It was an exceptionally warm morning, and my thoughts were on the story I’d begun outlining before leaving home. I had coupons to redeem at the drugstore and decided to pick up a few things before going back home to my writing. Creating stories that people could relate to in some way had become my reason for living.
I took a cart and placed my large purse in the front. My shoulder had been bothering me and I didn’t want to aggravate it any more than necessary. I opened the store’s app on my phone, chose a few items that were on sale, and proceeded to the counter to checkout.
The cashier’s name tag said “Charlene” and I smiled and said hello. She didn’t answer, but instead rang up my items quickly and announced how much was due in a lifeless monotone.
I already had my credit card ready and put it down on the little machine to “tap” my payment. Tapping was fast and simple, I was thinking. But the transaction didn’t go through.
“I want to run it as credit. Can’t I do that with tapping?” I asked.
“No. You can only use credit if you insert your card.”
Her voice was dull and flat. She quickly cancelled the transaction and rang me up again. I turned to see if anyone was in line behind me. No one was, so I turned back to face the machine and wait for my cue to enter my card.
I heard the sound and inserted my card. Nothing.
“You have to insert it the other way. Turn it around.”
She was beginning to get frustrated with me and her voice went up half an octave. I turned the card around and inserted it again.
Charlene was definitely upset with me now. She grabbed the card out of my hand with a dramatic sweep of her outstretched arm, and when she did, I flinched. She didn’t seem to notice, but it surprised me.
I was immediately whiplashed back to my former life, to earlier times when I’d heard that word… flinch.
It was 1989, and a boy in my classroom named Wilbur Ortiz was getting on my last nerve. We were on a year ’round schedule and the heat of the summer, in a room without air conditioning or a fan had everyone on edge. Wilbur had a flair for the dramatic and flat out refused to sit down and take out his social studies book. Williewas my protector that year and he went over to Wilbur and got right in his face. Willie raised his arm high in the air and Wilbur flinched before falling to the floor. He hadn’t been touched, but the result effectively positioned him as the victim.
Again in the classroom, I believe it was in 1987, my second year of teaching… I reached over the head of a boy named Malik to take a book off the shelf above his head and he flinched. He asked to go to the bathroom and I followed him outside. It turned out he was regularly beaten at home by his grandfather. I am required to report child abuse within 72 hours; it only took me until lunch to contact the child protective services office. They never followed up, and I learned that this was standard procedure for children of color at that time.
Now I’m thinking of the film Stand By Me, based on an earlier Stephen King novella titled The Body, and released in 1986. The boys teased Vern and this led to a stupid game called Two for Flinching that boys would play in school. The rules are pretty basic. If you can make another kid flinch (for instance, by pretending to punch him) you then got to actually punch him. Two for Flinching.
Often the word flinch is used to describe a person who shows a moment of weakness or fright: he was so tough, I thought he’d never flinch, but snakes really freak him out. To flinch is to pull away suddenly or recoil when something frightens or hurts you.
The flinch response is an involuntary physiological response to an unexpected attack that is highly consistent and functions as an effective protective mechanism. Flinching is the lightning-fast, whole-body, instinctive protective response to an assault. Had I just been assaulted? I wasn’t sure.
When someone gets too close to us … the part of the brain known as the amygdala is triggered as we (potentially unconsciously) feel we might be attacked. Obviously, if you recoil or flinch at your partner’s touch, it’s a clear indicator that you’re uncomfortable around them. Now I’m thinking hard about what just happened at the checkout counter.
Then, I thought back even further, to sometime in the early 70s when friends rescued a German Shepherd they named Spike. He had been abused. Every time you reached out to pet him, he flinched and cowered down, making himself as flat as possible to squeeze under the nearest desk or table and wimpered until he tired himself out.
My last stop on this terrifying journey would be back to 1969. I’m in the 9th grade and the Black girls have begun picking on me. During this specific period in history, everyone was finding their way. I was insecure, overweight, poor but not living in the County housing project across the footbridge from the school, and hanging on with all my might in an effort to fit in somewhere.
One morning, just before first bell Edna Armstrong appears in front of me. I look down at my scuffed up, half a size too small shoes, hoping she will turn around and go away. No such luck. She reaches out and tears the bottom of my dress. I stand motionless. My face is hot and my eyes are closed. The second bell rings and when I finally look around I see that almost everyone has gone into the building.
