I’ve always been a bit of a pushover, and show signs of all the symptoms that go along with the affliction. I’m apologetic, guilt-ridden, pathologically willing to please. I’ve even had sex with guys just because it was easier than saying no, though that was many years ago.
This morning, however, I decided to assert myself. I sued someone. As I left the lawyer’s office, I felt a surge of power, and thought, Hah! No one’s going to fuck with me this time! But now that the lights are out, the TV and computer are off and noise from the highway outside my window has died down, I can’t sleep. I toss and turn in bed and rearrange my four pillows, while self-loathing spreads through me like a flesh-eating disease. What the hell possessed me to do something so out of character, so… impolite? Me, of all people, suing someone!
I stare at my throbbing, bandaged foot on its pedestal of pillows trying to revive the fury that drove me to a lawyer in the first place. Anger would be such a relief from this guilt. But it’s no use. In the back of my mind I hear my delicious but brief spark of assertiveness splutter out with the wet, sloppy noise of a deflating balloon.
I flick on the light to read, hoping to placate my self-flagellation, and open my latest literary discovery, How To Be A Canadian. Not far into the book, I sit up at attention.
The authors, Will and Ian Ferguson, describe my night down to the last agonizing detail. They say that millions of Canadians toss and turn, adjusting pillows, all in the name of guilt. Gut-wrenching, brain-sucking, cancer-producing guilt. They say there’s a name for my affliction. It’s not because my father drank too much or because my mother shoved her Scottish-Protestant politeness down our throats with a bar of soap. It’s not even the overall denigration of women in our society that has turned me into a prime candidate for assertiveness training. It’s much more simple. It’s called: being Canadian.
The more I read the more excited I get. Will and Ian are brilliant! The brothers say that this Canadian guilt is reflected in our language. Apparently, the Inuit have forty words for snow and one word for sex, and Californians have forty words for sex and none for snow, while Canadians have twelve ways to say, I’m sorry. Each version is quite distinct, but it’s the description of the “essential sorry” that hooks me.
The “essential sorry” is what you use when someone does something unpleasant to you. Steps on your foot in an elevator, bumps into you in the mall, or budges in front of you in a Starbucks line-up. It pops out of your Canadian mouth, as natural as breathing, right past the expletives plugged in your vocal cords.
I figure I must have a wicked case of Canadianitis because, not only do I feel guilty now, after suing the guy, but I actually felt apologetic before, during and after the accident. And what the hell do I have to feel sorry about? I didn’t drop a fifteen-pound weight on anyone’s toe! My goddamned physiotherapist dropped it on my toe! And he probably hasn’t lost any sleep over it either.
I glare at my elevated foot and relive the forty minutes I endured in my physiotherapist’s tiny chamber. There I was, perched on the edge of a chair, acupuncture needles protruding from my spine through the slit in the hospital gown, my head stuffed into a traction sling. A rope led from the sling, up through a homemade pulley system in the ceiling, back down to fifteen pounds of steel weights. They hung ominously above me, pulling till it felt like my head would pop off, bulging my lips and cheeks over the rough material. I must have looked like a porcupine with a Mohawk.
When I first started passing out, I tentatively tapped on my emergency bell, but all I got was an ineffective, tinny ping. I felt an internal cringe of apology. I didn’t want to disturb anyone. Maybe I’ll wait a few minutes, I thought. I’m sure this nausea and light-headedness are just my imagination.
When I started to pound on the bell, my physiotherapist came running. I tried to apologize for the inconvenience, but was painfully interrupted when the physio hastily released the fifteen-pound weight. It came crashing down onto my bare big toe, like a guillotine, from its perch near the ceiling. I didn’t even have time to scream before – zip, zip, zip ! Unseen hands ripped the acupuncture needles from my back and neck, tossed them across the room toward the garbage, and I was spread out on the floor. My neck hurt more than my toe, so the physiotherapist lifted my hair and plucked out another needle. “Oops! This one was hiding.”
I curled into a ball, in shock, and stared as the red slash across the base of my toenail leered at me with bright painted lips, daring me to throw up all over the rug. I broke into a cold sweat and began to shake uncontrollably.
