, Juke, said Aunt Dessie. I love you so much.
I know, Aunty.
You got to try to not let things get to you so hard. Things happen to everybody, you understand?
Call me back as soon as you know when you’re going to be here, all right?
I love you.
I love you, too. Talk soon.
Julius heard a knock on her bedroom door. It was Georgia, with a small glass of water and a plate of food, reheated leftovers, corn bread, macaroni and cheese, succotash, and garlic chicken thighs.
My brother is dead, said Julius.
Oh, honey, said Georgia, rushing over. She put the plate down and sat on the edge of Julius’s bed.
What can I do?
You do too much as it is, said Julius.
I don’t mind it.
I know you don’t. What happened to you that makes you want to solve everybody’s problems?
Nothing happened to me, said Georgia. I like people, and I like caring for them. I like you.
I’m supposed to go back home, said Julius. She took a sip of the water Georgia had set down and swished it around her mouth to cool her gums, which were sore from jaw clenching.
I’ll rent a car. It’s not far, is it? Four hours’ drive? We can be out of here in less than an hour. I can take a few days off.
Do you think when they look at me, they know?
They who? And know what?
Everyone. Everything. About me.
I’ve known you going on five years now and I don’t know a damn thing about you, said Georgia. So I’m going to say no, they won’t know. They don’t know shit. And if they did, and they judged, would you really care? You hate everybody.
I do, said Julius, with a little smirk. And you do know a lot about me. You know I like basketball. You know I have a son. You’re painfully familiar with my many medical maladies. You know what foods I like and don’t like.
I mean, I know what you’d put on your Tinder profile, sure.
Oh, do you?
I’ve thought about it a lot, actually, Georgia said, then put on a little voice. Just another late-forties dyke entirely too into basketball, dogs, and memes.
It was true that Julius liked all those things. She also liked fried catfish, banana pudding, and romantic comedies. As a child, she’d liked Looney Tunes, especially Daffy Duck, and she had a holey, thinning, faded T-shirt with a picture of him on it. It was the oldest garment she owned.
She wondered what else there was to her. She’d once fostered kittens and their adult mother, Junebug. She was an alcoholic. A breast cancer survivor. A woman with kidney failure, awaiting transplant. She had good skin, bad hair—which was shaved. She liked the water but never learned to swim, and before Wilbur died, he’d encouraged her to take lessons, which she’d begun at the YMCA but stopped attending.
Via social media, she knew words and phrases like gaslighting, trauma-informed, disorganized attachment, kink-friendly, pinkwashing, and could use them all in a sentence.
She was drawing near to the end of her life, and couldn’t imagine living more than another ten years. In that time, sick as she was, there wasn’t much she could accomplish. This was what she was. This was what she got.
Sometime later, several months after Julius announced that she would not be coming home, that Petey should be cremated, as that was what she could afford, and that it was up to the others if they wanted to arrange a memorial, Georgia did convince Julius to get on Tinder.
She went on a few dates, all of them fine. One night, she met Sofia, a woman who’d grown up in a large townhome in San Francisco. Wild strawberries and citrus, apple, and plum trees grew in the backyard. Sofia had gone to a private high school, where she took Mandarin and Spanish, calculus, statistics, English literature, Chinese American literature, clarinet, and political science, and later to Harvard, double majoring in East Asian studies and economics. She’d led a life.
Sofia was white but in a Greek, Italian, or Albanian way, with skin that wasn’t brown but wasn’t not brown. Her hair, worn in a short bob with severe bangs, had gone gray. She had on thick-rimmed glasses that frequently fell down her nose. She owned a vineyard, but a very small one, she assured Julius as she slid a forkful of balsamic-dressed arugula into her mouth. The bulk of Sofia’s income came from hosting retreats and bachelorette parties on the property.
Sorry, I know I sound like an asshole, Sofia said. She had an aggressive way of eating, licking her fingers and guzzling her wine, and Julius found it intriguing. It was the most interesting thing about her.
After dinner, Sofia asked if Julius would like to grab a drink at a local bar where a great jazz band was playing. Sofia was nice and pretty, and did have that cute habit of eating rather roughly, but any number of things sounded more appealing to Julius than spending the rest of the evening with her.
Still, she said yes. Sofia seemed to expect this and Julius didn’t want to disappoint. Following this logic to its conclusion, she went home with Sofia later that evening and had sex with her.
Once Sofia fell asleep, Julius arranged a ride back to her apartment, where Leland and Georgia had let themselves in and were waiting, watching TV. They asked how the date was, and she said it was fine.
Late night, isn’t it? said Georgia.
Very late, Leland parroted.
I’m not talking about this with you two, said Julius.
Oh, you are, said Georgia. You very much are.
You’re telling us everything, young lady, said Leland.
Perhaps Georgia and Leland would get the story out of her, every detail of the abysmal date, and years and years later, long after the two married and had kids, then divorced and remarried other partners, they’d look back upon this evening and laugh, look back on Julius, dead now, with a little bit of fondness.