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Midnight at the Belmont

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i)

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.”

“Only four?”

“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-

“Yes.”

“Damn.” Oh!

“Excuse me?”

“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.

Va bene.

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.

Grazie.

Prego.

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.

ii)

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.

Chapter Text

Joey’s bed is gorgeous. It’s huge, much too big for the room really, and it’s very, very old. It has a brass bedstead with these tall, elegant bars rising up at the head and a then shorter version of the same pattern at the foot. At each corner there’s a sturdy post and on top of each post sits a shiny brass sphere. The whole thing practically screams Angela Lansbury, it’s just glorious. Only one out of the four lovely spheres is a little dented, and Joey thinks that’s amazing considering how very old his bed is.

When he found it, the poor thing was in pieces leaning against a skip outside a building on his street that was being stripped for renovation. He’d carried the pieces one by one all the way up to his apartment entirely by himself: it took seven trips, and each time he went up he had to run right back down the stairs praying that no one else would have taken the bits he’d left behind on the street.

After a quick visit to the hardware store to buy some new bolts so that he could join all the pieces back together again and some polish to make the brass shine, he’d spent a whole very happy Sunday on his project. When it was finished he had felt a) pretty proud of himself and b) pretty fucking butch. He’d hauled his mattress up from its usual position on the floor and found that it fitted the frame perfectly. Then he’d flopped right down in the middle of his new creation and fallen fast asleep.

So now he’s the proud owner of what is probably, objectively the most beautiful bed in the whole of New York. He suspects that maybe someone’s bubbe might’ve died in it? But that’s okay. It’s really too pretty to have been thrown out for any other reason, he figures, and people are easily spooked, so. Anyhow, he doesn’t care. He’s not scared of any old lady ghost. Although he did get Nico to come over and Ave Maria it a couple times just to make sure.

Just after he got the bed, he did start to notice small things around the apartment turning up in places he definitely didn’t leave them. His favourite cocktail glass with the cherries on it turned up on the floor next to the bath, for instance. His precious old Leica was in the third drawer when it always lives in the top drawer. His necklace with the glittery topaz stones appeared right in the middle of the couch. So he thinks maybe, just maybe, his bed is haunted by whoever’s bubbe might’ve died in it. But she seems friendly enough, and she has excellent taste in accessories. He’s named her Mrs Goldschmidt and he talks to her when he’s lonely.

For his birthday last year, Sophie gave him a string of the most beautiful fairy lights. Each twinkling little bulb is surrounded by diaphanous petals in different soft colours, making the light they give off very gentle and calm. He wove the lights carefully all around the uprights of the headboard and now he falls asleep bathed in warm light rather than lost in the dark. He’s sure he sleeps better because of it.

Last night he dreamed about that guy who came into the Belmont yesterday, that Italian guy. It wasn’t sexy, not exactly. He doesn’t want to talk about it though. He’s not sure he could, anyway. It was an achey sort of dream, but lovely too. Intimate. As soon as he woke up he quickly wrote it all down in his diary and then clicked the lock sharp shut, because he didn’t want to forget it but he didn’t want to remember either. Distracting. He just wanted to put it away, safe. Something for the snow days and the nighttime.

This is all just a longwinded way of saying that Joey’s bed is gorgeous and warm, and he did not want to get out of it this morning. There’s something especially disheartening, he thinks, about working a late shift followed by an early shift. It’s probably because, at this time of year anyway, it means that you go home in the dark and you leave home in the same dark. Ugh. And the same heavy rain too, right now. He could hear it drumming on the roof even as he lay in bed.

Joey is drenched by the time he arrives at work. But it’s okay because he’s planned ahead. He’s channelling Melanie Griffith in Working Girl by having a spare pair of shoes with him: soaking wet Chuck Taylors are not a problem in this Haus. He’s also put on his thrifted 1980’s duster coat, which is basically like wearing a mobile tent. It’s real cold today, so under his coat he’s all wrapped up the soft, over-sized cardigan that Bessie knitted specially for him. It’s palest oyster pink and so big it goes around him twice. Gorgeous.

Plus, as if all that wasn’t enough, he’s also got the red umbrella that Frank gave him. So, while he’s outwardly soaked, underneath he’s dry and warm as toast. See, people think he’s scatty. He’s not scatty. Joey Levitch can look after himself very well, thank you. Heaven knows he’s been doing it long enough.

The red umbrella is wonderful and ridiculous at the same time. Frank had sauntered into the Belmont a couple weeks ago carrying this goddamn umbrella which Joey had instantly found hilarious. Here’s the thing, you see: it’s a Cartier umbrella. A fucking Cartier promotional umbrella!

“Frankie, darling, are you trying to get robbed?” He’d said.

“Let the fuckers try.” Frank replied, and Joey had to concede that he had a point.

Frank hadn’t even had to pay for the umbrella, the Cartier store on Fifth Avenue just gave it to him because he was in there buying cufflinks and it was raining when he left. What a world Frank lives in! He’s CEO of a record company and he has more money than God. Joey truly does not understand why he keeps coming to the Belmont when there are much, much fancier places he could easily go to for his coffee and his li’l hazelnut biscotti that he orders every single time. There must be something about this place that he just likes, Joey guesses. The coffee is very good, after all. Nico makes it so beautifully. Anyway, Frank had just shrugged and said that if Joey liked the umbrella so goddamn much, he could have it. Joey was very delighted with his present.

Joey does not fear that the Cartier umbrella will draw the attention of nefarious types to him in the way it would to Frank. He’s happy to admit that, while undoubtedly serving stunning Katherine Hepburn realness on the regular, he most certainly does not look monied in the way that Frank does. Held by him, this umbrella is clearly ironic. If anyone were to be crazy enough to snatch his bag, well, he hopes they enjoy their glittery water bottle, their tub of almonds and their dogeared Andrew Sean Greer novel, because that’s about all they’ll be getting for their trouble.

It’s six thirty am when Joey arrives at the Belmont and Nico has already been bustling around for quite a while, taking in the bakery and dairy deliveries, getting the cranky old heating system humming and making sure everything is up and running ready to open at seven. Joey thinks it’s a bit magical, this early half hour just him and his friend in the closed up coffee house. They haven’t turned the main lights on yet, much too bright, so the room is lit just by the orangey glow of the side lamps. The smell of fresh coffee brewing mingles with the still-warm bakery delivery as it fills the room, and they dance their way around performing their last few chores. They chat a little about the night before. Joey usually tells Nico all his secrets, but he doesn’t mention the dream.

