After high school Sam landed a full-time job at an employee relations help center which came with benefit coverage, which had been a contributing factor in getting Eunice to move in.
“It’s over in Forrest Park,” Sam explained, “We handle IBEW union worker disputes and get this Eunice, it’s an adult job. We are now covered for dental appointments and other stuff I haven’t looked into yet,” he beamed with pride.
“That’s so great Sam! What do people call about?” she asked.
“If you ask my colleague Todd, he would say, ‘every caller is crustier than the one before.’ Todd says it’s the crappiest job he’s ever had but I don’t think so!” he said.
Finding a job outside of fast food or janitorial work was a leapfrog over his parents’ expectations. They didn’t dare show pride lest jinx his good fortune. He knew they were proud though. Whenever he mentioned the job, he could tell they held their breath knowing with their pedigree he didn’t deserve it. Sam felt like he had struck gold.
Todd Sheppard was his cubicle mate, a white middle class prep school guy from the edge of town. He got the impression Todd thought the job was beneath his intelligence and expected the company owed him. As a new recruit Sam had become his sounding board but Todd was comical so he didn’t mind. They became fast friends.
“I don’t want to spoil the fun but I had way better benefits at my last job,” Todd said.
That’s probably because your white Todd! Sam half listened when Todd complained. Not many guys around his hood had perks like these. White people were so endearing when they moaned about money!
Todd had grown up well off. His father had invested in a few dilapidated houses on Pike Road, before the enclave got popular. Just like Flip This House, his father renovated then lucked out by selling properties at a profit. That coupled with a bonanza of expansion with middle class whites moving in. Meanwhile most of downtown Montgomery’s neighborhoods were dilapidated.
When Todd confided he was gay, Sam’s first reaction was of disgust. His thought was Todd was going to try and get it on with him. The fear subsided as they got to know each other and eventually Sam met his partner Max.
Friday nights after work they’d go to Zaxby’s Chicken Fingers & Buffalo Wings on Zelda Road, a local of the after work crowd. They’d chat about work drama then once the social lubrication took effect they’d get into deeper topics.
“Alright Sammy boy. Now that I’m good and toasted let me ask you inappropriate questions,” Todd said.
“Alright, go for it!” Sam said, happy to be out on the town.
“What the fuck is a cracker anyway?” Todd asked sounding buzzed.
Sam burst out laughing, “What is it with you guys. You sound like one of the guys from Queer Eye. Eunice loves that show. Not me! After they get the guest looking halfway decent they tease how bad he looked before, ‘I barely even recognized you without your nose hairs!’ It is a pretty funny show!” Sam said.
“What on earth do you meeeeeean?” Todd purposely lisped, making them both laugh. “Go on now, what’s a cracker?” he asked.
“I get it you want racial slur lessons. Being southern I can’t believe you don’t already know what a cracker is!” Sam said.
“I went to St. Jude’s. I figured cracker was like saying white bread or Wonder bread,” Todd said.
“Say no more, you went to St. Jude’s. You’re forgiven,” Sam said. “Try ‘crack a whip.’ Although I don’t know if anyone thinks of that literally now,” Sam said.
“Whoa really?” Todd looked shocked. “Okay I’m not laughing anymore. That’s heavy duty.”
“My Mom says it’s a corn-cracker like in the nursery rhyme, Jimmy cracked corn but I don’t care. I see a cracker as a rich, big mouthed buffoon who cracks dumb jokes. A loud bragging fat guy. Not you, don’t worry. You’re thin!” Sam laughed, “You could also use ritz cracker for that same guy if he’s rich,” Sam said.
“Like the Ritz-Carlton hotel I suppose. You are expanding my horizon. Sometimes I hear things I’m not sure are racist slurs,” Todd said.
“Well you called me Sammy Boy earlier? That could’ve been a slur if I chose to be offended by the Boy. You dumbass honkey! I won’t even tell you about Mungie Cake or Memphis,” Sam said.
