“Oh shit, here he comes.”
Amy looked up from the partial shelter of the doorless closet that Mike generously referred to as “the kitchen.” It did contain the box of bagels (which waited in a disintegrating antechamber every morning when Amy unlocked the back door just before dawn, along with two large pastry boxes full of, well, pastries, all of which required a frustrating juggling of keys and phone flashlight in order to dart them through the heavy door which locked automatically every time it shut. And sometimes the key would stick and insist on being patiently jiggled for a minute or so before the lock would give. Is this hell? Amy would often wonder as she exerted the full breadth of her physical and mental fortitude at 4:30 in the morning just to get inside the building where she would spend the day serving coffee to entitled Brooklynites and the occasional mentally ill vagrant). There was also a large and exceedingly filthy two-basin dishwashing sink, and an absolutely decrepit dishwasher that undoubtedly contained multiple generations of the city’s most contented roaches and thus was never opened. With these points, the area’s resemblance to a kitchen ended. A more accurate title for the weird, dark little corner would have been something like “where we strain the cold brew” or “where we eat a bagel real quick” or “where we crouch down and try to snatch a ten second break before we hear the godforsaken jingle of the front door opening or not this asshole coming up to get another latte, for fuck’s sake, you’ve already had one please just go away I need to crouch here for ten seconds”.
Currently this incredibly versatile little four-by-six foot space was serving its cold brew-straining purpose, meaning Amy was braced in a wide-legged stance between the dishwasher and the opposite wall, tipping a utility bucket–which was notably too large and much too heavy for her to handle gracefully–of room-temperature coffee into a cheesecloth bag stretched over a keg. It was a gross and generally sweaty process in the heat of city summer, which the miserable AC unit stationed just above the doorway with its endless tepid sighing was doing very little to alleviate. She was hardly an image of romantic fascination as she grunted and labored with the bucket, but that made no difference to Cal as he turned from his post at the register to include her in a typical bit of barista snobbery. She wore the magical mantle of being the Female Coworker with whom he worked three days a week, which created a sort of halo of sex appeal around her. Plus Cal was convinced he had always had a thing for moody brunettes. Thus he spent a lot of time attempting to create private jokes between them or impress her with his knowledge of up-and-coming local bands who were undoubtedly going to make it big pretty soon, oblivious to the fact, as twenty-something men tend to be, that she would have been heartily more impressed by a concentrated effort on his part to not be utterly useless at his actual job. Amy looked up at him with general annoyance, an expression he rather enjoyed as he took in her reddened cheeks, the damp dark curls on her forehead. “Who?” she said. “Is it Mike? Ask him about the AC.”
“No, it’s your love,” Cal said with a wink which he had practiced in the mirror until he was satisfied that it came off as supremely casual. Looking over his shoulder, Amy saw the regular in question, coming through the door with the customary jolly jingle of bells that set the whole staff’s teeth on edge. It was William, poor awkward thing with his sparse hair and sparser wit, gangling in with a skateboard dangling from one long-fingered pale hand, looking like a child who had just woken up that morning in the sudden body of an aging man. This was one of Cal’s ongoing and one-sided attempted intimacies with Amy, his daily ritual of pointing out that William was hopelessly and unattractively in love with her.
“Hey,” Amy said not unkindly to William as she lugged the keg of cold brew over to the register, unceremoniously clanging it down on the concrete floor beside Cal, who obediently crouched down to wrangle it into the fridge below the counter and attach it to the tap line. With one battle finished, Amy blessed William with a smile. He returned it helplessly, and placed two dollars in the tip jar, fumbling to tuck the skateboard under his armpit so he could use both hands. “The usual?” Amy asked, and he nodded. Amy grabbed the paper cup, turned around, filled it with hot coffee, and traded it for another two dollars which she placed in the register with a bang of the drawer. “I really appreciate it Amy,” William intoned in his unexpectedly sonorous way, as if she had brewed the pot just for him. And that was that. An interaction that took all of twenty seconds.
“That poor man,” Cal said, rising with a devilish grin and a rakish smear of coffee grounds on his forehead as soon as William was safely out the door and out of ear shot. “When are you gonna tell him he has no chance?”
Amy rolled her eyes. “Probably when he asks me out, which he never will. I don’t know why you’re so stuck on this idea.”
“Two dollars?” Cal pointed out shrewdly. “A one hundred percent tip? For a cup of coffee? Don’t be naive Amy, you’re a big girl. William wants to get it in.” Cal mimed grabbing the air in front of him and made humping motions. Amy snorted. “You’re gross,” she said. “Clean up the counter, I need to go grab tea from storage. Since the closers didn’t stock them last night. Again.”
