“Attention, all passengers for the 11:20 train for _____. Due to–”
A herd of elephants trumpets by.
“…we regret to inform you that there will be a significant delay. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
Bouncing into the information office, I see the usual old dogs at their post, along with one grizzled unfamiliar face.
“Hello! I’m meant to take the train at 11:20, but I didn’t catch the reason for the delay…?”
I try to speak as naturally as possible, but my accent gives me away. My French is like a dog wearing a hat: innocuously unnatural.
Tired, deliberate, his response lacks all pretense of social niceties:
It does not concern you.
Excuse me, but I have the impression that it was just announced.
It. Does not. Con-cern. You.
His tone adds, “Fucking foreigner.”
His stern face dully chastises me, through deep frown lines and a graying smoker’s pallor. Maybe he always talks to women like this. Maybe he’s sick and miserable, and needs to vomit his misery onto others. Maybe his dog just died, and his boss made him roll into work today anyway. Maybe his partner is terminally ill, and he’s angry at the world. Maybe he’s just a Grade-A asshole.
10,000 maybes, and it’s likely that not one is correct. Whatever the reason, it is irrelevant. I know I will meet him again, in countless other forms.
My friendly demeanor melts away, and with a bite in my voice, I thank him for the information and bid him good day. I resist the burning urge to flip him off as I turn on my heel and escape.
My logical mind is outraged: I’m not to be cowed by one passive-aggressive backhanded comment. What nerve he’s got, shirking social conventions of politeness! How dare he! A brute like that shan’t speak to me in such a ghastly manner! I’ve a mind to dress him down!
Someone tell that big talk to the pressure in my chest that’s feeding the fire in my throat. Angry tears boil over. I wish for thicker skin, for French that could cut, for some witty Bette Davis-style comebacks: grace with a touch of disdain. Yes, if only I had a sharper tongue! Then these people wouldn’t mistreat me; they’d respect my invisible anti-bullshit forcefield. I feel infantilized, maladjusted, incapable of survival in this world filled with Grade-A assholes.
I speedwalk away, hiccuping pathetic tears, hating myself. The more I walk, though, the more the burning subsides. What am I doing? Is my core this easily swayed by an external force? Why do I need to wait until I’ve become the Perfect Me to be acceptable? No, I’m deserving of respect now, first and foremost from myself, because I can’t count on anyone to fork it over automatically.
One more experience under my belt, one more internal growth spurt. Ready for the next meeting with another manifestation of that unbearable condescension that I despise. Next time, every time, I don’t want to be so quick to minimize myself. There will always be another grating external force. I’m learning that it will sway me only if I allow it to.
I step into a baby clothing store on a whim, looking for a gift for a friend who’s just given birth. The shop is cheerful and whimsical, with a fluffy pastel cotton-candy interior. I’m a bit disoriented in this foreign world of cutesy teeny-tiny fashion.
Smelling fresh carrion, two black-clad saleswomen croak “Hello” and descend upon me. They bare their teeth into something resembling a smile.
One of them, an older woman with deep-set eyes, indicates the rack for newborns. I peruse the adorable clothing, realizing a simple onesie costs 55 euros…
I have no time to fake a polite exit before the dark-eyed woman re-materializes in a cloud of heavy perfume and the oppressive stink of 30 years’ worth of cigarettes and red wine. There’s something sinister about this husky-voiced woman with stingy hair and George Washington’s wooden teeth, cooing at me with a saccharine voice.
“How old did you say the baby was?”
“Uhm, about 2 months.”
“So it’s NOT a new baby then!”
“I guess not…”
“Et, c’est dans quel pays?”
My eyes narrow in confusion, and my mouth is parted–I’m breathing discreetly through my mouth.
Quel pays? What country? What kind of trick question is this?
She repeats herself, cartoonishly enunciating “Quel PAYS?” Her gray teeth stand out against the spackle caked on her face; she looks like a 20’s vaudeville clown.
“No, no, no…” Her colleague joins in behind, and they are now both braying at me, in tandem: “Pays, pays, pays…” All that’s missing here is an undead barbershop quartet to complete this ghastly spectacle.
What did I do to gain entry to this hellish dog and pony show?
“The south of France…?”
“Oh, voilà! You know, we only ask because every region’s weather is different, every season is different, which you must keep in mind when shopping…” Her smarmy response disgusts me, and their logic has me stumped. I don’t belong here in this farce. I respond with logic that might speak to them:
“Well, this is a travelling baby. You know, the kind of baby that travels all over France with her parents, so any kind of clothing would be fine… At any rate, thanks very much for your help, have a great day!” I chirp and fly out of the store.
The air outside is heavy and oppressive, offering no relief from the burning that stings the back of my throat. I feel foolish, destabilized, unsettled. Despite their bizarrely condescending behavior, I still suspect the fault lies with me and my insufficient French.
It’s time to retreat home. I’ll buy the gift another day.
