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For Z, my forever.
Not with my eyes
But the tips of my fingers
The familiar slope of your breast
Down to the little warm nook
That I’d be blessed to call home
You watch me
Eyes hazy with need
But you know better than to
So you watch
As my fingers relearn your body
As they do every single time
A silent homage to skin and sighs and soul
They were back.
After three summer months of peace and relative tranquility in my picturesque little university “village”, the students were finally back in swarms.
I think I hated how old they made me feel. I remember being young and cheerful and energetic. Tan llena de vida – actually, it wasn’t too long ago.
But watching them work their jaws non-stop in yoga pants and those ridiculous floppy topknot buns made me feel a little out of place in a café that was basically my second home.
Over the years, their regular clientele of twenty-somethings had dwindled as they graduated, found other jobs or simply moved away from a ridiculously overpriced neighborhood. The only reason I’d continued coming here was because: (a.) I loved their roast; (b.) the ink shop I’d inherited was two blocks away; (c.) coffee is life.
It wasn’t all bad. With the constant influx of students, my tattoo shop, Tribe, never lacked clients. We were usually booked up for two weeks at least. Our record was eight weeks just after graduation last year. At the end of it, Kenny, a quiet dude tattooed up to his eyeballs, had refused to ink another infinity symbol even if it was his client’s last wish.
I couldn’t blame him, but students, essentially, were our bread and butter. Every one of them walked through the doors thinking their ideas were original. You wouldn’t believe how many students had come through the door asking for a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle tattoo because it was “so original” because “Ruby Rose has one too”. I mean, did they really not hear themselves?
Chino, Kenny and I usually didn’t mind the ditzy clientele. We saw our share of hardcore tattoo enthusiasts who were generally a pleasure to work with. But our income was mostly based on itty bitty trending tattoos – $100 and up per booking multiplied by twenty clients a week – you do the math.
So there really were two sides to the students returning to campus. The summer had been unbelievably lovely and quiet but we usually made a lot of money over the nine semester months. I guess you can’t have it both ways.
The café was set under a pre-war co-op building that went for over $500,000 per studio apartment. Before the academics had moved into the neighborhood, the entire west side had been a pretty dangerous place to live. No one would fork out 500k for a studio (or even a three bedroom for that matter) at that point. That’s how my mentor, Jean, had bought over the shop space and the little studio apartment that came with it for a steal back in the Seventies.
The first few months after Jean’s passing had been such a blur. I’d known him since I was fifteen – he’s the reason that I’m not in prison or on drugs right now. Or still running with the Axes, a gang from Harlem I’d joined when I was thirteen. That’s actually how I met Jean.
I’d tried to sell him some cocaine one night – I mean, it was still NYC’s drug of choice back in ’99 – and he seemed to fit the junkie stereotype: skinny and incredibly energetic at 11PM. Instead of telling me to fuck off or calling the cops on me, he took me into his shop and introduced me to his crew. I only found out a few months later that he was part of an LGBT counseling group called FREE NYC and he had been trying, in his own way, to get me off the streets by getting me interested in ink.
By the time I was eighteen, I’d gotten pretty good. Jean and Terrence – that was his partner’s name, never Terry, only Terrence – even signed me up for an art diploma to “sharpen my skills”. I didn’t need a diploma to tell me what I was good at but I did it anyway.
(I’m starting you off with all the nicer memories, of course. How I got out of the Axes is a story for another day.)
Anyway, knowing what the neighborhood was like a few decades ago, the present seemed almost unbelievable.
The café was overflowing with kids and the sound was… indescribable. There was so much chatter about seriously inane topics. Standing in line, aviators down to avoid eye contact, I caught several conversations about Nicki Minaj and Meek Mill, the new Unicorn Café and something called the Santa Clarita Diet.
Amidst all this nonsense, did I hear even one of them talk about things that actually mattered? Politics? poker oyna Social justice? The war in Syria? No, I did not.
I plugged my earphones in and turned on Earth, Wind and Fire. They always made me feel better.
Dios, I was really getting old.
