As it happens, I am staring into my phone with a cigarette in my left hand. It is September and I am walking in an empty parking lot with seagulls and abandoned shopping carts. Taking deep breaths, I read my text messages. I am wrong. I didn’t do it right. I didn’t follow instruction. I’m new to this. I don’t understand. There are more questions. You can’t. Nevermind. Don’t bother. Ugh. Fine. I respond. Waiting. No. Stop it. Just stop. You’re not listening. You need to. You must. I don’t have experience. I don’t know. I am guessing. I should have done it this way. No that way. Still not right. Give up already. Take responsibility. Still learning. Wrong. Wrong again. Fail. Listen. Mistake. Just stop.
Words are mouse traps. I didn’t take it personally – at first. I made up excuses for him. He was my boss, after all. A mentor. Something like that. I wanted to please. I wanted to prove to him that I could do it. I could read his mind and just know. I felt determined. I tried. Again. Again. One more time. This time I’ll get it right. I’ll be more careful. Read every word. I won’t miss the details. I won’t make the same mistake again. I’ll respond promptly. I’ll have the answer. I’ll know the solution. I can fix it. Don’t look stupid. Be better. Be smart. Be cool about it. Don’t be sensitive. Stop overthinking.
My confidence had suddenly abandoned me. He must be right: I am a young woman who is dumb.
Between an older person and a younger one, there’s a mutual toleration. We’re supposed to get each other. We’re supposed see eye to eye behind the obvious differences. We’re supposed to relate to one another over the nice weather, weekend plans and trivial TV shows. A decade younger, I can look up to this person. He is someone I want to be. A man I can learn from. A glimmer of what could be. He is the future. Edgy. Outspoken. Peculiar. Different in ways that only years of living can offer. So I role-play the younger woman I am. I’m eager. I listen and pay attention. I am polite, I say thank you, smile like a fool, shake hands and entertain small talk for the sake of being friendly. I’m the poster girl for “cute” and I hate that word, but that doesn’t matter. I’m doing things wrong. I need to improve. I can’t please him. I am incapable of doing anything right and I can’t be trusted.
The weeks turn stale. I didn’t keep my head up. I became fragile. I listened to UB40 and Chrissie Hynde. Nothing helped. I lost my appetite. My stomach growled, but the need to compensate for something fed the hunger. I lost interest in the admirable things that made me attracted to this man in the first place. I didn’t really know him anyways. We weren’t friends. It was work. Nothing mattered. The mentor thing seemed ludicrous. I internalized the short responses and the frustration he texted (……). I stopped writing; too busy worrying about things. I’ve never felt that useless before. I needed to push forward. Get through the next day. Follow up. Make it right. Do things correctly. I cancelled plans with friends. Didn’t respond to text messages. I craved sleep but couldn’t close my eyes. I dreamt of things I forgot to do. To remedy my vain attempts, I shifted my approach. Changed my pace. Less formal. Direct. Answers only. But nothing changed. I kept trying to please him. Over and over again, blood boiling in a state of repeated failure. Why couldn’t I do anything right?
Days into a heatwave, I scribbled down a list of things that are impossible in my notebook. Flying underwater. Jumping upside down. Running backwards. Sitting on a ceiling. Living forever. Negative mass. Surely, this job couldn’t be on my list. It was easy. Entry level. A monkey could do this. A dog. I would try harder. I needed to make this right. I felt obsessive. I wasn’t myself. I was his shadow. A grey piece of sidewalk. I pinched my arm. I wrote down my mistakes in a pathetic list to remember. If I wrote it down I wouldn’t forget. I would be able to “get it.” I would overcome it. Be the person I needed to be to be good at this job. It wasn’t supposed to be this difficult. My phone rang. It was him.
“You should really say sorry more often,” he told me. “I mean in life, saying sorry is important.” He repeated. I stewed in this. I agreed. I told him I would say sorry more. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. I would take responsibility. Sorry for not communicating. Sorry for not reminding you. Sorry for not doing it right now. Sorry for not reading your fucking mind. I am a dog. Feed me with a thank you, please. Just one. But no, I didn’t do anything right after all. No thank you necessary. I sat in the grass staring at washed away graffiti on a road behind some industrial buildings. I wrapped my anxiety like a scarf around my neck, choking myself in the heat that dripped through my t-shirt. The cheap cigarette burned the back of my throat like a spice. It was all my fault. I got myself in this situation. Stay calm. Don’t cry. Take a picture right now and save it for later. When I’m doing well again. When I’m capable. When I trust myself. When I want to remember how dumb he made me feel on the hottest day in September. I hate this.
As it happens, I’m sitting in a coffee shop writing about a man who made me feel worthless. I put myself in an emotionally abusive situation. Pleasing him was impossible. And behind my internalized curtain of uncertainty and assumptions, I smiled. I paraded the illusion that I was a just a young girl without common sense. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. I didn’t mean to. It wasn’t my intention. I’m trying. Give me one more chance. I want to help. I made it worse. I didn’t have the answer. I made him angry. I drove him up the wall. I’m new to this. I don’t know any better. I can’t do it. I can’t do it. You’re right. I’m wrong. I’m dumb after all.
So I’m writing this now to make amends with myself.
I am a woman with a brain and common sense. I blink like everyone else. I read newspapers. I have an opinion. I tweet. I drink coffee. I am capable. I’ve got my own experiences. And I don’t need this man in my life. I don’t want to be him. I don’t want anything from him actually. I made a mistake. I let this person get inside of my head and control me. I let him define me as no-good. A grey piece of sidewalk. A splatter of vomit on Queen Street. A girl with no brain. But I tried to please him anyway like the young woman I am. I couldn’t let him win. It was a game.
A dumb woman would have stayed. But I quit.