Joey’s feet are fucking killing him. When he arrived at work for this afternoon’s shift Nico took one look at his outfit and declared that those shoes were not work shoes. Joey had argued that any shoes are work shoes if you wear them at work and had smiled very prettily, it was stunning. Nico had indicated the Dr Martens on their own little feet and said,
“These are work shoes, honey.”
Then they told him he was crazy and went back to clearing tables. Honestly the shoes are not even that high, it’s like a five-inch heel, that’s not even that high, right? Plus they’re like little ankle booties too: very practical in all the rain they’ve been having. He’s styled them with high-waisted pants and his favourite Norma Desmond t-shirt that he made himself by the way, and he looks cute af, thank you very much.
Although, the lunch rush has been going on for over two hours now and his feet are on fucking fire.
Standing at the register while the customer in front of him searches for their card, he shifts his weight and gives a little whimper, making Nico look up at him as they squeeze past in the narrow space behind the counter. They put a comforting hand on the small of his back.
“It’ll quiet down soon honey. Help me get through this line, then you can go on your break early.”
Joey looks down at them gratefully.
“Thanks Nico. You were so right, these are not work shoes. No one ever worked in these shoes. I feel like an idiot.”
“But you look like a goddamn supermodel, just remember that.” Nico says, giving him a friendly pat on the ass as they return to the espresso machine and pick up a cup. “And you’re not quitting wearing them, that’s important. Would Gaga give up on fabulous shoes halfway through a shift just because her feet were hurting?”
“No, don’t be crazy Nico!” Joey yells back over the hiss of the machine. “Gaga is an angel, she doesn’t have feet.”
Nico laughs and Joey grins at them fondly. He loves to make anyone laugh, but he loves making Nico laugh most of all. He doesn’t know a whole lot about their life before but he knows it was rough. Like, really brutally rough. Nico is about the kindest, sweetest person he knows. They’ve been so good to him since he came to New York, not just giving him this job but taking care of him too. Reminding him to eat and not just live on vanilla soya frappuccinos, that kind of thing. So he tries his best to take care of Nico in return, even though they’re older and certainly a hell of a lot fucking wiser.
Nico’s full name is Nico Calo, but it wasn’t always. They told Joey,
“Honey, I’d had… wow, three different first names by the time I was twenty and not one of them was any good.”
Their last name got changed a lot too, for reasons Nico doesn’t talk about. It was Calonico at some point, Joey knows that much. So they took that and cut it up and made a whole name out of it and they’ve been Nico ever since. Joey thinks it suits them: finally a name to keep. One that belongs to absolutely no one but Nico themself.
Because Nico’s so tiny and adorable, one of Joey’s favourite things to do to cheer them up is just to pick them up and carry them around for a while. Truly, they’re almost pocket-sized: so portable! Nico tries to save some face by pretending to hate it, but they always giggle way too much for that to be true. Plus, when they’re out and Nico’s had one too many negronis they put their arms up and say,
“Joey, honey, I’m tired now. Carry me home.”
So that’s how Joey knows for sure that he’s doing a good thing. Maybe this weekend they can go out for cocktails. He’d like that. He decides he's going to think about that to try and take his mind off his aching feet.
The next customer in line steps up. She’s a regular, an older red-haired woman who always gets a brownie and a flat white. Joey calls the coffee order back to Nico as usual. He’s taking a brownie from the glass-fronted display and setting it on a plate when he happens to glance over to the door just as it opens. That’s when the guy walks in.
He’s quite tall, and he’s got curly black hair and dark eyes and a suntan even though it’s March. When Joey looks at him he gets the warmest, deepest, most inexplicable feeling of oh, there you are.
He thinks, what took you so long?
He glances away for a second only to be drawn immediately back to the guy. He’s standing just inside the door now, a little dishevelled from the rain and engaged in folding up a dripping wet umbrella. It’s midnight blue with subtle silver stars on it and Joey thinks it’s perfect for this guy: butch, with something unexpectedly beautiful about it. The guy puts the umbrella carefully in the stand by the door, where it joins a few others that are already making a steadily-expanding puddle on the wood floor.
The guy’s got headphones on and Joey immediately wants to know what he’s listening to. Tucked under his arm is a blue and yellow package that Joey recognises as being from Midtown Comics; he wants to know what’s inside. He’s wearing a big scarf over this gorgeous old leather jacket that looks as though he’s been wearing it so long it’s moulded itself to his shape. Joey would also like to mould himself to his shape, please.
He looks a little older than Joey and that is, oh boy, that is A Very Good Thing Indeed. He’s about the most handsome man Joey’s ever seen in his entire life. How does anybody get that handsome?
He can’t take his eyes off this guy. There’s something so special about him. He’s just too much.
A crash startles him and he realises that the plate with the brownie on it has slipped from his hand and smashed on the floor.
“Shit! Sorry,” he says to the surprised-looking woman in front of him. “I’ll just… I’ll get you another.”
Joey steps over the mess and gratefully ducks down behind the glass of the bakery display for a few seconds to try and regain his composure. He grabs another plate, and will you look at that? His hands are shaking! He’s trembling so hard his bracelets are rattling together. When he tries to take another brownie they suddenly all want either to stick to the tongs or to slide right off the display. Finally he manages to wrestle one onto the plate and hands it to the woman with a flourish.