Perhaps I may have gotten impatient with the queue (and the crowd) and pushed past them straight into the café. It was a Monday so I knew Miranda would be manning the tills. She’d been working there for well over five years, and after her first week there I never needed to say a word when I stepped into the café. Miranda was good that way. She made you feel special, like your penny mattered. That’s how she made Manager in just three months. The place would fall apart without her, I had no doubt.
She waved when she saw me and instantly reached for the various coffee cups to note my order down for the baristas – I usually bought coffee for the staff who opened with me in the morning.
The café had a couple of newbies on staff today – which explained the queue. As I lounged by the condiment table waiting for my order to be filled, I couldn’t help but notice a very shapely rear in front of the till. Tight yoga pants and top buns were like student uniform these days, but what set this chick apart was the sheer roundness of her ass. I may have lifted my shades to get a better look.
(I have to add here that the ass I was looking at wasn’t the kind you’d see on Instagram fitness models. You know the kind that looked like two melons placed side by side? Perfectly and oddly symmetrical? The kind that would somehow remain the same shape in every angle? This ass wasn’t anything like that. It was the kind of ass you knew would jiggle if you spanked it lightly. Destiny’s Child’s proverbial jelly kind.)
I’m not even ashamed to say that I lost track of time staring at her. She was built with some generous curves. She stood with her hands in the front pockets of her grey hoodie, giving me an outline of her cinched waist and very generous hips. She was proportioned perfectly for someone who couldn’t possibly be taller than five foot two in her Nike sneakers.
I felt myself moving towards the counter, earphones out, wallet in hand. The casual ogling had become some kind of mission without my realization.
“Sorry,” I said, stepping in front of the cashier. “I’m just picking up.”
The word “It’s” left her mouth before her eyes met mine. I desperately fought the urge to fidget as she stared, her lips slightly parted and her expressive eyes concealing nothing – she was frightened.
I’ve been told on multiple occasions that I could be quite intimidating at times, especially upon first glance. I don’t think my 5’11 frame and tattoos helped.
I wouldn’t call myself conventionally attractive, though. My features were too masculine to be pretty but too feminine to be rugged. I (maybe happily?) occupied the grey area between genders… except for my quintessential Latina lips, which I’d inherited from my mom, bless her.
My employees always say, “I know you left the streets, Gray. But I don’t think the streets left you.” To them, I always say, “Vete al carajo.” Fuck off.
But as I stood in the coffee shop, being stared at with wide eyes, I couldn’t help but think maybe they were right.
She was just a girl – young, probably in her early twenties. I think what drew me the most was her lack of make-up. Her deep caramel skin had been scrubbed clean; the skin on her cheeks and nose was slightly red from the cool campus breeze. Her curls had escaped the haphazard bun she’d fashioned and they now framed her face beautifully. Her brows were expressively thick, especially with those large black eyes that had probably betrayed her true thoughts more than once.
“It’s fine?” I urged, and handed Miranda a note from my wallet. I hoped it was the right one. I wasn’t even looking.
She nodded quickly, her cheeks turning a brighter shade of pink. Her eyes moved down to my neck, taking in the tattoos that were exposed along the lines of my collarbone. Her eyes seemed to glaze over a little.
“I haven’t seen you around before,” I continued as Miranda messed with the cash register. I had a feeling she was taking her time so I could (try to) strike up a conversation.
“I’m not from here,” she said with an accent I couldn’t place. “I just moved into an apartment upstairs. For university.”
She had a quiet calm about her. I think it was the way she spoke – slowly and precisely, without a trace of calamity that New Yorkers are so fond of. Or maybe this is how everyone else should talk and we’re doing it wrong.
I smiled, hoping it came off as charming and not as anxious as I felt inside. “Welcome to the neighborhood. I’m Gray.”
We were too close to make a handshake work so I didn’t even try.
“Maya,” she replied with a little smile. Shadows of twin dimples appeared on her cheeks. I was mesmerized.
Miranda canlı poker oyna handed me the change and I stuffed it into my wallet without sparing a glance. If she’d ever dreamed of ripping me off, today would’ve been her best shot.
“Could I buy you a cup of coffee, Maya?”
She held up a fifty. “I’ve got it. Thank you for the offer.”
Miranda handed me the paper tray of coffees.
