HOW THEY MET (an excerpt)
It was my aunt who pimped me out.
We had this arrangement: I would get to live with her for a few weeks over the summer and take a pre-college course at Columbia before my senior year. In return, I wouldn’t have to do a thing besides stay out of the way. It sounded like a good plan to me, except that when I got to Columbia on the first day of summer classes, I found that my course had been dropped. Apparently, there’d been a notice that nobody in my family had bothered to notice.
I thought Aunt Celia would be mad. Or at least concerned. But instead she said, “Well, this could actually solve Elise’s problem.”
Elise was a friend of Aunt Celia’s who lived in the same apartment building. She had a six-year-old daughter.
“I’m sure you’re wonderful with children,” Aunt Celia told me.
This was an especially strange statement coming from Aunt Celia, who (as far as I could tell) considered the continued existence of children to be something between a nuisance and a plague. We have a picture we love to look at in my immediate family, taken right after my brother Jonathan was born. It’s Aunt Celia’s turn to hold him, and from the look on her face and the positioning of her body, you’d think that someone had asked her to cradle a ten-pound turd. Nothing personal against Jonathan – I’m sure she was the same with me. As Jonathan and I grew up, Aunt Celia always gave us presents to “save for later.” For my seventh birthday I received a pair of Tiffany candlesticks. For my eighth, it was a matching finger bowl. I freaked out, thinking a finger bowl was meant to hold fingers. (Aunt Celia left the room so my parents could explain.) When I turned thirteen, Aunt Celia actually seemed relieved. She finally stopped maintaining any pretense of treating me like a child, and started treating me like a lesser adult instead.
“Aren’t you?” she now prompted. “Wonderful? With children?”
I didn’t know where we were going with this, but I was sure that without a reason to stay in New York, Aunt Celia would ship me back to suburbia faster than she could dial out for dinner. Even if I found a way to avoid being underfoot, she would be unnerved by the concept of me being underfoot.
“I’m wonderful with children,” I assured her. Various instances of me “baby-sitting” Jonathan flashed through my head – we hadn’t been allowed to have pets, so I’d often encouraged him to act like one. I thought it best not to mention the particulars of my sitting experience, which, at its most extreme, stopped just short of accidental lobotomy.
“Perfect,” she said. Then she picked her cellphone off the front table, speed-dialed, and told the person on the other end, “Elise, it’s Celia. I have a solution for the whole Astrid affair. My nephew . . . yes, Gabriel. The one I was telling you about . . . escaping my sister, yes. Well, it seems that his course has been cancelled. And I happen to know he’s wonderful with children. A complete charmer. . . yes, he’s entirely free. . . I’m sure those hours would be fine. . . . He’s delighted. . . . You’ll see him then. . . . Absolutely my pleasure!”
She hung up and looked at me like I’d just been checklisted.
“It’s all set,” she said. “Although you’ll have to dress nicer than that.”
“What’s all set?” I asked. If I couldn’t do it in a Modest Mouse T-shirt, I was worried.
“Why, your job. For the next three weeks.”
“Which is…?” I coaxed.
She sighed. “To take care of Elise’s daughter, Arabella. You’ll love her. She’s wonderful.”
No follow-up questions were allowed. With an air kiss and a trail of perfume, Aunt Celia was off.
I started the next morning at eight. My now-dead class was supposed to have started at ten, and I’d looked forward to the extra hours of sleep. Instead, Aunt Celia came into my room at seven-fifteen, turned on the lights, released a low-octaved, “Be ready by eight,” and left before I could see her without the compensations of makeup.
Even after I cured my early-morning dayblindness with two cups of coffee and a shower prolonged by ten minutes of tangential thinking, I still wasn’t fully awake when I rang the doorbell of apartment 8C. I looked presentable enough in my button-down shirt and khakis, but my mind felt button-downed and khaki as well. I was already starting to resent my new job.
Aunt Celia’s friend Elise was three-quarters out the door when she opened it for me.
“You must be Gabriel,” she said. “I’ve heard so much about you. Come in.”
Elise was one of those women who exercised so often that she was starting to look like a piece of exercise equipment herself. She walked around the apartment as if she were still on a treadmill, telling me about emergency numbers and people to call and when to expect her back.
“I really appreciate you doing this,” she said, putting on her coat and leading me down a hallway. “Arabella’s back here.”
