Kaylee steams my milk in a stainless steel container, pours it onto the espresso, and draws a heart on top with foam. I’m fifteen and entranced by her pierced eyebrow. Her ripped t-shirt, her keds. The way she never makes me pay for a drink.
But I’m also a man on a mission, ambushing her in her empty workplace an hour before closing so we can talk uninterrupted. Kaylee’s in charge of the rotating exhibits on this cafe’s walls. Each month, a new artist.
“Kaylee,” I say, “I’d like to show my work here.”
She doesn’t respond with a yes or no, but instead asks, “Did I see you sacked out in the alley last night?”
I sip the latte and try not to let on how wounded I am. I’d wanted her to believe I had a steady job and an apartment with a bed we could lie in, naked. Together.
“Just look at my stuff, okay?”
I shrug off the backpack in which I carry my possessions, my pencils and papers and extra pants and toothbrush, and pull out a blue folder, which I plop on top of Kaylee’s register. Inside are glossy prints of my best work, photos courtesy of this art student who stopped to talk to me in the subway. I even typed up a statement at the Fedex on Mount Auburn. Kaylee reads it out loud, her pierced brow arched up almost to her hairline: “Traditional photorealism displays the idealized city alongside portraits of idealized bodies—unconventional, urban, but still ultra-attractive.”
She sniffs. “You sure you wrote this?”
“Just keep going.”
“My own work is a forced confrontation with the ugly. Viewers are made to examine and acknowledge people with acne and bad teeth as they go about lives surrounded by un-glamorized grime, causing reflection upon the aesthetic values that dictate our emotional responses.”
She puts the statement down and sorts through my prints. “That was some smart writing,” she says, and, “These don’t suck,” like me being smart or not sucking is a surprise.
“Why would they suck?” Kaylee’s been giving me free lattes for two months. Sometimes even a bagel. When I said I was an artist she told me that was cool, but now she’s treating me like a stranger.
“Sorry,” she says. “It’s just I’ve never worked with anybody as young as you.”
“I’m not that young. I should be in high school, only I’m too mature.” I lean over the glass counter, one hip thrust forward in a pose I hope looks sexy. Dangerous.
“Why are you standing like that?” she asks. “I mean, never mind. Here’s a more important question.” She comes in close so our faces almost touch. “Do you have a home?” She’s speaking low now, but I don’t get why. There’s still no customers to hear us.
I stare at the brownies and scones and croissants in the display. I can see them under her arms. “Kind of. I go back sometimes, during the day while nobody’s there. Take a shower.” I don’t want to be telling her this, but then again, I hear women are into honesty.
“You sneak back into your parents’ place to shower?” Kaylee asks. She’s so concerned, I can’t stand it.
“My mom’s, yeah. In Newton,” I tell her. “It’s not a big deal.”
“Why aren’t you living there?”
“I don’t like her boyfriend,” I say, and Kaylee makes the face girls make at stray kittens. Her mouth forms an O, and I feel two inches tall.
“It’s not a big deal,” I say again.
Kaylee does not look convinced, but at least she doesn’t ask what happened, what he did.
“We have an opening in October.” She waves her hands abstractedly, like my first-ever solo show is an afterthought. “Just do me a favor.” She slides me a Bic pen and a piece of paper over the counter. The paper turns out to be a job application. “Don’t bother with a phone number; just come in Monday. If you want.”
I do want. I want to work with her day in and day out, until she realizes I’m not that young. I want to drink all the lattes I can stand, and I want enough money to pay rent so I can always sleep indoors. Most of all, I want to stop spange-ing, stop hawking my sketches at the subway station. Stop thinking in terms of the next meal.
So I sit at one of the cafe tables and write my name and birth date on the application. I write that I have no other job, no other obligations, that I can open and close and work the hours in-between. That I am fully, all the way, a hundred percent available.