The scents of bacon and freshly brewed Arabica made me salivate as much as my growing closeness to ‘Axel’. I hovered a slight distance away, far enough to give him a modicum of privacy, close enough to smell his pheromones. His scent was intoxicating. It seeped out of him with wisps of woody undertones mingled with coffee and breakfast fare.
“How much was that again?” he said to the counter man, his voice rich and smoky with a vague accent from somewhere south. His eyebrows were even bushier up close.
“Six, seventy-five,” the counterman reiterated.
‘Axel’ counted the few dollars and change again. Then he scraped the money back into his pocket and took out a wallet. Fumbling for a moment, fingers clumsy from the cold, he extracted a credit card. “Can you put it on this?”
The counter man glanced at the card. “Uh ... no, John, we only take Visa.”
I wanted to raise my camera and capture the moment. I also wanted to order ‘an Axel’ with cream cheese and jelly. But instead I asked, “How much are you short?”
“Uhm ...” Axel said, barely glancing in my direction.
“You know what, don’t worry, I got it,” I said to the counterman, “and give me a toasted cinnamon-raisin bagel.”
The counterman went about preparing our orders.
“Thanks,” Axel said, finally looking at me. His eyes probed mine.
“No problem. I’m Danté, by the way.” I extended my hand.
His hand was soft but cold when our hands connected.
I didn’t like his real name. John was much too common for one so uncommonly beautiful. He was still ‘Axel’ to me. My ‘Axel’.
We took our coffees and sat to wait for the food.
“You don’t look like a ‘John’.”
He smiled a little and said, “Neither do you.”
I fingered the camera around my neck mourning the loss of another great shot.
“What do I look like then?” he continued.
“Axel? Seriously?” He laughed.
“Yeah. I’m gonna call you Axel.”
“Axel. I kinda like that. You givin’ me a last name, too master?” He laughed a little more but the way he said master was full of forced venom. And yet he managed to keep his unwavering smile.
“No. Just Axel. Some faces only need one name.”
He was looking at me but his eyes were seeing something else, possibly the name ‘Axel’ in lights. And his vampire flesh seemed to flush, if that were even possible.
He’d accepted my flirtation without blinking. Easy. I was in.
“So where are you from? You’re giving me an urban New York vibe with some southern spice.”
“So you sayin’ I sound black?”
I chuckled a little at the sudden racial comment.
“You sound urban. You sound like you’ve been in a ‘hood or two, that’s all. And, word from the wise, don’t equate urban with a race of people. It only makes you sound ignorant and racist.”
Axel turned and stared out the window absently stroking his eyebrow. His eyes had the faintest of dark circles under them.
Without breaking his pose, he asked, “You a photographer?”
“No. I’m a writer who likes taking pretty pictures. Do you mind?” I asked without lowering the camera. It felt odd asking permission. It wasn’t my usual M.O.
“You already doin’ it so fuck it. Word from the wise ask permission before you take someone’s picture, or else someone not as nice as me might fuck you up.” He cut his eyes to me. “My mom was Greek; my father was Black, Thai and some other shit.”
“…And yeah, I’ve seen a ‘hood or two. Don’t judge a book by its cover, son.”
Why these young guys feel the need to call everyone their ‘son’ is beyond me.
I clicked off a few shots.
He sighed. “So what do you write about anyway?”
“I don’t know. Anything. Everything.”
He cut a skeptical eye to me. “Everything? What the fuck does that mean?”
“It means I might write about this one day. It means that life works its way in, whether I’m writing for a magazine or my next book. So, yeah, I write about everything.”
He went back to staring out the window without responding. His jaw tensed a little.
So I continued, “But at the moment you’re more interesting than that fire at the gay and lesbian center. So what’s your story?”
He shifted in his seat. His jaw tightened even more. His lips were set tightly; forming a sharp jagged line.
“I don’t wanna talk about me yo.”
The counterman brought our breakfast. We ate in silence for awhile. So much was running through my mind as I watched him eat. So many questions formed around this Pretty Little Gangster I named ‘Axel’.
“So what’s in the bag?” I finally asked.
“I don’t know. Everything.”
Quick tongued and combative I see.
