September 19 Flashback: Bad Jackie | Fred Clark

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From September 19, 2010, “Jackie at the Crossroads”


So you’re sitting with a group of friends talking, the conversation moving happily from topic to topic, eventually turning, one way or another, into a discussion of the best and the worst public restrooms you have come across.

Your friend Jackie says she’s terrified of airport bathrooms. Because of the spiders.

Most of the group have not heard of spiders, Jackie explains. There are these poisonous spiders from South America that lurk on international flights and end up living in most airports and because they like cool, damp places, they take up residence in bathrooms. Under toilet seats in airport restrooms. And one of them bit this woman while she was using the bathroom and she died.

“It’s a myth,” says your friend Dan, grabbing his iPhone.

“But this girl I work with told me about it,” Jackie says. “She read it in a magazine. And she said her cousin knew the lady that died.

“No,” Dan said. “Urban legend. See.”

He hands her the phone this page from Snopes.com on screen, refuting the story.

Now Jackie is at a moral crossroads. She must make a choice. The actual facts seem undisputed, but she is invested in this story. She has already said it several times. She endured quite a bit of discomfort in airports because she believed it was true. Forced to choose by the Snopes page confronting her on Dan’s phone, she will have to either disavow or double down.

As far as he is concerned, this kind of moral crossroads is rarely experienced as a difficult dilemma. A choice has to be made, but that choice will almost always be based on the type of person making it – based on the character, habits and practices that shaped that person up to the time of the choice. A good Jackie will take one path, a bad Jackie will take the other.

The good Jackie will soon realize that her colleague has misled her. The persuasive personal embellishments on the magazine and the cousin had to be pure lies. The good Jackie may have to talk it over with her co-worker and trust him less in the future.

She will then be dismayed to remember the other occasions when she repeated this story, remembering that she will have to correct this on her next opportunity. It will be somewhat embarrassing, as it will involve admitting some naivety, but Good Jackie, being good, has long realized that such small embarrassments were never as painful or as damaging as the kind of ridiculously defenses you get trapped in if you try to live a totally embarrassment-free life.

Good Jackie, being good, also has a sense of humor and that will be her saving grace. Having a sense of humor means coming up with a funny joke even when you’re the target of it yourself, because Good Jackie soon realizes she’s been here.

“Oh my God,” she said laughing. “When I came back from California, I had to pee shame and I held it all the way home because of the stupid spiders. She turns this into a long and funny story about an extremely uncomfortable taxi ride ending with a massively over-tipped because she couldn’t bear to wait another second to get changed. This story will be, for you and all your friends gathered there, forever linked to the urban legend of the South American toilet spiders. None of you will ever spread this legend, but you’ll tell it over and over again just to set up the story of poor Jackie squirming around in the cab, doing those lamaze breathing exercises all the way home. (It’s funnier when Jackie tells it because of the faces she makes when she breathes.)

And forever after, every time you’re together in an airport, you’ll make jokes about toilet spiders and laugh heartily because Jackie is your friend and you love her.

Bad Jackie’s story doesn’t end so happily. Bad Jackie goes the other way, doubling down and defending the story despite the evidence confronting her on Dan’s iPhone.

Like Good Jackie, she also remembers repeatedly telling the story of the toilet spider. Unlike Good Jackie, she tended to make personal embellishments her own – saying she having read it in a magazine, and that she own cousin knew the unfortunate woman. It wasn’t true, but it wasn’t something she had planned to say or thought much about even while she was doing it. It just seemed like that was how the story should be told. That was what made it exciting and fascinating to her, so she had to make it just as exciting and fascinating to the people she was telling it to as well. But because she said these things, her own credibility is closely tied to the credibility of the story. Accepting that the story is false would be far more embarrassing for her than for Good Jackie.

Bad Jackie can’t tolerate embarrassment, which means it’s very important to her to never be wrong – almost as important to her as to point out when others do. Bad Jackie has it in his head that this is where his value comes from. If she is right and the others are wrong, then they are bad and she is good. So if she accepted being wrong – even because she had been innocently deceived – then she would be bad. And she knows that deep down she has a good heart and so it can’t be true and she must be right after all. She to have to be.

His identity is at stake, you see. His self-image and with it his self-esteem. It doesn’t excuse what she does next, but it can help understanding, and understanding is always a step closer to forgiveness.

“It happened!” she insists, scanning Dan’s phone and suggesting it’s gullible to take “a blog’s word” rather than her own.

There’s a tense moment as you exchange the nervous looks you share whenever Jackie gets like that, telepathically communicating “Forget it – you know how she is.” You can see the fight or flight instinct take over in Jackie and Big Drama seems imminent. Dan looks like he’s about to say something – this Dan is a less patient and kind person than the Dan in the other variation, because this Dan spent years hanging out with Bad Jackie instead from Good Jackie – but just then Susan cuts it off and saves the day by telling a long funny story about spiders in addiction when she was dating Outdoorsy Guy and he took her to his cabin in Maine for the weekend. This segues into a lively, non-threatening conversation about whether indoor plumbing might be a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for romance. Everyone is happy and relieved to move on like everything that happened with Bad Jackie and the toilet spiders didn’t happen.

But everyone remembers it. And every time the two of you, Jackie not included, are together in an airport, you’ll make jokes about toilet spiders and laugh, coldly, because Jackie has been your lifelong friend and you love her. But sometimes it’s so much easier when she’s not around.


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