True had that end-of-the-night feeling: the tired eyes, the ache in the arches of his feet, dried sweat that clammed his black pants and cheap black polo to his skin. He and Lindsay were drinking their shifties. Their table was close to the kitchen, and he could hear the Mexicans’ music through the wall, its tuba and plaintive accordion. It was already after midnight, but Lindsay wanted True to buy her a drink.
“Not tonight,” True said. “I’m opening tomorrow, I’ve got to get out of here.”
“You’ll buy me one. You will. You just don’t know it yet.”
Lindsay made a game, when she and True were off the clock together, of talking him into buying her a drink. So far she hadn’t won. True never bought drinks beyond his free shiftie, and he definitely never bought drinks for Lindsay, who was trouble. True wouldn’t be lured into that.
“I’ll get us started,” she said. She flagged down the closing server and ordered two Fernet Brancas.
“There,” Lindsay said as the server put the glasses down. “Now I’ve bought you a drink, so you have to buy me one.” She tossed her hair and smiled, big blond mane and white teeth.
“Fernet doesn’t count,” True said. The staff got Fernet Branca for four bucks a shot—three at happy hour—and plowed through glass after glass of the dark, viscous stuff. It was the official drink of the industry, the bartender’s handshake. It tasted like bitter rust and menthol.
“It gets you drunk doesn’t it?”
“It doesn’t count.”
Lindsay made her eyes big and leaned forward, pawing at his arm. “I scratch your back but you won’t scratch mine?”
“Another time,” True said, smiling to mitigate his refusal.
“If you’re not going to buy me a drink then you have to do something else,” Lindsay said. “You’ve got to tell me why you won’t.”
True sipped his Fernet and cringed. “It’s a policy,” he said. The Mexican kitchen-music mixing in with the restaurant’s late-night indie-folk station, the memory, heavy in his body, of six hours of bussing dishes, candles flickering on the tables, all pressed in on him, amplifying his exhaustion. Why was Lindsay bothering him, anyway? Why him, when Rob and Andrew and Chris and half the regulars were all trying to get into her pants? True kept himself apart from the restaurant staff, with their drinking, their pointless partying, their conversations that referenced only work or obscure bars or other restaurant people—who had slept with who, why so-and-so got fired, where they were working now. True wasn’t interested. Lindsay had made a few comments that made it sound like most of the staff thought he was aloof. He was okay with that.
“What kind of a policy?” Lindsay asked. “Why?”
“I’m trying to save money.”
“What are you saving for?”
“I’m just saving,” True said.
“Fine. Be all quiet and shit. You’ll crack one day.”
She dug her heel into True’s thigh and smiled and wiggled her toes.
True was saving for a camera, a Nikon D300, to replace the one that some dipshit stole out of the back of his car two months ago. True was a photographer. Or he wanted to be a photographer. When he interviewed for the job at the restaurant, he had asked if there would be any photography opportunities for him—the restaurant was young, its web presence unspectacular, and True thought he could liven up their site with some good shots of the space, which was beautiful. On a sunny day, light shot through the big glass windows in the front and glowed in the liquor bottles. The air above the hammered zinc bar and tabletops looked buttery, so thick that True could touch it. He wanted to shoot in that light. The owner told him if he was tenacious and dedicated to the restaurant then eventually there might be photography work for him, that they would definitely keep him in mind, but right now what they needed was a busboy. True took the job.
What could he do? He was twenty-three, just out of school, and he didn’t have much of a portfolio. He needed to pay the rent. So every day, he came to work and picked up plates and put them down elsewhere. Every day he folded squares of white linen into triangles, placed a fork and knife onto each one, and rolled them into bundles. Every day he polished hundreds of shot glasses, water glasses, wine glasses, cocktail glasses. He wiped sticky rings of spilled beer off of those gorgeous hammered zinc tables. It was temporary. He would get work as a photographer soon.
On Sunday, his day off, True took the bus downtown and wandered through art galleries. He was without his digital SLR, but he still had his little Sony point-and-shoot. He walked through every exhibit of photography he could find, taking notes on composition, line, pattern, trying to imagine why the curators had picked this photographer over all the others, and what he could do to ensure that one day a curator would want to pick him. On the street, he clicked away at turn of the century apartment buildings, sleeping homeless people, the crumbling sides of warehouses.
