Around ten a.m. Monday morning near the self checkout at Home Depot, I was face to face, breaths intermingling, with an unprovoked woman no taller than four foot ten inches tall shouting that she was “going to beat [my] fucking ass if [she] see[s] me again,” as no less than thirty customers and employees looked on.
Let’s rewind. What led up to this moment? Well, I’ve got to rewind a lot. Like a decade.
Way back before our move to Connecticut from Texas, the journey I was on involved a whole lot of Baptiste yoga and group-led self-help sessions at a local studio accompanied by newsletters and social feeds of motivational quotes from literature and all kinds of entrepreneurial gurus. We all start somewhere and we pick up what resonates for us along the way, and this was my path.
During that stage, a few things stuck with me from this guy named James Altucher. The first was some thing he wrote about practicing making ideas every day–they didn’t have to be good–I think it was something like ten ideas a day: bad, good, whatever. His stance was that once you get used to fulfilling the task of creating at quantity, you’ll have some of good quality here and there. This is a practice that stayed with me, though not so regimented.
He also wrote a book that someone else turned into an infographic about reinventing yourself. I really took this thing to heart. There were a lot of tips but what stands out to me now is that he talked about picking mentors to get where you want to be, and that if you don’t know anyone worth receiving a mentorship from, you can get hundreds of mentors in books. He said to read “hundreds” (yes, HUNDREDS) of books on a topic to get to where you want to go. I read a shitload of books, in part because of this advice.
But what I use most from this dude, and what brings me back closer to this Home Depot debacle, was Altucher’s “Magic Power” of how he interacts with the world in public spaces.
on interacting with strangers
My magic power is one I’ve written about before. It works.James Altucher
Here it is: I pretend I am everyone’s mother or I pretend that everyone who passes me is going to die tomorrow and I care deeply about them.
Then I smile at them. I did this while walking the other day in the city. To each person.
If I’m thinking using the above tricks, then my smile doesn’t come from my mouth but it twists its way up through my body from someplace in between my chest and my heart and then i can feel it coming through my face.
I smile at each person’s eyes. I don’t stop until they pass me. I love them. They are my babies.
I found that by using the “mother” technique my smile was just enough to make people assume I cared about them but didn’t want to have sex with them right there in the street.
I smiled at men, women, little kids, old people, people on phones, people who had vacant stares in their faces while they battled whatever invisible ghosts we often battle in the middle of the street.
100% of the people I passed had the same reaction. First they were focused on the darkness in front of them. Whatever terrors were attacking them that day.
Then they sort of glimpsed my smile out of the corner of their eyes, SURPRISE!, then they looked over to confirm.
I ate this shit up back then, and now it’s become rote action for me. I don’t think about being their mother anymore or anything. If I pass by someone, I want them to feel seen. You never know the last time someone felt seen, ya know what I mean? There were many times when I was going through an inward turmoil that made me feel invisible. Just last week, my family was rushing down the sidewalks in Lahaina and a person was asking for cash on the street. I told him, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any” and after the man was far enough behind us to not overhear, someone I was with was like, “Then just don’t say anything.”
I was taken aback! “Don’t say anything!? They are a human being, not a ghost. They have feelings regardless of their financial situation.”
Smiling at people with your whole heart and seeing them makes you feel great. You have full permission to do it for selfish reasons. When some of the world is smiling back at you, it’s uplifting. Eventually you stop noticing anyone who doesn’t. It’s a numbers game. If they’re not mirroring, there’s someone else who may before you get to the subway station. No skin off your teeth. A smile is a gift you give everyone that you still get to keep to yourself.
An added bonus to all this motherly love we’ll put out in the universe is that here and there, people will be drawn to you. People often think that they know me from places they lived that I’ve never been, or they’ll assume we went to high school together or have some odd mutual friend. I used to joke that I just had a basic face, but I know the simple truth: when people feel seen, they feel drawn to you.
You might think that you want to be left alone in public spaces. Perhaps you don’t want anyone random coming up to you. Maybe you’re an introvert or socially anxious. Get real. Literally. You might spend a lot of time online and in a given day you probably don’t talk to your real friends or anyone outside of your work and home life. Get a real, face-to-face interaction with another human being for a brief moment in time, rather than scrolling through the feed of that one chick you knew ten years ago who is “living her best life,” because even if you don’t think you like it, it’s good for your brain, which is good for your body. We are a social species, it’s in your DNA.
when magnetism went wrong
I lead you back to our original story.
