Rick spun around to the sound of a voice close by. He watched one of his high-school classmates, Earl Bowen, catching up to them in the overflowing parking lot.
"Steele! My man!" He held his hand up for a high-five. "Who's your girlfriend?"
Rick felt his heart stop. "He's not a girl, you moron."
Earl did a double-take, which Rick interpreted as he really did think Elia was a girl from behind.
Looking at Elia's slender, but clearly unshaven legs, Rick wondered if Earl was insane, or just hadn't bothered seeing if his assumptions were correct before he opened his mouth.
"Sorry, man!" Earl laughed loudly. "The hair threw me."
"Earl, this is an exchange student from Italy, Elia. He's staying with us for a few weeks."
Elia held out his hand. "Hello," he said slowly, as if trying to sound American.
Still appearing slightly surprised, Earl shook Elia's hand like Elia was repugnant, retracting his own and stuffing it into his camouflage shorts. "How's OSU? You know U-D is better kick-ass football than the stupid Buckeyes. They suck. What a bunch of hype."
Hearing Earl talk, looking at his shaved head, the tattoo on his neck of something demonic, (Rick didn't know what the hell the blue ink was and didn't care), his baggy sloppy clothing, and his bad skin and teeth, Rick wondered if Earl was the epitome of the ‘ugly American' in Elia's eyes.
Next to Earl, Elia appeared refined, groomed, downright classy, while Earl Bowen looked like an audience member of a Jeff Foxworthy comedy act. Or worse, the character in one of Foxworthy's red-neck jokes. Did he actually hang out with that hick in high school?
"School is fine. We were headed back to my mom's. She's expecting us." Rick played up looking at his watch.
"How long did you say this guy was staying?" Earl pointed a rude hitch-hiker thumb at Elia, as if Elia couldn't hear or understand every word he said.
"When the hell did you become such a dick?" Rick shook his head and removed his truck keys from his pocket. "Come on." He touched Elia's arm, urging him to keep walking.
"What the fuck did I do, Steele? You're the one that's a dick." Earl gave Rick the middle finger.
"Learn some tact, will ya?" Rick kept coaxing Elia away from Earl. "Christ, you give Americans a bad name!"
"What the hell did I do? Fuck you, asshole!"
Rick didn't answer. Earl's rudeness got under his skin. He wanted Elia to have a good visit, a warm view of the States to bring back to Italy. Ha. Not here. Not in hick-ville. Using the key fob, Rick unlocked the truck and walked to the driver's side. As he did he muttered under his breath, "Please God, tell me I was never like that."
In silence they belted themselves in and Rick started the engine, rolling down the windows as the heat gave way to a cooler night. "I'm sorry."
Elia met his eyes. "Why? What happened? I not understand why you grow so upset."
"He was rude to you." Rick clasped Elia's hand.
"I did no feel insulted. What did he do?"
Rick thought about it. "Never mind. Earl and I seemed to have something in common in high-school. I don't feel that way now." He released Elia's hand, put the truck into reverse and backed out of the spot.
"You grew up. He did not?"
"Yeah. Something like that."
"I feel very safe with you." Elia rubbed Rick's thigh. "I know no one touch me badly here."
"No. No way. No one's even going to speak to you badly here."
"You're my American Hero. I like it." Elia's massaging grew more erotic.
Rick grasped Elia's hand and kissed it, holding it on his leg as he drove. "And you're my Italian stud."
Elia chuckled, squeezing Rick's hand tighter.