Trigger warning: These lines describe the sexual exploitation of a young woman.
It wasn’t like I showed him anything
he hadn’t seen before. Besides, he took
the ones with clothes, the good ones, only if
I did a few from the waist down. Once,
we hadn’t been together for two years,
because I promised my friends I’d score, I posed–
one last time I told myself – for a hundred
dollars worth of coke. One hundred dollars.
When I said I didn’t want to end the shoot
the way we always did, he offered more:
a twenty dollar bill to fuck. I walked out.
I know if he called right now with fifty
bucks worth of cocaine, I’d consider posing.
What scares me is for twenty-five I wouldn’t.
I wrote these lines, which tell a true story – my memory is that the last two tercets are pretty much an exact quote – more than a quarter century ago. I was an undergraduate in college at the time (I think it was my junior year), and I was working part-time as a youth advisor for the local Jewish Center. I remember thinking when I wrote them how important it was to tell stories like Ruth’s, and I tried unsuccessfully for many years to get the poem published. Over time, though, I came to realize just how much of Ruth’s story is missing from the poem: how “he” got her to pose nude in the first place, for example – I think I remember her telling me that it started out as a legitimate modeling shoot that her parents knew about – or the fact that she was not older than sixteen or seventeen when she told me about him. Even more than that, though, the poem doesn’t do much more than present the voice of a woman who has learned her price; it doesn’t do anything to deepen our understanding of her and/or of the person to whom the story is being told. You could look at it as a very short monologue of sorts, but then there is nothing developed in the language, really, that even hints at why Ruth is choosing to tell this story now, to whom she is telling it, or how telling it changes her. It remains, in other words, something that a girl told me a long time ago, a girl whose face I can still see, whose last name I still remember, whose trust changed me – I think this might have been the first time I tried to write about a topic like this – but which I was not able to transform into art.
I wish I could remember more precisely why Ruth decided to tell me this. I know we were standing in the hallway outside the room where the youth group’s activities were held, and my vague memory is that she was explaining why she had tried, or considered, or maybe she’d been hospitalized for attempting, suicide. Or maybe she was telling me why she didn’t think she’d ever find a boyfriend who would love her just for her. Or maybe it was both those things. Or neither of them. I do recall quite vividly, however, the way her eyes bore into me when she said that I was the first person she was telling and the pleading desperation in her voice when she made me promise I wouldn’t tell anyone else. I remember struggling with whether or not to keep that promise and deciding that I would. I don’t remember what my reasoning was, though part of me as I am writing this wishes I had told someone. Even as I acknowledge that feeling, however, another half-memory comes to me that Ruth was terrified of what her parents would do if they found out and that I did not think I could trust the youth group’s leader, a guy who once told one of the teen girls not to help me roll a piano down the hall because it was too heavy and would “hurt her womb.” I might have been wrong about him and Ruth might have been wrong about her parents, but I was no more than twenty two years old, and I’d been given no guidelines for how to deal with a situation like that one. Indeed, in 1983, I doubt that there were any real guidelines.
I have not thought about Ruth in a very long time, but this morning, as I was paging through the drafts of poems on my desk, trying to decide which one to work on next, I took the time to read these lines all the way through, which brought her back to me. I hope, wherever she is, that she is happy and fulfilled.