They Frighten Me

The man was almost a stranger to me when he came through my checkout line. He seemed to recognize me, though:

“Are you Carson’s wife?”

Happily for me, I am. If there had been no line behind him, I might have asked him how he knew this, but there was and I did not try to slow us down while I scanned his items.

When he went to pay, there was a bit of a mix-up between him and the card terminal. “Error,” said the machine, but a tightness leaped into his eyes.

“Do you think I should run it as credit?”

I didn’t think it mattered. There will be errors between humans and computers, and he was neither the first nor the last person to have to run their card twice. But I showed him how to run it as credit, if he wanted to.

It declined.

“Why would it-I know, I’ll just take this off.” He grabbed the drink off the counter, his eyes darting towards the line of people behind him. “Oh, you know what, nevermind.” And he grabbed the rest of his items and hurried off to put them back on the shelves.

“I’m sorry,” I said, but he was gone. “I’m sorry,” I said, not because it was my fault, but because I wanted him to be able to blame me or the machine or whatever would take away the feeling that was making him run with shoulders hunched against the watching eyes.

We were laughing, discussing poses for a photoshoot, a group of teenage girls.

“We could do this,” she said, making circles around her eyes with her fingers. “I think that’s funny.”

As she let her hands fall, there was one of those little pauses that sometimes happen in a group. There was nothing malicious in it, but somehow I found myself terribly aware that there could be and how easy it becomes to slash at someone as soon as they claim an opinion.

The boy was young, so young he’d only recently graduated from wearing training pants to actual underwear. But he was off to spend the day without his mother, and though he was brave and excited, he was also a little vulnerable as small children are when they know their safe place is not available. He came into the house beaming with pride and eagerness, however, because he was wearing his cowboy outfit and he could not wait to show it off to his friends.

They were suitably impressed, but in inspecting the costume closely, one of the older girls noticed something:

“Hey, why do you have underwear in your pocket?”

The light in his eyes dimmed a little as his fingers flew to his pocket, stuffing the offending article out of sight. “You didn’t see that,” he said, smiling gallantly and a little tremulously, suddenly very small.


They seem so unimportant. Random little moments of life, probably already forgotten by the players. But they are seared on my memory as if they were something terrible. They frightened me, these moments. One of them happened over three years ago, but remembering the look in those eyes still makes me ache. And why? Nothing really happened. But it’s as though somehow, in those moments, I clearly saw the vulnerability of the human heart. And that frightens me more than most things.

I told someone this, not so long ago, and though their response was kind, it made me realize that they thought I was referring to my own vulnerability. And that really isn’t it, though maybe it should be sometimes. I break too, and broken pieces are much more likely to cut others.

Because that is what frightens me; not that I could be hurt, but that I could hurt. And I might. I’m more inclined to be incisive than gentle, and most of the time, people’s cracks are hard to see. You never know when you might step on a fault line. And they don’t want to tell you.

I promise I’ll stop ranting about how easy it is to hurt people and how often people are hurt at some point. I’ll talk about how easy it is to make people feel a little bit better, and that feeling of having contributed something of worth to the world every time you make someone laugh, and how delightful I think it is that for socialized humans, the automatic response for someone making eye contact and smiling at you is to smile back.

Because, after all, the best way to keep from tearing someone down is to deliberately choose to build them up. And that is not so hard to do. It is only when I speak my language to someone who does not understand it that I may have the best of intentions and still hurt you. But there, I’m learning.

What frightens you?