In a downtown tourist shop, my daughter Claire admires a sparkly jacket. It’s gold with embellishments on the shoulders. She says she loves it, it would be perfect for some imagined scenario. “Mmm — maybe for Halloween?” I say, unthinking.
The woman at the counter, the owner, approaches us. I smile, ready to make small talk. I am caught off-guard when she says: “Most women don’t come in here to criticize the clothes. That is an expensive jacket.” It takes a few seconds for my face to fall. My realization is slow. What I said was belittling. “Halloween.”
She stares me down and wins. I realize she’s kicking me out of her shop. I don’t let on to Claire as I direct her outside.
Embarrassment and shame are the worst feelings. Our visit to this town is only half over, so I stumble through the rest of the day, the exchange with the woman obsessing me. This is so stupid, I think. She threw me out? I’m a jerk? or a snob or something? Please.
My husband posts photos of our trip later. I look bothered in them. I downplay my opinion of the day. It was fine, kind of boring. I want to forget it.
Claire was younger then, only 9. Her imagination was fueled by books about dragons and castles, and she loved to explain these worlds. I was a passive audience, but she was satisfied with my “hmms” and “reallys?” It wasn’t unusual for her to go on at length while I half-listened. She was okay with that. If she needed me to really listen, about friends or a teacher, I would have.
That summer, I did have to really listen. Something was keeping her up at night and giving her a stomachache. There didn’t seem to be a physical cause, so my husband and I chalked it up to back-to-school anxiety. A few weeks into the school year, we were relieved when her stomachaches subsided.
Later on, she told us: it was the tornado. In August, the radio alerted counties south of our city with a robotic voice. I don’t know if the tornado actually touched down, but the warning spooked her.
Her dad and I expressed some doubt. That is pretty self-aware for a kid. But, she was sure the tornado was the root of her problem. Now that I tell this story, I agree that it was. Once she named the problem, her stomach was soothed.
Getting kicked out of the shop caused me a similar ache. I kept it a secret, which brought me to new levels of feeling stupid. When I finally told my husband the story, he suggested that the shop owner must have been having a bad day. Maybe. But I needed more than a reason. I needed to name the problem.
I returned to the moment I caused the women offense. I could see myself half-listening to Claire in a dragon-story frame of mind. I was inattentive, careless.
Still, carelessness can’t be the villain here. Oh, sorry, I am simply careless. Help, carelessness has taken over! My heart is not fooled by this, but it is an answer I live with for a while.
Nearly a year passes when a clearer picture occurs to me: a tourist breezes into a shop, lets her little girl touch an expensive jacket, and then calls it a Halloween costume. What a bitch.
This picture of the event hurts less than you’d think. I can name the problem; it was me.
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