Previously, on Pretty Hard, Dammit:
Our feckless heroine began graduate school with a over-inflated sense of hope, and an underdeveloped sense of the dangers she was about to face. Consequently, she stumbled into some excruciating scenes of advisor-inflicted pain, humiliation, and emotional abuse before the old guy (we’ll call him Advisor 1) retired and passed her along to the new guy (Advisor 2). The psychic scars Advisor 1 left behind were deep, jagged, and wound up festering for years. But, despite this, our heroine, as all heroines must do, eventually overcame the trials and tribulations she faced, and completed her degree.
A few weeks before my defense, I was meeting with Advisor 2 about the process on the Actual Day. We were talking about who would be present, and he asked me if I would like to have Advisor 1 there. Cue a Very Long Pause during which I was trying very, very hard to come up with a polite way to answer his question. (window into Stewgad’s brain at that moment: So, self, what do you think? NO FUCKING WAY not if my very life depended on it, nope, there is not enough no in the world, NO FUCKING WAY, I’d rather have anesthetic-free dental surgery and give birth at the SAME TIME, and by the way, NO FUCKING WAY!) Instead of saying any of those things, I thought back on my many, many years of graduate training, pulled up every resource I could muster, and used my hard-won skills: “Do YOU think I should have him there?” (genius move, eh?) In the kindest way possible, he pretty much said “NO FUCKING WAY.” He had asked, he said, because he thought I should have the option of having Advisor 1 there since I began this whole business with the guy, but that he wasn’t sure it was such a good idea. I responded with some variation on, yeah, dude, you can say that again. Then I said that I hadn’t even laid eyes on Advisor 1 in something like 4 or 5 years. I expressed a degree of surprise that I’d never even run into him at the grocery store or anything, since this is a pretty small town. Advisor 2 said he probably thought Advisor 1 didn’t get out much. We chuckled, and moved on to the next topic.
Fast forward to last week.
On Sunday, we all skipped church, (yes, church! Gasp! We’ve gone over to the “dark side” and have been going to a church. But before y’all revoke my potty-mouth atheist academic skeptic credentials, it’s a UNITARIAN church, so I’m not sure it REALLY counts as church.) Anyhoo, we ditched “church” in order to go grocery shopping — the absence of fresh food in the house was that bad. We’d pretty much finished shopping, and Spousal Unit was heading with the Gadlet in our cart to the checkout when I suddenly remembered that I needed some Very Important Things, so I ran off to get them and said I’d meet up with them shortly. I trotted off to buy my necessary products, and returned to the front of the store, where I started merrily blabbing to Spousal Unit in a probably over-loud voice about the criminal rising costs of tampons and about how if men menstruated then those suckers would be handed out free on every street corner. S.U., made a weird face, which I thought was odd because he doesn’t usually mind talking about feminine hygiene products, on the everybody-knows-they’re-not-for-him principle. Then he rolled his eyes, and jerked his head to the front of the cashier line, with a grimace and an urgent eye roll that said, “Shut the hell up, Stewgad, and look behind me.”
Time slowed in that way that it only does in movies or in really terrible real-life moments, and as I turned my head to look around Spousal Unit, I saw him. Advisor 1. At the Grocery Store. And me, standing there, with my arms wrapped around a 5,000,000-count box of tampons.
So I did what any sane person would do. I ducked. Literally. With lightning fast-graduate-student-terror-induced, ninja-like reflexes, I dropped down below the level of the cart, narrowly avoiding getting kicked in the head by the Gadlet, who had to have been wondering what on earth her mama was doing. Then I crab-walked my way around so that I was hiding behind the candy/tabloid display. There I crouched until S.U. gave me the all clear signal. What the other shoppers thought of this, I can only imagine.
As we walked out of the grocery, S.U. and I had a good chuckle about it. Whew, we said, that was a close one! Not only would have talking to him opened up a whole barrel of shit that I really didn’t want to deal with in the middle of the grocery store, but for chrissakes, I was holding a box of TAMPONS, which would have made everybody there think about where those things go and why and that would have just created a whole new universe of terribleness that would have made the shame of academic humiliation utterly pale in comparison. After we got home, I didn’t think much more about the incident, except to send up a big boatload of gratitude to the Universe that the rich variety of American tabloid journalism had turned out to be so useful in preventing such an awful encounter.
