“I double-triple dare you!” challenged my long-time friend, Nadine. She knew me well, had endured my tendency to stuff anger, adopt a victim role, and complain to anyone other than the person who had, in my mind, injured me.
She was tormenting me, ridiculing my passivity, telling me how to stand up for myself in no uncertain terms.
I’d griped to her non-stop about my mother-in-law, who’d accepted a birthday invitation for dinner and a movie, but had abruptly changed her mind and asked me for the cash instead. The nerve! But I still took her the money!
I’d whined because my husband, while heading out to grocery shop, had asked if I wanted him to pick up flowers for Mother’s Day.
“Don’t bother,” I’d replied, and then punished him with martyred silence.
“Buy yourself some flowers, if you want them that much!” countered Nadine after listening to my tale of woe. “He’s not a mind-reader!”
Her lack of sympathy miffed me. I considered taking another hostage, someone more willing to pity me.
I guess I couldn’t blame her. Nadine had endured laments about the weather, taxes owed, and the high cost of car insurance. The back of my hand was perpetually glued to my forehead – a gesture of ongoing suffering.
Always unhappy, my new focus laser-beamed on a co-worker and his recent troubling behavior. David had been hired as a Special Needs Assistant to guide and mentor an autistic child in my Special Education classroom. He had an excellent rapport with Tim, and skillfully diffused escalating tantrums with his quiet encouragement.
I frequently thanked him for his support, and showed my gratitude by driving him home, even though the route took me out of my way. I declined his offer to pitch in for gas. Poor guy had given me a used candle – sparkly red with a singed wick – as a Christmas gift. I couldn’t possibly accept money. He must be on a tight budget.
During our road trips, he told me he worked both day and night to increase his income. After the school shift ended, he performed at various venues around town. A jazz trumpeter and vocalist, his gigs kept him up late, and I was happy that my willingness to rescue him from public transit gave him time to squeeze in a much-needed nap before his first set. I wondered how he managed to keep up the arduous pace.
When I attended one of his shows, the mellow notes of his trumpet mesmerized me. His singing was incredibly similar to the late, great Chet Baker, transporting me back to the fifties. My father had been a fan, and I’d grown up hearing those hits again and again.
When David began wandering into work late, I shrugged off his apologies. After all, the poor guy only got about five to six hours sleep. But each day, the gap between his start time and his actual arrival widened. He’d amble in later and later, a sheepish grin on his face. One day, he didn’t even apologize. The nerve!
Without him to fend off meltdowns, Tim became increasingly anxious during transitions. I was navigating the stressful job of co-ordinating the end-of-year concert, while trying to manage a class of twelve active youngsters.
Late starts escalated to missed mornings. Instead of talking to David directly, I called the office to snitch.
“Did David call in sick this morning?”
"No, we haven’t heard from him.”
“Oh, he’s not here.”
After missing a full day, David’s glib explanation was, “Sorry, I forgot to phone in. I was sick.”
He didn’t sound sorry. Not one bit. I still drove him home, and hoped that if I shared how stressful the day had been with Tim, he’d develop a conscience.
The next day, he sauntered in thirty minutes before lunch.
Nadine was tiring of my self-pity. “Jeez, Victoria, it’s time to get a backbone!”
“I’ve reported his absences to the office, but they don’t do anything!” I whimpered.
That’s when she dared me. “Next time he comes in late, ask him if he shit the bed!”
“I can’t say that!”
“Yes you can! I double-triple dare you!”
I pondered over her challenge. Soft-spoken and fearful of confrontation, I wanted to avoid unpleasantness at any cost. I’d just ask him nicely to please let me know in advance if he wasn’t able to be at work.
We had a “talk” on the drive home. He said he’d try. I thanked him. The next day, he failed to appear. No call.
Rage has an interesting way of transforming a patsy into a demon. When he eventually made his entrance, he launched into a story about a fabulous gig his agent had found. Grinning, he awaited my usual tendency to be a cheerleader.
“Oh, you’re here. What happened? Did you shit the bed?”
Nadine’s words had just tumbled out of my mouth! My heartbeat thrummed in my ears.
David’s rosy cheeks instantly lost their color. His mouth formed a silent “O,” his pallor became greenish-grey.
I turned and walked out of the class, leaving him with the whole crew. Taking time to get a cup of coffee, I meandered back to witness him having a panic-attack. The kids were racing in circles, ignoring his shouts to sit down. He wasn’t accustomed to the task of settling down a whole crew of ADHD children. With bulging eyes, he asked me to retrieve David, who had pranced off down the hall. Not a problem.
Five minutes later, I had the class settled. Rewards for good behavior worked well when luring them to take their seats. David barely spoke to me, carrying out his duties quietly. When school ended, I didn’t offer him a ride. He politely said good night and left.
The next day, he arrived on time. Punctuality became his new habit. We gradually resumed cordial interchanges, but I kept my distance. Once in a while, I’d offer to drive him home – if it fit with my schedule.
I am not advocating the use of foul language to keep people in line. That will never be my style. But maybe, prompted by Nadine’s dare, the pendulum had to first swing to the opposite side for me to learn balance when finding my voice.
At the end of June, I was flabbergasted when David gave me a luxurious gift – an expensive bottle of perfume and a one-hundred-dollar gift certificate to a fancy spa. Go figure.