Steve set his paintbrush down, staring at his canvas with the unsettling feeling that something wasn’t working. The pinks and oranges weren’t blending together in a way he liked. Instead of the soft, sunset he was trying to capture, it reminded him more of the vape shop’s blinding neon sign that glowed at all hours of the day outside his window. And his blue, for whatever reason, wasn’t the right shade he was looking for. If he stared any longer he would scrub all his work off and start over again.
Too tired to look at his work one more time, he walked away from his studio and into the main area of his living room. Like his studio, it existed in a state of disarray. Except instead of equipment, paints, and finished works, there was diversity to his clutter. A board game left set out from the last time his friends were over. Half-finished books with receipts stuffed in to mark his place. And hoodies stockpiled on the one leather seat he could never get comfortable on. Tony said it was a good chair, but Steve didn’t buy it for a second. Steve slumped into his sofa, grabbing a pillow to hold over his face; he groaned into it, muffling the sound.
He’d been stuck on this painting for two weeks because of some shitty creative block. Steve slowly, but steadily, had been building his portfolio back up. It wasn’t an easy thing, starting from scratch. Most of his work was locked away in the Smithsonian, anything he did after waking up lost to him. But now that he wasn’t a fugitive any longer – a thank you for saving the universe – and Thanos gone and defeated, Steve allowed himself to relax. So he found a space for rent in Williamsburg, putting in for semi-retirement. Captain America was needed, but not in the same way. Mostly he reviewed strategies and gave advice when asked, fighting only if it was necessary. As more and more heroes poured into New York City, the necessity dropped further and further.
“Although I would rather face off against some bank robbers or… anything than deal with this!” he screamed into the pillow, chewing the fabric. Pulling it down he frowned, sulking. He craned his neck back. “What should I do next? Pull out the charcoals… a different technique… give me a sign! ”
“…I can do that,” he said, hand on stomach, “food… food sounds good about now.”
Steve pulled himself up. He shuffled around the room, grabbing all he needed before stepping outside. His wallet and keys sat in a nearby drawer. He slipped them into his pockets, thin exercise shorts sagging with the extra weight. Steve grabbed a sweatshirt from the pile and tugged it on. It was pink, matching the color stained on his skin. Sliding into a pair of sandals, Steve searched for the final pieces of his outfit. The beanie wasn’t hard to find; stuffed into the last jacket he wore. His glasses, however, proved much more difficult. After five minutes of looking, Steve found them in his medicine cabinet. He questioned for a brief moment why they were there, but didn’t linger on it long.
He closed the cabinet, putting the glasses on; they were boxy things with clear frames. Natasha tossed them to him at his housewarming present, saying this style was in. Steve wasn’t thinking about how trendy his disguise was, more concerned with how they worked. And, for the most part, it has.
Captain America – Steve Rogers – is wrapped in a neat, little box within the cultural conscious. People expect him clean cut, wearing blue jeans and gingham shirts, carrying a flag at all times. History books and museums made him into this monument of ‘old America’: picket fences, golden boys, and apple pie. He chuckled, grateful for those characterizations of him . Because who would really expect the scruffy-looking guy in sweats with dried paint on his hands as Captain America?
Steve locked his door, tucking the beanie tighter onto his head as he made his way down the three flights and onto the street. It was fairly crowded, different people milling about. Whether walking, hanging out on stoops or waiting for a bus, all paid him no mind as he set out to find food. Steve blended in like any other guy in the neighborhood; another hipster like Sam called him. He’s passing a group of women, smiling and nodding at them, when he saw it.
It was nestled between the bookstore Steve loved going into, and the tattoo shop where the owner begged him for a commission after he dropped his sketchpad one time. Steve passed this street all the time, but for as long as he has been there one location was always under construction… until today.
Like most buildings in the area it was made from bricks, the first story being the shop while the second a converted apartment. Their awning was a rich blue – the kind he was looking for – with big, bubble letters printed on it. ‘Cleopatra’s Café .’ His stomach warbled again, breaking him from the spell. “Hang tight, buddy,” he said, “We’ll get you fed.”
Steve crossed the street, dashing through the crowded lanes before the light changed. He jogged to a stop in front, glancing inside. There were no customers, and no one behind the register. But when he checked the door, it said ‘ Welcome! We’re Open! ’ Driven by hunger and curiosity, Steve entered. The little chime above the bell signaled his arrival.
“I’ll be out in a moment!” a deep voice called from the back, “Please, take a look at the menu!”
