Paint Thinner

“Why. In the world. Do I have to wear scrubs?” I asked my boss. “I don’t have any patient contact beyond the front desk. I register them. That’s it.”

“New management entity, new rules.” She said.

I scoffed at how completely ridiculous it was for me, the front desk receptionist and part-time medical biller, to wear scrubs. Did this management company not know how seriously I considered footwear? Apparently, they did not and did not care either.

I was in my second year of graduate school and to pay for it, I worked at an ambulatory surgery center. The hours were perfect because I started between 5:30 and 6:00 every morning, and I was done for the day between 1:30 and 2:00 in the afternoon.

That year, the center was “acquired” by a new management firm. It was also the year that the administrator hired a business manager named John. Not only was he new to the center, but he was also going to become my immediate supervisor.  The administrator would be his boss. But anything I needed, I would ask John. I would report to him and he would be the one managing the front desk (where I worked) and the billing office, which was in the basement of the building.

I’d already been working there for over a year, and when John began working with me, we got along great. Upon arrival, we hit it off well. He acknowledged my efficiency and praised my work and my work ethic. Overall, I thought he was a nice guy. And after he observed my work for a couple of days, he left me alone and I did my job without incident.

While I was working at the surgery center, I gained more weight than I had ever gained in my life. I am a stress eater and a snacker. As many grad school survivors will say, it is stressful ninety-nine percent of the time, and the other ten percent, they were asleep. If they were lucky.

I’d started to notice the weight gain. My clothes weren’t fitting the way that I wanted them to and it was uncomfortable. So, I made a choice to commit to a lifestyle change. I had always liked walking, so I began walking regularly. That also happened to be the year that my mom walked in her first Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer 3-Day walks. We trained together for months, and I noticed that eventually, my old clothes began to fit more comfortably and I was getting down to the weight I had been.

I lost weight easier than I thought I would, and before I knew it, I’d dropped ten pounds! I was proud because I had done it by changing my eating habits and walking. I’d gotten some new work clothes and was excited to look as nice as I felt. Then, our administrator dropped the scrub bomb. In addition to the scrub bomb, our administrator also announced that John’s position would be eliminated with the arrival of the new management entity.

John’s behavior immediately changed. He became passive/aggressive and uncharacteristically picky and snide. He didn’t have a kind word for most people and spent the majority of the work day looking up other jobs and applying online from his desk.

When his last day finally came, the staff, nurses, doctors, and the administrator, had a small going away party for him. Up to that point, we had all liked John and were genuinely disappointed to see him go.

After we’d eaten lunch and had given him his farewell gifts, he made a few parting comments. Some were humorous and others seemingly heartfelt, but when he got to mentioning me, he made a comment that has altered by behavior in many ways.

        “I won’t miss Melissa’s tight ass pants.” He looked at me and continued, “they look like you have to rub them off at the end of the day with paint thinner.”

To say I was embarrassed is an understatement. I sat at the table and watched as each person turned to look at me. I was stunned and afraid to get up. In my head, I was screaming. But in reality, I sat there with tears forming in my eyes. Thank God my friend Dee pinched my arm and shook her head at me, ordering me not to cry.

He continued to talk for a few more minutes and people went back to work. I sat at the table, still staring at the remnants of my fat-free yogurt and the Diet Coke I forced myself to drink.

Dee looked at me and asked if I was okay. I shook my head and let some of the tears slip out.  I was twenty-three years old. I had no experience with public humiliation.

“Dee, I need to go change.” I said.

“He doesn’t know what the fuck he’s even saying.” She replied.

“Do they all think that? Dee, do I really look bad?” I asked and I began rambling about how I knew I’d gained some weight but I was walking and really trying to get back to my “normal” 115 pounds.

“Sunshine, did you not hear me?” She asked. “He. Does. Not. Know. What. The. Fuck. He. Is. Saying.” And uttered each word slowly, staring directly into my eyes.

I went home later feeling defeated.  Did people think I dressed inappropriately at work? I wore scrubs! How could I look bad in them? They were scrubs! Granted, I hated them, but still… Most people liked the scrubs and claimed they were comfortable. I felt like I was dressed like a robot.

I wondered what I could have ever done to him for that kind of public humiliation. I came in every day before the sun rose. I did my job. I cared for the patients. I made sure they had everything they needed before and after surgery. I continuously received praise from the nursing staff, and I was friends with a couple of our doctors.

Like many women harassed by men in a power position, I wondered what I’d done wrong.

I came in the next day, and instead of grabbing the size small scrub pants, I pulled on a medium.