Arabella’s door was decorated with a framed copy of the unicorn tapestry from The Cloisters. Elise knocked three quick raps into the door, then opened it up for me. I was astounded, but not particularly surprised, by the room that was revealed to me. It was everything you might expect from a fairly rich New York City girl named Arabella. It was designed like a Vogue version of Disney, with a four-poster bed and no-poster walls. Pink was the dominant color, with blue and green playing the major supporting roles. My attention was caught by a number of wide-eyed dolls relegated to size-order rows on a magisterial display shelf, as if they were about to take a class picture and had dressed for the occasion. This was the room I had never dreamed about as a little boy, and still feared now.
Even though the light in the room was on, Arabella remained under the covers, reading by flashlight. I could see the beam breaking through the comforter, and could hear the pages turn even as her mother called her name. Finally, as the calling grew more insistent, Arabella emerged. She was not, as I’d expected, as sleek and steely as her mother. In fact, she was pudgy and flushed, her hair only making a half-hearted effort at curling. Her expression was sour, her clothing dour, and her anger at being interrupted was palpable. She held up her Berenstain Bears book and said, “I’m trying to read!”
Elise took it in stride.
“Well, I’m heading off, Arabella. Gabriel will take care of you until Manolo comes at two. Comprende vouz?”
Arabella didn’t seem to pay me any mind, and once her mother left the apartment, I remained standing there awkwardly. Arabella didn’t return under her covers, but she continued to use the flashlight over every page.
Stupidly, I hadn’t brought any reading material of my own. So I reached for a copy of Pete’s a Pizza, only to be chastised when I picked it up.
“You should ask first,” Arabella said.
“I don’t go out until ten,” she told me. “You can watch TV if you want.”
“Do you mind if I read some of these instead?” I asked, gesturing to her bookshelf.
“Sure,” she replied. “Just don’t say them out loud.”
I started with a few picture books, then found a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and began to read that. Every now and then I’d look up and check on my baby-sittee. I could see her concentrating on each word of every page; only after a sentence was through would she look at the pictures. It was cool to see reading become such a transparent act – it was as if her face had a different expression for each punctuation mark, and when there was dialogue you could see her actually listening to it in her head. One time she caught me watching her and grimaced. I quickly returned to my own book, and didn’t smile or even acknowledge it when she started to take books from the pile that I’d already read.
At precisely ten o’clock, Arabella announced, “It’s time to go.”
Elisa hadn’t said anything about whether or not we could leave the building, but I assumed it was okay. Arabella swiftly moved to the front door, undoing the locks and bolts as if they were pieces of an ancient Chinese puzzle. She pointed out the spare keys and then instructed me how to lock up once the door was closed again.
I had always secretly suspected that rich New York City kids acted twice as old as they really were. The three-year-olds acted six, the six-year-olds acted twelve, the twelve-year-olds partied like they were twenty-four, and each eighteen-year-old took on a thirty-six-year-old’s weariness. Because they had seen the city, they felt they’d seen the world. Whereas those of us in the suburbs had simply seen the suburbs.
I will admit: I was still somewhat amazed and intimidated by New York City and its complex hugeness. Back home when I wanted to go somewhere, I jumped in my car and drove there. But the city required the higher math of navigation, factoring in subway grids and bus paths and street maps, so many letters and numbers and names and letter-number combinations and number-name combinations. The basic act of considering a local distance in terms of east, west, north, and south was bizarre to me; those words, I felt, should be used to describe coasts or countries, not a place two blocks over and one block up.
Arabella didn’t seem fazed. Even though she was barely taller than the hydrants, she knew exactly where she was going. Since we were near Central Park, I thought we might be heading for the zoo, or a museum, or a playground. It was a perfect July day – sunny, but with the feeling that God had left the windows open.
At the end of the first block, Arabella waited, even though there was a walk sign. I didn’t understand, so after a moment she said to me, a little impatiently, “You need to hold my hand when we cross the street.”
Such a strange thing, to hold a six-year-old’s hand. Especially a six-year-old you’ve only just met. A toddler will grab hold of your finger, and someone your own age will clasp on to your whole hand, but with six-year-olds it’s something in between, this acknowledgment that they can’t be the one to take hold, so you have to do all the holding, folding your hand around theirs, feeling so much bigger and responsible. It’s weird and it’s scary and it’s nice. Neither Arabella nor I said a word, and as soon as we got back to the curb, she pulled away and I let go until the next curb.