Monday morning, first day the kids are back to school after spring break. The weather is a cool 61 degrees (F), patches of floral sunshine–daffodils and forsythia in full bloom–are woven into yarns of verdant green. Freckles of pink blossoms are unfurling on branches in front of cotton-soft clouds are slowly shifting across a powder blue sky. It’s the perfect date, after all. April 25.
I’m happy as a lark. I had a great change of pace on my vacation last week, back in EWR by 6 a.m. Friday, recovered from jet lag through Sunday and was pleased to be back to my routines on this lovely Monday morning. I was warmly greeted by my gym friends at 5:30 a.m. sharp, whom I missed, had a great workout, some at-home yoga, fresh veggies at breakfast–the whole nine yards. Then the kids were both seated quietly with an educator directing them. Elsewhere.
I could breathe.
I was going to relish in this rare and brief moment to myself…at the hardware store. Ce la vie. It’s a glamorous one, I know.
I needed new blades for my weed whacker and a fresh pair of utility gloves that would fit my tiny hands.
Utility gloves weren’t so easy to find. Our local store has been moving aisles around, and on top of that, the weekend had received the same beautiful weather, so my fellow suburbanites surely came a-flocking to the big box store to overdose their gardens with Eurasian ornamental plants. The kid-sized worker gloves didn’t make their appearance.
Walking through the front of the store into an aisle, my eyes graze across someone not looking in my direction, a short girl–no, a woman! At four feet eleven inches (and three quarters of an inch, but who’s counting?) tall, I rarely meet another adult’s eyes at my own eye level or lower.
I do a double take. She’s shorter than me, an adult. Brunette hair past her shoulders, pale skin, light eyes. her features are delicate and her cheekbones are angular. She’s wearing a sage shirt that shows her midriff, a white bead assumed to be from a navel piercing moving along her flesh above the button of her jeans. She was disagreeing with someone else, so I quickly glanced over my shoulder to see who she was with: a man, not tall, dark-ish hair with a vertical white stripe in the front, overtly sun-damaged skin, bulbus nose, overweight.
The glance was only long enough to register that he wasn’t attractive and definitely older, so I brought my attention back to her for the handful of seconds before I turned my back to them to walk down aisle twelve.
She’s short! And she’s beautiful! She’s wearing a crop top but I don’t have one on for a change. Are belly button rings back in style? Her shirt wasn’t cropped like mine usually are (high to show my upper abs with jeans covering my bellybutton). Were those low rise jeans? She was pretty. What does Tobias say about short guys? Short kings. She and I, we’re tiny beauties. Yep. tiny beauties. Was that her dad? She wasn’t a child, she was a woman. It was her partner. None of my business.
It’s not unusual for me to think of a stranger as beautiful; this is also rote for me. Around the time that I was chaturanga-ing into self realization, I noticed that sometimes I’d see strangers and in my head, I’d make observations like, “that person is ugly” or “that’s a fat family.” Though no one could hear these thoughts, I didn’t think they were yogic or whatever I was shooting for. So I practiced thinking “they are beautiful” whenever I would notice someone. Beautiful in the sense of acknowledging their unique, valuable humanness in the beautiful tapestry of faces I’ll see throughout my day.
So naturally, beautiful is the word I thought. Between my ears, I acknowledged that she was pretty in the traditional sense.
My thoughts drifted away:
I don’t think I’m going to find these gloves. This is where they used to be. That endcap only had giant ones and there were so few. Gardening gloves won’t cut it. I want a pair just like the turquoise and gray one I only have the left of. I’m not ready to leave. Should I browse the aisles for inspiration? No. I don’t need more ideas. I definitely don’t need more supplies for ideas. I’ve got too many ideas that need to come to fruition.
I head outside to the checkout line in the garden area, wait in line for a moment while looking over at the rack of colorfully printed gardening gloves that are likely too big and that will definitely meet the same fate as my others. I decide to try once again inside for the gloves–I must have missed a larger area where the gloves can be found. I walk toward the door as a man with the signature orange apron emerges from a path of Fuchsia Bleeding Heart (dicentra spectabilis) and Phlox, and we pace each other as I ask him about the gloves. We relate about the confusion of the change in aisles, and he directs me where I was before. As I walk, my smile goes unnoticed by someone walking quickly toward the door I came from. I see, then pass, two larger guys, one or both could have been wearing an orange apron, I’m unsure as I was smiling at their faces. There isn’t anyone else walking directly toward me, but I keep a smile on my face, directed at no one, just happy about the day and excited for all that comes along with spring.