“WHAT? You must…” Todd pretended to beg.
“Or how white folks stink like wet dogs so we call them Lassie,” Sam choked on his beer swig as he said it.
“Stop! Okay frank talk Sam. What’s the most offensive word to you? Is it the obvious N word? Just so you know, I don’t use the N word even though I do listen to some danc-y hip hop,” Todd said.
“It’s hilarious how all these white boys like hip hop, even hardcore rap. Spitting rhymes in their showers,” Sam said.
“Do you use that word?” Todd asked.
“Sure sometimes but I have a membership so I’m allowed. I heard n**** at least 50 times a day back in school. It’s different though. Probably best you don’t start using it white bread,” Sam said, with a grin.
“White slurs are totally warranted. I guess I’m privileged but I can relate to some of it. Wonder bread makes perfect sense. As a gay man, I’m more offended by faggot. I even hate the word gay though it’s acceptable. It means happy. Who says I’m fuckin’ happy! And queer means weird. Fuck words! The world needs love and tolerance…” Todd trailed off.
Sam thought it was hilarious how mild mannered and professional he was at the office, then a trash talker at the bar.
“Max is away at his mom’s. What’s your excuse for hanging out here on a Friday night? Where’s your girlfriend? Eunice right?” Todd asked.
“Yeah. I dunno what she’s doing tonight. It’s a long story…” Sam said.
“So you guys ever go out on dates?” he asked.
“We live together, what do you mean dates? Not really,” Sam had enough beer to confess, “Okay since you asked. I don’t think she’s into other guys but lately it’s like she doesn’t dig me. She can’t sit still and watch a movie with me anymore. She always has something on the go like she’s on a mission.”
“Mmmmh, that sucks. Any idea why?” Todd asked.
“I stopped asking her. I stopped being interested as revenge. Then she stopped telling me anything. I guess I had it coming,” Sam felt relieved to release what he’d never said out loud before. “Todd, imagine I liked football and you didn’t. You’d be bored with my talking about football all the time, right? So in consideration for you, I wouldn’t constantly talk football. I’d try to talk about stuff we both liked,” Sam said.
“Max and I have things we do apart but we’ve learned to schedule the common stuff. We figured it out after many fights, believe me. Now if I say as a joke, ‘Max you can put the needlepoint down dear!’ He clues in and stops what he’s doing to give me some time. He doesn’t actually do needlepoint,” Todd joked.
“Yeah. We’re missing that part. That’s where we argue. She doesn’t care what I do and I don’t show interest in her ridiculous stuff,” Sam said.
“In my experience, it’ll never work out if you stay quiet. How would she know? How would you know? We used to use, ’I can’t read your mind asshole’ on each other but it didn’t get us anywhere. Then we stopped. When you think about it most humans are selfish and don’t feel like reading minds,” Todd said.
“To some Max and I are a boring married couple but we’re okay with that. I’ll have you guys over sometime. Max set up a home theater sound system he’s proud of,” Todd said.
“Cool. That’d be awesome,” Sam felt gooey inside. Having a friend outside of his usual neighborhood felt kind of exciting.
“You’ve given me some good ideas. Thank you,” Sam said. He was sick of reaching out to her though.
Sam hung out with Todd or would go to their place to play video games. How could gay Todd turn out to be the most enviable normal person Sam had ever met? He found it funny that whether Max was present or not, Todd acted exactly the same. Were gay guys different than straightees?
Eunice had an entirely different persona when they were out in public together. It was like she needed to impress everyone with her boasting or be the center of attention. It often came off as phony and sometimes embarrassed him.
Then there was the added pressure for him to play along with it. God forbid if he did something outside of the shtick. One time at a BBQ he joked, how Harpo would knock on their door Saturday mornings asking if he could renovate the trailer. Eunice glared and changed the subject. Perhaps his use of the word trailer instead of R.V. was distasteful. She’d ignore him the entire way home.
