May 15, 2024, 06:24AM

Bubbling Up and Spilling Over

What does anger do to you?

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Jules sat at the dining table, eating apple slices and filling out a crossword. He sniffled. A cold had taken hold of his sinuses and was clogging one side of his head. He sipped his stale cup of coffee. About 15 minutes earlier, Jules had woken up from a post-lunch snooze. Ruby would arrive in an hour or so. The next clue, “What happens when vinegar and baking soda meet?” Jules knew the answer. He wrote “B-U-B-B-L-E” in the appropriate boxes. A memory flooded into his mind.

Jules landed in science class. Mr. Bowditch, a short, bald man with a thick black mustache, held a glass beaker in front of the students. Some of the students, including Jules, were taking notes. Jules was conscious enough to recognize the scene must’ve been from seventh grade.

“When an acid, in this case ethanoic acid, known as vinegar, and a base, in this case sodium bicarbonate, known as baking soda, meet… did you get that? Vinegar and baking soda… they create a gas called carbon dioxide. This creates a bubbling effect. I will now pour the baking soda mixture into the vinegar mixture.” Jules and his classmates scribbled furiously, as Mr. Bowditch rarely repeated himself and didn’t write on the chalkboard.

The liquid bubbled up and spilled over the beaker onto the lab table and then down onto the floor below. Most of his classmates mock-cheered. Mr. Bowditch calmly put down the beaker, removed his gloves and picked up the mop which had been leaning against the table. “Write down what you observed,” he said flatly, and then began methodically mopping up the bubbling mess on the floor.

Something about witnessing the reaction in Bowditch’s class, the bubbling up and spilling over, it was riveting to young Jules. Such a direct representation of how anger often took people over. The bubbling and then erupting and flooding a surface, after it became uncontained. How two elements combined, not only in science but also in human behavior. How anger was what formed when irritation built up in a person, over time, and how, when a person’s consciousness, or their awareness of their own irritation, was diminished, the anger bubbled up and out of the person.

Anger was a contagious, spilling from one person onto the next. It came in waves of people, crashing onto shores of others. Jules remembered observing his parents and the ways they tried to contain their irritation, until it was no longer possible. But maybe anger served a real purpose. Jules read about how profanity helped people release stress. How it was a coping mechanism. He’d heard an author write about profanity as “defensive language,” used by those who simply didn’t have the tools to use more imaginative words, and who were done attempting to reign in their emotions. Jules thought profanity could be fun, it didn’t have to be a coping mechanism, though he agreed that profanity was best used to punctuate a sentence, rather than be the subject. “Totally fucking ridiculous,” was a phrase he’d often used to describe the insanity of life.

When it came to Jules’ father, Philip’s anger was lava. It came from a long-dormant volcano. Jules also knew anger that simmered, moving slowly, the way lava oozed, long after the eruption, burning anything in its path, despite its lack of velocity. That was his mother’s variety. Nina refused to shout her anger to the surface, but it ran even hotter than Philip’s. On the occasion that Philip boiled over, he apologized within an hour, as if the eruption had knocked him out and he’d simply been helpless. Nina never fully boiled over. She also never apologized.

Jules’ older brothers had their own ways of handling the bubbling cauldron. Sam, the oldest, was extremely particular. He was easily irritated, but rarely said anything to anyone, instead keeping it to himself. Sam would bite his lip, slam doors, scream to himself when he did something wrong. Sam sometimes ate with a sense of frustration. On one occasion, Jules watched Sam devour a tuna sub in three bites, his cheeks bulging like a chipmunk’s. Sam channeled his anger into trying to win. Didn’t matter the situation. Board game. Sports match. Trivia question. Sam had to be right and desperately had to say it first.

Morty, the middle brother, turned his parents’ anger into comedy. He’d twist words around. He’d make inappropriate faces at serious times, breaking the tension. Young Jules observed everyone. He was often the accidental catalyst for these moments of turbulence. Sometimes he ran and hid. Other times, he went silent. He knew he wanted to be different than Nina or Sam, who seemed propelled by their simmering unease. He didn’t want to explode like his father. He thought Morty was hilarious, but Jules didn’t envy the occasional punishments Morty received. One night, when 12-year-old Morty had unleashed a stream of expletives that surprised everyone, Nina made Morty clean the whole kitchen. Took him until midnight while Nina sat at the table instructing him.

It was decades later, during the late-1970s, Jules began seeing Katzenbaum. The old hippie therapist looked like a rabbinical scholar. Katz helped Jules process some of this childhood chaos. He’d started by asking Jules to define the emotion.

“What is anger? I don’t mean a classical definition. I mean what does it mean to you?” Katz asked him.

Jules thought of it as a reaction of helplessness.

“It happens when the outside world doesn’t match the inside thoughts. The opposite of synchronicity. The thing people revert to by instinct, when they can’t figure out why they’re frustrated, and maybe it comes out when people have nothing left, no patience, no relief in sight.”

“Good, yes, when people are unable to settle back into a neutral mode, they often POP!” Katz’ eyebrows jumped as he made a popping sound with his lips.

“Right,” Jules agreed. He described Philip’s eruptions and apologies. Then he went on to explain his mother’s anger was worse, no eruptions or apologies.”

“Ah, the passive assassins,” Katz theorized. “Those that refuse to let it out, but can’t keep it in.”

“Yes. She antagonized and manipulated instead of attacking directly,” Jules explained.

“And what does anger do to you?” Katz asked.

Jules remembered sitting in silence that afternoon, the hazy sunbeams warming his chest and highlighting the fact Katz hadn’t vacuumed in years. Jules sat in that familiar chair. He had no answer, instead spending a long moment, turning the question over and over in his mind.

“Hard to talk about, isn’t it?” Katz asked.

“I’ve spent so many years denying it. It’s buried. Comes out in ugly ways. I know,” Jules finally said.

“Understandable. It’s a volatile bastard. I regret to say we’ll have to pick this back up next time,” Katz nodded with an empathetic smile.

Jules never got to the bottom of it. Maybe no human being ever did. Anger was a volatile bastard. Since his mid-40, Jules had made a conscious effort to find the humor during those overwhelming and powerless stretches of time. And sometimes he’d become enraged instead. Music helped. Walking helped. Still, through those decades, Jules failed at laughing instead of internalizing or expressing the rage, nearly as often as he’d succeeded.  


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