Sometimes I imagine staring levelly at her and saying slowly, deliberately, with great enunciation, “You are a complete asshole” and then I’d walk away. It would be like a scene from Douglas Adam’s Life, the Universe and Everything when an alien, bitter about his lot as an immortal, has decided to insult the universe – one living creature at a time. He lands on a planet, confirms the creature’s identity on his clipboard, makes eye contact, says “You are a jerk” and then flies away.
In reality, my antagonist would likely look at me, mouth agape, lip quivering. Maybe she’d start to cry. Then I’d backpedal with some excuse about having a bad day and that she’s not really an asshole, but she just did an asshole-ish thing. Or maybe she’d find a few choice words of her own to describe my loathsome character. And before you know it, we’re both blubbering and falling over ourselves apologizing. She’d still be an asshole and I’d still mean it, but now we’d have to hug or something.
There’s a skill in letting things go, in not ruminating and feeding the anger monster within, and in my case, it’s learned, not intuitive. My knee-jerk thoughts, when getting steamrolled by a domineering personality, usually involve foul language and some choice visuals of a mean straight punch, followed by a finishing cross. My brain tends to leave out the bit about being middle-aged and the likelihood of fracturing my fingers, but what’s the point of having a fantasy that puts you in the emergency room?
The revenge fantasy can take on a wide range of forms, from telling off a coworker, to property destruction after a love gone wrong, to avenging bitter teenage years. Every time I think about those popular girls pointing and laughing about my hand-me-down shoes in 9th grade, it bubbles up inside of me. It doesn’t matter that it happened 30 odd years ago. It is burned in my memory, despite the fact that for those girls, high school was the height of their power.
I went to my five year high school reunion. All the same groups of people were in clusters. Since leaving these people, I’d been all over the US and Europe, worked in military intelligence, lost my virginity a few times, learned a language or three – I mean, things had changed for me. But not at that reunion in the hotel ballroom – I still felt like the girl with the shitty shoes. Except now I could get legally and totally drunk, and not care. Which I did.
I’ve never returned to another reunion. If I did, it would be as an MMA Featherweight Champion who had just received the National Book Award (how does she pen such beautiful words right after giving someone a serious smackdown?). If you think this all reeks of insecurity, you’d be exactly right.
When I was younger, I existed in a state of powerlessness. When the dysfunction at home reached its most volatile and dangerous phase, my fantasies of running away morphed into vengeful, violent dreams. As I matured into my twenties, I began to have vigilante dreams, protecting and defending the powerless. I had gone from being my own avenger to being a superhero.
Life began to change in imperceptible ways. Fear stopped ruling the day. I began to make choices out of a belief that I could make things better, that I had some power. I stepped out of survival mode and started helping others more in real life. The insecurity and low self-esteem that had throttled me for years began to loosen its hold.
These days, it doesn’t take much for me to recognize when I’m feeling insecure. I am, at this very moment, as insecure as I’ve been in many years. It’s easier for me to feel small, unimportant and powerless. It’s easier to get angry when I feel like someone is trying to manipulate or control me. It’s easier to imagine giving in to my anger.
Maturity seems never to be able to hold off those moments when I’m vulnerable, when I feel less than. When I’m feeling okay, I am circumspect. Maybe they’re having a bad day. Maybe I push their buttons. Maybe we just shouldn’t be in the same room with each other. I can ruminate and try to untangle the strands of complicated human interaction, and be unflinching in acknowledging my own flaws.
When I’m not okay, say if I’m an unpaid writer with a lot of time that I can’t seem to structure productively, then I can go through an entire day seething about one little interaction. That was yesterday. I felt that rising need to do an I’ll show them and a that’s the last straw, perhaps with a side of fist fighting/ER visiting. I recognized the silliness of it all, even as I worked out scenes where I casually mentioned my Pulitzer and how I could barely move because of all the benching I’d been doing.
Power is, if anything, illusory. We all die. We all navigate and negotiate through a world that provides no guarantees. We have loved those who didn’t love us back, wanted things that weren’t attainable, felt at moments, small and powerless. It’s a big choice to make: churn in our revenge fantasies, do something constructive or laugh at our silliness. Sometimes, if you’re like me, it’s a journey through all three options. Every time this happens, though, I spend just a tad less time imagining unearned accolades and a little more time in bemused awareness of my own fallibility. My superpowers are growing. And I have cool shoes.