A woman at the doctor’s office smiled at me as I was helping my mother on with her coat after our appointment. After I tried and failed several times to zip my mom up and Mom got it zipped up on her first attempt, the woman gave me a knowing smile and winked at me. Then she and my mother and I made chitchat, and there was more friendly smiling. She then asked my mother where she had purchased the rubber feet for her cane, and just then the woman’s husband, until now silent, piped up with a comment on the subject of cane feet.
It was then that the woman shot her husband a disdainful look and told him to be quiet. Not embarrassed by her sudden rupture of affable conversation, the woman continued her pleasant banter with my mother and me. Amazingly, the husband ventured another innocuous remark, which seemed to me suicidal. Again his wife cut him off with a rude “Shhhhhhh!” as crass and loud as a second-grader silencing the student in the next desk when he hears the principal approach.
I am not so naïve as to be surprised that many people are nicer to strangers than to their husbands, but it was odd to see hypocrisy so transparently and artlessly displayed. Before our brief encounter was over, there was at least a third wifely censure administered to the henpecked companion. And it was clear that the couple had not been caught in a rare and unfortunate public argument, but that I was observing them in their normal relations.
Undoubtedly, the woman at the doctor’s office wanted me to think highly of her, to think she was a friendly sort. Her winks and smiles in my direction were an invitation to an intimate inner ring, a delicious club of superiority. But contrary to what she intended, the conclusion I was coming to was that a person’s real self is who she is toward her closest relationship, not toward the stranger in the waiting room.