He wanted to be an artist, not just a photographer of babies and weddings and products that needed advertising, and certainly not just a busboy. He imagined having exhibits of his own: the thrill of seeing his work on a gallery wall, the kind of people who might buy it (couples in their early thirties, maybe, with money, but cool ones, the kind of people who might smoke a joint with him behind the gallery), the parties full of cheap wine and music and girls with vinyl collections.
But for now, he bussed tables at night and slept through the afternoon. He was an artist on Sundays.
“You missed a real time last night,” Lindsay said. They were sitting at table twenty-one again, after a shift. Lindsay had tried to buy him another glass of Fernet, but True talked her out of it. It was so late that the kitchen was closed, and Brady and Jose were sitting at the bar in their street clothes—baggy black jeans and Ecko sweatshirts—eying Lindsay like a pair of wolves. She seemed not to notice.
“We went out to Pearl and got pretty drunk, then we wound up doing shots at some divey bar, and guess who was there? Gary!”
“Who’s Gary?” True asked.
“Who’s Gary?” She leaned forward and slapped her hands on the tabletop. “Oh my god, you’ve got to meet him! He’s unbelievable. He’s this old guy—like, mid-forties—server at the wine bar next door, comes in here all the time for shots of well whiskey.”
“What’s he doing working at a restaurant?” True asked. His restaurant had one career bartender who was thirty-two, and two of the managers were in their thirties, but a server in his mid-forties was unheard of.
“Well, he likes to get drunk and talk about his good old days, so I know all about it,” Lindsay said. “I guess he did a bunch of acid and a bunch of coke and maybe was a junkie for a little while? But so he fried his brain and now he’s the oldest waiter in the world. A lifer. My girlfriend who works over there with him says he gets all flustered when he gets more than three tables and starts just yelling at the support staff and pulling his hair.”
“And you did shots with him?”
“Yeah. He was really drunk, and he was telling me about all the places he’s been, like, New York, Buenos Aires, London, and he said he wants to take me to New York. He said he knows all the best restaurants nobody knows about, and that he’ll buy us plane tickets and that—
fucking get this—his friend there has a handgun we can borrow for when we go out.”
True laughed. “A handgun?”
“He said he never goes out with a lady without protection. Real sweet right? Gary: the last true romantic.” She sipped her Fernet and stared at the reflection of the candles in the big windows up front. “Do you think you could do that?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never even fired a gun.”
“No, not that,” Lindsay said. “Do you think you could be a lifer?”
“No.” True laughed, although just last Sunday, when he was walking through a gallery, he had overheard two men not much older than him talking about the party the photographer had thrown, and True had felt terribly left out, his dream remote. He had shivered in the gallery. A future in the restaurant seemed inevitable. “No,” he said again, “hell no.”
“How long have you been in the industry?” Lindsay said.
“Just about four months. It’s only temporary.”
“Right, that’s what everybody always says. That’s what I said when I started six years ago. That’s probably what Gary used to say, too.” She laughed at her own joke.
True looked down into his beer and smiled, embarrassed by what he was about to say. But why should he be embarrassed? It was what he wanted, wasn’t it? He said, “I’m going to be a photographer.”
“Oh yeah? So is that why you’re such a tight-ass with your money? You saving for gear or something?”
“A new camera,” he said. “My old one got jacked. Anyway, what do you want to do?”
“Something else,” she said. “I have my plans.”
He forced a smile, annoyed that he had divulged and she had not. It was weird, True realized, how little he knew about her. She never talked about her family or what she wanted to do or where she came from. She only talked about restaurant stuff. He wondered if she was cultivating an air of superficiality, like smart girls in high school who pretended to be dumb, or if she really had nothing going on in her life aside from work and drinking with people from work, then he felt bad for wondering.
In college, people knew True. His photographs appeared in many of the on-campus art exhibits, as well as a few of the galleries in his college town, and the school newspaper profiled him and his work. He was the darling of the art department, and he used this popularity to get laid.
He went to parties where everybody knew him or wanted to meet him. He found a pretty girl. He brought her wine and let her talk about Hegel or Warhol or whoever she was into, and eventually they wound up in bed. True wasn’t so naïve as to believe that the real world, post-college, would be so laudatory, so he took advantage of his little scrap of fame while he could, and burned through more than half of the attractive female art majors.
