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into the rose-garden

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Lucas is tired.

He always is, so there is nothing new with that statement. He tries to remember a day where he isn’t tired, where he has truly enjoyed himself and felt at peace with the world and with himself.

He comes up short.

At first, Lucas told himself that if he just survived law school everything would be worth it. The sleepless nights, the countless days spent memorizing ancient books in his overpriced university’s library. The parties his friends organized and he missed, the activities he didn’t engage with, the gossip he wasn’t involved in. He gave it all up easily, kneeling at the altar of academic success with an eagerness that surprised his best friend Yann, his father, and truthfully, himself. He is the first to admit that his high school self didn’t exactly prioritize grades, with that of his gay awakening and the following existential crisis he spent the better part of his late teens navigating. Thankfully, he is perfectly alright with the nature of his attraction now — he just doesn’t have much time to do anything regarding testing it, besides the occasional Tinder date.

At the time, Lucas thought that if he could just graduate with high enough grades he would get into a good enough firm and then finally, finally he would have a life. Turns out, though, that becoming a first-year associate for a global law firm basically means signing your life away to it. We will give you more money than you can imagine what to do with, their slogan should say. In return, breathe, sleep and dream about your work.

For almost $200,000 a year, they don’t tell you, it should be worth it.

So.

Lucas is tired.

Once again, he has pulled a 16-hour shift because there is no such thing as a 9 to 5 schedule if you are an associate — those hours only fly with the graphics team and perhaps with marketing if they are not helplessly working on a last-minute pitch brought in by one of the partners as an after-thought, so used to working impossible hours that they believe — no, they expect — that all teams should work them as well. Lucas hopes to never become so clueless. Sometimes he wants to tell the partners that they can’t realistically expect that kind of work dedication from the business teams unless they are also willing to pay them six figures. He is quiet, though, staying in his line for fear of ruining with one sentence what he has worked so hard to obtain for the last six years.

Lucas reads the latest draft of a document he’s been working on for the last few days, making some new edits before sending it to the pitch team for completion. After, he stretches with a groan and stands carefully, pulling a face as he hears a bone in his shoulder pop. He remembers Yann telling him about this article he read about how sitting on a desk all day is bad for your health and how high-pressure jobs increase chances of getting a heart attack before middle age. He then thinks about how that turned into a rant about how capitalism is an oppressive system that global corporations and firms such as his help to keep in place. He didn’t exactly tell Lucas that he has a part on it... but Lucas is smart enough to understand the implication.

Still, he smiles, thinking about his best friend with fondness and a little exasperation. Not everyone can afford to be an idealist. Thinking about those things won’t help him pay the rent or put bread on his plate. Ever since that stint in his last year of high school living in Mika’s borrowed couch and practically begging his father to give him money for food, he knows he will never put himself on such a vulnerable position again. Being at the mercy of other people is for the weak, Lucas thinks matter-of-factly. World peace is nice, financial stability is nicer. 

“Lucas! Oh, Lucas, there you are!”

“Where else would I be, Daphy?” he replies. “This has been my office since I started working here.”

“No, no, I know. It's just that most of the other associates are at the Drinks Cart Social now,” she explains. “You know, that thing we do every Friday at around 5:15? Food, drinks, friends. You need to learn to relax, Lucas. All you do is work, work, work. Where’s the fun in that?”

“See, that’s the first mistake, Daphy. Believing that eating cheese over white wine will make any of this fun. It won’t.”

“But all our friends are there! Chatting, socializing!”

“Daphné, those are not really my friends. We all just work together. Just because we spend the majority of our time here, it doesn’t make us friends. If anything, everyone here is just sort of friends by default, and that’s a little sad, isn’t it?”

For a second, Daphné’s face falls. Lucas can see, with clinical fascination, how her eyes open, open, open, immensely large and blue, just before they return to their normal size, and then to angry slits. “Oh, so that’s what you believe. Okay, Lucas. Then let me reiterate that those people who are not your friends are your colleagues, and the Drinks Cart is not only for associates: counsels and partners also mingle there, sometimes. If you were actually so smart, you would know how to play the game. It’s not only about what you know, but who you know. Jerk.” With that, she turns around and exits the room, making sure to kick his office door shut.

