How They Met, and Other Stories by David Levithan : Page 1

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STARBUCKS BOY

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 akin to 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 form of 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 if I had no 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 “babysitting” 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 up her cell phone 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 canceled. 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.…Yes, it’s quite a loaded potato…. Absolutely my pleasure!”

She hung up and looked at me like I’d just been checked off a list.

“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 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 possible. With an air kiss and a trail of perfume, Aunt Celia was off.

I started the next morning at eight. My 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 buttoned-down 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 jacket 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 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, sleek and steely like her mother. In fact, she was pudgy and flushed, her hair only making a halfhearted 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. Comprenez-vous?”

“Oui.”

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 apologized.

“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 babysittee. 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.”

Elise 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 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 from the way he says it to anyone else. Or at least that’s the hope.
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