For most of the day they just run continuous playlists through the speakers, but sometimes they make use of the battered old Linn turntable in the corner, the one that Sonny uses when he comes in and runs their vinyl night on Wednesdays. Joey puts a Grace Jones album on and they kindly help her out on ‘Slave to the Rhythm’. Joey waters the plants and Nico finishes filling the tiny jugs with icy-cold milk. In no time at all seven o’clock rolls around. Grace gets slipped back into her sleeve and Nico presses shuffle on a playlist that Joey has titled ‘kawfee haus vibez’ because he is an idiot. They turn the sign around, unlock the door and greet the first few soggy customers as they blow in from the blustery street.

It’s real quiet this morning. Perhaps people are having their coffee at home to avoid the terrible weather, or maybe they’re just bowing their heads and battling straight to work without stopping off along the way. It’s still pretty dark outside, even though the sun is allegedly up now. It should get busier soon. Nico picks up some tongs and starts idly rearranging a pile of muffins into a more pleasing shape inside the glass display.

“So,” they say, casting a pointed glance at the lost property box where it sits forlornly behind the counter, the handle of a star-covered, midnight blue umbrella just poking out. “What are the chances, do you think?”

“Why Nico, I do not know what you mean.”

“Yes you do.”

“Hmm. Of him coming back?”

“Mm-hm.”

“Slim to none,” Joey says, leaning his elbows on the counter. “How much stuff is in that box? It’s overflowing. Most people never come back for their things.”

“If he did come back though, it wouldn’t necessarily be because he was coming back for the umbrella. You know what I mean?” Nico says, not looking up from the muffin pile.

“Um,” Joey is genuinely flummoxed, “not really?”

“I mean,” Nico continues, still balancing, “most people never come back for their stuff, this is true. But then, most people aren’t knocked sideways by the gorgeousness of the fella behind the counter who gave them a very detailed sandwich recommendation.”

Joey tries not to smile, but a tiny one sneaks through.

“Some might say too detailed.” Nico adds.

“Nahhh, he wasn’t interested. He probably just spoke to me to be nice.”

“Nope. That,” Nico says, triumphantly sitting the last muffin on top of all the others, “was an Italian man being beguiled and trying not to show it.”

Beguiled!? You’re hitting me with beguiled now?”

“Uh-huh.”

“You been reading without me again?”

“Stop it, I’m serious!”

“Nah, c’mon Nico. I don’t know.”

“Trust me, I seen this look on my brother and his buddies enough times. They try and hide it, but if you know what you’re looking for it’s plain as can be.”

Nico stands back and admires their handiwork. The top muffin tumbles off the pile, and they sigh. They turn to face Joey, who’s standing with one arm wrapped tightly around his middle, the other raised so he can gnaw on his thumbnail.

“Unlike this boy in front of me here.” They fold their arms. “Anybody can see a mile off that this boy is smitten.”

“Am not!”

“Are too.”

“Am not!”

“So says the smitten kitten.”

Joey purses his lips at them meaningfully. Then he realises that his behaviour ever since the guy came in yesterday amounts to a pretty damning pile of evidence. His shoulders drop and he gives up.

“Mrraow,” he says, licking one paw and curving it over an imaginary ear.

“Damn right,” says Nico.

Joey looks down at his hands for a second. His bracelets sparkle in the low light. Pretty.

“He was nice,” he says quietly. “Wasn’t he, Nico?”

“He sure seemed nice, honey.” Nico smiles at him sympathetically. “And handsome? My God!”

“He looked a little like Cary Grant, didn’t he?” He’s smiling properly now, just at the memory. “If Cary Grant was Italian and maybe liked comics. Oh!” He closes his eyes rapturously and spins so that he’s leaning back against the counter, arching backwards over it in a mock swoon. Nico giggles.

“Oh God, Nico give me something to do, please! Anything! I can’t stand here thinking about him all day, I’ll go crazy. Crazy, I tell you!”

“Okay, okay! Alright already! Here.” Nico rummages around under the counter and emerges with a bundle of flyers on pink paper, fresh from the printers. “You can put these out. One on each table, a stack here and a stack by the door. Will that do?”

Joey yoinks them out of Nico’s hand. “Perfect!”

The flyers are printed up with their opening hours and their weekly schedule of events. There’s something happening every night, and the coffee house closes later as the week wears on, building up to the famous Midnight at the Belmont on Saturday nights. Tonight, however, is Craft Club. Aka Stitch ’n’ Bitch, aka Hoes That Sew, aka Skein Queens.

Joey’s shift ends at midday, but he’s going to come back at six for Craft Club. He’s knitting a scarf based on the snood that Ginger Rogers wore in The Major and the Minor, you know the one? Because the film is black and white he’s not sure what colour it really was, so he’s gone for a beautiful sort of deep magenta. It’s spiderweb fine, and maybe some of the holes are a little bigger or a little more uneven than they’re meant to be, but he’s getting better all the time. When it’s finished it’ll have little crystal beads like garnets twinkling all through it. It’s going to be beautiful.

Joey likes to make things. He’s not really very good at having nothing to do, he ends up frustrated and unhappy. Tonight, Bessie is going to show him the best way to fix more beads onto the edges of his scarf. Bessie’s a good friend. She’s 67 years old, with ebony black hair and she flirts with all the other ladies in the Craft Club like a fucking trouper. Joey really respects the hell out of her for that.

He takes the bundle of flyers and flits around the room, popping one under the flower vase on each table and handing more to the smattering of customers, telling them all that they would just love Stitch ’n’ Bitch, and they really should think about coming, and if they say they can’t knit or anything then he tells them that the ladies will teach them and it’s super fun to learn.

