The One Thing We Need to Know About People Who Hurt Us
Then the owner's wife accused me of stealing $100 from the cash register and it became a very difficult job. Mrs. B was an attractive woman but stony-faced. She asked to see me in her office upstairs, and said that $100 had been missing the night before when she cashed out and since I was the only person with access to the cash register she knew I had stolen the money and I was to give it back. I said I hadn't done it. She said I had. I said, "But I don’t understand." She said, "You may have to quit." Then she told me to think about it, and that when she cashed out tonight she expected the money would be there.
I knew people who stole things; shoplifted watches or makeup at the mall. And I was always amazed. My brother and I had been raised to not do a lot of things, and some of them we did anyway, but stealing—never. Stealing was serious. I was horrified that Mrs. B thought I had done this. I went to find her husband; I didn't know what else to do. Mr. B said, "You're not to pay any attention to her. You're a good hostess, I know you didn’t steal the money. I'll speak to her, and that's the end of it."
And it was. Except for the fact that Mrs. B every day stared at me, watched me, squinted her eyes at me from across the room. She scared me to death, really. And yet I needed the pay. So I stayed. But for weeks I chewed my lips to shreds, could barely eat. Mrs. B took up a huge amount of room in the universe of my mind. I could barely stroll among the tables without feeling coated in her dark gaze.
One night there was a fire and the restaurant closed. I don't think I ever saw the woman again. But now, so many years later, I think of her and how she frightened me, and I think how being young leaves one with so little sense of proportion. Oh, says my 58-year-old self, she wasn’t worth that worry! But there is something else my 58-year-old self says, which is: What was the story, Mrs. B? What was hurting you that you needed to do that? In my fear, she was barely a person to me, more a force. But she was a person, of course. She had her own story. I didn’t have the space to see that when I was young. I survived her. I hope she survived herself.
Elizabeth Strout is the author of The Burgess Boys (Random House) and Amy and Isabelle (Vintage).