“Where are you taking me?” I asked.
“I want to try a new Starbucks,” she replied.
“Are you sure you’re allowed to go to Starbucks?”
“I go there all the time.”
Elise had told me to call if there was an emergency, but I figured the prospect of undue caffeination didn’t really count as one. In fact, Arabella made it seem like going to Starbucks was the most natural thing in the world, so I followed along. We only had to walk five blocks to hit the nearest one. It was now ten-fifteen, and the morning rush was over. Instead, the seats were filled by the daytrippers, the patrons for whom the word ensconced was no doubt termed. Laptops were open, bookmarks were orphaned on tables, and newspapers were set out to be read section by section. An idle idyll. Suddenly I felt more at home.
And then I looked behind the counter.
Now, it has to be one of Starbucks’s more brilliant marketing strategies to maintain at least one completely dreamy guy behind the counter at any given shift. This guy is invariably known as Starbucks Boy to the hundreds of regular customers who have a crush on him, and the glory of it is that he always seems just accessible enough to be within reach, but never accessible enough to actually touch. Starbucks Boy wears short sleeves even in the winter, so you can study his arms when you’re feeling too shy to stare at his face (in hopes of catching an eye-sparkle or a dimple). Depending on the location of the Starbucks, you can imagine that the minute he gets off of work, he heads off to rehearse some new songs with his band, or surf the big waves, or shoot an indie film. He is, unlike most beautiful people you’ve ever encountered, friendly – and you honestly believe it’s not because that’s a part of his job. He banters with the counter girls relentlessly, whether it’s cornrowed Latisha, corn-fed Barbara, or corn-toed Betty. You listen in on their in-jokes, and then think that the way he says “good morning” or “have a good one” or “here you go” to you is a little different than the way he says it to anyone else. Or at least that’s the hope.
The dreamy guy at this Starbucks wasn’t working the counter. Instead he was working a broom behind it, smiling as he swept. At first I didn’t get the smile, but then I realized he was listening to the radio, to Norah Jones sliding her voice around the notes. In his own way, he was dancing along.
I was so busy not-looking-but-looking that I didn’t notice Arabella arrive at the front of the line.
“Can I help you?” the counter girl asked. She was about my age, with her hair pulled into a ponytail and her face pulled into a ponyfront.
Suddenly, Arabella became shy. She leaned into me and whispered, “I want a vanilla mocha decaf latte but with no mocha.”
I figured the counter girl had heard, but instead of punching it in, she stared at me. So I said, “She’d like a vanilla mocha decaf latte, hold the mocha.”
“You mean like a vanilla steamer?” the bored barista asked.
“No!” Arabella shouted. “I want a vanilla mocha decaf latte, hold the mocha!”
“One vanilla mocha decaf latte, hold the mocha,” the bore-ista repeated.
Arabella pulled on my shirt. I leaned down and she whispered, “I have my purple cup.” She rummaged through the small Hello Kitty purse she’d brought and pulled it out.
I could sense a stop to the sweeping, and could imagine Starbucks Boy finally noticing me as I said to the counter girl, “And would you mind putting it in this purple cup?”
“I’m sorry, we can only refill Starbucks mugs,” she said.
I looked down to Arabella and saw she was on the verge of an outburst.
“C’mon,” I said.
The barista looked offended by this plea – I was violating the Starbucks Code of Customer Behavior. But she would be violating the Starbucks Code of Employee Behavior to tell me to piss off, so we were at a standstill.
Arabella chimed in with a “pleeeeeeeeease,” and that’s what did it. Starbucks Boy leaned in, took the cup out of my hand, and said, “No problem.”
Then he smiled. At me. The kind of smile that feels like there’s a wink attached to it.
I ordered an iced chai, then paid with my hard-earned (well, unearned parental) dollars. Arabella and I shifted over to the pickup counter, where Starbucks Boy was already waiting with her vanilla milk. Frustratingly, a Starbucks Boy never wears a nametag, so you just have to imagine his name is Dalton or Troy or Dylan. As my Starbucks Boy handed Arabella her drink, I observed that he gave her the same smile he gave me. I realized how stupid I was being, thinking his attentions were anything more than routine. Then, when he handed over my drink and our hands accidentally touched, I forgot that realization entirely.
