I was able to sum up my life in three words; “I don’t know”. An easy answer you may think, but I am of the opinion that admitting uncertainty is arguably one of the most difficult things to do. I have a sharp tongue and lash out before I give myself a chance to think things through, to consider what I am about to say and perhaps change my course of action. Unfortunately, this is almost never the case. I am defensive and offensive, quick to act out and even quicker to react. My hot temper blinds me, but I can argue. I can really argue. I may even have become a lawyer had I been able to find anything resembling ambition or passion in. Yet, here I was, a young woman, in the prime of her life as some would say (though I myself hate that expression – it places far too much pressure on an individual), arguing with an old man in a line at the grocery store.
I couldn’t remember what we were arguing about, only that he had challenged me, and as usual I let my tongue lead, instead of my brain. I felt fire. I took a step outside of myself. I watched as my eyes glazed over, and this person who looked and spoke and acted exactly like me took charge. I said awful things. I could barely hear the words coming from my mouth, but I saw them clear as day, shooting across to the old man. They were arrows tipped with poison. I watched his brow un-furrow as my words hit him, expression sliding right off his face as though it had been washed away by a heavy rain. I watched his mouth part slightly, saliva dry and lips prune-like. His eyes shook with confusion as I knew they were trying to understand me. The river beds of wrinkles and creases in his skin seemed to be drying, even draining, as I spoke, as he took me in. Me. An inconsiderate, angry, rude and obnoxious pile, disguised as a pretty girl with dark eyes and hair. It was such that allowed me to get away with the things I did and said, all of which, coming from another would never have been allowed.
The old man breathed out slowly through his nose. It was as if he had been inhaling my words, straight into his lungs, and as he blew them out through his flared nostrils, I heard every word I had said to him. It was in that instant that I knew that this ordinary man in this ordinary grocery store filled with ordinary people, saw through me and everything I pretended to be. He saw through the facade that I had created to keep friends and men close. That facade that threw a wig and some mascara onto my short temper, my selfishness, my reserve, my impatience and my deluded sense of self righteousness and called it confidence, determination and decisiveness. I felt naked. I felt the scars I had given others break open my skin ten-fold. The man had not said a word.
I felt the fire extinguished and sense of purpose stamped out. The old man raised his eyebrows, his face still blank and said, “Who do you think you are?” His tone was so even, so conversational that it threw me.
He left me then, shuffling away after filling my stomach with lead. The sound of the grocery store and the world I really inhabited came flooding back. I was paralytic in the cashier’s line, unable to move even though the shouts and trolley rattling from angry shoppers around me urged me to do so.
The shop was all of a sudden too bright. Too colourful. Too loud. Too busy. There was too much going on and I had to get away. I stumbled out of the sliding doors onto the street outside; one hand blocking the blinding glare from the sun, the other hand guiding me along the railing that I knew would eventually lead me to my apartment. My cave. I made my way so quickly that I did not realise where I was until I was lying face up on my bed, hands behind my head. My hands propped my head up further where my lumpy pillow failed to do so. What the old man had said to me terrified me beyond measure.
Who was I?
The question sounded familiar. I was sure I had heard it before, but only in the way you vaguely recall the tune of a song you heard on the radio once, though slightly more haunting. A weight sat upon my chest, one that had obviously lain dormant for years, but was brought to life by this little old man with a trolley filled with canned soup. I was sure that if I didn’t give this question at least some consideration it would haunt me, dogging my footsteps and tugging at my shirt sleeves wherever I went.
Who was I?
Part of me, most of me – the part of me I felt most comfortable being – nagged at me to forget the whole encounter, to go back to being blindly angry and somewhat happy. A smaller, but powerful part of me protested, it said it felt like trying on a new pair of shoes. They would be strange and uncomfortable, but deeply needed when my current pair was far too worn and far too dirty to be seen in public.
