At 4:30 in the morning, you moved briskly down Market street back towards Chris’ apartment. You’d just left Katie at a corner. She would go to work, you would go home. Perhaps go back to sleep. Unsure. You’d been awake since 2:30am—going to bed at 8pm maybe wasn’t the best idea.
The street was littered with homeless people and junkies. You cannot say that you’ve ever walked alone through Civic Center at such an hour. What you mistook for the safety of early-morning commuters or workers was in fact a community of the derelict.
A smallish man came up some stairs from BART, rounded the railing, and saw you. How he ended up in a conversation with you, you can’t be sure. Maybe he said hello; you probably responded. Maybe he asked where you were headed; home—the other home. He said something about looking for an apartment, “I can spend up to fifteen hundred dollars.”
Sounded like a lot. Where do junkies get their money, anyway?
Oh yes, he was clearly a junky, though a little more chic than the rest of them. His clothes seemed fairly clean, he wore a backpack, carried just one small shopping bag, and walked with a limp.
“I fell off my skateboard,” he said. “Sprained my ankle pretty bad.” This was after some lifeless conversation on your part about gaming. He “loved gaming!” Check this out. Something about Call Of Duty. And then, “You’re very pretty.”
“Thank you,” you replied. “Some guy chased me down the street yesterday and offered me a job on the spot because he thought I was pretty.” Oh yeah… that was weird. You’d just left Katie’s work—after turning up for a free coffee. The place was packed. The line was out the door. Katie stared at you and had said it was too much for her. You smiled back at her—somewhat guilty about stressing her out—and accepted a free coffee. You told her that you had to run some errands, but that you would be back in a couple hours when her shift ended.
That’s when the guy—Valentino—a youthful-looking, 50ish man in a nice suit and with distinguished grey temples chased you down the street. “Excuse me! Ma’am. Sorry to bother you.”
You turned, appraised him, holding a shoebox and a coffee. He sputtered. He spoke rapidly. He seemed like he was trying to sell you something. Only he had nothing to sell. Not exactly. “You see, I’ve just bought and started this cafe. We’re in a neighborhood that is in a sort of transitional phase. It’s getting better. And this cafe is for, well, you know, people who want to sit and linger for a while. You seem like kind of a high class person. The type of clientele I’m addressing. I saw that you had recently bought a coffee.”
You laughed when he said “high class.” “You’re wrong about that,” you said. “And I didn’t buy this coffee.”
You gave him a very short version of who you were. Squatting, jobless, certainly not high class; really, the guy had seized upon you on a day when you’d cleaned yourself up in order to look hot for your girlfriend, whom you hadn’t seen in over six months.
He invited you to come into his cafe. Just to see it. You had time. So why not? He forced you to sample his coffee, he introduced you to his staff—a Colombian version of Catherine Zeta Jones and a distinguished old fellow probably named Raoul, or something. Valentino spoke rapidly, jumping from one thought to the next with little connection. He told you all about the cafe, about the theme, the cafe in Venice he was replicating. Coffee was served in tiny glasses. The lattes looked like beautiful cocktails.
“What do you do for work?” he asked abruptly.
“I don’t work. I have no job,” you said.“I am actually considering becoming a dominatrix.”
Oddly, his expression did not change. “That’s very interesting.” Was he even listening? “How do you feel about working?”
You shrugged. “I like work to be challenging. Intellectually stimulating. I struggle with boredom a lot. I lose my enthusiasm for my work quickly.”
Valentino turned to his two employees. “Wouldn’t you say this job can be stimulating?”
Raoul said, “Oh yes. It can very very intellectually stimulating. You have to communicate with all types of people. You can be very stimulated.”
You wondered momentarily if you were in some other dimension. It felt like you were surrounded by yes men. You nodded politely to Raoul and Catherine, both of whom thought your name was Sarah, because Valentino told them so not fifteen seconds after learning your name was Maria. When he said “more prettier,” you tuned back in.
Valentino offered you a job. You made excuses. Katie already worked for a coffee shop. You weren’t especially interested. Valentino leaped from his seat, “You know who she looks like!” And listed off a number of actresses, some of whom you’d heard, some you had not. “Sarah,” he began.
“Maria,” you corrected.
“Yes, sorry. Of course. Listen. I work in TV and film, in addition to a number of other enterprises. You just have that look. It’s not every day I run out of my own business to chase a woman down the street. I went like this—did I not go like this? I was behind here, pretend that window is… and then I… so then I went out. You seemed like you didn’t want anyone to approach you. But I saw your coffee…” on and on. You tried not to burst out laughing. If he had seen you just one week ago…
In short, he wanted pretty people to work in his cafe. He suddenly leaned in and told you to “Watch watch watch! Look at the face of this man when he orders his drink. Look how he looks at her.”