It was easy, and it was fun. Only a handful stuck around for more than a week or two. There had been Christy, with her oversized sweaters. Clara of the record collection, who was always waking up early to draw True while he was still asleep, an unwitting model. Jean, who read philosophy, who roadtripped with him down the coast and fucked in the car and slipped on a rock in Strawberry Cove and got a concussion. Maddy, who he dated for almost two years, who drank too much, who he cheated on, who told him after that, “Girls aren’t bars, True, you can’t just show up, have fun, and leave.” Maddy who looked a little bit like Lindsay, come to think of it. It was the big blond hair. Maddy had tried to control it, straighten it, rope it in with pony tail holders. Lindsay sprayed it out into a wild mess like a country singer.
Lindsay. She was the first girl who had seemed interested in True since he graduated, but he didn’t know how to talk to her. Sometimes he imagined taking advantage of her interest—she had a nice body, and he hadn’t been laid in months—but no, it would be a bad idea. If he slept with Lindsay, word would get around. The servers would talk. The story would become part of the fabric of the restaurant, which meant he would become part of it, too, and it would be harder to figure out where the restaurant ended and True began.
True brought a tray to table twenty-seven and cleared off the previous diners’ dirty forks and napkins and empty glasses. He grabbed the damp rag that hung from his back pocket and swept the crumbs off the table and chairs, then rubbed out a sticky spot. From the service station he grabbed a water bottle, four glasses, and four of the place settings he had rolled this morning, and he arranged them on the table. There was a four-top reservation at twenty-seven in half an hour.
Just as he was straightening the glassware, he heard Lindsay’s voice and turned around. She was at table thirty-one, telling a young couple about the drink specials, and she raised her eyes to meet his. True smiled at her—he couldn’t help it—and when the couple bent their heads to the menu, Lindsay bugged out her eyes and contorted her lips at him for a split second. The woman at the table asked her something and Lindsay’s weird face disappeared, replaced by the neutral, pleasant calm of a servant. A little joke, for True alone.
It was the early afternoon of True’s day off. He was walking up Tenth on his way to an exhibit of portraits of comic convention attendees—soulful men dressed in Jedi robes with beards and acne on their foreheads, True imagined, exploding, or at least questioning, certain concepts of portraiture—when a blonde flapping broke out up the block.
“True! Truuue!” Lindsay came skipping down the sidewalk toward him, big sparkly handbag bouncing at her side. She hugged him and started telling him how weird it was to see him outside of work, “but also great! I was just coming back from renewing my city parking permits, which is a bummer because they need you to prove that you live where you live and I didn’t know that. So I have to come back some other time with a piece of mail with my name on it. Such a pain in the ass! Anyway, what are you doing here?”
“I’m just checking out some photography exhibits,” True said. He wasn’t thrilled to see her. His day off was his time, inviolable, an airtight chamber in the bussing and folding and cleaning of his week. Now Lindsay had picked through a seam and let a little bit of the industry pollute his Sunday. But, because he felt awkward not inviting her, he asked if she wanted to come with.
“Sure,” she said, and hooked her arm into his. True could smell her perfume, clean and sugary. “I’ll get all culture-fied.”
Halfway to the little gallery, they passed one of the big museums, an old art deco building with rust stains running from its ironwork. A banner of a naked woman in black and white, lying face down, hung from the front of the building. “’Naked: An Edward Weston Retrospective,’” Lindsay read. “Have you seen this?”
“A couple weeks ago, yeah,” True said. “It was good.”
“You’re seeing it again. Let’s go.”
Lindsay paid the entrance fee for both of them and they walked down a hallway of black and white nudes, pale bodies, dark bodies, muscled curves. True had studied Edward Weston in school and found his nudes fascinating, but not erotic. They were all about lines and curves, musculature, and not enough about sex. Might as well photograph a car, for all the eroticism they contained. A visiting professor had told him that his inability to separate sensuality from the erotic and to appreciate the lines and movement of the body on its own terms was—and these were his exact words—“a critical failure of imagination.” True hadn’t much listened.
“Lots of bush,” Lindsay observed.
“They were shot in the thirties,” True said. “Bush was in.”
“They’re beautiful.” She leaned in close enough to brush his shoulder—another breeze of her candy perfume—and asked, quietly, “Have you ever taken anything like this?”
“Not really,” True lied. He had taken nude photos of many girls, but had kept none. Keeping them felt too creepy. “At least not exactly like this. I used to work for these two midwifes up where I went to school, when I still had my SLR, shooting portraits of their clients. A lot of them wanted to be shot nude.”
“You shot nude pregnant ladies? That’s awesome.”
