That Word

June 28, 2016

For years after we moved to the suburbs, I would joke that on any given day, I’d likely encounter more wildlife than humans on the street. Except for Shabbos, when the Sabbath-observant community walks everywhere, we live in and out of our cars. That has changed over time. More and more folks are now traveling on foot, but there aren’t the crowds pushing their way down the avenues that I still miss from the city.

What I long for are the exchanges that take place when so much humanity travels through an urban neighborhood at once – the nods, the looks, the brief words passed back and forth, the moment you notice someone’s carrying the same obscure novel you are. Not all of the encounters I had when we lived in the city were meaningful or pleasant, but the conglomerate created an atmosphere whose pulse energized me.

To my surprise, the supermarket stepped in to fill that gap in our suburban world, not in number but in spirit. Especially when I first began working from home, struggling not to feel isolated, the aisles became my avenues. There I connected with people outside my usual circle – folks who are darker, lighter, more devout, non-believing, with backgrounds like or unlike my own, with sheitels and tattoos and nose rings and their own stories to tell. And I loved it.

At least until a few days ago. It had been one of those afternoons when everything came together, tricking me into thinking I had some control over the universe. I was out running errands, ticking things off my list at an impressive pace. The vibe was good. I was the boss.

And then I heard that word.

I was on my way out of the store where I’d gone to get greens for chicken soup when I found my way blocked by two well-dressed young women. I smiled at them.

“Excuse me,” I said.

They did not move.

I tried again, still smiling. Again, no response.

Third time’s the charm, I reasoned, as I offered the plea once more, this time a little louder and a little firmer, but still with a smile. Finally, the women looked up at me and shuffled silently to the side. I thanked them, and as I was about to pass them, one turned and served me the B word.

I froze, incredulous. Wow, I thought. Wow. I mean I’ve encountered the occasional snappy cashier and a fellow customer teeming with criticism of my parenting, but this was a whole different level of wow. Nothing like this had ever happened before.

I took a deep breath, determined not to acknowledge the barb. Still, I couldn’t get the sound of that word out of my head. I felt like I needed to shower. I hadn’t done anything to warrant it, not that it would’ve been okay for her to say it if I had. I kept reminding myself how oblivious and rude the pair had been as I tried to exit the store. Should I have waited all afternoon while my produce went limp? Did that really just happen to me?

For the rest of the day, I struggled to make sense of it. I wondered why one word – that word – from a stranger had cut so deeply. It followed me into the next shop and then shadowed me at home. It distracted me from cooking and gnawed at me later at the gym. I couldn’t push-up or sweat it out of me or cleanse myself of it with 16 ounces of citrus-infused water. It clung to me like ivy.

It could have been a lovely encounter, if only the women had looked up and chuckled, “Oh, sorry. We were lost in conversation.” I would have understood. I would have appreciated that two friends had gotten caught up in their stories, far from the chaos of our harried, screen-centric lives.

When I found myself still bothered by it this morning, I decided it was time to make lemons into lemonade and to move on by finding some message in the moment. I would never hurl that expletive at anyone, but I resolved to take care to sweeten the words that do exit my mouth. I tried, too, to figure out what I’d tell those women if we were ever to meet again. I might tell them about the harm done. But mostly, I hope I’d find the courage to say how much I wish things had gone otherwise.