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Midnight at the Belmont

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Joey officially regrets choosing such tiny beads to weave into the knit of his scarf. They’re so pretty, sparkling there like little garnets, but they sure are difficult to work with. He’s poured the whole bag of beads into a shallow cup in hopes of making things easier for himself, but every time he tries to pick one up he somehow dislodges a ton of others and they spill out onto the tabletop and skitter away. He sighs dejectedly as yet another bead rolls across the table and flings itself to the floor. Maybe textiles are just not his medium.

“Again?” Bessie says, peering at him over the top of her red half-moon glasses as he ducks under the table for the fifth time this evening.

“They just won’t sit still, Miss B!”

“Well, you let them know they’ll be getting a telling off from me if they don’t behave.” Bessie’s knitting needles don’t stop moving clickety-clack as she speaks, even though she’s looking at Joey and ignoring the half-formed sweater springing to life in front of her. “And you mind your head, sugar.”

Joey emerges carefully, and pops the bead back into his cup. He picks it up and looks inside. “I think they heard you, they’re quaking in here,” he says.

“Good.”

Joey grins at her and picks up his project again. It’s… really not going very well. The problem is that he’s too distracted, that’s what’s really the issue here. There are two important things currently secreted away in his jeans pocket and they’re both burning a hole there like two drops of molten lava. One of the things is that shiny new fifty dollar bill but the fifty is the easier one of the two, really. Oh, he just so wants to run over to No Relation and blow it all on something pretty for Saturday night. He’s only working during the day on Saturday, he isn’t working the evening shift at all, so going to Sophie’s show is just all for F-U-N, and really he could wear anything he wanted and he wouldn’t have to worry about standing up all night or getting messy or anything. He could serve any look his imagination could come up with, oh mercy! What he could do with fifty dollars and a couple hours among those rails. His heart’s beating faster just thinking about it.

And that’s what Dino must’ve intended for him to do with it, right? That’s what they were talking about after all, not buying groceries or the leak under Joey’s kitchen sink that needs fixing, or any other boring things that a person might need a little extra money for. They were specifically talking about buying something nice when the tips are good. And Dino’s tips were good, so. The fact that he chose to share with Joey like that still kind of makes his heart explode, truly. But there it is. Maybe money burns a hole in Dino’s pocket a little bit too.

Even harder to get out of his head is the note. The note! Oh boy, it’s quite the triple-whammy. First, well last really, but first: that little x at the end. It’s only one little x, so tiny. But blown up so very, very large in Joey’s imagination. Maybe, though, Dino is the sort of person who puts an ‘x’ on every little thing he writes. Maybe he even puts one at the end of his texts, like Grandma Sarah used to do. But even with all these wonderings the x is still undeniable. He can take the note out and look at it anytime he wants and that x will be right there, burning.

‘See you tomorrow’, that’s another thing Joey can’t stop thinking about. And there was no need to put that if he didn’t mean it, no need at all. Joey knows of course that Dino did say he’d come to Sonny’s vinyl night, but people say nice things they don’t mean every minute of every day. Even so, he could’ve easily put ‘best wishes’ or ‘fondest regards’. Or ‘have a nice life’ or nothing at all. But he didn’t, he put ’see you tomorrow’ and that sounds like a promise.

And then. Oh. And then. The cellphone number. The number alone makes Joey’s whole chest ache. Maybe, really, even if Dino does come back tomorrow night, it’ll be mostly just to see his friend Sonny. He pretty much said so after all, didn’t he? But that’s okay. God love Sonny for his incredible ability to know half the population of New York; it finally came in handy. But the number means… the number means Dino wants that Joey should send him a message, right? Not call him of course, that would be insane. But maybe send him a message? And it would be polite to let Dino know that he got the gift, anyhow, and how very much he appreciates it. That’s just plain good manners.

It’s just that, for the life of him Joey can’t think what he should say in the message. He keeps putting it off because he just can’t think what to write. It needs to be funny, but smart, and also sincere, and not too long, and maybe a little flirty, but not too flirty. A perfect level of flirt so Dino will recognise it if he wants to recognise it, but there’s still plausible deniability if he doesn’t. These are the nuances that are making Joey’s head spin.

He’s put the number carefully into his phone, checked and double checked it just in case he should lose the note (he would never lose the note). He’s even added all the individual numbers up together and worked them down into one single digit, just to see what would happen. He came up with three in the end and, well, three is a really good number. A really good number. He knows it might not actually be Dino’s own number, numerologically speaking, but right now it’s all he’s got and boy, he likes the number three. It’s warm and bright and creative and sensual and all the things he likes the best. Oh, boy.

