Before I’m even inside, I can hear the local positive-life radio station playing in the physical therapy office. The soft green of the walls urge me towards the front desk. I spot Nicole bent over some paperwork. She waves me over.
She leads me up the stairs into her office and closes the door behind us. I catch sight of a needlepoint over her head. John 3:16. It is not uncommon to see biblical quotes proudly displayed in North Idaho, but I hadn’t realized the business had a religious bent.
“We do ask our employees to wear slacks and dress shoes.”
It hadn’t occurred to me until now how my jeans and sneakers must look. The men in the office are all in khakis; long perfect creases running up their legs. I apologize profusely for showing up under-dressed to an interview.
Nicole quickly scans my resume and asks how much I want to work. I tell her ten to fifteen hours a week. I’m going to school part-time and don’t want to overload my schedule. “When can you start?”
My parents introduced me to Nicole. We are connected through a network of small town friends, family, and acquaintances. When my counselor told me to seek employment, Mom immediately recommended I get in contact with her.
I tell Nicole I can start next week. She reaches her hand out over the desk and I meet hers in the space between us. With the grip of our handshake, I become employed.
She leads me downstairs to meet the owners. The men I’ll be working for. They are staring at large televisions hanging over the workout area. It’s March and college basketball is on, but they take the time to shake my hand and welcome me aboard.
A young man interrupts us and tells one of them he is needed with a patient. He introduces himself as Isaiah and offers to shake hands as well. He tightens his fingers around my hand, and I feel a slight pain. When he releases his intense grip, I see red marks begin to form in ovals on my skin.
I notice Isaiah’s tall, thin body makes him look like he’s always wearing clothes a size too big. Maybe a hand-me-down from his Dad. His dark brown hair wraps itself in tight curls that I assume he keeps from falling onto his forehead with precise, regular haircuts.
Over the next week, I study the sheets the owners made me take before I left. Human beings, stripped of skin, spread across the page. Little arrows point to the various tendons and muscles. Isaiah had printed the pages off for me, along with an empty March Madness bracket. He told me to fill it out and bring back the five-dollar entry fee on my first day. I told him I didn’t watch basketball. He handed it to me anyway. I slowly realized he wasn’t asking.
Six days later, I park my car in the lot outside the office. I can see Isaiah in the work station through the front window. He’s standing over the whiteboard he told me they use to track patients coming in and out. He turns his head as he hears my footsteps: “You get the bracket filled out?”
I hand it to him, and he looks over my choices. It’s been years since I’ve watched college basketball, and so, when I filled it out, I mostly went by their rank, the little numbers off to the side of the school. As his eyes peer over the document, the sides of his mouth push down into a frown. He seems disappointed by my choices. “Well... ok then. You have the five dollars?”
I hand the money to him, and he shoves the bill in his pocket. He tells me I’m going to be shadowing him all day. That I just have to watch his movements, try to remember them.
First, he says, he’ll show me how to fold the towels like management wants. He clears a therapy table and sets a basket of white towels at the end. He lays one out and tells me to fold twice lengthwise, once widthwise, and then roll them into tight cylinders. I follow the way his hands move. He interjects, “You got a girlfriend?”
The muscles in my gut involuntarily seize. The air is suddenly pushed out of my diaphragm. When I look up from my folding, I notice he’s set his work down and is focusing on me. I feel I am being tested. “No, I don’t.”
He grabs the towel and starts folding again. I expect my inability to achieve female interest to disappoint him. Like my lack of knowledge of college basketball. However, in his face, framed by black curls and a sharp chin, I see he’s surprised. I don’t know what’s shocking to him about a single nineteen-year-old.
“Are you gay or something?”
I feel my breathing get shallower. The room get hotter. I try to remember the techniques my counselor taught me for my anxiety.
When Isaiah asks me this, I do not forget the photographs of the men I work for hanging up around me. They pose outside church with their large families of straight boys with names like David, Matthew, John, and Mark. I do not forget the state of Idaho doesn’t protect its citizens from being fired for their sexual or gender identity.
Somewhere between lying and telling the truth, I respond: “... No, no of course not.”
I’m only a few weeks out of the closet and out to only a handful of people. While I identify as bisexual or queer rather than gay, I do not imagine the distinction matters to Isaiah, or my employers.
