I turn, and a man is right there in front of me, pressing an "Admit One" carnival ticket into my hand. He lifts a voice recorder to my face.
"Admit something," he says, his face expressionless.
"I admit nothing," I say without thinking. "I wasn't even there."
He blinks once, then he turns abruptly away.
Dear Bill Howe, doctor of poetics, Miami University: I lied. I admit it. I was there.
This mundane story has a point: I'm calling for a homeowner's insurance quote, and some guy I've never met before is chummy from "Hello."
He says he once wanted to be a stand-up comedian. Now just look where he is, he says.
I laugh. Sure, let's have a little mid-day laugh. No problem.
Eventually we get down to business.
"Married?" he asks.
I don't know what this has to do with insurance.
What the hell.
"Sometimes," I say with an edge.
He moves on. More details. My life, quantified. Isn't this fun?
I admit to him that I carry the least possible coverage on my car.
"That's not the best option, though, honey," he says.
Honey. My image of him wavers like a mirage from the heat rising in my face. I do some quick mental stretches.
Maybe he's one of those old-fashioned, grandfatherly-type guys. I let them get away with a lot of patronizing because they mean no harm and I could be their daughter or their granddaughter. Like that guy from the hardware store.
But this man doesn't sound like Wilford Brimley through the phone. I'd pegged him middle aged. Still, you never know.
Then, honey's not so bad, really. It's kind of sweet, the stuff and the word. Maybe this is a one-time slip.
While I calculate the level of offense, the warmth in my voice lags but I keep up with the questions.
Not long after that he tacks a "babe" on to the end of a sentence. I assume my coldest "I'm a professional" phone voice.
Then he calls me "chicky." (Chicky? Who calls anyone "chicky?")
Now I'm skidding fast down the slippery slope, and I've already logged "honey," "babe" and "chicky" in the muddy terrain behind me. At what point do I now say something? Say what? I guess "Don't call me chicky" would be an easy place to start.
While I'm thinking, the moment passes. He has more questions.
"Do you have any jewelry you want to insure?" he asks.
"No," I say.
"No jewelry at all?"
I take quick stock and decide all my possessions can go for all I care. Maybe then I won't have to deal with phone calls like this one.
"No," I say again.
"Your boyfriends must not like you very much," he says.
"Maybe I don't like them very much!" comes unthinkingly out of my mouth.
I don't remember what he says next, because blood is rushing through my ears. I'm about as terse as I can get and still maintain a nominal conversation.
But I don't end the call.
He finishes with the questions and quotes me some numbers. I tell I'm going to shop around.
"Eat your heart out," he says.
I can imagine him tapping a sheaf of papers into place on his desk, straightening my stats with detached finality.
I feel the slap of his brusque send-off to this conversation I'd swallowed a lot to stay in. Where was my emotional payoff? What had I done to him? Hadn't I preserved our relationship by saying nothing?
Still following some script of business civility, I ask him to save my information and quote.
"I'm going to shred it," he says. "Naw, I'll save it."
Frustrated comic indeed.
After we hang up, I take questions from the audience in my head: Why did I let him treat me like that? Why did I even consider returning for more?
I didn't want to offend him — not that he extended me the same consideration. I didn't want get attacked by some bedbug of the "don't be so sensitive" family.
Part of me swings into survival mode. I need this insurance quote. Along the lines of: I need this paycheck, I need this apartment, I need this family, I need this country, I need this fill in the blank.
What are my principles worth to me anyway? I admit it: Sometimes I'm a lousy feminist.
Later I regain myself to fully know what my body already knows. The "total sexist" I'd scribbled next to "won't insure without auto coverage" was an accurate observation.
We'd had no relationship to which I was obligated, certainly not one that trumped my obligation to myself. There are plenty of insurance agents who will take my money.
Buying a house as an unmarried woman is full of such revelations. I felt dizzy when I went alone to meet the home inspector and realized I was the only one there talking to him. There was no one else to make the decisions and no one whom I had to consult before making them myself.
I became acutely aware that if a man were involved I'd have deferred to him. I'd like to think not, but I suspect so.
I admit it: I used to let my ex drive everywhere. And it was my car.
Looking back, I don't think he even wanted to drive all the time. I don't know why I didn't take the wheel, but that's a metaphor for another time.
Later I ask around and call a female insurance agent. I find her to be very nice. Not condescending at all.
CONTACT STEPHANIE DUNLAP: [email protected]