Chapter 1: Pity Party
Sweat beaded on Jake’s brow. He’d survived Black Friday with only surface scratches and a black eye. The cheekbone still throbbed, but at least the blue-black ring was cushioned by sickly yellow and green tints that did nothing to complement his naturally ruddy complexion.
Head bent, his reflection gleamed in the showcase, polished to a mirror finish as per the floor manager’s specs.
“That one.” A finger marred the smooth surface, tap tap tappity tap.
“Excellent choice, sir.” The words smarmed off his tongue as he moved the sliding door to access the pile of neatly folded cashmere scarves. He looked up to confirm. The short, balding man nodded. Pressing his luck, Jake said, “Paisley is definitely you.”
The customer preened. “Do you think so?”
Jake needed to close the deal. And the store. He had to pee, he was starved and he was on hour twelve of a six hour shift thanks to Miss Becca having a hissy fit and storming off, leaving them short on help and long on tourists.
Sucking air and moral fortitude, Jake said, “Absolutely.” He motioned to Gabe in turtlenecks. “Don’t you agree?”
Gabe plastered a smile on his face and nodded convincingly. It was a good acting job considering he couldn’t see the scarf through the rotund man, and he really didn’t give a flying fuck.
Mr. Commitment-issues dithered. “Well then…”
“Would you like it gift wrapped or would you care to wear it?”
He pointed his chin at the plate glass windows, the view toward Central Park obscured by heavy slush acting like prisms in the festive holiday lights. It gave the scene a Kafkaesque quality. It also gave Jake a headache—not the slush, the Kafka reference. Just the thought reminded him of his latest black mark in an unremarkable acting career, yet another black eye metaphorically and figuratively, one more reason to turn tail and slink back to his roots.
Gabe joined them, one eye on the clock, the other on the scarf Jake fondled with the tips of his fingers, the texture smooth enough to merit the sort of petting you did locked away in your own space, letting your imagination run rampant…
Shaking off the tempting succubus that was cashmere, Jake asked, “Will that be cash or credit, sir?”
“How much?” The man had a wallet in his hand.
“Two seventy-six plus tax.”
“Um.” The wallet went back into a pocket.
Uh-oh. He looked at Gabe, Gabe looked at the door, they both avoided looking at the small man backing away from the counter.
“I’ll think about it.” The little man muttered something about coming back. He wouldn’t, they never did.
Desperate, Jake mouthed to Gabe, “How much?” and nodded when Gabe held up two fingers. They had leeway for discounting—ten percent, usually enough to seal a deal. Jake didn’t think that would do it so he nonchalantly said, “Of course, with the discount that comes to…” He tapped frantically on the calculator. “Ah, two hundred twenty even.” He’d eat the eighty cents and the tax just to make the sale. Without it he was toast.
Gabe cooed, “That’s a steal for an Alexander McQueen.” He sighed and rolled his eyes. “I would just kill for a one off design like that.”
Gabe would kill, yes, but only if somebody dared put such a butt ugly pattern against his model thin body. Jake choked back laughter as his co-worker strutted back toward his own counter, his hip movements so exaggerated it looked like he was wearing Christian Louboutine heels.
The customer oozed in Jake’s direction, the word “discount” coating the man’s tongue with greedy pleasure. He’d gotten a whiff of desperation and was going in for the score. Jake recognized the signs—beady eyes gone flat, hiding interest, forefinger and thumb rubbing one against the other, measuring out virtual currency and milking the stone for every drop of discretionary price cutting he could weasel.
Jake had been wrong. This was no naïve tourist. That meant they both knew the game. Take away the McQueen label and slap a big box store faux designer tag on it, and you could walk out with a fuzzy neck snake for thirty bucks retail. Or the guy could wait until closer to Christmas and score it for fifty percent off.
Jake grimaced. He was so screwed.
“Is that your best offer?
Of course it wasn’t. Gabe leaned down, tapped his ass with his hand and reminded Jake that he had other options to close a deal. He also had rent to pay, an empty dorm fridge and the next semester’s tuition due yesterday.
As anxious as he was to make the sales targets set up by the owner and his boyfriend toady floor manager, he’d yet to sink that low… yet being the operative term.
Folding the offending neckware into precise quarters, Jake laid it carefully on the smudged glass counter and said, “Two.”
“Is that your final offer?”
Who was this asshole, some fucking game show host?
Setting his fists on the counter, he bracketed the cashmere scarf and nodded, once. Emphatically. Across the aisle, Gabe mirrored his movements, his eyes squinting with anticipation. He’d already figured the odds, done the calculations, and knew exactly how close to the edge Jake teetered.
