I am, without a doubt, the most cowardly person on God’s green earth.
Not cowardly as in “runs shrieking from the merest hint of danger” cowardly. Although, having never been in a truly death-defying situation, I guess I really can’t say how I would behave if my own physical well-being were threatened. I’d like to think I’d rally to the occasion, maybe even die a heroine after rescuing five screaming children from a burning school. Unfortunately, however, if my interpersonal dealings with others are any indication, I’d say it’s far more likely I’d expire in a far more ignominious manner—wimpering like a baby with my arms clapped over my head.
Simply put, I loathe confrontation and avoid it at all costs.
I can do confrontation from afar. At that, I am a champ. I can write nasty essays about people like Dr. John Gray and publish them with nary a second thought. I can give you the finger with both hands if you cut me off in traffic while mouthing swear words at you from behind the safety of my own windshield. And I am the Queen of the Glaring Eye-Roll—as long as you’re more than ten feet away from me.
But when it comes to actual, in-person confrontation with another human being, I am the world’s biggest wuss.
I was reminded of my own fortitude in wimpitude last week, upon running into a former co-worker at my expensive health club. Actually, she wasn’t really a co-worker—she had headed the department I worked in during my last consulting gig. This woman was and is a menace to all humanity. She is selfish, petty, dishonest, and mind-numbingly stupid (and, no, I’m not going to identify her by name—she’s also very vindictive and would probably sue me if she ever read this). She steals credit for other people’s accomplishments and runs roughshod over everyone’s feelings and made the lives of her direct reports so hellish they all ended up quitting within six months of her taking over the department.
And, most importantly, when my consulting contract was about to expire, she neglected to renew it.
The only thing “X” and I have ever had in common is our expensive health club. We discovered our mutual membership quite accidentally, early in my tenure at the company, before I fully grasped the full magnitude of her evil. In fact, we had quite a pleasant chat about how long we had been members, how much we enjoyed the classes, what time of day we found best, and what a lovely facility it was.
About a week after we had that conversation, I was in line at the little café off the reception area waiting to pay for my Diet Coke. “X” was in line in front of me, and when I cleared my throat slightly and said, “Hello, ‘X’,” she turned, saw me, did a double take, and exclaimed, “Oh! I didn’t know you worked out here! How long have you been a member?”
Let me reiterate: It had been a week since our conversation about the club. A week! Even if she had forgotten the entire discussion—entirely possible, given how busy the average workday was—I found it difficult to believe it would have remained forgotten once we were face to face in the actual health club setting.
But the Shameless “X” kept at it, chatting amiably about how long she had been a member, how much she enjoyed the classes, what time of day she usually worked out, and what a lovely facility it was.
I merely nodded along, deciding, since she was (however unfathomably) a senior executive at the company I worked at I would do well not to make her feel foolish by reminding her we had already had that conversation. Eventually I managed to excuse myself and escaped to the elevator.
Over the next several months, we frequently saw each other from afar during our Saturday workouts, her charging off to spinning class and me jogging on the treadmill. I kind of liked seeing her there, because by that time I hated her so much the mere sight of her made me run faster in blind rage. All in all, a good deal for my cardiovascular system. Once in a while, during our Monday staff meeting, she’d remark, “I think I saw you at my gym the other day—do you work out there?” and I’d play along, acting pleasantly surprised at this common bond, as she chattered inanely about how much she liked the classes, what a lovely facility it was, and what time of day she liked to work out.
After she allowed my contract to expire, I harbored much bitterness. Despite the fact that I like my new job so much more than consulting for that company, and I am certainly paid a hell of a lot more than I would have been paid if they had hired me full time, I still could not forgive her for her thoughtless neglect. My work for that company had been stellar. I had been incessantly pleasant, upbeat, eager to take on new challenges, and was praised by one and all for my talent and tenacity. But, for whatever reason, I was less than a speck in her peripheral vision and thus unworthy of her care or consideration.
I’d still see her in the gym from time to time and give her the Glare and Eye Roll From Afar treatment I have perfected in my years of wimpiness, imagining from afar the many cruel and cutting remarks I would make the next time we were truly nose to nose:
In the elevator: Please. We both know we don’t like each other, so let’s not bother pretending otherwise, shall we?
In line at the café: You know, the nice thing about not working for you is that I no longer have to pretend to either like or respect you.
On the floor of the weight training area: So. I hear your entire team quit and you had to be reassigned. How’s that working out for you, huh?
In most of these little scenarios, she would be embarrassed, maybe even a little ashamed, of how badly she had treated me and my scathing remarks would only make her feel smaller and pettier. Or, in an alternative scenario, she would be her aloof, snobby self and I would simply out-snob her. If we passed one another in the hallway, I resolved, I would simply stare her down, withering and unflinching, until she looked away in an agony of mortification.
Oh, how I looked forward to that inevitable moment! I couldn’t wait! She would rue the day she messed with my friends and me!
The trouble was, I didn’t see her. At all. I went to the gym every Saturday morning at my usual time but never caught sight of her. After a while, I stopped looking at simply concentrated on my workout.
Months went by. Finally, one Saturday, an entire year after my final day at the company, I visited the expensive hair salon at my expensive health club. Hating the way they had blow-dried my hair (I don’t know why I persist in paying the extra $40 to have my hair blown out after I get it colored since I never like the way they do it) I rushed off to the locker room for my usual post-salon fix. I had just hunched my head all the way down into the collar of my jacket shen I heard a voice calling my name. “Leslie! Oh, my God! Hi!”