“Hey, Joey?” Bessie says.

It’s such a good number for Dino, Joey thinks. Hopes. He doesn’t really know him yet of course, even though it feels kind of like he does. And this is just thinking about the note, really, this is not even thinking about Dino himself! He could think about his fingers so gentle around Joey’s wrist and how it tingled, his palm cradling Joey’s whole hand as he looked at Grandma Sarah’s watch. Joey had barely even been able to think straight when he did that, if you’ll pardon the pun.

“Joey? Earth to Joey?”

And the way Dino had stuffed that big piece of the bun they’d shared in his mouth all in one go, real silly, just to make Joey laugh. And he did laugh, and it felt delicious. And how, a couple times, he could’ve sworn Dino was looking into him, so warm and sweet, and that’d never happened before with anyone and Joey didn’t quite know what to do about it. And he smelled so good and his hair was damp and curly and his leather jacket creaked a little when he moved. And Joey still doesn’t know what the mournful cowboy music was, or what was in the comic book bag yesterday, and huh, was it really only yesterday?

“Joey! Child, are you gonna knit that thing or just sit there staring at it?”

“Oh! Sorry Miss B, I’m sorry! I don’t know where my head went.”

“Hmph,” Bessie said, giving him a very pointed look over the top of her half-moons. “I sure do. Thinking about that Italian boy.” She cracks a small, knowing smile.

“Why Miss Bessie,” Joey says, putting on his best southern belle accent to try and cover up the fact that he can feel himself going pink, “I just don’t know what you can possibly mean.”

“Hmm, bet you regret telling me about him now,” Bessie chuckles to herself. Joey loves Bessie’s laugh; it’s deep, and rounded with a lovely huskiness to it.

“Never, Miss B,” he says honestly, back inside his own voice. “I need your wisdom, to tell me how to get this boy out of my head so I can live.”

“Sugar,” Bessie says, shaking her head, “if I had answer to that I’d bottle it and be a millionaire by now.”

Joey just sighs, and closes his eyes for a second. It is so super fucking hard to concentrate on his project. But he just loves Stitch ’n’ Bitch anyway. He loves making things, and he loves gatherings of friends, and he loves Bessie: the whole thing is perfect. He takes a deep breath, and brings himself back into the present. Eyes open. He looks at the lovely people around him.

They’ve pushed a few mismatched tables together in the centre of the shop floor to make one big surface so that everyone can work and chat together. Tonight there are only eight of them; usually there’s more, but it is a wet and windy evening, and Joey can hardly blame the others for wanting to stay warm and dry at home. He thinks eight is a real good turnout, considering.

Bessie and Sylvia are there as always, running the show. They bicker fondly with each other as they help the raggedy crew gathered around them learn how to knit or quilt or appliqué, or do pretty much any kind of needlework they like. The Craft Club is mostly made up of elderly (but don’t call them that) lesbians who just want people to chat with while they sew, and a rag-tag gang of queer children keen to learn more than just needlework from their elders. Oh, and Henry too, of course, when he can get away from his over-protective grandson. Henry uses a walker and his beautiful musician’s mind is getting a little loose now, but he loves to sit quietly and beam at the friends around him. Plus he can still crochet like a motherfucker, so Joey thinks good for him.

People tend to think that Bessie and Sylvia are a couple but they’re not, they’ve just been friends for so long that they treat each other with the same kind of loving disregard as old marrieds. They both live in the same apartment block where they are regarded as something akin to household saints, as much a part of the fabric of the building as the bricks themselves. If anything were to happen to Bessie or Sylvia, then surely the whole place would crumble.

Bessie turns to the quiet, turquoise-haired teen next to her and begins helping them cast off the scarf they’re knitting, so Joey decides to listen in and see if he can pick up any tips. After only a minute or so a noise outside attracts his attention and he looks up from his work just in time to see a big, sleek black car pull up and park, very illegally, right next to the Belmont’s entrance. The front passenger door swings smoothly open and a gentleman of absolutely enormous bulk slowly unfolds himself onto the sidewalk. The armoire in a suit lumbers around the car, casting suspicious glances all about him as he goes. Joey peers out through the evening gloom to get a better look, and can just about see the man’s massive hand reaching over to open the car’s rear door, and his unruly, sandy-coloured hair darkening as it gets soaked with rain. Oh, it’s Sully! And where there’s Sully there’s…

Frank emerges from the car. He’s wearing a steel grey suit cut as sharp as his cheekbones. Joey always thinks that everything about Frank looks as though it could potentially slice a person if they’re not careful. He crosses the sidewalk and saunters into the coffee house, while Sully hurries around, seeing the car off and then filling the doorway behind him. Frank pauses for a second, cooly observing the rearrangement of furniture for Craft Club and brushing a few stray raindrops from his shoulders. The rain doesn’t have the nerve to drench Frank the way it does everybody else. Instead it’s just made him glitter slightly in a tasteful, low-key kind of way. Joey waves at him, delighted.

