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Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Broken Vase

“Trust is like a vase.. once it's broken, though you can fix it, the vase will never be the same again.” ~ Unknown

I tried hard yesterday to recall the times I've stolen something in my life. I came up with two. It took a lot of searching through those shameful memories that we file away in a dark place in hopes that the good things, the souvenirs of honorable deeds and proud triumphs will stack up high enough to render those past mistakes inconsequential and powerless. But try as we might, the good sits only slightly in the forefront, shielding the bad like a dutiful, protective older sibling. Hide your darkness and you will certainly shadow your light.
The first time, at twelve, when my mother refused to buy me press-on nails, I stole some from the pharmacy. I remember vividly the intense thrill of putting them in my pocket unseen. Look to the left, look to the right, in your hand, now hide them. I'm breathing a little easier, shaking a little less. Now move toward the front door casually. No! buy something. A piece of candy, so you don't look suspicious. How daring. It's right here in my pocket and you have no idea. Smile. Pay for the candy. Say thank you. Leave. Keep walking down the street. No one following you. Freedom. Exhilarating! But now what? I remember crumbling with guilt half way down the street with the forceful realization that I'd stolen from the pharmacy that belonged to the parents of a good friend. And how would I explain my long nails to my mother? I hadn't thought this through. I had them, but I would never be able to wear them. At home, as I studied the small tube of glue and the beautiful, graduated sizes of milky plastic ovals through the unopened package, I hated my mother all over again. I couldn't win this one. So the next day, I took them back, or rather, snuck them back, reversing what I had done the day before--taking them out of my pocket, placing them on the hook, once again unseen. The single night that I spent with them under my pillow was torturous.
The second time, I was in my early twenties, working at my first job in an art gallery on Madison Avenue. I had helped edit our first published collection of 19th and 20th century paintings and the book was selling like hotcakes. One day, a client came in when the owner was out and bought three copies. He handed me $150 in cash and left. As I held the money in my hand, it felt comforting, it felt like a solution, like it belonged to me. It was me after all who worked tirelessly cataloguing, assisting the editor, typing, typing, always typing and retyping. And it was me after all who had sold all the books-- caressing the cover, holding the heavy book up to flip the pages, memorizing the most beautiful ones, saying something important about the oeuvre of each artist, then snapping the book shut and laying it on the table, always leaving the art lover wanting more. I had sold dozens and I was good at it. But I was underpaid and underappreciated. My rent was overdue. I didn't know how I would pay for lunch. This was a well-deserved tip, I told myself. I don't remember feeling overly guilty at the time, and yet this second and last memory of stealing had been stuffed way in the back of my mind, right alongside a small pile of painful regrets.
I had needed to conjure up these memories, this part of myself of which I am not proud, in order to see myself as human, far from perfect. I needed to remember that we are all weak at times, that situations can take over our animal instinct to survive, temporarily taint our principles. Mistakes can also propel us forward if we are willing to learn from them. I was trying to understand why Aysa and Sorna had stolen from us.
After months of building a relationship with these girls, the oldest of Jamie and Sunny's friends, we asked them to sit with the kids while Richard worked and I ran errands. It was the first time we'd given them such responsibility and they seemed so proud and eager to prove their capability. We went over house rules and safety and I left, feeling like our relationship had moved in an important direction. When I got home, the kids regaled me with details of a walk on the beach and a cache of unearthed kitchen tiles they had found on the beach. We counted them together and marveled at the different hues of blues--aqua, azure, sky. In the afternoon, Zorro drove the girls home and noticed a white plastic bag on the floor between Aysa's feet. He glimpsed containers of yogurt, a package of cookies, other items from our house. When Aysa saw him looking, she closed the bag quickly. He said nothing and dropped them off. Struggling with how to tell us, he spoke with Bou, who had also been at the house that day. Bou confirmed that he had seen them take things from our kitchen and put them in a bag, which they then hid outside. He said it wasn't the first time, and that money had been taken. We were astounded. The next day, we confronted the girls and Aysa denied all of it, going so far as to blame Sunny and Jamie for eating what was missing. She explained Bou's confirmation away, citing jealousy and child-like malice. I wasn't buying any of it . . . and yet there were doubts, sad refusals in my heart to believe. I asked them to go home, told them to think over what had happened and come back when they were willing to talk. I held back tears as I watched Aysa walk away, proud and confident, defiant, turing her head to look at me with disbelief in her eyes. I spent the rest of the afternoon turning the details over in my mind. Maybe Zorro had made a mistake. But hadn't I seen Aysa quickly put something down when I walked in the kitchen last week? No, it couldn't be, she would never do that. She didn't need to. For months now, I'd been giving her things to take home with her, food that I knew we wouldn't eat--a few carrots, greenbeans, leftover pasta, cookies, vanilla sugar, sachets of tea. I knew that things at home had been difficult for her. Richard had hired her father to help them make ends meet. We were doing all we could to help her and her family. Any yet, the things she had taken were not necessities, they were things that we had and she wanted. In the end, I had to succumb to the reality that these girls who I loved had betrayed us, had stolen from us and damaged what we had built together. It was true and it broke my heart. If only they'd asked, I would have given them anything, anything they wanted. Didn't they know that? Couldn't they feel it?
Now that the trust is broken, the relationship has also suffered, been wound back to the beginning, because I don't really know who they are, maybe never did. Instead of asking myself why they did it, I asked myself why I had done it--stolen twice all those years ago. I tried to put myself in their place, understand the motivation, feel the fear of being caught and the stronger fear of the consequences that would follow an admission of guilt. They were wrong, but they are also human and therefore forgiveable. But reforging this relationship, piecing it back together has to come from first an admission, first the truth, always the truth. By admitting to myself that I was once no better than they, I had found the first piece of the broken vase. If they come back to us with their own shard of truth, maybe we can move forward. In the meantime, I'll be waiting with my small tube of glue.

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