The first thing the physiotherapist said to me was, “What was your foot doing there?”
You put it there, you fucking moron. That’s what I should have said. But of course, I didn’t and then the pain hit and all I could do was groan. The physio munificently offered me a little pink Band-Aid, but the blood flowed right around it, all over the beige rug.
Instead of saying, Stop mopping up your goddamn carpet and look at my toe! I worried about the mess.
The physiotherapist didn’t say much, but he did say, “Gosh, sure looks like you’ll lose that nail,” and mumbled an apology, almost as an afterthought. Maybe he realized that he should choose his words carefully until he’d had a chat with his lawyer. He gave me a paper towel to wrap around my foot in a last ditch attempt to administer First Aid, and thoughtfully asked me how I was getting home.
I answered, “I’m driving. It’s not far and I’m sure I can drive just fine with my left foot.” I didn’t add, All I want to do is curl up in a ball and sleep, which means I’m probably still in shock, but I’m sure I’ll snap out of it as soon as I get behind the wheel.
“Right then. Make an appointment for next week, and we’ll keep working on that neck. I won’t charge you for today’s session.”
I thanked him for the freebie, and then I was alone.
When I hobbled out of the treatment room to wash the blood off my hands, he was rushing out the front door. To give him the benefit of the doubt, I had probably clenched my teeth against the nausea and exploding pain to reassure him politely that I was feeling much better.
The unsmiling receptionist avoided eye contact as I booked another appointment, thanked her, and limped out the door. She made no inquiries about my toe.
I did lose the nail, to put it mildly. In fact, an emergency room doctor removed it for me after taking x-rays and sticking three humungous needles into my foot. The weight had split open the entire big toe, exposing gleaming chips of crushed bone to the air. It required several stitches to close up. I lay on the hospital bed with a massive pillow on my chest to keep my eyes from wandering while the doctor worked and my husband looked on in horrified fascination.
It was in the days to come, as I lurched around on crutches and popped Tylenol and antibiotics that I started to get pissed off. Just a bit at first, until the physiotherapist finally returned my phone calls after five days of silence. He apologized, but in a half-assed kind of way. What the Ferguson brothers call the “unrepentant sorry”, when you know you’ve done something wrong and you’re really sorry you got caught. He then lulled me into gratitude with an offer to pay my taxi bill until I was able to drive, though he made it clear that he took no responsibility for the “incident”. My fingers turned white as I clenched the receiver and listened to him tell me he did everything in his power to help me afterwards. What, like giving me a proper bandage? Maybe taking me to emerg? How about helping me to my car? Or how about simply holding open the goddamned door as I dragged my bloody stump out of your office? The retort came to me after I got off the phone.
You know, if he had bothered to indulge me with one of those extremely rare “authentic sorrys” (the only sorry that expresses real remorse) I may not have experienced my sudden burst of brazenness. But no, the best he could come up with was a paltry “unrepentant sorry”. You don’t have to read the Ferguson’s book to recognize one of those.
But thanks to Will and Ian, this whole tragedy is becoming oddly liberating. A crash course in assertiveness training, if you will. I see now that suing the guy somehow negates all the apologies I ever said or felt and makes up for the cringing gratitude I displayed when I didn’t have to pay fifty bucks to have my toe sliced almost in half. And if my apologies were never in fact apologies, but just Canadian code for “bugger off”, maybe I’m not such a pushover after all.
But, there’s one last worry niggling away at me. What if I bump into the physiotherapist and a little “sorry” for suing him pops out, like a Tourettes-type tic? Then all will be for naught. So, I have an idea. And I’m going to start rehearsing as soon as I can put weight on my foot. I’ll cross my arms, plant my feet, and look him straight in the eye. Then I’ll use the nastiest, most insidious Ferguson brother sorry on him: the “sympathetic sorry”. You say it with a flat inflection on the last word – “I’m so sorry.” It pretty much means, “Suck it up.”
He won’t know what hit him.
Published in Emerge, The Writer’s Studio Anthology (SFU), 2007