Apparently the airplane didn’t want to leave Charlotte, because technical delays kept it grounded at the gate with its passengers readied. I sat in my aisle seat, row 12D. A woman with a nice vegan-leather bag walked down the aisle, and her purse strap got caught in my arm rest.
I saw her torso jerk back after she took two steps. “Whoops,” she said involuntarily, as though it had happened more than once.
It took me a moment to realize her bag attached itself near my elbow, and I didn’t notice until she came back to my seat.
“Sorry about that,” she said, unlacing the brown shoulder strap.
I helped her unravel it, because I’m well-experienced in getting my clothes and bag straps caught in unassuming crannies. “I’m sorry.”
As soon as I finished that last syllable, I cringed. Mom’s voice entered on cue: “Why are you apologizing? It was her bag. If you were a man you wouldn’t apologize for that.”
I kept hearing her in my head the rest of the trip, so I raised the volume of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on my phone to ear canal-pumping levels.
This was two weeks ago.
Why did I say sorry for a fucking piece of airline furniture?
I wanted to show Mom and Dad one of my favorite local bookshops, because we did not want to drive out to a Barnes & Noble in the middle of the day. It was Saturday, and they were visiting with my baby sister to show her my school. The shop owner, Jessica, was the subject of a blog post I wrote last year, and I hadn’t really seen or talked to her since. I wanted to say “Hi” and “How’s it going” to show them how poshly local I had become.
We went in and I immediately started looking for her shop cats, Bartleby and Eliot, named for Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and writer T. S. Eliot. I know their names, but I still confuse them, because one’s orange and the other is grey-ish. Jessica was at the checkout counter, and we made eye contact.
“Hi Jessica! How have you been?”
I don’t think she really remembered me. “Hiii. . .” She had that look I get when I see someone, know their face, but can’t place their name.
But I was happy to see her. “Love the new setup. Sorry I didn’t make it in sooner to say hi.”
That was as awkward to say as it was to process.
She looked at me like Okay, what? A customer required her attention, so she escaped with a, “Uh one sec.” My face got warm. I promptly showed Mom my favorite section, “Classics,” the hot spot for John Donne, Anne Carson, and Tennessee Williams.
“This is where I got my book of Dylan Thomas poems, remember? The one I bought before my birthday?”
Mom lowered her voice. “Em, why did you apologize to her? I think that made her uncomfortable.”
I already knew it was a dumb move. “I know, I know, I realize that.”
“You’re a smart girl. Why do you do that?”
“I don’t know. I think I was just excited. . .” No I just didn’t think.
She used her Em don’t be stupid voice. “You really need to stop doing that. Nobody’s going to take you seriously if you keeping doing it.”
All I said was, “I know. I know.” What else was I supposed to say? Sorry? Did I dishonor Jessica’s family, vandalize her store, or kill her front porch flowers? No. I literally had not been to the store in months.
Mom and I were in the car driving home from an errand (probably Wal-Mart or Ace), and I think I was eleven, the age I couldn’t get enough of Daniel Radcliffe. We drove down Southbrooke Drive when I said something forgettable in context but memorable in consequence. I said a lot of unintelligent things in my early double-digit years, all of which I’ve mentally erased, because if Mom said it was stupid, I felt stupid for a week. The most effective remedy to stupidness was to wipe whatever “it” was from my lexicon. So, on this car ride, I stated the dumb, stupid thing, and for three minutes, Mom covered all the reasons why it was so.
“You’re right,” I said. Then I started slapping myself in the face. It didn’t hurt, and it felt appropriate and justified. If Mom thought it was stupid, I was stupid. In my mind, I deserved a physical punishment since “sorry” wasn’t harsh enough. I only got six slaps in when Mom used her EMILY (this was before I unofficially started using “Emilie”) tone of voice.
“Never do that again! Don’t ever harm yourself like that.”
“I’m sorry, I just wanted to punish myself, because it was stupid.”
“No Em, no. You don’t do that, you understand? It’s a sin to hurt yourself.”
Last minute irony: This scene happened around eleven years ago, and tonight at mass, the second reading from Paul basically said the same thing: The body is a temple; To harm it is a sin.
For five months in 2015, I worked in attractions at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Though it was fun for the most part, my experiences with unhappy guests triggered or rupted a conductor of people pleasing in my brain. I say “sorry” a lot more now than I did three years ago, but I’ve always been emotionally charged. It’s something I’ve tried to tackle since grade school. Mom always said I was too sensitive, and she’s right, which sucks. I fake my face to look neutral and agreeable; My thoughts are anything but. I’m prideful and full of all the things I don’t want to materialize in words, which is why I overuse “sorry.” It’s my worn mediator to shield me from criticism I don’t think I deserve (but I do).
One day, the line stretched out past Tiger Temple, one of the earliest markers in the queue of the Kali River Rapids. It does not matter the season, because it will always be hot and humid after 12 p.m. in Orlando. My shift for that hour involved working the FastPass+ return line, which was fun when people behaved like decent human beings.