“Thank you!” He says, a bit too fast. “Your coffee will be ready for you at the end of the counter. Have a wonderful day!”
“Sweetie, I haven’t paid.” The woman smiles at him.
“Oh! Oh, sorry!” He quickly rings everything through the register, thanking her for her patience as she pays and moves down the counter. The next customer steps up. Luckily she only wants coffee, so it’s easy enough just to call out the order out to Nico. At least he doesn’t have to wrangle any baked goods this time. As he’s taking the money he casts a quick glance around the coffee shop. He can’t see the beautiful guy. A funny mixture of relief and disappointment twists in his belly. Maybe he changed his mind? Maybe he took one look at the klutz behind the counter and fled to Starbucks.
The line of customers shifts forward and as it moves Joey sees that actually the guy has joined the back of the queue, he was just obscured by the tall man in front of him before. He’s standing in line like a normal person! Joey’s going to have to speak to him. Oh fuck. He puts his hand on the edge of the counter to steady himself and immediately knocks a container of forks to the floor. Startled by the clatter, Nico looks over.
“What is wrong with you today?”
Joey turns away from the customers for a second, faces Nico and widens his eyes meaningfully, tipping his head discreetly toward the guy at the end of the line. He watches as Nico’s eyes find him and understanding dawns on their face.
“OH. Ooh, pretty.”
“YES,” he hisses. “Help. Swap?”
“Nuh-uh,” says Nico, turning back to the coffee machine and shaking their infuriating little head. They grin as they rather brutally lock the portafilter in place. “You stay right where you are, Joey-boy.”
Joey turns helplessly to the next customer and gives her a slightly manic smile. Three people to go till it’s the guy’s turn. He serves and smiles, and his feet throb, and his certain death by hotness gets closer and closer. Joey sneaks little glances over at him. He’s distracted, looking up at the blackboard menu over the counter. His hands are in his pockets and he just looks… lovely. He looks so lovely. And warm, and safe. Joey doesn’t know what it is, but something about this guy just makes him feel so safe. He hasn’t felt that way in a long, long time. He imagines vaulting the counter and leaping into his arms. This guy would catch him, he’s sure.
Joey serves and smiles, serves and smiles, and then before long the guy is standing right there in front of him, just innocently looking at him across the counter. Close up he looks, if anything, even yummier. Really, just… too much. In addition, Joey can see now that his eyes look really kind. Oh dear God, Joey’s done for. Kind? Attractive, he can cope with. But kind? The guy lifts his hands from his pockets to take his headphones off and Joey’s just going to pretend that he did not clock the size of those paws.
“Hi,” says the guy.
“Hi,” says Joey. There’s a silence.
“Can I get…” the guy says, just as Joey says,
“What can I get you?”
The guy smiles at him and oh fuck, what is that feeling? Joey does what he always does when he feels vulnerable: he goes for a gag.
“You trod on my line!”
“Well, I’m sorry about that,” the guy says, smiling wider. “I’m sorry. Let’s try it again.”
“Okay, okay. Right. So, my line is: ‘what can I get you?’”
“And my line is: ‘can I get a long black and whatever sandwich is good today, please.’ How was that?”
“Hmm… Empire would give it four stars.”
“The sandwich order lacked conviction.”
The guy laughs and it makes Joey feel incredible, like being drunk but actually nice. What am I doing? He thinks. More to the point, what are we doing? Is there a ‘we’ now? Are we doing something? Are we flirting, is this flirting? If it is then it’s not like any flirting Joey has ever done before in his life.
“I guess it did lack conviction,” the guy says thoughtfully, “but I couldn’t decide. What do you think is good?”
“Umm. You like veggies? We got roasted veggies on focaccia. Lots of herbs, olive oil. That’s my favorite. It’s toasted, warm. The cheese is vegan but I made them get the expensive stuff so it’s actually edible, it’s not like eating linoleum at all. It melts like real cheese and everything. It’s really good.” He’s babbling; he is babbling, right? The next man in line has started giving him a death stare, so that probably means that he is.
“Sure,” says the guy. “Sounds good, I’ll try that.”
Joey beams at him.
“Great.” He turns to the display. Oh boy. He concentrates really hard and somehow manages to get the sandwich off the display and onto the sandwich toaster without dropping it or setting himself on fire or anything.
“Is that to go?” He asks. Please say no, please say no, please say no, please say n-
“Just a cough, sorry.” Joey calls the coffee order back to Nico and notices that the guy is also looking over at them.
“Fai molto caldo, amico,” he says.
Nico looks up from the coffee machine and gives him a pleased smile.
“Grazie,” the guy says, and Joey goes bright pink. He’s pretty sure he just had some new kind of minor orgasm.
He rings everything through the register and the guy hands over cash, which Joey would normally think was weird but in this case is utterly charming. As he passes back the change, the guy’s blunt, slightly rough fingertips brush the soft skin on the back of his hand. Joey’s soul leaves his earthly form, ascends, bounces off the ceiling and smacks back down into his body.