“Who do I think I am?” my voice left my lips abruptly, swallowed by the silence in the cave. It sounded calm, calm to the point of being awkward, given my current situation. It bothered me. A tap dripped. It was out of time with my heartbeat, and that bothered me too. I tried to get them in sync, but they wouldn’t cooperate. I pushed these thoughts from my head.
Who was I?
My first, instinctive answer was more of an evasive manoeuvre than an insight.
I don’t know, do I have to decide right now?
I had not even lived a quarter of my entire life span yet, and on a planet thousands of years old this seemed an awfully short time for someone to be expected to define their own existence. In relation to the age of the ground we stand on, the world around us, the stars, ideas and legends, I had not even been born yet. I felt like laughing at the man for his stupidity. I allowed myself to smile, convinced of my own genius. For surely I could really only answer this question on my deathbed because it is only after I have lived and experienced all that I am meant to experience, that I will know who I was, and who I am. I gloated for a moment, feeling confident that I had outwitted the old man in the grocery store.
Another thought struck me: The only constant, is change itself. I am not who I was 10 years ago, and I am not who I will be in 10 years time. So, surely, I was a whole person at that moment? I didn’t like to think of myself as a half formed being, missing an arm or a leg that I would only gain in my last moments alive. The man was mocking me now. The eyes that had shaken with confusion and pity now jeered at me. They laughed and sneered at my attempt at insight. That old man had gone home to his canned soup, and left me here, writhing in uncertainty.
I thought back to 10 years ago, when I was an awkward teen with breasts too large on anyone. I hated my body and had had a breast reduction. Now I have grown up, or at least succumbed to the ageing process, for growing up implies some level of maturity, which, upon reflection, my guard let down alone in the cave, I could not be so bold as to claim I had. My securities and self loathing, however, had festered over the years; taking refuge in the wound others call their soul. Cutting away chunks of your flesh doesn’t change who you are; yes, it allowed me to buy prettier bras and lovelier clothes, to avoid the wolf-whistling and cat-calling, but I am still an awkward, scared teenager hiding behind the beautiful body of a woman. I lay there, thinking. What I need is a soul-reduction, perhaps even soul implants, although I think my only real hope is for a soul-transplant. Unfortunately, you just don’t get many of those these days.
No, I may be forced to confront that ever crippling, ever elusive concept of change in order to hopefully come out the other side a better person. The idea of a “good person” these days was controversial however. I thought about a case in the news recently, a child molester in some far away town had been shot dead by the father of one of his 16 victims. The father was now being tried for first degree murder. The line there between good and bad was blurred, and I didn’t care to delve any further into the issue. As I thought this, I noted for the first time a slight thumping behind my eyes, but one that I realised now had been there the entire afternoon.
The ceiling fan directly above my bed cooled my room to the point where I was shivering slightly. I watched the whirring blades. I felt my arms and hands go numb under the weight of my head. I felt the lump under my lower back where my blankets and sheets had bundled. I felt the constriction of my toes in the too-tight socks in my comfortable, yet worn out old pair of shoes. I felt everything. I didn’t like it. I had never been this aware before, and it made me decidedly uncomfortable. This was how I spent that day. Lying flat on my bed, wrestling with ideas of who I was at that moment, in the context of the larger scheme of who I was to become, the lines between good and bad, and the comfort of the old, but the necessity of the new.
It became evening sooner than I realised, and I sat up abruptly. I went to the sink that was too close to my bed and had always given me an unsanitary feeling. I poured myself a glass of water and stood there for a minute. I had found myself in this position before, I remembered that now. Something would happen, something that shook me to my core, and I would bury myself in myself for a painful, contemplative day. The other times were different, I thought. I let the old shoes part of me win over the new shoes part, retreating back into my comfort zone, going on as I had before: cruel and unforgiving for absolutely no reason. This time would be different, I was sure.
The vaguely familiar tune of a song on the radio playing on the street.
Who did I think I was?
I pondered a second longer, and answered myself: I don’t know. I took a great gulp of water and felt renewed. But, so what, old shoes were comfortable; new ones took ages to break in.