There are words that are hard to hear: Topping the list are moist, luscious, and ointment. Mother discouraged use of the word pants or its variants panties or underpants. We had to say slacks or jeans or underwear. She could never say bathroom or even restroom. When someone had to be excused to use the facilities, it was always to powder a nose — even for the menfolk. Talking in euphemisms was common. When my sister got pregnant, she had a bun in the oven. When someone unrelated to us passed away, we were told they kicked the bucket. To say that about a family member would’ve been cruel but about an acquaintance it was just a casual way to speak about the facts of life. By the way, I may be one of the few people you know of who was literally told about the birds and the bees. It was a few years afterward I learned about sex.
I enjoy most words. As a kid, I’d underline every word I looked up in the dictionary and find the corresponding root in the translator. The internets have made this habit quaint but it was my childhood way of making a word mine. It’s annoyingly satisfying to know the multiple meanings, correct spelling, and etymology of a word. I rarely lose Scrabble or bets about words (with a notable exception relating to the word scribe where I lost both Scrabble and a bet to the same person, a day that shall forever live in personal infamy).
But some I can’t bring myself to say. They’re not tongue twisters, they’re not laced with s‘s (a lisper’s Kryptonite), they’re not dirty. They just feel awkward to say, uncomfortable, and leave me feeling exposed: love and thank you.
It’s not that I don’t feel love. I love candy corn and Whoppers. I loved my dog. Like a dog, I love having my head rubbed (however, unlike a dog, I don’t tap my leg like Thumper). But the idea of telling an adult I love you makes me feel slightly queasy. If you want to see me get downright squeamish, try to get me to say make love. People have sex, they may rock the casbah or sleep together. If I’m being particularly crude, I’ll even go with they fucked. But I can’t accept that they made love.
An exception is my kids whom I love with a certain abandon. A common nightly exchange goes like this:
“I love you, Buddy.”
“I love you more, Mommy.”
“I love you most!”
“I love you mostest!”
“I love you most times infinity AND you’re the best 5-year-old little boy in the whole entire world!”
I’ll pause for a moment while you try to stifle your gag reflex.
I can’t remember the last time I told my husband I love him. Is that because I don’t or because I don’t know how to express it? Perhaps I’d feel more if I could say more. I’m unsure, but to say it without feeling it feels dishonest and so I don’t. On the other hand, my husband closes every call with his mother with an “I love you.” I’m not sure when I last told my parents I loved them but it was probably decades ago. My age can barely be measured in decades so that’s saying something. Whereas my sorority sisters, even those of my age and older, will drop hearts or love to sign their missives like they’re confetti, I close notes with a simple phenome. If I’m feeling effervescent, I’ll add sincerely.
Thank you is difficult. I’m mistrustful of compliments, the motives behind and sincerity of them. If someone says I look fit, I know with crushing sadness that it’s because I’ve always been so porky. If I’m told I look pretty, it’s only because they comparing me to a shallow pool of candidates or maybe if it’s a guy he’s hard up for sex and trying a move. If I’m told I’m smart, it just means I’ve managed to fool people. By the way, don’t argue with me on any of these. It’s pointless. But I do hold a few truths: I am hard-working, I am loyal, and I strive to be an honest and earnest supporter of those I care about. If you agree, compliment me on those so I can respond with a sincere thank you for noticing.
It’s difficult to accept help and gifts. I feel undeserving of the attention and would just rather my existence be only vaguely acknowledged. This year I was sent to a recognition event by work. Hundreds of strangers, stage walk to receive a certificate, a few take-home baubles, and a follow-up article with my picture. Years of going to church and yet God did not see fit to answer my prayers by swallowing me up at any point. Greater plan or proof of no God? It’s tough to say. Yet all I had to do was say to my boss thank you for recognizing me. She spent months thinking I was angry. Really, I was just embarrassed and felt unworthy of the attention.
This week I’m traveling. After dinners I roam the streets and people watch, wrapping my hands on a cup of coffee that I don’t drink but inhale its steam to warm my face and stifle the street smell. There’s the usual people out: Slender Asian girls in too short skirts and too tight pants carrying Prada bags. Men who are too attractive or too fleshy being pulled around by their girlfriends or boyfriends. White girls from Omaha or Las Cruces or Iowa City who have glazed over their Midwestern freshness with MAC and spray tan. And the homeless.
Tonight I saw the same man I’ve seen other nights. His ‘spot’ must be outside my hotel. All things considered, this isn’t a bad city to be homeless, but is there a good place? I watch for a bit and maybe one of every 20 passers-by stops and tosses a coin in his cup. Homeless Joe nods and smiles his acknowledgement each time. No one looks back. Maybe I’m too harsh but it seems like passers-by have salved their conscience with two bits and they just want to be on their way.
I stop in Walgreen’s and pluck from the shelves: a sandwich, toothbrush, floss, vitamin C, milk, socks, a bar of chocolate, briefs, some fresh fruit, a couple cans of nuts. Purchased, they’re placed in a large paper sack. I add a few Lincolns in the bag. None of this will change his life but maybe it’ll make for a nicer evening. I walk about a block away so I have a brisk start toward Homeless Joe. It’ll afford me the opportunity drop off the bag quickly without breaking my stride. I can give charity without acknowledgement, my favorite kind.
It works pretty well. I drop the bag and walk, clutching my coffee. There’s a little self-loathing here. I’m no different from the others who dropped a coin in Homeless Joe’s buckets except I’m a little spendier. My rush of good feeling now crushed, I just want to go back to the hotel. I hear Homeless Joe shout “hey, lady! Pretty lady!” but I ignore him and keep walking. (Although how egotistical is it of me to assume that I’m the one he was calling to?)
Homeless Joe gives chase. I clutch my purse a little closer but figure he’ll stop soon. He’s so old his black skin has started to turn white. I doubt he can keep up but I’m wrong and he grabs my forearm, running a little in front of me. I stop.
“Hey, pretty lady! You ran away!”
I give him my blank look. “Yes?”
He twists his head into his shoulder and comes up, like he’s doing a miniature dance version of the snake. “Awww, don’t be like that. I just wanted to say thank you. That was really something nice you did back there.”
“Oh, it’s nothing. Have a good night.” I turn to leave but he holds on.
“It wasn’t nothing, pretty lady. That was really nice. Thank you.”
I smile. “It’s no biggie.”
“You got a really nice smile, too, pretty lady. No one smiles at me like you.”
I don’t really know what that means but I turn to go and his hand slides off my arm.
After a couple steps I turn back and see Homeless Joe still standing there rooting through the bag. It occurs to me in that moment that people just want to be treated like people. They want to be acknowledged as another human being who shares this same space with us, to feel dignity. I wonder if not accepting his thank you diminishes that, makes an act of thoughtfulness into an act of pity where there is no dignity to be found.
I walk back and put my hand on his arm, still rifling through the bag. “Hey,” I say. “Take care of yourself.” He stops and smiles at me, a wide gummy grin.
I leave him with two other words that are really hard for me to say. “You’re welcome.”