“Oh.” He says, without really meaning to. It comes out like a tiny gasp. The guy looks at him a little quizzically. “I mean… oh, your order will be ready for you at the end of the counter.” He gives the guy his prettiest smile. “Have a wonderful day.”
“Thank you,” the guy says, and takes a couple of steps away. Just as Joey’s drawing a breath to speak to the next customer, who’s dared to begin looking hopeful that he might be served, the guy looks back at him. Lightly gesturing to his own torso, he says,
“I like your shirt.”
“Oh!” Joey says, unconsciously raising his hand to his own skinny chest, “thank you!” Panicking slightly he adds, “I love old movies.”
“Me too,” the guy smiles.
Joey pulls himself up to his full height, tosses his head back a little and channels Gloria Swanson like his life depends on it.
“I am big,” he says, widening his eyes and LIVING.
“It’s the pictures that got small,” the guy finishes with perfect, perfect timing. Joey clasps his hands together and laughs, delighted. Somehow it’s even funnier because he says it in a completely normal voice, standing there slightly damp and smiling in the middle of the Belmont Coffee House on a rainy Monday in March, just quietly being perfect.
He suspected it before, but that’s the exact moment when Joey knows for sure that he’s fallen in love.
Then the fella waiting in front of him has the goddamn nerve to cough pointedly. Joey turns to look at him, his face going on a complicated journey from murderous to obliging, with I detour to I-would-like-to-keep-my-job in between. He takes the order.
This line is just not getting any shorter. Joey keeps serving, keeps calling the orders out to Nico, and Nico keeps that machine roaring. He keeps catching glimpses of the guy waiting patiently at the end of the counter, one hip against the newspaper display.
Finally, Nico casts a slightly sad little glance at Joey as they slide a takeaway cup and a slightly oily sandwich bag onto the counter.
“One long black, one vegan special to go,” they call out. The guy steps forward.
The guy glances over at Joey and Joey wants to say something else, wants to do something enormous, wants to throw a boulder into the stream of the day. He wants to make such an impression that this slipping apart stops happening. But how would he ever be heard over the roar of the machine, the billows of steam and the clatter and babble of the clientele? He’s stuck here, hemmed in by hungry customers while the guy drifts away from him, hustled along the counter and off the other end with coffee and a sandwich: exactly what he came in for, no more no less. And… goodbye.
Joey looks around and scans the shop to see if he can catch one last glimpse of him. And there he is, just standing on the threshold, halfway out the door. Looking back. Their eyes catch and they smiile.
Joey lifts his hand to wave but just as he does so the lady he’s serving asks to add a madeleine to her order and he gets distracted. What actually happens to his arm is not so much a wave as a weird flopping of the wrist, like a gesture forgotten halfway through. Mortified at himself, he’s about to sink under the counter to join the broken crockery and spilled forks when he sees the guy laugh and copy the movement. This silly, childish bizarro wave looks, on him, cute. Joey feels his face light up like a Christmas tree and then the guy is gone, the shape of his shoulders dissolving into the rain.
They close at eight o’clock on Mondays. At one minute past, Joey has already kicked his shoes off. Nico turns the sign on the door around and locks up while Joey fetches the broom from out back. The afternoon had stayed insanely busy for at least thirty minutes after the guy had left. By the time Joey took his break he was long gone. Then there was a lull just long enough to clear a few tables before the schoolchildren and their mothers and fathers and grandparents and whoever else they had enslaved turned the place into a creche for a couple hours.
At six, the poetry book club met in their usual corner. Joey likes the poetry book club. They cause no trouble, always order a lot of cake, and some of the stuff they read out loud is absolutely filthy. Occasionally an argument about iambs breaks out, but honestly if you don’t care deeply and vocally about poetic meter then what is even the point of the club?
This week they were doing Frank O’Hara, and when Joey overheard one of them read out the last stanza of ‘Steps’ it made him feel so lonely he thought the tears he was struggling to hold back might drown him from the inside.
'oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much.'
The city is so beautiful and so, so vast. He’s illuminated this little corner of it for himself, fixed it up with friends and fairy lights, but beyond its careful boundaries there’s still so much darkness out there. Most days he manages to ignore it, pretty much. He makes it so that his tiny, familiar patch of the city stands in for the whole thing. But today, when the guy walked in, Joey’s little corner had felt even friendlier, even more like home. And when he left, a little bit of cold leaked in through the open door. For a few minutes, it felt like someone had reached their hand out of the dark and slipped it into his. Until that moment he hadn’t even been aware that his hand was unheld, but now it’s like his empty palm is killing him.
This is very silly behaviour, Joseph, he thinks, swiping away hot tears with the back of his hand. A nice-looking man gave you five minutes’ attention and now you’re a wreck. That’s all it is. He tries to pretend that’s all it is. He sets to work putting the chairs up on the tables so he can sweep.
“Oh, we got another one for the collection,” says Nico from over by the door. “It can dry off tonight, then we’ll put it in the lost box tomorrow.”
Joey sniffles and looks up just in time to see them lift up a solitary, dripping umbrella from the stand. It’s midnight blue, and shimmering with silver stars.