Andrew Boryga

March 1, 2024 
The following is from Andrew Boryga's debut novel Victim. Boryga grew up in the Bronx and now lives in Miami with his family. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic, and been awarded prizes by Cornell University, The University of Miami, The Susquehanna Review, and The Michener Foundation. He attended the Tin House Writer’s Workshop and has taught writing to college students, elementary school students, and incarcerated adults..

On the bus ride home, I thought about what “challenges” I had faced in my life. It was an odd exercise. I’d looked for sympathy after Pops died, but that was to get out of things, and to get the attention I wanted. Through high school, I’d mostly dropped that gambit because I quickly realized that the people whose attention I suddenly wanted most—girls—did not react how I’d hoped when I talked about my Pops. Which is to say, they did not find me attractive because of my trauma but rather odd, lonely, sad, and unfuckable.

But even through that period just after Pops died, it didn’t feel like a “challenge” to me. It was something bad that had happened in a world where I already knew that a lot of bad things happened. Where worse things happened. And besides, I knew, and had always known, in my heart of hearts, that someone like Pops kinda had it coming.

The assignment before me felt different. It entailed commodifying all the shit I’d been through to see if it was worth anything to some committee hundreds of miles away. It was a new exercise that would soon become as normal to me as breathing. But as a naive high school student, I was simply intrigued by Mr. Martin’s words, by the opportunity he was selling me on. Prestigious sounded good. Free sounded even better.

I started my list with the obvious: dead Pops. But then I thought, Yeah, so? You know how many people I know who have no dad? I moved on. Poor. But poorish, really. The lights had never gone out in our apartment. Although we sometimes ate the same dinner a couple of times a week, there was never a time when dinner wasn’t served. We’d never spent a night in a shelter or on the streets. Okay, the rent. Yeah, Mom was often late with it, drawing the ire of our Albanian landlord. But it always got paid—eventually—and it never got bad enough that we had one of those embarrassing eviction notices taped to the front of our door.

The more I thought about Mr. Martin’s question, the more I thought about Gio. About that night we’d stayed up late and he’d told me the real story about his mom. That look in his eyes. The pain I’d never before realized was there, under the surface. Dealing with that? Now, that was a challenge. I thought it was just too bad Gio had zero interest in going to college. Anytime I’d ask him about it, he’d say a version of the same thing: “Why would I willingly sign up for more school, and pay for it? That’s some sucka shit.”

When Mom got home from work that day, I decided to pick her brain as she peeled off her flats and rubbed her feet.

“I met with the new guidance counselor today. To talk about college.”

“Did he tell you that it is dumb to study English in college because you already speak English?”

“No. He did not.”

“He sounds like a bad counselor already.”

“He said I can get into a really good school. A top one. The kind of school that can impress people and get me a fancy job.”

Mom looked at me like I was trying to sell her a glow-in-the-dark yo-yo on the D train.

“For free,” I added.

She ran her fingers between her toes, grimacing. “And the catch? Nothing in life is free, Javi.”

“He said it all depends on my essay. If I write a good one, I’m straight.”

Mom rubbed her eyes. I could tell she was only half listening. She was probably thinking about dinner. About what she could throw together from what was in our cabinets with the least amount of effort. “Well, your teachers do say you’re a good writer. Even though I don’t know how you expect to pay bills doing that. You should study something that pays money. Like engineering. Or medicine. Don’t you want to be a doctor? They make a lot of money at—”

“I’m not gonna be a doctor, Ma. I’m going to be a writer.”

Mom rolled her eyes. We’d had this discussion many times already.

“You know, if I would have known that all those books I bought you would lead to this, I would have just let you play video games.”

“I tried to tell you. But now it’s too late.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“Anyway, the thing about this getting-into-college-free business: I need to write about how poor I am so it looks good to the ‘committee.’ The guidance counselor basically was trying to say that if I make myself sound really poor, they’ll let me go to these fancy schools for free.” I pulled a notebook out of my book bag. “I need ideas. He said I could use stuff from my family.”

Mom twisted her face in disgust. “We’re not poor, Javi. You’re not poor.”

“Yeah, I know. But I mean we’re not, like, rich either. And you always talk about how your childhood was bad.”

“My childhood was not bad. I had lemon trees in my backyard. I rode horses and went to the beach. I went out dancing. My childhood was incredible.”

“I mean, yeah, but sometimes you also tell these stories about walking, like, miles to school, or about hurricanes blowing everything down, or about your grandpa who was a drunk and hit your grandma in front of you all the time, and those stories sound pretty—”

Mom stood up. “Do you have clothes to wear every day, Javi?”