A piercing beep cuts through the silence. Isaiah sets his towel down, and I patiently follow him to the work station. He grabs the timer, turns it off, and tells me he’ll be right back. The physical therapists I work for type away at insurance forms. I run to the bathroom and find an empty stall to wait it out.
My stretched leather belt opens, and my slacks fall to the floor. There are men on both sides of me and through the sound of their piss sitting the porcelain, I can hear the contemporary Christian radio still playing. I feel the slow moving, deep-muscle pain in my gut that my counselor tells me is a physical sign of my depression.
I look through the internet, trying to tap into the communal queer pride that helped me come out originally. Pictures of beautiful, queer men kissing. Fabulous drag queens. Old lesbian couples at their wedding services. Wikipedia articles on Tennessee Williams and Allen Ginsberg remind me I’m not as alone as I feel now.
It’s been ten minutes, and I decide Isaiah is probably back by now. I flush the toilet for convincing effect, re-hook my leather belt, and wash my hands. I notice Isaiah is back folding towels, and I walk over and join him.
I grab one of the towels from the basket and try to remember how to fold them right. Once lengthwise... widthwise... then roll it up? no... I focus on how Isaiah’s hands move and try to follow them exactly. “Which church do you go to?”
The air is forcefully shoved out of my gut again. I do not believe this to be a polite question, so he must be asking for a specific reason. Is my hair too unkempt? My clothes not nice enough? Was it when I snickered at the lyrics on the radio?
“My... my family used to go to Lake City Community Church.” Isaiah is not impressed by my duplicitous answer: “Do you believe in God, then?” After a few seconds, I mutter back “I don’t think so.”
At this, he puts the towel down and focuses on me. He puffs out his chest and stands up straighter. I can feel anxiety building in me, coming through in itchy patches of skin I dig my nails at. He finally asks, “Why don’t you believe in god?”
Sweat starts to bead just under my hairline: “I don’t know... I guess I just don’t.”
I try to remember the definitions of harassment. How even Idaho believes I should be able to express my workplace grievances. Even if they are against the kind of men who are elected to make the rules. But, the portraits of the men I work for and their families outside of church remind me that here, I am outnumbered.
Isaiah looks as if he’s preparing his mental argument as the timer beeps again. He shuts it off and heads to the patient needing attention. When he is gone, I realize the physical therapists are all with patients too. Once again I am alone.
I run the work station sink until it is cold and shove my arms underneath. The water cools my arms. The red, itchy patches of skin slowly start to feel better, and the beads of sweat recede under my hairline.
“You see that girl I brought in?”
Isaiah turns the corner to the work station and catches me off guard. I quickly turn off the sink, hoping he doesn’t catch me. “No, I must’ve missed her.”
He’s insists, “You gotta check her out. But be real sneaky about it.”
I shrug his request off and tell him I’m good. He again holds the breath in his chest to make him look bigger. Oh... he’s telling, not asking again. I give in: “Yeah... yeah, sure.”
He points me in her direction. I know he can see where I’m going from the workstation, so there’s no way to squeeze out of the assignment. I walk to the room and find a blonde girl laying on the table.
By my guess, she’s anywhere from sixteen to eighteen years old. She’s wearing a pink pair of short-shorts that lay against the tanned skin I know she must’ve worked hard for. She does not see, or at least respond to my presence. I feel gross looking at her unaware body. I’m sorry... I’m so sorry.
When I return to the whiteboard, Isaiah is waiting for me: “What’d you think?” I offer back “She’s alright, I guess.” He scoffs at me: “What do you define as hot then?” I want to scream at him, I checked her out, what more do you want?
I decide to back off my previous rebuttal: “Fine, fine. She’s pretty hot, ok?” Isaiah smiles at me. It feels slimy. “That’s more like it. And those tits, right?”
I push the muscles of my face into a fake smile and nod. Isaiah releases the air from his chest and slaps my back. I feel guilt ache in my gut for giving into Isaiah. For subsiding to straight guy culture like I promised I wouldn’t since coming out. I feel guilty for the girl in the other room. I feel guilty for this performance, and my only justification seems to be survival.
Isaiah is called over by one of the physical therapists, and I run my fingers over the marker etched in the whiteboard. I circle her name with my finger: Emily H. She has twelve minutes left of heat therapy, and I hope I do not have to see her again.
A born-and-raised Idahoan, Keegan now calls the Washington coast home. His work has appeared in the Trestle Creek Review. He lives with his partner, their two basset hounds, and their cat.