There’s a little shelf that runs all the way along the bottom edge of both of the Belmont’s big windows, right up to the door, which sits at the corner of the two. There are piles of flyers for various local things all the way along the shelf, along with some plants and other trinkets, and Joey busies himself tidying everything up and rearranging things to make sure his stack of flyers goes in pride of place. He’s vaguely aware of the dark shape of a person approaching the door out of the gloom and he thinks, half distracted, I’ll let them get in out of the rain and then give them a flyer right away, to make them feel welcome. That’d be cute, right?

The door jangles open and a cold draught of winter air blows in along with the customer. Joey straightens, flyer in hand and…

“Oh, hey.” Italian Cary Grant is right in front of him, smiling despite being absolutely drenched. He looks really, seriously soaked to the skin; he’s standing very close and Joey can see that even his eyelashes are wet. He smells incredible. He’s dripping steadily onto the doormat and he’s instinctively taken the flyer, his eyes not leaving Joey’s. Rainwater from his hand is already turning the cheap paper from pink to red.

Joey’s thunderstruck. Think of something, think of something, think of something…

“You’re really wet.” Well done, Joe. Scintillating.

“Yeah,” Italian Cary Grant says, placidly looking down at his sodden self. “Don’t tell anyone, but I think it might be raining.”

“Really?” Joey laughs, and the guy cracks an even bigger smile.

“Oh,” he looks down at the flyer in his hand as if he’s only just noticed it’s there. “I think I ruined this. Sorry.”

“We’ve got plenty, don’t worry.” Joey suddenly realises that he’s kind of trapping the guy on the doormat and stopping him from coming further inside. “Oh, come in, come in! My God you’re soaked. Let me get you something to dry off with.” He wraps his hand around the guy’s forearm.

Oh heavens, why did I do that?! He thinks. Well, it’s there now and we’ll just have to live with it. Oh God.

The dripping guy lets himself be led over to the counter where Nico, openly grinning at them, is already holding out a big roll of rough blue paper towels. Joey tears off a generous bunch and hands them to the guy, who immediately starts scrubbing them over his hair.

“Thank you,” he says. His accent is strange: kind of Southern, but with something else in there too. Sharp but soft at the same time, and a little slurry.“Sorry to put you all out like this.” Joey loves how polite he is.

“That’s okay! All part of the service,” Joey says, tearing off another bundle of paper towels and using them to dab, pretty ineffectually, at the guy’s shoulders. Oh, shoulders. His leather jacket is really saturated. Nico pipes up from behind the counter,

“Are you staying a while, compagno? If you want to take your jacket off, I can put it over the heater back here to dry.” Joey turns and gives them a hard stare, but Nico is refusing to meet his eyes.

“Thank you,” the guy smiles gratefully over at Nico. “Thank you, that’d be great.”

He starts peeling the wet jacket off, and Joey gets the most ridiculous bashful feeling, like he should look away or something. It’s a coat, for God’s sake.

“Here,” Nico reaches out for it, “gimme the scarf too.”

The guy hands everything over and Nico hurries away to arrange it all over the heater. Joey notices that the formal-looking black shirt he’s wearing underneath hasn’t escaped the rain either. Water has gotten through along the seams of his jacket, leaving the shirt damp and clinging to his shoulders and upper arms. Oh, arms. Joey tries not to notice how nice they are. But they’re right there! Joseph, he reprimands himself, stop objectifying this poor man. It’s not his fault that he’s very, very, very attractive.

As he tears his eyes away from the guy’s biceps, his attention is caught by a little logo embroidered in primary colours against the black fabric that stretches across his chest. ‘Resorts World Casino, New York City’, it reads. And beneath that, ‘Dino’.

Dino. Joey thinks. Of course. Hi, Dino.

Dino notices him looking.

“Oh, uh, I just came from work. Nights. I deal Blackjack, mostly. Uh, a lot of the tables are electronic now see, but they still have a a few dealers around. I like the work, don’t like the nights. I… don’t know why I’m telling you this.” He smiles a bit sheepishly.

“It’s okay,” Joey says. “I got that kind of face, people just tell me stuff.”

“Then that must be it.”

Joey nods. “If you just got off work you gotta be hungry, boy. Can I get you something?”

“Oh, sure. Yes please.” Dino looks into the glass display, seeming a bit bewildered by the choice. Joey notices for the first time that underneath the rainwater and the distracting handsomeness, the poor guy looks real tired. There are dark smudges under his eyes and he’s moving his head a little stiffly, as though his neck hurts. Joey doesn’t think he’s ever wanted to give someone a cuddle so bad in his life.

“Well, you did a terrific job on that sandwich yesterday,” Dino says, running the now-damp bundle of paper towels under his collar. “Want to pick my breakfast for me too?”

“Oh!” Joey just glows at him, so happy he remembered. “Yes! Um, okay…”

He peers into the cabinet and quickly scans the display. He’s tried pretty much everything at some point, except the few things with meat in them of course. But what might Dino like the best…? A-ha! He straightens up.

“You like sweet things?”

Dino half smiles at him like he’s said something funny. “Mm-hmm, sure do."

“Then you’ve got to try one of these.” He reaches in with the tongs and grabs a big, pillowy soft spiral bun. It’s bursting with gooey nuts and spices, the top sprinkled with delicate flecks of pink and pale green. “Oh heavens, they’re still warm. You’re so lucky.”

He puts it carefully on a plate and hands it to Dino. The shakes are back, but they’re not quite so bad this time. Just knowing that this guy’s a real person with a name and a job seems to help.

“It’s cardamom, with rose and pistachio. They’re just the most delicious thing, oh my god. You’ll die, really.” He beams at Dino. “Well, not really really. We’d get shut down. You want a long black with it?”

“Yes I would, please. Your memory is something else.”

“We do our best,” Joey says, and bobs a little curtsey. He does not mention that this is the first time in his life that he’s ever remembered someone’s order after only one visit. Except for that guy who always orders an espresso with a shot of blueberry syrup in it, but that’s just weird. “Take a seat, I’ll bring it over.”

“Thank you. God, my feet are killing me.” He lingers at the counter a second longer though. “Say, who’s that on your shirt today? I don’t recognise her.”

“Hmm?” Joey raises his hand absently to his chest. What is that? That urge to touch wherever Dino’s eyes go? He keeps catching himself doing it. “Oh! Well, I went a little more behind the scenes today, that’s probably why. This is Ida Lupino. Actor; Filmmaker; Queen. Actually, you’re missing the best bit.” Without really thinking about it he turns so that his back is to Dino, and he slips the soft cardigan off his shoulders.