Okay, so maybe he was a bit of an asshole. Lucas can feel the familiar shame burn his cheeks, put a heavy weight on the bottom of his stomach. Daphné has been nothing but nice to him since he started working at the firm, and since her office is right next to his, she has brought him more coffees and sweets from that French pastry shop next door she likes that he can count. On days when he has gone all night without sleeping, those gestures meant more to Lucas that he would even know how to vocalize. Okay, so Daphy is a little clueless, so what? After her cutting insight on the perks of networking with peers to ultimately climb the leadership ladder, Lucas starts to realize that maybe he is the clueless one.

... or maybe everyone is clueless. Maybe everyone here is just trying as hard as they can, faking it as best as they can manage. It hasn’t been that long since they all graduated, and the group is not that bad, anyway. They can be really entertaining when they want.

Lucas decides he is feeling in the mood to share, after all. He just sent the draft, it’s Friday afternoon, and he could do with some free alcohol and socializing. He takes the jacket of his suit from its place on the hanger behind his desk and puts it on, rolling his hands carefully over the expensive material, getting rid of wrinkles that aren’t there. It’s become sort of a ritual, the thing he does at the end of the day, a signal that work is done.

Today it is also a little indulgence: he wants to feel the fabric of his Berluti jacket, marvel at the impossible softness of the shiny, silky blue, so dark it is almost black. The employee at the Madison boutique had told him that the color really suited him, and Lucas had privately agreed, seeing how it made his clear blue eyes seem even bluer. He had always fancied fashion — not necessarily following trends, but just seeing people express themselves through their style, the way they put themselves together to say something. Granted, most times Lucas didn't understand what that something was, but it was a fun game to play in his head in a city like New York. Lucas is nothing but a realist, but in the privacy of his mind, he entertains himself imagining the lives that the people he encounters must live.

As he walks out of his office on the 39th floor of a midtown Manhattan skyscraper — on his way to that fancy pastry shop that Daphy likes so much —he starts playing.

On the elevator:

That guy, with the frumpy suit. He just found out that his wife of 13 years is cheating on him. He knows he should be sad, but he is secretly elated. He has been thinking of a divorce for years now, but he couldn’t bear to be the one to bring it up.

Floor 35… floor 29… floor 17… floor 9…

A dark-haired girl gets in:

Those green converse shoes are a gift from her girlfriend. Today is their anniversary and she just went to check in with her. She gifted her pink orchids, and told her to hurry up and wrap it up because she is about to give her the surprise of her life once she arrives home.

Lucas steps into the lobby, quickly exits the building through the giant glass doors and makes a right. At this point he knows Avenue of the Americas by heart, he doesn’t even have to look at the signs marking the streets.

As he walks, he sees it all. There are the tourists, taking photos next to the giant LOVE sculpture in the corner of 55th street. A teen boy has managed to climb it until he is leaning dramatically on top of the “L,” his friends snap photos and record videos and Lucas is both mildly impressed and sort of terrified for him. He is trying to impress them so hard. He is terrified, but he would rather fall from that sculpture than show them that. There are the business people, talking into one phone while they type emails into another one. She has just closed a deal for $3 million at 24 years old. She will stop at nothing until she is her company’s youngest CEO. There are the construction workers, always building skyscrapers that keep getting impossibly taller, an endless competition to see which one will touch the clouds first. They are tired. They just want to go home to play with their child, she is learning how to walk now.

And then there is Lucas. A part of everything and nothing, coexisting in a city that is busy and chaotic. He lets himself try and feel the connection, how every person plays an invisible role in each other’s stories, how he is also nothing but a secondary character, a footnote. A grain of sand in the immensity of this universe, smaller and less significant if he even dares to think about other universes.

He feels immediately comforted. He also feels incredibly alone.

He has arrived to the pastry shop, and he gives himself permission to wonder at the sight of it all. Okay, so maybe Daphy has a reason for coming so often — everything looks insanely good. Lucas usually favors savory food over sweets, but wow. Rows and rows of desserts and pastries are carefully displayed to tempt anyone who comes in, beautifully arranged by color and size. All the sweets are labeled in French. Éclair, tarte aux framboises, pain au chocolat, tarte fine aux pommes, petit gâteau… He understands nothing but wants everything, already tasting the treats with his eyes, trying to imagine the flavors on his mouth.

“Hi, how can I help you? Do you need any suggestions?”

Lucas realizes that he has just been staring at the sweets for a few minutes now, standing there without actually ordering anything.

