It’s about time, I would say. Most people have had theirs for a while now. Some people have been trying like the devil to put a lid on theirs. But I had hit the age where I wanted one: a real honest-to-goodness don’t-give-me-any-backtalk No. I used to have one—but I lost it—and now it’s found. Amazing.
A No is a very personal thing. It tells you when the world, or something in it, has collided with your borders, and you have made the decision to stop it at the gate. Maybe you just want to know what’s coming in—you know—have this thing, this person’s idea or opinion, answer a few questions. Then again, maybe you’re feeling protectionist today, “No, sorry, you’ll have to turn back.” Perhaps you would welcome the new whatever-it-is with open arms, you just want to watch it come through the gate with your eyes wide open.
That is really the sum of it—you want your eyes wide open. As an adult, you would like to think that you know enough to be able to say Yes and No quite easily, but sometimes the gray areas of Life get in the way. There are people’s feelings to consider. There are times when you don’t know what you want, let alone have the clarity to tell other people. Then there are times when you know deep down inside, but you hedge. Why? I wish I knew.
In any event, my No was rusty from lack of use. Puny. Kind of anemic and whiny. Like Woody Allen. It had been kept under wraps during a long period of wanting to be nice all the time, wanting to accommodate. I’m not saying it had completely shriveled up, but it lacked conviction. My No was more like, “Well, I don’t really agree, but it’s all relative.” Or, “Ask so and so what she thinks.”
Usually, unless something terrible has happened to you, you don’t lose your No overnight. It is a gradual process of accepting things that compromise you, over and over again, until one day you wake up and realize that your No is missing. There is a feeling of emptiness somewhere in your gut. I say that because although you may speak No from your mind and intellect, the real juice behind it comes from your stomach and heart. It comes from knowing yourself and not being afraid to act on what you believe.
A few years ago, I noticed that my No was trying to make a comeback. In little ways, in little moments, my No was spilling out in small, inconsequential Nos, like puffs of steam blowing the lid off of a pressure cooker. Don’t get me wrong; I had spelled out to prospective employers what I would and would not do as part of my job, had engaged in plenty of rousing and noisy arguments with Patrick, had fired painting contractors and run them off our property, but all without fully understanding the real process I was going through—recovering my lost No. I was in danger (without even knowing it) of becoming one of those people who trade a natural equanimity for the sawed-off-shotgun approach to problem resolution. Take Road Rage, for example. Someone with Road Rage has no control over their No.
In order to tell you the story, you need to know that I have two dogs and that Rufus is my favorite. Sassy is a beauty and a charmer, and the one everybody said we should have bred (if we had been into that kind of thing), but Sassy is just more dog; she is descended from wolves. Rufus is descended from boarding school, where he may have been required to wear a navy blazer and short pants in another life.
Rufus looks like a Chia pet, or maybe a hedgehog on Rogaine. From the time he was tiny, he started fluffing out and has never stopped. We brush him and brush him, but he has never “blown his coat” as the Sheltie books so confidently discuss. Sometimes the woman from the groomers will call me: “Mrs. Troccolo, can you come and get Rufus now? He is tired; we are tired . . .” her voice trails off wearily. He even has dense little plugs of fur on his face and feet. Yes, Rufus is a rug, a three-dog-night dog all by himself.
Rufus is also a social being. When we go for walks, he stops to greet everyone on the street. If they are busy, he looks at them earnestly until they give in and give him a scratch. People can’t resist his beautiful face. Oh, did I mention that he’s chubby? A regular sausage despite all our dietary diligence.
Once, when I was about five years old, Mom got really mad at me for something and took me to the bedroom to give me a spanking. According to the story she told me much later, I had been bratty and obnoxious that day and she was at her wit’s end with me. Anyway, after the spanking, Mom said that I looked up at her with big brown eyes filled with tears and said, “You spanked me because you love me, didn’t you Mommy?” Mom said she had to leave the room quickly so I wouldn’t see her cry.