I hang a right into the same aisle as earlier, and suddenly, the small woman is there again. In front of me. Facing me. Addressing me.
“DO YOU HAVE A PROBLEM?!”
Immediately, I’m in fight or flight mode. My thoughts quicken and the world slows down. My peripheral vision fogs out, there’s haze all around the small woman with the sage shirt that is now nose-to-nose with me.
I do! I can’t find utility gloves that fit. No. She doesn’t work here–she doesn’t have an orange apron. Why does she think I have a problem? Am I lingering too much in Home Depot? Do people notice that sort of thing? It’s a big store. Do I look like I have special needs because I have this goofy grin on my face? She’s mad. She’s mad? I can’t believe she’s talking to me. Not that she was THAT beautiful, but–why–how–is this happening? Is this happening? Is this a dream? Is this real?
I furrow my brow, squinting my left eye, tilting my head slightly to the left. “Uhhh…what?”
“WHAT IS YOUR FUCKING PROBLEM?!”
“I…don’t have a problem?”
I look around. I first glance to my left, three people are sharing the aisle with me. I have to move my neck to see outside of her face. Not because she’s close, as she backed up a bit to relax her neck to look up at my face, a necessity in most of my encounters as well. I turn my head because of the tunnel vision and the dream-like quality of the experience. Are others sharing this reality with me? As I look around, next to the aisle is the key center, where an employee and two customers have stopped interacting and are watching intently. I sweep my head fully to the right, my chin landing in the space above my shoulder and see an employee across from us, managing a line of customers being fed to the four self check outs in use, but her head craned in our direction. I see that the two checkouts manned by employees are both open and serving customers, and see the whites of everyone’s eyes as they try to subtlety glance at a far-from-subtle altercation.
This is, in fact, real.
With my head turned, she quickly moved her body to align it with my face, as close as one can get without a romantic embrace. I see that she has freckles, like me. Unlike me, her skin is dry, her drug store foundation a shade lighter than her complexion is gathered on her tiny facial hairs. I can see her pores as she screams at me, punctuating her sentences by getting closer. Her dark, thick brows, her mouth, the corners of her eyes all contort in exaggerated aggression.
She’s actually not pretty at all. No one is when they act like this.
“WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM, THEN? DO YOU FUCKING KNOW HIM?!”
She steps back, raises her arm in a quick jolt and points at the checkout. I start to look but I hear a level-toned voice in the distance: “Come on, leave. I don’t know her.” It’s then that I realize what’s going on. I remember the unremarkable man she was with.
I casually respond, “Ohhh. No, I dunno ‘im.”
“Are you sure you don’t know him?! Because you were LOOKING at him!!!”
“I wasn’t looking at him. I was looking at you, because I thought you were beautiful. I didn’t even see him.”
It’s this point when I’m astonished at my own patience. I’m not known to have a cool demeanor. I do manage toddler and teenager meltdowns frequently these days, so I guess I was training for this moment, in a sense. I was in such a good mood to start with that it would have been a real challenge to let an obvious misunderstanding abruptly tank it.
“You know him!!”
I raise my shoulders toward my ears, lift my forearms, twist my wrists so that my palms are upward, toward the great heights of the big box store’s ceilings. I speak slow and soft, subtly shaking my head to the left, the right as I say, “I don’t. I was looking at you, not him.”
Did my voice come off as patronizing? She seems more angry. I meant to sound calm and deescalate. If I sounded patronizing it’s going to make this continue. I just want this to end.
She steps back up to me.
“I WANT TO BEAT YOUR FUCKING ASS.”
I look behind her head, toward the exit. Hopefully she wants to take this outside, not right here? I remember my giant dangling earrings: rainbow bejeweled wooden paint palettes with a rhinestone brushes. Each earring is the size of a ripe strawberry and the left already hangs low because of the undiscerning doctor who did my piercings as an infant. Will I have time to take these off? She wants to fight. I’ve never seen a better match for me for a fight–she’s my height and has no idea how truly hood I am under this suburban shell. I work out every day. I’ll take her.
I look back at her face. I remember acknowledging our similarities. We’re both small framed, petite women. I feel a responsibility to be a better representation. I can’t meet her where she’s at. I bet we look like a couple of chihuahuas right now. How embarrassing.
A shrug my left shoulder, smirk slightly to the left, and talk out of that same side of my mouth. “Ok.”
She’s closer now. We’re nose to nose, I can feel her hot breath as she speaks. “IF I SEE YOU AGAIN, I’M GOING TO BEAT YOUR FUCKING ASS.”