“Hey Frankie! You’re right on time for Stitch ’n’ Bitch! Did you bring your needles?” He grins up at Frank as he makes his way over.

“Hey kid,” Frank says, ruffling Joey’s hair and ignoring the question. He leans on the back of Joey’s chair. Joey peeps round him at Sully.

“Hi Sully,” he stage-whispers. Sully gives him a sweet smile and an awkward little wave as he slides into his usual seat right next to the door. His knees bump the underside of his table as he sits down, making the whole thing rattle loudly. Poor Sully just about manages to catch the little tabletop flower arrangement before it crashes to the floor. Frank just rolls his eyes. There’s something very endearing about the way Sully moves, Joey thinks. It’s as though he believes that if he can only try hard enough then he won’t be so enormous. It’s like watching the Chrysler Building try to be discreet.

Sully’s been Frank’s bodyguard for as long as Joey’s known Frank. He reminds him of one of those big Irish rugby players, those guys who are all massive shoulders and bashed-up bones. He has a thick, heavy brow set over a nose that looks as if it’s been broken so many times it’s forgotten what a nose is supposed to look like. Joey thinks he’s heard Sully speak maybe four, five times in the whole time he’s known him, and most of those were saying sorry for knocking something over.

The very first time Frank brought Sully in Joey took his order and ever since then he’s just brought him exactly the same thing, to spare him the ordeal of having to articulate it again. Sully seems grateful for that, and Joey secretly thinks he looks adorable sitting on guard at his draughty door-side table, occasionally sipping his little cup of earl grey tea. One time, Joey got a tiny bit tipsy at Jazz Night and asked Sully if he thought he’d be able to pick him up and spin him around. Turns out Sully could, very easily. God, that might be the most fun Joey’s ever had with his clothes on.

“So what are we making here?” Frank asks, leaning over Joey’s shoulder to get a better look.

“Aw, Frankie,” Joey sighs, “it’s supposed to be a scarf. I had this cute idea to make something like the snood Ginger Rogers wears in that scene in The Major and the Minor, you know the one?”

“Oh, sure, sure,” says Frank. Joey purses his lips at him, sure Frank’s fibbing.

“Bessie helped me get the pattern and everything, and I’m sure it’ll be beautiful eventually but right now… oh dear. First I’m dropping stitches, then I’m dropping beads, now I’m just getting all tangled up and, I don’t know. Maybe the fibre arts just aren’t for me.” He lets his hands fall into his lap on top of the crumpled scarf.

“Joseph Levitch,” says Bessie, “I will not hear such talk in this club. What, pray, is our motto?”

“‘Anything not on fire can be salvaged’, Miss B.”

“Damn right. Now you just keep going and I’ll be over directly. Francis Albert, you help that boy.”

“Ma’am, yes ma’am,” says Frank with a little salute, pulling a chair over from a nearby table.

Bessie is the only person in New York City, maybe the only person in the whole world, who could get away with talking to Frank like that. Joey thinks maybe it’s because he’s heard her sing. Bessie sings like the angels are listening, and Frank respects that kind of talent like nothing else. Also, everybody needs someone to tell them the truth now and then no matter what, right? And Bessie sure does that for Frank. Joey still shivers when he remembers the hush that fell over the Belmont when Bessie told Frank that she didn’t like his hat. You could’ve heard the wind whistling through that silence. This was just before Frank started laughing hysterically, so it was okay once he did that because everyone knew it was safe to join in. Joey thought the hat was nice but then he’s only 22 years old, what does he know?

“Bless you Frankie, you don’t really need to help me. I’m gonna give it a rest for a second anyway.” He pushes the cup of beads away and sets his knitting down on the table, shaking his hands out to loosen up the cramped joints. The action makes his bracelets jangle together, catching Frank’s attention. He reaches out and takes hold of Joey’s fingers, bringing his hand toward him and Joey’s thoughts tumble back to another hand, warmer, rougher. Slower, either from an exhausted nap or maybe just a sleepy temperament. Real pretty. Thick black lashes, the glimmer of old diamonds in the grey morning light, the lingering taste of sugar in his mouth. It suits you. He swallows.

