Naming the Problem

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.

1 Comment


about 6 years ago

As the proprietress of a store that sells clothing, I thank you for your brave self awareness. People may not consider that I have selected and paid for everything in my store and that someone else might like to purchase the very item they are touching and disparaging. Your comment was pretty benign as far as bad manners go. It would’ve elicited a secret eye roll from me, if anything. The times when I’ve had to say something, such as ask a woman if she could avoid stepping on the dress she was dragging across the floor, I am keenly aware that the most common reaction is to dismiss me as the bitchy shopkeeper. You’ve given me hope for humanity. To you and the store owner in your story: right on, my sister.

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