Will I see her again? It definitely won’t be because I’m involved with her grubby boyfriend.
“Uh, ok. I don’t want to fight you. But, ok.” This final shoulder shrug is quick and confident, as I’ve fully accepted that I have not a single doubt that I would win a physical altercation with this woman. I lift heavy, I’m one of the strongest women I know physically on top of my mental fortitude. I’ve fought grown men before. It’s been a while, but I’m far scrappier than she could possibly know, under this Fairfield County exterior that took me years to refine.
She walks away. A tall, older man is immediately in front of me, near where she stood before but not uncomfortably close. I look up at his face as he speaks. “Hey, so sorry about that. I just want to say thank you for not fighting. I was right here in case anything happened”
My smile returns. “Thanks. I’m actually a really tough gal–from Texas. I just didn’t have anything to fight about.”
“Do you know her from somewhere? The past?”
“Not at all. I guess I just have too friendly of a face. I guess I looked at her partner?”
And she’s back. She’s walked over, with less aggression. She’s no longer yelling, but her tone still holds conviction, assertion: “Seriously, though. Do you know him?” She points off in the distance. I don’t look. I don’t have to. Everyone I know in this town is a woman, a husband of a woman I know, a neighbor, or works at the the grocery store.
I’m back to gently shaking my head no. The corners of my mouth upturn. “I don’t.” The tall man looks down upon her, I see him shake his head disapprovingly.
Her intensity continues to wane, yet she’s still accusatory. Her eyes pinched, her mouth tense: “Your voice–it’s so familiar. Were you–Were you on [redacted]?” I look at her with confusion. “[Redacted], the show.”
Y’all, I don’t even watch shows. I read books. I’m definitely not on a show. I tell her no, she walks away, I turn in the other direction to walk away myself. I’ll still go to check out at a register outside in the sunshine and I won’t be taking a route that’ll put me in her line of sight. The two men of Latin-American descent directly behind us avoid me as I continue down aisle 12. I catch the eye of an employee further down the aisle and say, “That was so weird. I bet we looked like a couple of Chihuahuas.” My self-depreciating humor amidst the bizarre circumstance takes him a moment to register, and he laughs as I continue walking.
duality of perception
No doubt, this ordeal was baffling and otherworldly. That’s what was on my mind as I followed through with other errands that sunny morning, chuckling to myself here and there. Maybe I haven’t seen enough of the world, but I believed the whole “irate woman goes berserk over her partner looking at someone else” was an outdated trope reserved for fiction and that good ol’ dead meme.
As I replayed the scenario in my head, I noticed that she and I, without looking directly at one another’s faces, both took in one another, acknowledged each other’s similarities, but perceived them in opposing ways. While I thought of our rare height and beauty as characteristics that created a mental sisterhood, she perceived them as a threat and acted accordingly. Same input, opposite output.
I also noticed that when I relayed this story to others, there were two vivid, yet opposing, responses. Listeners either responded with shock with underlying tones of humor at the preposterousness of it all or disgust and anger at the brazen disrespect. Nothing in between. Same input, opposite output. Would those whose emotions involuntarily matched hers have reacted to her anger with equal anger? Would those who laughed along with me at the absurdity have done the same as me, or were they mirroring my emotions in the telling of it?
I also took note of the duality of the self. I’m not a passive-aggressive person. I’m aggressive-aggressive, and everyone who knows me well knows this of me. I’ve been in situations where I misjudged something and responded inappropriately, just as this woman did on Monday. In this situation I surprised myself in responding, rather than reacting. To me, it showed the strides I’ve made over the years and it makes me proud.
the plot thickens
I knew what I wanted to say before writing out this story. But yesterday, while writing out the part about the show she mentioned, I began thinking about the “what if” of her seeing me again. Would she stand by her threat if she came across me in this small town in which I live and am known? Sure, I could take her on physically, but I am a mother, a wife, and a respected community member. My reputation is that of an artist, an athlete, and a person that overflows with kindness, warmth and humor. I can’t take the chance of this person altering that perception over her wrongness and instability.
Then, I found the show. I found her, the boyfriend. Across the internet, blurbs of information wove a new narrative about our interaction and the circumstances that led up to it. I’d surely want to respect their privacy and withhold names. Maybe I’d reach out and she’d get the opportunity to apologize once she realized her mistake. That would need to be a different post, I’d continue with what I had to say for this one.
Today, she posted an allusion to the incident to her 21.7K follower Instagram account.
That’s a story for another day.
Until then, I’ll keep smiling whenever and wherever I want, don’t you worry.