I could be wholesome
I could be loathsome
I guess I’m a little bit shy
Why don’t you like me?
Why don’t you like me without making me try?
-Mika, “Grace Kelly”
She is a tall, slender, imperiously elegant member of the Congregation, and she hates me. Well, at the very least she doesn’t like me very much. There is something in the way she looks at me, rather as if she had discovered the leavings of an unhealthy Great Dane on the bottom of her Ferragamo flat, something that summons the keenest pangs of the desire to please. I want a breakthrough, a redemption, some acknowledgement that I am good in some, small way. I would settle for a watery smile, but what I really want is that moment in a romance novel when the Guy She Hates from the Start but Who makes Her Feel All Tingly abandons his icy haughteur and admits that he is crazy about her. The walls come tumbling down, juices flow (so to speak) and there is usually a kiss. I want a breakthrough.
Yesterday was the Advent Tea, an annual event put on by a fleet of women at the church in which I work. They did all the planning and cooking; I merely provided platters and made enough coffee and tea to fill Lake Michigan.
For a variety of reasons neither germane nor particularly interesting, I found myself needing to empty part of my gigantic 1940s coffee maker into a bucket so that I could make a new batch. As the steam from the coffee fogged my glasses, I heard Her voice behind me: “What are you doing with that coffee?”
No one has ever asked me what I was doing with the coffee. In general, as long as they have it when they need it, they would prefer not to be in that particular loop. “Well,” I sputtered, “it’s complicated, but I was just-”
“Do you have any more regular?” she pointed a manicured finger at one side of the machine.
“I’m sorry, I don’t. That’s why I’m doing this. I can have some made in about five minutes, and I’d be happy to bring it to you, but I-”
“Never mind,” she waved briefly and dismissively “we’ll get some from another table.” I had clearly failed, failed spectacularly, and was most likely wasting coffee to boot. I was wasting coffee. I was in a bind, I had never assisted with that event, the demands turned out to be rather different than the organizers expected, and I had made a judgment call that it was acceptable to let a gallon of watery decaf die in order that ten better gallons might spring up, Phoenix-like, in its place.
After the Tea, the Cleanup Committee began the process of clearing the tables, wrapping up the centerpieces, distributing leftover cookies, and washing the dishes. As I climbed on a stool to clean out the inside of my antique coffee machine, I was thinking that my feet hurt, that the event had been a great success, and that I really loved the sweet, wise older women in their assorted Christmas sweaters. She slid into my peripheral vision. She was not wearing a Christmas sweater.
“Ann, what’s being done with those pots that are piled up in the kitchen? They need to be cleaned. They’re expensive pieces of equipment.”
“It’s okay,” I assured her, “they’re going to be recycled. The guys just haven’t taken them yet.”
“Those are perfectly good pots – why aren’t they being cleaned and used?” I was six years old, I had broken a vase. My cheeks were hot and I wanted to be rescued. I decided to go with disarming candor, which often works really well for me.
“We tried to clean them – my first week doing a lot of cooking here I wasn’t used to the stove and those pots have really thin bottoms. A couple of people tried to get them clean, but we decided since there were so many of them we could-”
“People could use those pots.” People could. They could use them as planters, or to hold umbrellas near the front door. They could not, under any circumstances use them as vessels in which to cook food in a licensed kitchen. I regret having destroyed them, but they came into the church kitchen around the time I learned to use a cup without handles, they served a long time, and I had, until that moment, felt okay about the fact that they would be recycled and lead another life.
“I, uhm, we-”
If you’re just throwing them away, may I take one to use at my cottage?”
“Yes” I managed, trying a smile. “That would be fine. Take as many as you can use.”
“Well I can’t possibly use more than one” she replied, as if I had suggested that she wear colored nail polish or do something whimsical in her garden. She walked away, leaving me to look at her erect, regal back as I sunk deeply into a thorough understanding of my failings. I had wasted coffee, wasted valuable equipment, and no matter how many people told me I was doing a great job, it was all smoke. I was a loser.
I’ll never know what I did to offend her. It may be my status as The Help, it may be my black nail polish or my lug-soled, lace up Granny in Combat boots. Possibly, it’s the fact that everything about her bespeaks elegant restraint and the refusal of excess, and everything about me says that I enjoy food, and drama, laughing too loud and talking too much. It may be the fact that she smells the need to please, and that I let her push my buttons while I shuck, jive, step and fetch.
Maybe, she’s just not very nice and I need to stop worrying about her. Do you think she’d like that?