Nine of Cups

 

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One

I was smitten from the first time I saw HIM. His hair flowed like a film star's, hanging perfectly over piercing green eyes and lips you wanted to bite. He looked amazing, despite the uniform. His body fit the jacket almost too tightly and I won't even get started on how he filled out the trousers.

 

He looked straight at me and I froze in place, suddenly oblivious to my surroundings.

 

"You must be the new intern," he stated in slightly accented, but fluent English. He stuck his hand out in expectation. 

 

It took me an eternity to realise he was talking to me. I stared at the hand as if it were an alien object. When I finally came to my senses, I grabbed it and shook it as firmly as I could muster.

 

"Welcome to Banquets. I am Jean Pierre." Then he smiled. 

 

I started to get dizzy. What the fuck was wrong with me? I had met lads better looking than him, but he was utterly intoxicating. "Caleb," was all I could manage, if I wanted to maintain my dignity.

 

"Did Sylvia give you the tour?" he asked, looking at his hotel issued phone. 

 

Sylvia was the Director of Banquets at the Elysium Hotel & Spa, Barcelona. She was a stout middle-aged Scottish woman and a strict professional. She did however treat everyone with such empathy, that it could be called borderline "everyone's mum" complex.

 

I nodded enthusiastically, pleased that I could answer his question without too many words.

 

"Good," he said as he checked the phone again. "Can you join the group in the back of salon Norte to prepare the welcome drinks. I will be doing the service briefing in ten minutes."

 

"Sir! Yes, Sir!" I said, as I gave him a mockery of a military salute. It was utterly cringe worthy, but miraculously he smiled again. I ran to join the others, all the while repeating the scene in my head. I desperately hoped it didn't look as pathetic as I was imagining it, I couldn't bear for him to think I was a loser.

 

***

 

I had arrived fifteen minutes early just to check the weekly schedule. I had come prepared to perform some powerful mental arithmetic. I needed to determine how much time I would be spending in HIS presence next week. I realised my behaviour could seem scary, but I just couldn't get him out of my head.

 

My two days off, I had spent alone in my room. Outside it was too hot and I really didn't feel like joining my flatmate's Spanish practice in the kitchen. I mostly texted my sister; Vanessa, about the first impressions of the Gaudi City. All the while I listened to what she called my "slit-your-wrists" music. Once, she had even renamed one of my public Spotify playlists to reflect her view of my particular taste. Bitch! I love her dearly, though.

 

"You look like you're studying for an exam." He scared the shit out of me. "Look! You are coming with me for the off-site event in the Cavas Blanxart winery. It will be fun. BB Bank always hires great entertainment." A hand with neatly trimmed fingers patted my shoulder. 

 

I kept staring at the paper that was pinned to the cork board with a purple thumbtack. Someone had drawn a smiley face on it. I turned around carefully and looked him in the eye, the way a normal person should. I had prepared something clever to say, but he was smiling again. My words instantly evaporated. I really needed to get a fucking grip. People would start noticing at some point, maybe even HIM.

 

***

 

HE was a Banquet Supervisor. That meant long hours and late nights. How he managed to consistently look the way he did was one of the world's great mysteries. I found out by accident, that he spent a sizeable portion of his salary on a membership at one of Barcelona's posh gyms. This presented an opportunity.

 

One of the few advantages of having a workaholic IT millionaire father, was the credit card. I would rather have had love, but that particular commodity was in short supply in our atomic family. Luckily Vanessa and I had Uncle Clive. His ex-wife had left him with the twins, so she could have the life she deserved on Aruba with Julio.

 

Uncle Clive was never on time for anything in his life thanks to his children, but he had plenty of love to share. Whenever Mum went binge drinking with the Kensington wives, we would stay at his house in Wimbledon. We spent a lot of time in Wimbledon.

 

I had never been a gym person, but since I had now made a new career as a stalker, changes were abound. I caught myself practising excuses for joining, as I filled in the registration form. If I actually bumped into him, I needed a plausible reason to be here. The membership fee was fucking expensive for something I didn't enjoy. I could have bought two tops at Dolce for that money.

 

The timing of my weekly gym visits was horribly off. I definitely didn't dare ask anyone if they knew when HE went. The strange thing was, that I ended up enjoying myself. I was spending most of my time on the treadmill, with an occasional bout on the step machine.

 

I had a high rise view of the beach for entertainment, as well as loud music through my headphones. It became my default form of meditation and I soon gave up on my original reason for joining.

