We were shopping with the small queen for school shoes.
Another family nearby appeared to be shopping for their little girl as well, but she was visibly unhappy, and I quickly noticed that she had some sort of reddish rash or birthmark covering much of her body. She was desperately trying to pull one of her arms into her short sleeve T-shirt, and her general demeanor made it clear that, if possible, she would have pulled her entire body inside her shirt. She was emitting a near constant beseeching whimper, distressed by her own presence in the store.
I immediately recognized this scene in my bones. I spent most of my childhood and well into my twenties refusing to wear anything without sleeves. In my mind, the only thing that stood between me and public ridicule was at least 6 inches of fabric. And if the sleeve wasn't long enough to cover the length of my little arm, I lifted (almost subconsciously) my shoulder an inch or two to compensate for the lack of length. It was a physical symptom of my shame.
My old sleeve-conscious self would have run from this shoe store scene before I was found out, exposed. But I was immediately sympathetic. I wanted to help this girl, hug her, tell her something helpful, something that I wish someone would have told me. I imagined the scene: I'd walk to her, aglow with confidence. I'd say, "I just want you to know how beautiful you are." Or, I'd hug her. Or, just reach out and touch her skin, like Jesus reaching out to heal the man with the withered hand, the warmth of my gaze banishing all of her self-consciousness. Perhaps I would be the first ever to tell her she was beautiful.
I don't know why I started wearing sleeveless shirts, but I know exactly when. I went to Greece to cover the Paralympics in my mid-twenties and I packed sleeveless tanks (which I normally only dared wear at home). When I opened my suitcase in Athens, I panicked. What had I done? But I was already so far out of my comfort zone, what was one more discomfort? I put on a sleeveless shirt and headed out into the world. And then...nothing. Nothing happened. The world appeared the same as it always had, no one stared or whispered any more or less than they always had. But everything had changed. I could not go back. I've been sleeve-free ever since, and loving every little black cocktail dress of it.
I stepped closer to the family with the girl. I smiled, hoping to make eye contact, to exchange recognition and establish trust. But she never lifted her eyes. And I didn't say anything. I was too scared. Yes, me, the confident new woman proudly wearing my disability, no sleeves attached. What if the girl cried or recoiled from my touch?, I thought. What if she wasn't ready to receive what I wanted to give? What if she didn't respond at all and I was just a creepy stranger trespassing on her life? After standing awkwardly close for a few moments, I retreated.
I retuned to the chore of finding sensible sneakers with the required amount of sparkles to satisfy a 6-yr-old. But I continued to look out across the racks of shoes, hoping to catch a glimpse of the family. I tried to muster my nerve, hoping I might have another opportunity. But finally, they were gone. Disappointed in myself, I told Left Hand Man what I had wanted to do, hoping that somehow this would validate my admirable intentions. He had not noticed the girl at all. Eventually, we left the store, having compromised with bubble-gum-pink Converse.
I still feel my failure, but given some time to think, I wonder if my good intention was motivated by altruism, or a need to validate my own experience. And so, I write. It's how I figure anything out. And I hope that maybe one day, a little girl that needs to, will read this.