‘I WANT TO ASSOCIATE ONLY WITH BRILLIANT PEOPLE,’ says the quotation written in white text on the back.

Joey turns his head and looks back over his shoulder to see Dino’s reaction.

“I made it myself! Cute, huh?”

And it’s funny, because for once in his life he isn’t thinking about trying to look prettier, or more obliging, or more acceptable or less acceptable. He just wants to share this thing that he thinks is cool, and wants to know what Dino, specifically, thinks of it. But although he’s not trying, not at all, DIno’s face still gets this look as though maybe he’s looking at something lovely. Even though Joey didn’t actually do anything. A tingle like a gentle fingertip runs all the way down Joey’s spine.

“Yeah,” Dino smiles softly. “It’s really cute.”

He meets Joey’s eyes for a couple seconds before looking back down at his plate, still smiling. Then he ambles off, heading for a quiet corner table. Joey spends a moment just blinking after him, then shrugs the cardigan back onto his shoulders and wraps it luxuriously around himself.
He stands and watches as Dino picks a table underneath the big gilt mirror, the one that has a cosy, if rather shabby, old wingback chair on each side of the battered wooden tabletop.

While he was distracted, a couple more customers have come in and ordered, and Nico’s busily making their drinks. Joey asks Nico to make Dino’s coffee next.

“One long black for your boyfriend, coming right up.”

“Nico, shh!”

“What? I think he likes you.”

“Don’t tease me.”

“I’m just saying. Never mind coffee and cake, dude looked like he wanted to have you for breakfast.”

“Oh, Nico.” He looks away.

“What, you gone all bashful on me now, Joey-boy? It’s true. Here, take this over to him. See if he does it again.”

Nico hands the cup over and Joey carries it very, very carefully over to Dino’s table. It’s nice and warm in this corner, far away from the draughty old door. Dino’s already worked his way through nearly half of the bun. He swallows a big bite just as Joey places the cup down.

“This is incredible. Thank you.”

“See, didn’t I tell you? They’re the best.”

“Can’t believe I’m having something with flowers in it for breakfast and actually enjoying it. Here,” he nudges the plate towards Joey, “take a piece.”

“I can’t eat your breakfast!” Joey laughs.

“Ah, come on. Just a little piece. I wouldn’t be eating it if it wasn’t for you. I want to share the joy.”

“With me you want to share it?”

“Sure, why not? Please.” He gestures towards the plate and Joey really can’t resist any longer. He’s hungry. It’s still a while before he’ll get to eat something on his break, and the fragrance of the cardamom is wafting up, tempting him. He does love cardamom so very much. Trying to suppress a giggle, he reaches over and tears off a little piece of soft dough.

“This is very illicit,” he says, popping it into his mouth. It’s so light it practically dissolves. “Oh my god,” he says, closing his eyes.

“I promise I won’t tell tell the cops.”

“Good.” Joey says, then puts on his best James Cagney. “You better not rat me out, buster.”

Dino smiles up at him. “Never! I swear.”

Joey’s just thinking of what to say next that’ll keep Dino looking at him like that when he catches sight of the counter. A small line has started to form in his absence.

“Oh boy, I better get back and help Nico. Anything else you need?”

“Nothing at all, buddy. I am happy as a clam.”

“Okay good.” Joey touches the back of his hand and silently curses himself for touching the back of his hand. Why is he like this? He hurries back to the busy counter.

The morning rush has started in earnest now. It goes on and on, long and unbroken, but Joey doesn’t mind it one bit. People, by his reckoning, are mostly good, aren’t they? When it comes down to it. In New York, even. Okay, they’re busy and they’re cranky sometimes. And it’s early, and the cold rain is lashing down on them. But at the heart of it, they’re just good. Nico keeps telling him he’ll get jaded eventually, and maybe he will. But he just loves people. He loves being surrounded by them, never more comfortable than when he’s engulfed in a crowd.

Most of the customers remember to say please or thank you at least once. Some of them call him buddy, or sweetie, or pal. Even the ones that don’t, the ones who are surly or won’t look him in the eye, he thinks well, maybe they’re on their way someplace they don’t really want to go. Maybe they fought with their sweetheart last night. He tries to be kind.

Some of the customers proffer their own cups and flasks that they brought from home to get filled with hot coffee, and Joey loves that. All different colours and patterns and textures. He loves to think of them picking their cup out, maybe in one of the big old department stores; or maybe someone they love picked it out, to give as a gift. A little bit of comfort rattling round inside their work bag. On and on it goes, on and on.

At first he keeps glancing over at Dino. Look, he’s finished the cardamom bun! Look, he’s staring out the window! Look, he’s messing with… is that an iPod? Well okay, sure! Dino seems to have some intriguingly old-fashioned idiosyncrasies and Joey is burning with curiosity to find out more about him. At least to have a proper conversation with the guy.

The rush intensifies and Joey can only concentrate on what’s happening right in front of him for a while. He still feels peripherally aware of Dino’s presence though, in a funny sort of way. Actually, it's the same as the way that he’s always aware of Nico, except that makes sense because they work together and he’s known Nico for years. He’s known Dino less than 24 hours, if he can even claim that he knows him at all.

The rush is finally beginning to abate when Nico, scanning the room for the person who ordered the soya latte they just made, suddenly nudges Joey hard in the ribs.

“Hey! Ow, Nico,” he frowns.

“Look.” They point over to the quiet corner. Dino has snuggled back into the chair, rested his curly head against its high winged back, and fallen fast asleep.

Oh no he’s adorable, thinks Joey.

Dino’s empty cup and plate are pushed away in front of him. The iPod has disappeared into a pocket somewhere, but he still has his headphones on and his rumpled black shirt is pulling awkwardly where his arms are folded across his chest. His face looks so peaceful and endearingly silly too, lightly shmushed as it is against the padded side of the chair.

“Oh, Nico.” Joey says.

“I know.” Nico says, patting his arm gently. A woman comes up and claims the orphaned latte. “Oh, here you go sweetie. Have a good day.” They turn back to Joey. “Just be glad he’s, like, the exact opposite of my type because even I can see that boy’s cute as hell. You want to go wake him up?”

