I’m at the diner by the side of the road, taking a break from the fifteen-hour drive I’ve got ahead of me. The décor is clinical and pristine. They’re serving a meat special today, a great dish of the best brisket you’ve ever had in your entire life. I’ve placed my order for the special and a bucket-sized fruit punch.
When the food arrives, I sink my teeth into the flesh like a shark. The other diners look at me with a look of horror.
“What? Have you never seen a girl enjoy brisket before?” I ask.
A man enters the diner. He dons a leather jacket, jeans that taper off above the ankle and suede loafers. His hair is well gelled, formed into a slick peak. We make eye contact, and he shivers at the sight of my face covered in BBQ sauce. He soon makes peace with it as he shrugs and laughs.
I watch how his body moves as he takes a pew next to a woman at the counter. He feigns interest in her dull commentary on his very apparent American accent. She pulls her chest back, exposing her cleavage a little more. He looks over at where I’m sitting. I slurp my fruit punch obnoxiously, which catches the attention of his new friend.
“Ugh! How crass!”
I can’t help but find this guy fascinating. The way he dresses suggests that he cares a lot about his appearance, too much perhaps. I can see that he’s had some surgical work done as the lines on his forehead are non-existent. Feeling full, I unbutton my jeans and lay down in the booth.
“May I sit with you, sauce girl?”
I sit up to see pretty boy staring down at me. Silently, I gesture for him to take a seat. Immediately, he pulls up his leg. I’m overwhelmed by the scent of his cologne, but it smells nice, so I can’t complain.
“My name is Ada, by the way.”
“How’s your new friend?” I quip.
“Obnoxious. Suffocating. Meaningless. Do I need to say more?”
My estimations were correct. This guy is a self-obsessed jackass.
“Meaningless? So, in other words, you’re too good to acknowledge her?”
“Well, look at her.”
I am in such shock that my mouth drops like a guppy fish.
“Wow, you are self-centred. Let me ask you something. What makes you so special?”
He doesn’t answer me, choosing instead to go and ask the owner for a stiff whisky. While he has his drink at the counter, perched on a beige barstool, I take the opportunity to finish the rest of my drink. It should have been completely obvious to me how Jack would be this type of human being. To live your life in such a way that appearances skew your view of the value people can bring is elementary behaviour.
I know lots of people like Jack. Obnoxious people who think they’re worth more than they are. These people operate best on social media. Once those followers start rolling in, the selfishness grows into a wholly different beast. I imagine Jack as the kind of guy to only follow conventionally pretty girls. You know the type, those who conduct themselves like Victoria Secret models.
When Jack decides to return, I confront him.
“What’s your deal, Jack?”
Jack takes a sip of his coffee and ponders my question. He has a permanent smirk on his face which makes me want to wipe it right off.
“What do you mean?”
Ok, you want to play this game. I’ll bite.
“Jack, we haven’t known each other for very long. But, in that short amount of time, I have learned a lot about the kind of person you are. When you walked through that door, you indulged a woman who had taken a shine to you. After your interaction, you came over to me and struck up a conversation. Not only did you insult the woman, but you unwittingly showed your true colours to me. Now, with all of this coming to light, I have to ask why you would even consider talking to me when I’m about fifty pounds overweight?”
Jack has become visibly annoyed, which pleases me because that means I’m getting somewhere.
“I didn’t stop off at this shitty diner for a lashing from some fat chick who I wouldn’t give the time of day anywhere else.”
“There we go! The mask has well and indeed fallen. This is the real Jack. I loathe people like you, and I also pity you.”
“You’re kidding, right? If anything, I should be pitying you. Nobody is paying attention to you, except for yours truly. You should be grateful that I’m even acknowledging your existence.”
“You do realise that by refusing to talk to anyone you find unattractive, you are limiting your view of society and the world? By eliminating people like me, you are rendering yourself even dumber than you were when you woke up this morning. All you have are your looks, and that is what you rely on. God help you when you wake up in the future and find your hair has gone grey and your back is aching.”
Jack grabs my arm forcefully, pulling up my sleeve. He strokes my arm gently, which is comforting and makes me sleepy. Just as I am in the sweet spot between utter bliss and ecstasy, he stops.