The basket of wool blends at sixty-nine ninety five lay temptingly nearby. If you didn’t look too closely, you’d never tell the difference between the soft-as-sin cashmere and the wool acrylic knock off. Both came in gag-me-with-a-spoon patterns, both had fancy-schmancy labels, both were probably made in some rural Indonesian village by six year old girls running looms and earning a few pennies a day.
One carried cachet based on celebrity, the other was comfortably serviceable. Both were overpriced, both did exactly the same job. None of that mattered. What did matter was him and a customer going mano-a-mano over a loop of fabric in a power game that spoke less to grabbing a bargain and more to establishing bragging rights over a meaningless status symbol.
What it came down to was him going without dinner again… or … bowing to the customer is always right mentality with short, bald and pudgy. He was going to concede defeat to a man who likely earned a six figure income and could afford one of each item in their tony shop and never notice the uptick on his credit card statement. And Jake would ring it up, smile, bag it and wish the man a good evening.
That’s what you did when your belly ached and your feet burned like the blazes and you had nowhere to go and nothing to do and only wanted peace on fucking earth and goodwill to men.
Well, maybe leave off the earth part and zero in on fucking men, because he sure as hell wasn’t getting any and wouldn’t until he got his life back on track. He chewed his bottom lip and imagined sucking off the Adonis playing lead at the Mercer Off-Off-Off-Broadway theatre group—the one pretentiously subbing “re” for “er” because it somehow looked more legit that way.
The customer squirmed. He was losing patience. That was good news and bad news. Jake acknowledged with a nod he’d been bested, though the theater gods knew that really didn’t take a lot of effort, so he said, “One sixty.” He flipped the muted blue and gold swirls of cozy warmth toward the man’s eager fingers.
The winner wrapped the scarf around his neck and tossed a credit card onto the counter. Jake picked it up. It was a Platinum card. But of course. The asshole was probably earning triple flyer miles with the purchase, maybe even going to a tropical island for the holidays while Jake huddled in his unheated walk-up that he shared with a druggie and a drag queen.
The transaction completed, Jake growled, “Have a nice evening,” and followed the man to the door, held it open and waited until he’d disappeared into the heavy gloom of fat snowflakes whispering an icy version of Silent Night.
After locking up, he met Gabe in the closet laughingly called the employee quarters, and sank onto the bench seat with a groan.
Gabe asked, “You busy tonight?”
It was Friday night. Like every other night, Gabe asked the same damn question, and the answer was always no, nothing, zilch, nada, zero, zippo.
“You know Harmon.”
That seemed a bit off the wall. He knew Harmon, a securities trader who liked to slum in the gay bars down in the Chelsea section. Harmon was a common name so he figured clarification was in order. “You mean Drew?”
“What about him?” Gabe usually bolted the minute the front doors locked, so for him to sit there engaging in idle chitchat about a guy they sort of new from seeing him around was a little unusual. “Is he dead or something?” Jake didn’t mean to be flippant, it was just that they really didn’t know the dude other than he was tall and skinny, wore thick black glasses and dressed business casual for a night on the town. And he was pretty much duller than dirt.
“He got dumped.”
“Oh.” Jake left off the whoop-ti-fucking-do and bent over to switch his wingtips for well-worn Army-Navy combat boots. When he finished lacing them, he asked, “So?”
“They’re having a party for him at Anton’s place.”
The manners his Gram had pounded into him, wooden spoons notwithstanding, spoke first. “That’s nice,” followed up with, “but why?”
Gabe waggled his ring finger. “Engaged. Cake ordered. They had the hall reserved. Any of that ringing a bell?”
It didn’t ring any bells because Jake was still reeling from his own very long walk down misery lane after an aborted trial run at domestic bliss. He tried hard to stay clear of real or imagined entanglements, including that kind of happy news that spread like a pox in his limited social circle. He’d holed up after Mike had carved his initials in his heart, leaving him bleeding and alone. Nobody had had a pity party for him when he’d been contemplating jumping off the GW Bridge.
Fuck them. Too damn bad. Cowboy up. Grow a set…
“You want to come? Marty said there’s snacks from the Polish deli and free beer.”
Jake glanced at his reflection in the mirror on the back of the door and groaned. He looked like the image his bosses cultivated in order to lure in the hip and pseudo-hip male tourists—a preppy twink reject from Abercrombie and Fitch. His riot of ginger curls, aviator frame glasses and lanky five-ten was accented perfectly by his war injuries from an aborted attempt to hold back the asscrack of dawn, rabid Black Friday horde.