“Yes. But not really. He was so tired.”

“I know honey, but look at him. He’s gonna hurt his neck sleeping like that. He probably needs to go home.”

“I know… but.” Joey looks pained.

“Let’s give him ten minutes, okay? The rush is passing, we don’t need the table. Maybe he’ll wake up on his own.”

“Okay, but I don’t think he will. He’s exhausted.”

“Even more reason to wake him then. What if he has somewhere to be? He might be late. He probably didn’t mean to pass out.”

“Maybe he does have somewhere to be. What if there’s, like, somebody waiting for him at home?”

“Hmm, I don’t know. But I get a feeling… not.”

“Really?”

“Mm-hm.”

“But what if he, you know, he doesn’t have anybody at home but he’s not even queer?”

“Joey, honey. This is a queer coffee house. Our frontage is practically made of rainbows. There’s a an off-duty drag queen sitting in the window drinking a mocha frappuccino. And if that’s not enough, he was looking at you like you were a little cannolo he wanted to snack on. He’s definitely queer.”

“You really think so, Nico?” He looks down at them, so unsure.

“Truly. Why, you gonna ask him out Joey?”

“No! No, I couldn’t. He’s too… no. I don’t think so. No. Maybe?”

“Oh boy,” Nico rolls their eyes. “Okay, here’s what we’re gonna do. For the next couple minutes you’re going to serve the people while I make you a vanilla frap. Then, you are going to have your morning break. You’re going to take your disgusting, over-sweet excuse for coffee over to his table, wake him up and ask if you can join him. Okay?”

“Oh God,” Joey says. It’s a great idea, a really great idea, but at the same time it is the worst idea anyone’s ever had in the entire history of the Earth. It’s going to be wonderful. It’s going to be terrible. He’s going to do it.

Oh God, he’s going to do it.

Chapter Text

i)

Joey carries his glass of iced coffee and his plate over to Dino’s corner. He sets them down gingerly on the table while he decides what to do.

Dino must’ve stirred in his sleep while Joey was distracted, because his face is turned further into the chair’s back now. Joey can see he sweep of one black eyebrow, his cheekbone and not much else. His hair is turning curly and wayward as it dries; it’s completely adorable. There’s one soft flick by his temple that Joey just desperately wants to stick his finger into. It’s so tempting. He shoves his hand under his other arm and squashes it still.

How to wake him up? It’s kind of an embarrassment of riches. He could call Dino’s name, but it somehow seems a little rude that Joey even knows his name without having been told it. But really the only other options available would involve touching him, and Joey doesn’t want to be too familiar, or to startle the poor guy, or to accidentally give himself another attack of yearning by making physical contact. He looks back at Nico for guidance and moral support, but they just make an encouraging shooing motion and go back to wiping down the countertop.

He approaches quietly, even though the low hubbub of music and customer chatter that fills the coffee house would disguise any noise he might make. Dino’s still got his headphones on anyway, and Joey can just about make out the music coming through them; it’s something echoing and mournful, a bit of country-sounding melancholia. A man with a beautiful baritone voice.

Standing by Dino’s table he hesitates, wringing his hands together. He reaches out and touches the top of his shoulder, then withdraws. No response.

“Hey cowboy, c’mon…” he says quietly, thinking a little reference to the music might be a cute way to wake him up. It doesn’t work though.

Again he reaches out, touches more firmly this time and runs his fingers down the outline of one sharp shoulder blade. He makes the mistake of letting his hand come to rest in the middle of Dino’s back. Those sure are some firm muscles. Yes indeed. Oh, heavens.

“Um, Dino?” He says.

“Mmm?” Dino replies. His eyes reluctantly open and he slowly turns his face towards Joey. He seems to be struggling to bring his surroundings into focus, but when his gaze finally settles on Joey a shy smile breaks across his face and Joey thinks that really, honestly, it would be no exaggeration to say that it’s like the fucking sun coming out on the rest of his life.

 

ii)

It’s cold at night on the high plains. Fresh dew clings to the outlaw’s clothes. It soaks in, mixes with the sweat of the day and leaves his skin feeling damp and clammy. Next to him he can feel heat radiating from his horse’s tired body, her slow breathing the only sign of another soul resting in the silent dark. The outlaw leans his head against his pack and stares out into the midnight sky, a million stars twinkling overhead with nothing interrupting them but the familiar smile of the moon.

Footsteps approach as if out of nowhere, soft and tentative. He knows who they belong to and feels a pang of something like hunger, despite his belly being quite full. The outlaw is always on guard, but he knows these steps: it’s the friend, who brings with him only safety and comfort. The outlaw feels the friend gently touch his shoulder and the vast soundtrack of the night glitches for a second, then resumes. The outlaw doesn’t want to move, not at all, but then he feels a hand stroke his back as a distant voice filters through the cold night air,

“Hey cowboy, c’mon… it’s time to ride.”

No. No, you should come here. Stay.

“Um, Dino?”

What’s dino? Oh…

Dino’s eyes blink open, sore not from plains grit but from the usual city grime. And from falling asleep with his fucking contacts in yet again. Reality comes into focus and he sees that the boy from the coffee house is leaning over him, looking a little concerned. One of his slender hands is resting on Dino’s back and that’s, well, that’s a pretty nice way to wake up and no mistake. He tries to lift his head, but a stab of pain flashes from his shoulder right up the back of his neck and buries itself deep in the base of his skull. Shit.

“Ow,” he says, one hand shooting to his neck as if to grab the pain and hold it still. The movement dislodges Joey’s hand from his back and the kid takes a step away. That kind of hurts too, if he’s honest. He pulls his headphones off and rubs at the back of his head, moving his neck around to try and straighten out the kinks.

“Oh no, your poor neck,” the boy says, wincing in sympathy. “I’m so sorry, I should’ve woken you sooner.”

“My fault for falling asleep.” Dino says, looking up at him a bit sheepishly. “How long was I out?”

“Oh, not long at all. Well, maybe quite a long time? Could be as much as, like, forty-five minutes, I guess. I mean, I’m not sure,” the kid adjusts his stance, dropping one hip like he’s trying to appear nonchalant, “I wasn’t watching or anything.” He wraps his pink cardigan very tightly around himself. He’s looking down at Dino with some uncertainty. “You, uh, you got somewhere you need to be?”