“You got new ones?” Frank says.

“Hmm?” Joey feels a bit dazed. Frank’s hand is nice but smaller, cooler, his grip a little sharper. Dino’s grip wasn’t even a grip, really. More an invitation to rest there. Joey doesn’t mind though. He doesn’t mind people touching him, if he likes them. It’s fine. And he does like Frank, he really does, very much, even with that tiny gleaming edge of something like fear that he feels around him. He does wish though, that his head wouldn’t spin so when people do touch him. It’s… it makes it hard to think.

“These,” Frank runs one finger over the soft plastic of a couple of Joey’s rose-coloured bracelets.

“Oh, yes! New ones,” he says, coming back down to earth. “I went on a Claire’s spree, Frankie! Like you in Cartier but with buy-one-get-one-free so, you know. Better.”

Frank laughs and shakes his head. He rubs his thumb lightly over Joey’s knuckles, but his grip on his fingers tightens slightly until it’s just a little harder than it really needs to be. He looks Joey right in the eye.

“Any time you want to come to Fifth Avenue with me kid, just say the word.”

Joey wonders if Frank gets lonesome too sometimes. Up there in his boardroom with everything shiny and still.

“You know I can’t afford them apples, Frankie.” Joey says and then quickly, before Frank can say the thing he thinks he might be going to say next, he asks, “you want the usual?”

Frank smiles at him, maybe a little sad, and lets go of his hand.

“Sure kid, sure.”

Joey sees pictures of Frank all the time, usually at some big industry awards or a fancy party or something like that. Grammys, Oscars, Met Gala. All those things. Joey’s dazzled just thinking that someone he knows, someone who he sits and talks with on the regular just like a normal person, goes to those things. And when he sees those pictures of Frank in his beautiful tuxedo, Frank’s always with some gorgeous woman all swathed in glamour and diamonds. She’s always his latest signing, or she had the biggest-selling album of the year, or she’s favourite for Actress in a Leading Role. Never someone he actually looks connected to, though. And never, ever, ever a boy. It makes Joey feel sad to think of it, of all these lovely memories that Frank should really want to treasure with someone special, all transmuted into somebody else’s career opportunity. Still. Frank’s a grown-up, and he would surely be exploding with rage if he so much as considered that anybody might have the temerity to feel sorry for him.

The thing that’s most frightening about Frank is that he’s frightened, Joey thinks. All that power, all that money, all that success: still frightened. Frank reminds Joey of a shard of glass. He’s that smooth and sharp, and potentially that lethal. But just about that brittle too.

Joey’s not even on shift at the moment, he’s officially a customer right now. But Frank is his friend.

“Come talk to me while I make your coffee, Frankie,” he says, rising from his chair and smiling down warmly at him. “Tell me what records I wanna be listening to next week.”

 

ii)

Joey knows that he shouldn’t use his phone in the bathtub, it really is just asking for trouble. Especially now, when he might possibly have mixed himself a tiny cosmopolitan, and he might’ve poured a little into his favourite cocktail glass with the cherries on it, and he might be drinking it in the tub while he’s soaking.

It’s just after 11pm and the dark bathroom is glowing with low light from his mishmash of candles all shapes and sizes. Outside, rain patters against the old sash window. It creaks occasionally and lets in a breath of chill night air, making the candles closest to it flicker. The room is still warm and cosy, though. Today’s worn clothes lie in a tired heap next to the door, and Joey’s draped his robe over the radiator so that it’ll be toasty when he slips it on later. He’s up to his shoulders in far too many billowing, rose-scented bubbles and he would be happy as a lark were it not for the empty messaging screen still staring him blankly in the face.

Hi Dino!- no, boring, delete.

Hey Dino- no.

Dino, I- nuh-uh.

Hey gurl!- oh no, definitely not.

Hmm. Why is it so hard?

Hi Dino!

Maybe that’s not so bad after all, he guesses. It sounds like him, at least. Perhaps that’s the key. Just to be honest.

Your note made me so happy.

Too much? But it feels good to remove the need for a decision between the truth and what sounds good, or better, or best. Okay. Just tell the truth, no thinking allowed.

Thank you for the gift, it was a wonderful surprise. Ulysses S. Grant and I will be visiting No Relation Vintage asap and only one of us will be coming home.

Also true.

See you tomorrow.

Oh please please please please.

Joey- hmm

Joey xx- too much, again.

Joey <3- aw, c’mon.

Joey x

Send.

