We were in the late afternoon lull. I was leaning back against the bar in front of John, sharing a friendly silence. Things would get loud soon enough. We were close to empty, just a couple of regulars nursing beers at the other end of the bar. When the door swung open, I looked up casually, then kept looking. He wasn't our usual clientele.
He was kind of short. Good-looking. About my age, late twenties, early thirties. He had spiky black hair, a little smashed down from the helmet, and his leathers were new and expensive. He walked straight to a booth and sat down. I glanced back at John and saw that he was thinking the same thing. Yuppie.
Yuppies aren't generally any trouble, at least not when they're alone like this guy was. He'd probably get intimidated and leave when the Saturday night crowd started to roll in. Until then, he'd probably be good for a decent tip. I strolled over, swinging my hips as much out of habit as flirtatiousness, and gave him my best smile. "What'll it be?"
"Jack," he said without looking up. John had heard him across the quiet room and the drink was waiting for me. I slammed it down in front of the guy so the whiskey slopped over onto the table. I may not be Cindy Crawford, but I'm not ugly either. Wouldn't kill him to look at me. "There you go," I said brightly. He grunted and licked the spilled whiskey off his fingers.
I went back to the bar and mouthed "asshole" to John. He shrugged. The door burst open and a tall man in a professionally weathered jacket stood in the doorway. The sunlight was glaring around him and I couldn't see him well. "Shut the door," John said, and the man closed it obediently, stepping further into the bar. He had a lean body and a pretty, pretty face. His hair had been clipped close to his scalp.
I looked back at John and he rolled his eyes. College kid. We got a few every month, and they were almost always trouble. It wasn't that they reeked more of money than the yuppies did. Most of them looked, and maybe were, poorer. But they had the same fresh, clean quality - not well-scrubbed, but like they didn't ever have any dirt to wash off. Like they came from a world where people sat in air-conditioned offices instead of lifting heavy things or standing eight hours a day, and would be heading back there after slumming for a few hours. The kids lacked the discretion the yuppies had, who usually kept to themselves and left before things got really rough. The college kids would look around them as curiously as kindergartners at the zoo. Soon enough they'd beat the wrong guy at pool or laugh too loudly with the wrong woman, and John would have a tough time getting them out before they got their asses kicked and we had the cops on us. They were lousy tippers, too.
The kid looked over at me and smiled, a dazzling wide smile, and I found myself grinning back before I could think about it. I glanced back over my shoulder, and John was smiling too. Okay, maybe he wasn't your typical college kid.
"Over here," the yuppie said, and the kid turned and walked toward him. The man didn't stand, but his eyes lit up, and I forgave him for ignoring me earlier. If that pretty boy were mine, I wouldn't look at me either.
"Yo Chris, why'd you take off like that? What's your problem, man?"
I sauntered back over to the booth and got treated to that dazzling smile close up. "Can I get you something?"
He ordered smoothly, but his eyes were dancing like he was playing a trick on Teacher. No way he was twenty-one.
"I'm gonna need to see some ID." The kid laughed and dug his wallet out of his pocket. If the license was a fake, it was high quality. "Thanks, Tom," I said as I handed it back to him. He stared at me blankly.
"I think that's supposed to be you," his friend said.
"Yeah, right. That's me. Um, you're welcome."
I raised an eyebrow and looked at him until he started to fidget. Just to let him know he hadn't put anything over on me. Then I brought him his beer and left them alone.
The yuppie - Chris - was sitting right at the edge of the booth. One arm was draped along the top of the seat, and he had one leg halfway into the aisle, jiggling impatiently. I could only see his sharply-etched profile. He was looking at the table, tracing a finger along some of the graffiti scored in its top. He smiled once or twice, a quick upward jerk of his lips at something the kid said.
The kid - I didn't know his name, just that it wasn't Tom -- was sitting back further in the booth, his elbows on the table, his body canted toward Chris. He was talking enthusiastically, his eyes never leaving the man across from him. As I watched, he brushed his fingers casually against Chris' hand.
John leaned over my shoulder and said in my ear, "Fags." His tone wasn't nasty, just matter-of-fact. Five years ago, John might have told them to move along. But since then, his boy'd come back from school and moved in with a man. As long as these guys didn't cause any problems, they could drink here as long as they wanted.
I yawned and closed my eyes. It was slow. I let my mind drift until John nudged me and nodded toward the booth. "Looks like trouble in paradise." The kid was leaning in, talking fast now, his voice rising on a few words. "Wanna say … as big a deal … worth it."
"But Chris, why?" The kid's voice rang clear and hurt through the bar, and Chris' glance flickered toward us. John and I dropped our eyes guiltily.
Through my lashes I saw Chris jerk his head at us, and the kid said, a little quieter but still perfectly audible, "I don't care. No one cares but you." He put a hand on Chris', stilling its progress across the tabletop for a moment. Chris pulled his arm down to his side. They were silent, the kid picking at the label on his beer bottle.
John said softly, "Why don't you go see if they want another drink? They look like they could use one."
As I made my way over, they started talking again. When I approached, I heard Chris' high-pitched voice saying urgently, "… easy for you. It's never been for me." He stopped abruptly when he saw me.
