Word Count 500
By Sam McManus
The trick is to keep breathing, to inhale and exhale in perfect rhythm, just like when making out with the CPR dummy in order to get that ever elusive first aid certification. But that’s hard to do when she keeps watching me for signs of distress, for a chance to say “I told you so,” because I know she wants to, even though my cheeks are on fire and I’m flat on my back. It’s hard to look casual when you feel like you’re being asphyxiated. “Warning: look away from the dummy,” the sign on my back should read as I walk down the street on my way back home. If I ever get up off this floor, that is.
She hovers above me like an angel, a sadistic angel, waiting for me to slip up, to cough, or to admit defeat in some other subtle way, so I’m just trying to breathe as normally as I can. Damn that ghost pepper. Damn this need to be accepted by the cool kids. Wasn’t that supposed to stop being a thing after high school? Well, here I am at forty-five, still wanting to fit in, still flat on my back trying not to hack up a lung in front of the most beautiful woman I’ve seen this month. Maybe I need to go back to my shrink, but I still owe him money. And all he’ll tell me is what I already know – I need to accept myself as I am, or no one else will.
“You’re going to crack,” she says, before rising to her feet and practically skipping back to her cubicle.
Lunch is over, I realize, and I know if I stay in place this will turn into even more of a “thing” so I scramble to my feet, looking not unlike a crab scuttling away from the chef at Red Lobster. I almost make it completely upright before I crack. Before I can stop myself, my mouth opens and the largest belch ever comes unbidden to my lips, exploding into the open air of the office like a cannonball headed for the Alamo. As the echo of the sound has finally begun to fade, I’m frantically glancing around, from cubicle to cubicle, praying that no one heard my shame.
“Told you so!” she says, from behind me, a sneak attack. She had apparently circled back around from her cubicle to mine, stealthily, like a ninja. “Put up or shut up, Thompson,” she says, dissolving into gales of laughter again. Her laugh is a tinkling cymbal, but at the moment I just want to shove a pepper in her mouth to shut her up.
It’s not supposed to be like this, not for me, not at this point in my life, not this cubicle, not this initiation type behavior. I sigh and fish five bucks from my pants pocket, tossing it in her general direction. Then she is gone – for real this time – and I can finally exhale.