My 50th or 60th or 80th customer of the day pulled forward in a low rumbling diesel Dodge Ram, battered green and circa early 90’s. I’d been selling fuel since before the sun rose and it was now about 9am, and chilly in central Oregon, this late in the wildland fire season. I hadn’t had a chance to pee or even stop moving in four hours. The incident management camp was in a huge, smashed-down hayfield this time, and it had been so foggy ever since I got here that I had no idea what the surrounding area looked like.
I stood at the back end of my fuel truck, where the pump and meters were, often glancing to my right to see if the endless line of cars, trucks, engines, tenders, and heavy equipment was getting any shorter. A canopy hung in tatters overhead, protecting my area from the sun and rain, and I stepped unconsciously in and out of my walled containment tarp as I moved. Each vehicle needed fuel, sometimes various kinds in various containers, and a handwritten receipt, and I needed accurate numbers for my records, and meters had to be re-set between customers, and sometimes a bulk tank would run empty and I’d have to switch hoses and levers to access the next full tank. I could barely keep myself in fuel, on this fire, and the local distributor was out to refill me every other day, at least.
The worst problem I had, though, was filing the jerry cans. The fire crews needed hundreds of five-gallon cans for their back burns — this was not one singular wildfire, it was a “complex”, raging through the mountains — apparently. In all the fog, the whole thing just seemed like a diesel drenched fever dream, to me. Speaking of being diesel drenched, the pumps on this truck were strong and fast — perfect for filling ‘dozers, terrible for filling cans. To make it worse, the Forest Service had recently switched from the old style can to the new “safety” style. Nothing about them was safe, but they were exponentially more enraging, for everyone who handled them. Specific to me, though, they each contained a fine mesh “removable” screen, housed in the fill, that was actually not removable, in many cases, and caused nearly as much fuel to splash back on me as entered the actual can. It was a mess.
A stake bed truck would pull up, every 45 minutes or so, with 50 or 60 or 80 of these jerry cans in the back, and while the endless line of customers behind him waited, I would struggle to wrench out these screens and fill these cans. It was like filling a thimble with a firehose.
So by the time the battered, late 90’s, green Dodge Ram rumbled up that morning, my containment tarp was a slip ’n slide of murky rainbow fuel. My coveralls were a different color in front than on the back, from all the splashes. I reeked, and the sides of my hair were greasy from tugging my stocking cap down over my ears, against the cold, with my fuel mitts. I was a human torch waiting to happen.
This is why the faint whiff of cigarette smoke, drifting from the truck’s open window, caused me such sudden fucking alarm, as I stood near the rear axle, mechanically pumping diesel.
I stopped the flow and stepped up to the cab. The driver was a leathery-laborer type, a contractor like me. His boss was standing outside the truck and leaning against the quarter-panel, talking with the driver.
“Are you smoking?,” I interrupted. DANGER! — NO SMOKING signs lined the approach to my area, which shouldn’t have even been necessary.
They stopped talking and the driver looked at me. I looked at him. His hands were down, out of sight. The smell of smoke drifted out towards me, as the smell of my fuel-drenched clothing must have drifted in towards him.
“No,” he said.
I yanked his driver’s side door open. His left hand was on his leg — no cigarette — but a tendril of smoke drifted from the area beside the seat. The smell was strong, and unmistakeable. I looked at him. He looked at me.
“Do you see that I’m covered in gasoline? That fuel has splashed this entire area?,” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, meekly.
I slammed his door closed again, making him jump. “Don’t you ever fucking smoke in my fuel line again,” I suggested, and resumed pumping his fuel. I glanced into his rearview mirror and saw that he was surreptitiously attempting to beat out some emergency to the left of his driver’s seat.
I huffed, in that moment, my own anger, straightforward and un-complex as two gigantic angel wings sprouting from my back — as if I was floating six inches off the ground. I didn’t care about his feelings, about making him look bad in front of his boss, about whether I sounded like a bitch — anything.
I didn’t have time to think any more about it because there was the next customer, and the next, and the next. I pumped fuel from 5am to 10 or 11 every morning, because it was a big fire with a lot of equipment and there weren’t any fuel alternatives around. And I didn’t think about it then until after I’d finally had a chance to pee, and sit down, and eat something, and sip on some coffee.
But I thought about it then, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Let me give you another, contrasting anecdote.
When I was in my mid-twenties, a co-worker set me up on a blind date. The guy had his own successful business, and was handsome by societal standards; intelligent, well-spoken, and courteous; but somehow one of those people where the whole is, oddly, less than the sum of its parts. I felt nothing but vague, platonic, polite interest.
Here’s a terrible pattern of mine, that I’ve been hard pressed to even recognize, over the years, let alone fix: when I’m profoundly uninterested in a man as a romantic prospect, I become even more interesting and charming as a sort of psychic apology to him. This works out terribly, as you can imagine, considering my impaired ability to negotiate everyday levels of conflict.
So as I recall, we went on one date, and then when he asked if I’d like to go out again, to my own confused horror I found myself saying “yes”, so we went out again. By the second date it was clear that he was really into me, and I was feeling stuck — I’m outrageously avoidant of saying something painful to anyone, which is unfortunate because life simply demands it sometimes — and somehow our dynamic grew subtly toxic, as the dinner progressed. He became more avid as I became more passive aggressive.
