Monthly Archives: April 2014

Wuss

A stranger in a green Jeep followed me home from the gym the other day. When I turned into our driveway, she pulled up in front of the house and rolled down her window. I thought she needed directions, or was stopping to check her phone, but when I turned off the car and opened my door, she called out to me.

“You just cut me off in that parking lot back there,” she said. “You pulled out, you weren’t even looking, and you almost hit me. And then you just drove off. Did you even know you did that?”

Nope. I did not.

Her voice was raised, but she wasn’t shouting. I was standing about two car-lengths away, so otherwise she might have been hard to hear. She didn’t curse, and she didn’t threaten me. I felt shaky and scared. And being scared made me angry, too, but only partly at her. I was also pissed-off at myself, and not for (allegedly) cutting her off, either.

I’m proud to be a New York ex-pat living in the Midwest. As a college student here, I decided my provenance had cachet, and milked that cachet whenever I could. Conversations with native Wisconsinites went more or less like this:

Native Wisconsinite, casually: Where are you from?

Me, just as casually: New York.

NW, less casually: Oh, really? Where in New York?

Me, more casually: New York City.

NW, not casual: Really? Cool!

Me, supremely casual: Well, the Bronx, actually.

(Spare me your outrage, Manhattanites. New York City has five boroughs, and the Bronx is one of those five. To my Midwestern friends, I apologize. I was a college student, desperately needing to impress. If you ask me now where I grew up, I will tell you I come from a lovely part of the Bronx that is 3 blocks from Westchester County. I fully disclose now, really, though you’re still free to make whatever assumptions you want.)

And there it was. From the Bronx. In New York City. New Yorkers are, ahem, mouthy, straightforward, no bullshit, tell-it-like-it-is. And people from the Bronx are, to a person, of course, New Yorkers who are also tough and intimidating (until you get on their good side). I was, and am, happy to see in myself all of those qualities.

I do possess those qualities, I suppose, but only when I’m among friends. Charming, right? If I’m comfortable with you, I will, as necessary, share my opinions, disagree with you, be pushy, and stand up for myself. (I will also almost certainly agonize, privately, over what I should and shouldn’t have said. That’s another story.)

If I don’t know you well or at all, though, and we’re face-to-face, I am non-confrontational and conflict-averse. The righteous indignation of which I am otherwise a font gets stopped-up. I’m not a complete pushover. The employees in the business office of our health insurance provider do, I think, quake when they see my name on caller ID. Or at least I hope they do. If you cut in front of me on line, I will call you on it. (Okay, this has to be said: Cashiers, I know you’re overworked and underpaid, but for heaven’s sake, you can’t just announce “Register open!” and let the chips fall where they may. That creates anarchy. What you mean to say, what maintains balance in the retail universe, is “Next customer on line!”) But I am much more easily intimidated than I should be. This is a pathetically first-world lament, but why the hell didn’t I point out, even gently, to the ludicrously cranky gym manager begrudgingly showing me how to use the circuit-training equipment that I had, in fact, made an appointment, that this was a service covered by my membership dues, and that it was reasonable of me to expect her to show me (again! Gasp! I asked for a review!) how to use the pec fly machine without her sighing audibly? Why did I instead nod politely after she’d gone through the motions of checking my form and then proceed to do the exercise wrong for several weeks?

I want to be better at standing up for myself—whether I’m right or wrong—in interactions with people who are not my friends or my family. I’d prefer not to feel threatened, but if I do, I don’t want to feel weak.

I want to be the kind of person who used a firm and authoritative tone to tell the woman in the green Jeep that the way to let someone know she’s wronged you automotively is not to follow her home and tell her off, but to use the horn or your middle finger. Both, if necessary. I am not suggesting that would have been the right thing to say, but it’s what I would like to have said.

Obviously, it was not what I said. Instead, I apologized. Several times. I even thanked her for bringing the matter to my attention—it nauseates me that I did that. Basically, I rolled over, then she rolled up her window and drove away.

It’s entirely possible that I did cut her off. I’m a fine driver, but when L asked me how hard driving is, on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the hardest, I told her that when I first learned, it was a ten and now it’s a two, and it occurred to me that that’s when your driving gets sloppy—when it becomes easy.

Anyway, I’m still angry at the woman in the green Jeep, because what the hell? You seriously followed me home? Seriously? Who does that? Who does that in this town? Frown and shake your head and move on with your day like everyone else, yeesh. I’m also grateful to her, and a little jealous. The cop I married would be appalled at this, but I aspire to emulate her. I want to seek out confrontation in uncertain situations if there’s a stand I need to take.

I drive more cautiously now, especially in the gym parking lot. Just in case.

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Braces

The orthodontist’s office brings out the best in no one. Actually, that’s a lie; my kid’s orthodontist’s assistants shine brighter than a thousand suns. I’m not really talking about them, though.