“Other than my bed, no. Nowhere to be.”

Dino notices that a huge glass of iced coffee with a straw sticking out of it and another of those amazing spiced cake-things have appeared on his table. He definitely did not order those. Ah, they must belong to the kid: “You joining me?”

The boy’s eyes widen.

“Um, joining you in, uh….” He’s gone pinker than his cardigan. Dino realises what that sounded like and laughs.

“At the table! Just at the table.” He smiles up at the boy. “I’m forward but I ain’t that forward.” Dino thought that that sounded reassuring, but it just seems to fluster him even more.

“Oh! Oh, yes, sorry.” He covers his whole face with one hand, embarrassed. He’s lovely, this kid. “Yes please, if you don’t mind. It’s my break see and, and we’re kinda full, so…”

“Sure,” Dino says, pushing the other chair out with his foot and gesturing for the kid to sit down. The place doesn’t look all that full to him, but maybe they don’t like staff to take up a whole table on their break? That wouldn’t surprise him. God knows he’s worked in those kinds of places enough times himself.

Dino pulls his legs in from where they were stretched out under the table, making room. The kid gets himself settled into the cosy chair opposite as Dino watches silently, liking the gentle way he has about him. He toes off his shoes a little awkwardly, sits with his legs folded up under himself and sort of curls up into the corner of the chair, one elbow resting on its padded arm. He smiles across at Dino and, when Dino smiles back, he seems to relax a little right away. Dino can’t say why that pleases him so much, but it does.

Dino doesn’t usually pay much attention to the way people react to him; he considers that to be their business, not his. He knows he looks a certain way. He knows his quietness is often mistaken for arrogance. He makes it a policy not to care about these things. But he does feel some pride at having done something, whatever it was, to calm this sweet, jittery boy. Dino’s never seen him stay still for this long before, so he takes a moment to consider the figure snuggled into the chair opposite him. He’s real interesting to look at. Quite something, in fact.

His feet are neatly tucked under him, but Dino can see that he’s wearing mismatched neon socks, one green and one pink. He has a lot of stuff around his wrists that’s all gotten kind of jumbled together into a glittery mass; Dino can just about make out some jelly bracelets all in rose and lilac tones, a couple chains set with sparkly crystals, and what looks like a very old ladies’ cocktail watch on a delicate silvery band, the kind where you have to wind it up yourself to make it go. It would be far too small on most men, but the kid’s so slim that it looks right on him.

He leans forward and happily picks up his enormous iced coffee, regarding Dino through hazel eyes framed with very thick black lashes. Dino can’t decide if he has eye make-up on; he doesn’t think he has. When he was back West, he had a few friends who did drag and you could always tell when they’d done a show the night before because there would be vague traces of make-up left behind, smudged into their eyelashes. That’s what the kid looks like, like maybe he’d worn kohl around his eyes at the weekend and Dino’s just seeing what’s left of it. Whatever it is that he’s doing, it looks good on him. An image of Bambi flits across Dino’s mind.

“What?” The boy’s smiling, looking down at himself, trying to figure out what’s caught Dino’s attention.

“Oh,” Dino says, a little embarrassed to have been caught staring, “I was just looking at your watch. It’s nice.”

“Thanks! It’s really old.” The kid touches his own wrist where the watch lies. He looks genuinely pleased at the compliment. He stretches his arm across the table, nearly knocking Dino’s empty cup over in his haste to offer him a closer look. “It was my grandma’s, she gave it to me. Before that it was my great-grandma’s, isn’t that a beautiful thing? She was a chorus girl right here in New York. She was so glamorous, oh my God you wouldn’t believe it! She looked just like Hedy Lamarr. Seriously, just drowning in sequins, I gag every time I see her picture.”

Dino takes his wrist in one hand and brings it closer so that he can see the watch more clearly. It’s set with what look like tiny chips of diamond, some of which are missing, and its stationary hands are showing a quarter to four.

Joey pauses, swallowing hard. He seems to be malfunctioning. “Inside the watch doesn’t, uh, doesn’t work no more but I think it’s… uh… I think it’s so pretty anyway…“ the kid’s gaze has left Dino’s face and he’s staring down at where his hand is now nestled in Dino’s broad palm; he looks up again, helplessly, “… don’t you?”

“Real pretty,” says Dino. “It suits you.”

The kid shyly withdraws his hand and tucks it back into his lap.

“Thank you,” he says. He takes a demure little sip of his coffee and peeps at Dino over the rim of the glass. When he sees that he’s still being watched he quickly averts his gaze, straw still between his lips. Dino finds it so sweetly funny he catches himself smiling at him while he isn’t looking.

This boy’s sharper than he looks. He must be in his early twenties, Dino reckons, but somehow he manages to seem both younger and older at the same time. When he’s not working, dashing around, eager to please, there’s an intense sort of intelligence about him. Dino feels… it sounds so stupid, but he feels like the boy’s got the measure of him already. He suddenly feels like all his deepest secrets are flashing in neon over his head. He doesn’t quite understand why he’s not hating that.

But wait. When he woke up, the kid even knew his name and Dino sure doesn’t remember telling it to him.

“Hey, how did you know my name?”

“Wow,” the kid says, “you really are sleepy. It’s written on your shirt.”

“Oh! Oh, yeah it is.” He feels slightly foolish, but wouldn’t dream of letting it show. “Unless you’re secretly Ida Lupino, yours isn’t.”

“Ha, I wish!” The boy says, smiling broadly. “I’m Joey. Not Joe, thank you. Joey.”

“Glad to meet you, Joey,” he says, and he can’t remember the last time he meant it so sincerely.

“Likewise,” Joey says, and takes another prim little sip of coffee.

Despite all the delicious caffeine and sugar he’s consumed he still feels like he’s half asleep; the low lamplight on this dark morning, the gentle sound of the rain outside and Joey’s inexplicably comforting presence are lulling him into a very pleasant sort of fuzziness. He sighs contentedly.

Joey puts his coffee down on the table and reaches over to his plate for the bun. “Here,” he says, tearing off a significant piece and holding it out to Dino. “Repayment.”

