Thursday, September 15, 2011

Surrealism in Slapout

The weirdest thing just happened to me--so weird, in fact, that it already seems like fiction.  This is the sort of encounter that happens in quirky short stories or novels with misfit protagonists.  Be prepared not to believe this, but please understand, I do not make stuff up.  I know two priests and one Board of Education maintenance supervisor who will vouch for me.

It was an ordinary Saturday afternoon.  We had barbecue and barbecue sauce at the house, but no buns; plenty of ice, but nothing to pour over it.  As anyone with a Slapout, Alabama address will attest, one goes in these situations to the local grocery down by the flashing yellow light.  So there I was, making a quick-in, quick-out trip that was as unplanned and spontaneous as a kid's jump into a fresh mud puddle.  The store was a little busy that day, meaning I was second in line at the check-out.  I noticed the couple ahead of me.

It was a man and a woman, so I assume they made a couple, but they could have been brother and sister.  The lady looked like a tall, thin mouse with pale brown hair and no chin.  She was skinny and murmuring as she counted out some one-dollar bills.  I am no beauty myself, and I am not criticizing.  I'm only setting the stage.

Her male partner stooped over their grocery buggy, mumbling complaints, it sounded like.  He had a gruff voice, and the lady paid him no mind.  He straightened up, and I saw that he was wearing a wife-beater (also called an A-shirt if you're not from around here), and he was missing a front tooth.  It isn't nice to gape at gaps, so I turned away.

That was when I heard him say what I was so sure he couldn't have said, "Narcissistic."  Because no one wearing a wife-beater or anyone else ever says narcissistic in the grocery line, I immediately thought to myself, I misunderstood.  It sounded like he said "narcissistic," but a man in an A-shirt doesn't say that, especially not while his buddy pays for bread and milk.  It was probably "Carl's a sissy," "Cars is cinches," or "Gnaw the stitches."

Anyway, they left; I paid; I grabbed my bags, and I was leaving, too.  Here's where it gets really weird.  I passed Mr. A-shirt as I headed for the door.  He had decided to do the right thing and bring his buggy back indoors.  As we passed each other, he looked me right in the eye and said, "Narcissistic."

I am a mental health counselor.  I'm not bragging; Troy University and the Alabama Board of Examiners in Counseling say I'm a counselor, so I am.  As a counselor, I can assure you that there is no positive context in which one might use the word narcissistic.  Furthermore, used in conversation, the word is reserved for materialistic heiresses, corrupt politicians, and ex-husbands.  In professional settings, narcissistic precedes personality disorder.  Friends and neighbors, personality disorders don't budge.  They simply are, and we mental health professionals just try to work around them or help our clients get better in spite of them.

Which brings me back to my chance encounter at the store in Slapout.  What did I do, how did I look, what unconscious gesture on my part coaxed that specific term from the man's memory?  I wasn't in a hurry or being impatient.  I did not frown at Ms. Mouse as she counted her bills.  I didn't even stare at the A-shirt or glance down to see if the wearer had remembered his shoes.  I put my buns and Coke on the counter and waited.

I was wearing a plaid shirt and some olive-green cotton slacks.  I had on a little make-up, and my hair was combed.  After all, I had had to work that morning.  There was no reason for me to think my appearance turned any heads at all.  Still, we all remember the mythology behind the word narcissistic:   Poor Narcissus, gazing witlessly into a pool of water, saw his own reflection and fell in love with it.  Curious as to how I might see myself under these bizarre new circumstances, I stared into the mirror when I got home.

I saw nothing to flaunt.  I have no athletic Nordic beauty, no warm Mediterranean appeal; I am as boringly Anglo as you can get.  My hair is too thin, my ears too big, my complexion too muddy.  Okay, my bangs are a good length right now.  For appearance, I give myself a C, and that won't earn me a personality disorder.

Of course, looks are not what personality disorders are made of.  Personality consists of character and the way we interact with the world around us.  This would be harder to look into than a mirror.  Haven't I had moments of pure selfishness?  How about the time I persuaded my husband to put our house on the market when I knew he didn't really want to move?  or the time I convinced my high-schooler to stay on the wrestling team because I might like to be the parent of a State Champion?  Worst of all, what about my insistence on holding yard sales on weekends when my family wanted to go to Arkansas?  Very, very self-centered decisions, all of them, and ones I sincerely apologize for.  Did my accuser somehow learn about those?

No.  Not possible, and although the idea of such hi-falootin name-calling in Slapout is absurd, there is a nightmarish quality to the whole encounter.  The grocery store run is supposed to put lunch on the table, not trigger a cascade of introspection and self-doubt.

So I will do what most anyone would.  I'll say I really did misunderstand; I'll say the guy was drunk; I'll say he mistook me for his ornery ex-girlfriend.  I won't say he was the voice of one crying in the wilderness lest I find that I am a viper.

No, I'll just write it down the way it happened, shake my head, and mutter, "Weird."  If you read this, you may agree, but if you find it interesting, don't tell me so.  I may like the compliment so much that I'll write another column.  That would be quite narcissistic of me.