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Cognitive Dissonance



In stressful times, I often find myself looking back to the past and excavating little nuggets of history I had forgotten, perhaps in order to rediscover who I am, shed some light on my present, or to remember lessons learned once that need a refresher.

I keep finding myself rethinking one of my more turbulent times.  I had a job for a year or so as a waitress in a bar/restaurant, while I sorted out some post school fallout. In truth it was more of a bar than a restaurant. My uniform was a little red and white striped mini dress with a deep swooping neckline, a black silk bow tie, black apron and black heels and hose. We looked like slutty candy-stripers, which I am sure was exactly the look management sought. I can’t believe I wore that outfit but I did, and happily. The higher your skirt the better your tips; I learned that lesson my first night.

I met Patti my first night too. She broke me in to the system and trained me. She was a bit older. She told me she had a couple of young kids, while we sat and had a drink after our shift. She was smart, engaging, cute, and had beautiful, intense blue eyes. She took great care to make sure I knew what was going on, and to help me learn what I needed. She was a waitress but also worked as an extra evening bartender on busy nights, so her advice was valuable. I gave her a ride home after we finished our drinks. I remember feeling drawn to her that night, but I reminded myself that she was straight with two kids.

Working in a bar throws you into a different lifestyle, and I drifted a bit from my friends while working there. That was a wild environment for me. I went from being a minister to a tarted up drink/food server and I had a great time. When you go into work at 8PM and get off at 3AM and you carry around a roll of smoky, beery cash in small bills you start seeing the world a bit differently. I lived more for the nights. I went out with the other bar folks. We’d go out drinking and dancing after we got off work, we’d go out for breakfast, we’d sit in the bar after closing and bitch about the night or be happy about the tips. I started to spend quite a bit of time with Patti, both after work and during the days. She was close friends with the day bartender who pretty much ran the day shift, and Patti got me on for lunches.  She’d let me wash my uniform at her house, and we’d hang out. We became friends. The attraction thing was not just in my head, which was becoming clear to both of us. I was young, and shy, but I remember cooking lunch at my apartment for her and her kids. I can’t remember the occasion, I might have just wanted to share a favorite food or something, but I do remember it being a big deal to me, and that somehow it was a big deal for her too.

I don’t remember all the details anymore, but I do remember her being almost angry about her attraction to me. During this period I did nothing, I just was.  It wasn’t in me to push at all,  and I don’t think I really knew how. My style, if it counts as one, was to just be me. We continued to hang out, and go out, and periodically there would be that feeling of something just under the surface. One night she was at my apartment waiting for me while I changed clothes. I ironed a shirt and had just put it on.  When I turned around, she was right there. She kissed me and my head exploded. I guess hers did too because the next thing I know she had ripped the shirt off my back and we were in bed. After that the intensity only increased. It wasn’t just the sex, although sex with her took me places beyond anything I had ever experienced up to that point. It was more the quality of vulnerability that she showed me, and the intensity of the attraction. I do remember her saying something one night about her body, which had borne two children, in comparison to mine. That comment made me see the fragility under her confidence. I was surprised; I found her exactly as she was to be incredibly intoxicating and desirable. I wanted to comfort her, to show her how beautiful I found her and how much I enjoyed this thing we had. It was a wild time, I was drunk on her desire and on my own.

It had to be hard for her, her Mother was staying with her, she had two children, and then there was me. When her brother and sister would visit, and I would be there I could hear the questions they rarely said in my presence. I was the college girl who in no way fit into this family. There wasn’t even a word that could describe what I was. There was no explanation for my importance, no reason for her to stay out late with me after we got off of work. We were friends, but there was more to it than that, and the only place that more was expressed really was when we were alone, and that usually meant we were in bed. One night she seemed almost angry. We were laying in the warm dark, and she turned to me and whispered, “You have no idea what this is like, Lisa. I can’t get you out of my head. You make me feel too much, I spend days away from you not able to stop smelling and tasting and feeling how much I want you.”  This was heady stuff for me to hear, then. It should have scared me to death. I should have seen the train wreck coming, but I was young and stupid.

I was an  awkward fixture in her life for a short time. I know that as much as she like having me around, she also hated the thought of depending on me. If her car was in the shop, I would give her or her Mom a ride to work, or take her to the grocery store. I loaned her my microwave, she gave me jeans and clothes.  We had a thing that was fun. I loved her kids, we played games,  read books and had a blast. I was busy dealing with the aftermath of coming out to my parents, getting over my first woman lover who had dumped me, and fighting a devastating war with my advisor, my favorite teacher, and a rigid and tyrannical Dean. This thing with Patti might have been as much a distraction for me as anything. But it was a distraction I foolishly threw myself into with everything I had.

It was rough at work. We kept a low profile, but people picked up on the vibe, and folks were starting to wonder what was going on. Eventually it just got to be too much for her, I guess, but something happened. It was abrupt, and pretty much silent. No explanation. One day she gave me back my stuff and said, “I never felt anything for you. You are nothing and were nothing to me. It was all a lie.”

My world tilted on its axis as I heard one thing from her but knew I had seen and felt and lived another. I hate that. I don’t handle it well now, and surely didn’t then. It took me a long time to work through my pain and realize that whatever it was she was going through didn’t have to turn my world upside down. I could still trust my perceptions; indeed I had no choice, since my perceptions were all I had. That was the year of cognitive dissonance for me. It was probably the first time I ran smack dab into someone I cared about and respected telling me the sky was green when I saw it was blue. It happened over and over with disastrous results. Each incident took a bigger bite out of my self-confidence and trust in my own worldview. Patti just happened to come at the end of that cycle and completed my unraveling.

Eventually I came out of it and was a much stronger person. It took a long time, and that particular feeling of hearing or seeing one thing and knowing another always triggers a momentary panic and paralysis in me. When I feel it I reach out for a reality check, though I have gotten much better at not letting my foundation totally collapse. It is a fine thing to be able to appreciate opposite points of view, and it is an even better thing to not assume that you have the corner on the truth market. But it is perhaps more dangerous to be unable to trust what you yourself, even with all the potential margins for error calculated in, know to be true for you. I’ve made real progress in that regard, which is one of the best things about growing older. Experience is a great teacher, and nothing beats perspective earned through challenging times.

One thing I learned for sure? Never sleep with the bartender when you are a lowly waitress.  My remaining months working there were torture, especially when she was my bartender. She could make my life hell so easily, and often did.  On top of everything else, I also learned that a person who, perhaps, cared more than is comfortable for them can be the hardest on you.

::Lisa Rokusek also writes at The Rhino and the Buddha::

December 22, 2009 8:50 am

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