Pink Cowgirl Boots by Ryan Bradley
Me and Stan the Homophobic Asshole were both holding half a habanero pepper to our tongues instead of breaking down the salad bar. Whoever pulled away first had to close by themselves and wear the aggressively pink cowgirl boots from the Halloween clearance rack to Rudy’s later that night. The management at A+ Groceries didn’t really care what we did. After an accident left an elderly customer paralyzed, the place wasn’t going to last, and the promises of long-term security they’d used to get me to sign on when I’d dropped out of college had turned out to be horseshit.
My eyes were watering. My nose was running. Stan must’ve been feeling it too. The drops of sweat rolling down his forehead were big enough to see from a hundred yards away. I wasn’t out to anybody but my sister, but I had this fantasy that I would do something crazy tough, like skewer a habanero onto one of my teeth and keep it there for a full minute and come out right when the guys like Stan who constantly call each other fags would be slapping me on the back. Right at that moment. It’d be so badass they’d start using gay as a compliment. But then I was coughing and my pepper was on the floor.
Stan threw his up in the air. I could see how he’d used the scissors to make his half easier to handle. There was a piece of skin he could touch his tongue to on the very end of the pepper so he wouldn’t get as much spice. I didn’t call him though. I was saving it for that moment when I told them all who I was, and they’d remember how long I’d held the habanero to my tongue, and how I threw around fifty-pound sacks of potatoes like they were nothing, and how whenever they played around I didn’t get prissy. I was going to come out and still be one of them.
I took the boots through the self-checkout. We were produce clerks, so we got out of there at 9pm, but the girls from the front end (and Hai, the large Asian man who practiced his English with us when things quieted for the night) stayed till 11. They would never stop laughing if they saw me buying those boots.
Stan called me a pussy, and asked if I was afraid that once the girls saw me buying the boots I’d never get a date.
“Something like that,” I said and I told him I had to stop for gas on the way to Rudy’s.
“As long as you’re wearing those boots,” he laughed. To him, this was the funniest thing. It was going to give him time to prep everyone to be ready for my arrival, but I wasn’t all that embarrassed. The trick to humiliation was to play into it, the way that sometimes accelerating into a turn would give a car as much traction as braking.
I pulled up in front of Rudy’s with the boots on. I’d changed out of the drab A+ Groceries uniform, but I’d unbuttoned the plaid shirt I’d put on and tied the two sides of the front in the middle to show off cleavage I didn’t have. I wasn’t proud of my body, but I wasn’t ashamed either. I would’ve cut the legs off my blue jeans, but I couldn’t afford a new pair.
I walked through the door and everybody was cat-calling and whistling. I put one hand on my hip, and flipped my wrist. “Stop that, boys,” I said in a high-pitched voice.
They all roared with laughter and everybody was buying me drinks on a lark. I was popping down on laps and stealing sips from their beers. I was drunker than normal and having a lot more fun too and maybe feeling a little bit turned on when I noticed Stan the Homophobic Asshole sulking in the corner. He had his fists all balled up and he was glaring at his beer like it had called his mother fat, which she was.
I thought, Fuck him. If he wasn’t going to have a good time, that was his problem. And I sat on more laps and stole more sips, and everyone was laughing until Stan cut the music and started yelling.
It was like a movie. The noise of the needle getting ripped off a record made us all shut up, and Stan started throwing the other f-word around, the f-word that along with the n-word and the c-word was sure as hell not something that could be said in public any longer. I tolerated it at work because what was I going to do? There weren’t any other gay men at A+ Groceries and I’d found that people’s stances on whether we were born attracted to the same sex was mostly determined by their income. Stan and I were stuck closing together whether we got along or not, but I was too drunk to stop myself. He’d put his beer down and, still yelling, stumbled toward me. I could see hate in the little veins popping out of his eyes and I didn’t even think about it: I wound up and I socked him in the jaw.
It was nothing like a movie. He didn’t fall down, although he did turn his head and grab where I’d hit him. I had to shake my hand it hurt so bad. It took me a moment to notice the rest of the bar closing in around us, egging on what they wanted to happen next. Stan’s eyes darted from man to man, looking for an escape. I thought he was going to charge and throw me through a table. Desperate.
“So what if I am?” I said. I fought back a quiver. There were so many of them and only one of me.
Huge drops of sweat rolled down Stan’s forehead. His irises floated with the beer he’d drunk. He looked pissed and frightened and confused all at once, like a fourth-grader who hadn’t yet figured out long division and couldn’t comprehend the help the teacher was giving him. He ran his eyes up and down me, exploring the geography of my face like it had tectonically shifted. His shoulders shrank. He saw me. And I saw him too, in the way his fists balled and unballed, and the way he deflated in front of me. His fingers still held the point of impact. Between us, the ground all but quaked from the force of our opposing realizations.
Ryan Bradley has published work in The Missouri Review, The Rumpus, Pinball, the anthology Drawn to Marvel, and others. He contributes regularly to Action Figure Fury. He won the 2015 JP Reads flash fiction contest. His first novel is underway. He will receive his MFA from Emerson College in May.