“It wasn’t. It was a bunch of pregnant hippies hanging out under trees, all soft-focus and stuff.” Realizing he sounded like a jerk, he added, “I guess I just got sick of it because all of the pictures looked the same.”
She was quiet for a while, then said, “You can’t make fun of hippies with a name like True,” and went back to examining the Westons. She looked at them like she was reading a legal writ: forehead wrinkled, eyes scrolling back and forth, frowning.
“Do you like them?” he asked.
“I love them. It’s weird to think that this is what you do on your day off.”
“It’s like you have this whole life outside of the restaurant that I don’t know anything about. Full of art exhibits and creative people and stuff.”
She made it sound more interesting than it was, but True didn’t correct her. He wondered if Lindsay had detoured them in here as a flirtatious gesture, so that he might infer connections between these naked bodies and Lindsay’s. There was something sexy about a girl wanting to look at nudes with him, and a deeper sexiness in her intense concentration on the photographs.
“What are you doing for the rest of the afternoon?” she whispered, leaning in very close to him again.
“I don’t know,” True said, knowing that he was going to spend the rest of the day with her. “No plans.”
“After this, I’m going to get you to buy me a drink.”
Drunk. His lips on hers in the breezeway outside her apartment, his hand on the wobbly railing. True wasn’t sure how this happened, wasn’t sure where in the city he was or how the singular points of the afternoon graphed a line to the present. Lindsay’s skin was warm, velvety. She must lotion everywhere, he thought. Inside, she stomped down a hallway, leading him by the hand to her bedroom, and threw him down. She was tan everywhere but her ass, which was so white it glowed in the dark. She moved, was always changing positions, grabbing him, pulling him down, their teeth clicking together, pulling him into her with a surprising violence. She came hard, and then he did, and then they sprawled together, panting.
“Get me a drink?” she sighed.
“Sure,” he said.
“There’s a bottle of Fernet in the fridge.” She stretched and turned on the bedside lamp. Her bedroom was spare and half-formed: a futon lying on the floor, a lamp and alarm clock also on the floor, a windowsill jammed with jewelry and makeup, bare walls. “You should probably put your pants on,” she said. “My roommates might be home.”
True pulled on his jeans and undershirt. The sex had sobered him, and he began to feel hollow, disappointed, the way he sometimes did when he had been naked in a brand new place with a brand new person. He wished he hadn’t done it. He would be part of the restaurant people gossip now—an anecdote for the who-slept-with-who conversations.
In the hall, the sound of someone watching reality TV came through the walls as if from far away, the brassy twists of a televised argument made watery and full of echoes. The refrigerator was full of takeout boxes, most from True’s restaurant, a bottle of vodka, and a bottle of Fernet Branca. He couldn’t find glasses, but he found solo cups, and splashed a shot of Fernet into each and sipped at one. It tasted like ferns. Strong mint and ferns. Not bad—he was starting to get used to the stuff.
Lindsay was lounging naked, face-down, half covered by the mess of sheets. There was something about the light hitting her body, the smell of their sex in the air, the whole day, maybe, that gave the light a tint of red, or a suggestion of redness, at least. One of her legs was cocked up under her, ass in the air, mussed-up blond hair on the pillow. True thought of the Weston nudes, and of how Lindsay’s back would look glowing red and white on a gallery wall. He put the solo cups down on the floor, took his point-and-shoot out of his pocket, and framed up the bowline curve of her body half out of the sheets, like the hull of a ship breaching a wave. He adjusted the white balance so he could get the light right, capture the stark difference between her pale rear and tan back.
When he snapped the picture, the stupid electronic shutter noise, which True had never turned off, chinked and whirred, and Lindsay turned her head. “Oh, it’s like that?” she said, seeing the camera.
“Sorry,” True said. “It wasn’t filthy or anything. I just like the light in here right now.”
She sat up, spread her legs across the sheets, and gave him an expression so full of the promise of sex that True started to stir in his jeans. “Take another one,” she said.
“No, no, it’s not like that,” he said, even as he snapped a picture. “I just wanted to get your back. The curve. It was nice. I’m doing an art project.”
She reached for the cup of Fernet and shot it all at once—she was still very drunk, True realized—then got on her hands and knees and turned away from him and pressed her ass toward him and his camera. “I’ll show you a fucking art project,” she said, looking back over her shoulder. True poured his Fernet Branca into his mouth and made the little electronic shutter whir.