I'll begin this tale by letting you know what a horrible human being I am.
I am one of "those people" who go shopping on Thanksgiving night instead of spending it with my family. I've already talked about how I have no family to spend it with on Thanksgiving and how much easier it makes my life to do this instead of fighting throngs at 6 a.m. the next morning, but that's not the crux of this tale.
This tale begins in the checkout line at Target, fully a hundred people deep, being routed in a winding pattern through health and beauty to await our turn at getting an open register. It was hot. It was long (though to their credit, moving quickly) and we all wanted to get out of there.
The woman two spaces in front of me was on the phone arguing with someone - loudly. Then she turned to address a young boy who ran up to her, and stood there talking to him so long (and again very loudly) that the line ahead of her moved a huge distance.
The woman in front of me very meekly cleared her throat and said "Um....are you going to go?"
The loud talker immediately turned on the girl, railing at her, telling her to mind her own business and just where did she think they were all going to go? "You're in line!" she shouted at the woman. "We ain't going anywhere!"
The woman pointed out that she was afraid someone would cut into the open space (which was a real possibility, as we were winding through shoppers in that section) and the loud talker started yelling at her again.
A man showed up - either a husband or a boyfriend, and loud talker started yelling at him, telling him all about the "bitch" behind her not minding her own business and the man told her to calm down.
"You're pregnant," he reminded her. "You can't be getting worked up like this."
"Blame it on her," she said, jerking a thumb over her shoulder. "She needs to mind her own damn business."
The man walked off, shaking his head, and loud talker got back on the phone, relating her story to whoever she was talking to, and another man - either husband or boyfriend to the meek woman - showed up. She told him she'd had some trouble with the woman in front of her, and loud talker put her phone down and threatened to smack her if she didn't shut the hell up.
Meek girl then summoned a Target associate, who summoned a manager, who asked everyone to stay calm and then took meek girl out of the line to let her check out at the returns counter.
Loud talker was ready to spit nails. "Everybody's looking at me!" she fumed to whoever she was on the phone with.
No duh, I thought. We're looking because you're being an a-hole.
The little boy ran up again, asking her when they were going to be done, and she told him to go find Daddy. She leaned tiredly on her cart and I looked at her. I mean really looked at her.
She was a scrappy little thing. If it hadn't been mentioned, I wouldn't have noticed right away that she was pregnant, especially with that rough exterior and in-your-face attitude. She looked exhausted. And it was so hot in there. I remembered how I didn't wear a coat through either of my pregnancies no matter how bad the winter got.
And in that moment, I decided to try a little kindness. I always believe that killing someone with kindness is a good thing, and a lot of times, it makes them genuinely ashamed of their bad behavior when you're nice in spite of it. It was worth a try.
"Excuse me," I said. "Did I hear him say that you were pregnant?"
She gave me a very unfriendly look, and you could tell she was waiting to see where I was going with this.
"Yes," she said. "I'm due in March."
"Congratulations," I said sincerely. "And Merry Christmas. I hope you have a wonderful pregnancy."
She looked shocked at first, then she smiled and her hand went to her belly. "Thank you."
"And listen," I continued. "It's hot in here, and I know you're tired. I totally understand being done with all of it and just wanting to get out of here."
"Yeah...." she nodded. "I try to remember not to get too worked up. Doesn't always work, though. Thanks for being understanding."
"No problem. Hope you have a wonderful holiday and beautiful, healthy baby."
She thanked me again as her little boy ran up once more, pointing excitedly toward the checkout stands. "I saw her!" he said, "We have to get in her line!"
His mother reminded him that they had to go to whatever line they were put in, and he ran off again. Within a few minutes, I was at the front and directed to line fourteen. I started making small talk with the cashier, and just then, the little boy ran by, smiling and waving.
"His mom is my sister," she said. "I haven't seen them since my dad's funeral in August."
"I'm so sorry," I said. "I think they were in line in front of me. She's pregnant, right?"
The cashier nodded. "Yeah, it's her third baby. She had a little girl last year - went into labor on Thanksgiving, but she lost her. She had some kind of birth defect they didn't know about and she died a few hours later. My sister came shopping tonight because she couldn't stand to be at home. I told her we had a lot of good sales so she came here."
I mumbled something sympathetic - I really don't remember what - and finished checking out with a lump in my throat. Oh God. No wonder she was snapping. So much loss in so short a time. I thought I was teaching her a lesson with my kindness but instead, she taught me.
You don't know their story.
You might think you've got them pegged as the loud talker or the person with the attitude, the a-hole or the self-entitled jerk. You may be right about some of that. But I bet you're not right about all of it. I bet there are things you don't know, wounds that run deep and bleed invisibly, things that eat away and rub raw that shape the words and the actions you take offense to.
We're all in this together.
And in the end, kindness costs nothing, and means everything.