Dino takes it and stuffs the entire thing into his mouth in one go, comically fast. “I ain’t gonna argue with that,” he says with his mouth full, making Joey laugh.

“And here I thought you were sophisticated!”

“Well I don’t know what in hell gave you that idea,” Dino says, still chewing, and Joey laughs again.

His giggles help to break the spell of the morning a bit. Dino feels as though the end of his shift at the Casino was a very long time ago and, though he knows it took him over an hour to get here, he can’t quite remember the journey; it’s all a blur. It’s like he just left work and magically woke up here with Joey’s hand resting softly against his back. The uncanny familiarity of the friend in his dream has stayed with him like a low, warm note sustaining and it’s having a disconcerting effect, blending dream and reality. He blinks sleepily at his companion and thinks about sustenance, and generosity, and the shared breakfasts now split between their bellies.

Joey has rested his head against the high, winged back of the chair and is nibbling on a torn piece of dough, his head tilted slightly to one side. The bubble of nervous energy around him seems to have burst entirely now. Dino likes him. He likes him even more today than he did yesterday.

“You don’t say a whole lot, do you.” Joey says. It doesn’t sound accusatory, more just a statement of fact.

“Not much. Sorry.”

“Oh no, I like it. Nico always says I talk enough for three people anyhow.” He turns slightly and beams over at the counter, pointing. “That’s Nico.”

“Hi Nico,” Dino says, not really loudly enough for them to hear. “They sure make good… wait, ‘they’, this is correct?” Joey nods happily and Dino continues. “They sure make good coffee.”

“Could be a little stronger though, huh, the coffee? More pep?” He looks at Dino playfully.

“What are you trying to say here?”

“I’m saying I think you might be tired, bubbe.”

Dino knows when he’s being teased. He drags a hand over his face and tries to ignore the audible rasp of stubble.

“I’m exhausted,” he says simply. “Would’ve taken rocket fuel to keep me awake just now.”

“Bad shift?”

“Two words: bachelor party.”

“Oh my god! Oh, no. Straight boys?”

“Uh-huh. In finance”

“Oh, no.”

Dino laughs. “I guess they could’ve been worse. Damn good tippers, at least.”

“Well that’s something.”

“They were okay, I kept ‘em in order. And concentrating on the game, that I’m used to. But sometimes it’s just being on your feet all night. Really takes it out of a guy.”

“Tell me about it. A whole lot of my friends are performers,” Joey takes a sip of his coffee, “a couple actors, but mostly other stuff. All the time they bitch about how it’s such hard work being on stage. I say honey, try a ten hour shift serving coffee, then you’ll know from hard work.”

“You sound like my nonna!” Dino says. Joey pulls a face and chucks a piece of bun at him; he catches it in his mouth. “So, how do you know these people?” He asks, chewing. “You’re a performer too?”

“Uh,” Joey pops another bit of dough into his own mouth, chews and swallows, looking suspiciously like he’s playing for time. This seems to be an uncomfortable subject for him. “No, not really. Maybe sometimes, kind of? Just now and then, just for fun. We have our show here late on Saturdays; Sophie organises it, she’s a dreamboat. So, sometimes I do a number then.” He looks over at Dino a bit shyly.

“What kind of a number?”

“Oh, it’s really nothing at all. You don’t need to know about it, honest. I hardly ever get up there.” He grips his glass tighter, with both hands. “But we get such great people! And everyone dresses up like they’re going to, like, a gorgeous fifties nightclub, you know? It’s such a good excuse to get something nice to wear,” he gives Dino just the most dazzling smile. “That’s what I like to do. When the tips are good, anyhow. The way this week is turning out, maybe not so much.”

“Sounds wonderful.” Dino says sincerely. “I’m still not sure what type of show is it, though.”

“So, it’s kind of in the spirit of the old-time Vaudeville? But with some cabaret thrown in. Oh, and some burlesque. Sometimes boylesque, then I really don’t know where to put myself, oh my God!” He laughs, and covers his eyes for a second. “Some weeks we get a singer and, oh, I love that. Hmmm.” He seems to drift off for a second, them remembers his point. “Officially it’s called Sophie Tucker’s Palace of Varieties but that’s kind of a mouthful, so usually everybody just calls it Midnight at the Belmont. Shorter, see. Sonny suggested we just call it The Mouthful, which is funny but also kind of vulgar don’t you think? Sonny means well, but he’s an idiot.”

“Sonny, he works here too?”

“Naw, he’s just a friend. Here,” Joey pulls the pink flyer with the Belmont’s schedule on it out from underneath their table’s flower arrangement and pushes it in front of Dino. “On Wednesdays he hosts our vinyl night. Well, I say ‘night’, but it’s vinyl afternoon really ‘cause we don’t have a late license for for Wednesdays so we have to finish at nine, ha!” He points out the listing, “Sonny’s Vinyl Kingdom, see?”

“Wait, hold on a minute. Is this Sonny King?”

“Well, that’s his name, yeah.”

“Stocky guy from Brooklyn? Italian?”

“Yeah!”

“Really, I mean, really loud? Sings for no reason?”

“Oh, that sounds right!”

“Must be! I mean, my God, let’s hope there’s only one of him.”

“So, you know Sonny?”

“Know him! We were roommates a couple years back. We still hang out all the time, I can’t believe he never told me about this place.”

“Well, he ain’t been coming here long, maybe that’s why. God, Sonny always says he knows everybody, I guess he’s right!”

Dino nods in agreement. “He’s just that kind of guy.”

“He’s really good, I like the stuff he plays.”

“Yeah, Sonny knows music. And he’s here tomorrow night, right?”

“Sure! You, uh,” Joey casually stirs the straw around in his glass, “you think you might come see him?”

“Well my shift doesn’t start till ten tomorrow night, so why not? I could come for a little while.”

Joey is biting his lower lip savagely, looking like he’s trying to suppress the most enormous smile and not making a very good job of it. This is not a boy built for restraint, Dino thinks. Everything he feels seems to radiate out of him for the world to see. Radiant is a good word for Joey, actually.

