Before curfew, Friend Bar is a G.I. hangout. After curfew, it belongs to us, the expats. We think of it as our private after-hours dive tucked away on the second floor of a broken-down building in a seedy part of Seoul.
Ted and I are posted near the bar when things escalate. He uses a word I don’t like. He’s used it before, and I’ve said nothing. I don’t know why tonight is different, but I tell him I don’t like that word, don’t use that word again, Ted. He can’t help himself though. He says it again. Suddenly, I’m a driver striking black ice. I’ve lost control and am skidding towards collision. Stop, I warn him.
Ted smirks and shoots smoke out of the crook of his mouth. “What? You don’t like the word fag?” His provocation bent into a who me? question.
I smack Ted across the face, hard, searing my wrist on the cherry of his cigarette. A friend steps between us before it can go any further and drags me outside as I gush hysterical, deafening threats.
I wake with a hangover in the morning, feeling more performative than righteous and far from absolved.
My stepdad’s family is joining us for Thanksgiving. They’re true hillbillies, and even though I’ve never said that aloud, they know that’s what I think. In the fall, before I left for college, his sister gave me a NASCAR shampoo and conditioner set with bottles shaped like motor oil containers. She did it just to watch me squirm. It worked.
My younger sister and I are in the basement making a half-heart stab at socializing with step-cousins we don’t really know. None of us really wants to be here. One of the step-cousins, Buck, plays pool. He’s in the middle of lining up an easy shot when, for seemingly no reason, he glances over at the TV and calls Drew Carey a faggot. His slur hangs in the air like a loud fart everyone chooses to ignore. My sister looks to me for guidance. All I do is roll my eyes. I tell myself they already don’t like me, and I don’t want to cause a scene.
Graduation is on the horizon, and Nico, Alex, and I are at Meijer, killing time. We flip through rows of CDs searching for treasure—not that Meijer stocks anything decent but sometimes it’s enough to buy something new to play at a ridiculous volume while cruising around.
Nico and I are debating the merits of a recent soundtrack when Linda spots us and shuffles over. She graduated two years ago and now works full-time at the same restaurant where we do after school. The four of us are friendly if not quite friends. That’s why it’s so disorienting when she notices Alex browsing at the end of the aisle, and leans in to whisper, “I didn’t know you guys hung out with fags.”
I stand there, a silent collaborator, the words I know I should say—that I want to say—caught in my throat. Not Nico, though. “Don’t call him that,” he says. “Alex is my friend.”
It’s our weekend with Dad, and he’s taken us to see In & Out at the dollar theatre. I like the Lennox better with its massive screens and arcade games lining the halls, but the dollar theatre has a claw machine which is cool too.
Dad and I share a bag of buttery popcorn while my sister carefully places Skittles in her mouth one after another. On screen, Tom Selleck surprises Kevin Kline with a lengthy kiss on the lips.
“Faggot,” says a teenager behind us, like he’s spitting something foul on the floor.
I hold still in the dark, wondering what he thought this movie was about.
Dad stopped by this morning. It’s been two weeks since he moved out, three since Mom found the letters. My sister and I huddle in the basement, still in our pajamas. Cartoons play on the old television in the corner, the volume turned down low so we can hear what’s happening.
Mom screams something at dad—a word I’ll turn over and over in my head for days to come.
“Don’t you call me that. Don’t you call me that!” he snarls.
We’ve never heard them fight before. Above us, the ceiling shakes.
Keith J. Powell writes fiction, CNF, and plays. His works can be found at Able Muse, Discretionary Love, Rougarou, Playscripts, Inc., and elsewhere. He is a founding editor of Your Impossible Voice and occasionally tweets @KeithJ_Powell.