I had to tighten the strings as tightly as they would go to get the pants to stay in place. They were huge and bagged everywhere. I looked like a pathetic attempt at MC Hammer’s classic style. I marched up the stairs, sat at my desk, and quietly began registering patients.

John left later that week, and on his way out he said goodbye to me. I didn’t say anything, I just nodded.

That day in the lunchroom is eight years in the past. It didn’t take me long to leave after John did, but I left for different reasons. The climate in the center changed and people that I had once called friends proved not to be. And most days, I don’t think about the place at all. But then again, I do.

I think about that place every single time I get dressed or buy pants.

Because I am, as some may say, hyper-aware about not wearing pants that “look like they have to be removed with paint thinner.”

John didn’t know that he was talking to a woman dealing with a weight struggle. But he did know that he deliberately humiliated me in front of a group of peers. John didn’t know that I would remember that comment every single time I shop for pants, and get dressed, for the next eight years. He didn’t know how I would react, but I think he did know that I would take it personally. Who wouldn’t?

John’s comment was hurtful and embarrassing. He did it because he could, and he did it because somewhere along the way, he learned that it was okay. He could humiliate me and I wouldn’t stop it. And I didn’t.

Looking back, I should have looked at that man, and said exactly what I was thinking. I might have gotten fired, and that was a legitimate concern, but it wouldn’t have mattered in the long run. It’s like the lie they tell you in high school. You will get into college even if you fail gym. You will get a job after grad school if you get fired from a non-related job while still attending.

I look back now and think, I should have risked it.

     The woman I was then wouldn’t have out of fear, but the woman I am today, she would say…to hell with you. And your paint thinner.

 

 

 

 

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The Older Man

After the first date, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror at work, and I wondered when the other shoe would drop? I had a feeling all along that the relationship I was in would end and end badly. Call it a gut reaction, sixth sense, or just a keen acknowledgement of destiny. It wasn’t just the fact that dating someone thirteen years older than me was weird on its own. No, it was the fact that the man I had been dating for nearly a month was waging a war and I was on course to be another casualty.

I’d been hoping to date this particular mistake for two years. We had known each other for years, had mutual friends, and had even attended the same school (although years apart). I’d broken up with a longtime boyfriend and from the moment we split, I had my eyes, and heart, set on the older man.

My former boyfriend was okay, but our relationship had gone awry in ways that I had no desire to fix. Some of his behavior had started to irritate and in some ways scare me. I had many voicemail messages that said variations of “I know you’re on campus, I can see your car. Where are you?” My Suburban-Detroit university has an infamous parking problem, and the fact that he found my car was something of a feat in and of itself. I left the promise ring he’d given me on the edge of a sink in one of the most popular buildings on campus and walked away from it forever. I hope that it became another woman’s pretty-shiny.

The older man treated me like a kid-sister for three years, and then by some “miracle”, he asked me on a date. We planned to go to favorite restaurant of ours.

The first date went well, and I couldn’t believe that this “perfect” older man and I were officially dating, as per our determination at dinner. I left that evening believing that a good thing had just begun. But in the back of my mind, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Intuition and I have always had a remarkable relationship. She and I have kept each other out of many stupid, dangerous, and uncomfortable situations for over thirty years. Intuition and I are like peas and carrots.

That night, I chose to ignore her.

Ignored point of intuition number one: I was desperately nervous. I paced the floor at home and changed my outfit multiple times. This is strange behavior for me. Although I am a selective extrovert, I am normally fairly confident in my wardrobe selection. I figured that if I was going to feel awkward, I had damn well better kill it with my ensemble. For me, being nervous to change that many times to feel okay was a problem.

Ignored point of intuition number two: On the way to the restaurant, he changed Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” to another song, one that I didn’t know and didn’t like. This even after I jumped in the seat saying “oh! I love this song!” in response to Steve Perry’s stunning vocal styling.

Ignored point of intuition number three: It came as a surprise to our mutual friends that we were dating. They thought he was still seeing his “former” (as told to me) girlfriend, Amy. They knew nothing of our relationship.

It all came crashing down just over a month into the relationship. We sat in his living room, watching an episode of a pointless reality show. He had been quiet all evening, which I didn’t think too odd at the time. But when he finally looked at me and spoke, he used a mouse like, “un-manly” voice, and nearly whispered, “you’re a virgin aren’t you?”

My feet went cold. Where the actual hell had that come from? I didn’t know why, but I was instantly defensive. But I looked at him and replied confidently, “Yes. Why, is that a problem for you?”  He muttered a reply that I can’t remember but it made the mood sour. He was pissed and pouting.

