Despite numerous car trips with O. since his birth, I'm apparently also still not used to using the rear passenger doors to get him in and out of his car seat in tight parking spaces. The clunk the door makes when I open it, hitting the SUV next to us, startles me. What the hell? I think. How did I so badly misjudge --
"You have got to be kidding me," a voice says. The driver's door to the SUV has opened, and a woman with a deep tan, enormous sunglasses, and a suit that hugs her buxom figure leans out. "Did you scratch my car?" she asks in a tone that implies that she's sure I have.
I gape and look because it's reflexive. With relief, I note that the black finish is clean, save for some pollen on the surface from the flowering trees that are everywhere, but the woman doesn't pause after her question. "Look what you did," she says, running a manicured finger over the metal. I look again automatically and see nothing but the track she's left in the dust as she continues to berate me for my carelessness, shaking the honey-colored highlights in her perfectly layered coppery brown hair. Do I touch the door to see what she's talking about? Or will she get angrier if she thinks I'm calling her assessment into question? I can't get a word in as her scolding rolls on, disdain dripping off every syllable.
I can feel myself shrinking into the folds of my sweater and yoga pants, suddenly hyperaware of my barely kempt appearance -- bare-faced, hair badly in need of a trim, ragged cuticles from constant bottle washing and treating all manner of stains in O.'s laundry. That I could even fit into my pre-baby clothes at this point after O.'s arrival felt like an accomplishment before I left the house, but now this woman is leveling a kind of contempt at me that I've never encountered before. And this, I realize, is what she wants me to hear. She's used to looking down on people, I suspect, as she wears her attitude like a favorite, broken-in pair of designer jeans.
Make it stop, a desperate voice whispers in my ear, the voice that's felt powerless in the face of motherhood with each day of struggle to get O. fed. I don't have the wherewithal to process anything else, least of all being talked down to. Do whatever you have to so she'll just go away, the voice begs.
"I'm so sorry," I say -- and it's true, I am. But I'm not above playing the pity card to shut down the harangue that's gone on for way too long. I gesture into my back seat. "I have a ten-week-old baby and I'm completely sleep-deprived."
"Oh, like that's any excuse," the woman spits, the acid in her venom so sharp that my eyes sting. But, as if she knows it's pointless to dig her stilettos any further into my dignity, she gets back into her car and slams the door. Sits there as she was when I first pulled in. I hope against hope that she'll start her engine and go, but she remains. I'm half tempted to knock on her window and unload a few choice words instead of letting her have the last ones in this way, but I'm too stunned by what she's implied: Motherhood? Counts for nothing.
Not that the attitude is one I've never encountered before, but I was never on the receiving end of the insult until now.
Reeling from the near-physical force of her words, I gingerly slip into my own car, unbuckle O., wrangle him into the floppy cloth carrier I've wrapped around my torso and then ease us both out again. I open the front passenger door with even greater care, trying not to imagine the woman's scornful gaze boring through her sunglasses into my back as I squeeze the bulky diaper bag out. And then I walk away, praying that my tires won't be slashed and my windshield broken when we return.
I don't start crying until I get into the classroom. I try to hide it, looking intently downward at O. as I wrangle him back out of the carrier into my arms. I press him to my shoulder and bury my face in his little neck, kiss his downy-soft hair, tears dripping all the while. He bobs his head, looking around, and coos. It's a relief to hold him, to feel his solid body nestling against mine in complete trust, to know that nothing else has to matter to either of us in that moment.
As the initial flood of emotion finally begins to ebb, the voice in my ear returns. She can't possibly be a mother, it whispers, trying to comfort me. Otherwise, she would have been more understanding. But even as this thought bubbles up, I bat it away. You shouldn't judge her on that basis, I counter. Doing so makes you no better than she is.
Because that is what I was doing when I made my bid for mercy, wasn't it? Because I sized her up too, assumed she wasn't going to understand, and in a way, let her know I had more important things to worry about than her damn paint job. I'm suddenly ashamed. I'm not sure which to feel worse about: being denigrated by this woman or discovering that I'm guilty after a fashion of dismissing her too.
O. wriggles, trying to pull his fists to his mouth. I take him off my shoulder and settle him on my lap, soaking up the baby-sweet innocence in his gaze. It's too late to go back and change my half-assed apology. But I'm aware now of how easy it is to be drawn into taking the measure of someone else -- how parenthood has suddenly put so many more of these traps before me.
Mother versus mother, mother versus not. There just isn't enough space to maneuver between such narrow terms without risk of a slam, intended or otherwise.
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