While driving today, en route to a life saving coffee and a date with my computer, I was making a left hand turn across from another woman doing the same. She was older than me, blonde and skinny in that LA type of way. Bony cheekbones and skin clinging to the infrastructure below, hoping to reconnect with some semblance of what it once was. Drycleaning hanging behind the passenger seat. She waited too long to put on her blinker, thus bringing the ire from a white van behind her, who swerved and honked and barreled past her through the intersection. She was in the wrong in terms of common courtesy, but she still flipped him off. The scene struck me as decidedly grosteque and unladylike, however small the gesture. I drove away contemplating how I really felt about the practice of telling someone to f-off with a carefully chosen digit.
The middle finger has always struck me as the “c word” of body language. When I see it, it stings and makes me wince a little bit, like a punch to the face. And that’s what I interpret it as being: flipping people off is what you do when you really want to just slug someone in the jaw but are incapable of doing so because you are either too far away or not physically capable of doing so (uh hem, pussy). This means that this is most often and best used within the comfort of your car. Flipping someone off while walking, on a subway, or otherwise exposed leaves you quite vulnerable to attack.
Like the “c word” I do not use my middle finger that often. I can count on one hand how many times I have used it in earnest. I’m not talking about lamely flipping off a friend in high school for telling me my ass is fat; I’m talking about stiff armed, hand extended as far as you can, straight fingered hate…a reaction you can only justify when someone nearly plows through a red light and kills you. Or the type that you use in order to educate someone on what a fucking royal idiot they are. That type of middle fingering.
Similarly, the times in which I have been flipped off myself have been burned into my psyche like a curling iron on the outside of an ear.
My number one memory of middle finger hate happened in high school and I remember it for a few reasons. I was only sixteen, newly registered with the DMV and a novice behind the wheel. This may have been before or after I got t-boned while making a left-hand turn out of the local shopping mall. I was basically only as good at driving as experience would allow, and that experience was minimal. School had just let out and I was attempting to back out of my parking spot in order to head over to Starbucks to indulge in my after school treat of a Grande Mocha Frappaccino and a heath bar when my efforts were thwarted halfway out of my spot. Three juniors, all in a Japanese white two-door rice rocket accelerated into the empty spot of concrete that my rear end was heading for and a boy that I recognized but did not know leaned in from the back seat to the front of the cab where I could see him and flipped me off.
I flushed. Red and embarrassed. A boy in the grade above me had just flipped me off. I felt like an idiot, a complete and utter moron. He had effectively managed to ruin my entire day, the remainder of which I spent ruminating why he was such an asshole and why I allowed him to make me feel badly about myself for no reason whatsoever. While this reaction was definitely heightened by a potent combination of insecure self-awareness and teenage hormones, a similar reaction is still churned up in me today. The middle finger always manages to stay with me, because to me it always feels like someone you love screaming “I hate you and everything you do” even if it really is just a stranger saying, “You’re a retard. I wish you were dead…or at least didn’t own a car.” Psychoanalyze that, if you will.
The image of that boy leaning forward to flip me off also stuck with me because within a month he died in a car crash. And while everyone cried and talked about what an amazing person he was and how they would miss him forever, all I could remember was his middle finger nearly pressed up against the glass and my red cheeks.
So when I see people flipping off strangers, or when I am driven to do it by complete madness myself, I can’t help but think what a terrible image that would be to exist in perpetuity in. Lost in an obscure memory in the depths of someone’s brain, living forever as an asshole. Over and over and over again.