Arabella picked out one of the superlong straws to sip her milk with, and I drank the minute’s worth of liquid that had been given to me with an afternoon’s worth of ice cubes. When we were finished, I stole one last glance at Starbucks Boy, who was making some foam. I almost went up and purchased a mini bundt cake just to get another view, then I dismissed myself as too silly for words (this was a full conversation in my head) and ushered Arabella (who’d lost interest in her drink after six carefully-spaced sips) outside. I proposed a stop at the Central Park Zoo, and she acted like she was humoring me by saying yes.
I found myself wanting to impress her, like we were on a date. I rattled off facts about polar bears and penguins, and was excited when she seemed mildly interested. She started asking me the names of each of the animals – not their scientific names, but their proper names, like Freezy or Gertrude. I gave her the answers, making them up as we went along, and it took a good dozen species before Arabella figured out I was kidding.
“The emu is not named Clifford,” she said. “Clifford is a dog.”
“Did I say Clifford?” I backtracked. “I meant Gifford. Like Kathie Lee.”
“Who’s Kathie Lee?”
And I thought, Holy shit, she’s too young to remember Regis with anyone besides Kelly Ripa.
“Kathie Lee’s the sea otter. Let’s go see her.”
I had thought it wouldn’t be any problem for us to get back by two, and because of that I didn’t bother to check the clock on my cell phone. I was shocked when I finally saw that we only had twenty-five minutes to get back.
“You forgot lunch,” Arabella said as we headed home.
“You didn’t tell me you were hungry,” I replied, and then immediately felt the way any adult feels when he or she picks an argument with a six-year-old – namely, stupid.
“I was,” Arabella said, and that was that.
We got back with three minutes to spare.
“Don’t worry,” Arabella told me as I made her a pb & j sandwich in the kitchen. “Manolo’s always late.”
I nodded and asked her who Manolo was.
“My French tutor,” she replied. Then she asked, “Do you have a boyfriend?”
I was about to bitch and moan – the usual response – but then I realized who I was talking to. Only in New York (and maybe San Francisco) could a six-year-old have gaydar.
“How do you know I’m gay?” I asked. I genuinely wanted to know. My wardrobe wasn’t infused with pink or rainbow, and I certainly hadn’t been very flamboyant in her presence. I wondered what my tells were.
“The way you look at boys,” she said. “You’re gay.”
The doorbell rang. Arabella made no move to answer it.
“I’ll get it,” I said. It took me a minute to walk to the door, but two minutes to get open the locks.
“The top one first and to the left,” the voice on the other side of the door said. “Then the middle one to the right. Then the bottom one, twice around to the left. Now turn the knob.”
When I finally got it open, I found a guy a few years older than me, wearing a winter sweater on a summer day. He had Harry Potter glasses and a Beatrix Potter body.
“Bonjour,” he said.
“’Allo,” I said, trying to sound Cockney but ending up Klingon.
“You must be Astrid’s successor,” he continued. “I’m charmed to meet you.”
“And you must be Manolo,” I said. “Or do you prefer Manny?”
At that last word, he shuddered.
“Manolo,” he said. “Is le fille ready?”
“She’s in le kitchen.”
“Can you tell her to meet me in the study?”
I watched him stroll off without another look in my direction, then poked my head into the kitchen.
“Your Frenchman’s here,” I said. “I’m going to head home.”
Arabella put her sandwich down and said, “That’s fine. I won’t tell Mom about lunch as long as you remember tomorrow.”
I told her she had a deal.
The next day was much the same, only I was wearing better clothes. I had a suspicion that Arabella was a daily-ritual kind of girl, and if I was going to see Starbucks Boy again, it wasn’t going to be in khakis and a button-down.
If Elise or Arabella noticed my more casual attire, neither mentioned it. Instead Elise mentioned that Ivan – the math tutor – was coming at three.
Figuring it might mean extra money – and also figuring I had more than a fair grasp of first-grade math – I told Elise, “If you want, I could tutor Arabella. You know, stay later and do it.”
Elise stared down her nose at me. She had to angle her head to do it.
“I’m sure you’re very intelligent, but we prefer Arabella’s tutors to have graduated college.”
“Ivy league?” I asked, tongue in cheek.
“Preferred, but not essential,” Elise replied, tongue nowhere near cheek. “We had a lovely girl from Smith, but she went away to India with her new lover.”
