Then George said, clearly knowing it was a strange question, “Do you think men should find other ways to signal mutual trust and fellowship than shaking hands?”
“We could get a tattoo to mark the occasion,” Jesse said.
“I like your style, but I balk at the commitment,” George said. “And then there’s the issue of the hazard involved, which is small, but non-zero.”
Jesse would not let it go. “Belly bump works for me,” he suggested.
“Damn,” George said, after a pause. “Let’s do the checkbox.”
“The checkbox. Suppose for the sake of argument that you want to substitute one custom for another, most particularly for reasons of health and safety.”
“Are you a professor of something?”
“Which meaning of professor are you using.” There was no question in George’s voice.
“Okay, so, no. Or no to anything but linguistics and philosophy.”
“I have audited university courses but I never got a degree,” George said. “Since you will not allow me to lecture you, perhaps you will permit me to divert the conversation. Do you envy people who have finished university?”
Jesse choked on his beer. After a couple more coughs, he said, “That totally depends on where they went to university and when. I would give not a pinch of chicken shit for the degrees I see guys my age chasing.” He sloshed the last of his beer around waving it in a gesture of dismissal and screwed up his face. “I’m not like my peers, mostly because I don’t have any. I shouldn’t comment on what the functional millennials are doing these days to prop up end-stage capitalism.”
“You’re a dour young man,” George said.
“Chronic illness’ll do that to ya,” Jesse said.
“But you don’t look sick,” George said.
“And that does it to me too,” Jesse said. “‘Cause that was a dickish thing to say.”
“Was it? Let me get my bearings.” After a moment, George said, “I apologize for making an uncivil comment on your appearance without thinking, and I recognize that being easily killed by your environment must be a daily source of anxiety, which you alone best know how to manage.” During this speech Jesse drew breath and expelled it in disbelief several times, and he was winding up when George forestalled him.
“Within seconds of meeting you I could tell you had both character and capacity. Please let me address an issue of your character, since you show signs of wanting to improve it.”
Jesse said, “What?” with piteous disbelief.
George said, “I don’t use gendered slurs, as I find it’s one of the ways I am colonized by English.”
“I used a gendered slur?”
“Slippery, aren’t they?”
“What, dickish? Dickish is a gendered slur?” An evil thought was sown, grew and blossomed in Jesse’s mind. He stood thinking for a minute, while George, his expression mild, waited for him to speak.
“English is not your first language?” Jesse asked, politely. It was not what George had expected Jesse to say. George’s English was lightly accented, but it was hard to say how.
“Oh no,” George said. “English is not my first colonization.”
One minute he sounds like a con man.
The next he gives me a perfect way to get up Raven’s nose.
Jesse was twenty-three, going on eighty, going on eight.
The conversation wandered into commonplaces. They exchanged contact details and then George excused himself, presumably to the restroom, but he was not seen again at the party.
Jesse, who’d seen everyone he wanted to, hung around for a while, looked for George and, not finding him, walked home. He expected nothing to come from George’s joking threat to start a company, but he wasn’t disappointed in the conversation at all. It was a pleasant evening, and he had a lot to think about, so the two miles seemed about right. He walked down Hastings and thought about gendered slurs. And the look on Raven’s face.