“Oh… yeah, thank you, uh,” he strains to read the name tag pinned on the girl’s shirt. He remembers how awful people can be to customer servers from his days working at his university’s Starbucks, so he always tries his best to be extra nice. “Emma. Thank you, Emma. If you tell me what’s good, that would be nice. I’m a little lost, not sure what to order.”

“Well, the cookies are nice. So are the muffins, really. I’m not crazy about the other stuff,” she takes one look at the way his eyes open and hastens to add: “not because they are not good! I’m just not into that complicated stuff, you know? If I’m gonna eat something sweet, I’m perfectly fine with some ice cream, a donut. Don’t fix it if it ain’t broken, you know?”

“No, I understand. But I think I need something a little more than cookies and muffins. This is supposed to be a “gesture” and this girl is a little extra to begin with, so I want to go above and beyond, if that makes sense.”

“I see, I see. Uhm. Well, the Cardinals always sell well, and you can’t go wrong with those little chocolate mousse things…” she sees his indecision. “Listen, why don’t I see if I can get the chef to recommend you some things? I’m sure he can do a better job of explaining this than me, since he is the one making them and all.”

“Fuck, no, that’s — you don't really have to do that —”

“Nah, seriously, chill. Eliott loves talking about this stuff, he probably could go on for hours. He has this crazy ability of matching people with treats that are exactly right for them. Also, I think his shift is about to end, so now’s actually a good time.”

“Emma, seriously, that’s not —” she's gone. “Necessary.”

Right, then. Lucas occupies himself reading the names of the sweets in display again, trying to recall if Daphné has a particular favorite. He’s pretty sure the last time she just brought him a normal croissant, which, if he is fair, was perhaps a little better than the ones he gets at his corner bodega: buttery soft and flaking prettily in his hands with every bite. He leans a little to get a better look at the pastries, thankful that the shop is pretty empty besides a couple of tourists checking photos on a fancy-looking camera on the back.

“Hello, Emma said you needed some help?”

Lucas sights, already replying as he turns. “Yeah, thanks…” he takes one look at the guy in front of him and swallows, his throat suddenly dry. “Yeah I… that would be, uh, helpful.”

“So my help would be helpful?” the guy repeats with a small smile. Lucas realizes he’s mocking him, but the tease is gentle. “Well, yes, I figured. Emma says you are looking for something surprising.”

Well, okay, maybe Lucas wasn’t extraordinarily smooth there. But he wasn’t prepared for this guy. He almost feels a little offended that Emma didn’t give him a bit of a warning. Yeah, wait, let me get Eliott, the impossibly attractive pastry chef. Because he is. Impossibly attractive. Lean and tall, but hunching a little in that way that some tall people do when they don’t want to take up much space. His hair is all over the place, his cheekbones are to die for and his eyes…

His eyes are kind.

They are focused on him.

“Uhm, yeah. I mean. I want something that’s a little out of the ordinary,” Lucas explains. “Just something that has a little more oof than your regular cookie, you know? Sorry, I don’t want to be a bother, I know you were just about to leave.”

On the contrary. If anything, the guy looks excited. “Oof,” he repeats softly, like he’s never heard anything more interesting. “Something oof. Well, that’s a challenge, no? Okay, give me a moment.”

He places his backpack in the nearest chair to him and takes his jacket off neatly, placing it on top of his bag. Lucas can see a variety of small cuts and burns in his lightly tanned arms, nothing major, but enough that he stares for a moment too long. Enough for Eliott to notice. “Just hazards of the job,” he explains. “You get used to it after a while. Come, sit here for a moment, I’ll be back.”

He goes before Lucas can tell him that it’s not necessary, that this is too much, that everything looks good, so probably everything is good. That this is just a friendly gesture for his coworker, that he was just overthinking it.

He distracts himself by taking his phone out and checking his work emails. He never spends more than 10 minutes without checking, he knows just how fast an urgent matter can require his assistance. At this point the instinct to check his emails is as second nature as it is for other people to check their texts.

Lucas doesn’t bother. Yann usually prefers to either call or wait to tell him whatever when he drops by his apartment. His father hasn’t called or messaged him since Christmas — around five months ago — and his mother prefers to send him letters these days. Long, carefully constructed letters that usually don’t make much sense in terms of narrative, but are beautiful nonetheless: a combination of her favorite quotes (mostly biblical), poems, small sketches and cut-ups from photos she likes from magazines. Sometimes she tells him about her day, sometimes she just writes “Lucas, I love you.” Every single one of her letters is unique, a collage that gives him insight into her brain. He cherishes them deeply — almost as much as her.

