Yesterday, my kids and I went with my parents and my sister to the state fair. I haven’t been since I was little and my kids have never been. I was totally pumped to eat fried food, ride dangerous carnival rides, and watch my little girls get their faces painted.
Toward the end of the day, we finally found the face-painting booth. Sienna had been talking about this all day, so the hour-long wait could not deter us from patiently waiting. We adults took turns waiting with Sienna and Charlotte. At one point, my sister and I wandered off off to look at a ride, and when we came back to the face-painting booth and re-joined the kids and my mom in line, we noticed five police officers approaching the booth.
“What’s going on?” I asked my mom. She shrugged and said she didn’t know.
The man a few people in front of us turned and informed us that a man up ahead had been cursing gratuitously in front of the children, and when one of the mothers asked him to stop, the cursing man began hurling invectives at her. So this guy, the one reporting the story, found some police officers.
I sighed a little. Just another day at the fair, I thought. In public, in our country, at this time.
Then the man reporting the story to me leaned in and said, under his breath, “You can just take one look at the guy and know he’s been hopped up on meth all his life. His teeth are rotting out of his head. They shouldn’t let people like that have kids, much less bring them out in public.”
I felt like someone had hit me in the stomach. I glanced around at the guy and, sure enough, there he was, a bona-fide meth head. His teeth were one sign, but surely not the most obvious. His compulsive cigarette flicking was more obvious. His inane and slightly manic chatter was more obvious. His swagger, the one that said, “Nothing can bring me down (until I come down)” was more obvious.
I knew that swagger, that chatter, that compulsive cigarette-flicking. Seven years ago, that was me.
I glanced around and noticed that I was not the only parent giving him the once-over. Many pairs of eyes were fixed balefully on him, many hands tightened around their children’s hands, many parents shifted obviously in order to place themselves between their children and this man. This meth-head. This meth-head with his kids.
They shouldn’t let people like that have kids, much less bring them out in public.
The night before last, my sister-in-law and I were watching an episode of The Unit. In this episode, a woman working as a stripper is beaten by some men after the club closes, because she followed the house rules and cut them off after they had had their allotted amount of alcohol. In the hospital, her husband is told by the police that they won’t be pressing charges since the men claimed that she was trying to solicit them to pay her for sex.
I was indignant. “I can’t believe they’re not pressing charges!” I shouted. “A stripper is not the same thing as a prostitute!”
My sister-in-law looked at me incredulously. “Yeah, Calah, but even if she was a prostitute, they should still hold those men accountable for beating her.”
I agreed hastily, but inside I was struck by my own knee-jerk reaction. In my mind, I had classified the prostitute as less than human. Someone who doesn’t deserve protection or retribution. Someone who is not worthy of justice…not worthy of love. Someone who gets what is coming to her.
Someone like that meth-head at the fair.
Someone like me.
Not like you, now, I’ve been told. Now you’re cleaned up. Now you’ve made a life worth living.
It had only been about two weeks since I took that pregnancy test when a friend called me. A friend who was, as all my friends were in those days, a drug connection. She needed a ride to work, she said, and asked me to come right away.
I was sitting in the Ogre’s empty apartment. He and his brother had gone to work and I was alone. There wasn’t much, in those early weeks, that prompted me to get off my feet and out from under the Ben and Jerry’s, but this did it.
I didn’t even think. I got in my car and drove, blindly, manically, toward her apartment.I got there and jumped out of my car before I even had it in park. I was up the stairs faster than I could have believed possible and pounding at her door.
She answered it in a panic. Her eyes told me all I needed to know. When you’re a drug addict, you learn to read people by their eyes. Huge, dilated black pupils mean they’re high. This is important information if you’re an addict, because then you know that if someone with huge pupils tells you they don’t have any drugs, they’re lying.
But first, she said, we had to move. There were cops circling the complex.
I looked out the window. She wasn’t lying. Two cruisers were slowly, ever so slowly, cruising around the nearly empty lot, coming almost to a stop in front of her apartment.
Warily, I asked her who else was here.
The bedroom door banged open. Her boyfriend, a petty criminal and long-time drug addict, walked out, along with someone I had never seen before. But he looked dangerous. This was no petty criminal and small-time addict. The knife scars, gang tattoos and tracks on his forearm testified otherwise.
She asked me to drive the two guys to a hotel and said she would meet us there in one hour.
I knew that the police were after this guy. I knew that it was also certain that this guy had the drugs that I wanted.
So I could drive him and face the dangers and the rewards, or I could leave.
I chose to drive him.
It wasn’t exactly a shock when the police pulled us over before we had driven a half-mile, but I still panicked. I pulled over, obviously, while babbling hysterically about what we were going to do.
The police immediately asked to search the car. I complied, knowing I didn’t have anything to hide, while also wondering just what the other guys had on them.
While the police were flipping through my wallet, my friend’s boyfriend took off. Spun out and stronger than most of the officers, he wrested his way through them and ran down the street. At that point, the policemen cuffed me and the other guy and started questioning us.
Impossibly, while searching the car, one of the policemen came across one of the Ogre’s pay stubs from the restaurant where he was working. The officer stood before us and said the Ogre’s name, and asked who he was.
I started bawling. They weren’t pretty, feminine tears; they were guttural, primal wails, interrupted only by snorting and the pathetic attempt to wipe snot on my shoulder.
The officer began to question me, a little more gently. I told him the truth: that the Ogre was my boyfriend, that I was newly pregnant, that these people I was with were a remnant of the life I was trying and failing to leave behind.
The police officer uncuffed me and led me away. We stood beside his suburban and he told me a little bit about the kinds of women he sees every day. Women who were like me, once, who scream as he takes their children away. He hates doing it, but he has to; the mother is on drugs and the children are in danger. He talked about men he sees, men who beat the women they’re with, men who beat the children of the women they’re with. He asked me to tell him a little more about the Ogre, and after a few minutes he said to me, “You are at a crossroads. You can go the right way, right now, and you can build a good life with a good man. Or you can go the other way, and take with you your child, your man, and everyone who loves you.”
He let me go then.
I chose a path on that day. Two weeks later I stood in front of the man who would become my godfather as he said to me, in our first conversation ever, “I’m pointing this finger at you and saying these words to you, but look at my hand and you’ll see that one finger is pointed at you and three are pointed back at me. Shame on you.” I’ve never forgotten those words, and what they say about real, true love. What courage and love it would take to say to a stranger, shame on you. What courage it would take to add shame on me. Nor have I ever forgotten that police officer, and what love could possibly have motivated him to leave an exciting criminal chase and the potential of nailing an even more dangerous man, to try to change the path of a lost girl.
I pray, in the future, that I will not just remember, but carry those moments with me. That I will be given occasions to love others because they’re people. Not because they are polite or kind or good…maybe even most especially when they are none of these things. I pray that I will love them as I was loved: when I needed it the most.