I looked up. It was “X.” Looking right at me. Smiling. Broadly, openly, and in sheer, unabashed delight.
I drew a deep breath and was just about to blow past her when she said, “I didn’t know you worked out here!”
That stopped me in my tracks. The comebacks—oh, so many of them—were dangling from the tip of my tongue:
Funny, you say that EVERY SINGLE TIME we run into each other here.
Yes, I guess it’s just my bad luck that you’re a member too.
Wow; I guess membership standards have really declined.
So. Which one did I choose, you wonder?
None of the above, of course.
Maybe it was just the shock of seeing her after so much time. Maybe it was because I was stunned at how nice she was being. Maybe it was because my hair looked awful and I felt ugly and vulnerable.
Or maybe it’s because I am, in fact, the most cowardly person on God’s green earth.
Looking directly into her glowing face and friendly, unassuming smile, I smiled back, weakly, and said, “Oh, yeah, I’ve been coming here for a while.”
And so we chatted, standing in the hallway in front of the locker room door, about the classes we took, what a lovely facility it was, and the time of day we preferred working out, finally parting with a cheery wave and a “Nice to see you again!” before going our separate ways.
Like I said. Wuss.
I spent the next week replaying the “might have saids” again and again in my mind, practicing my not-uttered retorts in the car on the way to work and cursing my own cowardice. Eventually, I fanwanked myself a convoluted “professionalism demands politeness” explanation that didn’t really make me feel better but at least enabled me to push the whole thing to the back of my mind and go about my business, vowing to stand up for myself a little more solidly the next time I was plunged into an unpleasant confrontation.
And, wouldn’t you know it, a week later—again at the expensive health club—I was presented with a golden opportunity to do just that.
After an exceptionally vigorous workout followed by a long, steamy shower, I arranged my toiletries on one of the vanity stations in the nearly empty locker room and set about the tedious task of blow drying, curling, and spraying my hair. It’s a process I have pretty much down to a science now: Dry, spray, Velcro roller for five minutes, fluff, spray again, and go. I was just about to proceed from the “spray again” to the “go” step, when a woman I’d never seen before swooped out of the shower area, sashayed up right next to me, and snotted, “You know, aerosols of any sort are not allowed in this locker room.”
I goggled at her, mouth agape, clutching my industrial-sized can of Sebastian Shaper Plus to my chest. I had been expecting a full-on lecture about the ozone layer and global warming and had been frantically trying to conjure up a recent environmental good deed to deflect the criticism. So this caught me off guard. “Since when?” I sputtered.
Now, I know for a fact there is no such rule at my expensive health club. First of all, it would be marketing suicide. No hair spray? No perfume? No spray-on deodorant? Let me tell you something: My expensive health club is frequented by over 3,000 of the most vain and over-entitled yuppie females in the city, and, trust me, if there were in fact a ban on these items the members would revolt and the club would go bankrupt and shut down within a month. Secondly, even if there were such a rule—which, I repeat, there is not—it would be completely unenforceable. What would they do, go through every individual locker confiscating every can of Acqua Net and bottle of Chanel No. 5 they see, liked crazed TSA agents yanking water bottles away from uncooperative fliers? Hardly likely.
No, it was far more likely that this particular woman just didn’t like the smell of my Sebastian Shaper Plus, although I myself actually find the aroma quite pleasant (far more pleasant than Sebastian Shaper Regular, which smells like vomit and makes me gag every time my hairdresser tries to use it on me). Which was entirely her right. I don’t much care for the Gucci Envy my next-door-locker-mate drenches herself with every morning and make it a point to remove myself from the vicinity whenever I see her coming at me with her spritzer in hand. That’s just what you do in a locker room. It’s called communal grooming, and, yes, it sucks at times, but that's the price you pay for exercising in the company of others.
So, presented with the second opportunity at successful confrontation within the space of a week, I had two choices. The Old Leslie, the Wimpy Leslie, would have apologized profusely, capped the spray, and slunk out of the locker room a flat-headed, embarrassed mess.
But this was not my career this woman was messing with. It was my hair spray. Jobs come and go, but your hair is part of you for life.
This, I decided, could not stand.
“Look,” I said, measuring my words as carefully as I could, “I’ve been working out here for five years and I can assure you there is no rule like that in place.”
“Well,” sniffed SnotLady, “I’ve been coming here for five years too.”
“Well, then, you know there is no rule. If the smell of my hair spray bothers you, all you had to do was politely ask me to spray it elsewhere and I would have been happy to oblige. See?” I popped the cap back on the can gave it an extra smack for emphasis.
Touche! She began to back away. “Okay, okay, don’t get so defensive.”
I advanced toward her, brandishing my can. “Well, don’t make up nonexistent rules to try to impose your personal preferences on everyone else.”
She turned and fled to her locker, muttering something about “overreaction,” as I turned back to the mirror, smiled at my reflection, uncapped my Sebastian Shaper Plus, and gave myself one final, mighty spritz before throwing on my jacket and marching triumphantly toward the door.
Hey, I know it’s hard out here for us wimps.
But I like to think that, that day, I made it a tiny bit easier for us all.