Pulling the mop bucket from the sink, the mop from its dirty corner, and hair from my eyes, I swallow the urge to ask her: how have you lived?
It’s an unseasonably warm autumn afternoon in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. New York City’s many groaning gears slow as glass office doors are locked and beers slip into tall iced glasses. Smartly-dressed thirty-somethings charge from the Hoyt Street subway into the wealthier pockets of Brooklyn. Across Fulton Street, a jackhammer stops it chatter.
She steals through the café door almost unseen and asks for a cappuccino. She’s dressed like she’s returning home from work, in fresh black slacks and a crisp white button-up. But she seems to be too calm to be working in this city. I don’t often see people like her, people I could grow up to be. Her hair is short. Her shoes are flat.
I pull two perfect shots for her, patiently steam the milk, and top off the foam with excruciating finesse. I shuffle to the window counter where she sits and deliver it hopefully.
I have been informed that the greatest joy this city offers is its people. New York is full to the brim of them. You might find solace in the city’s crowds, in its packed subway cars and blaring avenues, but you will never have to feel alone. I am told that this fact, above all else, is actually what makes New York City so safe. Great horror films are always set on dark country roads and in giant old houses. Here in New York, someone can always here you scream, even if they won’t do a thing about it. And if you look queer, they probably won’t.
Inside, the café is quiet. Paul Simon sings to me over two iPod speakers. I pour purple chemicals into the bucket and begin to mop. My back hurts so much I can barely stand up straight.
After work, I’ll walk to the Smith corner bar and spend all of my tip money on beer. I’ll regret that later because every dollar I spend is another dollar I won’t have when I work up the courage to move back to Chicago.
I keep one eye on my mop and one eye on her. I look for recognition, but she stares contentedly out the window as if nothing binds us together. I want her to see me in the way that I see her. I wonder if she too has been yelled at by bus drivers for wearing ties. I wonder if she hears “dyke” spat from passing car windows on her dark way home from the train. I wonder if old men chase her down the street with threats of “one good fu—” to make her straight. I wonder if she has loved women who broke her for straight guys, if her mother lamented her refusal to don skirts, if her father regretted teaching her to hammer nails and hit baseballs. Or perhaps I just selfishly hope these things.
She’s much older than I. She looks successful, happy even. And I want to ask her: how have you lived?
Paul Simon turns over a new track, and I finish shining off the last corner with a mop. The daylight tumbles down the trees. It’s time to close, but I don’t ask her to leave. I pull the sandwich sign in and flip off the lights on the food cases. I bag up the bagels and throw them into my backpack.
I hear a shuffle beyond the counter. I look up to see her at the door, throwing a coat over her shoulders. I feel the world get stuck in my throat. She’s pushing the door open, stepping out. In a moment, she’ll be gone. I will have missed my chance to ask her.
She pauses and turns around. “Thanks,” she says. An unsympathetic tired smile paints her soft features. “Keep it peaceful here, okay?”
I nod. I don’t tell her that it’s loud as hell in here.