Billy Stonehouse comes up behind me and gives my hand a squeeze. He’s so sweet and we have become good friends during junior high.
“Ready for the math test?” he asks.
“Yes, of course. Did you do the homework, Billy?”
He nods and we go inside the building, walking together until the first turn, then going our separate ways to our respective Homerooms.
“See ya third period.” His words trail off in an echo that bounces down the hallway.
I almost forget what happened that morning, until I get to the door of the math class two hours later. The teacher is running late, again. I enter the room, setting my books down before taking my seat.
Edna comes in quickly. Two of her friends are blocking the door. She throws my books to the floor and a primal scream come out of her mouth. My fear is different this time. I feel unusually calm as I wipe the sweat from my upper lip. We make eye contact for a brief moment and I feel my right arm draw back and then move towards her. She flinches and my fist makes contact with her mouth.
In slow motion, I feel her tooth as it cuts her lip, and then the warm blood covers her face and spews across the front of my dress. Her friends move in closer, but Billy is one step ahead of them. He pulls me backwards, out of the room and into the hallway and the screaming from the girls in the classroom is finally in the distance by the time he delivers me to the vice principal’s office. I sit staring at the wall, feeling small and weak and invisible.
Invisible. Flinching equals invisibility. It’s the abrupt transformation from someone who had a voice to one who does not speak or think or act. To flinch is to withdraw your humanity and recoil into something less than a full human being, or any living creature.
The definition of the word flinch is “to make a quick, nervous movement as an instinctive reaction to fear, pain, or surprise.” Is that what I just did?
My mind snaps back inside the drugstore again. Not sure how much time has passed, I turn around and see that there is now a woman with a young girl at her side waiting in line. I wait for my receipt and to be asked if I want a bag for my purchases, but no words are spoken. I am embarrassed and feel awkward in my skin. I quickly shove everything I bought into the side of my purse and make my way out into the strong mid-morning sunshine.
As I make my way to the car, I think of the survey this store always sends me to find out how my visit was and what they could do to improve. I promise myself I will tell them that Charlene was rude. Rude and unkind.
I try to shake my feelings off as I drive the ten minutes back to my house, but the experience is still with me as I make my way into my office and open my laptop. There’s the survey at the top of my inbox and I take a few minutes to tell whomever may read this what happened today.
Expunging what happened makes me feel a little better and I return to the story I am writing. It has a joyous theme and I get caught up with the two main characters. I envision the next beat in their story and make some additional notes before continuing with these characters. Then the phone rings and I choose to answer it rather then letting it go directly to voice mail.
“Is this Connie Green? I’m the manager at the drugstore you just visited. Do you have time to talk?”
I spilled it all out to him, providing every detail and allowing him to ask probing questions about exactly what had occurred. I took responsibility for frustrating the cashier by not inserting my credit card the right way. I told him I felt embarrassed by what happened. But I made sure to tell him she was rude to me.
“I’m so sorry, Ms. Green. She’s been taken off the register for now, until we know what will happen next. I apologize to you.”
“It’s okay. Thank you.”
My voice sounded to me like I was muffled or in a tunnel. For a moment, I stepped outside my body and looked back at myself from the ceiling. I wasn’t invisible any longer, but this was not a light I was comfortable stepping into right now.
“I received your survey right away. Then I rolled the tape to watch what had happened. You flinched.”
“When she removed – took the card from your hand – she raised her hand to you and you flinched.”
He had watched the video of what had gone on for almost six minutes, from the moment I stepped up to the checkout counter until I walked outside to my car. At that moment, someone came to my door and I saw it on my phone as a Ring notification. I told the manager I had to go, and thanked him for his time.
“That will be the police.” His voice was calm and kind as he explained what would happen next. He had called the police after viewing the video a second time. They believed it might be an assault charge. I told him I didn’t want to press charges, but he told me that the police would be the ones to decide that, not me. They had estimated that I was more than twice her age, so that would be a consideration as well.
“I know it isn’t much, but I’ve added ten dollars to your loyalty card.”
There it was. Ten for flinching. I wasn’t invisible, but I was a little numb.
I’m author, marketing strategist, and entrepreneur Connie Ragen Green, sharing my stories and experiences as I navigate my way along the path my life’s journey is guiding me towards. It’s a wondrous ride and one I would love to share with you.