“I’m going home.” I stood up and announced about twenty minutes later. And without any protest from the older man, I left. We didn’t make plans to see each other again that week.

I spent the thirty-minute drive home thinking about his question. Where had that come from? I was pissed. Why was this even a question? Did I even want that serious a relationship with him?  It seemed so in from left field. He hadn’t pressured me and it wasn’t a “heat of the moment” question. I was watching some show that I detested and remember counting the ways I found it’s “contestants” pathetic and drippy.

I had never been in a relationship with sex even “on the table”, so to speak. I was a twenty-first century woman with my own ideas about my body, my emotions, my choices, commitment, and what defined me. If he thought this was going to be a casual decision that I was going to make on the spot, he was wrong. That I knew. Regardless of how much, and how long, I had adored him. I had adored myself longer and I loved my self-worth more than I could have ever loved him.

The answer to all of my questions, was no.

Several days passed and we didn’t talk to each other. I was still under the illusion that we were in this “relationship” and it would be fine.

I looked in the bathroom mirror at work and knew. This is when the shoe would drop.

I climbed the stairs back to my desk and found a text on my phone. A text. On my phone. And it read, “I think we need to take a break.” I spun in my chair, unsure what to do or how to take this revelation.  Ross and Rachel took a break and look what happened to them!

“What the…. F! Does that!Does that even mean?” I yelled, thankful my office was silent.

I text back, “what does that even mean?”

I didn’t receive an answer.

He never gave me an answer, but I knew he had unceremoniously “dumped” me because I had no intentions of entering into a casual sexual relationship with him.

That evening, when he asked me if I was a virgin, was the last time we had a private conversation.

I later learned after that evening, Connor,the older man, embarked in the kind of foolish behavior that one is accustomed to seeing in spoiled children.

I received a myriad of name calling and mud-slinging. To the mutual friends we had, I became “crazy”. I was nuts for always sending him birthday cards. I was “insane”. I was a “stalker”. I was a “slut”. To him, I was everything that I wasn’t in reality. His reality was one in which women’s characters could be colored to his liking. He wanted mine the color of burned charcoal.

I wondered why our mutual friends wouldn’t look me in the eye and walked away when I came near them. What is truly sickening? I didn’t find any of this out on my own. I heard it through the metaphorical grapevine only later to have it confirmed. Everything I heard Connor had done, he did.

Ninety-nine percent of our mutual friends believed him. They had known me since I was ten years old, and they believed this man that degraded me.

I didn’t find out until years after the fact that only one, Randy, managed to stand up to Connor and tell him, “you’re full of shit.”

This is how easy it is to believe falsehoods about women. If one man says it…it must be true. My truth, women’s truth, be damned.

In late 2011, I saw the older man.

I was deliriously happy, cruising through a local grocery store buying provisions for a meal I was hosting at my home. I was also engaged, my beautiful solitaire standing like a sentry on my left hand.

As I turned and headed into the pasta aisle, I heard the unmistakable scream of a gecko. I looked up from my list, and there was the older man. Staring at me and smiling like we’d seen each other the day before and were old friends.

“Hey, Melissa, how are you?”

I didn’t hate this man but I damn sure didn’t like him. “I’m great, thanks Connor.” I could feel bile in my mouth and had to fight the urge to throw up on his shoes.

“Yeah, it looks like you’re gettin’ married?”

“I am. In four months.” I replied. No more. No less.

“Yeah, see you later.” He said.

“You have a better chance of becoming a millionaire overnight.” I thought. And for the second time, I turned my back to him and left him alone in the pasta aisle without another word.

He had the nerve to look “wounded.”

He deserved nothing from me. I didn’t give him the information that he so desperately wanted. Insight into my life—my happiness.

There are many things that I could have said to him. Many of those words could have been powerful words and some could have an “f” and the “u” standing prominently at the front.

By the time I finally saw him face to face, it wasn’t worth the trouble. I didn’t need to bring up the actions of an imbecilic piece of rock that wasn’t worth a millisecond of a prisoner’s time, much less mine.

When I saw him, I was given the opportunity to speak my truth without words. I didn’t have to tell him that he was a liar. He knew.

And although being silent is hardly what I would tell another woman in my shoes, my silence that day in the pasta aisle, spoke more to him than words would have. Because for the second time, I wouldn’t change who I was to fit his wants.

I didn’t give him what he thought he deserved.

And if to him, I am a frigid bitch, that’s fine.

I will live to be called worse by a whole lot better.

(Below: Me–before the first date.)Displaying IMG_8389.JPG