Sometimes we have defining moments in our lives that feel so soft and subtle, we would just have passed them by as the thing that happened that day. We may not realize what small impact a small decision has on our lives. I've been thinking about shame and dirt and what attaches to us, even if we are innocent of any wrongdoing, the shame of being in the wrong situation can attach itself.
When I was sixteen, my parents went out of town for a few days and I let my boyfriend sleep over at my house. We were messy, turned up the heat and ate everything in the house, leaving a pile of dishes.
My parents returned with my little brother in tow and began to look around at the mess I had not quite finished cleaning up. That's when they all began to find things that were missing- small things, mostly. Things he must have carried out while I was sleeping. My face flushed with disbelief. How could he? It became obvious rather quickly that defending him was stupid. He had clearly stolen from my family. I was mortified, embarrassed, betrayed- and still I knew I would forgive him. I didn't want to forgive him, I knew he would deny all, and it would infuriate me but I would say nothing. I would let him get by with it and that twisting, terrible feeling in my gut would not dissipate.
There was something in me that was sick for him, sick to be with him, desperate for his touch to make me whole. I cannot explain why I needed him or why I wanted him but I only felt okay when I was with him. It would take me years to untangle that rope.
One of the things that was stolen was my little brother's radio. It wasn't an expensive item- in fact it had been free. One of the Wash U students had thrown it out in May when they moved out of the apartment behind our house. The radio was left in a pile by the dumpster. It was old, but it worked and it had an 8 track player in the side. They didn't even make that kind anymore- at this point in time, the industry had switched to cassettes.
My brother loved that radio. He was physically trying not to cry that it was stolen and my heart just wrenched open at his loss. I sat down in his room, tears in my eyes and promised I would do everything I could to get it back for him. That statement would turn out to be a lie. What would define me was what I would do in the situation to come.
I cannot remember how it all came together or all the detective work I had to do but after a few days, I found out who my boyfriend sold it to. There was a building in the Central West End that housed people with disabilities. We used to call it the handicapped building- I knew a guy my boyfriend bought drugs from lived there and I knew that was where the radio was. I managed to get the security code and slip up the apartment and knock on the door. The man who lived there was in a wheelchair, he was an African American Vietnam Vet- and even though he was in a wheelchair, he scared me. I was a sixteen year old girl and I doubt I weighed a hundred pounds- and I was alone in that apartment with a virtual stranger.
I appealed to that man on the most base of levels, told him the story of what happened, laid out my little brother's broken heart and my own shameful betrayal and offered to buy the radio back for twice what he had paid for it. I told the man I didn't blame him, he had no idea that it was stolen and that it meant a lot to my brother, could I please have it back?
I don't know what I expected but I know that I can be pretty persuasive when I want to be and I think I just planned on having this very emotional appeal work. At the end of this dramatic story, I thought he would just tell me to take the damn radio and get out.
Instead, he looked me up and down and said "I don't care about the money. I want something else."
"What do you want?" and I knew in the bottom of my stomach that what he wanted was not going to be nice or easy- or reasonable in any way.
"I just want you to take all your clothes off and stand naked in front of me. I won't touch you. Just stand there naked and let me look- and you can have the radio back."
I said "I'll give you triple what you paid."
Not knowing for a second how on earth I was going to come up with that money- the man shook his head and asked again that I stand naked in front of him.
I told him, "You're going to have to think of something else or take the money because I'm not going to do that."
What followed after that was him trying to persuade me for the better part of an hour and me refusing and offering him money. I have to admit, I thought about it. I tried to get myself to think about it, to imagine just doing it- but this was one of those things I wasn't going to do, nevertheless, I wanted that radio back for my brother so badly. I'd like to say I would have done anything but clearly, I wouldn't. I know my brother wouldn't have wanted me to do that- at least I think I know that.
Years later when I read "Measure for Measure" I understood the character of Isabella with a deep and abiding empathy. I wanted to say to myself- it's really not a big deal. Five minutes of nakedness and my brother gets his radio but I walked out of that apartment cursing that man with my hands empty.
I told myself it was just a fucking radio- definitely not worth my integrity but the shame of not being able to do that act for my brother was deep. I wish I had had the courage to just do what needed to be done. I felt the guilt of betrayal of my own brother- I felt the failure of myself, the unwillingess of me to let go of my own pride- I had failed him twice. This is how I felt leaving that apartment. But a larger part of me knew better in a way.
I knew that that moment would never have been just a moment- this was not about me being naked- this was about me selling out a piece of myself. I still have no idea how I held on to what I needed to hold on to. That moment would have followed me for the rest of my life- it would have made me into someone else- someone who allowed herself to be bought. Someone who allowed herself to be manipulated and who knows what that man would have done to me- I doubt it would have ended there with me standing naked and humiliated.
I know there are girls out there who have made those choices because they were in corners. I have done some horrid and humiliating things that destroyed my self worth and self esteem- far worse than that act. You do what you have to sometimes. But this was not an act of survival.
There are people that would say it's not a big deal to stand there naked. But it is a big deal. It is a big deal to sleep with someone for money and it is a big deal to stand there naked against your will.
A VERY BIG DEAL.
It changes who you are.
I'm actually proud of that girl for standing up there and saying no. It crushed me to not get that radio back and to have to go and tell my brother that I had failed. If I had any sense, I would have sent my stupid boyfriend in there and told him to get it back but I lacked that kind of courage- and he was still denying he even stole anything.
I told that story to someone last night and I realized for the first time what a defining moment that was for me. I had never felt what a small victory it was for my self esteem. That moment had defined for me what I was capable of even mired in shame and guilt- that I had managed to hold on to something. I won't pretend that this has always been the case for many times I have done things I'm not proud of- and that were humiliating but I realized last night, I have been given the gift of distance and wisdom on this. Of course I did the right thing walking out of there. Of course I should have walked away from that situation.
I had far more options than I ever gave myself credit for. I think my brother is getting a radio for his birthday this year. Don't tell him.