Fatima works in a downtown café frequented by graduate students, professors, and a certain amalgam of townies.
She makes espresso and sandwiches. She cuts her fingers and burns her arms. She mops the floors and sweeps the patio. She refills napkin dispensers and makes sure there are enough straws. She adjusts the bolts behind the dishwasher and she stacks the glasses into the low shelf under the counter. She cuts the banana bread when it’s still warm from the oven and she greases the muffin tins into which she pours the white goopy batter.
At the end of her shifts, she leaves out of the door in the alley and walks across campus to the building where the dance classes take place. She dances with burns on her fingertips, with splinters in her palms. Sometimes batter sticks to the end of her hair and she finds it hours later, hardened like exoskeleton. Her life is a series of minor translations between the café and the studio.
“But this is the real work,” one of her classmates says to her one evening after they have just warmed up and are about to begin rehearsal in earnest.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Fatima says. “It’s all work, you know. Work, work, work.”
“Yeah, but this is the real work,” he says with an expression so earnest it pains Fatima to look at him directly. He is skinny and blond, with taut muscles and quite curly hair. He looks like a little doll, perfect and beautiful. His name is Cheney.
“Yes,” she says, nodding. “Of course.”
Cheney beams at her, and then, as if in confidence, he leans over and whispers, “Honestly, I think it’s cool that you like, have a job. The dedication, but I know you know that this is the real deal. This.” He motions with his arms to the studio, to the other students stretching, making ready. Fatima follows the sweep of his arms. Sees the tarnished floors, the filthy mirrors. The stench of their sweat and a dozen different shampoos, lotions, body sprays, deodorant, and ointments. The scent of rosin. The slightly irritating resonance of the piano — the room is too narrow and too small for a piano, and so the music has an abrasive quality. She hates it all. She resents the stiffness in her muscles. The creeping watermark above them. The windows which…