Maybe I Misunderstood

I'm a woman who takes the "change oil" light as more of a mild suggestion than a directive. I've been known to ignore these things to the point of new sounds and alerts coming from the car, until technicians shake their heads at me and tell me I have no fluids left.

I was feeling pretty proud of myself when I pulled into a well known quick lube lane, a mere week after the telltale light had come on.

My two toddlers were asleep in their seats behind me, and I asked the man who greeted me if we could wait in the car during the service. He told me that was fine, but I had to move over to the passenger seat so he could drive the car in.

As we pulled into the bay, a young man servicing a car in the next lane shouted, "Does anyone else smell seafood?" There were titters in the garage.

"It smells a lot like seafood in here, like fish, right here in this bay all of a sudden."

I froze.

He couldn't mean what it sounded like he meant. My face turned red as other men chuckled, blithely going about their business.

No one was eating, and we're miles away from the nearest dock, and yet I smelled the air to be sure. I lack any supernatural powers of smell, but I caught nothing but oil.

Embarrassed, I watched this man work in the lane next to me. When he caught my gaze, his unsmiling face demanded, "Do you have a question for me?"

I shook my head no.

Twenty minutes later, when another tech escorted me inside to pay my bill, I asked him, "What would you think of, when you pulled into a place of business, someone asked about a fish smell?" He looked sheepish and mumbled something to the effect of, "Yeah, that was pretty bad."

After debating whether or not to speak up further, I asked to see the manager, who had been in the bay the whole time. When I posed the same question to him, he said, "Oh no, that's not what he meant. He was talking about another guy."

OH.

I'm so sorry, I must have misunderstood. I must have overheard a tragically ill timed comment between coworkers, and made an assumption.

Let me be the first, and as it turns out, only one to apologize in this situation. He couldn't possibly have meant the most obvious and likely thing, which is a lewd joke about the smell of women.

A week later, my deep self doubt was confirmed when a general manager called me, the result of a complaint to corporate. His investigation had revealed it truly was just confusion on my part, and the man in question was talking about another man passing gas. He had just felt compelled to fool around with his coworker at the exact moment of my arrival.

I had misunderstood, he told me.

The chain of events that led to my sitting in utter humiliation that I later literally paid for were set in motion by the world's most coincidental fart.

As it happens so often, I look back and wish I'd said so much more differently, especially when he boldly asked if I had a question for him. I do have a question.

How many other times has he been so passionately inspired to remark on the smell of the air when a woman entered his bay?

How many other women have sat mortified in their cars that dared to enter his garage?

What gave him the entitlement that made him feel secure in openly demeaning me just feet from my face?

It only took me a week to get the answer to that question. It's a work culture that accepts convenient excuses in place of accepting responsibility, and condones crude, sexist remarks by ignoring them.

What bothers me is that the man in charge of him, responsible for both his employees and customers, tried to convince me it was all in my head. The shameful comment wasn't enough, what I needed was a sturdy dose of self-doubt to invalidate my experience.

Maybe he meant nothing by it. Maybe he thought no one would care, or more likely that no one would say anything.

Maybe he's the tragic victim who wanted everyone to reflect on the aroma of flatulence in the air...maybe I misunderstood.

But then I remind myself that I'm not a moron, and I was there, and his intentions become crystal clear again.

That man didn't demand to know if I had a question because of his burning desire to satisfy a customer's curiosity. He was attempting to silence me for staring at him after he'd shamed me.

I think of my daughter, who slept in the seat behind me as I sat stoically in the car. I wonder what I'd like her to do if someone saw fit to so brazenly harass her.

I'd like her to use her voice and let them know, in the moment, that this is not acceptable behavior. The only reason that man felt secure in shouting those words was that no one has told him it's not okay.

I would want her to banish self doubt from her mind, and not accept some half baked excuse from a manager about what happened.

...I wouldn't want her to be embarrassed when she talked to other people about it, as if she had something to be ashamed of for being singled out.

So I'm saying that it's not acceptable, and I don't believe I misunderstood and I'm not embarrassed. Because I hope, one day she doesn't need to look back days later and say the same thing.