The customer’s eyes continued to linger on Catherine. He smiled dreamily.
“I see,” you said. “So you want to cultivate an environment in which the clients fall in love under and with the ambiance.”
“Yes!” Valentino said. “That’s exactly it! I can tell you are a lot smarter than me. I can see that. I like how you put that. You’re good with words. Can you write copy?”
Suddenly you were offered a job as his social media manager. “A few hours a week. Nothing much. But I need someone to pull people in.” He went on and on about his marketing ideas.
“I don’t really know very much about social media,” you admitted. “I’m behind the times. I only got my first Smartphone a week ago.” He forced an exchange of numbers, told you everything was going to be fine.
So odd… you left, not first without thanking him for inundating you with compliments, but feeling very much like your personality was ill-suited to his business. You went about your day, picked up Katie from work, went through a bit of the awkwardness that comes from two people who have not seen each other in six months. She told you about the people in her life; you told her about your marathon week of OKC dates. She hadn’t slept in over a day. 8pm came. You fell asleep.
…Which brings you back to your junkie.
His name was Ronald. He had a foot fetish. Said he would love to rub them. He was on crystal meth.
He seemed nice enough. Not threatening. He limped at your side for twenty minutes. You didn’t see anyway reason why he couldn’t walk with you, though he was slowing your progress home. You passed a lot of people: a community of folks arguing; a sketchy guy hiding under his jacket next to a van so he could hit his crack pipe, and then a woman waiting for the streetcar called over to you, “Come on, say it! Say it! Whore! Say whore!”
“Whore?” you said back.
“That’s what I thought!” she yelled.
Ronald made some snide, vulgar comment.
“I’m not sure what just happened back there. Did she want me to accuse her of being a whore? Or admit that I was one?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. She’s a crazy, blonde bitch.”
You continued on. The small talk was just that: small talk. You asked Ronald questions about himself. He didn’t provide clear answers.
“You are skittish, you know that?” you said to him. “I ask you questions and you don’t give me responses.”
Were you busting his balls? He wanted to know.
“You say you are looking for an apartment, but you can’t find the time. You also said you’re really good at wasting time. Maybe you should work on your time management skills.”
He shrugged with a dismissive laugh. “You know, you’re right.” Then he turned the conversation back to your feet. “Mmm, damn! I bet you have beautiful feet.”
He gurgled, moaned. Some kind of noise.
“But they are very big feet. I wear a size 13 in women’s. It’s hard to find shoes.”
“That don’t matter to me one bit. I bet you have beautiful arches.”
“I do. I have very healthy feet. And long toes, well spaced. They get lots of air. I love my feet. They’re good to me.”
He relished this information. “You’re teasing me! Man, you’ve got some legs on you, too! I like that tattoo on your ankle. Hmm…. Yeah. Hey you mind if we sit down for a minute. My ankle is killing me. I need to smoke. You mind if I smoke. Or you wanna get a drink at 7-11? I’ll buy you something.”
You told him you didn’t want the drink, but that you would sit with him while he smoked.
He talked about your feet. And other things. And about his erection. “I kinda wish I wasn’t wearing pants right now. It’s getting really uncomfortable.” He shifted a lot, pulled on the crotch of his jeans. Not in a vulgar way. In a Shifty way.
Blink. Blink. “You’re saying that you are aroused?”
“That’s interesting. Say, what’s in that little baggy?” The corner of a drug bag poked out of his first.
“Oh that? I was just gonna do a little line. A little taste. Something to pick me up. I need a straw. Or a credit card. Something.”
You looked in your bag but found nothing you were willing to let him use. He settled for a scrap of cardboard from some food package. Busted off a bump, then made a great series of faces.
“Burning?” you asked.
“Yeah. A lot. Impurities, you know?”
You nodded solemnly. “Of course.”
“You want a taste?” he asked, after moving next to you from his seat on the steps across from you. You declined. Told him that your digestive issue probably wouldn’t mix well with a stimulant like that.
“Just trying to get myself home to a toilet,” you said.
Did he laugh? You don’t remember. He spoke to you, but had become incoherent. You told him that you were having a hard time understanding him. He had gotten too high. And that being the case, it was time to go home. He wanted to walk with you. Wanted your phone number. You politely declined, shook his hand, and bid him farewell.