Sunday, December 9, 2012

pass the sugar, please

During my early twenties, I fell in like with a cute mechanic who had the energy of a tornado and was one of the happiest fellows I've ever known. He worked for a car dealership and specialized in that make of car, which made him a highly prized employee. At his slightly dilapidated house, he had a detached garage where he earned extra money working on people's cars. Rolando could also cook! I made the decision to move in with him when my own digs became unlivable due to the fact that my roommate was insane and was bringing home all sorts of trashy men who wandered aimlessly at all hours of the night. I would wake up and find a complete stranger staring down at me.

We were nowhere near the moving in stage of a relationship (and probably never would have been, given our very different backgrounds) but Rolando was not okay with leaving me in danger. He insisted that I get out of there and cheerfully helped me pack and move my belongings. Rolando had a heart the size of Texas, so he was welcoming and sweet.

Larry was one of his closest friends and was even more blue collar than Rolando. He and his wife, Faye, lived in a trailer park. We socialized with them on a regular basis. About once a week, we went to their home for dinner or they came to ours. Larry was a traditional blue collar man, had not finished high school and had very firm ideas about a woman's role in marriage and in the world. He was respectful to me, but I often felt like he wanted to haul off and belt me one for my sassy mouth. .

Faye was also a high school drop-out. She was extremely meek, rarely spoke if Larry was in the room and smiled only after giving a quick glance in Larry's direction to gauge whether it was appropriate. My heart ached for her. I was sure that he beat her, although I had no evidence of that. In one of the very rare moments when she and I were alone, she confided in me that they had been married five years and she had survived four miscarriages. I asked her what the doctors had said about it and she just looked nervous and shook her head. I didn't push. She had other medical issues too, which made her frail. When I found out that she was younger than me, I was shocked. She looked about fifteen years older!

One day, when Rolando and I were discussing having them over for dinner, I accidentally referred to them as "Fairy & Lay". We giggled and Rolando admonished me not to say that in front of Larry. But of course I talked about it when we were all together - and referred to them by the new moniker. I laughed about it as the silly mistake that it was. But Larry was not amused. His face got beet red and he screamed at me, "STOP SAYING THAT!" Everyone got very quiet. Rolando said, "Hey, now," in his sweet voice. Then Larry went outside. Faye sat at the table, frozen. "I'm sorry," I whispered, "Rolando told me not to say anything and I didn't listen." Rolando got up and went outside too.

We were finished with dinner, so I started clearing the table and Faye got up to help me. As we stood in the lopsided kitchen washing dishes, Faye said, "When he was little, the other boys teased him because he liked to draw. They called him a girl." I suddenly understood why "Fairy & Lay" might be horribly offensive, rather than just a slip of  the tongue. I also had a sudden acute awareness that my outspoken nature, while being a natural outcome of being raised by well-educated, liberal adults who encouraged debate, might be painful to someone who had been bullied as a child. What I had thought of as light banter probably sounded like barbed attacks to Larry. He was not equipped to handle a quick-witted debate and I had been abusive to engage with him that way.

That denouement was a hard one for me. In my mind, HE had been the abusive one and Faye was the probable victim. Now I had to confront the realization that I was, in fact, the abuser. Ouch. I dried my hands on a towel and went outside. Larry and Rolando were sitting on lawn chairs, beer cans in hand, watching the sun set over the meadow behind Rolando's house. I walked over to them. They both looked at me. "I'm sorry I upset you, Larry. I was being silly and I should have just shut up." He said, "Yeah, you should have." I waited, but realized I wasn't going to get anything else. That was just his way.

I would like to say that this incident marked the end of my tendency to engage in debates with a razor sharp edge to my words. Alas, I am still that woman. I manage to keep my mouth shut more than I open it, but anyone who knows me knows I have not kicked the habit completely. On my better days, I can awaken a spirit of loving kindness to guide my words and maintain civility. When I manage it, I am always hopeful that the more bitter me has been put away forever.

Rolando used to say to me, "pass the sugar, please," when I was being a little sharp-tongued. It was his way of gently telling me to change course. And it always worked. Sometimes I say it to myself when I feel myself getting worked up over something. I'm not as good at it as Rolando was, but I'm a fairly good imitation.

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