At first glance, he was everything I’d ever hoped to be; I watched him stride confidently into the restaurant and order with an aplomb that I’d never quite been able to manage, all with a smile on his face.He was fearlessly there, and he was taller than everyone else in the shop save one long string bean of a man cowering timidly in a corner, alone with his sandwich and his thoughts.
His work boots were well broken-in, but still clean and presentable. His collared shirt was unwrinkled, but without that starched trying-too-hard look about it. He was shaved, but not clean-shaven; somewhere between the noon bristly look that everyone else wore on their chin at lunchtime and that five o’clock shadow that no one but airbrushed models can pull off perfectly.
I heard him order French onion soup and a club sandwich, hold the mayo, and I respected that bold move. It’s hard to put back a steaming bowl of French onion soup when you know you have meetings scheduled for the rest of the afternoon at which you have to have the perfect physical presentation, including a breath without the stink of onions, a puppy-dog breath, if you will.
His steps echoed in my soul as he waltzed to the pickup counter, heedless of my slack-jawed admiration of him. Thunderously loud steps with those scrubbed and pseudo-polished work boots that no one else paid attention to, save me. Those boots were burning into the soft, wet, gray matter of my mind. After he left, they were all I could think of. Those boots and the way his hair waved back from his unlined forehead like a movie star’s hair. Like the hair of the man I wished I could be.
The boss wrote me up before I got off work that day. He pulled me into his office and told me that he caught me staring at the customers again. I wasn’t staring at the customers that day, I argued. I swore that I wasn’t, but I was lying. Somewhat lying. I was only staring at one. The one that I wanted to be when I grew up. I couldn’t help myself, and besides, the boss wasn’t even there when he came in today. He was off fucking his girlfriend or whatever it is that he does on those long lunch break that he always takes that no one else is ever allowed to indulge in. Like making someone else’s meals is so important that we all have to be at his beck and call all the time anyway.
I didn’t care; I signed the write up and let him file it in my folder without another word of argument when I saw that look in his eyes that says shut up, John, you’ve made enough of a mess out of this one for today, you should just quit while you’re ahead. I quit while I was ahead. One more step on my road to transformation. One more notch in my belt.
The boss let me go and I walked out the door and down the street to home, whistling tunelessly, which is the only way that I know how to whistle. I’ve tried, God knows I’ve tried. I’ve been practicing my whistle since the first day I realized that I could pucker my lips and blow and make that eldritch sound, but I’ve never gotten good at it.
My keys were clipped to my right hand belt loop, and they jangled dissonantly with the whistling, but I didn’t care; I made a rhythm out of it, something to walk to. It was only two blocks to my apartment. When I reached the door I looked both ways to make sure no one was watching me before I unclipped the keys from my belt loop and let myself in.
I don’t know why I do that; It’s just something that I’ve always done. It feels like an invasion of my privacy for someone to watch me enter my own domicile. My own safe place. The one place that I can truly be myself.
I don’t allow that to happen anymore, not since the last time, when I first moved in. The neighbor always came outside to make sure I wasn’t going to rob him. he always watched me with those beady little eyes in his pudgy round face. Those eyes, those eyes, always boring holes into me until I couldn’t sleep at night for the pain of them.
I spent a little over a year and a half at Brookview after I ran up the stairs and gouged those eyes out with my keys. I don’t know why they didn’t keep me any longer. I think it’s because of the way I licked my lips when I looked at my doctor. She was a tasty little morsel, but I would never ever have given her a try without her permission. She never did anything to me that she wasn’t supposed to. It would have been rude of me to take advantage of her.
A shiver went down my spine as I thought about my doctor, and the neighbor that never did come back to retrieve his belongings from the apartment upstairs. Management kept it empty now. They didn’t kick me out because I paid them my rent annually, from the lump sum payments I received from my parents’ estate.
The boss doesn’t know that I don’t need the money. That’s why he keeps me on at the sandwich shop, even thought he writes me up every time he catches me watching the customers. Or every time one of my coworkers rats me out for watching the customers when the boss is on his long lunch break.
I closed the door behind me, and the snick when the lock engaged was so satisfying that my knees gave way for a moment, and I slid down the door, nearly to the floor before I caught myself and stood back up. I closed my eyes and thought about the man that had come in for lunch, the orderer of the French onion soup,, the wearer of the boots, my idol, my hero, the perfect man, the man that I could never be, no matter how hard I tried and tried and polished myself.
I could never be as confident as he is. I could never fit in like he does. But I can dream about him.
For the first time in my adult life I didn’t put my work uniform immediately into the washing machine when I took it off; I left it on the bathroom floor as I soaped up in the shower, rubbing myself as I thought about the man with the boots. I left it on the bathroom floor as I got out of the shower and toweled myself off, letting the small splashes of water dry on the mirror that hung over the sink. I left it on the floor as I collapsed into my bed, naked and damp and aroused.
I fell asleep, and I dreamed about him. I dreamed that he came back the next day, and he looked into my eyes, and he waited for me out back. I dreamed that when I got off work he took me under his wing, and he taught me how to be a man. He taught me how to be bold and unwavering, how to look someone in the eye until they flinched away, uncomfortable with the strength of my gaze on their skin. He taught me how to make everyone else feel the way that I feel every day.
When I woke I felt that I had soiled the sheets, and my shame was nearly enough to force me into the shower with the straight razor that I keep behind the bathroom mirror that hangs above the sink, but I thought about him, and about how he would handle it, and I decided that it wouldn’t bother him one bit.
He would laugh, and so I laughed. Ha ha ha. He would pull the sheets from the mattress and put them in the washing machine and wash them and that would be the end of it, and so it was that way for me.
I felt better already.
I hope that he comes in for lunch again today. I’m going to make the French onion soup special, just for him.
I don’t idolize nurses, as a rule
they do what they have to do, like me and like you
it isn’t the occupation that makes the person noble
it’s the person who brings their own honor
I remember the muscles flexing in her arms
the arms extending from the short scrub sleeves
the set of her mouth as she wrote on a chart
the eyes that saw through excuses and bullshit
she shouldn’t have made it as far as she did
but she was smart enough and she was stubborn enough
that her race and gender didn’t stop her
she’s a role model who rose to the top
and while I never wanted to be a director of nursing
I can admire someone who did
and someone who is
when she worked for everything she has