Eliott returns soon enough, a tray in his hands. “Well, here is a selection of some of my oofest offerings.”

“You know you don’t have to use it like that, right? It’s not a verb.”

“You started it.”

“Yeah but that’s just how I speak, you are making it, like, a thing.”

“It’s just funny, a guy like you, in a suit like that…”

Lucas starts to turn red again, this time from anger. “What do you mean a guy like me? And the suit, what?”

Eliott laughs a little. “Sorry, no, sorry. It’s ah, uh, it’s a very nice suit. Really nice. It’s just a little funny—”

“What’s funny?” Lucas cuts.

“Well you look so posh,” Eliott explains with a smile, looking at him with hooded eyes, a little apologetic. “But then you use words like ‘oof’. It’s a little surprising, see? It’s cool, I like surprising people.”

Before Lucas can process, Eliott is talking again. “So, you fucked up, huh?”

“Wha— excuse me, I think it was you who fucked up just now!”

Eliott dismisses him with a wave of his hand. “No, I mean, with your girl.”

“Ah?” This conversation is getting more confusing and bizarre by the moment.

“Your girlfriend? Girl that won’t be satisfied with a common cookie.”

“My what now?”

“Dude, are you okay? Maybe you are more sleep deprived than me. I can make you a coffee too if you want? Not usually my thing, but…”

This is too much. “No, that’s not necessary. And Daphy is just—”

“Daphy? Wait, Daphné? Cute blonde, huge blue eyes? That’s your girl?” Emma has appeared out of nowhere, sitting loudly in the chair right in front of them. The shop is pretty empty so Lucas understands that maybe she is just taking a moment to unwind. As she pulls a face that spells incredulity, he decides he likes her. At the moment, though, her presence is making him feel a conflicting mix of annoyance and gratefulness.

“Well actually—”

“I mean, sorry, dude! Don’t get me wrong, you are an attractive guy. But she’s been coming here at least three times a week for the past couple of months, always during my shift. I guess I thought that maybe…”

Well fuck, now Lucas is intrigued. “Maybe?”

“That maybe she is into it? And like… me?” Emma frowns a little, resting her head into the palms of her hands. “I’ve been seriously flirting with her for a few weeks now, but I just thought she hadn’t picked on it. I wasn’t aware she’s together with someone. You are probably the one she’s been bringing pastries these last few days. Wow, I really feel like she should have said something? Some people, seriously…”

“Emma,” Eliott interrupts, his smile pained. “Although I completely understand the frustration you are feeling right now — believe me, I do — do you think it’s appropriate to vent your feelings to the boyfriend of the object of your affection?”

“Well, when you put it like that…”

“No, but listen,” Lucas is determined to get a word in this time. “We are not together, really. She’s not my girlfriend.”

“No?”

“No.”

Lucas is not sure who looks more delighted by the news.

“We work together, so we see a lot of each other,” he explains. “Today I was a bit of a jerk. I’ve been working long hours, so I snapped at her a little and I thought that maybe an apology sweet would be nice… I don’t know. Sorry, you probably think this is dumb now. I don’t want you to waste your time, especially since it’s Friday evening…”

Eliott’s smile warms so much that Lucas has to avert his eyes. Instead, he looks at Emma, who seems completely unfazed about the whole thing now that she knows he isn’t Daphné’s boyfriend.

“Fuck, yeah!” she exclaims, grin wide on her face. “I mean, a small fuck you for hurting my girl, but this is kinda awesome, right? Oh fuck, wait. A customer has just walked in. I’ll be back.”

With that, she stands and quickly walks to take care of the middle-aged woman, who, unlike Lucas, seems to know exactly what she wants.

“So, are you going to keep me waiting?”

Eliott is closer to him. Maybe a little too close. Lucas is once again hit by his undeniable beauty, which somehow he managed to put aside when they were bantering before. His eyes are so big, so blue, so beautiful — like a summer sky — something that has no real beginning or end. More than anything, Lucas is mesmerized by the kindness in his face, attracted to the little smile crinkles forming at the corner of his eyes. Because if his eyes are a summer sky, his smile is like sunshine before dawn.

“No, I — no.” He would never. He probably couldn’t deny him, if he tried.

