I went through eighteen years of schooling without ever once getting into trouble. This is because my two favorite activities are sitting quietly and doing what I’m told. I have few inclinations to rebellion. My baser impulses have always been held in check by a generally agreeable temper coupled with a fierce commitment to personal dignity. In fact, you might say it was my commitment to personal dignity that has led me to where I am today, crouching in an alley behind a nail salon.
My parents are fond of recalling the time they took me along with them to the theater. I was only five. I sat perfectly quiet and still for hour upon hour, admiring my delicate lace pinafore and marveling at the sweeping staircases and great glinting chandeliers of the Los Angeles Music Center (designed, like many things in L.A., to impress the hell out of a five-year-old). During the intermission, I drank hot chocolate from a small porcelain cup without spilling a drop. I never once yielded to an unruly impulse, even when the show ran into ovations. That wasn’t much of a feat as I had no unruly impulses to begin with. Being unruly sounded exhausting, and probably dangerous, and almost certainly not worth it. Unruly children are free to scream and shout and fold their programs into paper airplanes that they then throw down from the balcony. But good children get lace pinafores and hot chocolate and anyway, I’ve never been very good at folding things.
If all this talk of lace pinafores and dainty cups of hot chocolate makes you hate me—well, there’s no good in that. I wasn’t a superior child and I didn’t think myself so. I was timid, clumsy, and constitutionally unable to do most things bad children do anyway, even if I had wanted to. More to the point, I lived in fear of trouble. I feared “being in trouble” the way medieval peasants feared the poisoned well, with a dread made more awful for being ill-defined and almost wholly irrational.
As a child, I had no clear idea of trouble. Even I knew that the punishments meted out at school didn’t mean anything. The teacher could write your name on the board. She could cause you to miss recess. At worst, she could call your parents. Your parents could take away your allowance. They could ground you. All of these things were pretty temporary. Trouble was something much bigger than that. It was a sense that somehow you had displeased someone, and that lasted much longer than a missed recess.
Now there are few ways left for me to get in trouble. I’m married, an adult, a freelancer—that means I don’t report to a teacher, a parent, or a boss. So I’ve simply enlarged the circle of people who mean trouble. I don’t want to get in trouble with the courts, the police, or the government. I don’t want to get in trouble with car mechanics, doctors, waiters, editors, or personal trainers. I try very hard to follow the rules. I floss, I keep my voice down in the library, I scrupulously check and recheck my tax receipts. I keep my arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times. When the waiter brings me the wrong dish, I eat it anyway and leave a nice tip.
“Trouble” may be a nebulous concept, but certainly it’s related to conflict, and so it’s best to avoid conflict at all costs. I am so averse to conflict that I will turn off the radio when two pundits politely disagree on NPR. I will preemptively apologize when someone has wronged me. There is a scene in National Lampoon’s “European Vacation” where the Griswold family accidentally strike an English bicyclist with their car only to have him issue a string of apologies for having been in their way. I suppose it’s meant to be funny in its absurdity, but of course, it struck me as absolutely true to life, because it’s exactly what I would have done.
“If your friends all jumped off a bridge, would you?” my mother might ask, and I would answer, “Well, maybe, if it was really important to them.”
This afternoon I went to my regular salon to get my nails done before an evening event. It’s especially important not to get in trouble anywhere where you are a regular. So I chose an already-opened bottle of nail polish to avoid being an inconvenience, and I took my seat in a place where I was unlikely to block anyone’s passage with my legs. I brought a book, which I tucked under my thigh so I could sneak a look at its pages while my hands were occupied. Of course, I soon had to turn the page. I made a slight flicking movement with the side of my hand.
“Don’t do that!” the manicurist warned. “You will ruin your nails.”
“Oh, of course,” and I returned my hand. But then the book was just sitting there. I read that same page over and over. Then I made another move to turn the page.
“Don’t move your hands!” she ordered. “You’ll ruin them.”
A few minutes later she left me unsupervised while we waited for my nails to dry. Never had I so badly wanted to break the rules. I tried to flick the page over with my thigh, with my elbow, even by brushing it with the side of my hand. Of course, it didn’t work, and of course I eventually turned the page, and of course I left a deep gouge in the polish on my right index fingernail.
The manicurist would return any minute to add a top coat! I had to think fast.
“I have to go!” I announced, leaping to my feet.
“But your nails aren’t dry—”
“Let me check—”
“No, there isn’t time! I have to go. I’m sorry, I have to go right now.”
I got to my feet and started throwing my things into my bag, one arm shoved into my coat sleeve to hide the smeared nail. My disobedience had ruined my expensive manicure, and there was no way I could ask the manicurist to fix what was clearly my own fault. She would agree to retouch the nail, of course, but then I would be in trouble, and that meant I could never return. I grabbed the half-empty bottle from the shelf.
“And I’ll buy this!”
“But that one isn’t full.”
“That’s fine. I like it. I have to go.”
“The polish is $10.”
A pause. “Okay, that’s fine,” I added brightly, wincing slightly.
The problem now was how to pay while shielding my right hand. I slipped the damaged hand into my purse, while using the left to maneuver the credit card from my wallet, key in my PIN, and sign the purchase slip. (I am not left-handed.)
“Would you like a receipt?”
“No, I’m fine!” I called as I slammed into the front door, my left hand clutching the polish and my right hand still jammed into my handbag.
Now I have just a few minutes to repair the nail before I need to be in a taxi headed for my evening destination. I scan the street. The sidewalk isn’t safe. What if the manicurist were to come outside on a break? I would be discovered as disobedient and a liar. Instead I run down the alley that separates the salon from the café next door. Crouched among the trash bins, I kneel to quickly repair my nail, careful to do a smooth, even job that leaves behind no trace. It’s an inconvenience, and a hassle, and a waste of $10, but it isn’t any trouble.