I didn’t think it would win me the argument to point out that I wasn’t going to be running off with any lovers anytime soon. I made a mental note to teach Arabella some really stupid knock-knock jokes as retribution.
As I’d predicted, we followed the same morning routine: reading in Arabella’s room until ten (once again, I didn’t bring my own book, but this time it was deliberate – I enjoyed reading hers), then a stroll down to Starbucks. I kept looking at my reflection in windows as we walked there, checking to see if my hair was flat or if my shirt was billowing the wrong way. Arabella was telling me a story about a girl in her kindergarten class who had eaten a Crayon and said it tasted like chicken. I tried to follow.
All of my prayers and fears were answered, because Starbucks Boy was working the register when we walked in. There were two people in front of us, and I obsessively paid attention to the way he talked to them – genial, but nothing special – to use as a contrast when analyzing the way he talked to me. When we got to the front of the line, he smiled a little wider (I was sure of it) and said, without missing a beat, “One iced chai and one vanilla mocha decaf latte, hold the mocha, in a purple cup, right?”
Was I dealing with some kind of Starbucks Savant, or had he thought my order yesterday was worth remembering? Melodramatic as it may sound (and it certainly felt melodramatic), I considered that my entire romantic future might hinge on the answer to that question.
The trouble with flirting with someone at a cash register is that your time together is bound to be fleeting. I could hear the people behind me shuffling and preparing to grumble as I fumbled through my wallet for correct change (saving my singles for the tip jar, where they’d be more noticeable). Starbucks Boy conveyed my order and Arabella’s cup to the worker b’s behind him, then looked at my wallet and said, “It’s cool you have a change pocket. I need one of those in my wallet. I hate loose change.”
If there was something to say next that would parlay our conversation from reportage to repartee, I couldn’t figure it out. So instead of something inspiringly witty, I said, “I got it at H&M. I like it a lot.”
“Homosexual and Metrosexual,” Starbucks Boy replied. Then, as I thought WHA?!, he added, “H&M. I know it stands for something Swedish, but really it should be Homosexual & Metrosexual.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Mmm hmm.”
“It’s a cool wallet.”
Because I’d paid in exact change, there wasn’t anything for him to give me back except the receipt. And once he handed that over, I couldn’t continue to hold up the line. I didn’t think the woman behind me would understand if I turned to her and said, “I just need another moment – I’m admiring his eyes.” Or maybe she would, and she’d get farther with him than I could.
Homosexual or metrosexual? Or just a fan of mass-produced Swedish fashion?
I hadn’t even realized that Arabella had disappeared from my side, which I imagined wasn’t the best thing for a baby-sitter to do. Luckily she was only a few steps away, at the pickup counter.
“He’s nice,” she observed. I restrained myself from grabbing her by the shoulders and asking, What else did you notice? Do you think he’s into guys? And into me, specifically? I wished I were back home, where I could send my girlposse in to suss him out.
That afternoon, after I’d abandoned Arabella to Ivan (who looked like the love child of Lenin and Stalin), I found myself ambling by the Starbucks again. I debated whether or not to go in, to see if Starbucks Boy’s shift had ended. Then I started to feel like I was exhibiting Typical Stalker Behavior and decided to stalk wallets at H&M instead.
I knew I was getting perilously close to opening up my History of Stupid Things Done in the Name of Crushes, but the insidious thing about the History was that I always felt each new blank page had the potential to transform it into a different book. One successful gesture, one successful relationship would suddenly turn it into a History of Stupid Things Done in the Name of Crushes That Were All Redeemed in the End. If on page 13 I wrote Justin Timberlake’s initials with mine in a heart on my sneakers, only to throw them out the next day when Laura Duke teased me for it, or if on page 98 I set up base camp outside Roger Lin’s locker just to see if he’d notice me there, or if on page 154 I entered a milkshake-drinking contest to be able to stand next to Mark Tamlin for fifteen minutes, only to have him puke vanilla chum onto my Sketchers … well, somehow I felt these pages didn’t bear consideration as I headed to page 239 and bought a ten-dollar H&M wallet for a boy because it was the only thing in the world I knew for sure he liked, including me. I didn’t buy him the same exact wallet – I made his green to my blue – and I didn’t actually believe I’d ever give it to him. But at least it provided me with the illusion of doing something proactive.