I Love a Child, but She is Afraid of Me
This is a short story that I first read years ago by Walt Wangerin. I was immediately struck by the brutal honesty of the piece, somewhat offensive but tender in its ultimate love. Now, I wonder if the story is more relevant in these days as a parable of how the Lord sees those of us whose privilege has blinded us to the true nature of our condition. At any rate, may we have ears to hear...
You. I saw you in the Great Scot Supermarket tonight, and now I can’t sleep on account of you—thinking that, perhaps, you’re not sleeping either.
Ah, you! You count your coins with bitten nails, not once but again and again. This is the way you avoid the checker’s eyes, as though ashamed of the goods you buy, as though they declare your loneliness at midnight: Two six-packs of Tab, because your buttocks, sheathed in shorts, are enormous and hump up your back as you shift your weight from foot to foot. You sigh. I think that you do not know how deeply you sigh, nor yet that I am behind you in the line.
Four frozen dinners whose cartons assure you that there is an apple dessert inside. Swiss steak, roast beef in gravy, chicken drumsticks, shrimp. Which one will you save for Sunday dinner? Do you dress up for Sunday dinner? Do you set the table neatly when the dinner thaws? Or do you eat alone, frowning?
Liquid breakfasts, a carton of Marlboros, five Hershey bars, Tampax, vitamins with iron, a People magazine, Ayds to fight an appetite, two large bags of potato chips. At the very last minute you toss a Harlequin paperback on the counter. Is this what you read at Sunday dinner? Is this your company?
What private wars are waged between your kitchen and your bathroom? Here I see an arsenal for both sides: the She who would lose weight against the She who asks, “Why?” and “So what?”—the She whose desires are fed too much, even while they’re hardly fed at all. “It’s your own fault,” the first accuses; “two tons were never tons of love.” But the other cries, “If I were loved I would not need to eat.”
Rubber thongs on your feet. The polish on your toenails has grown a quarter inch above the cuticle. I notice this because when the checker rings your bill, you drop a quarter which rolls behind me in the line. I stoop to pick it up. When I rise, your hand is already out and you are saying, “Thanks,” even before I have returned it to you.
But I do a foolish thing, suddenly, for which I now ask your forgiveness. I didn’t know how dreadfully it would complicate your night.
I hold the quarter an instant in my hand; I look you in the eyes—grey eyes of an honest, charcoal emotion—and I say, “Hello.” And then I say, “How are you?” I truly meant that question. I’m sorry.
Shock hits your face. For one second you search my eyes; your cheeks slacken, then, as though they lost their restraint and might cry. That frightens me: what will I do if you cry? But then your lips curl inward; your nostrils flare; the grey eyes flash; and all at once you are very, very angry.
Like a snake your left hand strikes my wrist and holds it, while the right scrapes the quarter from my hand. I am astonished, both by your strength and by your passion.
You hissed when you hurt me. I heard it and remember it still. Then you paid, crunched the sacks against your breast, and walked out into the night, the thongs sadly slapping at your heels.
Ah, you. You.
How much I must have hurt you by my question. Was that mild commonplace too much a probe, too lethal, too threatening for the delicate balance your life has created for itself? Does kindness terrify you because then, perhaps, you would have to do more than dream, more than imagine the Harlequin, but then would have to be?
I think so.
To cross the gulf from Life Alone to Life Beloved—truly to be real, truly to be worthy in the eyes of another—means that you are no more your own possession. You give yourself away, and then games all come to an end. No longer can you pretend excuses or accusations against the world; nor can you imagine lies concerning your beauty, your gifts and possibilities. Everything becomes what it really is, for you are seen and you know it. “How are you” triggers “Who are you.” And it wasn’t so much that I said it, but rather that I meant it and that I awaited an answer, too—this caused the lonely She to know her loneliness, even in the moment when I offered you the other thing: friendship.
It’s frightening, isn’t it?
To be loved, dear lady, you must let all illusions die. And since, between the bathroom and the kitchen, between People magazine and the Harlequin, your Self was mostly illusion—at least the acceptable self—then to be loved meant that your very Self had to die—at least the acceptable self.
Instead, you attacked, and my wrist is still bruised tonight. Ah, you.
A rich young ruler came to Jesus, desiring eternal life. He announced that he had kept all the commandments and wondered whether that weren’t enough. But Jesus told him he lacked one thing. He ought, said Jesus, to sell all that he had and give the money to the poor. Upon these words, two were made sorrowful: the rich, because he could not lose his riches, which were his identity and his Self; he turned away. And Jesus, because he loved and could not love this man, for the man had turned away.
Riches. O my dear and lonely lady, how rich are you in your illusions. Ironically, you cling to the very loneliness that you despise. It feels safe. But love—God’s love—always comes in light. That’s what scares you. Light illumines truth: obesity, the foolish game between Ayds and potato chips, between cigarettes and vitamins. These things are the truth. These you hide. Yet it is only truth that Jesus can love. He cannot love your imaginings, your riches. Sell all that you have. Undress—
Not me, after all. It is Jesus who asks, “How are you?” And if you would then sell the false self by which you sustain the contemptible Self and die; if you would answer truly, “I’m fat, helpless and alone, unlovely,” then he would love you. No: then you would know that he has loved you all along. To see one truth is to discover the other—which is that he loves you not because you are lovable, but because he is love. And here is the power of his love, that it makes ugliness beautiful! To be loved of God is to be lovely indeed.
All night long I keep a quarter back and ask, “How are you?” I can’t sleep, waiting for the truth: “I’m just terrible.” For then I would cry, “Good! Now there’s a confession I can love!”
And the mighty God, the trumpet-voiced, cries, “I love a child. But she is afraid of me. Then how can I come to her, to feed and to heal her by my love?—”
To a Lady with Whom I’ve Been Intimate, Whose Name I Do Not Know, from Ragman: And Other Cries of Faith by Walter Wangerin Jr.