OK, now I know you’re not going to believe this, but three days later…
On a total whim, I decided that I absolutely could not bear one more instant of my fucking car lock clicker working only 1/15th of the time. For months, every time I went to the car, I’d stand there and then: click, click, click, “fuck!”, click, click,click, “fuck!” click, click, and then finally, the car would half-heartedly unlock. Wait, you say, do I know that I could have just stuck that nifty little piece of metal into the handy little receptacle on the handle of the door and turn it, and hence, open the car that way, the way people have been opening cars since cars began? Why, yes, I reply, that is very handy, except for when you are very angry at the small and partially useless piece of technology in your hand that is supposed to make your life easier, and so are hell-bent and determined to get that fucking thing to work. Where was I? Oh yes, on a whim, I decided I could not stand it ANY LONGER and so after I dropped the Gadlet off at day care, I went to the Subaru dealer to get them to fix the clicker.
I walk in, go to the parts department, and watch as the guy says that it probably only needs a battery. Chagrin. Months of excessive anger over a dime-sized battery. Sheesh. Anyway, the guy prys open the clicker, he finds the battery type, and goes into the back for an interminable amount of time to find a new battery of the proper type. I’m standing there waiting, and I turn my head and look and in the next room is…drumroll please… Advisor 1.
I can’t fucking believe it. I haven’t ever run into the man in 15 years of living in this town, and I run into him twice in one week?!!??
I start looking around for alternate exits so I don’t have to walk past the waiting room to get out of the building. That duck-and-cover move worked so well at the grocery, but I didn’t think it would fly here. For one, there was no grocery cart or tabloid display to hide behind. There was nothing to hide behind. Just the parts counter, a short wall, and the waiting room. And that battery guy was going to be back any minute. I didn’t see any other exits, oh shit, there’s no other exits! Like a cornered rat, I started to panic.
And then some small rational voice piped up in my head. Stewgad, it said, I think that the Universe is trying to tell you something. And I think it’s trying pretty hard. You’ve never run into this guy in 15 years of living in this town and you run into him twice in one week?? What do you think is going on? Do you think this is a strange coincidence? Maybe, just maybe, you should buck the fuck up, get over yourself, and talk to the man.
I took a deep breath, girded my loins, whatever the hell those are, and went into the waiting room and said hello to him. He actually looked happy to see me, and congratulated me on finishing my degree. (!!) I said something like, “yes, finally!”
And then a small miracle (for me) occurred. He said, “Yes, I’m really sorry about that.”
Now, let’s just pause for a moment and let that sink in.
He was really sorry. And he TOLD me that he was really sorry. For all of the damage, for the way things turned out, for the psychic scars he left, and for how long it took me to finish. In six simple words, he said all of that. I knew it, and he knew it. We shared that knowledge and the emotions of that mutual experience. He was sorry.
In my shock, I started babbling about, yes, well, full-time teaching position, baby, etc., extenuating circumstances, blah, blah. All the while my mind was reeling.
He was sorry.
We went on to have a really, really lovely conversation about my prospects for publication, about the article I was thinking about writing, and about the book I’m thinking about writing next. That really perked his interest, and he had a great suggestion for something I should look at for it. It was delightful. We talked about my kid, his grandkids, his kids, and his work too. At the end of the conversation, he told me to stop on by his office the next time I was up on campus and we’ll chat some more.
I walked out in tears. He said he was sorry.
And suddenly, I was free. Free of the burden of the last decade, free of the pain that the dissertation process brought, and free from my guilt and anger about him and our relationship. It was like closure for my whole graduate school experience.
Now, I’m not a big believer in universal conspiracies. But, if his car hadn’t crapped out, if my car clicker hadn’t been annoyingly dying for months, if he hadn’t run out of milk and had to shop, and if I hadn’t hid at the grocery with the tampons… I’d still be carrying all that toxic stuff around with me, and who knows when I would have gotten to deal with it. Or, looked at another way, if I hadn’t decided to take a moment and solve a small problem, this huge one would have never been resolved either. I suppose, though, that if I hadn’t gone to the car dealer that day, I’d have run into him the next day at the taco stand or two days later at the beautician or the following Friday at the DMV. I think that when the Universe wants you to get something, it can be pretty persistent.
As I sat in the car for a few minutes thinking about what had just happened, it occurred to me for the first time that maybe Advisor 1 had also been feeling bad for years about the way it went down with the two of us, and that by finishing, I put all of that to rest. Not just for myself, but for him also. And then, I wondered if maybe, just maybe, that brief conversation in the waiting room had been healing for him too. Maybe now he was also a bit freer than he had been when he went into the car dealer that day.
So, it turns out, miracles can happen, and they can happen anywhere. I mean, who knew that the local Subaru dealer sold car parts, clicker batteries, and forgiveness?