“Maybe she needs time to open up to you. You might have known her since you were kids but you don’t know her as a woman. Living together is a huge change,” Todd said.
“What if it’s like this forever?” Sam felt the familiar nervous belly.
“She might not want to look bad in front of anyone. Could be insecurity. You need to build trust. Make her understand the two of you are a team and she doesn’t need to hide anything from you,” Todd said.
“I understand what you’re saying but I’m talking about regular things. We bicker over garbage collection, house chores and deciding which movie to watch. I even went to the library to look stuff up on the internet. It’s called emotionally unavailable. She wasn’t like that before,” Sam said.
Sam was proud to be an early adopter of the internet. He’d become a regular at the library on High Street and took his online searches seriously. “It says she rarely admits to her mistakes,” Sam said.
“The trouble with online research is it’s so godamned believable,” Todd said.
“I’ve become an expert at spotting tell-tale signs before they happen. The internet helped me develop a radar to spot symptoms,” he said. Maybe it was the exact reason she said he had a microscope on her.
“Oh my God. You’re funny! What sites are you visiting my man? No, don’t tell me. Maybe she’s actually the macho man in the relationship and you’re the sensitive one. Or she has no idea and no control over it. It’s just one of her beautiful flaws, Todd said.
“That’s what I don’t get. How do I convince her I’m an understanding guy?” Sam asked.
“Accepting her unconditionally assures her you love her. Max and I had a cold spell once, so I went to a psychologist. She said some of us have gone through childhood traumatic experiences that have left scars. Something big may have impacted us and we don’t know how to feel. Max was terrified I’d find out he had the emotions of a tin can! Ha! Just kidding but don’t tell him I said that. Things got better when we looked at it together,” Todd said.
“Maybe she’s afraid of rejection. Maybe letting go of her tough exterior will make her feel naked,” Sam said.
“Didn’t you like her tough exterior when you fell for her?” Todd asked.
“Yes. It made her unique,” Sam said.
“My shrink used to say, ‘Todd you can’t afford to bottle your emotions.’ Max was a tough cookie. I found out his childhood conditioning was set in stone. It’s just a part of him. Ask yourself if you really want to be the cause of pain to someone you love, by not accepting them,” Todd said.
“Wow. That’s deep. It does help to share these things, like with you here now,” Sam said.
“Sorry. Don’t let me preach,” Todd said.
“Is it normal she ignores me while she seems to idolize certain friends?” Sam asked. He was too embarrassed to tell Todd how jealous he was of Terrence. How he felt cheated by her attraction to him.
“Here is the tough talk. You only have two choices. You either accept unconditionally or you let her be herself. It’s really your issue to figure out,” Todd said.
“What? You mean accept Terrence?” Sam was angered at the thought. It was perverted for him to accept Terrence. She was always nice and in a better mood after seeing him. Come home whistling Dixie.
“Ah, when there’s another person involved the game changes. Who is Terrence?” Todd asked.
How could he accept Terrence as a part of her life. The thought of Terrence and his homies made Sam feel inadequate. Some of those guys were his childhood bullies.
“A dude from high school. You know the popular leather jacket kind,” Sam said.
“Mostly we form connections with people who present themselves transparently and similar to us,” Todd said. He helped Sam see a new perspective.
“Yes. I hate when people hide who they are. Even if I come off as nitpicky, I don’t accept fakeness,” Sam said.
“Feeler types like us, understand that unhappy people have themselves to blame. Lack of self-reflection is one of the main causes of unhappiness. Okay those are my shrinks exact words. Have you thought of seeing a psychologist? The company pays for half a dozen sessions,” Todd said.
Sam was less anxious. It really did feel better getting things off his chest. Both he and Eunice were perfectionists but everyone makes mistakes.
Sam’s refusal to admit he contributed to their conflict was a serious flaw. If only he could catch himself in the moment, before things went wrong. He wished he could have a cartoon frying pan slammed over his head, as a signal like on Saturday morning cartoons.