I stand in front of the white wooden wall and stare. It is the most daunting piece of crudely painted lumber I have ever seen, overwhelming me with its peeling text and childish, hand-drawn pictures. There are words misspelled and letters missing; only the discolored sketches seem to be totally intact. Squinting, I read each line carefully, as if in preparation for a test of my knowledge. I compare words with their matching drawings. I take one minuscule step forward, just a tad closer, and then with a rush of panic I hear the dreaded words: “Can I help you?”
On-the-spot decision-making has never been my strongest suit. In fact, my uncanny lack of decisiveness makes enemies of every ice cream scooper I encounter, as well as waitresses, aggressive drivers, people standing behind me in line, and at times even my own mother. I feel the need to overanalyze every situation, create extended pro-con lists, mull over every option for longer than 24 hours, and ask for recommendations and opinions before I decide on things as simple as which flavor of ice cream to get or what to eat for dinner. Spontaneity makes me nervous; impulses are terrifying and irrational. In my mind, choices should be made through the employment of logic and reason, considering and weighing each possible outcome. Choosing involves much more than just what I “feel like”; it involves “should” and requires an answer to “why.”
I cannot believe that my extensive decision-making process is entirely my fault, however. I remember family road trips as early as the age of six being unbearable because none of us ever wanted to choose where to stop for dinner. When we planned a “family fun day,” no one ever picked a destination. At a restaurant we would force a waiter to take at least three trips to collect all of our complete orders. From the time my brother and I were toddlers, my parents tried to instill in us the decisiveness they lacked, but we were hopeless. The four of us always employ three words when asked our opinions, and those words are “I don’t care.”
I stand back from the wall for a moment and let the words surround me, swirling a current of choices around my brain. I feel a tightening in my chest, my pulse quickening with tension. My breath catches as the impatient question comes again. “I said, can I help you?” Her fingers are tapping a drumbeat on the sticky counter, matching the thumping of my heart. I have fewer than five seconds to make my choice. The rhythm of the clicking and the drumming and the pounding clouds my senses.
“You’ve been in line for, like, ten minutes,” the girl says with contempt. “Can I help who’s next?”
I am shoved off to the side by a crabby man’s elbow, the jolt to my ribs shifting my thoughts away from my dilemma. All these people have been standing in line for just as long as I have, and they seem to have all made a decision. The wide-eyed woman with the toddler clutching her leg is placing a long and difficult order; the sweaty boys’ soccer team is in the process of tackling triple scoop sundaes. It is my last chance to make this choice today, but the decision will be a trivial one. What flavor I decide on won’t matterin the long run, not tomorrow or tonight or even an hour from now. So why can’t I do it?
I finally step up to the counter, shaking but confident. It’s time to choose something just because I want to. I haven’t weighed every option or asked for every opinion. But for the first time, I’ve listened to my heart. I take a deep breath. “Peanut butter cup sounds good.”