That story reminds me of what it’s like to discipline Rufus. He wants to believe everything must be for his own good, the same way I was as a kid. Visits to the vet are the worst. Rufus won’t tell you something hurts, no matter what. He reasons that his hurt must be okay because you love him, right? After all, you are there with him, right Mommy?
So when those two German Shepherds attacked my Rufus on the street that day—they pissed off the wrong mommy.
It took all of us by surprise. One second we were walking in our usual neighborhood—Sassy on her leash running out ahead and Rufus walking by my side—when in a flash two colossal German Shepherds darted out an open front door, crossed the street with their backs up and their teeth bared, and went for Rufus.
You know those scenes in action movies where the camera is filming in slow motion and everything seems more intense? In those moments, time seems to stand still. We see the things that trigger our impulses. On that day, everything slowed down. I saw the look in those dogs’ eyes. I saw how out of control they were and how small Rufus looked in comparison. I knew how hard it would be to stop two of them. But then, just as suddenly as those dogs lunged away from their owner, my No lunged out of me, and it was something to behold! Coming out of me like a lion’s roar—the Big No. No! You won’t come near me. No! You won’t hurt my dog. No! You back off. No! I’ll break your goddamn neck. Nooooo! And Noooo again! I was lunging at those dogs like a crazy person, bellowing and roaring No! from deep in my chest, from my gut, from my pelvis and genitals and legs down to my feet and through all my toes. A No! that rattled and tingled through my spine, that filled me up like a balloon and let loose. A No! to blow leaves across the yard and scatter papers—a real ass-kicking, do-not-give-me-any-shit, No! A No to end all puny Nos and the memory of all puny Nos.
Well. Those poor German Shepherds took off across the street whimpering, their tails low and their heads down. Bad dogs. They returned to their master, who was not happy. He had merely opened his front door, preparing to take his dogs for their walk, when suddenly, on his own front porch, he was thrust into an adrenaline response.
“Put your damn dog on a leash!” he yelled. “If you had your dog on a leash, this wouldn’t have happened.”
“Hey,” I yelled back, “it wasn’t my dog who crossed the street. Your dogs attacked my dog!”
Silence. Heavy breathing from dogs and people. Nobody moving. My heart was pounding so loud in my chest I could hardly hear. I put my hand on Rufus’s head; he was shaking. The man with the Shepherds looked down and bit his lip.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay. Jeez, I hate it when things like this happen.”
Suddenly, I felt sorry for the guy. “Look, I’m sorry I took your head off. I really didn’t know what your dogs were going to do. Can you understand that?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry, too. They got away from me. They . . . we need to work more together.”
“Okay. Listen,” I said, “do you want to go on ahead of us now?”
“No . . . no. I have some things to do now. With them. You go ahead, we’ll start our walk later.”
It took me a very long time to calm down—almost forty-five minutes, which is the rest of our usual walk. Rufus and Sassy kept looking up at me. They seemed to be glad I was in their pack. Their own Alpha Mama with the Big No. I know it sounds funny, but I could swear they were proud.
As for me, I’m just glad to have my No back, even if she is a little full of herself at the moment. She is Katniss Everdeen; she is Tina dissing Ike; she is Hepburn to Tracy, Bacall to Bogart. She scans the latest Parks and Recreation brochure for kick boxing classes. She may have overreacted to those German Shepherds—or maybe not. But sometimes one magnificent moment of rage that doesn’t hurt anybody can really clean out the pipes.
I’m not going to curb my No just yet. It has been bottled up for quite a while and I’m sure it will settle down in time. Besides, it feels great having a No. It gives me a Yes. A real, whole-hearted, from-the-core, you betcha Yes. A No, a Yes—and all the things in between. Choices to be made and eyes wide open to make them—now that’s what I want.
This essay was originally published in Susan’s book, The Beet Goes On.