Mai Tran


I was sitting on a barstool when he walked over, looked at the piercings in my ear, and asked if they hurt. When they punctured me, I said. He showed me a scar on his nose, remnants of a piercing he never took care of and pulled out too early, his body unable to rearrange itself for the offending object. There was another wrinkle on his knuckle, from when I clocked a guy who got me mad tight. We never formally introduced ourselves, but displaying cartilage was more intimate anyways. 

It had been our first day working together. He was an hour’s train ride from the restaurant, clocking upwards of forty hours a week. We opened together on Saturdays, and he would shake every staff member’s hand when he came in, a precocious move for someone only nineteen. The first thing I noticed about him was how young he looked; the second was the way he walked, lilting from side to side while he eyed customers, black rubber tray spinning on his fingertips. He joked with everyone in the restaurant until even the sixty-year-old Chinese cooks were slapping his ass with pockmarked ladles, and managers were doling out extra shifts. Male customers smoked on the storefront’s periphery, waiting to ply him with cigarettes when he restocked napkins and sodas from the basement; female customers scribbled hasty phone numbers on receipts, for the cute busser. He only followed up with the women but appreciated any attention all the same.

Our shift lasted seven hours. The restaurant had only been open for two weeks, serving hot noodle soup to match the August moisture. After customers left, I would collect the checks from their tables, glancing at the tips with a forced apathy. I was rearranging receipts when he sidled over and, glancing up from a pile of ceramic bowls, asked, Big spoon or little spoon? We dragged through the lunch rush in this way, then the afternoon lull and the prep for dinner service. Buff or skinny? Big or knows what they’re doing? We found that our preferences aligned, and when I bent over to scoop from the ice machine, he came up behind me and said I was thick for an Asian girl. I rolled my eyes, letting it slide because I had heard it all before. It was easy to delight him, to appease energy unmarred by emotional maturity. 

As a fresh wave of workers came to replace us, I scrambled to finish the duties I had delayed, attempting to take out trash bags twice as large as my body. I had barely tipped one out of its receptacle when discarded condiment bottles began leaking from a corner, globules of red spice dripping with MSG, creating a pornographic oil spill. He stood to the side and watched as I struggled before laughing and taking the whole bag, the fibrous veins in his arms pulsing under brown skin. I followed him outside and watched as he easily flung the bag on the sidewalk. Beyond the scope of the store’s security cameras, he took my bicep with both hands, squeezing to feel the undeveloped muscle. It was such an unabashed ploy for contact that I let him. I live ten minutes from here, I said, and the proposition was clear. 

He stopped at the front desk in the lobby of my college dorm while students in thrifted shirts and cuffed jeans shuffled through the turnstile behind us. He gave the security guard his ID and last name. Ormeño, he said, and spelled it out. O-r-qué la pases bien. The security guard cut him off, and they grinned at each other, a lingual connection. 

We went up to the eighth floor, and I led him down the narrow hall to my room. He took his shirt off as soon as he crossed the threshold because it was too hot. He had a tattoo of his mom’s birthday in Roman numerals just below the right side of his collarbone. I liked the seeming reverence for his mom and the way he couldn’t retain fat, all the bones in his torso protruding. His whole body looked like a needle. He approached me and rubbed my earlobe, the earring posts catching between his thumb and forefinger. Up close and with his shirt off, he looked even younger than I had initially thought. His hand slipped downwards, toward my pants zipper or somewhere in between. Do you like getting hit? Some girls like that. The combination of his youth and penchant for aggression made me hesitate, and I moved his hand and told him I had changed my mind. Oh. Never mind then, it’s alright, he said and went from examining the contents of my shirt to examining the contents of my desk. 

He ignored the books but was enamored by my collection of cosmetics, strewn about in a clear, plastic tray. Picking up and examining the tubes and bottles, he settled on a clear nail polish, applying the translucence to his left hand with the concentration of a child trying to stay inside the lines. I did his right hand because he wasn’t ambidextrous, and while I brushed and glazed, he pointed out a wrinkled scar on his knuckle, from when I got mad tight and punched a wall. He painted his nails regularly and accompanied his sister to her eyebrow threading appointments every few weeks. He said it hurt like a bitch. I didn’t mind that kind of pain though, the kind that’s so many small pricks, you don’t notice it until it’s throbbing.  