“I know how to settle this. When I went to the counter, I saw that they do a chilli challenge here. They give you four hot peppers on a tray. You take a bite out of each one and have to forego drinking anything for fifteen minutes. Whoever caves first is the loser.”
I stick my hand out for Jack to shake.
We call over the owner, who is delighted to have people taking on his challenge. He rings a cowbell and goes out back to prepare everything. Jack takes off his jacket in preparation, and I mentally get myself together. If I lose, what will happen? Will I come off worse than Jack, or will I come out as someone who gave it an honest try?
The owner comes out with our trays of hot peppers. The high smell fills my nostrils, prematurely making my eyes water. We are handed a pair of latex gloves, napkins, and a jug of milk. The other diners have gathered around our booth to watch this fiasco.
“Let the battle commence!” the owner yells, ringing his cowbell.
I take a significant bite out of all four peppers, chewing and swallowing as fast as I can. Jack isn’t too far behind on the consumption side of things. The heat is starting to hit now. My eyes are watering, my nose is running, and my body is sweating.
Jack is suffering, but he’s trying to keep his composure. His plastic forehead is breaking out in beads of sweat. The silence in the room is palpable. It’s as much of a mental game as it is a physical one. The absurdity of this situation suddenly strikes me. I came here for a brief respite from my long drive, but now I am partaking in a hot pepper challenge with this obnoxious jerk I just met.
“You can break, you know. Look at that sweet nectar, in all its dairy glory,” Jack says.
“Fat chance, pretty boy.”
We are told that five minutes have passed, only ten more to go. I am in severe pain now. My stomach is screaming, and my mouth has gone completely numb. I could tap out, but I will not give Jack the satisfaction of seeing me bow out.
Most of our audience has gotten bored and left. As an added temptation, the owner brings out a large tub of ice cream.
“You both have five minutes left.”
I stare at Jack dead in the face, examining his bone structure. I watch every single move he makes. His eyes have become shifty, almost sad.
“You made your bed Jack, now lie in it. We’re both suffering here, but you will continue to suffer if you carry on being so vain.”
Jack blows his nose into a tissue. I catch a glimpse of the viscous goo that evacuates itself from Jack.
“Your time is up! You did it!”
Jack dives into the tub of ice cream while I start chugging the jug of milk. I am both relieved and exhausted. I will be taking on my long drive shortly, but not before I make my last move.
“So, what do we win?” Jack asks the owner.
“You don’t win anything! It’s purely for your validation. It says that on the poster.”
Of course, we don’t win anything. Our competitiveness got the better of us, and we put ourselves through unnecessary pain to prove ourselves. Jack is already putting his jacket back on, seemingly ready to leave.
“Are you leaving?”
“Well, we’re done. I didn’t even intend to be here for this long.”
He hasn’t learned one thing from this. He’s going to leave here and continue to lavish in his vanity. Jack will go back to Hollywood, and he will dance with the devil.
“You haven’t learned a single thing, have you Jack?”
He sits back down for a moment.
“Ada, this is who I am. I’m pretentious, self-absorbed, snobbish and cowardly. This isn’t news to me. I know you think I’m going to disregard what you’ve said, but I’m not. I probably won’t change much after this, but do you think I would have challenged you if I didn’t care?”
“I’m tired of people like you. I see so much of this behaviour, and it makes me loathe humanity even more. I have fought so hard to be taken seriously in life. Jerks like you wave me off like I’m nothing. People underestimate me far too often, and they shouldn’t.”
“I’m going to leave now, but you shouldn’t take stock of what I say. When we awoke this morning, we were strangers. We had no clue of one another’s existence in this world. Let’s go back to that. You’ll forget about me, but you’ll go on being frustrated by people like me. I said some words that I knew would hurt you because that is who I am. If I think you’re hot, I’ll talk to you all day.”
Jack walks away, taking a moment to visit the counter. He hands over cash to the owner, which I assume is for the food and drink he had while being here. The ray of sunshine blocks my view of him as he moves out of sight. I can smell burger grease which is turning my stomach. A group of kids enter the booth behind me.
It’s time for me to start driving again, but I still need to pay for my food. The owner tells me that Jack paid for my bill. I consider this the start of his redemption. Walking to the door, I overhear the kids talking about their teacher.
“Did you see what she was wearing?! Ew, and did you see that massive spot on her face?”
I guess some things never change.