Filling Out the Form–Is it And or Or? A Bureaucrat’s Snapshots of Romance
The Young Mother
Both can’t take time off to have the car inspected, so one must answer for the other.
Only sometimes, now and then, I decide. Like this morning. For the young mother with
the newborn and the toddler ramming his car into the counter grout. Her husband’s
been harvesting for three days straight, she tells me. In the middle of the night he’d left
a note scribbled on a donut sack: Get the Ford inspected, it said. She hands me the
paper-stuffed sack. What she doesn’t say–maybe can’t say–is that she’s desperate for a
break from her babies. A quick shower. A nap. I write or between their names on the
inspection form. I ask beforehand, do my clerk duty, but she doesn’t hear. And I worry
about her driving home, worry she’ll nod off on some shoulderless gravel road.
The noon hour. Mister comes prepared. The out-of-state title neatly folded with receipts
from last weekend’s car auction in Omaha. He tells me or before I’ve even pulled the
form from the drawer. I recognize this level of efficiency. It means he has a black suit in
his closet at home. In dry-cleaner’s plastic with a white shirt and tie. Probably an
emergency kit and flares in his trunk too. And anything else he can think of in advance
that will make her life easier if he’s suddenly struck dumb. Or worse. On the way to the
parking lot he leapfrogs in front of me –seems embarrassed not to have thought of it sooner drags his thumb through the dust on the windshield so I can better read the 17-digit VIN. The gesture so reminds me of my own husband that I choke up for a second–can’t read the number anyhow.
Friday afternoon. Five minutes before closing. Mr. and Mrs. come in to register a gifted
used car from his parents. I gather from their conversation that her parents had done
the same thing. And I envy their new relationship–nothing yet broken or broke-down.
Ungouged by parental deaths. Resentments still larval. In whose name or names would
you like it? I ask. He spells out his name. Just his name. She explains to his back that
she’d registered her parents’ gift in both their names. When he says nothing she solicits
my help: Which way do you think it oughta go? I’ve been snagged by this tripwire
before. Not my call, I say, avoiding eye contact. What I really want to say is, Quit it, the
both of you. Power plays are a waste of time. Go home. Make love while your knees are
still good. But I don’t say a word.
One of the “New Economy” Boys
They’re all recently unemployed. Moved back home from far and wide. Dependent again
on mom and dad. In debt to girlfriends. Shell-shocked. Mostly young and middleaged,
rich and poor–their problems far beyond any issue of and or or. Today’s specimen is from
a wealthy family. His surname’s carved into practically every building in town. He
breezes in wearing loafers without socks, designer sunglasses atop his head, well-
groomed brows. It’s been so long since I’ve seen eastern prep I flat-out gawk. The
Connecticut title indicates an or between his name and his wife’s, but he says he
wants the new Nebraska title to be in his name alone. His tone is so sharp I
involuntarily glance up, see in an instant what he doesn’t want me or anyone
else to see–that losing his job has cost him a wife.
The simple act of filling out forms can often trigger unexpected emotional responses. With some forms or documents we anticipate high anxiety; when signing a will, for instance, or purchasing a home. Buying a car? Usually our eyes are so focused on the prize of driving that we hardly give the paperwork a second thought except to consider it a headache, an annoying means to a more glittering end. And yet it is often the first time, beyond our parents, we’re officially confronted with the question of relationship: What or who is she to me? Can he stand-in for me? What happens if we break up? This piece explores a seemingly mundane bureaucratic moment that catches many of us off-guard.