I’m standing in the aisle at a big box retailer, struggling with the tape on a package. The black mask that covers most of my face buffers a liturgy of four letter words as I try to pull the tape from the packaging without pulling the blade from my side pocket. Customers edge past me, meeting my eyes only for a moment only to be rewarded with brows pulled low and tight.
I assure you Dear Reader, this is not as interesting as it seems.
I know it sounds like I’m trying to brazenly pull off some sort of midday robbery. But because I’m way less of a villain than I believe myself to be, the opposite is true. I’m not taking the items from the shelves, I’m putting them there. That’s the glamorous world of my 9 to 5. Or more accurately, my 7 to 3ish (give or take).
And while I’m doing my daily gig, I run into a lot of people. Like, a lot. Or actually, they run into me, cause gods know that social distancing means shit in the South. Most of the people that I cross paths with think I’m an employee for whatever retailer’s building we are standing in. Regardless of my name tag or lack of official outfit, I constantly get a barrage of very specific questions about THAT retailer.
“Prune juice!? What aisle??”
“Where is the sugar?”
“Hey, hun, where ya keep your gravy?”
After a while, replying with a smile and a polite and kind “I’m sorry, let me see how I can help you, even though I don’t work here.” got really, really old. And it hindered me trying to do my actual work. So I had to snuff that Southern niceties performance act and switch to just being honest.
“Yeah, I dunno, I don’t work here. Sorry.”
And let me tell you, lots of people do not like being told they can’t or more importantly, won’t be helped. The glares! Oh my gods, the glares cut like lasers. That simple act creates some sort of personal tragedy for every single customer it lands on. It’s like never in their lives have they been told no. And in the era of not just “The Customer is Always Right” but “Customer is Another Name for God”, it’s understandable that they are all self important babies who want their needs met and want them met without question. After all, generation after generation have been told that anyone providing them a service is a lesser than and can be treated as such.
And for a while, that really hurt my feelings. The disdain and the harsh negative reactions from complete strangers tugged at the wounds I had thought were dormant inside of me. Even though I had convinced myself otherwise, I want people to like me.
I can hide it and pretend it’s not true with various tattoos and funky hair that I change monthly. But honestly? If I’m going to dare be true, deep down inside I’m still that weird little outsider girl chasing after the cool kids on the playground, asking them to be friends with me too.
Which made sense then, when my discount sneakers had holes and my thrift store pants were too short and too tight, but now? Not so much. Not because I’m the pinnacle of cool or fashionable or even popular, quite the opposite really.
Now it’s different cause I don’t really like people that much. Not in the nihilistic, sociopath dislike way, but in the “My Anxiety Likes it Better When I’m Not Crowded” way. I don’t want to be surrounded by them. I don’t feel the need to chase after a group and be included.
I’m more a boring succulent than a social butterfly. So why am I worried about people liking me when I don’t even like people?
The roots has to be in the inherent need that being raised by a Southern Narcissist gives you to please everyone at all times. Both of those adjectives come with their own telltale signs of damage and often they are remarkably similar. At a young age, little grubby me was taught to smile and put others’ needs first. Out of both bare survival and out of regional politeness. Reading the room became as easy as reading Green Eggs and Ham. Taking the heat for someone’s else’s troubles was taught just like spelling a middle name. The Golden Rule was less do unto others, and more:
Seen and not heard.
Speak when spoken to.
Right away, let me get that for you.
The paths to being a smiling, serving, pleasing doormat were carved by genetics and by the sticky sweet venom expected from a Southern female, no matter the station of life. It didn’t matter if we were from a trailer, I was expected to be a goddamned self sacrificing lady.
Somewhere along the way, manners crossed the line into heavy direct obedience with understanding that it was the only way to be liked, to be loved. And that’s the lesson that was truly learned. Not that being nice was important because it feels good to be nice, but because if you aren’t you aren’t worthy of love; Storge, Eros, Phillia, or even, Agape.
And like grandmothers on porches snapping peas in the summer heat, that sits heavy. That leaves scars like gravel driveways and learning to ride bicycles. It travels with you forever. And it’s heavy and hard to shake. Until it’s too much. Until you have enough on your back and something has to go.
And I promise you, I’ve tried ditching other things first. I dropped off a lot of the baggage I was juggling from a livelihood of bullshit. Remember when Luke was carrying Yoda on his back? I Samoan Dropped a ton of shit just clinging on like that little dude.
But wanting to be liked? Wanting to have to the proof I’m good enough for love? Even from strangers? That remained.
But now, I feel it cracking at the seams. I shrug my shoulders when I say I can’t offer assistance and I feel the dry old skin breaking at my joints. When my eyes roll at the grumblings of some middle ages Karens displeased at something I may or may not have done correctly, I feel the shell of my younger, former self start sliding away like the skin on a snake. And when the random angry message pops up in my DMs for whatever reason? The “Oh, honey” that escapes my lips is not from panic but in amusement.
I don’t revell in the displeasure of others. But I’m not chasing their acceptance. Not anymore. I am not responsible for their happiness just as they are not responsible for mine. And the less I give to them, the more they can accomplish it on their own.
In life and in the grocery store.
So kindly, go find your own fucking sugar,
Whether it’s on Aisle 4 or with someone else. None of that involves me.
I’ve got to work on my own sweetness. Not for them, for me. And while it may be uncomfortable, that’s my job.
And I’m going to do it. Because actually, while I may not work here…
I work here.