“Okay, so, for your girl who is not your girl,” he says, showing him something that looks to Lucas like a pink macaron cake. “Now that I know who she is — Emma won’t shut up about her — ignore everything else in this table but this. This is an Ispahan. It was created by Pierre Hermé, and to be honest, it freaking rocks. I have been perfecting this for a while now, so we are still not even selling it here, but today I am finally satisfied. These are from my last batch. Here, try.”

Eliott carefully passes him the sweet, watching intently as Lucas takes a bite. In a second his mouth is filled with cream, sweet but airy, which is immediately followed by the tanginess of fresh berries.

“Wow.”

“Good, yeah?” Elliott seems satisfied by his reaction. “It’s filled with rose petal and lychee cream, the actual macaron is also rose flavored. The raspberries are for that extra ‘oof’ factor. Also, because they look beautiful next to the rose petals.”

They do. Lucas can see Daphy already Instagraming the sweet, ooing and aaing over the contrasting shades of pink, the rose petals and the softness of the cream.

“Yeah, no, this is perfect,” Lucas assures him. “She is going to go wild over this, I can’t believe you made it. And that you would know that this is exactly her thing just from hearing about her from Emma.”

Eliott looks even happier. “It’s my superpower. I can make everyone their perfect dessert.”

Lucas remembers Emma saying that earlier. He knows the line is completely obvious, his intention is painfully clear, but still. He can’t help himself. “Oh, yeah? And for me? What would you make for me?”

If Eliott registers his words as flirtatious, Lucas will never know, because he seems to take the question completely seriously. He takes a good look at Lucas, and then at the tray which still has nine untouched confections, each more beautiful than the other. He finally grabs a small glazed one, the chocolate so dark it’s almost completely black.

“I think… I think I need to keep thinking about it. But this is a start.” He leans closer to him, closer again, closecloseclose, taking the sweet to Lucas’ lips, who immediately opens up. He takes a second to convince himself that his mouth opens with surprise, not desire, but he knows perfectly well it’s both.

Eliott's eyes burn into his, too intense, too bright, just too much. He places his other hand just next to his neck, making an impromptu plate. Lucas worries he can actually feel the movement when he swallows. “Sorry,” Eliott whispers, still close. “I don’t want you to ruin your pretty suit.”

Lucas doesn’t know what to say, so he takes a bite instead and is immediately overwhelmed. At first, the cake is bitter in his tongue, almost uncomfortably so. But then it becomes lighter, airier, the chocolate sweeter. In the center there’s an unfamiliar flavor, sweet and tart, the perfect contrast to the acerbic initial layer. Lucas, who is actually a cookie or donut kind of person, is shocked that a dessert can be such a ride.

“It’s… it’s a lot,” he finally says.

“It’s a 90% dark chocolate mousse cake,” Eliott says. “I think it can be a lot for some people, yeah. But I think we like that.” Just then he gets a text. He takes the phone from his light jeans pocket, scans it and starts to stand. “Sorry, I really need to go. I forgot I had some plans later, but I need to go home to shower and take a nap first.”

Lucas is a little disappointed, but he understands. It is Friday afternoon in the city that never sleeps. Completely understandable that most people do have things to do outside of work.

“No, that’s okay. You already saved my life with this, thanks so much.” Eliott smiles and starts walking towards the door. Just when he is about to go out, he turns.

“That last dessert you tried, though?” He says, once again holding his gaze. “The center is all passion." He stops, continues after a second. "Passionfruit... I could have it every day. It’s called Adagio. And your name?”

Well, fuck. “Lucas. I’m Lucas.”

“Well, come again, Lucas. I’ll make you other things until I get it just right.” And with that, he is out of the door.

Lucas takes a moment to compose himself. Swallows. When he is ready, he takes the tray back to Emma, and without thinking much says, “Give me ten of everything in this tray. Wait, no,” he corrects quickly. “Everything but the Adagio.” That one is only for him. He won’t share it with anyone else.

“Dude, these are like $5 to $7 a piece,” Emma says, slightly terrified. “I don’t know how badly you fucked up, but I’m sure no girl can eat 90 different sweets in one go.”

Lucas thinks of his “friends by default.” Manon, Arthur, Imane, Basil, Daphy. He starts to feel shitty again. Before he can overthink it too much, he takes out his credit card and hands it to her. “No, that’s okay. It’s a big office.”

“You only tasted two of them! And you are only ordering one of those you did try!”

“It’s fine,” he says, suddenly feeling a little abashed. “I like trying new things.”