Joey closes his eyes tight for a second, then leans over the side of the bath to retrieve his glass from the floor and take a long, fortifying drink. As he settles back into the warm bubbles he risks a look at the screen and can barely believe it when he see that the rippling grey dots have already appeared.

You’d do that to old Uly? Dino writes. Joey actually laughs out loud, and it echos against the tiles.

For the sake of some pre-loved eveningwear, yes I would.

More ruthless than I thought. Dino writes. He’s replying straight away! This is so much better than Joey had anticipated.

I’m a big tough city boy, you should know this. Did you make it home before you fell asleep again?

I did. At work now though. Struggling.

Struggling?

The grey dots are back. They ripple and ripple and… a photo appears. Joey gasps and looks away before he can take it in properly. He cautiously looks back, savouring the suspense. A picture! It’s Dino, in his black work shirt that’s too small across the shoulders, the collar pulling awkwardly because of it. He still looks very sleepy, but a little more put-together than the last time Joey saw him. He’s shaved, his hair is tamed. He looks so handsome. He’s leaning back against what Joey guesses must be a blackjack table, it’s a green baize semicircle with white markings on it that he doesn’t understand. Dino holds a steaming mug of something, more coffee most likely, and printed across the front of it is the legend, ‘I’d rather be at Resorts World Casino New York City!!’ Dino’s eyebrow is wryly raised, suggesting that in fact he’d rather be pretty much anywhere else except Resorts World Casino New York City. He’s captioned the photo Struggling. The dots appear again.

What are you doing while I’m working my tail off?

Oh no! Is it alright for Joey to say that he’s taking a bath and having a little cosmo? No, Dino will think he’s a crazy old lady! And it seems a little, well, a little intimate to tell him that. Might as well just say, ‘I was lying here, naked, tipsy, thinking of you.’ Oh heavens, no! That’s way too much.

The mischievous part of his brain does wonder, though… wonders what would happen, what Dino would think… if he sent a picture. Just a little one. The light is nice in here, he’s warm and comfortable and he thinks, just for a moment, that he might look okay in a picture, all wet hair and bare shoulders in the soft candlelight. What would Dino say? He shakes the thought off. He mustn’t embarrass himself, he just can’t. He probably just looks like a drowned rat in a power cut anyway. He carefully writes,

Home. There. Nice and vague.

Just home? Dino replies, almost immediately.

I didn’t want to say home, super relaxed, about to go to sleep. Seems mean.

That’s okay, I’m used to it. Still hate working nights though. Your night sounds much better.

Poor bubbe.

I am a poor bubbe, whatever that is.

Joey laughs again. He realises he’s sitting up now, leaning over his phone, cradling it tenderly in both hands in a way he’s sure he’s never felt the need to before. He feels kind of lit up inside, and he’s pretty sure it’s not just the effects of his cosmo. While he’s still thinking about what to write next the dots appear again.

Shit. Break over. Manager kindly reminded me.

Joey knows he shouldn’t be surprised. He knows he was so lucky to catch Dino on his break at all. But still, he feels the delicate strand of connection between them stretching thin. Dino hasn’t finished though. He adds,

I’ll see you tomorrow?

Joey grins. He can see his knuckles pale where he’s clutching the phone.

Yes, he types. I’ll see you tomorrow. Thank you again for my present.

Goodnight x

OH, another x! Joey can feel his breathing going a bit funny. He wants to giggle like a maniac. He wants to throw open the window, stand there dripping and yell ‘I’LL SEE HIM TOMORROW!’ into the foggy night sky. He doesn’t. Instead he types,

x

He can think of nothing more eloquent to say. Dino goes quiet after that, and Joey lies back in his bubbles, still clutching his phone. He imagines Dino back at work, charming the gamblers, being smart and patient and funny with his stupid, sexy shirt that doesn’t fit him and his phone tucked away snug in his back pocket. My words are in there, Joey thinks. He’s carrying my words around with him in his pocket, secret. He loves the thought of it.

Leaning over the side of the tub, he puts his phone down on the floor a good, safe distance away, like the sensible, cautious boy he can be when he tries. He stares into space for a moment, trying to compute everything that happened today. He can’t think straight though, can’t even stifle his grin or his need to wriggle with excitement. So instead, he releases the grip of his feet on the bottom of the tub and lets his whole body slide with a whoosh under the water, suds slopping over the sides of the tub and staining the wooden floorboards below. He lies underwater, eyes tight shut against the sting of soap, letting the water roar in his ears and feeling his lungs and his heart burn with something he thinks isn’t so much lack of oxygen as pure breathless joy.