Yes, even on Fifth Avenue, on one of the snobbiest blocks of retail stores in the city, people went apeshit for bargains. It seemed the more you had, the less you were willing to part with your ill-gotten gains, and that translated to Walmart sensibilities with Upper East Side disposable income.
Jake moaned, “I look like shit.” He paused before voicing his usual I’ll just stay home and watch … fill-in-the-blank … while I mope, study, practice my lines, jerk off… Since he was good at multi-tasking he managed a two-fer with jerking off at the top of his to do list. But, since he’d just been fired from his two-line walk-on role as the BFF gay roomie, the only thing he had to practice was are you being served and hope the customers didn’t take it the wrong way.
It took Gabe snuffling his ear, complete with tongue, and a stiffie prodding his ass crack to alert him to the fact he was expected to make a decision: go or stay, stay or go. Either way, it wouldn’t change his life or make the loneliness evaporate or teleport his flakey roomies back to their respective homeworlds.
“Food, sweety. Free food. Keep your eye on the prize.”
Whining, “But I won’t know anyone,” he blinked as Gabe met his stare in the mirror. He backtracked. “Except for you.”
“And Drew, lovebug. You’ll know Drew.” He took a step back, his forefinger tugging at his lower lip. Jake knew that look.
“No, no way. I’m not doing that. Forget it.”
“Do what, babe?” The terms of endearment were coming hot and fast. Gabe was up to something.
“No pity fucks.”
“It’s a pity party, sweetcheeks. No one said anything about fucking.”
Jake snarled, “You were thinking about it.”
“Lover boy, I’m always thinking about it.”
“He’s not my type.”
Gabe sighed. “Drew is nobody’s type.” He gripped Jake’s shoulders and spun him around. “No, babe. Drew’s a lost cause. But you, you undiscovered country, you are due a makeover and a fresh start.”
The first thing that sprang to mind was, “No no no no…” The second thought was, “Really?” because Jake longed for a magic genie to come along and make him somebody else or transport him to somewhere else. He’d give his right arm to not be Jake Robertson, the twenty-four year old next best thing to a virgin and gay reject from South Jersey.
Gabe smirked, giving Jake time to dig a hole deep enough he couldn’t climb out of it easily.
Warily, Jake asked, “Why me. And why now?” He and Gabe were friends without benefits. They traveled in different social circles. Gabe owned the social. Jake had multi-tasking in his corner, not exactly a fair exchange. They managed to intersect on rare occasions, none of those events leaning toward wish fulfillment on Jake’s part. One thing he did know for a fact, Gabe was an inveterate matchmaker. He was the one who had introduced Drew and his now ex whose name Jake couldn’t remember.
Following up on that suspicion, Jake said, “Please tell me you don’t intend to fix me up with someone tonight.”
“Never entered my mind, Jake baby. But I make no promises for later.” He pulled the door open and darted into the store, hissing, “Don’t move.” When he returned, he had an armload of clothing and a devilish gleam in his eyes.
“Gabe, hold on. You don’t mean to…”
“Chill, babe. These are from the return bins. Let’s see if there’s anything in your size.” He laid his burden on the folding card table snugged in the back corner of the tiny room. Jeans, wool slacks and chinos flew in all directions. He grunted, “Fuck… Oh wait, this… Oh hell, yeah.” He held up a pair of black leather biker pants, squeeing, “O. M. G. Stovepipe legs. And hon, check out the buffalo leather and the quilted leg warmers. Suuweet.”
“Leg warmers?” Jake sneered his distaste. “I don’t think so.”
Gabe gave him stink eye and ordered him to disrobe. He watched without comment as Jake blushed his way through the strip show, stopping just short of commando. Gabe shook his head in disgust. “Tighty whities, Jake? Really?”
After shoving the pair of supple leather pants into Jake’s hands, Gabe trotted back into the store. This time he returned with an Andrew Christian thong. Holding it up, he proclaimed, “No panty lines with this little number.” He held it out. Jake stared at it, his mouth open.
“I’ll leave the room, you pussy. Get yourself poured into that little number while I find a black turtleneck.”
Fifteen minutes later, Jake was decked out in biker chic, with a black leather vest over a cashmere black turtleneck sweater, and his lower lids eye-lined in kohl.
Gabe took a deep breath and proclaimed, “My job here is done. Now, let’s go to that party, and if you don’t get laid tonight, my name is not Gabriel Feldman.”
Jake shrugged into his scruffy wool commuter coat and followed Gabe into the sloppy night. For the first time in … forever … he entertained a ray of anticipation. It was shy of true hope, but if the night went like Gabe promised, maybe … just maybe … he might let that naughty temptress in again.
And if nothing came of it? Well, at least he’d score a meal and a few drinks. Sometimes that was enough.