Rebel Without a Belt

A man without a belt has more to worry about than his pants falling down to his ankles. Perhaps it says something about my Southern upbringing or my general anal-retentive nature, but I believe a belt completes an outfit. It adds a touch of respect. I can’t speak for the dirt-under-the-fingernails crowd, but as a white-collar working man, when I dress for work, I always include a belt. I think it says: I take this job seriously. I am a professional.

I once drove fifty miles out of my way to retrieve a forgotten black belt at a Marriott Courtyard in Fairfax, Virginia. The hotel desk clerk nearly called security for backup when I begged him to let me search Room 310, just one more time, please! But I know the quality of my presentation at the Regional Marketing Conference was enhanced by the firm control of that rescued Eddie Bauer Everyday.

Okay, I’m probably over the top with the whole belt thing. I should just get over it. Live a little dangerously and skip the belt. Just for one day. But I never do. Like it or not, I am a belt connoisseur. I shower respect on my co-workers and managers with a dizzying array of waist-hugging black and brown leather. I realize they are oblivious to my middle-wear. I am surrounded by barbarians who can barely keep their shoes tied. But the thing is, I need the belt. Skipping it is not an option.

Standing in my walk-in closet on this gray Thursday morning, I tuck a navy blue golf shirt into my second-best pair of business casual khakis and exhale. Six years of higher education has all come to this. One more day of khakis. One more nightmare commute. I’ll never get another raise at this job. My boss is an idiot and he hates my guts. I want to lash out. I want to level the entire floor of disrespectful idiots with an AK-47.

The problem is I’m a total pacifist wimp. I can’t even kill a rodent in my own home without vomiting in disgust.

My eyes land on the belt rack. Just outside the bedroom window, I hear the low bass rumble of my next-door neighbor’s Harley Soft Tail. I select a braided leather rope belt and slip it on. I feel the beginning of rebellion bubbling up in my throat. I push it down and pull the belt tight around my waist.

At 10:30, my boss, Mr. Coltraine, as he insists we all address him, wallows into my beige cubicle.

"This is priority one," he says, slapping the manila folder on my keyboard. "I’d suggest canceling any lunch plans and settling in for a long night. I need this on my desk by 7:30 tomorrow morning."

I’m annoyed by the melodramatic display, but I’m a solid worker. Emergencies have a way of popping up. I’m a professional. Deadlines are my specialty. Five minutes into the project, I find the smoking gun. The date stamp on a client memo reveals Coltraine had the documentation to begin work on this project two weeks ago. Two weeks it sat on his desk gathering dust.

The asshole kept this from me intentionally. He saved it up until the day before the deadline, for his own amusement. I picture him in his office, feet propped up on the oak credenza, cackling to himself as I sweat over spreadsheets and computer printouts, the clock ticking out the passing minutes like thunder booms.

I stare at the memo, fuming. I can feel the warmth rising from my neck to my forehead, my fair skin betraying my anger with a reddening glow. I flip through the rest of the file, calculating the work required. At least fifteen solid hours. I cover my eyes with my hands and sink down into the desk chair, my tight rope belt cutting discomfort into my gut. And then it hits me. I give the numbskull too much credit. He didn’t plan this out. He never gave it a single thought. It was a lack of respect. Pure and simple. No respect.

I get up and walk to the men’s room. I splash water on my face, trying to lighten that annoying rose-colored tint. I stare at my reflection in the wall-covered mirror, paralyzed by duty and obligation—too much fucking respect.

Then I know what I have to do. The rebellion is back in my throat and I don’t push it down this time. I reach down to my waist and unbuckle the rope belt. I slip it off and roll it up. I make sure my shirt is tucked in nice and tight, accentuating my belt loops flapping in the breeze, like holsters waiting for Gary Cooper’s six shooters in High Noon.

I take out a pocket comb and run it through my short auburn hair. A thin-lipped smile that I don’t quite recognize takes hold of my face. I touch my cloth-lined waist and suddenly I feel the urge to flex my biceps. I am Fucking James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. I am John Fucking Wayne and this is turning into a very good day.

I walk back to my desk and set the belt down gently next to the keyboard and mouse. On an ordinary day I would have moved straight into passive-aggressive over-drive, composing an e-mail of disdain and contempt layered with just the right ratio of politically correct deference and plausible deniability. But today I am James Dean. And The Rebel does not do e-mail.

I slide out of my cubicle and head down the narrow hall. I pause at the threshold of Coltraine’s office door. I hear the whistle of a dry western wind from the corporate air handler above my head. I hook my thumbs in my belt loops and enter his sanctuary, unannounced.

"Tim …" I use his tiny first name for the first time.

He spins around in his overstuffed chair that rides high above his head, like a ten-gallon hat. I see it in double-feature style slow-motion. His slick black hair and neatly coiffed mustache gently rising away from his skin, his body lurching backwards into the chair, his arms flying up in a mixture of surprise and vulnerability.

I dig my heels in and fire.

"I won’t be finishing that project on time," I say. "It’s an unrealistic request on your part."

His eyebrows furrow as his arms fall with a thud onto the full leather rests of his chair. There is a hushed silence that lingers in the air. Then he says, "All right then."

I go back to my cubicle and sit tall until quitting time. Then I pick up my rope belt, slip it into my briefcase, and head on home.

Back at our apartment, my girlfriend Sheila stirs pasta in a large kettle on the stove. Her long blonde hair is pulled back in a ponytail and when she smiles, I want to kiss her. But I just watch from across the room, wishing I had a Harley or a Quarterhorse to take her for a ride.

She points to a plastic JC Penney bag on the coffee table.

"I got you a present," she says.

I walk over and peek into the bag. It’s a new belt. Brown leather, one-inch thick, with hand-sewn cross-stitching.

I smile at her and say, "Thanks, hon."

"Aren’t you gonna try it on?"

She knows me too well.

I take out the belt and start to slide it on, then stop. The Rebel has another idea. I grab the brass buckle and let the exquisite long brown leather specimen graze my side. I walk towards Sheila, the brass held loosely in my right hand.

She stops stirring and shoots me a puzzled look. She doesn’t recognize The Rebel, even from a foot away.

I stare down on my wide-eyed subject and wind up my improvised lasso with a rhythmic rotation of my right wrist. Sheila breaks my gaze and ducks her head as I let the belt rip. I catch the end of it behind Sheila’s back and pull her to my chest.

She looks up at me, our bodies pressed firmly together, and I kiss her, John Wayne style.

"It fits," I say.

Sheila grabs my empty belt loops and grinds my hips into hers.

"Better than ever," she says.

And I know I’ll never wear that belt or any other, ever again.

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