Janet Gavin tells of her life with an arrogant young Irishman locked in battle with himself. Of falling in love with a flawed hero, of losing him to his demons, and how Tommy never really belonged to her.
At the age of twenty-two, I met a hero. A firefighter by the name of Tommy Gavin, a bleached-blond heartthrob with a wicked grin and the most entrancing blue eyes I'd ever seen. I knew as soon as I looked into those eyes that I'd lost my heart to that volatile, hard-drinking Irish troublemaker.
I didn't mean to fall in love with Tommy Gavin. He just wasn't right for me. I was a middle-class girl from a respectable family, with college ambitions and a bright future. Tommy was a macho loudmouth who had grown up in a deprived Brooklyn tenement and cared only for hockey, beer and sex. And his brotherhood of the FDNY. I was meant to attach myself to a nice, well brought-up boy from Manhattan who worked in finance or something acceptable, who would buy me a house in the suburbs with a picket fence. That was the future I'd mapped out for myself.
But this all changed the night I ended up in a bar downtown, celebrating a friend's birthday. We were several cocktails in when a large rowdy group of men crowded up to order. It wasn't hard to guess who they were – they were all loudly chanting 'FDNY' over and over again as they slapped palms and shoulder-barged each other.
Tommy wasn't difficult to spot. He stood out in the crowd. Six feet three inches of lean muscle, hair reaching his shirt collar, strong shoulders. His ass looked amazing in his tight jeans. He was centre of attention, as I would learn he always was, telling his friends a filthy joke as he waited for his beer. Confidence shone from him, a self-assurance that came from the belief he could take on the world and win.
My heart thudded as a pair of intense eyes, as deep as the Hudson and bluer than the New York river would ever become, landed on me.
"How's it goin'?" For the first time, I experienced the Gavin arrogance, the expectation that no woman would blank him. Not many would.
"Fine," I replied.
"I'm Tommy," he announced, already undressing me with his eyes. But I didn't mind. In fact, that devilish look only made my heart pound. Right then, I knew I wanted that dangerous bad boy.
"Janet," I told him.
"Good to meet you." He thumbed at the dark-haired guy hanging onto his shoulder. "Meet my cousin Jimmy. You got a friend for him?"
"I can find my own women!" Jimmy protested. His face was softer than Tommy's and he came across as a genuinely nice guy.
"Not without my help, you can't, asshole. Jesus, you didn't know what to do with your dick 'til I showed you."
And that was the double act that was Tommy Gavin and Jimmy Keefe. Before long, I was taken over to sit with their friends and plied with numerous explicit cocktails for a while. Before long, though, I was being left mostly to my own devices as they got drunk and shouted a lot. That was something I'd just have to get used to. The guys always came first.
Tommy had a year-younger brother with him, named Johnny, and Kian, another cousin of twenty-seven, both with the NYPD. The FDNY had just won a hockey game against the cops, apparently and the firefighters were happily gloating over beating their biggest rivals. God, they could drink. I felt like throwing up just watching them knock back beer after beer, shot after shot.
By 2am, I was back at the shabby Hell's Kitchen apartment Tommy shared with his brother and Jimmy. He wasted no time in getting us both naked, his hands exploring as I drank in every glorious details of his lean, toned muscles. The sex was, quite simply, the greatest I'd ever experienced. Tommy Gavin fucked my brains out and I only wanted him more.
And that was it. From then on, I was Tommy Gavin's girl.
X X X
Things went rapidly downhill when I was eventually taken to Brooklyn to meet the rest of the Gavin family. Tommy and his five siblings had grown up in the rundown tenement building their parents had moved into on their arrival in New York. It was still a poor area filled with working-class Irish and the tenement was still noticeably dilapidated - dark and cold and smelling of damp. I felt more than slightly threatened by the place.
I expected this meeting to be with just Tommy's parents and maybe a couple of siblings who might've been around. How naïve was I? Tommy's family, I quickly discovered, was a typical Irish clan. In short, it was huge and they were all very involved in each other's lives, especially love lives. I counted fourteen people crammed into that tiny, shabby apartment to meet the broad who had caught their Tommy.
"Guys, meet Janet," Tommy announced before immediately abandoning me to slap palms with three young men, all dark-haired and blue-eyed. Within seconds, they were plying him with whiskey.
Immediately, we encountered the first problem. I wasn't Irish; I hadn't a drop of emerald blood in me. His family weren't sure about that. They wanted him to marry a suitable Irish Catholic, preferably first generation, though second was acceptable. His parents, as it turned out, were the easiest ones to deal with. I warmed to John and Martha quickly and it wasn't long before they accepted me for what I was. Tommy's aunts were less accepting and spend most of my visit clacking their rosary beads and mumbling apologies to the Virgin as their husbands enquired as to whether my breasts were real.