“Do you have a bed with clean sheets to sleep in at night?”

I stared at her, wondering if she really wanted me to continue.

“Well? Answer me.”

“Yes, Ma.”

“Tá bien. Then drop this crap. We ain’t on some handout line. I work for everything we have, and we are doing just fine.”

I clicked my pen a few times. “Okay. I don’t have to write about being poor. But if you don’t wanna pay for college, then I’m gonna have to write about some obstacle or challenge, according to this guy.”

Mom laughed. “Qué challenge? You grew up with everything, Javi. You want to talk about challenges? Go interview your abuela. She’ll tell you how she used to sleep on a dirt floor in Puerto Rico. But, oh, of course, you’ll have to call her first. Which you never do. And which you’ll regret the day that she dies.”

“That right there,” I said. “Grandma on a dirt floor.” I started to write. Mom slapped the pen out of my hand.

“Do you know your abuela? She’d die if you thought of her as some poor, defenseless thing. She’s a warrior. She never begged nobody for nothing. Write that.”

I sighed. “Never mind.”

“Yeah. Exactly. Never mind.”

Mom carried her shoes to her closet down the hall. She stopped on the way to smash a cockroach crawling up the wall with her bare hand.

“ ‘Challenge,’ ” she muttered. “Unbelievable.”


Before my Next meeting with Mr. Martin, I scrolled through the Donlon University website. On my worksheet, I mentioned a few professors I’d like to learn from, classes I’d like to take, and clubs I’d like to join. What I had seemed decent. It showed that I had done my research on the school. But Mr. Martin was still not impressed.

“This is good for the end of your essay,” he said. “We still need something to grab them. Something to separate you from the pack. There will be thousands of students who are also”—he mimed quotes—“ ‘looking forward to new doors of opportunity.’ ”

“Listen, I know you want me to write about being poor and stuff, but that was too hard.”

“Again, that’s not what I said, but continue.”

“Whatever. I asked my mom for help, and she got mad at me.

She said her life on the island wasn’t all that bad, and that—”

Mr. Martin looked at me quizzically. “Island. Where is your mom from?”

“Puerto Rico.”

“Puerto Rico. So she immigrated here, correct? Did she happen to come here on a boat or something harrowing like that?”


“Sorry if I’m mistaken.”

“No, man. Puerto Rico is basically a colony. She came on a plane.”

“Right, of course.” Mr. Martin nodded, disappointed. “And your dad? What did he say about the assignment?”

“Nothing. He’s dead.”

Even years after Pops’s shooting, it still stung to tell people about it. It still made me think about him lying there in the plaza twitching in a pool of blood. It still made me wonder what was running through his mind in those final moments as the man raised the gun, as he stared down the barrel. Was he scared?

Mr. Martin sat up as if he’d been shocked by a bolt. “I’m sorry to hear that.” He looked around. “If you don’t mind my asking—”

“How he died?”

He nodded, eager.

“He got shot. Right in front of me. I was a kid.”

Mr. Martin blew out the air in his mouth. He sat back for a moment. I expected him to say that was sad, or tough. Expected him to maybe tear up because he seemed kind of like a softy. At the very least, I expected him to say, “My condolences,” which is what most people said to me after Pops died—as if that meant anything or would bring him back.

“That is some great material to work with, Javier.”


“You’re a first-gen student, son of a single mom who is, like, kind of an immigrant, and on top of all that, you’re a witness to your father’s tragic murder. I mean.” He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “You need to emphasize all of this. The sacrifices your mom made for you. What it was like watching your dad die before your eyes. What it was like growing up without him. All that. That will blow the committee away. It blows me away.”

“I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to write, though. What, a timeline of my life?”

“Just get down as many details as you can. Take your time. When we meet next week, we’ll go from there. I just know you’ll come up with something great.”


Looking back, I probably would have come up with something good. Not great. But good enough. I probably would have done it secretly, too, not telling Mom, and certainly not telling Gio, who I already knew would likely disapprove, would likely tell me I hadn’t learned my lesson from middle school. Would this effort have still put me on the same trajectory I ended up on? Would the currency of my life experiences up to that point have been enough to buy me the right entrance ticket? I’ll never know. Because as luck would have it, my riches—by which I mean my material—were already starting to grow.


From Victim by Andrew Boryga. Used with permission of the publisher, Doubleday. Copyright © 2024 by Andrew Boryga.

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