I think what I’ve always wanted, in these circumstances, is a man who will say, “Look — I’m into you but unless I get some really clear signals that you’re into me too, I’m just going to write this off as a pleasant, but failed, experiment, and we can both go about our lives. You have my number so call me if you wanna start something, but otherwise I’m busy and I’m not going to waste my time with a lukewarm female.” That’s what I’ve always wanted, and that’s what ironically would engage my interest much more. And I realize this is a terrible bypass, on my part, to wish that someone else would take responsibility for the entire authenticity of the dynamic, so that I don’t have to. But that’s kind of what you want in a man, right? The ability to be strong in those areas where I’m not. It’s like the vibrational version of unscrewing a really tight jar lid for me.
Anyway, it’s only conjecture because men mostly aren’t capable of this maneuver. The more you retreat, the more they pursue, which would be nice if that’s what I wanted when I’m retreating, but since I’m a hopelessly honest individual, that’s never the case.
Anyway, outrageously, he invited me to coffee at the bookstore, after dinner; and even more outrageously, I accepted. I was firmly disconnected from my own body, by this time, feeling absolutely aggrieved at myself, and angry with him in a way I knew was 100% chickenshit. It was obvious to me that something was really wrong with me, and whatever was wrong with me continued to be wrong with me for many years, probably to this day, with several notable exceptions, one of those being my amazing transformation to an avenging angel in the fuel line, that one day, nearly twenty years later.
But back to the story — I think the whole disaster finally ended once we were both thoroughly angry with each other, and horribly polite, and in the middle of a stack of books I said, “Look man, I gotta go.” The final gesture of the anecdote was him, leaving a note on my windshield at work one day, saying that he didn’t know what he’d done wrong but that I should call him, which I never did.
These two contrasting anecdotes suggest, on the surface, a couple of things. First, that I’m able to take threats to my physical integrity more seriously than threats to my emotional integrity. That’s good…ish…but the problem is, threats to our emotional integrity occur (hopefully) much more often. Second, they suggest that no one ever taught me that dating can be, and indeed is, nothing more than a series of job interviews which can be approached with utter pragmatism. Third, they suggest that I carry some early childhood adaptations which do not serve me in adulthood.
You might think that, because I was so much younger in the blind date anecdote than the fuel line anecdote, I’ve learned to manage conflict with more skill, since, which is sadly not the case. My entire life feels like a panorama of mute tensions around others, to be honest. I did have a fraught relationship with a primary caregiver, my mom, which severed me from my INTERpersonal authenticity while actually strengthening my INTRApersonal authenticity. In other words, I felt what I felt but, because she was so volatile, I learned to radiate calm tranquility as a defense mechanism.
In that sense, I could argue that I actually take threats to my emotional integrity more seriously than threats to my physical integrity, because they shut me down more. I immediately detach, intellectualize, and self-critique, almost regardless of how offensive the transgression may be.
I think about authenticity a lot, and I appreciate that Teal Swan (one of my fave spiritual luminaries) has reframed “enlightenment” and “transcendence” as simple authenticity, which is overtly more of a process than a destination. And as Teal is quick to point out, most people who are attracted to spiritual inquiry are more fucked up, not less fucked up, than the average person, in terms of boundaries and self-possession. Most of us, myself included, hear the term “authenticity” and associate it with — oh, you know — long explorative talks, mutual emoting, sharing our dreams and fears, all of that.
But real authenticity doesn’t come via an even more nuanced practice of all the shit you’re already comfortable with; and I’m very comfortable with mutual emoting. It necessarily involves discomfort. And because I’m more comfortable handling a physical threat than an emotional one, it’s clear where the work of authenticity lies for me.
My early childhood travails with my mom made me avoidant — it’s not like you can move out when you’re seven. Avoidance is all you’ve really got. That’s affected me in unfortunate ways, though, in adulthood. I have this boyfriend now who’s a really nice guy but he’s extremely comfortable stepping into the role of the antagonist, the disseminator of hard-to-swallow pills, at a moment’s notice. I observe this with amazement. He worked in drug treatment for years, and it was his actual job to call people on their shit, as a meaningful contribution to saving their fucking lives. And he didn’t save them all — not by a long shot. Our defects of character drive us to whatever degree of ruin, and in the case of addicts, to the literal grave.
This has played out with us in interesting ways, as you can imagine. He’s called me on my defects of character with partial accuracy, while being at times thoroughly embroiled in his own defects of character. I’m actually not avoidant in a primary relationship. I don’t mind arguments or tensions, relative to someone I’m bonded with and who demonstrates being mostly all there. Also, it’s worth mentioning that he can be jealous and possessive, and I’ve experienced this mostly as a relief, which means we’re both fucked up but we’re at least fucked up together. I find negotiations with men, as a single gal, exhausting, and I’d much rather have a territorial alpha male come flying out of the woodwork *if I’m happy with him* than, all by myself, try to pinpoint that exact moment when I was supposed to have realized an ambiguous responsibility to alter an otherwise default romantic narrative had befallen me. I’m terrible at that, and Nick is such a good man deterrent that I almost feel I’m cheating the system.
Sometimes I don’t reach what feels like the conclusion of my ideas, but I reach the conclusion of what feels like the word count I’m willing to offer in response to those ideas, at least for now. It’s pretty funny, really, to spend time overthinking times in my life when I’ve overthought things, but if that’s not what being a writer is about then I don’t know what is 🙂