No one can be as calculatedly rude as the British, which amazes Americans, who do not understand studied insult and can only offer abuse as a substitute.
-- Paul Gallico
I should have felt something ; a premonition perhaps, wherein tiny hairs all over my body stand on end from an icy feeling that has seized my bones in a chilling grip, a terrifying grasp that refuses to let go until it is confident I have sensed the danger ahead. Instead, I learned that the whole "women's intuition" thing is a farce. Basking in ignorant bliss, I looked from the purple calla lilies in my lap to David, as he maneuvered the borrowed car into a small suburban development north of Boston, and parked in front of a small house nestled between its white-painted, aluminum-sided, colonial-style siblings.
If my life were a movie, I might have hesitated when the string section of my personal soundtrack pushed its way front and center, its notes increasing in volume and pitch, heightening to a shrill,Psycho-esque frenzy. As I approached the front door, an innocent smile on my face and a gift of lilies held aloft, an omniscient audience member might have unconsciously hissed in a quivering breath, "Don't go in there!"
I had been looking forward to this visit. I like David's brother Dana. He's the kind of guy who will forgo a first slice of his favorite pie if somebody else wants seconds. I have never heard him utter the word "no," and have observed the alacrity with which he serves his family -- how he wouldn't think twice before throwing his body onto a puddle of mud so that his wife and two daughters might keep their toes clean and dry.
Katie, Dana's wife, opened the door. I've always gotten along well with Katie, so I was confused when I picked up on her body language -- withdrawn and submissive with hunched shoulders, yet confrontational with the whites of her eyes. She was a Yorkshire terrier, visibly pissed, having been backed into some kind of corner, deciding whether she wanted to crawl beneath the nearest object or attack with nonthreatening high-pitched yips and ineffective, small-mouthed nips. Dana had mentioned to me on the phone that his in-laws were in town. "The more the merrier!" I'd said to him.
Now, as we cross the threshold into his home, a golden retriever accosts us with imposing sniffs and an excited swishing tail. Dana's house is like a petting zoo, where creatures big and small wait patiently for their share of attention. Two cats saunter in and out of the room, one a black, hairy leviathan, the other a small, shorthaired tabby. To the right of one sofa, a guinea pig laps at the metal tube of a plastic water feeder affixed to the side of its cage. Beneath a small table in the dining room, frogs perform the dead-man's float in a tank, kicking their way to a new area of water every few minutes to prove they are still alive. At the bottom of the cellar stairs, a hamster sleeps in a cocoon carved from cedar shavings. Upstairs, in one of the girls' bedrooms, a large wire cage holds a giant, black lop-eared bunny. And, less than five minutes away, a stable houses three horses, one for each female member of the family.
Katie introduced us to her mother and father, who both share her British-sounding accent. I shook a hand twice the size of my own and looked into the kind eyes of Katie's father, who, upon presenting his colossal ears and elongated nose, would have no trouble convincing the royal family to take him back. Allowing my gaze to float down a few feet, I held out my hand to Katie's mother, whose hot, penetrating glare made me want to apply sunscreen. She proffered her hand, limply uninterested in mine, and then retreated to a corner of the room.
"We're so happy you could fit us into your busy schedule," said Katie in a treacly voice meant to conceal the comment's sharp edge. She would repeat the remark, using a slightly different variation, three more times during the next 15 minutes, after which she would disappear with her father to collect the girls from school, leaving Dana, David, and me with her mother.
"That's a great picture of you and the girls," I said to Dana, gesturing at a frame on the kitchen counter.
"We took that in Ann's back yard. I miss that back yard; it was great," he said.
"I hated that yard," spat Ann. "I'm so glad we moved to Savannah. It's such an easier pace of life; everything is slowed down; people move slow, talk slow."
"That sounds relaxing," I offered. "Everything going so slow, everyone talking slow. But, unfortunately, it's that slow talking that makes everyone else think people from the south are stupid." I had meant this as a joke, but Ann had clearly taken offense, recoiling like an elephant confronted by a mouse.
"So how's your new home coming along?" Dana asked in an expert move to change the subject.
"Well, the Starbucks just opened," I answered. "I think there's a law in San Diego that says no new condo building can go up without at least one Starbucks built in."
"They're everywhere," laughed Dana. "I don't really like their coffee."
"I love Starbucks," chimed Ann. "I think they have the best coffee."
Taking the neutral road, I said, "David and I are tea drinkers, and Starbucks doesn't have the apricot tea I like, so we go to an independent coffee house."
Then, to Dana, I said, "So you're coming to the island for your mother's birthday Tuesday, right? I thought it might be nice if we got her a cake. Do you know what kind she likes?" Dana shook his head. I looked to David. "How about you? No? You boys are horrible, not knowing what kind of cake your own mother likes. Ann, you're a mother, what kind of cake do you like?"
Ann paused to look up from the jigsaw puzzle in which she had suddenly become engrossed, scanned me from head to toe and back again with a stare I was now convinced could slice through a tin can like a Ginzu knife, and said, "I don't eat cake."
I had to invoke the spirit of Gandhi to keep myself from saying, "Well, you must be eating something , because a belly like that doesn't just appear." Instead, I forced my face into a tight, plastic grin and said, "Alrighty then. Dana, David and I will pick something out, and we'll have it at the house by the time you arrive."
"Sounds great," said Dana.
When Katie returned home with the girls, she and her parents retreated to the jigsaw puzzle without a word to either David or me, so we took refuge with Dana and his daughters. A few hours later, when it was time for us to leave, Ann stood with her back against the sliding glass door, her arms firmly at her side.
I'm a hugger. I also have a habit of thinking out loud. So, as I approached Ann, my arms outstretched in anticipation of giving this clearly unhappy woman the hug of her lifetime, I said, "Look, this is killing you, isn't it, you're like 'I'm British, I don't want to be touched, how do I handle this woman rushing me with her arms open wide?' Well, I'm a hugger, so you'll have to deal." She remained stiff as I gave her a brief squeeze.
"I am not British ," she hissed when I stepped back. Her face became a satisfied smirk and I knew enough from the past few hours that she was about to launch another snide broadside. "I'm from New Zealand . That's even farther south than you live." I had known that would come back to bite me. If I had detected any semblance of humor in her voice, I would have played along and said, "Wow, then you must be really stupid." But the boring truth is that I was rendered speechless. Eventually, when the shock of her scalding tone and blatant, almost comical spitefulness wore off, I muttered, "New Zealand, huh? Oh." Then I took David's hand in mine, and left.