At my previous job, I managed a gift shop. One of our only fast-moving products were Ty beanie babies. I am personally not one to collect much of any kind of junk, especially cheap-looking stuffed animals, so I had very little sympathy for the middle-aged women who were constantly calling to inquire about upcoming shipments and reservations. Some days I would be completely swamped with calls from collectors wanting to know what was coming in, how much of each kind, how much I was charging, if they could reserve any, how many could they buy at one time, and the bold ones would always ask me if Selma had already called or come by.

Selma was very intense when it came to collecting beanie babies. She called several times a week and often more than once a day. I only started putting things on hold for her because she would barrage me with phone calls and personal visits otherwise. Whenever she came by the store personally, she would stand around for ages talking about Ty products with me and browsing through the brochures that the company representative would always leave with me.

Sometimes it was all I could do to maintain my composure, because I always had a million more other things to do that I actually gave a shit about than to stand around discussing the aesthetics of the positioning of the colour spots on bears' ears or how truly unique and individual each of their faces really were. Eventually, she began showing up early in the morning before I had even opened the shop, which I usually did around 7:00 am. She would catch the first bus out in the morning and then would wait patiently for me in the lobby, personal shopping bag in hand, legs crossed modestly at the ankles.

I feel like I am sounding fairly selfish and uncharitable, because I did not look upon her as a whole person. Of course, I only interacted with her on a shop manager / customer basis and didn't get to see all of the other parts of her life that made up Selma, but she did tell me some things about herself while she was hanging around my counter watching eagle-eyed as I received new shipments. Here, I am truly going to sound selfish, because all I could think as I tried to wait on other customers while she prattled on was why do I have to listen to this? I don't know her. She irritates me. She is obsessed with stuffed animals even though she's in her forties. Why in the hell doesn't she just leave already?

But of course I did know her. I saw her several times a week. I knew that she lived with her ageing parents and helped to look after them. I knew that she didn't have much money or employment. I guessed that she might be lonely, even though she frequently mentioned friends that she has spoken to. And I still didn't care. There are people like that, it seems. There are people who drift in without invitation that, no matter how often circumstance throws the two of you together, you just don't feel a connection. Do I still feel a twinge of guilt when I think back on Selma? Yes, and here is why.

When I decided that I had to move on from that soulless job, I told each of my regulars as they came in that I would be leaving soon. Some of them were really nice or interesting people, and I knew that I would miss them, but when I told Selma of my leaving, I felt relieved. Yes, relief. She had begun to feel like a burden to me. Her eager face in the early mornings filled with the light of anticipation when a new Ty shipment had arrived, her long monologues about the merits of this or that beanie baby, even her ugly and scuffed white sneakers that didn't ever quite match her pants were dreaded. All of the conversations that she looked forward to having with me, the phone calls, the visits, the early arrivals were of no interest to me. We had nothing in common, and the only reason that I bothered to carry on this relationship with her was because it was my job to be friendly and courteous and to talk to customers about the products we sold. (Actually, that was partially why I quit that job - I just didn't have my heart in a job that required me to be so continually and unrelentingly surface for ten hours a day).

Selma's reaction to my news was definitely not one of relief. Her facial expression went blank momentarily, and then her eyes did that looking inward thing and her lips pressed together. She wanted to know why I would leave when I was so good at my job. I could not explain my reasons to her without insulting her, and so I told that it was simply time for me to move on. I found her obvious emotional upset at my quitting disconcerting and kept trying to change the subject, but she would not leave the counter. She stood quietly by whenever I was dealing with other customers and then picked up right where she left off, trying to have some sort of more in-depth conversation with me. It was like she was trying to cram in an actual relationship where none had been before. She asked me if I would meet her for coffee in the morning before my last day of work. I tried to say no, because I started work at 6:45 am, so I would have to be up even more stupidly early to meet her at 6:15 am, but Selma looked so sad that I couldn't turn her down.

I showed up promptly at 6:15 am that Friday, and there she was, sitting on a bench waiting for me with her legs crossed at the ankles and her hands folded over a plastic shopping bag in her lap. I found us a table, and as we were sitting down it suddenly felt as though we were on some kind of date. She was nervous and talking like she didn't know where to start her sentences, so I tried to smooth things by asking her why she had wanted to go for coffee with me.

She took a deep breath and told me that I had been so nice to her over the previous year, and that she really appreciated it, and would I accept a present from her? What could I say but yes? She was grinning as she dug around in her bag, eventually bringing out a small wad of tissue paper and a card. The card was of the thank-you variety and had a rainbow on the front with sparkles in the clouds at the either end of its arc. I was quite nervous about opening up the tissue paper and rightly so as it turned out. She gave me the ugliest pair of earrings. They were big, gold squares with sparkly, lacquered black and white parts straight out of the much-less-than-cool parts of 1983. I smiled at her and tried to sound authentic as I thanked her for the jewellery.

It was at this point that I began to feel awful. One of the reasons that I was leaving my workplace was that it was squashing my care for humanity. I had to put on a fake personality for so much of my day that I was becoming accustomed to seeing mostly the surfaces of things, and in doing so I had forgotten to look at people as more than being either a convenience or an inconvenience to me. I had ended up disassociating myself from my environment as a defensive measure, which had made me look upon Selma as little more than a nuisance, and now here this nuisance was sitting across from me with moist eyes and had just offered me a gift given out of what little money she had. I was ashamed at how low the bar I set for myself had become and how it had nearly led me to be callous and cruel to someone who meant no ill will toward me.

I accepted the earrings and the card and wished her well in the future, assuring her that the gift shop would likely continue to carry Ty products because they were such big sellers, and then I walked into the dark shop to get ready for opening. Any misgivings I had had about leaving that place were gone after visiting with Selma. There was a tangible emptiness to that place from the first moment I had walked into it on the day of my interview, and I could feel it so clearly in that dark shop that morning with bits of weak morning light falling through the curtains. I didn't have to allow that emptiness to swallow me anymore. The fact was that I had never had to allow it to swallow me, but that I had given myself up to it anyway out of apathy, out of a lack of direction, out of a fear of being who I am was shameful to me. In allowing myself to even begin to give up on myself, I had given up on people I didn't even know.

In lieu of an actual wrap-up to this story: I'm fine now and have mostly recovered from the terrible side effects of trying to be someone I am definitely not. Selfishness is still a regular struggle, but I'm only human, right? And as for Selma, I don't know where she is or how she is doing, but I truly wish her well. She opened my eyes for me at a time when I was wilfully clamping them shut.

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