 

***

 

Fuck! HE was going to be on holiday all of next week. I would have to find another hobby in the meantime. Hanging out with the other interns was occasionally fun, but there wasn't anyone I particularly liked. They were all thoroughly self obsessed and constantly complained about the hard work. Most of us came from wealthy families and went to expensive Swiss schools. This was our first time in the working world and we were definitely not prepared for it.

 

Surprisingly, I got along much better with some of my housemates. None of them worked in the hotel, they came from very different backgrounds and were all here to learn Spanish. I had little time for learning the language. Besides, as a Brit I came prepackaged with a reputation for brutally mangling foreign tongues. I was hesitant to further add to that preconception.

 

The only other boy in the house was frightfully dull, so I partied with Monique and Agnes instead. We would start with mojitos in the Luna Bar and then make our way down to the clubs by the Barceloneta beach. It was a known fact that this city had a number of clubs, that I would have enjoyed much more. I didn't feel like making that commitment though, not during a six month internship.

 

***

 

Jean Pierre was back! He had a nice tan and rosy cheeks. He was even cuter than before. I think he reminded me of someone famous or he had been my husband in a previous life. I couldn't be sure.

 

We sat through a long weekly briefing, where Sylvia laid out our challenging road ahead in minute detail. Everyone was bored. Miguel yawned without covering his mouth. We were going into the times of the annual car trade show, held at Plaça Espanya. For four days the hotel would be overbooked with exhibitioners, members of the press and disgustingly rich car enthusiasts with too much time on their hands. All of the banquet space would be full with back-to-back meetings, break-outs, breakfasts, lunches, dinners and open bars.

 

The Banquet department apparently made so much money during these days, that the hotel's executive team gave Sylvia a week long carte-blanche. She could enlist all the staff she needed, rent material and be an overall demanding diva. They needed her to be worry free, so she could schedule and coordinate this monumental cluster fuck. Sylvia both loved and hated this time of year with all her passion. Luckily she always had Merce by her side.

 

"Caleb. It's time for you to supervise your own event," Sylvia proclaimed. I was speechless. I had spent three weeks being everybody's bitch. The master of odd jobs, executive water and wine pourer. Now, I was being given my own command? Shit!

 

"You will be in charge of the CarMen Magazine breakroom. Breakfast, lunch, three coffee breaks and a drinks reception for all four days of the conference." The team of Supervisors scanned me up and down, deliberating whether I was ready or not. If the shit hit the fan, they would have to come and clean it up.

 

"If you need help, come to me," Jean Pierre sprung to the rescue. The others breathed a sigh of relief, as Sylvia gave them their marching orders.

 

After the briefing, Sylvia sat me down and mothered me abit. She strongly recommended scheduling waiters in three shifts. If I asked Merce nicely, she would make sure they were the same people for all four days. She quietly added, that if I also brought Merce a gift, she might call the agency and ask for veterans. They required less supervision, which was particularly convenient for the breakfasts.

 

When I asked her, what kind of gift would get me the banquets equivalent of a black-ops team, she tutted and wagged her finger. "I can't give you all the answers, my dear." She winked at Merce before disappearing into her forecast.

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Two

I was off the day before the yearly Armageddon. So was everyone else, except for Sylvia and Merce. They would take care of any last minute changes, before briefing the hotel manager on the four day flow.

 

The box of kirsch-filled Swiss bonbons I had smuggled in for Merce had done the trick, but I was still nervous about my upcoming responsibilities. Breakfast had to be ready by six-thirty, so I would need to be in the hotel at least an hour earlier. Not being able to make any plans, I took my jittery energy to the gym.

 

I hoped to distract my mind with fast-paced violin music and a long run. I allowed myself to think about things that weren't related to the hotel.

 

Uncle Clive would be visiting halfway through my internship and I wanted it to be properly organised. I owed him at least that. We would definitely see the Sagrada Familia and Parc Güell, but I was most excited about the Salvador Dali museum in Figueres. I hadn't been there yet and couldn't wait to see the wacky artist's original masterpieces. The twins weren't coming, but Vanessa would fly over from Paris for that weekend.

 

When I was no longer capable of running, I climbed off the treadmill and drained the last of my water. I walked into the changing room, typing my three day plan into Evernote. I didn't notice till the last moment.

 

HE walked out of the shower area, wearing nothing but a short white towel. He had the flawless physique of a Renaissance sculpture. I lost complete control over my motor functions and dropped my phone. I thought I heard the glass crack, but in that single moment I couldn't have cared less. I just stood there gaping at him from a distance, until he turned a corner and vanished from sight.

