Chocolate-Covered Morsels of Guilt

>> Saturday, June 23, 2007

I need to sit myself down and have a long talk with myself.

I was shopping at Trader Joe’s, hoping to find something quirky and interesting for a party at Elizabeth’s school. But I forgot -- I’m not used to "interesting". I’m used to tubes of potato chips and cheese-flavored goldfish, so I decided to go to Ralph’s where I can find Cheetos and Teddy Grahams. However, a container of cocoa-covered almonds caught my eye and was too tempting to resist.

The lines were long, but a nice older woman asked if I would like to go before her. “I just hate it when you’re standing there with one item, and people won’t let you go first. Don’t you?”

“Oh, well thank you. That’s very sweet,” I said and stepped in front.

“Have you ever let someone go in front of you?” she asked. Clearly this was an important issue for her.

“Yes, I have,” I said smiling, pleased with myself because it was true.

“It gives you a good feeling, doesn’t it?”

“Yes. Yes it does.” We smiled. It was nice.

Soon I departed with my chocolate almonds and headed to Ralph’s -- my comfort zone of grocery stores. I found the necessary crackers and cheese items, and even took a chance on humus. (4 year-olds just love humus, right?)

The lines were long there, too. After a lady who didn’t speak English, a woman with a toddler, and a man trying to cash an unapproved check, it was finally my turn. A tiny old lady who had been standing behind me waved her bag and asked, “I just have one thing to return. Are you in a hurry?”

She wanted to cut in.

The big picture hit me immediately. Not 15 minutes before, someone had generously (and without my asking) allowed me to go before her. This was clearly my opportunity to repay the good karma that had floated my way. After all, I had agreed with Lady No. 1 that it does indeed give one a good feeling to let someone go first. Doesn’t it?

“Well, I’m on my lunch break,” I said.

There you have it. I’m evil. I gave an old lady a hard time instead of being a good citizen. I had an opportunity to be a nice person and decided I wasn't in the mood. That’s why I need to have a long, long talk with myself.

Oh sure. There are lots of reasons for NOT letting her go first. It was my turn, after all. I’d waited patiently for a very long time. It’s not like I had an entire cart full of groceries -- I had ten items at most. The only reason I wasn’t in the Express line anyway was because it was twice as long as all the others.

Plus, the little old lady looked well past retirement. What else was on her calendar? On the other hand, I am a very busy working mother, spending my valuable lunch break shopping for my daughter. I was already feeling the anxiety of a lunch break that should have ended ten minutes ago.

But for some reason, none of those reasons make me feel any better now.

“I’m on my lunch break,” I said.

She returned my grimace with a charming Grandma-smile. “I just have one thing to return. That’s all.”

“Sure,” I said and took a deep breath. “Go ahead.”

I smiled warily and stepped aside. The guilt was starting to set in, along with a kind of claustrophobia that comes from desperately wanting to leave a place urgently, but not being able to. I prayed she had her receipt. She did. She said ‘thank you’ a lot. The guilt was becoming tangible. She said she had a doctor’s appointment and she said ‘thank you’ one more time.

Yes, keep piling it on, lady. I don’t feel like crap enough. The only thing that would have been worse is if I looked up to see Lady No. 1 staring at me in disgust and shaking her head, having witnessed the whole thing.

Wait a minute. Now my self-preserving, defensive paranoia is starting to kick in. This was almost too perfect. One lady lets me go first at Trader Joe’s and “sets me up”. Then the other lady is waiting at Ralph’s. They communicate via walkie-talkies in their pink and pale-blue handbags. Lady No. 2 silently waits and watches me until I get in line at Ralph’s. Then she slips behind, ready to pounce. I’m sure they’re undercover reporters. Next I’ll see myself on the 6 o’clock news with the headline “Respect for the elderly? Not in San Diego.”

Of course, that’s ridiculous. Ha, ha, ha. But why does my stomach feel this way? How will I be able to enjoy my cocoa-covered almonds, now? With each bite I’ll hear Lady No. 1 saying, It gives you a good feeling, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it... doesn’t it...? I’ll see that cute, thin-haired Granny and how I almost made her late for her doctor’s appointment.

My only consolation is that this will make me ill for the rest of the day. So I mustn’t be totally evil, right? Not totally.

I suppose there’s only one thing for me to do. To prevent future stomach upset and restore faith in myself, I need to remember one important lesson from today: When in doubt, be nice -- always be nice. Take my mind off the clock, take a deep breath, and be nice.

Well, until it's time to not be nice.

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