Tête-à-tête

I take down the half finished sculpture from along my windows, which I’ve been working on as a surprise for my boyfriend, and which I now plan on destroying, either by wrench or by hammer, or by tossing it off the roof of my building and into the street. Then I notice—this sculpture is way too genius for me to just smash apart over a boy, am I right? Future generations might never forgive me? While I’m deciding what to do with it I accidentally finish an entire bottle of wine. Then my sister calls me back. “What,” she says. I can hear dumb-advertising-party noises in the background. “What what?” I say. “What-did-you-call-me-for what,” she says. I tell her about how my supposed-to-be perfect boyfriend has fallen in love with someone with superstar breasts and a cute button nose. “Since when is he a boyfriend?” she says. “Are you taking his side?” I say. “I can’t believe you’re taking his side.” “Well,” she says, “what’s so good about him anyway?” “Everything!” I say. Which then I realize is true. At which point I realize that I can’t destroy the sculpture, because I still want to give it to him. So I tell my sister about how the button-nose bitch took a handicapped stall and how I was about to kick in the door on her when some middle-aged woman showed up with her entire brood, at which point I realized that it wasn’t the fault of button-nose anyway, and so I decided to leave the ice rink so that I might better plot my eventual and inexorable revenge. Which my sister thinks is funny, especially the part about almost kicking in the door, and finally she starts talking like she’s somebody’s sister instead of somebody’s stranger, and tells me that if my boyfriend prefers a probably unemployed button-nose to a city-renowned painter and watercolorist and illustrator with exceptional and in-proportion breasts, my boyfriend can go get fucked, and that if button-nose thinks she’s getting away with anything by dating a traitor and a cheat, she’s got a thing or two coming. Then she does some freelance advertising and convinces me that life is so much better than it actually is.

*

I suffer the usual discrimination at work, my manager citing disheveled hair, wrinkled clothes, and a makeupless face as evidence of what he calls poor hygiene, which really means he’s just afraid that we aren’t going to sell much coffee unless us baristas maintain a fuckable appearance. He doesn’t care about who he hired, about who I actually am. He wants me to be someone else. “No one wants to buy pastries from someone wearing a uniform that looks like it’s been used as a dishrag,” he says, “and smells like spoiled milk.” Then he points out some crusted paint in my hair, and asks when was the last time I even showered. I explain that this very morning my apartment was invaded by exterminators, circumstances of which I was not even forewarned, which forced me to vacate the premises, my own premises, for a three to four hour period, a period which I would have happily invested in a general cleaning-up-of-self, if I had only had the chance. At which point, as if to quite possibly stress out yours truly to the point of complete and utter mental collapse, my boyfriend walks into the café, wearing a super cute scarf.

I duck into the back and pretend to be slicing pears. Dessek the barista peeks through the doors. “We’re getting slammed,” he says. I say, “Can you just cover for me a minute?” Dessek says okay, only because he’s been head-over-heels in love with me since day one of my temporary employment here at this city-reviled café. Dessek’s uniform is wrinkleless, and his face appears recently soaped—obviously I hate him. For a while I read a magazine someone’s left in the back. Then Dessek peeks in again. “Wasn’t that that guy you were dating?” he says. “I don’t want to talk about it,” I say, flipping a page, not even looking at him.

And anyway, if my father still bothered to pay my rent I wouldn’t have to do the servile chores of a barista, but when my sister got married he cut the both of us off at once, which is why I was mad at my sister for almost an entire year. I consider my sister’s marriage a tragedy that forced the both of us to grow up too soon. Our father is one of the wealthiest contractors in the city—if we had both stayed single, he probably would have kept paying our rents till we were fifty. But of course the last thing my sister cared about was whether or not I ended up on the streets—for her it was just love love love. Très cliché.

Which somehow she even ended up blaming me for—talking to her about anything is talking to her about how you aren’t good enough. She’s just like my father. Tell him you made some new friends, he’ll say if you’ve got time for that, get an internship. Tell him you got a boyfriend, he’ll say at your age your sister was already engaged. Tell him you learned a recipe for roast fennel and quail, he’ll say last week he found a restaurant that makes the best quail in the city. If you don’t make enough money to keep your apartment? Watch less television, take night classes, find a man who’ll buy you your dinners.

My manager comes into the back. “What are you doing reading a magazine?” he says. “I’m on break,” I say. “You got here twenty minutes ago,” he says. I say, “Dessek said he didn’t need me.” Then I ask if I’ve sold any paintings since my last shift. I let the café sell my paintings—it likes to pretend it’s a part-time art gallery. “No,” he says. I once saw him stare at the butt of another barista for a full minute—she was bent over, picking up some pecans she’d spilled onto the floor. My friends know all about him. I’d tell his wife about him too, if she ever came into the café. But Dessek says she has mouth cancer and keeps smoking anyway even now that she’s hooked up to machines, so I guess that won’t be anytime soon.