I’m talking about the patients and their families. Oh, those teens and pre-teens and tweens (those last two might be the same thing, no? I’d look into it in service of precision, but since doing so might force me to crawl out from under my denial that I’m the mother of one of them, I’m choosing to whistle as I walk away from the redundancy), those awkward, pained creatures with their pimples, their straggly hair, their sullen countenances.  Maybe they’re not that bad in real life, but I’m telling you, in that tidy four-chair treatment room, that’s all I see. It is obvious that this is one of the few activities not worth getting to skip school for.

And oh, those parents, silent as they watch and wait. They look harassed.  They look poor, even those well-turned-out ones who carry expensive bags and wear nice shoes. Or maybe I’m just projecting. Even though I know how insanely fortunate we are to be able to afford orthodontia for our older child, the amounts we’re paying must keep us teetering on the brink of insolvency, right?  They must.

My daughter and I, we’re also at our worst, though we’re not like the others.  I’m certain we’re the worst of the worst in our uniqueness.

L is naturally anxious and naturally curious, and in the orthodontist’s office the two combine in a maelstrom that keeps her talking, questioning, moving.  She’s telling them that she thinks her wire is working just fine, that they don’t need to tighten it or change it, she’s asking, when, again, will the braces come off, and are they sure they know how to make the glue release?  How will they do it?  Will it taste bad?  Are they sure? She’s lying on her belly on the chair, she’s reaching over to the tray with the instruments, she’s getting up and walking to the mirrors over the sink because she can’t get a good view in the handheld one. She’s taking off her shoes (or glaring at me because I told her to keep them on), she’s crying because she’s afraid it will hurt, she’s taking forever to choose the color of the new bands that will go on her brackets, she’s demanding to know why the orthodontist wants to keep hurting her.  She’s being horrible.

Or at least that’s the way I see it. And that is why I am the absolute worst of all.  I am tenser than the wire in my child’s mouth. I am poised on the edge of my chair, ready to pounce. I tell her to hush, I tell her to lie still, to keep her hands to herself, to put the mirror down. I tell her she’s asked that question before, that the orthodontist and his assistants know what they’re doing, that she doesn’t have to know the answer to every single question.  I placate her with the iPad while she’s waiting, then take it back so that it doesn’t get in the way while she’s being examined. Enough, I say, enough.  Just chill out, relax, so things can be over quicker. Just. Stop.

And I do this other thing, this thing that I loathe myself for even as I’m doing it, this thing that I do over and over again. I make eye contact with whatever orthodontist’s assistant is working on L (the orthodontist is usually too busy to look at anything other than his patients’ mouths), and I roll my eyes. I roll my eyes to say I know she’s a handful; yeah, she sure is a chatty one; gosh, it’s hard to be patient with her sometimes; Uch, I wish she’d just control herself better. I roll my eyes to acknowledge that she’s the loudest kid in the room and that I’m embarrassed.  Most shamefully, I roll my eyes to show that am above this nonsense. I ask their forgiveness for my child, the nuisance.

The orthodontist’s assistants, bless them, smile at me in return. Their smiles are uniformly white and perfect, and they are genuine. I don’t think they’re smiling out of forbearance (of which they have plenty; anyone who remains pleasant with a scowling teen wearing headphones during his examination and grunting monosyllabic replies to questions like How’s the retainer feeling? is a saint in my book), and I don’t think they’re smiling because I’m her mother and that’s the polite thing to do.

I think they’re smiling because my kid is cute. Or at least quirky, but in an appealing way. My eye-roll is annoyed, and their smiles are understanding.  Yup, they’re telling me. She’s a talker, and a hell of a fidget. Sure, we’d rather she’d hold off with the questions until our fingers are out of her mouth, but no biggie. We’ve got time to give her answers. This is, like, less than a tenth of a percent of our month. And really, no one else in here is bothered. They don’t notice, or they’re amused. And duh, lady, she’s scared! We’re poking and prodding and pulling and pushing—do you not remember those cheek expanders? You don’t have to have A Clockwork Orange as a reference to be terrified by them. This stuff we’re doing hurts, sometimes. We get it. No judgment. It’s okay.

It’s okay. It’s okay. That’s what I murmured to her—my sweet, whip-smart, inquisitive, loving girl, who excels at goofiness like no one I’ve ever met—to soothe her when she was a newborn.  It’s what I’ve taught her to tell herself when her worries start to take over.  It’s clearly something I need to remember next time we’re in that office, so that I can try to tamp down the worst in myself.  It’s okay, because she’s my girl.  Turn up your music, exercise that saintly patience, count the money we’re paying you, whatever it takes.  She’s my girl, I’m her mom, and we will get through this orthodontia. (With as little eye-rolling as humanly possible from now on, I promise.)