“Actually, hon,” she said to Maya in her thick Jersey accent, “do you have anything smaller? We don’t have much change today. It’s a Monday.”
Did I mention how much I loved Miranda? I could tell she was trying her hardest to keep a straight face while she meddled.
Maya’s face fell. “I don’t have anything less, I’m afraid. I just brought a fifty out with me.”
“Let me get this. It’s not a problem,” I offered, sliding a twenty out of my wallet and handing it to Miranda.
Maya considered it for a second before she nodded.
“Okay, thank you,” she conceded. “I’d offer to get you a cup tomorrow if I didn’t already think you have a caffeine problem.”
She indicated the four cups of coffee I was holding. A corner of her lips quirked up.
“Only the espresso’s mine,” I clarified. “The rest are for my employees.”
“Of course. Spoken like a true addict.”
She was smiling in earnest now, drawing a reactive smile from me. So she had a sense of humor, too, along with an ass like the peach emoji and dimples that could mesmerize.
I slid a couple of extra bills into the tip jar as Maya picked up her coffee at the bar. Miranda even gave me a conspiratorial wink as we headed for the exit.
“Thank you again for the coffee. That was really sweet of you.”
I brushed it off. “You’re very welcome. Maybe I’ll see you around sometime?”
“That would be great,” she said, sliding a straw into her hot coffee cup. I must’ve looked confused because she quickly explained: “I spill a lot. A straw helps… Most of the time.”
She glanced at her phone. “I’ve got eight minutes to get to class. I’d better go. Thanks again.”
Was I the world’s biggest idiot to let her walk away without getting her number first? That internal debate raged on as I walked back to the shop, sipping my double espresso. She did say she lived in the apartment building above the café… the chances of bumping into her again were high.
And, at the end of the day, I didn’t even know if she played for the team. I shrugged internally at the thought. In the past, I’d never had trouble getting a straight girl, even if it was just for a short period of time before the novelty of a lesbian affair wore off. But I was so tired of meaningless temporary connections.
I truly believed that if Maya were at all interested in me, she’d find a way to bump into me first.
She had my attention. I can’t remember the last time I actually thought about a woman. I’d been living the happy asexual life for quite some time now and it seemed to suit me. My muscles had never been more defined, I got eight hours of sleep a night and my bank account was looking pretty good.
Maya. A beautiful name. It suited her.
The client I was inking moved his head a little to look at me. Jose was a first generation Mexican-American who’d made his living as a construction worker all his life. Now in his sixties and retired, he was getting his first tattoo to honor his wife who’d passed away.
When he’d come in for his consult, he’d handed me a ratty old picture that was dog-eared and torn in several places. I’d imagined he’d kept it in his wallet for decades, taking it out often to show Lola off to those who hadn’t met her.
“My wife in the Seventies,” he’d said. “I want to remember her that way.”
She was a gorgeous woman with generous assets. Not unlike someone I’d met today.
It had been a real pleasure working with this patient older man who took pains to make sure every detail about his Lola was accurate.
As I pulled back the needle from his skin, he said, “Were you talking to me? You just said ‘It suited her’.”
His words were loud enough for everyone in the shop to hear. I knew my nosy asses of employees wouldn’t let this one go. A chorus of whoops went up in the air.
“Who you talking about, Gray?” Jeanine asked as she prepped a client for an industrial piercing in the corner of the store we’d nicknamed “gothland”.
I could feel heat creeping into my cheeks.
“Nobody,” I said, determined to get on with the portrait.
“Are you blushing?” Mel called from her reception desk. “I think she’s blushing,” she told the room.
“Ay, Gray, don’t leave us in suspense.” This was from a bear of a man I’d known most of my adult life. Chino was like a father figure to most of us at the store. His specialty was tribal tattoos and he’d been practicing his art for over twenty years.
He internet casino was also one of the few who’d helped me pick up the pieces when Jean had passed all those years ago.
At that moment, he sat in his swivel chair, looking at me intently over the top of his phone.
“Chico, please. I’m trying to work here,” I said, dipping the needle in the ink.
“You haven’t dated in like six months, man. You gotta tell us something. We need some good tea in our lives.”
