The city slept in. A silence that belonged to early dawn extended through the Meatpacking District into midday. Even though it was my day off, I called the restaurant to make sure no help was needed. During blizzards some cooks had the nerve to not show up for work, whereas the washers and cleaners, who were the lowest-paid staff in the kitchen and lived deep in Brooklyn and Queens, made it to the restaurant even if it required hours of walking on side roads and bridges.
I stopped by Florent, my favorite spot for breakfast, a French diner about to close its doors after twenty-two years of consistent food and outrageous nightlife. The owner, a Frenchman and resilient queer activist, was a big fan of my desserts. Every Bastille Day I made him a massive, elaborate cake with the face of Marie Antoinette, which guaranteed me free food for the year. The diner had lost its unbridled downtown energy a while ago, and now the regulars spent most of their time gossiping about rent increases, offers and counteroffers. The closing of such a landmark restaurant, rumored to be happening at the end of the year, was one more sign that we would all be kicked out of the neighborhood sooner or later.
I pierced the yolk of my breakfast sandwich and waited for the plate to turn yellow, wondering if Chef, who had clearly been successful dealing with the USCIS and owned a world-renowned restaurant, would be able to help me. I flipped through the pages of a Village Voice
someone had left behind, going over our conversation in my head. The check being slipped next to my plate brought me back. I looked at it knowing that it would total zero, left a tip that doubled the cost of my breakfast, kissed the hostess goodbye, and walked into the cold.
Stepping on a powdery, unplowed patch of sidewalk and kicking the snow, repeating the words We’ll get you the right papers,
I experienced a strange happiness, a distant memory from my teenage days. I walked around the Village until the bottoms of my pants were soaked and heavy. Despite his aversion to talking about our lack of papeles, I decided to tell Chus about my conversation with Chef. Near Washington Square the traffic was almost back to normal. I flagged down a cab and gave the driver my old address.
I rang the buzzer three times, a code I had used for years to let Chus know I was coming up. Even though I had keys to the apartment, he usually got up to crack the door open so he could return to his reading. After climbing the stairs and seeing it was closed, I knew something was not right. Chus rarely left in the mornings, only when he ran out of Café Bustelo or if one of the rich kids who had moved into the building had stolen his New York Times
from the lobby. The two weekly classes he taught were always in the evening. Shutting the door behind me, I stealthily entered the living room. Nothing looked unusual, the floor covered with leaning towers of books and issues of the New Republic,
the open kitchen neatly scrubbed. I called his name several times and stomped on the hallway floor to alert him I was walking toward his bedroom. The door was wide open. Chus was lying in bed deeply asleep, the nightstand full of cold medicines. I grabbed an open book resting on his chest like a bird in flight, turned off the light, and went back to the living room.
Two hours later, Chus entered the kitchen in his pajamas. I was reading an article on Serena Williams. And simmering on the stove was a lentil soup with chorizo, his favorite winter dish.
“Nothing like waking up to this smell,” he said, and then coughed several times as if wanting to convey that he was sick.
“I didn’t know you had a cold,” I said. “I’d have come earlier.”
Chus walked up to me, and as he was about to kiss my forehead, I pulled my head back.
“Wait, I don’t want to catch a cold.”
“Sorry. You’re right, you’re right.”
We had seen each other a couple of weeks back, but he appeared to have aged all at once, the skin of his face no longer tight, his step unsteady, as if he were hesitant to put his full weight on his feet. For the first time, he looked his age, a man who had already lived his best years.
“How are you feeling?”
“Oh, I’m okay,” he said dismissively, as if it were a silly thing to ask.
“Did you see Dr. Boshnick?” I asked, knowing the answer. Chus had been keeping a strict watch over his T-cell count since becoming HIV positive and visited his doctor frequently.
“I did. This cold is not the one taking me to the other side,” he said.
I knew that colds terrified him. He feared his immune system would not be strong enough to fight them. For more than twenty years he had been taking antiretroviral drugs, long before the abrasive, debilitating cocktails had been replaced by a small, gentle pill that was advertised by hot Latino guys in their underwear.
“By the way, Alexis contacted me to write him a letter of recommendation. He’s decided to apply to Brooklyn College.”
“I’ll never understand why you always side with my ex-lovers.”
“Deme, I’m not siding with anyone. The kid is applying to college, he needs a little help. It’s not like he’s moving in.”
“The kid, as you call him, is a grown-ass man who still lives with his mother. And in case you forgot, he’s a cheater. But I guess every gay man in this city is a cheater, so that makes it okay.”
“You were together for almost two years, Deme. He tried
to be monogamous.”
“Well, he didn’t try that
“Not everyone wants a monogamous relationship.”
“That’s clear to me. You, certainly, don’t. That’s why you’re all alone.”
The radiator hissed but not loud enough to cover the sharp edges of my words. I looked at my plate, embarrassed.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”
Chus began serving the lentils.
“I said I’m sorry.”
“And I heard you the first time.”
“I really didn’t mean it. I’m just still very hurt. A whole year without having sex and then I find out Alexis was hooking up with people left and right.”
“I know, I know. He should have been up-front about it.”
“You forgive me? I really didn’t mean what I said.”
“Yes. Apologies accepted,” he said, though I could tell he was wounded.
His ability to forgive always made me feel a bit of a lesser human. After my overreaction, now was not the right time to bring up my conversation with Chef.
“How’s work?” Chus said.
He liked hearing about it. I thought his initial exasperation about my not continuing my studies after high school would be permanent, but it didn’t last long. My commitment to baking and the early write-ups that appeared in different publications praising my desserts, which in retrospect were premature and a bit overhyped, convinced him that maybe I was not destined for the academic life he had envisioned for me.
“It’s been pretty crazy, which I guess is a good thing. If you own the restaurant, that is,” I said with a smile.
With Chus’s laugh, a small window of opportunity opened up. I considered that maybe it was not too late to bring up Chef. Taking one big breath, I pulled my shoulders back to ready myself. But as I passed the bread and noted how fragile he looked, his eyes buried in skin, I reached over the table to turn on the radio. The All Things Considered
theme filled the room. Chus moved his long fingers as if playing an invisible flute. We began to eat.
Copyright © 2023 by Javier Fuentes. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.