The tea was fated to remain unstocked, however, since at that moment Mike entered the cafe with a cheery jangle of bells, an ill-suited fanfare for the cashmere-clad, silver-haired bear of a man. Mike was the owner of this small chain of Brooklyn cafes, as well as several other choice pieces of real estate, by his own telling, and he had the careless good humor of all tall, good-looking, self-important American men who have never had to deal with anything so grievous as being told no. He was the kind of man who liked to cozy up to his employees a little bit, let them know he was a man of the people, before dropping some offhand mention of his box seats at the MetLife Stadium and hopping back into his Jaguar. He never failed to lend a listening ear to the staff when anything had gone awry or needed attention, and he often appeared in the cafe to play the role of good-natured and active business owner for a few minutes at a time, even going so far as to pour a cup of coffee for a customer, exuding a charming air of ownership and satisfaction. This made it all the more frustrating for the staff when he ultimately failed to deliver. The AC unit, for example, had been broken all summer.
“How are my favorite employees doing today?” he boomed happily, going straight for the bagels. “Amy, will you make me a cappuccino?”
“Mike, we’re dying,” Amy said, and gestured around at the nearly empty dining area. Unwelcoming on the best of days with its greasy wooden walls, perpetually dirty tables and grime-encrusted windows letting in only the most determined streaks of daylight, in the oppressive heat and humidity the place was all but melting. As the three of them looked out at the room, letting its true ugliness come into focus, the smell of the terrifying tiny bathroom seemed to intensify.
“We really need to get some better art in here,” Mike said thoughtfully after a beat.
“What we really need is a working AC unit,” Amy called over her shoulder and the hiss of steaming milk. “If you just give me the number of the guy, I can call him for you. I know you’re really busy.”
It irritated Cal that she was making excuses for Mike, who was clearly such a douchebag. He watched her pour a flawless cappuccino and exchange a smile with the boss. Mike’s hand noticeably brushed hers as he took the cup. Now he would make a big show of how good the coffee was, and stand a little too close to her so she could really experience their size disparity; the guy would loom. And she loved it. What was it with women and their helpless attraction to animal masculinity? She was definitely blushing. Cal seethed inwardly.
“No need for you to do that,” Mike said jovially when he was finished pantomiming ecstasy over his cappuccino. “You’ve got enough on your plate keeping this one in line,” and he winked with such confident familiarity at Cal that the younger man felt himself taken in a bit. It was a great wink. Then he was doubly annoyed at his own desire to be liked by his boss.
When Mike was gone, bagel in hand, Cal turned to Amy. “You know he’s never gonna fix it.”
She sighed heavily. “I know,” she replied without much rancor. “But whatever. This is all temporary.”
“Deep,” Cal nodded. “You thinking of getting out of here soon? On to better and brighter things?”
“For sure,” Amy said, sweeping up the crumbs around the industrial toaster. “And you should too.”
“Oh I will,” Cal assured her, taking the opportunity to check out her ass. “By this time next year I’ll be managing bands full-time. I’m even talking to this guy about partnering on our own venue.”
“Sweet,” Amy said without enthusiasm. The bells chittered their despairing jingle and the two baristas looked over to see an entire graffiti-tour group squishing their way through the door. “These fuckers better tip,” Amy whispered, pushing her sweat-soaked bangs back off her forehead, then turned a beneficent smile on the fuckers in question. “What can I get for you?”
Two years later, Cal spotted Amy on a rooftop bar in Manhattan. At first he wasn’t sure, because her hair was blonder, and she just looked so, well, expensive was the word. She was laughing with a group of people, looking for all the world like she couldn’t imagine anything more comfortable than the ridiculous stiletto-heel sandals she was wearing. Cal made his way over to her and said hi. Her eyelids sparkled. A couple of her friends fixed judgemental gazes on him and began whispering together.
“It’s been forever,” he said tipsily. “You look really great.”
“Thanks,” she said graciously, with the obvious attitude of someone who hears that a lot.
“So what are you up to these days?” Cal asked, suddenly aware that he was about twenty pounds heavier than he’d like to be. “Still in the coffee business?”
Amy laughed. “God no. I’m dancing now. I work at Pumps.”
“Really?” Cal did his best to come off as cool, even though he was stunned. Stripping didn’t fit at all with his idea of Amy–which admittedly was limited to being the kind of woman who would be attracted to the sensitive artist-type of man that he thought himself to be. “You know I’m really glad I ran into you,” Cal said, the four outrageously-priced cocktails he had already thrown back making him hopelessly bold. “I always had a thing for you.”
Amy was not entirely surprised by this. Without responding to his advance, she reached a hand into the crowd and produced a black-haired woman with a septum piercing. “Cal, meet my girlfriend Ryan. Cal and I used to work together.” Ryan looked Cal up and down and grinned.
“Wow,” Cal said, now utterly out of his depth. “So you like girls? That’s crazy. I mean, you never seemed gay. I mean, I thought you were into Mike? Whatever happened there?”
The two women exchanged a look. “Turns out the only thing I like about men is their money,” Amy said with a shrug, and then the two of them burst out laughing, glittery eyelids squeezing shut, arms circling around each other’s waists as they turned and became part of the crowd again.