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The Cackle —A Cautionary Tale

By: Debra N. Diener

Photo by Darius Bashar

I’m suddenly stabbed in the top of my right foot. Simultaneously, I yelp in pain, look down at my foot and could swear I hear someone cackling like a storybook witch right above me. Blood is spurting up through my pantyhose, pooling on top of my foot.  I scramble in my purse for a Kleenex to try and stanch the gush.

Stunned, I look up and see my attacker. Hovering next to and over me, a neatly dressed woman. Her facial grimace, her weathered skin make her look “older” — in her 30’s or 40’s? — but that’s through my 20-something eyes. Visibly quivering with glee, her mouth twisted into a tight, crooked grin, her eyes narrow with pleasure.  Head straight ahead, her eyes dart sideways to see my reaction.

Her demeanor tells me this is no accident. With surgical —almost practiced —precision, she’d lifted her left leg and jammed her left high heel into me.

Before I can shake off my shock to say or do something, she’s at the bus door, getting out at her stop, still gleefully cackling to herself. No alarms had gone off when I’d glanced her coming down the aisle. Just another person heading off the bus to work. I was sitting at the front of the bus in the seats facing into the aisle. While I’d crossed my right leg and foot over my left leg, I’d tucked my right foot close in to avoid blocking the aisle as people got on and off.

No one sitting next to or across from me says or does anything.

My physical pain is now eclipsed by anger — at the woman and at myself for not having the presence to confront her. My foot is throbbing as I pull the cord and get out a few stops later. Limping slightly, I duck into a drugstore fortuitously close to my office for a box of bandaids and new pantyhose. I head into the building where I work.

That was the way that workday started.

A workday from 40 years ago.

That was the only time I ever saw her in all the years I rode buses to work. The incident stayed with me, receding over time, becoming one of many life events amassed and stacked in my memory bank — but filed among my most haunting memories.

Why she attacked me is unknowable although I’ve tried. I’ve gone from dismissing her as just a miserable person to wondering if she’d once been a hopeful young woman who’d become embittered through personal and professional disappointments.

Wondering whether she was angry only at younger women or was it the situation that enraged her, i.e., my foot protruding ever so slightly in the aisle. If it was the latter, then would she have tried to stab a man’s foot ? Or was she that day as she’d always been and always would be—angry, malicious and teetering close to unhinged?

Over the last few years, the incident has shape-shifted from being just a nasty one-off encounter into something more portentous, a cautionary alert —“Do not become anything like that woman. Do not become embittered or curdled with anger”. Should I be worried that I will be? I tell myself there’s absolutely no way I’d ever become anything like her in the slightest — never, ever, twisted, malicious and dangerous.

And yet, I know how I react now when I think I’m being treated badly due to being an obviously older woman. I’m acutely aware of the way older women are dismissed, disrespected or disregarded. I’m attuned to slights, real or perceived, and react more immediately when I think I’m on the receiving end of high-handed, arrogant behavior. It can be something as annoying as strangers bumping into me on the sidewalk, or in a store aisle, who then keep walking without breaking a stride, being too preoccupied for even a perfunctory “sorry”.  And being completely candid, I feel especially pissed off it this happens with a man who appears to be my age or older or a younger person.

Am I just pissed off about people being rude? Or am I thinking they’re being intentionally disrespectful because they think they can get away with it since I’m an older woman? Someone who doesn’t matter.

Sometimes I do say “watch it” and often that’s the exact moment I hear her cackle. That singular sound acts as a tripwire, stopping me from saying or doing something I’ll regret.

A cascade of thoughts about what might happen without that restraint:

  • I might not say what I want firmly, calmly and with authority.
  • I would say what I want but the person doesn’t care or doesn’t apologize.
  • I would say what I want, the person becomes insulting and the situation escalates.

Or maybe, without that restraint, part of me will slowly, inexorably start morphing into that woman.

I hear her cackle and I restrain myself.

A decades old cackle propelling me into the past and the future.

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