Strolling through a super-sized Walmart in upstate Maine on a dreary and drizzling Monday afternoon, I arrived at a realization that, at the time, shook me to my core. It was two days before Christmas, and one of America’s very favorite pastimes — perusing the shelves of a superstore — was in full swing. I had woken up in a funk that was funkier than the five-year old crackers I had discovered in my grandfather’s cupboards the day before, and the spitting, freezing drizzle was doing nothing to alleviate my “IIA” — or, for those unfamiliar with this officially, unofficial self-diagnosis, “Irrational Italian Anger.”
Lisa, a close friend, and I had coined the term “IIA” based on our shared experiences: being Italian, and irrationally finding something to be grumpy about when ninety-nine percent of the time, our crankiness simply stemmed from needing a nap or being hungry. An alternative name for Irrational Italian Anger could have been Twenty Something Toddler Syndrome, but blaming our shared Italian heritage was much easier than daring to take responsibility for our own actions. We figured this was enough to qualify us for something that could meet the requirements for a quasi-mood-disorder. You know — nothing serious enough to truly worry our friends but something we could invoke when our fits of quiet rage did, indeed, alienate them.
My mother and I had gone out to do some last-minute shopping in order to find gifts to place under my grandfather’s Charlie Brown-esque Christmas tree. My grandfather, Carl, is and isn’t an easy person for whom to shop. He pretends to have unspecified standards in the same way that he pretends he is not subtly racist. Buy him the wrong kind of sausage and you will hear about it in quietly condescending ways; see a black actress on television and you will hear about her beauty and ability in quietly condescending ways. “No…no…mild sausage is fine… of course, I always get the hot sausages,” he would quip, relying on his status as an octogenarian to dodge incredulousness. For that reason, meandering through the aisles of the buzzing superstore scanning for potential presents was both calming and miserable, causing an internal struggle between light and dark. It was like attempting a jog to a workout mix of Christmas carols: joyous, yet miserable.
That weekend, a particularly vicious and long ice storm swept through the state of Maine, endangering roads, weighing down tree branches, and knocking out power lines. When the power had gone out the previous night, we had spent hours in the dark because my grandfather hadn’t updated the batteries in his flashlights for a decade or two and forbade us to light candles for fear that his oxygen tank might explode. Selfish, really. For what in retrospect were unjustified reasons, our trip quickly became my personal hell.
IIA Phase I: Quiet Rage. Once rudely awoken from my all-too-brief sleep on a barely-there air mattress by the sounds of pots clanging and Matt Lauer’s voice amplified by my grandfather’s strict policy of only operating televisions on full-volume, I showered, changed, and headed outside to angrily chip the ice off of my car windows. Seething and muttering under my breath, I chipped, slipped, slid, and, naturally, cursed the freezing rain. Fifteen minutes later, with my work complete, I reentered the house disgruntled and huffing and puffing like a bull shooting steam out its nostrils. Deciding that we would need a trip to Walmart to purchase a new windshield wiper blade to replace the one that had broken off on our drive up, my mother and I braved the roads. Having known about my serious IIA affliction since childhood, she quickly identified the warning signs of Phase I: heavy brow, steely silence, and an occasionally cocked eyebrow. She enjoyed a silent ten-minute ride observing the slick wintery scene rush by while I shot angry, red-hot laser beams out of my eyes at anything that moved.
Seething, the first stage of IIA gave way to the second: deep-seated hatred for strangers and loved ones alike. Stricken with Phase II of IIA, I liken myself to the basilisk monster from Harry Potter, believing that anyone who meets my gaze will be simply too petrified to continue living. In reality, though, I just looked like a constipated grump trying to silently squeeze out a fart. When Phase II commences in public, people part like the Red Sea. This gives me a false sense of confidence that I’m walking with a vengeance fiercer than the flames of Hell when, back on Earth, everyone is really just darting left and right in order to distance themselves far enough away to avoid the burst of flatulence that they believe is coming.
Skulking behind my mother and lamenting the struggle of being trapped in Maine due to an ice storm coating the roads, I regretfully began to harshly assess the environment and the shoppers around me — a default side effect of Phase II. Offensively-orange hunting vests. Camouflage. Beards the size of my dog. The pungent smell of tobacco. Intentionally-ripped jeans. A lot more camouflage. Duck Dynasty merchandise. Thick Maine accents that elongate one-syllable words into two.
“How do people live here?” I harshly questioned my mother in a rushed whisper. I’m the common breed of asshole who would think this type of thing but never dare vocalize it in anything but a whisper due to paranoia that the people nearest me might be Maine- diehards looking for a fight. During a serious IIA attack, I often forget that the people around me are more than just characters there to poke at the angry, caged bear that is temporarily my soul. It makes them easier to objectify, thereby licensing me to be a full-fledged brat. I never claimed to be proud.
Rolling my eyes as I walked past the produce section, my mind produced a question that began as a ripple but grew into a tidal wave by the time I had reached the electronics. Had I been raised in Maine, would I, too, be clad in a color of orange so horrifyingly bright that in a post-apocalyptic world it could serve as a man-made sun, providing enough ultraviolet rays to not only grow our crops but also feed the tanning addiction of grandmothers with skin more leathery than a purse? This complicated question was the impetus for the realization that I was not, contrary to a long-held belief, the center of the universe.
In Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Grinch experiences an emotional epiphany after witnessing Whoville celebrating Christmas together despite the fact that he, the Grinch, has stolen all of their material possessions, which he interprets as the source of their Christmas spirit. Standing in a Walmart, I stared down at Whoville and a Whoville of sorts, clad in camouflage and emanating the pungent radiance of upstate Maine, stared back — in an indirect way, though… remember I was still the basilisk, after all.
A wheezing sound came from behind me and I spun around to find a graying man readjusting the items in his cart to make room for a dollhouse that I presumed he was purchasing for a granddaughter. I looked at him. Liver spots decorated his hands. The distinct odor that only a habitual smoker can claim clouded around him. He smiled to his wife. She smiled back. A familiar sensation of warmth began to thaw my icy mentality.
As I began to feel the first pangs of guilt and regret bubbling up, we proceeded toward the camping aisle where a young boy leaving a trail of muddy footprints behind chased his parents through the store carrying a fishing rod. He was wearing a smile that either meant he was about to tantrum-beg for this toy or he was the soon-to-be proud owner of this new tool. You never know with kids; they’re unpredictably dangerous and cannot be trusted. Confused by the realization that was beginning to unfold, or perhaps drunk with the manufactured Christmas spirit before me, I made an unannounced beeline for the Dunkin Donuts located within the superstore. Having had my fair share of experiences with IIA attacks, I knew that only an extra large dose of caffeine would aid the painful and deeply embarrassing transition back into normally-functioning human being.
The more caffeine that entered my bloodstream, the more the IIA subsided. Leaving Walmart, I remarked that this town which I often maligned from being too far from “civilization” really did have a quiet dignity about it, which caused my mother wry smirk to spread across my mother’s pink cheeks. The ride back to my grandfather’s house was punctuated by Christmas carols and a quiet observation of the wintery scene outside. There were no more red-hot laser beams to be shot. Instead, I quietly contemplated the overwhelming idea that every individual in that Walmart was in the midst of living a full life in which they were the main character. Their lives were — and are — decorated with a supporting cast and even extras that weave in and out of both significant and insignificant plot developments.
I decided that what it all came down to was this: I used to think that I was the Beyonce to everyone else’s Kelly Rowland. Navigating the slick roads of upstate Maine, I quickly realized that, despite the seemingly impossible nature of it all, there was — and continues to be — enough Beyonce to go around for everyone. A terrifying thought, indeed. I was forced to conclude that in the grand scheme of things, I might not even be a Kelly Rowland. I might be the mysterious fourth Child of Destiny that disappeared early on. As F. Scott Fitzgerald much more eloquently said, “I was within and without. Simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” Mr. Fitzgerald was very obviously a much more masterful phrase-turner than I but given the opportunity between directly referencing well-articulated statements about existence and taking the roundabout way for a Destiny’s Child metaphor, I will always choose the latter.
My grandparents, Massachusetts natives who moved to upstate Maine in their fifties, have long had wild theories about Maine. For the better part of my childhood, they ardently denied the fact that deer existed in Massachusetts. When we explained that we had seen deer in the field at the end of our street, they either brushed this off as a hallucination or found some way to imply that Maine deer were far more majestic than the deer-roaming Massachusetts. Their Maine supremacism extended to supermarkets, sandwich shops, the sap on the trees, mosquitoes, and just about anything that could be compared between the two states.
I have long distrusted anyone with too strong an opinion about one state’s superiority over another. Staunch positions on the better quality of one state’s bagels over another represents to me an inflexibility that would, were we trapped in a room together with a ticking bomb, allow for a detonation before coming to a compromise about which wire to cut. In this case, I was willing to suspend my distrust for family. After my grandmother died and we suggested that he move closer to us, my grandfather gagged on the Chinese food he had been eating at the ridiculousness of our suggestion.
That evening, as he explained his theory that many women in Maine have two first names like “Mary Ellen,” so that “people don’t confuse the women of Maine with one another,” I flipped through my grandfather’s high school yearbook, which I had found covered in a quarter-inch of dust, tucked away at the back of his wooden bookshelf. He was sitting in his squashy armchair watching “Antiques Roadshow” and dozing off when I spotted his senior picture among messages of well-wishing. “Wishing a swell future to a swell guy and a swell football player!” they wrote. The word “swell” lost all meaning. The emotional consequences of looking at him as a fresh-faced and handsome eighteen-year-old and seeing an elderly, disjointed man in front of me were unsettling and I had to close the yearbook. The idea that he had lived such a full life as a main character with a full cast of supporting roles and extras to fill in each scene caused me to break into a nervous sweat. “My grandfather is Beyonce too,” I reminded myself. All at once, the amount of time in between eighteen and eighty-four seemed both infinite and very finite, and, peeking back into the yearbook, I wondered how on Earth he had managed to coif his hair into such a perfect bouffant.