 

I panicked, having instantly forgotten my well crafted excuses for being at this gym. I grabbed my phone off the floor and made a dash for my own locker.

 

Fight or flight?

Flight!

 

I didn't even change. I just left in my sweaty shorts and sleeveless Nike shirt. Did he see me? I could barely breathe, till I was in the Metro. Images from the gym flashed through my head, as I pulled out my phone. I drew a sharp breath when I saw the state of my screen. It still lit up, but it hardly reacted to touch anymore.

 

Fuck! Would daddy notice a charge from the Apple store on the credit card statement? I had no other choice. Nobody lived without a phone, not even Gran. She thought the Devil invented the internet, but Candy Crush was a gift from above.

 

I made up my mind and switched to the Red Line in the direction of Plaça Catalunya. My contract had run out before I came to Barcelona and I was using a prepaid SIM. Having weighed off all my options, I decided to get myself an unlocked model. The new iPhone was supposedly the best one to date!

 

Wait! When had my phone last been backed up? I hope I hadn't lost the club selfies from last week. I hadn't even Instagramed them yet!

 

***

 

It's the end of day three and I am about to die. The people from the CarMen Magazine are so bloody high maintenance. Sylvia issued me a hotel phone and they never stop calling me.

 

"Caleb, it's Trevor. The filter coffee is cold and we need more muffins! Thanks."

 

At the Elysium, guests got whatever they wanted, unless it was illegal or free of charge. Trevor had gotten a lot of free muffins, but Sylvia promised she would seek revenge when preparing the final invoice.

 

Then it finally happened. My lunch for twenty-five people fell victim to the hotel's marathon fatigue. José of the hot kitchen had spilled sauce on his stack of Banquet Event Orders. Thursday's lunch sheet was stuck to the back of Friday's sheet and now he didn't have my three chafing dishes of Ravioli prepared.

 

I stared at the clock and started to freak. Lunch was to be served in twenty-five minutes and the CarMen were always ravenous, despite their insatiable appetite for "free" muffins. Trevor was going to kill me.

 

Jose gave me a "shit happens" look as I weighed my options.

"Can I take one from the prep for "Tot Cotxe", so you have time to make more?" I asked in my friendliest of tones.

 

"Are you giving me more work?" José looked at me suspiciously.

 

"What? No! I have a lunch scheduled. Look, the menu is here." I pulled the stuck papers apart, tearing off the chef's notes for Friday's prep.

 

"Now see what you done!" José threw his hands up in the air in desperation. He picked up the phone and dialed a number.

 

"JP! One of your niños is ripping up my BEO's! He also wants to steal your Ravioli! Can you come up and deal with this?" José burned holes in me, as he spoke.

 

Did he just call HIM? I was going to be humiliated twice and I was less worried about Trevor.

 

Apparently Jean Pierre could teleport. "Qué tal?" he asked José smoothly. They rattled in fast Spanish. The chef pointed at me and said, "This marica wants your pasta!" Ironically, I knew that pasta also meant money in Spanish. That was definitely not what I wanted from Jean Pierre.

 

A chef insulting service staff was nothing new in a Food & Beverage operation. What surprised me was HIS reaction. He grabbed José firmly by the front of his white jacket, before speaking slowly in English. "Don't say that kind of shit to our niños, Josito!" He slowly let the bulky Peruvian go, before adding, "Give him two Ravioli's from my event. If I need more, Sylvia can call you or your boss."

 

José grudgingly opened the hot car and grabbed a dish. He shoved it at me with a "you fucked with the wrong person" look. Jean Pierre was gone before I could thank him. As I ran the dish down to the meeting room, I processed what HE had said. Had he stood up for me or the Banqueting department? And what did "marica" mean?

 

***

 

 

Finally the Conference was over! Everyone was so destroyed after the closing event in the grand ballroom, that Sylvia had asked for permission to continue the clean up the following morning. Management had agreed on one condition; fixed staff only. None had argued.

 

Carola; the coffee break supervisor made her way to the filter coffee machine with a sour look. The entire banquet department stood in her work area, drinking espresso. She couldn't say anything, because Sylvia was the one pressing the double-shot button.

 

We were split into groups and assigned areas. Sylvia wanted all tasks to be completed fast and fair. I ended up with the housemen, moving chairs and tables. Costas, the head of the morning shift, was a very likeable bloke. He spoke good English and made an effort to show me how to move heavy stuff, without hurting myself. In the meantime he chatted about women and football, neither of which interested me. When he asked if I did anything to stay in shape, I mentioned my gym.

 

He had heard of it before. "That's the one Jean Pierre goes to, isn't it?"

"I don't know. I never saw him there," I lied, having a very strong feeling that this was going to come back to haunt me.

 

Merce popped into the ballroom at two thirty to send everyone to lunch. The night before she had stayed as long as we had, finishing up the billing. She was a real team player and everyone liked her. Unfortunately, she was immune to my charm, because she only spoke Spanish. Perhaps I should try to learn after all.

 

HE sat three people away from me in the staff cafeteria. I did my best to not openly stare at him, as I picked at my salad. How did he look this good, when everyone else resembled the walking dead. It must be more than just the gym. Perhaps he was an immortal, that stayed young and pretty by eating children.

 

Eventually I got busted sneaking a look. He held my gaze for moment, before returning to his conversation. Costas had been telling me about how he would reorganize Barça, if he were the boss. I had missed his last comment, but he was looking at me expectantly. "They just need to hire you!" I said with pure conviction. He leaned over and patted my hand, "You are a good kid! Miguel is wrong about you." What the hell was that supposed to mean?

 

After lunch Sylvia changed our teams and tasks. She asked me to take the bins full of empty bottles to the recycling area. I couldn't do it alone, so she partnered me up with...

 

Jean Pierre.

 

I was both excited and nervous. I seriously hoped I wouldn't make an utter fool of myself.

 

We dragged the heavy bins to the recycling container across the street. The noise from the bottles falling to the metal bottom was deafening, but the sound of breaking glass gave a strange kick. Once we could hear the street's traffic again, I decided to be the first to interact.

 

"Thanks for helping me sort out that mess with José the other day," I said flashing my most charming grin.

 

"José can be an ass when he has too much work. He gave me a hard time too, when I first started." That still didn't answer my question of whether he did it for me or Banquets.

 

"By the way, is your phone ok?" he asked cheerfully. I gave him a blank look, so he clarified. "It fell face down. I hope your screen survived."

 

The blood drained out of my face. He had seen me! Did he realise that I had been staring at him? Oh, God. Did he suspect?

 

His demeanour gave away nothing. Even though he had gotten no answer to his question, he motioned for us to go back. We had two more rounds to make and Sylvia wanted to be done before five. She was taking us to La Bodegueta to celebrate a job well done.

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Three

My apartment was close to where we were going, so I had gone home to change and journal abit before joining the others.

 

I loved La Bodegueta! Sylvia had reserved a group table with pre-ordered tapas. The moment we sat down, they served red, white or beer on Sylvia's tab. Anything else we had to pay ourselves. The tapas included olives, Patatas Bravas, Iberian ham with Catalan tomato bread, calamari and Salchichón.

 

Everybody recounted their adventures of the last four days. Sylvia made an epic speech in slurred Scottish and we clapped and whistled in praise. She took a deep bow and declared that she was sloshed and needed to go home. She paid for the fixed menu, as well as the drinks that weren't included. Our waiter's eyebrows raised when he opened the box. Sylvia had probably tipped him really well, because he offered everyone a "chupito" on the house.

 

Slowly, but surely our group dwindled in size, till it was just Merce, Miguel, Jean Pierre and myself. They were all speaking Spanish, so I was scrolling through my Instagram feed.

 

Vanessa had posted some pictures from Mom's birthday. It was really frightening to see that many middle-aged drunk women in one frame. In one of them, mum could hardly stand upright and was awkwardly leaning on a cocktail table with her lips in a pout. The post was hashtagged with #litlips, #bdaybinge and #lifeofatrophywife. My uncontrolled burst of laughter was louder than expected.

 

"What's so funny?" Miguel demanded, his eyes red from lack of sleep and too much beer. He pulled my new phone out of my hand and tried to focus on the picture. "Who's the hottie?" he asked in his accented English.

 

I didn't particularly like my parents, but I wasn't about to let him pass lewd comments about my mum. Especially not after what Costas had said during lunch.

 

"Give me my phone back, Marica!" I yelled, using the word I had learnt from José.

 

Miguel burst into a fit of laughter. "YOU are calling me that!" he said, as he threw my phone onto the table. Merce grabbed him by the arm and scolded him in Catalan. He was in trouble! Apparently she understood much more English than she let on. Miguel shrugged her off and announced that he was leaving. Merce was not done with him yet, because she snatched up her purse and followed after him.

 

There I was. Alone with HIM again. I decided to stay for five more minutes, so it wouldn't look like I was trying to escape.

