When I worked construction, I learned more than a trade.
They say you always remember your twenty-first birthday. I spent mine sitting at a bar stool at noon, ordering a Long Island iced tea and surrounded by middle-aged (or nearly there) construction workers, who nodded appreciatively ("You know how to party!") as the tall, murky drink was slid my way. I checked the clock. We had about twenty minutes before going back to work.
Work was the sprawling apartment-building-in-progress on the Williamsburg waterfront a few blocks down, would-be homes for Brooklynites making ten times what my hourly wage was that summer. Still, it was enough to drag me from the suburbs into New York City at five in the morning every day, watching the sun rise over the LIRR tracks alongside the commuters in suits as I clutched an iced coffee like a life raft. The only reason I was allowed to don a hard hat and boots with the rest of them was the fact that I was in college and I had a family hookup in the trades that allowed me to work on a construction site for twice what I would have made waiting tables at home. I was in.
On my first day, I learned that my main responsibility was bringing the real workers coffee. I carried back breakfast orders for the guys around nine, and after a few weeks I started to arrange my delivery rounds just so I could end up with the guys I was most curious about: Danny, an almost painfully attractive late-twentysomething who had clearly missed his calling as a firefighter calendar model; Artie, who had his kid's baby footprints tattooed on his arm; and Cooper, himself tattooed from the wrists up, who wore the same short-brimmed cap and self-satisfied smirk as all the skater boys I had crushes on in high school, and a single subway token on a chain that ice-skated across his chest when he moved.
In a bar, on the train, in line at the supermarket, we would have ignored each other, but construction world was different. They let me sit on a spool of BX cable during our 9 a.m. break while they shot the shit and watched the boats go by on the East River, and I never left. I had so many questions, but I usually threw out the same one: "All you got was a coffee, right?" Strictly business, I was. Danny had given me the big-brotherly "if anyone tries to fuck with you, send 'em to me" talk, and I wasn't looking to fuck with anyone — although the idea that people would want to bother me gave me a perverse kind of thrill, the same I got from strange cars that honked at me and my friends on our walks around town in high school. It wasn't the attention you wanted, but it was attention. I distracted myself from the menial hours of my job trying to figure out a way in — inside all the jokes that cracked the guys up during break, inside the whispered conversations they'd have with other tradesmen in the building, in enough to ask Cooper what the hell that subway token was for.
The trick, it turned out, was my birthday. "It's my birthday tomorrow!" I reminded the guys one morning in mid-July. We were on the roof, jackhammering a wall to make space for outdoor lighting. "The big twenty-one."
"Oh yeah," Cooper spoke up. "I was going to say, you can come with us to the bar tomorrow."
The next day, I waited by the opening in the chain-link fence that led to the outside world at 12:01 p.m., feigning cool detachment. "Me? Yeah? Headed to the bar, no big deal."
The Long Island was ordered. I held up my glasses with the rest of the guys, ushering me into my twenty-first year. The bartender read us our horoscopes from that day's amNewYork. I was headed up to my binge-drinking-friendly college town that weekend — as I kept reminding the guys, lest they think I was uncool — but here, at least, I knew this was as wild as the celebrations would get. My biggest plan after work was trading in my embarrassing driver's license photo at the DMV for one of me now, in a Hanes T-shirt, sweaty, smiling. Cooper handed me a stick of gum for the walk back. "Can't have you getting us in trouble." I nodded.
A few hours later, I was sent to the same floor the object of my infatuation happened to be working on. I tried, and failed, to unlock the material locker stationed just around the corner from the apartment where Cooper was threading telephone wire. None of the walls were up yet. I waved through the metal studs.
"Could I ask you something?" I asked as he was fishing for the key. The drink named for my homeland still had a pretty good hold on my confidence. "What's up with that subway token? It's cool." The answer: he grew up on Long Island too, and back in high school, he'd kept a whole stack of them around his neck so he could skip class and go to the city. Small, but there it was: this thing that I hoped the other guys hadn't bothered to ask about.
"Check it out," he said, pulling the chain up from where it hung. "I've had it so long, all the edges are worn away in the middle." I inched in. The token's original pentagon cutout had smoothed out into a rounded memory of itself. I giggled, like an idiot.
"You're so damn cute when you giggle," he admitted quietly. My heart bloomed. I'm sure he said that to all the twenty-something temporary coworker ladies who came around for the summer, but to me it might as well have been a sonnet.
The next morning, waiting for the deli guys to finish up my egg sandwiches, I got a text: "Hey its Cooper could you pick me up a pack of gum?" From there, we would text in the morning, the middle of the day, long after work was over. I based the success of my days on how many times my phone buzzed in my pocket.
"There's this one guy at work I have the most ridiculous, go-nowhere crush on," I would tell my friends. I would rack up reasons why nothing would come of it from details I had gleaned over coffee breaks: he was thirty-one. He had mentioned a daughter a few times. But he hadn't mentioned a girlfriend.
I was leaving for good in a few weeks, back to college to finish my English degree and work on marketable skills I had spent the entire summer not cultivating. Cooper promised he would give me a proper goodbye, and I talked myself into thinking it was nothing more than drinks.
We met at a dive bar, close enough to his house that he biked over. It was a Wednesday, the bar was nearly empty, and we only looked slightly out of place.
"You sent a text earlier that I was really confused about," I said, a few gin and tonics in. "Something about… not being able to do something?"
"Ah, never mind. You don't want to get involved with this." Involved with what? I wanted to know, but washed down the thought with another sip of my drink. I had assumed the crazy crush I had spent all summer tending to was solely one-sided. All the doe-eyed rebels I fawned over in high school never reciprocated, so I figured a thirty-one-year-old coworker would do the same.
Around midnight, he had to leave. This is how it was going to be, I told myself: a chaste goodbye and a few months of wondering what it could have been like. I pulled out Cooper's bike from the back of my trunk where we'd locked it; he pulled on his headphones. We would never see each other again.
"What are you listening to?" I asked. He passed me the headphones and I held them to my ears. It was Neil Diamond's "I Am… I Said" — not the pick I was expecting from the guy who had blasted Bouncing Souls at work and sent me home with Jawbreaker CDs he'd burned.
L.A.'s fine, but it ain't home, New York's home, but it ain't mine no more… Neil sang. I had never been to L.A., but I could understand the sentiment. Here was one summer I'd never get back.
Somewhere along the space it took for the headphones to travel from my ears back to his, we both said fuck it, and his mouth was on mine. His bike was put safely in the trunk and we put ourselves in the front seat, the steering wheel and the transmission shift getting in the way of everything we had waited all summer to do. And even in the middle of it all, I couldn't help but realize how this would always be that car, and how every time I switched from park to drive, a part of me would always think of the end of summer, and people who had been twenty-one a full ten years before I was. It was four a.m. when I watched him pedal out of the parking lot.
I graduated from college the next year, moved to New York a year after that, and finally deleted Cooper's number somewhere in between. Living in New York now, I've been back to the building, just to see. The apartments have been finished for a while now: the dirt piles from cranes now smoothed out into attractive walkways, the Sharpie-marker graffiti from my colleagues long covered up by drywall and paint. My old view of the East River belongs to someone who can afford it, and I know, like Neil, that you can't go home again — although it doesn't stop me from wondering if I'll run into that pair of tattooed arms again at a bar, toasting once more to someone else's growing up.
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