There are two types of people in the world. Those who will angrily send back a Reuben sandwich because it came open-faced and those who will doctor the soggy pieces of bread into a closed sandwich so as to not make any waves. My friend Phil is definitely the former, berating a waiter for delivering the sandwich that he had in fact ordered and belittling the server whose lack of clairvoyance caused him to not already know that Phil likes his Reuben closed. However, for Phil, the sandwich is not really the issue—it is his insatiable desire for conflict that fuels him, and anything can trigger it. I have witnessed him get into a near fist fight with a middle-aged couple for accidentally bumping into him at a concert, seen him bring a college kid to tears for blocking his view at a football game and heard him terrorize a teenage referee at little league baseball. It seems his animosity transcends age, gender and setting.
Nowhere is his rage more evident than when behind the wheel. An accidental cutoff will result in twenty miles of tailgating, even if it takes him forty minutes out of his way. An immobile driver at a green light elicits a thirty second blaring of his horn and more tailgating. Phil would roll down his window at a light to tell his mother she is a shitty driver. And then tailgate her.
After driving to the Garden State Arts Center for a concert with Phil a few years ago, my wife’s only reaction was that she respected my friendship with Phil but would never, ever get into his car again. She offered that the round trip experience was akin to giving child birth on a roller coaster, failing to laugh when I asked if an epidural would have gotten her through the journey.
I, on the other hand, shun conflict at all costs. I will smile and assure the waiter that everything is perfect as my improvised sandwich soaks me in Reuben juice. I have picked nuts from salads, removed onions from pasta dishes, and scraped sauces off of filets, all in the name of harmony. Just so I won’t have to send back a meal and somehow jeopardize my intimate relationship with the waitress, hostess or chef.
Sadly, this aversion to confrontation has spread beyond my appreciation for fine franchised cuisine. I have found myself acquiescing in other arenas of my life, and I question whether it is simple good nature or the reality of my life as a doormat. I am often left frustrated and disappointed by my lack of action or my apologetic approach to even the simplest of interactions. I wave apologetically to the guy who cuts me off, feel guilty for not giving my time to telemarketers and have apologized to girlfriends as they broke up with me.
A few summers ago my wife and I took a trip to Las Vegas as a last hurrah before the birth of our first daughter (my wife was two months pregnant at the time and in the throes of morning sickness). As we boarded the flight, I carried our luggage, two moderately-sized suitcases and a backpack with the essentials (magazines, ipod, etc..). As we were in the last group to board the plane I quickly realized that stowing our carry-ons would not be as convenient as I had expected. I opened the first compartment and quickly squeezed my bag into the remaining space. I then began to look for a spot for Theresa’s slightly larger bag as the line of people behind us piled up. Unfortunately, there was only one compartment with any room in it, but the large space was consumed by a small gift box. As I stood there plugging up the flow of passengers I had only one option, move the gift box to another compartment and put Theresa’s bag in its place. Admittedly, I knew moving someone else’s belongings was a travel faux pas, but under the circumstances, I had no choice. As I put my hand on the box to relocate it, I heard a shrill voice coming from behind me.
“Don’t you dare move someone else’s box. Who do you think you are?”
I froze in my steps and slowly turned around to look into the eyes of a predator: a hostile, impatient, assertive business woman whose sole mission, it seemed, was to defend the rights of this box at all costs. She was almost as tall as me, with blonde hair and a finely tailored suit that emanated confidence and litigiousness. Her strong voice was a perfect blend of disgust and sarcasm. Caught off guard, I quickly apologized and tried to explain to her my plight, the heads of every passenger twisting in our direction. A series of weak non-sequiturs spilled from my head, “There is no room for my wife’s bag. This little box is taking up an inordinate amount of space—I am going to find out whose box it is. I am starting to sweat, and you scare me when you look at me like that…I just want to put the bag away, take my seat and assume the crash position.” I felt like I was back on the playground fending off the aggressive overtures of a gigantic sixth grade bully. To make matters worse, it seemed she was gaining support from the others in line, their mumblings raising the tension and increasing my cowardly heart rate.
