The whole world feels perilous to the scared kid in me.
When I went to get my car inspected a fat man in overalls motioned me into the bay. He held out his hand and I realized I could have had the registration ready, but now I had to keep him waiting for me to rummage around in the glove compartment. I’d seen it stuck in the instruction manual recently, but when I looked there couldn’t find it. After pulling everything else out of the glove compartment, finally I found it in the book where I thought it had been. Then I had to get out the money. “I know I have that,” I said, feeling flustered.
“Right, forget the registration,” he replied with a sarcastic bite in his voice. I winced; that wasn’t what I had meant.
Inspections cost $15. I gave him a twenty-dollar bill and he said “I’ll just go get your change before we get started,” and he walked behind my car to go across the big garage to the cash register on the other side. I tried to relax but it was hot and the smell of the place bothered me. I watched a younger man unmount some tires: the machine was ingenious, but he had to use a lot of strength, too. I could never do that.
A hand-lettered sign on cardboard on the concrete-block wall in front of me said CASH REQUIRED FOR INSPECTION STICKERS. Suddenly I remembered that you need to drive the car around for fifteen minutes before getting the emission test: I’d done a couple errands, had the motor been running enough? Well, if you added waiting here, maybe just. I hoped it would be ok.
The fat man started asking me to do things: put the car in neurtral, turn on the lights, the wiper, step on the brakes…. and it wasn’t til he stopped asking me to do things and started the emission control that I realized he hadn’t given me my five dollars. My father used to brag how he would get his old junk cars past inspection by giving the man some money “for whatever it needs.” It wasn’t anywhere near enough to fix everything they needed, but he always got his sticker. I could never do that. Did the fat man think I was? Was there something about my car that should fail? The bent fender needed fixing or it’d rust away, but it didn’t stick out so much as to be a hazard, did it? Is there something else wrong I don’t know about?
No, he’d said “I’ll get your change.’ Maybe he just forgot; should I say something about it? No, don’t want to get him riled at me again; he could decide to find something that will fail me. He must be going to give it to me when he gives me my registration back.
Just in case he actually had forgot, I held up my wallet, open to put the bill in, where he could see it. He handed me the registration and that was all.
In the Gare du Nord in Paris twenty years ago I got badly shortchanged in my very first purchase in France: buying a map. I went back to the shopkeeper and in my halting French recounted the unbalanced transaction. He got angry and chattered at me much too fast for me to follow, but I understood his denial. I just repeated my version, several times, doggedly, while he battered me verbally — until finally, when actually I’d already lost hope, he gave in and gave me the correct change.
But usually I retreat when a man yells at me. My husband yells at me when he is irritated at me. I panic; my mind stops thinking.
My health is very, very bad: I am hypersensitive to foods, molds, pollen, chemicals… you name it. Some people call it “Environmental Illness.” The doctor called it “immunological incompetence.” My system just can’t handle the stress of what most people take in their stride everyday. I get killer migraines — and react to the painkillers; they make it worse. My mother used to get headaches when she had a disagreement with Dad. I’ve taken the pattern further.