My ploy worked. The coffee that tasted stale as soon as it was brewed, the travelers with their backpacks and newspapers, and those who had just come in to get out of the the cold were just what I needed to clear my out my familiar preoccupations, and let my characters in. I was working on a section about Nick, who turns what he calls Cortesia, which is simply the Portuguese word for courtesy, into a life ethic.
By the time I left the coffee shop, I was encouraged by the work I’d done, and enlarged by Nick’s company. The universe seemed to concur. When I turned on the radio to my daughter’s favorite station, I heard Lady Gaga belting out On the Edge of Glory. Singing along, I started for home. Then, right in the middle of the triumphant chorus, an old tank-like Pontiac backed out of a parking space aggressively. To say that it hit the side of my little Civic would be an understatement. The passenger side was crushed. Even Lady Gaga seemed to quake at the jolt.
Before I could say a word, the other driver, who looked to be about 18, was out of his car, raging and pointing at my damaged vehicle. (The tank looked fine.) “What the hell do you think you’re doing, lady?” he screamed. Then, after informing me that I’d made him late for work, he let out a string of curses.
“Excuse me?” I said, and not in the tone associated with courtesy. “In case you didn’t notice, you just hit my car.”
“Yeah, well...I looked but you weren’t there.” The surliness was still there, but this time even he sounded unconvinced. He muttered a few more curses, though it was no longer clear if they were directed at me, at himself, or just at life.
“Apparently, I was,” I said, making a voila gesture at the bashed-in side of my vehicle. I reached for my cell phone and climbed back into my dented car.
After dialing the police, I called my husband. “Some idiot just hit me in the bus station parking lot. The car’s probably totaled.” Just then, I realized I was shaking.
Meanwhile, the kid slouched against the car, talking on his cell about how he was probably going to get fired—all because of some stupid lady who didn’t know how to drive.
It was a hot day, but I rolled up the windows, the better to fulminate alone. No wonder he can’t keep a job, I fumed, a full-blown rant brewing inside my skull. He’s probably never taken responsibility for anything in his life.
After he finished his call, he pulled off the black tee-shirt he was wearing, which was emblazoned with the logo of a heavy metal band, and replaced it with a polo-style shirt, bearing the name of a gas station chain. Pretty savvy, I thought.
He eyed me warily, obviously used to being judged. But it was the rock shirt he stuffed in the backseat of his car that got to me. My youngest son had a similar collection at home, and he, too, was often the victim of people’s faulty assumptions.
So maybe it was that, or the way he bit his lip as he watched the road, waiting for the cruiser. But there was also something else that caused me to take another look at him—and at myself—that afternoon. It was Nick. It was the words I myself had written.
Terry McMillan once wrote, “Whatever you write should lead to a higher level of understanding.” A similar sentiment has been expressed by countless writers from Flannery O’Connor to Stephen King. We write to find out what we think, and maybe even to tap into a wisdom we’ve yet to claim.
But did I really need a fictional character to teach me about courtesy? I had mastered the rules of simple good manners by the time I was five, thank you very much. That was why I had cussed out the young driver from inside my vehicle. But what about the deeper courtesy that asks us to respect, even to honor, everyone we encounter? I couldn’t control the actions and attitude of the kid in the Pontiac—or anyone else’s—but I was responsible for my own. And what about the anxious ruminations I had allowed to run riot in my head, undermining me, and blocking my view of all that was good and important and real? Why did I allow them in so often? Talk about disrespect. How could I expect to extend spiritual courtesy and compassion to others if I couldn’t even offer it to myself?
I rolled down the window, and called out to the kid who was still leaning against the hood. “Did you call your boss to say you’ll be late?”
“There’s no point. I’ve only been there three weeks, and I’ve already had two warnings.” He folded his skinny arms across his chest and kicked at the pavement. Obviously, he had his own taunting chorus to deal with.
“You’ve just been in a car accident. I’m sure they’ll understand.”
He gazed back toward the road. “What’s taking the stupid cop so long anyway?” he muttered. Then he glanced at me as if he was really seeing me for the first time “You really think so?”
“I don’t know, but things will definitely go better if you call,” I said, as if I was talking to my son. I picked up my manuscript and went over the pages I’d worked on in the coffee shop. The next time I looked out my car window, the young man was on the phone. Whether he was speaking to his boss, or if he managed to keep his job, I’ll never know. That fell into the infinitely vast category of things I couldn’t control.
A few minutes later, a police officer, who seemed to be the personification of Nick’s Cortesia, arrived. “At least, no one was hurt. That’s the important thing,” he reminded us calmly. “I saw a bad one yesterday.”
Though the incident was self-explanatory, he looked toward the other driver. “You want to tell me what happened?”
“I looked, but she wasn’t there,” the kid attempted weakly.
The officer nodded as he wrote the citation. “Next time, look more carefully okay?”
His initial assessment had been correct, of course. It was a minor incident, and no one had been injured. We had been lucky. So why did a fender bender affect me the way it did? If I was honest, it probably had less to do with the car that jolted me in the parking lot than the years of living with the bad news band. No one changes long-ingrained habits, particularly of the mind, until we’re in too much pain to continue them, and I’d finally reached that point.
I had escaped the cacophony for a few hours in the coffee shop, but I knew it would be back, affecting not only me, but those in my household who had to live with someone who was often distracted by misery of her own making. Like the driver who’d temporarily stopped me, I looked but I didn’t see.
I’d like to say the band never visited me again, but that’s not how change works.
I still need to take a hard, critical look—or many of them—at everything I write, but I no longer do it with a toxic cocktail in hand. And the flashing judgments about how those around me “should” be or act, along with a host of petty worries, still pop in regularly, trying out new and more seductive tunes, just like the distractions of monkey mind when I meditate. But these days, I don’t invite them make a recording in my head, or even to reach the chorus. I recognize them for what they are: just thoughts—some true, but many not, and none with any more power than I choose to give them. Then I turn them out as quickly and forcefully as I can. Cortesia, the ongoing spiritual practice I learned from a fictional character and an unlikely teacher in a heavy metal tee-shirt, demands nothing less.
Patry Francis’ second novel, The Orphans of Race Point, was published by Harper Perennial on May 6th, 2014. She is also the author of The Liar’s Diary, (Dutton 2007), which The New York Daily News called “outright chilling.” It was a Booksense notable book and Target pick. Her poetry and short stories have appeared in the Tampa Review, Colorado Review, Ontario Review, and The American Poetry Review, among other publications. She is a three-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize and has twice been the recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant.