Pandora’s Box (part 1)

“Isabelle,” I squirmed in my seat, trying not to touch her knees, “my intention for being here is… to learn how to take charge of my life, number one, and… to be open minded to all life has to offer.”

My randomly-selected partner for this exercise glared.

“And you’re supposed to answer back,” I reminded her, “with some introduction for yourself.”

“But I don’t know you,” she peered at my name tag. “Becky.”

“I don’t know you either. That’s not the point. The point is,”

“I was listening to what the point is. This whole concept is ridiculous. Why should I want to bare my soul to a complete stranger? Or speak some hip dribble about what my intention is? I could’ve saved you the tuition for this thing.” She leaned forward. “You want to know how to take charge of your life? Just do it.” She sat back, giving me a pointed look as she crossed her arms and legs. “I’m going to kill Kurt on Monday for wasting my time like this.” She rolled her eyes and yawned. Her gaze roamed to a G-Q-looking man a couple of chairs away. He smiled, eyes lit with that lascivious gleam men get when a beautiful woman looks their way.

I noticed that other pairs, those with cooperative partners, were looking at us with questioning eyes, as well as the group leader. My cheeks burned. “Why are you here then?”

“That’s not your concern.”

“Well,” my voice quavered, “whatever the reason, you spent a lot of money to come here and be a total creep to a stranger.” I knocked into the chair as I stood, knees shaking.

I was three steps away, wondering where I was going, when she called, “Wait.”

Every instinct and muscle wanted to keep walking. I had come to this weekend personal-growth seminar to learn some of the self esteem and backbone (as in having one), skills that were lacking from my family gene pool. My sister had just completed the course. Within a week, she had talked herself into a new job after being fired from one she really liked and out of a crummy relationship. When she’d told me about it, I said yes! yes! I want whatever it is you’ve found! I want that magic formula! I fantasized about how different life would be after completing this one intensive workshop. A new job? Well, maybe, but what I really wanted was the ability to stand up for myself, in any situation. On this first morning, I felt that particular goal slipping lifetimes away as I shuffled back to my chair.

“Listen,” Isabelle ran a hand through her thick black hair. “I’m sorry.” The planes of her perfectly sculpted face were hard, her apology weak.

I paused. Do I make a scene or not? Safety, and thirty four years of wimpiness, won. I sat.

“Look, I’m here because my boss paid for it,” she said. “It’s his way of exacting punishment. And I get to keep my job.”
I thought of the four hundred and eighty dollar charge to my credit card and managed to give Isabelle a cool stare. “So he sends you to something like this? That’s an interesting approach. Why didn’t he just fire you?” Mentally I braced myself for another verbal attack. None came. The anger left her face. I saw a woman afraid. My heart softened.

“He loves me.” She folded perfectly-manicured hands on her lap.

“Oh.” I hid hangnail-ridden fingers beneath my thighs. The exercise ended. Gratefully I moved to another chair, with a new, non-angry partner. I watched the man Isabelle had flirted with grab the seat I’d vacated with great speed.

I didn’t talk to Isabelle the rest of that first day. She sat in the back row and glowered. And yet I felt her presence. The situation reminded me of when a bad song wakes me on the radio first thing in the morning—my mind goes into unbidden, perpetual rewind. In this case, my eyes looked at her every chance they could. Traitorous things. Every time, shame burned my cheeks and I heard her caustic advice, “Just do it.” Easy for her to say. She was beautiful, men noticed her, and she had that practiced “I don’t care” attitude that even on my best days, I never come close to. But as I was learning that morning—blaming my thin skin and lack of “just do itness” on unaggressive, distant parents wouldn’t work anymore. Not if I wanted to “take charge of my life.”

As the day wore on, I became wrapped up in the machinations of my own neurosis. Isabelle was forgotten. Until the next day.

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