Steve stepped up to the counter, parsing through all the options. He settled on something familiar. Looking ahead, he stuffed a menu pamphlet into his hoodie pocket. If it was good, he might order their shawarma next game night. A few minutes pass, still with no sign of a server. He used the extra time to examine the store more closely. The walls, painted sandy beige, worked nicely with the blue tiling on the floor. A few circular tables were scattered about, two chairs to each except for one in the middle that had three. They were some type of wood, faded and worn, as were the chairs upholstered with cream fabric.
Behind the counter there were three shelves, where a few things had been placed. On the bottom shelf, a framed certificate rested next to a book. He only glimpsed the spine; intricately detailed gold-and-green leather with ‘Quran’ embossed. On the other side of it was a Newton’s Cradle, keeping it from falling over. Above it, on the middle shelf, rested two potted plants and an average sized snow globe with the Avenger’s Tower in it. Quickly moving on, he reached the top shelf. The only thing there was a photograph of a family. Husband and wife, standing in front of the building, with two young kids at their sides: one boy and one girl. They all smiled, holding a sign saying ‘ Grand Opening ’. Steve matched their grins, wondering about them. The fact they managed to stay open in the sweep of gentrification that hit the community was nice to see.
“So sorry to make you wait, I didn’t realize how long that would take.’ He’s thrown from his musings as the guy who called out to him earlier enters.
Steve turned; jaw almost dropping at the sight. But he caught himself, and cleared his throat instead. “No, it’s… okay. Didn’t mind…”
The guy moved towards the register. He wore a yellow-collared shirt under a brown apron. There’s a nametag fixed there on one of the straps. ‘ Adem. ’ Adem skewed his head to the side, brown eyes squinting at him. “Did you… figure out what you’re going to order?”
“I – uh… um –“
“Because if you didn’t that’s… totally fine ,” Adem spoke over him, looking to the hanging menu, “We added a bunch of stuff after we re-opened, so choice overload …” He kept talking, Steve too focused on studying him. Adem stood at about the same height as him, maybe an inch or two shorter, and much leaner than he was. He had a warm, tawny complexion, and dark, wavy hair cropped on the sides. Adem turned his way again, still explaining, allowing Steve more time to go over his features. His eyes glowed like amber in the slowly fading light of the day. It also highlighted his flat nose and strong chin. “Um… hello? Did you get all that?”
Steve blinked, flushing red. He nodded. “Yeah, yeah I’ll – I’ll just have some shawarma – chicken .”
“All right…” Adem rang the order up while Steve dug for his wallet. “That’ll be eight-twenty-three.” He handed over a ten. “Okay, here’s your change. It’ll be a few so…” Shrugging, Adem returned to the kitchen.
Wincing, Steve thought Adem must think he was strange. There were comments made, back when Steve announced his plans after defeating Thanos. How now with the weight of America off his shoulders, he’d finally find time to get laid. It was good-natured teasing, nothing more, but hit a lot closer than he let on.
Dating was a tricky thing for him. Before the serum, he was such a scrawny guy no one wanted anything to do with him. And then after it – he only had eyes for one girl. But things got in the way. After waking up, there was too much awkwardness and settling that made it even more difficult. Once he felt like he fit in with modern society, everything else blew up. The closest he ever came was with Sharon, but they never moved past kissing. He couldn’t without picturing Peggy there with him. Now, with a somewhat quiet life, he should have been able to throw himself back into the dating scene with the same ferocity as he did his art.
Except whenever he thought of getting out there, his nerves froze up faster than a crashed plane in the Artic. And in the process, he made an ass out of himself, like now. So it was better if he stuck to what he knew and… not try for anything else. It didn’t help when his body betrayed him.
Steve short-circuited around pretty girls, even worse when it was pretty boys. Adem was a tall glass of water spilt all over his open mainframe, frying everything. He should have stayed where he was and controlled the system failure.
Still… something pushed him forward, following Adem into the back. The other man cooked through an opening, the kitchen like any other restaurant. Steve sat in one of the chairs, looking at Adem work.
Adem met his stare. “What?”
“Is this place new?”
“No, we’ve been here for awhile.”
Steve shrugged. “I haven’t noticed until now…”
Adem paused what he was doing, leaning forward. “You new to the area?”
“Not really. Brooklyn born, but… I did move . Only came back recently.”
“About six months.”
He smiled. “There you go. We’d been under renovations for two months already by the time you got here.”
“That’s a long time for repairs.”
“Yeah, well we needed ‘em,” Adem explained, “This place hadn’t been updated since before my family bought it. And that was over twenty years ago…”
Steve thought back to the picture, of the little boy. “Wait, so that photo – behind the counter –“
“Do they all work here?”