"Can I get you anything?"
"Another round," Chris said.
"Don't order for me. You don't know what I want," the kid said.
"I know what you want," Chris snapped, and I knew he wasn't talking about the drink. The kid turned red and started toying with his beer bottle again. Chris plucked it out of his hands and gave it to me.
"Um, did you want another beer?" I said, feeling stupid. The kid nodded without looking up.
They were quiet when I brought them their drinks. I went back to the bar and spoke to John about the crowd we were expecting tonight. I was beginning to feel a little bad about eavesdropping. John wandered down to the other end of the bar to serve the men sitting there, and I closed my eyes again.
"We could so," the kid yelled, and everyone in the place looked at him. "You just don't want to. We could, and you fucking know it!"
"Shut up," Chris hissed.
John looked over and said mildly, "Hey there, watch your language. There's a lady here."
The kid blushed again and glanced at me. "Sorry," he said, and smiled miserably.
Chris put his hands on the table and leaned in. He was talking calmly, steadily. His words were too low for me to make out, but the angry rhythm battered me from across the room. The barrage had the kid squirming in his seat. He ran a hand nervously over his shaven head. Chris stopped talking and took a drink. The kid took a deep breath. The hope on his face made me look at the floor. The kid's voice was too soft for me to hear, but I knew what he was saying. I'd had that conversation before.
Suddenly I needed to get away. I said to John, "I'm going out for a smoke."
As I passed their booth, I heard the kid whisper, "Please."
I was halfway through my cigarette when the kid came out. He was flushed and walking quickly, hands stuffed in his pockets. He hunkered down next to an expensive bike and started poking at it kind of carefully. I've known a lot of guys with bikes, and I knew this one didn't know what he was doing. But I guess fiddling with it gave him an excuse not to talk to me.
"Hey," I said loudly, "you want a smoke?" He jumped, and I knew he hadn't seen me.
"Um, sure," he said, and got up slowly. He took the cigarette and lighter from me a little awkwardly, not really touching my fingers, and I slid away from him and shot him a dirty look. He wasn't doing me any favors. Then he fumbled with the lighter, and I realized he wasn't a smoker. I took it from him and lit his cigarette. "Thank you," he said politely. He smoked quickly, in short puffs, not inhaling. His hands were shaking a little.
I kept watching him, fast sideways glances, trying to be subtle. He was just so pretty. He caught me at it, and I blushed a little and stubbed out my cigarette. But he just turned toward me, shoulder against the wall. He tilted his head to catch the light, smiling patiently as if he were used to people wanting to look at him, as if it were his job to let them. His eyes were distant, and his lips seemed to pick up the tremor in his hands as I watched. It reminded me of how I felt sometimes at the end of a shift, nice guys flirting with me while I counted the minutes in my head and pretended to listen, and I felt bad for him.
"Honey," I said, and his lips quirked upward, "whatever it is, can't be that awful. None of it'll matter in a hundred years."
"Right," he said, "you're right," and put out his half-smoked cigarette. "It's just," he took a deep breath, "have you ever wanted something so bad, and it just seems like the whole world doesn't want you to have it? Like, all you want is this one thing, this one little thing, and everything is working against you?"
So many images flashed in my head that I felt light-headed, and closed my eyes. I opened them when the dizziness was replaced by a wave of anger at this kid, this spoiled kid with his fancy toy bike and his jacket that cost a year of my rent. He must have seen it on my face, because he flinched a little and his smile faltered. He put a hand over his mouth and sagged back into the wall, kicking at the dirt. Something about the pose made him look impossibly young, too young to be in this bar. Too young for intense bitter conversations under the eyes of bored drunks. Too young for quiet desperate smokes with waitresses he'd never see again.
"Yeah," I said, "yeah."
He took his hand from his mouth. "Did it. Did it work out for you?" His eyes were wide and serious. In the faded afternoon sunlight, in the dust of the parking lot, he looked shiny and new.
"Yes," I said, dropping my eyes. What could I do? He was a baby.
"Oh," he said flatly. "That's. Um. Good."
I looked up and saw my lie in his eyes. He turned away a little, like he was trying to hide it. Like he was trying to protect me from it.
"No," I said. "It didn't work out for me."
"Oh," he said, and turned back to me. "I'm sorry." And he was. His lower lip was still trembling a little, and suddenly something twisted in my gut that I hadn't felt for anyone but myself in a while. It was pity.
"Listen." I reached out and stroked down his arm to his hand. He didn't move. The leather of his jacket was as soft as his skin. "It's going to work out for you, though. I have a good feeling about it."
"Really?" he said, looking earnestly at me. God, he was so young.
"Yeah," I said. "I know it will. You just seem like the kind of guy that things work out for." His smile faded, and he closed his eyes. He eased his hand from my fingers, and leaned against the wall for a minute. Then he opened his eyes and stood up straight. He didn't look like a baby anymore.
"Thank you. For the cigarette, and the company." His smile was brave and professional.
"You're welcome," I said, and he walked toward his bike. He swung his leg over it and picked up his helmet.
"Where are you going?" I asked. "Your friend's still inside. He's waiting for you."
"No, he's not," he said. He put on the helmet and rode away.