Blowing on his nails, he flopped onto my bed, the flimsy mattress doing little to absorb his weight. He looked up at the ceiling beam and explained how it was built, which was when I learned he also worked in construction. He could make $150 from a single gig, putting together an occasional ceiling but usually installing floors. I made him list all the different floors he had done: hardwood, linoleum, tile, carpet, bamboo, laminate. He told me about the white people homes he had refurbished in Manhattan: the Upper East Side, FiDi, SoHo, all over the city. Earlier, his main income had come from a pizza parlor in Midtown, but a coworker there had disrespected him, so he moved to an Upper West Side Italian restaurant only to get caught smoking in the bathroom. Commuting was necessary. There’s no money where I live. You can only sell drugs, and my mom would kill me.

He was the baby of the family. Single mother, two older sisters, father left (behind) in Ecuador. They moved to New York when he was ten years old, to Jamaica, Queens, residing in a narrow, three-story house overgrown with iron railing. His sister’s boyfriend lived in the basement along with the sister’s boyfriend’s cousin, who contributed rent, video games, and dealers’ phone numbers. 

We sat on the bed and added each other on social media, and I got to know him through his photographic performance. Crotch grabbing and leg spreading were constants, and he could never be caught smiling. Popular props included Hennessy, knives (fuck around, get poked), and joints as fat as his thumb. He liked to roll them with tobacco leaves that were soft and brown, and he pulled one out of its canister for me to lick. It tasted sweet and smelled like him, but only if I held it right up to my nose. He showed me one of the knives he carried in his backpack, a black switchblade that complied with New York City laws because it was less than four inches—a white weapon. The blade folded into the metal handle and could be flicked open or angled out with the press of a button because if you were in a fight, you’d need it quick. The next concealed-carry he wanted was the kind of handgun his friend owned, a slim Beretta that was really sexy. Amidst the photos of himself, he posted captions and quotes in Spanish, which I deciphered later with a combination of Google Translate and my roommate’s residual AP Spanish knowledge. They were flimsy words about love and family, weed and money.  

His social media feed was filled with girls, Latinas he half knew who wore tight jeans and tank tops and took photos of themselves contorted in mirrors. As he scrolled, he started listing all the partners he had been with: Dominican, Guatemalan, Colombian, white. I want to get with another white girl, he said. Do you know any? I looked up all the white girls I knew and showed him while he passed judgment. He regaled me with details about how he had almost gotten with his second white girl last week. They had been lying in bed and watching TV, but she didn’t want to do anything, and I don’t force myself on people. That shit’s fucked up.

An hour or two passed before we left the room. Downstairs, the security guard returned his ID along with a fist bump—I thought they could have been subtler. He was unfamiliar with the neighborhood, so I walked him to the train station, a little ways from campus and down the cobblestoned street where millionaires lived. He pulled from the vape pen that allowed him to get high in public and at work and blew the smoke in my face while I pretended to be annoyed. We were admiring the buildings and peering into apartment windows when a woman came around the corner, wearing leggings and a sports bra, as if she were just returning from a jog. His eyes lifted, following her as she walked toward us. Once she was behind us, he turned to look again and laughed. Now that’s just asking for it. I laughed too. I knew he wasn’t that kind of person because he had just proved it to me in my room.  

I continued to see him every week at work, and sometimes we would smoke at a park or by the bodega around the corner from our restaurant. He complained about my fellow students, who came with large parties and barely tipped, and said something about how their wealth and intellect didn’t seem to align. When I asked if he went to school, he said that school was for pussies. A few weeks later, I overheard him telling a coworker that a teacher had sent him nudes. I thought you didn’t go to school? I asked. I’ve been at school. For how long? This whole year. Where? Queens. What’s the name of it? You don’t know it. It was only with repeated questioning that I extracted a story too precise to be fabricated. He never finished high school, so he was taking night classes. He was graduating in January, but he wasn’t going to the ceremony and walking across a stage to receive his diploma. I’m just trying to get the fuck out of there.  