“Well it is a family business…” Adem tilted his head to the side, again, “But they’re all out.”
“Is that a usual thing?”
“Why? Thinking of robbing me now or coming back later?”
He blanched, standing. “What? No – no, I –“
“Dude, chill,” Adem chuckled, “Just a joke. Clearly you’re not dressed to do crime. But if you were, I’d recommend sneakers – much easier to run in.” Steve tried joining him, but all he did was huff and shift awkwardly. “Nah, my folks got called away on emergency, and my uncle’s shift is an hour from now. My sis used to work here, but she and her husband are tending the food truck we opened while this place was closed.”
“Cart instead of Café…” Adem turned then, moving into the back. He kept their conversation going. “So, are you always this curious with the people who make your food?”
“Being friendly, I suppose,” Steve said, “Are you always this responsive?”
“Not always. This one girl was chatting me up, but she couldn’t catch the hint that I wasn’t interested.”
“What’d you do?”
“One word answers until she got her food and left. I wasn’t gonna risk her leaving us a bad Yelp review.”
“If you’re that nice to the people you’re not interested in, I wonder what you’re like to the ones you are .”
Adem returned, smirking. “Answer their questions… even though I shouldn’t.”
Steve flushed again, avoiding knowing eye contact. Adem clucked his tongue, the distinct sound of a pen scraping against Styrofoam overtaking their silence. He spoke, then, without realizing; mouth way ahead of his brain. “Well… since I’m asking questions and you – you’re answering, them…”
He gave himself a quick pep-talk, the inner monologue coaching himself along. “I was wondering… what the color of your awning was?”
Steve sighed, scratching at his neck. “Well, that’s what drew me here in the first place. I saw your awning and it was perfect for this painting I was working on.” He flashed his fingers, wiggling them at Adem. “I’m an artist. If I knew what the color was it’d make my life easier…”
“Umm… I’m not really sure?” Adem said, placing the Styrofoam on the small ledge in the opening, “Sorry, to me it’s just… blue .”
“No, no it’s… it’s okay,” Steve said, “I mean – long shot chance, right? I guess I’ll just keep… mixing and mixing until I can find the right balance.” He grabbed the container, stepping away. “Uh… thanks, for this. Maybe I’ll see you again or – or I meant I’ll be back.”
Steve barely made it to the entrance before Adem yelled for him. He spun, frowning back at the other man. “You know,” Adem said, “I could find out the color and tell you about it.”
He blinked. “How?”
Rolling his eyes, Adem scoffed. “Well, you could always come back or … use the number I gave you?” He pointed to the container in Steve’s hands
Steve glanced at it. On the cover, in a messy scrawl, was a set of numbers and ‘ A. Sharif’. He looked up. “Uhh…”
“The A stands for Adem.”
“I know…” Steve gestured to his nametag.
Adem, remembering, chuckled uneasily. “Yeah, yeah…” He swallowed harshly, tongue peeking out from his lips. “This… I wasn’t reading into things was I?” Steve shook his head ‘no’. “Okay… um, so there was interest there?”
His voice rough, Steve said, “Yeah, yeah – yes. Definite interest.”
“So you’ll use it?”
Steve nodded. “I’ll do it right now.” He snuck his phone out of his pocket, shooting off a text.
Adem checked his phone, smiling down at it. “Just hey?” he asked, “No name? What am I supposed to put in your contacts? Shawarma Artist Guy?”
“No, you can call me…” He scrambled for a name. Steve might be too obvious, and Adem could notice the similarities straight away. Knowing he took to long, he latched onto part of the truth. “… Grant . Grant Rodgers – with a ‘ d ’ between the ‘o’ and the ‘g’.”
“Very particular about where you place the ‘d’, aren’t you?”
“That, that wasn’t -”
“You’re very nervous for an artist – especially a Williamsburg artist,” Adem told him, “I like it.” Three more people entered at that moment, drawing his attention away. “I’ll see what I can find out about that awning. Enjoy the shawarma, Grant ‘Rodgers with a d’!”
He bid goodbye, passing the new group on his way out. Steve walked back to his apartment in a haze, eyes trailing every now and then to his order. Every time he saw Adem’s scrawl his smile stretched so wide his face was wont to split in two; heart beating faster than any of Stark’s quinjets. It’s a miracle he made it back to his apartment without getting lost.
Steve tried calming himself down, but for the rest of the night he felt lighter and younger than he had in years. Like the Steve from Brooklyn was finally back. He thought, when a deep purple overtook the sky that it’d fade by morning.
Except he woke up to a text from Adem: ‘ Ultramarine Blue ’.
It beat even faster .