“Like all your worldly possessions everything?”
“Something like that.”
I was right. He was alone on the streets. No family. No friends.
Then I immediately wondered about his connection to the fire. Culprits are known for hanging around the scenes of their crimes, mingling with the crowd, sometimes even offering to help. If this had been a crime then there’s a chance one of the bystanders was involved. I might even have his picture. Is my ‘Axel’ a little fire starter?
“Did you live in that building?” I asked.
“What building?” He said shifting his eyes ever so slightly that I could mean nothing.
“You know I’m talking about the building that is burning back there. Did you live in one of the apartments over the center?”
“Did you know someone who—”
“No,” Axel snapped. His eyes became as hard as steel. “You a cop or something, too?”
“Sorry. Just trying to get your story.”
“Dude, I already said I don’t wanna give it. Why you sweatin’ me? What the fuck is this? I ain’t no charity case and I don’t owe you shit.”
He shoved the last bite of his breakfast into his mouth.
“But my good sir you do indeed owe me something. I did buy you breakfast.” ‘Axel’ looked at me stern as he shoved his hand into his pants. I dismissed his actions with a wave of my hand and he paused to look at me. “I don’t want your money.”
“By the size of that bag is it safe to assume that you have nowhere to go—Axel?”
“I can always find a place to stay,” he said, suddenly cocky, his eyes were so damn piercing but I had to focus on what I was saying.
“Then why are you here now with a duffle bag instead of being in a warm bed sleeping without a care in the world?”
He didn’t respond, however his cockiness was as fragile as smoke and quickly dissipated. A siren wailed. An emergency vehicle sped past the window. He ran his fingers through his hair making it more pleasantly disheveled.
Axel frowned and grew restless. “You’re creepin’ me out now with that shit. I gotta go anyway. Thanks for the food.” He started to slide out of the booth.
I grabbed his wrist. I know better than to put my hands on someone. Especially someone as ‘fragile’ and emotionally jumpy as ‘Axel’ but I couldn’t just let him leave.
His gray eyes went steely again.
I felt weird signs of withdrawal like coming down from a drug and he wasn’t even gone yet. He was important to this story. Maybe he was just important. All I knew for sure was that I couldn’t let him leave. I couldn’t let him slip away.
“I’m just gonna put this out there,” I said, staring into those cold eyes of his, “We both need something. You need a place to stay. Even if you were just walking by that fire, I’ve got great shots of you there and want to know how you wound up watching it with all your shit in a bag. People love a good story attached to a pretty face.”
“You took pictures of me there? My story ain’t got shit to do with any of that. I don’t know about a gay center or why it burnt; I was just watchin’. I just happened to be there.”
“Okay. That’s not the point. The media doesn’t care about actualities. It’s all in how u spin the story.”
“Seriously. Find somebody else to tell you a sad story.”
“I’ll pay you.”
His eyes widened ever so slightly.
Gotcha. He’s mine now.
“You’re beautiful. I wanna keep taking your picture. And I wanna know your story, whatever it happens to be—the guy too exotic for his name that I found at the fire.”
Axel’s brow knitted a bit. “You crazy, ain’t you?”
“Not in a dangerous way.” My thumb stroked his wrist as I let go and sat back. I had to get a little feel, you know. “We’ll call it a salary.”
He looked me over for a moment processing my intentions no doubt. He probably thought I was some old gay pervert trying to make him my live in prostitute.
“I ain’t gay.”
“Okay,” though my intuition begs to differ, “the last thing I need is a barely-legal boyfriend. Mentioning that, how old are you anyway?”
He’s legal. Even better.
Then he leaned closer and whispered as if afraid the counterman might overhear, so close I could analyze the moist crinkles on his juicy delicate pink lips and detect the faintest scent of smoke. “How much of a salary you talkin’?”
I threw out a figure.
One I could easily pay if I neglected a bill or three.
He nodded and asked, “And that’s it? You don’t expect anything … else?”
“Relax kid. I don’t want you like that. The deal is, you keep telling your story; I keep taking your picture and giving you money.”
He glanced out the window again.
Something odd registered in his eyes, something that should have made me wary and cautious.
Instead my balls tingled.