“Oh yay!” Joey claps his hands together. “That’s good! I mean, I’m sure you’ll have a really good time! Sonny’s so good, and we always get good people showing up for it. It’ll be really, um… really… good.” Joey’s expression turns from pure joy to about the closest thing you could get to a facepalm without his palm actually being on his face.

“Okay, then. I like things that are good.” Dino says, smiling at him fondly.

“Well, that’s good.” Joey says, smiling back.

Suddenly a holler comes from the direction of the counter.

“Hey, Levitch! You still workin’ here?”

Joey startles and Dino looks over his shoulder to see Nico standing at the register, their hands on their hips and a pile of dirty cups and plates looming on the work surface behind them.

“Oh boy,” he whispers to Joey. “I think you’re in trouble.”

Joey twists around and calls back to them, “I’m really sorry Nico!”

“I’m really sorry too, Nico!” Dino chimes in.

“Don’t give me sorry, buddy, just tell Joey to get his sweet ass over here and deal with this mess.”

“Joey,” Dino says very, very seriously, “you get your sweet ass over there and deal with that mess.”

Joey goes bright pink and laughs as he untangles his long limbs from his curled-up sitting position. “Okay, okay, okay!” He says. Dino makes to stand up too, and Joey looks alarmed.

“But, you don’t have to leave!”

“I need to get home, really,” Dino says, ruffling a hand through his hair and stretching just right so his back gives a satisfying crack. He doesn’t want to let on that half the reason he’s so sleepy is that normally, after a night shift, he would’ve been safely tucked up in bed hours ago. It might be just a bit too confronting to start examining why he’s here instead of there. “But thank you, for this.” He says, and makes a vague gesture towards the table. It doesn’t seem enough, but he’s too tired to come up with any more words.

“Oh yes, of course! You must be so sleepy, poor thing,” Joey says, and strokes his fingertips down Dino’s upper arm. His eyes widen for a second, and he looks accusingly down at his own hand, as though it’s betrayed him. He rallies quickly though. “C’mon, come with me and we’ll get your jacket from the heater. Should be much drier by now, huh? And I’ll dig your umbrella out of the lost box too.”

“Hmm?”

“Your umbrella, Snoozy! You know, the one you left here yesterday? The whole reason you came back?”

“Oh, oh yeah!” Dino says, scratching the back of his head as he follows Joey towards the counter. “Almost forgot.”

“Don’t want to leave without it, you’ll get soaked all over again! Don’t you got a spare one at home?”

“Hoo, boy. You’re crediting me with a level of foresight there that I just do not have.”

Joey’s already ducked down behind the counter, pulling an old cardboard box off its shelf and rummaging around inside. There’s a small poster from the movie The Lost Boys roughly taped to the side of the box.

“Here it is,” Joey says, emerging victoriously with Dino’s umbrella. Dino can see that it’s been dried and neatly rolled up. “See, we took good care of it for you.” He holds it out to Dino with both hands, almost shyly.

“Thank you,” Dino says.

He doesn’t say that he’s glad Joey remembered which umbrella is the one he left behind yesterday because he’s not sure he would have been able to recall what it looked like himself. He doesn’t say that the only reason he’d had an umbrella with him at all was because he’d fished this one out of the lost box at the Casino, in an attempt not to get too drenched on the way to his appointment in the Village. He doesn’t say that this particular piece of property, far from being a precious possession worth coming all the way back here for, doesn’t even belong to him. He doesn’t say how very, very far out of the way of both his work and his home this cosy little coffee shop is. He doesn’t even dare to think about what the real reason he came all this way might be.

Joey is holding his jacket out to him now, all dry and warm, and just like that there’s nothing more to do except haul it on and leave. But he’s glad that he’s leaving with a real good, solid reason to come back. God bless Sonny. So he just says thank you, and thank you Nico, and goodbye, and goodbye Nico, and see you guys later. He takes one last, long look at the willowy boy standing behind the counter, all wrapped up in mohair and glitter, gnawing on the thumbnail of one hand and waving goodbye in that peculiar way of his with the other. Dino waves back. Then it’s on with the headphones, up with the umbrella, and out into the cold city rain.

 

iii)

Joey’s hands are still shaking very slightly when he takes an empty tray over to the corner table where they had been sitting, intending to clear the remains of their breakfast away. He likes thinking of it as ‘theirs’. ‘This is where we had breakfast’. ‘We had breakfast together.’ That sounds nice, right? He’d liked it, very much.

He pauses and looks up at the big old gilt-framed mirror hanging on the wall above the table. The frame has seen better days. It’s kind of battered and in some places the gilding has worn away, exposing the big secret that underneath all those gleaming swags and flowers there’s just carved wood. Some of the silvery backing has fluttered away from the glass, giving the mirror a smoky, indefinite quality.

Joey stands still for a moment, just looking.

Sometimes, truly, he feels like he has been here for a hundred years. An old soul, that’s what Grandma Sarah used to say.

So many things you love come from when I was a girl, bubbeleh. Don’t neglect your own century.

He likes his reflection in this mirror much more than any other; it lends everything such a glamorous, old-fashioned quality. Looking at himself in it, his hair seems softer and his eyes sparkle almost as much as his bracelets. There’s a blossomy sweetness to his appearance that he knows isn’t real. He touches his cheeks, still sore from smiling. This mirror, he thinks, smooths the rough edges off. It soothes away the goofiness and the awkwardness and the cheapness that he always sees lurking not far beneath this surface he’s created. He kind of wishes that Dino could have seen him just through the mirror, maybe then he would stand a chance with a boy like that. Oh, let’s be real here. A man like that.

Ida Lupino smoulders out from between the fluffy edges of his cardigan. Okay Ida, I get it, he thinks. Quit your judging, girl. He takes a deep breath and pulls himself together. Time to get on with real life.

As he begins to clear the table he notices something tucked just underneath Dino’s empty coffee cup; it’s one of their flyers, neatly folded into quarters. Joey slides it out from under the cup and sees that his name is written on the front. He opens it up, and can’t keep his mouth from dropping open when he sees that the flyer has been carefully wrapped around a crisp fifty dollar bill. Written on the back of the flyer is a cellphone number, followed by a short note in adorably tidy cursive:

‘A gift from the straight boys in finance.
See you tomorrow,
Dino x’

Chapter Text

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.