“Actually,” Mel chimed in again, scrolling through the calendar on her iPad, “she hasn’t dated in seven and a half months. Her last date was in February and that didn’t end well.”
“Cono. That’s a really long time.” Chino’s face was a mask of sympathy.
I groaned. Did they have to bring up my dating history all the time? And why would Mel have that info on her Google calendar?!
I apologized to Jose, who immediately shut me down with a smile.
“Parece que estamos en familia, eh?” he said in his usual calm tone – aren’t we all family in here? “Entonces? Cuéntame de tu mujer.” So, tell me about your woman.
“Fine.” I gave in and gestured for him to lie back again so I could continue. “Her name’s Maya. I met her at Expresso.”
“Maya? She sounds exotic,” Jeanine commented. “Where’s she from?”
“No idea. All I know is that she’s a student here and she’s got a fucking addictive smile.”
“Another notch on the Grayson bedpost?” Mel asked, swirling her lollipop around her now-pink lips.
“I’m not looking for that, cariña. I’m getting too old for that shit.”
“What you need is a good woman like my Lola.” Jose’s words left no room for argument. “A woman like that can ground you, make you want to be a better person.”
“Amén,” I said, carefully tracing the outline of Lola’s ample bosom. “But I don’t think I’ll get as lucky as you, though. Your wife was beautiful.”
“I know. I had forty-two years with her. Not enough.”
Forty-two years. Jesus. My longest relationship had been all of six months. I cringed on the inside. Maybe there was something wrong with me.
“You just need to pick the right girl,” Jose continued. “You know how to do that, Gray?”
I shook my head. “If only I did…”
“You have to read her. When you say hi, does she lean towards you? Does she take every opportunity to touch your arm? When you kiss her, does she sigh into your mouth? When you’re sad, does she make you your favorite dish?”
Chino and I shared a smile over Jose’s old-fashioned advice. My client’s eyes held a faraway look – lost in memories, I suppose. My heart sank a little for him. It must be terribly hard to lose a person you’d loved for over four decades. I couldn’t begin to imagine the pain.
“You doing okay?” I asked him, pulling the needle back.
“I’m fine. It doesn’t hurt as much as I expected it to.”
“That’s good to hear. Maybe I’ll fit you in for another one next month?” I asked, tongue-in-cheek.
“I’m good with just my Lola on my chest.”
As I filled out the tattoo, I couldn’t help but think about how empty my life was. I was thirty-two – an actual adult now that I was out of my twenties. And I’d never dated anyone I’d considered my forever person.
Maybe it was the scene in NYC. I’ve noticed how women get bored easily or just don’t believe in commitment. But my Mama taught me better than that. She’d worn her wedding ring for years after my dad died in Panama. That had been in 1990. She wore that ring and remained loyal to him until she died in 1995.
That was true love. She spoke of my dad to anyone who’d listen. He was a brave, noble military man, todo un caballero, who’d passed too young. The worst part was that I didn’t even have a memory of him that wasn’t tainted by the stillness of a curated photograph or my mother’s verbal painting sessions. I didn’t have one memory that was from my own bank of special moments.
I sighed as I dipped the needle in red ink for Lola’s pin-up dress. Some people, like Jose, were extremely lucky. Others, like me, were probably going to die alone.
When I turned the corner towards Expresso later that week, a loud shriek almost made me drop my cigarette. I watched Maya, who had her thick schoolbooks fanned out on the patio table she occupied, jump from her seat and throw her arms around a poor soul in a bone-crushing hug. The poor soul in question didn’t seem to mind, though. She hugged Maya right back, an unmistakable grin on her face.
A ridiculous surge of jealousy heated my belly as I walked over to the table. I hadn’t seen her around all week but that didn’t stop me from thinking about her. All my inspired doodles had a decidedly female theme. Pin-ups with a beautiful ass. Well, they say art imitates reality so…
“Hello again,” I said, taking a deep drag from the rapidly depleting stick. Whatever they made cigarettes from these days really didn’t make them last any longer. Which just made me feel like smoking more.
Maya pulled back from her friend, startled. Her wide eyes took me in – this time, I was wearing only a simple Nike tank and jeans.
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