I go out front, take an order for a small chai latte, make it, ring it up, then let Dessek take back over. My boyfriend is sitting over by a window, eating some sort of pastry. I guess he hasn’t noticed me. “Did you two break up?” Dessek says, dolloping whipped cream onto somebody’s coffee. “Jesus,” I say, “it’s not like we were even that serious. We only went out three times. If I decide I’m not that into him, what’s the big deal?” “Oh,” Dessek says, buttering somebody’s toast. “I thought you were more serious than that.” To which I think, don’t get any ideas, Dessek the barista—a recently soaped face will only get you so far. Dessek got kicked out of college for cheating on an essay test. He wanted to be a doctor, since his family is from India, but now he just works at a café. His life’s going nowhere.

“Anyway,” I say, “he’s already started dating someone else.” Then while Dessek is washing out an empty carton of milk I tell him about how I happened to run into them at the ice rink, and how his date started talking shit to me in the bathroom—from inside her stall, no less—and how I kicked in her door on her and then left her there, pants down, door open, and laughed the whole way home. “Funny,” Dessek says. He has to pretend not to like me, to cover up how googly-eyed in love with me he actually is.

Dessek has to run into the back to get more milk, so I take someone’s order, and when  she orders a coffee I ask, “Sweetener?”—like our manager has told us we’re supposed to do!—and she says no thanks. After I’ve cashed her out, my manager comes over and  says, “Don’t say sweetener—that makes it sound artificial and cheap. Ask if they want agave nectar or raw honey, so they know it isn’t fake.” “Since when is our honey raw?” I say, because I know it isn’t. “Since always,” he says. Of course he’s itching his crotch through his pants this entire time.

*

Back at my apartment it looks like the exterminators never ended up coming after all—apparently my landlord got the great-aunt message in time to call them off. How I know is that the exterminators came through once before, and after they left my apartment smelled like rotten lemons for an entire week. But when I get back tonight, no lemons.

I’m supposed to hang out with my friend Carlo C., but he’s not answering his phone. I’m afraid this might mean he hates me again, which sometimes he does, for only the stupidest of reasons. While I’m waiting I take off all of my clothes except for my socks. Then I stand in front of my mirror. Then I stand an imaginary naked button-nose bitch next to me and compare our bodies. What I like best about myself are the dark freckles on my nose and my cheeks, the bigness and whiteness of my teeth, and my clavicles. What I like best about the imaginary button-nose next to me is the smallness of her lips, the smallness of her eyes, and the way her breasts will sag in twenty years.

Someone knocks on my door. I think: boyfriend? Although I know it can’t be him, because he doesn’t know where I live, unless maybe he waited outside the café and then followed me home. He almost walked me home once after one of our dates, although I didn’t care that he didn’t—who wants to be walked home by an uncute economics major who can’t even be bothered to pay for his date’s coffee? Especially yours truly, the crème de la crème of twenty-something women? As we were at the café where I work, it didn’t really matter—Dessek never charges me for coffee anyway. But my boyfriend—or now maybe ex-boyfriend—didn’t know that.

It’s my landlord. Of course I put on some shorts before opening the door, and also a sweater. “Rent?” he says. “I don’t think my heater’s working right,” I say. “And I hate being cold more than anything.” “Yes, but what about the rent?” the landlord says. He has a stomach you could fit small children in, if they were curled up in the right way. “Well, I have the money, but I think I ought to save it, just to be safe, because I don’t have a job anymore,” I say. “No job?” he says. “What happened to your job?” “I quit,” I say. “It just wasn’t working out. But I have a much better job lined up anyway, and I just sold a series of large paintings, so it will all work out. I’ll send you a check next week.” “Did everything go okay with the exterminators?” he says. “I don’t think they came,” I say. “Didn’t come?” he says, squinting at me and rubbing his children-carrier. I say, “Doesn’t smell like they did. What were they even supposed to kill?” “Anything in the building that doesn’t belong,” he says. “If they weren’t here today, they’ll be here tomorrow.” “But what about my great-aunt?” I say. “What am I supposed to do with her?” “What great-aunt?” he says. “If you’ve got a second person living here we’ll have to renegotiate the rent.” “I never said anything about anyone living here,” I say. “I was just asking about my great-aunt, but never mind.” “Okay then,” he says. “Exterminators tomorrow.”

I bid the man adieu and again take off my clothes. I have the heat cranked up to eighty, because I really do hate being cold. I call my father about the rent, but he of course doesn’t answer, and I don’t bother to leave a message. I look in my cupboards for something to eat, but can’t find anything except for salty things, and if I loathe anything as much as the cold, it’s salt. The worst part about seeing my ex-boyfriend at the café was that even after he definitely saw me he definitely didn’t even bother to come over and say hi. Which, if you had recently had an adulterous ice-skating-with-a-button-nose date cunningly ruined by someone whose identity was unknown both to you and the button-nose in question, wouldn’t you want to tell the story to just about everyone you know? Especially a woman with adorable freckles who had not once but thrice treated you to gratuit coffee and the most exquisite tête-à-tête imaginable? A woman with unparalleled abilities in sculpting and baking and the speaking of French? But apparently, despite her smallness of lips and smallness of eyes, button-nose had charmed him to the extent that he’d forgotten my very existence.