Tommy had three sets of uncles and aunts present, most born and bred on the Emerald Isle, living in practically adjacent tenement blocks as they had done since they'd left Ireland. They'd all brought several of their seemingly endless offspring with them, all grown-up but clearly still very much tied to their family. I couldn't move for people or hear myself think.
"Ollie, pass that ashtray!" someone bellowed. "And tell your Patrick to get his thievin' hands outta my cigar box!"
"We're runnin' outta the Jameson over here, Shay," another man announced. "Go get another bottle."
"Bring the Jameson, Caitlin!" the young man called Shay, a handsome guy of twenty-four, yelled.
"Fetch it yourself!" Tommy's twenty-year-old sister, an education major at NYU who still lived at home, retorted. "Is your Mickey here?"
"No. Seen much of Siobhan recently…?"
And so it went on. The family terrified me. They were all as loud and brash as Tommy, seemingly unable to speak at a volume below a shout and constantly arguing over nothing. It was chaos around them, and the air was thick with whiskey and cigarettes and the raucous laughter of the men. I was instantly disapproved of for being 'stuck up'. I'm sorry I couldn't laugh and cheer with the rest when a couple of Tommy's numerous male cousins started beating the shit out of each other over a woman.
The fight quickly spilled out into the street, with several more male cousins following to encourage, and the others hanging out of the apartment windows to watch.
"Kick him in the bollocks, Patrick!"
"Shay, don't let him get away with that shite!"
It wasn't a particularly even fight. Shay, Uncle Eamon's youngest son, was six feet two and built like a football player – with pads. Patrick, the middle son of Uncle Teddy, I was reliably informed, was the same age as his cousin but considerably smaller and with the same lean stature as Tommy. Within minutes, Shay had him on the floor.
"Great scrap, lads!" Uncle Teddy yelled out of the window as Shay picked his cousin up and bear-hugged him as if nothing had happened.
The two cousins ambled off down the street together, apparently bored of the family gathering now. Caitlin headed off to her classes, leaving her cousin Ollie, who was apparently nineteen but didn't look old enough to have graduated high school, to carry on knocking back whiskey with his dad and uncles. I sat silently and waited for us to be able to leave.
Minutes later, Tommy's two youngest brothers arrived home then in the blazers and striped ties of a traditional Catholic public school. Colm, eighteen, and sophomore Timo, fifteen, were both tall, athletic youths with the same black hair and piercing blue eyes as most of their family. They showed no interest in me, yelling greetings to their big brother as they stormed through the apartment. Less than a minute later they were heading back out the door for hockey practice, dragging huge kit bags and exchanging quick reports with Tommy about their respective seasons. I might as well have not existed.
Before long, Tommy and the other guys were hopelessly drunk and arguing over the Celtics' latest form. His mom had returned to her knitting and the aunts were still clacking their rosary beads in between muttering about the shortness of my skirt. My head was reeling too much from the chaotic mass of ever-changing people to stand up for myself.
That was my introduction to the disarray that was the Gavin family.
X X X
Six months after we first met, I married Tommy Gavin. With his family seeming to know practically every Irish person in New York, the whole thing was pretty much free. The service was arranged at the church assigned to Father Mickey Gavin, the eldest son of Uncle Eamon. Food for the reception was provided by church friends of Tommy's mom, the alcohol by a no-doubt unscrupulous contact of Uncle Teddy's. Ken O'Shea got us a stretch limousine from a sideline-operating firefighter. The flowers came courtesy of Jimmy's youngest sister Siobhan, a floral artist downtown.
It was an interesting day. For the first time, my parents met Tommy's family and it wasn't a smooth entwining of the two clans. They had never liked Tommy, not trusting his cocky personality and quick mouth, but it was even worse when it came to the rest of them. Mom was suspicious of the Gavin women and Dad downright disapproving of the men. The atmosphere could've been cut with a knife. To be fair, they didn't really go out of their way to create a great impression. Uncle Teddy was drunk before the service even begun and a few of the older cousins were well on their way as well. They were rowdy as we entered the church and only got louder.
"Michael, where the hell's the wine?" Teddy yelled.
Mickey, thirty-two and a calm, responsible guy a world away from the rest of his family, shrugged. "It's locked away, Uncle Teddy."
"Teddy, don't swear in church!" his wife snapped.
"I didn't fecking swear…Ah shite…I didn't mean…feck it."
