May of 2007, I got laid off from the nonprofit job I loved and dropped out of community college in two miserable weeks.
I was desperate for money and distraction. After a few days of anxiety and red wine, a good friend got me a few shifts a week at the coffee shop where she worked on the weekends. I threw everything I had into that job, because I wasn't doing much else, nothing healthy at least.
From 6 a.m. to noon, there was a line out the door of the cafe. The mornings were a blur: dumping foamed milk and thick espresso into paper cups, toasting prepackaged sandwiches, wrapping pastries in wax paper.
Promptly at 1 p.m., the cafe would empty out and remain quiet for the rest of the afternoon. There was nothing to do but pour the occasional decaf latte, mop the floor and lock up.
Mostly, I worked closing shift and I liked it. I got to sleep in, work late and I didn't have to split my tips or see my manager, who never stayed later than noon. I'd sneak into the alley behind the cafe and get stoned, then mop and steam and wash all night. I worked six days a week.
All this is to say: I was doing my best.
Spring and summer came and went. It was around end of August, that awful time of year when everyone is sick of the heat and sick of each other. I had a new roommate moving in that week, and I was stoked on getting home and bonding. It was nearly closing time. I was ready to lock the door when a woman walked in. She was short and blonde, early 20s, and visibly angry. Her hands were clenched into fists.
She greeted me: "I want my money back."
"For what?" She wasn't holding anything.
"I bought a sandwich yesterday. It had a hair in it and I want my money back. It was a very expensive sandwich."
"Do you have your receipt?"
She leaned across the counter and hissed "Why the fuck would I have a receipt?"
I had never been cursed at by someone like that before. I got nervous. I stutter when I'm nervous.
"Well...do you have the sandwich? I just need to see some proof that you really did buy something."
Her face was getting redder as she shook with rage. "Are you saying I'm fucking lying? I don't even want your fucking food. If you don't give me back my money I will have you fired. Give me back my money!" Every word she said raised her volume. She looked ready to jump over the counter at me.
"I really can't just reach into drawer and give you cash. I need some kind of proof." And then I blurted: "I was here yesterday and I know for a fact we didn't sell any sandwiches. I don't really know what to tell you."
That was the wrong thing to say.
She pounded the counter, she screamed at the stupid policies, the terrible food, my terrible attitude, my terrible hair, my ugly face, my low IQ, my lack of education that led me to have this terrible job, how poorly I was doing that job, you get the idea.
I remember very specifically the things she said; they cut straight into everything I already hated myself for: I was broke and alone, I had dropped out of school and I had a shitty job. I didn't think she was wrong about me.
I was crying like a child, sobbing into my hands. This egged her on and she demanded I call my boss, so she could have me fired on the spot. And I don't know why, but I fucking did.
The doomed phone was one of those huge old fashioned cordless nightmares that crackle with static if you take it a foot from the receiver. So the boss and I had a stressful conversation where I tried to explain what she wanted and he tried to grasp why he had to talk to this woman, and why he had to do it over the phone.
"Don't give her anything! Throw her out!"
"You tell her man, she won't leave," I passed the phone to her. "Here's my manager."
They had a loud, obscene and brief argument that he ended by telling her the cops were on the way to the store.
But this lady was not going down without a fight. She reached her arm back and launched that cordless phone at me with everything she had. I ducked and the phone bounced off the wall and shattered into pieces on the floor.
She ran out, away from the cops that had never been called. I sat on the floor and cried and cried.
I was off the next day, or at least I didn't go in. My boss bought a new phone that night. Her meltdown was the staff joke for months and we kept a shard of the murdered phone enshrined in the back.
In the fall, I still worked at the cafe but I was burnt out from everything that went down in the summer. I read American Psycho over and over again. I felt vicious and small. Sometimes I would obsess about that night and all the other times someone had pushed me, punched me or slapped me just because I was the closest thing they could take their rage out on. I thought about all the ways I could have some kind of revenge.
I never felt any kind of peace or safety at home. My roommate loved to have his friends over to drink and shriek at bad movies. I never knew how many people were going to be in my house when I got there so I just braced myself with a fake ass smile every time I walked in.
And this particular night in October, the angry nurse with a killer pitching arm was right there, sitting on my couch, drinking pink fizzy wine and watching Crossroads.
I stood in the doorway trying to make real words come out of my mouth. I could have died of shock. She flushed all over and sat up. Her mouth dropped open. She looked terrified and deeply guilty. I grabbed a drink and plopped down next to her on the green leather couch.
"It's so nice to finally meet you! I'm Beth."
She didn't say her name, or at least I can't remember. She slipped a clammy hand into mine and I felt it tremble.
I wanted to let the whole room known that this woman, their friend, a nurse for Christ's sake, had tried to scam me, called me stupid for catching her and hurled a phone at my head. But watching her panic made me feel so sad. There wasn't anything that could come from making her more miserable than she made herself. She knew what she had done.
It is tempting, when we are hurt and angry, to hurt someone more vulnerable than we are. We can lash out at someone who wants to help us, or someone who's trying to do their job, or someone who cares about us.
We tell ourselves they deserve it for hurting us first. No one's got the right to treat you that way, and you never have the right to treat anyone else like that.
There's no grand ending. I didn't get revenge. I didn't want it anymore. At the end of the night, I shook her hand again and I smiled at her. I told her to get home safe. I found a new job the next day and I never saw her again.