That winter, Per was thirty-two and worked in a bookstore in SoHo. He lived with a couple in a fifth-floor Hell’s Kitchen walk-up, where he slept on a pull-out in what they called the living room but which was really everything that wasn’t the narrow strip of kitchen and the skinny bedroom. The toilet was in a closet and the tub was in the kitchen. Per didn’t mind sleeping on the pull-out, and he appreciated that the lack of space kept him from bringing books home from the store – strays, he called them. He stowed his things in a corner behind a Japanese screen and on a clothing rack behind the couch. He lived a tidy, monastic life amid the clutter of the couple, who for the most part alternated between doting on him like a helpless child and resenting his very presence with an alienating silence.
At first, Per found this a little confusing, but a friend explained that gay men over forty had a tendency to want to fuck you and also make you porridge and teach you to tie your shoes, and in the midst of this sexual confusion, they felt both rejected and parental, resulting in a wildly swinging ambivalence. Per acclimated to this strange weather, disappearing in the mornings and returning in the evenings with fresh cut flowers or pastries from their favorite shop or good coffee from the roasters downtown. They converted back to their doting selves upon receiving these gifts like furious gods of old going silent at the burning of offerings.
There was no lease of course, and they might have turned him out at any moment, but Per did feel a real fondness for the couple. They made elaborate dinners, mostly Eastern European – Hungarian and Polish fare. Per always brought bread home for dinner because there was a very good French bakery near the bookstore, and it made him feel like he was in a French film carrying baguettes down into the subway. He liked that he had a role to play in their apartment life. Bringing bread. Clearing and washing the dishes. Unfolding the dining table. Putting away the dining table after they had eaten. Rolling their post-dinner joint and setting up the cushions by the open window so they could smoke. Watering the plants. Seasoning the cast-irons. Discarding the coffee grounds for composting. These things made him happy.
Still, seven months into the arrangement, he knew it was not a long-term situation.
For one thing, he could hear the couple fucking. Initially, they did try to go about it stealthily, but after his first couple days in the apartment, they said to him over breakfast, ‘We’d like to fuck tonight. Don’t come back until after two.’
Per had never heard someone be so frank about sex before. Not toward him anyway. He gulped down his coffee and practically yelled, ‘Of course!’ as he leapt from the table.
The couple laughed, both of them, and Per felt embarrassed at his response and his clumsiness. Ever since, the couple had simply started engaging in sex when they felt like it, even while Per slept a few feet away in the living room on his lumpy mattress. He listened to them coo and sigh and the squeak of the platform bed shifting under their weight. Sometimes he got hard listening to them go at it because they’d curse and gasp and make brutal, hitching sounds. But for the most part, their sex made Per sad because it was so soft and gentle and they seemed to know each other so well. It made him realize no one knew him that well, and probably never would. He never felt so lonely as on the nights when those two made love.
In the bookstore, Per worked from morning until evening, mostly down in the stockroom unboxing and cataloguing shipments. Breaking down the boxes and setting them out for recycling. Making sure that the deliveries of receipt paper and hand soap made it upstairs and into the staff bathroom, which he also cleaned. Then there was the dusting before hours and the sweeping after close. Checking the light bulbs and making sure that the books were mostly put back into place. He felt a little like Quasimodo, to be honest, scurrying around in the shadows, peering out at the real people who had come to buy books for themselves and for loved ones, for gifts, for leisure, for work, for clout on Instagram and social media, to signify to whatever part of the world was still sensitive to such signals that this was a person who read – what such a signal meant in today’s world, Per did not really know.
One morning, pre-open in mid-November, Per’s boss said that they would have a party at the bookstore. They were all gathered on the first floor for an impromptu team meeting. Per had been summoned up from his crypt.
‘Like, a reading?’ someone asked.
‘No, a party. For the customers. To celebrate the start of the holiday season,’ Imogen, the shift lead, said.
There was a murmur of unease. Per had his hands in the pockets of his apron. He was thinking about the boxes he’d left on the counter downstairs and making a list in his head of which shipments he should open first.
‘I don’t suppose we have a choice,’ Anil, one of the senior booksellers, said.
‘From on high,’ Imogen said.
‘I don’t love, but I guess them’s the breaks.’
‘It’ll be early December.’
‘Are we . . . getting paid, at least?’
‘Some will be working. But of course everyone is invited to attend.’
‘So it’s not a party. It’s work.’
‘Festive work,’ Imogen said dryly. ‘I know it’s annoying. But please don’t shoot the messenger.’
Imogen said they were free to go, and Per descended the stairs into the children’s section so that he could cut into the back and resume his box duty. A party sounded nice. Working during a party did not sound so nice. But it might mean time and a half. And if he was on his regular stuff, then he’d be able to hide downstairs and avoid most of the trouble. That didn’t seem so bad. Imogen called after him as he reached the middle landing.
‘About the party,’ she said.
‘Festive work sounds better, I think.’
‘I don’t know about that,’ she said, but then, sighing, ‘It might be best if. We’re going to be running a tighter ship that day. We’ll be closing early to get the shop ready.’
‘Oh,’ Per said.
‘It’s not certain, but you might not. Be on. That night. But you would be totally welcome to come. And you know, be merry and bright. And. Secular in a seasonally appropriate manner.’
‘Am I being laid off ?’
Imogen frowned. ‘No.’ She descended the stairs and took his arm in hers and coaxed him further down. She glanced up behind them to make sure that no one was on the stairs and when they reached the children’s section, she put her hand on his shoulder.
‘I know how hard it is for you. These kinds of things. I spoke to Bette and she’s said that you don’t have to work that night if you don’t want to.’
Per’s neck was hot and his vision momentarily folded back and across itself, splitting everything in fuzzy doubles.
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