When you are someone who manages to get along with practically everyone, it’s unnerving to meet a person that you just can’t seem to budge.
The other day, a good friend and I were having lunch in a local cafe, and the subject of dealing with impossible people came up. A couple of years earlier, she’d had a fluke accident after her Rhodesian Ridgeback dog had spotted a deer in the backyard, lunged at it, and dragged my friend along with her. Sylvia ended up with a broken hip, and in the hospital and rehab for months.
During her stay, she'd made friends with all the nurses but one, and this one ruined her life momentarily. In the early days after Sylvia’s surgery, this nurse refused to help her, claiming that the physical therapist said Sylvia wasn’t trying hard enough to move independently, even though Sylvia’s doctors called her a superior patient.
At night, Sylvia would lie awake, the mean nurse haunting her thoughts, and elaborate notions of comeuppance swirling through her brain. She could report her, but probably others had already done so, and it clearly hadn't gotten far. She could have it out with her, but the power play would resume, and the last thing Sylvia wanted was for this woman to know that she was allowing her to get under her skin.
One day, Sylvia wanted to use a laptop in the hospital workstation, and instead of asking the nurse for help, she decided to try it alone. She struggled for an hour with only a walker to move about 50 feet, and somehow managed to get across the corridor all by herself until her physical therapist discovered her, horrified she was pushing herself so hard, as it was dangerous, and way too soon. Sylvia felt proud regardless. She always had been a stoic and independent person, and physically very strong.
Something interesting happened the next time the nurse came to Sylvia’s room: her attitude had completely changed. She was suddenly very friendly and, Sylvia felt, treated her with a newfound respect. Sylvia and I marveled over how something completely unexpected could produce such positive results, especially when dealing with an apparently unmovable force.
As we sat there sipping Earl Grey and eating bagels, I thought about a person I too had managed to make peace with after years of unspoken acrimony. It was as if he had taken an initial dislike to me and run with it, and I never could quite figure out why. Granted, he had a history of not getting along with women in general, as well as being notorious in overstepping bounds at his place of employment, but I couldn’t take any of that into account, and was convinced his nastiness was personal.
This man, I felt, apparently found it entertaining to make doing my job difficult. Because I needed to cross his physical space to get to where I needed to go, a control over turf issue had developed. Often, he would bar access, or put signs up saying the floor was slippery so no one was allowed to walk in the area, even when it had been dry for hours. Once he even flat out said I just wasn't allowed in the space until a colleague had words with him.
I began wearing sunglasses inside the building, and my stomach would tighten up whenever there was a chance of seeing him, anticipating his giving me a hard time. Sometimes I would get lucky, and he wouldn’t be around, but one particular afternoon, he came out full force, snapping about how he would only let me in for a few minutes to the work area, and that I’d better “hurry up.” Here was a person with no real authority over me, and no real authority in general, and I was allowing this low level terrorism, accepting that it would go on for years. Why couldn’t I just go in and get my shit done, like anyone else?
A couple of weeks later, something devastating occurred. A somewhat new friend and project volunteer was found dead in her apartment. She lived alone, and evidently had suffered a heart attack while taking a shower. Her naked body was discovered days later.
We had just had lunch together weeks beforehand, and I’d kept meaning to call her to do Indian buffet. Now, I would never have another chance, and like the rest of her friends and family, was left reeling and confused.
Books have an intimate connection to their owners. They tell stories of significant periods in a person’s life – the least saleable college textbooks often are the hardest for a person to let go of, having represented such a significant part of a person’s life, a time of coming of age. Heather had been an avid traveler and artist, and the collection she left behind, whose titles I was perusing, affected me deeply. Here was this woman who I knew I would have had a close friendship with, one which was just beginning to develop, and then she was suddenly gone.
And strangely, she had been good friends with the same man who was plaguing me.
Once again, I had to pass through his area, and he shot me a dirty look while mopping the floor. My entire being felt hollow, still immersed in thoughts of the dead woman, which left me numb, fearless, and finally ready to speak up.
“I’m so sorry to hear about your friend Heather’s death,” I called across the room, then turned, and walked up the stairs.
The next time I returned, dark glasses firmly in place. “Hey!” he called out before I even reached the bottom of the stairs, and came from behind the counter, his face neutral as he approached. “Were you a friend of Heather’s too?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I just wanted to apologize for how I acted the other day,” he said. “I was in a really bad mood.”
Somewhat stunned, I decided not to mention that it actually had been an issue for years. “That’s ok.”
“So how did you know Holly?” he began, and thus began a wonderful conversation about our mutual friend’s interests, activities, and what connected her to both of us. Years of conflict unraveled in an instant, their powdery wisps rising above the both of us, like a bright balloon against a brilliant sky.
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