Each time I went home, reeking of smoke, my roommate would snicker at me from behind our wooden partition. Have fun at work? I complained to her all the time about rude customers but raved just as much about my co-workers. I don’t believe it, she said after I recounted the story of his teacher and the nudes. I don’t think I would like him. But she didn’t like anyone, and I had the urge to prove her wrong or at least to get her approval. He had been asking me to hook him up with a college friend anyway, so I convinced her to visit us at the restaurant by plying her with promises of free drinks and employee discounts. 

She came on one of the last hot days of the summer, an exciting break in our usual routine of forced smiles and what can I get yous. After lingering for what we deemed an appropriate amount of time, he approached her at the bar and joked with her in his bouncy way, managing to be both stationary and exceedingly mobile at the same time. Her usual stoic face betrayed nothing, but when I got home, she nodded approvingly. Ok, I get it now, and I felt some sort of secondhand pride. 

In November, he invited me to a Thanksgiving party near his home, and I agreed because I had no other plans. It was getting darker earlier, and before I began the hour-long commute, he told me not to fall asleep on the train, or I would get jumped. I took the A train to the last stop, watching as its pale interior became browner with the progression of track, the grating keeping my eyes open. I found the neighborhood by following the sounds of children relegated to the streets, riding tricycles and kicking soccer balls against shallow gutters. 

He greeted me on the stoop of a white-paneled house, and I could already hear the party from outside. There was Latin music playing in the living room, and everyone was singing along, word for word. He introduced me to his friends, most of them men who were at least his age but retained the same mannerisms and preened masculinity. They sat with their legs splayed out at obtuse angles, displaying ripped jeans with meticulously frayed threads and puffy-tongued Air Jordans, tastefully thin gold chains and branded underwear staring out of low waistbands. I could feel them appraising me as they grinned and shook my hand. 

We ate and danced and gambled with cards and won $200, a little more or less, and throughout the course of the night, his eyes transitioned from a veiny pink to rose red. We were cleaning up when he accidentally threw away a friend of a friend’s beer, and the two had a quiet conversation before dispersing to opposite sides of the room. They continued glaring at each other from afar, and their eyes drew them closer and closer together until they met in the middle and someone was shoved. All the uncles and cousins rushed to the scene and yelled and pushed at each other, a flurry of hands peaking at the epicenter. One of the drunkest neighbors screamed to get him out of there! He’s just a kid, while I sat on a folding chair off to the side, with some girl who had just appeared. We watched and waited and talked about how stupid they were. 

He was sent outside to sober up, but neither of us wanted to go back in, so we took a train to my dorm, where he promptly took a beer from the fridge and opened it with his teeth even though I said I had a bottle opener. He clutched it near the top. His hand was so large, it looked like he was strangling the neck. The liquid sloshed until he set it down and the contents stabilized, the color of petrified amber. 

After he drained the bottle, he grabbed his backpack and invited me to join him in the bathroom, shutting the door behind us. The space was tight, and he had to reach around me to turn on the shower to its maximum heat, before taking a towel and running it back and forth under the faucet until the fabric was sopping. He sealed the door with the cloth, then perched on the toilet seat while I lowered myself to the floor across from him, leaning my back against the wall. The room filled with smoke and steam as we lit up, and it wasn’t long before our eyelids were heavy, and he started ranting about how everyone at the party was tripping. I affirmed all his complaints, yeah, yeah, yeah, until I could see moisture beading on our skin.

My head felt dense as if it were compacted with noise, and for the first time, I thought I had gone too far. When I kicked the towel away and shoved the door open, he laughed and called me weak, said I couldn’t hang. A breeze from the AC outside hit me like spearmint, and I had to remind myself that I had nothing to prove. 

I waited until he was finished, and the ashes were flushed, then walked him downstairs. When I returned to my room, I could still smell traces of him, woody cologne intermingled with smoke. He had forgotten his clipper lighter on my desk. I sat down and rolled the small, worn thing around in my hand. I flicked the flame on and off until I could feel the lighter fluid running low, and I thought about how he was all talk until he wasn’t. 

Visual Art: Andre Bradley, Bad Selection 8.