Every summer my husband and I pack our suitcases, load our kids into the car, and drive from tense, crowded New York City to my family's cottage in Maine. It's on an island, with stretches of sea and sandy beaches, rocky coasts, and pine trees. We barbecue, swim, lie around, and try to do nothing.
We were on one of these vacations about two years ago when my husband, Jon Patrick Walker, and I decided to go out for a movie date. We left our then 6-month-old and 2-year-old daughters with my sister and went to town, which consists of some fish restaurants, one bar, a general store, and a movie theater. It was a Friday night, so all the tourists who flood the island in the high season had taken over, but we didn't mind. We ate lobster rolls on the bay, sat in the theater with our popcorn, and poured out with the rest of the crowd to get to our car.
The tiny main street was clogged with traffic. My husband saw a shortcut and made a left onto a quiet lane. We chitchatted about the movie; we were relaxed, distracted, and removed from the stresses of the city. And it was during this pleasurable little moment that a young woman passing by us screamed, "This is a one-way street, you asshole!"
In the silence that followed, I felt a fury overtake me. But there's a reason my husband's nickname is the Zen Master. Before I could think of a suitable comeback, he'd stopped the car, smiled at the woman, and said, "Hi."
She looked surprised. "Uh…hi," she said.
"Just so you know, I'm really not an asshole," Jon began. "I didn't realize this was one way because I didn't see the sign."
The woman's complexion, previously tan, turned crimson. "It's on the edge of the entrance," she said quietly. "It's easy to miss."
"Okay," he said. "Well, I'm sorry about that."
"No worries," she said. "I'm sorry, too."
"See you around, then," my husband said. "Take care."
"You, too," she said.
And we drove off.
Had I been alone when she yelled, I would have cursed under my breath and sped off, feeling mad at her and stupid about driving down the wrong road. Instead, what could have been an ugly moment between strangers became something…elevating. I had seen the woman as a rude and bitter local, and she had figured us for two selfish, careless tourists, but when we took the time to look one another in the eye, it turned out that we'd all made a mistake. We were three people with stories very different from the ones we'd made up about one another. We were human.
It's too easy to sum up a person's character in one negative instant, and it doesn't put anything good out into the world. I certainly have my moments, but ever since that night, I don't shoot nasty glares at the man fumbling for his wallet at the cash register, or yell at the driver who doesn't go the moment the light changes. If someone is walking slowly on the sidewalk or cuts in line at the supermarket, I try to imagine her situation: Is she just having a really bad day? I try to remember that we're all in this together.
I like to look back on that brief exchange on a one-way street in a small town, at the moment when I saw that people are so rarely what we make of them in snap judgments. And when I do, I realize how a little understanding of that can go a very long way.
— As told to Justine van der Leun