I am in the business of defending people.
I didn’t realize it. I thought I was a sales associate at a children’s clothing store, but if you look at the fine print on my job description, you will find it buried beneath all the more important tasks: picking up the clothes that someone else left behind. Adjusting prices for mismarked merchandise. Handling returns for babies who were too small or too big for the item.
There is probably a separate sub-section for the tough situations.
Returning the baby shower clothes for the child that was never born. Or dusting off the teddy bear thrown off the shelf and kicked around the aisles. And then there is the hardest task of all: defending people.
The woman in question scans the aisle for clothes while my manager, on her hands and knees, stocks shelves with diaper bags and receiving blankets.
My manager looks up, sees the woman’s butt right in her face, and makes a face. A “whoa-didn’t-know-you-were-right-there” face. And I make a face back, confused. A “what-are-you-making-that-face-for?” face. So she says it out loud (“I turned my head and her butt was right in my face”) and the woman turns, apologizing.
“You didn’t know I was there?” my manager asks, laughing.
The woman shakes her head. Two steps. One, two.
Then, “You know, that’s really unprofessional.”
She has a whole lot to say about the comment. About someone reacting, innocently, to something as simple as that.
“Who’s your manager?” the woman asks, looking from me to my manager.
“Me,” my manager said.
“You’re the manager and you’re acting like that?”
There’s more, I am sure, but I tune some of it out because that’s how it starts. And that’s all I need to hear.
“Ma’am,” I say. “She was just joking around. It’s not about you in particular.”
The woman points a finger at me, snaps like I’m defending a serial killer. “You know officer, he may seem like an awful murderer but it’s not his fault, really. He was unloved as a child. It’s his way of caring about people. Honestly.”
“You stay out of this,” she says to me.
I fold a t-shirt.
“I’m just saying,” I say, this time lower, “that I’ve worked with her for three years. That’s just how she is. She didn’t mean anything by it.”
She’s heard enough from me. I let them talk it out and go back to work. But the chills run up and down my arms like something wasn’t right. Like there’s something terribly wrong with this world when we can’t be ourselves because we might step on someone else’s toes.
Are we all supposed to tiptoe around like ballerinas because if we elicit any sort of human reaction we might ruin someone else’s day? And how can we ever read someone else’s futuristic mind when we don’t even know what we’re thinking ourselves most of the time?
My heart rate speeds up and I try to calm down. I walk over to the register, take a second to look around, and tell the next customer in line I can ring her up. Her. She doesn’t move.
I silently pray over and over and over that she might not. Because I know that I am strong-willed in the business of defending people. And the minute I let someone else make me feel bad about something, I’m thrown off kilter. I know she’ll say something else and I know I’ll have to bite my tongue, stuck between feeling bad for not being a better rescuer and feeling good for keeping my cool.
But please dear God do not mess with the people I love. Ever.
Aren’t we all just one misstep away from a mistake and even if we can’t see that misstep to know what it is? Maybe she’s never crossed that line herself, but the rest of us? We know how being human equates to being fallible. And I don’t know how to apologize for being human. I just haven’t figured it out yet.
Call me if you do. Call me if you know how to bite your tongue when the person you respect most is cut down for a silly little reason. I’m a fish out of water.
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