 

"Do you know what Marica means, Caleb?" My name sounded great in his light accent. I shook my head, unsure why he asked.

 

"It is a derogatory term for guys who, how do you say, prefer 'les garçons'." He studied me carefully. For a fraction of a second, I wondered why they had a special word for people who liked waiters, when it clicked. My head flooded with a torrent of simultaneous realisations. It was staggering how fast things were starting to make sense.

 

José probably called everyone a "Marica", but Miguel's reaction contained suspicion. He was a clueless neanderthal, so someone must have told him. Sylvia? Carola?

 

No. Merce! That's why she was so angry at him. But, if Miguel suspected, did Jean Pierre know? FUCK! Could I quit my internship?

 

Fight or Flight?

Flight!

 

HE was still looking at me expectantly, when I stood up abruptly and waved good night. I made my way to my apartment at a brisk walk-run. When I reached my front door I frantically searched my pockets for my keys. I needed to get to my room, so I could text Vanessa. She would know what to do.

 

I opened the large door and jumped inside. When I turned to close it behind me, someone tried to push it open from the other side.

 

"Caleb!" I recognised the voice. It was my flatmate Agnes.

When I opened the door to let her in, I had not been ready for who was standing next to her with his hands in his pockets.

 

"Do you know this guy?" Agnes asked, pointing at HIM with a thumb.

 

I nodded hesitantly.

 

She pushed past me into the building and whispered in my ear, "He's cute! Well done."

 

I felt my cheeks heat up. Jean Pierre was staring at his shoes. I didn't know what to say, I hadn't had a chance to retreat and think yet.

 

"Why did you leave?" he asked his shoes quietly.

 

No, no, no. Not now. I am not ready. What if I tell you the truth? How will we be able to occupy the same space again, if you knew what was truly in my head. That I was scared you had figured me out. That I think you are beautiful, kind and unlike anyone I have ever met before. Could you handle such an answer?

 

"I am sorry," I said. "I really have to go. It's la.."

 

He stepped forward and gently pulled me towards him. Those edible lips touched mine and my world came undone. My legs were no longer able to support my own weight, even though they had done so most of my life. His strong arms held me upright.

 

Then he stepped out of the embrace. It was as if a limb was torn away from me. My brain had gone on holiday and was utterly unresponsive.

 

"See you, Monday?" he asked expectantly. I mumbled something incomprehensible which earned me a smile. His hands were no longer in his pockets as he floated down the street towards the Metro station.

 

I was in trance when I closed the door. My legs were still recuperating, so I slumped down against the grubby wall. Hugging myself tightly, I tried to tame the hurricane of emotions. I sat there grinning like a fool for the longest time.

 

I sneeked into the house as quietly as possible and evaporated into my room. I had to commit every detail of my evening into my journal for fear of losing them. As if by cosmic timing, the moment I was done there was a soft knocking at the door.

 

"It's me, Agnes. Can I come in?" A subdued voice whispered. I thought about it for a moment and decided that human contact would would be the perfect distraction.

 

She sat on the edge of my bed burning with curiosity. "And?" she finally asked, fed up of waiting for me to spill my secrets voluntarily.

 

"What makes you think there is anything to tell. He is a colleague from work." I tried to escape the Inquisitor.

 

"Horseshit! I saw the way you looked at him. Trust me, I don't blame you. He is gorgeous."

 

Was I going to open up to this relative stranger? Shouldn't I chat to Vanessa first? But Vanessa wasn't here. I made my choice and let go. I never realised how much there was to tell.

 

Agathe absorbed it all in engaged silence. When I was done, she stood up and gave me a massive hug. "How are you going to handle Monday," she asked, as if I required a battle plan.

 

My expression clearly didn't put her at ease. She spent the next twenty minutes explaining the do's and don'ts of keeping a man's interest without giving away anything you didn't want to give.

 

I had no intention of being that calculating, but the Norwegian girl's level-headedness did manage to bring some much needed structure to the gooey mess in my head. I would have to make some changes. I wasn't a creepy stalker anymore.

 

HE kissed me! The flashback left me all warm and fuzzy again. I had had two secret encounters with boys before, but they could only be termed as one night stands. This, whatever it was, showed potential for something else. Suddenly I panicked over the fact that my internship was ONLY six months long. Quite the reversal from a few hours ago.

 

Agnes gave me another hug before she left to go to sleep. It was already past one, too late to message Vanessa. I switched off the light and tried to get some rest, but my mind gave me no peace.

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