Two hours of the workday passed as they always did. Jaime pilfered some cash here and there. Brad peed in the mop bucket and mopped up a foamy detergent spill on aisle four.
“Yo Jaime, you ever tried any of this stuff?” Pointing at a bottle of Pert 2-in-1: shampoo and conditioner. “I mean, you have that girl hair and all.”
“No. My hair is too oily and thick for that. I only use GHD products. From Britain. I get them online. And they don’t come in a single bottle either.”
“Well, it probably is. But that’s what I use.”
Brad continued to stare at the bottle, pretending to read the scripture on the packaging, when he was actually mulling over Jaime’s potential homosexuality. Brad had never met anyone who was gay. Or Chinese. Or anyone with an advanced degree in Psychics. But he had somehow formed steadfast and unappealing opinions of them all. Another gift from his father.
He came from a wonderfully insulated place. A place where everything fit into neat and tidy compartments. Everything he encountered then, and since, could be easily crammed into one of two categories: acceptable, or unacceptable. His accomplices had other words for their categories. Such as holy, or unholy. Moral, or immoral. Right, or wrong. But the sentiment was always the same. It was a question of familiarity. Familiar = acceptable. Brad considered his upbringing to be right and just. He believed himself to be a shining example of whom and what a person should grow up to be. And he tended to project that feeling onto any and everyone he came across. This is how he understood and reconciled himself to his reality: a perfect fit.
“So, you do still like girls, don’t you Jaime?”
Jaime, his back to Brad, finishing up some mathematic adjustments to his register tape, stopped all motion. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Brad threw the question out as more of a mental slip. He was honestly curious as to the answer, but was aware that in such a small town, the implications of simply asking someone that question was tantamount to outright, debasing, scorn. But he had no quip to catch himself. So he continued to fumble through it.
“I mean, I remember when you dated that girl in middle school. Christie or something like that. But you haven’t really dated anyone since. So, I’m just wondering, that’s all.”
Jaime knew just how loaded this question was. He knew that even his demeanor while answering such a poorly disguised indictment would be used as evidence against him, especially if it countered his actual answer. Unfortunately, there was no clear-cut answer. It was more of a contextual thing for Jaime. And in the current context, his answer should have been a patent ‘no’. But he knew it would fail to roll off his tongue in any believable way. Especially since Jaime believed that in the back of Brad’s mind, if not the front, he really wished for an admission.
“What the fuck are you asking me that for?”
Brad’s answer was a fat-lipped shrug and stare. Still holding the hair cleaner. An awkward silence pushed itself into the space between them. As if they were squaring up for a schoolyard brawl.
Jaime, determined yet mentally stammering, did his best to prop up the most sincere expression of incredulity. But he could feel it slipping away, chipped off by Brad’s lazy-eyed stare.
“Fuck, Brad. I could sit here and explain myself to you all damn day. But you’re just too, too…”
In Jamie’s mind, at that exact moment, this conversation could only go two ways. He could either answer the question as affirmative or negative as he pleased, giving Brad (and whomever Brad told later) whatever necessary ammunition they needed to continue believing what they already did. Thereby setting himself up even further as an outsider. Or, he could defend his right not to be asked such personal questions, in hopes that Brad would accept this argument as a defense for the fundamental right of a man to his privacy. But in order to pull off option two, he would have to maintain a level head, without volleying back anything equally damning in retort. This was not a fire vs. fire discussion.
“too… small town. You know? You’re too damn small town. You don’t get it. All you know is this shit hole, and that’s all you ever will know. I don’t think you’re capable of anything bigger.”
So much for either initial options. The previously ignored ‘option three: reckless temper tantrum’ was on deck instead. Brad seemed to be taking the slap rather well. He slowly returned the bottle to its spot on a shelf, walked to the end of Jaime’s register counter, leaned on to it with folded arms, and let out a deep breath.
“Well, Jaime. You didn’t answer the question, did you?”
Brad was already knee-deep once the initial question got tossed out. No point in backing down now.
Jaime, mockingly, “well, Brad. You aren’t going to listen to my answer anyway, are you?”
“Sure I will. If you’re honest.”
“That’s what someone would say if they were expecting a particular answer. Which means you aren’t listening to my answer AS an answer. You’re listening to the sounds coming from my mouth, looking for a forensic match to the sounds you’re expecting to hear.”
For a brief moment, it appeared that Jaime’s words might be sinking in. That Brad might posses cognitive prowess beyond Jaime’s estimation. That Brad may actually understand what Jaime believed to be a logical flaw in the purpose of this interaction. That Brad may actually recognize the root of his error.
“If you’re honest, I can tell.”
But then… maybe not.