Mickey rolled his eyes heavenwards and moved away hurriedly to prevent delinquent Patrick from starting a swordfight with Ciaran, Mickey's younger brother, and two ornate candlesticks. In one of the pews, Jimmy and Johnny were alternating pouring whiskey down Tommy's throat and their own. Teddy was being soundly berated by his wife and the other three older women. A hockey game was being loudly discussed between Colm, Timo and Ollie. It was more like a party than a wedding and my parents were rapidly losing patience with the disruptiveness.
Eventually, Mickey took charge, hammering his Bible against the lectern to gain attention. It took a minute but finally his family quietened down.
"Any danger of getting started today?" he asked.
After much disagreement over seats, everyone eventually sat down. It seemed the whole of the FDNY had turned up to see their beloved Tommy get hitched and his side of the church was so packed it spilled over onto mine. Which made it look a bit better seeing as I only had ten or so guests.
Jimmy and Johnny had come to blows over who was going to be best man at an earlier date so Tommy had appointed them both, which had left them with only the ring to fight over. I could never understand why the Gavins honestly believed every problem could be solved with fists. They joined us at the altar, as uncomfortable in their suits and ties as the rest of their brothers and cousins.
What felt like hours later, Mickey finally asked the all-important question, unperturbed by Uncle Teddy hissing to his eldest son Liam: "When's this gonna be over? I wanna get down the pub".
"Do you, Janet Gail Petersen, take Thomas Shaun Gavin to be your lawful wedded husband?"
I took a deep breath, and committed myself to life as a firefighter's wife.
X X X
The reception was little more than a drink-fuelled rave. There was no speeches, no toasts. The men were straight to the bar and the women retreated to one corner to analyse everything from my dress to whether they liked Mickey's new haircut. It was about five minutes until Kian, the other firefighter, started fighting with his year-older brother Ciaran because Ciaran had apparently groped a girlfriend's ass. Before long, Shay and Patrick had waded in and Uncle Paddy, Jimmy's dad, was imploring his son to get involved. Jimmy was more interested in telling a sexually-explicit story to Tommy and Liam, the twenty-eight year old who had apparently already been to prison twice.
It was at the reception I truly realised what magnets the Gavin men were to women. Every one of the guys had a girlfriend with them, even kid of the family Timo. Judging by the drunken talk, most of them had several more women on the go as well, and this was expected by the others. The women were so much more mature – Jimmy's two sisters were both in long-term relationships and Caitlin was single by choice. It was a shame they were so outnumbered by their disorderly male relatives.
Tommy had already abandoned me and I found myself standing with Colm. He was a huge six feet two, stronger in build than his big brother and easily well-grown enough to join the FDNY there and then. Wearing a hand-me-down suit and his school tie, he looked bored and uncomfortable.
"How's it goin'?" he asked me, not looking entirely interested.
"Pretty good. I hear you're gonna sing for us later." Instead of shelling out for a real band, Tommy and Jimmy had recruited Colm, who was rumoured to be worthy of becoming an alternative rock sensation, to perform.
"Yeah. Roped Timo, Shay and Ollie into playin'." Colm had never been talkative to me, though he never shut up when he was with the guys.
"Timo got music ambitions?"
"He just wants to play hockey."
"And is he good enough?"
Colm snorted. "Tommy and Jimmy's the only ones good enough for the big time." He took a slug of his beer. "Later."
I sighed and went to see if I could get any attention from my husband, but he'd moved onto messing around with Shay's electric guitar and all I got was "Hey, sweetheart". He barely seemed to notice I was there until the boys had jumped onto the small stage, at which point he grabbed me in his arms.
"First dance, Mrs Gavin?"
He led me out into the middle of the dance floor, pulling me close against his strong body as I rested my head against his shoulder. I felt myself relax, waiting for the slow, romantic music to begin.
I nearly jumped out of my skin when Timo, Shay and Ollie began pounding on their guitar strings. Colm grabbed the microphone and launched into a loud, aggressive rock song, drawing approving shouts from his family. That was all the excuse they needed to go nuts again. Uncle Teddy began to strip, Jimmy attempted to break dance and Tommy was grabbed to crowd surf.
Needless to say, he was dropped within seconds, rebounding off the hard floor. Drunk enough to be enraged by this, he immediately leapt on the unfortunate Kian and started trying to pound his head in. Jimmy and Johnny, being vaguely responsible, attempted to pull them apart but were hampered by Ciaran and Shay sticking up for their brother. Within minutes, the police had arrived.
The Gavins said it was the best wedding they'd ever attended.