As I stood mid-aisle clutching Theresa’s bag to my chest, my adversary made another observation, one I prayed she would not.
“How big is that damn bag anyway?”
My mind quickly flew back to the night before as we packed for the trip. As we sat on the floor of our bedroom, clothes and toiletries scattered around us, I noticed the considerable girth of the bag she had chosen. After a short debate, I ran to the internet for information about carry-on policy. Continental Airline’s website describes in specific detail its policy for carry-on luggage: You can carry on one bag plus one personal item per passenger as long as: 1. They weigh no more than 40 lbs/18 kgs., and 2. The bag is no more than 45 inches when you add the length + width + height so that it fits in an overhead bin or under the seat. Even though the mathematical equation was way beyond my comprehension level, I had a good feeling that her bag would be too big, and I read these details to my wife as we finished packing. She assured me that it would be fine, “They never even check the size of bags; as long as you don’t have any box cutters or a shampoo bottle in there you’ll be fine.” Back on the plane, I quickly shot a look toward her seat as she pretended to read the safety instructions. I remembered her all-day morning sickness and decided not to say “I told you so.”
My shoulders slumped under the weight of the bag and the pressure of the situation. I offered an olive branch to the she-devil, saying, “Listen, I’m sorry about this. Why don’t you slide by and take your seat?”
Her answer, straightforward and deliciously clever, still wakes me up in the middle of the night sometimes. “I think I will,” she snarled, “with my regulation-sized bag.”
I wish I could tell you that in that moment of truth I rose to the occasion bravely telling her that her ass and mouth exceeded airline regulations or that I was going to use her seat to stow the offending luggage, but I didn’t. Sweat pouring down my face, I smiled at her and struggled to hold the bag that seemed to triple in size as the cabin shrunk. The rest of the plugged-passenger flow squeezed by me, their frustration bristling against my skin. Finally, a flight attendant came and put me out of my misery, relieving me of my burden and assuring me that it would be safely placed in the cargo hold of the plane and waiting for us in Vegas. In my relief and foolish gratitude, I actually believed her. I sank into my seat and waited for my blood pressure to come down. Theresa leaned over and whispered tidings of moderate comfort, “I am so sorry about that bag, you were right. What a freaking bitch…” She then pressed her consoling lips against my hot cheek.
The rest of the flight I stared ahead in rage, fingers white-knuckled and teeth well ground. I was a crock pot of bridled malice. I brainstormed witty and horrible things to say to her, things that would force her to see the evil of her ways and that would win the rest passengers over to my side causing them to hoist me and my bags onto their shoulders as she wept, soaking her business suit in tears of regret. I plotted ingenious methods of attaining revenge ranging from planting drugs in her bag to putting laxatives in her food. I even toyed with the idea of sending explicit and flagrantly illegal pornography to her place of business but decided against it after my wife told me that I had decided against it. In the end, I decided on approaching her after the flight to give her a piece of my mind, but as she passed me in the terminal, her nose in the air, perfect handbag clutched by her finely manicured claw, I said nothing.
Finally, in a horrific (and expected) twist of injustice, Theresa’s colossal bag never made it to Vegas (unlike her morning sickness), and we spent the better part of the next day shopping for replacement clothes and personal grooming items while trying not to vomit.
I am forced to look back on that disaster as a turning point in my life. While my friend Phil remains excessively aggressive and slightly crazy, I wish I could have channeled some of his hostility and nerve that day. Not to poison the business witch or to get us both thrown off of the plane, but just to stand up for myself and my pregnant wife’s gargantuan suitcase which, in all honesty, had no business being carried on the plane in the first place. In the end, there is a time for apology and time for telling someone to back off. While I am still struggling to find my inner bastard, I realize that I am a work in progress and haven’t yet found a balance between my good cop and bad cop. I am, however, proud to say that I can now send back an undercooked steak or exchange a Coke for a Dr. Pepper…if it isn’t too much trouble.