In class, one-to-one with a young woman. Her limp ponytail drags between her slumped shoulders. I’m patiently listening to her gulpy, whispered half-responses. Gently, I ask for a full sentence, and she’s staring down at the table, cold. Out of my peripheral vision, the television in the next room plays a special report: death rituals in some faraway country. The desiccated, hollow, toothy face of a man’s dead father comes up onscreen. My eyebrows twist in morbid fascination as he explains the bathing and offering of food and cigarettes to the mummified body of his father.
My attention whips back to my student, and I tune back in. It’s been almost a full minute of silence. I rephrase in favor of a black-or-white question. She continues staring down, frozen in time.
The full-length window facing the sidewalk buzzes with passersby. One figure looks in, then turns and stops. Staring at me through the window, vulgar, slack-jawed, grimy canvas vest, clutching a tattered shopping bag. I flush when my eyes meet his, and hurriedly tune back in to my student, who is just finishing her carefully composed response.
My eyes crinkle with a plaster-toothed, dry smile. “Great,” my voice creaks.
I broke down crying at my desk before class.
I shook my booty to reggaeton music.
I bit my nails.
I had private telephone conversations.
I did unladylike things.
Those shining moments were captured, in addition to my horrific first forays into teaching: kids scribbling on the walls, scooting around the classroom, slinging various objects, and stupefied Me in the eye of the pandemonium, pulling my hair out.
Commute to work.
There’s the middle-aged homeless man, always perched somewhere on this commercial street, who I pass nearly every day. He squints upward at me, and we exchange nods and hellos. From time to time, I’ve given him my spare change, a bottle of water, some clementines from the market.
Today, I smile my usual hello to him in response to his greeting. Our daily call-and-response.
I see a young, bearded man, about 25 years old. I’ve seen him and other chipper young people, wearing a different color vest every couple months, canvassing for clean water, AIDS research, human rights protection… All noble causes that have web sites I can consult for more information. I’m not looking to receive a lecture from a bright-eyed twenty-something about how I should be using my money.
I smile my hello in response to the perched man’s greeting, then see the young man approaching, in his fluorescent yellow vest, arms open wide and incredulous. “How about you give him a sandwich instead of your ‘hello’?” he chastises me in French.
I feign ignorance and reply in English: “No thank you sir, have a good day!”
I walk off, brain buzzing in thought. I wonder why he intervened. I’m sure he thought he was doing the Right Thing. He was so sure that he was justified in confronting me. He decided that I was someone who needed to be put in her place, that I needed a lesson in how to be decent to other people.
In his mind, I’m a cold, uncaring, callous, selfish woman. Am I? In my mind, he’s a self-righteous busybody that projects judgment onto others, which saves him from directing it inward. Is he?
We love weaving narratives from dubious scraps of information.
It comforts us to find a demonstrable cause-effect, an explanation to justify a conclusion we’ve decided. How much of our reality has been decided, packaged and sealed up, and stamped “TRUE” in our brain? No longer subject to analysis or criticism, or even logic, how many of the beliefs that guide our lives have we etched in stone?
That stranger is laughing as I walk by because they’re mocking me.
My friend hasn’t called because I’ve done something wrong and they’re mad at me.
I never win anything because that’s my fate. I was born a Loser.
That dog chose to piss on the tree nearest me as a power move; that dog has it out for me.
My silly brain makes these sorts of little decisions all the time. But I’ve learned it’s generally a good idea to subject them to review before filing them under “TRUE.”
Winter rains coat the stone walkways in town. Gray above, gray below. A pre-recorded man’s voice ricochets off the stone buildings, and through my head. Advertisements. The pushy scripts are read by a noncommittal man’s voice, just innocuous enough to sound attractive.
50-percent off, get your King Cakes for the Epiphany at This Bakery. That Shop is offering you a limited-time offer on Whatever. Buy 2 Things, get one free at Some Other Store.
I feel morose as I find myself slithering through the wet streets, killing time before work. I’m not above their stupid gimmicks after all. How can I compete with perfectly-orchestrated color schemes designed to attract my eye? I’m disappointed in my brain, as it falls for their slight-of-hand tricks that gussy up the same old products and commodities in flashy fake allure? My brain is no match for those advertising bigwigs that are experts in the art of money extraction.
I feel guilty as my feet take me toward the attractively-colored Makeup Shop. I choose a lipstick color, and stand in the checkout line, feeling defeated. A tight-lipped saleswoman calls out to me in a firm, clipped voice: Other line please, you sheep.
I’m thus herded with the others toward the designated station where I part with several euros of my hard-earned money, all for the sake of vanity. I steal a moment after lunch to smear on my new lipstick. Am I beautiful yet? Is the sellout, commercialized and commodified Lari satisfied?
I look at myself in the mirror, and my heart softens a bit. It actually looks nice. I’ve allowed myself this one indulgence, and I can’t say I regret it. The Me in the mirror gives a loving, yet reproachful smirk: You’ve had your moment of excess. Now wear that lipstick, and continue on your way.