The rule was you could not let anyone in the line unless his or her FastPass+ scanned green (“good to go”). The earliest they could show up was five minutes prior their assigned time. I’m not going to go into further technicalities, because all you need to know is that I can be a pushover. This couple from Brazil came twenty minutes before their time, and they gave me some excuse as to why they had to go through the ride at that exact moment. For some reason, I let them through. There was a family of seven behind them who noticed I let them enter the line early. The grandmother of the group, with her floppy hat and sunglasses separating my vulnerability from hers, gave me a pointed finger and a middle.
“What do you mean letting them in first when all these people out here waiting to go in? I see what you’re playing. You let them go in and not us. You’re playing favorites.”
Remain calm. She can’t hurt you. “Ma’am, I’m very sorry, but they had a restaurant reservation to catch and your FastPass+ isn’t for another hour -”
“So you let them through. That’s bullshit. I see what you’re doing.”
I raised my hands in defense. “I’m very sorry, Ma’am. If you’d like, I can call my coordinator down and you can speak with him -”
She waved a hand in my face, and the man not in her group next to her started to laugh and said, “I wouldn’t argue with her if I were you. It’s not worth it.”
I stepped back and put my hands in a surrendering position. My jaw cramped trying to hold back tears. “I’m sorry Sir, but I’m just telling her the ru-”
“Let it go, Missy.”
Missy . . . FUCK YOU, you entitled piece of shit. Do you work here? Do you wanna get your ass grilled by my management team for letting in a group of more than five people early? Do you wanna fuck up the entire wait time system because this bitch and her tribe won’t leave and bother another Cast Member? Let me take your goddamn selfie stick (Sidenote: this was a few weeks before they were officially banned from the parks) and shove it up high enough to shut your jaw.
I just stepped back into the shade. Other people whose FastPasses+ were on time came through. The grandmother let the rest of the world know what a terrible person I was.
“Goddam girl. Full of shit, that’s what you are. Full of bullshit, you bitch. Not letting us in but them. She’s playing favorites. I know you are, I see you.”
I kept quiet, because I knew if I talked, I would cry. Then the man joined her. “Yeah, why can’t we go in? It’s a stupid rule you have. Why do we have to wait? Let us in. We’re only here for a few days. What a dumb rule. Stupid Disney. Magical and convenient, my ass. C’mon don’t be rude.”
They would not leave.
My fellow Cast Members were busy measuring heights and helping others make FastPass+ reservations. I wanted to go to the bathroom and beg for a rotation to Unload or Tower, because I struggled to pretend I didn’t mind their treatment. They hovered and hollered for another five minutes before I conceded. I let them all in. 45 minutes early. The grandmother and her family. The man and his family – he had two pubescent boys and a teenage girl.
“Come on, come on through. That’s right, you can go,” I said calmly and in that mocking nice tone, because it was all I had left. And I kept thinking, Yep, go in. Sweat and wait in line for another 30 minutes. Don’t worry about me or my job or the people you’re inconveniencing by going in early. Just go right in. Hope you get soaked and your thighs shaft the rest of the day, because that’s how they’ll feel in Hell.
I know those aren’t nice thoughts, but that’s one thing I don’t apologize for: mentally condemning people to hell for being assholes.
This habit occupied my mind for the better part of January this year. Like the amature philosopher I am, I consider my current characteristics relative to my upbringing. Was I like this because I was the oldest? Was it because I was the first to do everything? I asked Sarah if she silently judges people as much as I do.
“Yeah, but I think everyone does that. It’s not just you.”
We were in the car. I used to drop her off at the gym on Friday’s. “You’re right. Sorry about that. I’ve just been thinking about it a lot.”
She put her sunglasses on and made a noise people in text messages spell as “ugh.”
“That’s the other thing. You apologize for the dumbest shit, and it’s fucking annoying. It’s really irritating.”
I tapped my turn signal. “I know, I know, you’re right, but why do you think I’m so sensitive?”
She looked up from her phone. “I mean, it’s not a bad thing. You care about people more. I really wouldn’t know, because I’m not sensitive at all.”
But being too caring makes you easy to manipulate and wishy washy, and I don’t want to be that person who keeps getting sucked into vacuums of sympathy.
“And I envy that,” I said. “I wish I was like you. I see sensitivity as a weakness.”
“You shouldn’t. It’s just how you are. Some people are like that.”
Sarah is unfairly cool. Not “was” or “could be.” She’s the youngest Kefalas and undoubtedly the most mature. Not to mention the best dressed and most attractive. She’s watched Annie and me scream and pout long enough to know what was worth grudging about during dinner talks.
“But the thing is, I judge overly-sensitive people, and I think they’re babies, but I’m like that, which is really hypocritical of me and . . . I don’t know.”
“People judge people,” she said, grabbing her yoga bag. “You’re not alone.”
I put the car in park. “I guess.”
She unbuckled and got out of the car. “You’re overthinking it. It’s just how we are.”
“Maybe it’ll get better as I get older,” I said, waving goodbye.
“You’re fine, Emmy.” She smiled. “You’re doing alright.”
But I don’t wanna be “alright,” I want to be better . . .
Potential places of publication:
The Replay Magazine
“I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman” – Nora Ephron
“Wallflower at the Orgy” – Ephron
“A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” – James Joyce
Decatur, IL, BFA Writing