I am the person who steams and huffs and rolls her eyes when you stand at the deli counter ordering half pound quantities of three different deli meats. I am the person who barrels through the bank door without turning around to say “thank you” while you hold the door open. The person to whom people, perhaps you, are always saying pointedly “YOU’RE WELCOME”, to remind me what an ingrate I am for not saying “thank you.”
“The last thing we know about ourselves is our affect.” This line from Brazzaville Beach, a William Boyd novel, is etched in my memory. Yet now, in midlife, I suddenly do see my affect. Working at home and raising two children, my world has shrunk to a quadrant of ten city blocks. I tread the same paths each day and people who once were strangers are now acquaintances. My actions have consequences that reverberate. If I speak too harshly to another mother’s son in our little neighborhood playgarden, I will meet her icy gaze the next day on the street. If I swear at the Duane Reade cashier, she will slyly slow her movements to the pace of molasses. It’s hard to realize that people are not always happy to see you—that you are not the nice or even benign person you thought you were.
What I would give to be one of those mellow people who never sit “cooling their heels” because their heels are cool. They live life as if they had their ankles dangling permanently in a soft Caribbean Sea. They move through the crowded produce section like Tai Chi masters whose feet seem to float and whose hands part invisible curtains in the air. What I would give to be one of those people who listen carefully before they speak and whose words, however critical, are always limned with kindness, like the woman in the Grimm’s fairy tale whose every utterance was accompanied by roses and diamonds falling from her ruby lips.
Frogs and toads and snakes come out of my mouth. My 4-year-old son puts his pants on backwards in the dressing room and giggles. He struggles with his button. He dawdles over his sandals. I feel my head swell with anger and finally I slap the door of the dressing room and shout “COME OUT HERE THIS INSTANT OR I’M LEAVING WITHOUT YOU!” I go up to the cashier’s desk and tell the dressing room attendant where I am. Two minutes later he leads my son to me. I see my affect. My son’s face is a bruised plum and his whole slight body seems to have caved in. I must hold him and hold him. That night after we have had a thoroughly delightful time, I am putting him to bed, and he says, as I toss him his pajamas, “Are you going to get angry at me?” I feel stung, to think that what has always been unbridled joy at my mere presence can give way to flinching.
I duck into bookstores and snatch glimpses of books like Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much, or Find Your Quiet Corner. The idea of patience calms me, but eludes me when I really need it. Ironically, my older sister, paragon of patience, actually buys these books and has gone to New Age workshops with Vietnamese monks and participants wearing teal and purple sweatsuits. We love each other dearly, but periodically she scolds me for my impatience. One night we sat in a high-priced Indian restaurant waiting forty-five minutes for our food to arrive. After the first fifteen minutes I start swiveling my head around and giving the obsequious waiters pointed stares. I can’t focus on what my sister is saying. Another five minutes and I’m calling them over. As they remain stubbornly uncommunicative about the whereabouts of the masala dosas, I get into a rage (not knowing when a period of waiting will end throws me into an existential tailspin). My sister snaps at me, “Why do you have to be so impatient! Why can’t you just get a grip!!” I snap back, “Well maybe you should get impatient, get angry…just do something!” My sister has kept the same job for over twenty years and has maintained the same solid friendships, making few forays into the dating world. While she is calm, she is static. While I am restless and impatient, I am eager. There is nothing I want to miss, so I pack my days full of work and children and friends until there is no slippage and I lash out at the hapless person who slows my progress.
But can one change? I think about all the years I have spent in therapy. I was trying to be happy, but not once did I worry about being civil. Now civility seems to be a much-undervalued quality. It greases all the minor transactions and adjustments that make up my day: lining up to buy Italian ices, moving through narrow doorways with strollers and bundles, getting up and down subway steps, negotiating toy tussles in the playgarden. I long to sit in a hard church pew to learn civility, to learn patience. I am a nonobservant Jew, yet now I want to be reprimanded by a stern God. I yearn for the blue leatherette prayer book and words like “righteousness” or solemn ancient promises that “These words which I command thee this day will be bound like frontlets between thine eyes.”
The city’s obstacles become testing grounds for my temperament. For someone always in a hurry, nothing beats the daily challenge of the elevator when you live on the top floor of a densely populated building. When the elevator pauses on the first floor a few beats longer than its customary six seconds, I have been known to stand on the sixth floor pounding the door with my fist—as I did the other day. I stood pounding and bellowing “SEND THE ELEVATOR UP! SEND THE ELEVATOR UP!” in an aggrieved tone reminiscent of Marlon Brando bellowing “STELLA” in A Streetcar Named Desire. When the comforting whine and click signaled the elevator was on its way, I happily watched each floor number light up in turn on the little brass plate next to the door. The door opened and there was my neighbor, Ryan and his wife. Once a hail, virile man, Ryan is dying of cancer. I held the door open as he painstakingly made his way into the hallway, gripping his wife’s arm for support. His face was sallow and liverspotted under the chemotherapy baseball cap and protruding from his open collar was a shiny lump the size of an egg. He reminded me of a picture in The Golden Book of Japanese Fairy Tales of an old man with a disfiguring lump on his face, but the lump somehow brought luck. I wanted to rub the shiny tumor and beg for forgiveness, like all the villagers who had wronged the old Japanese man.
The walls of the elevator are a deep, appealing crimson and there is a tiny window covered by a metal latticework. I enter, head down, as if into a confessional, descend through the core of the building, and move out slowly into the trial of the busy street.