Many years ago, I read a short story by Stephen King in his collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes. The story was titled “Sneakers.” In this story, the main character, John Tell (or Tell), encounters a bathroom stall with a pair of sneakers behind it. Not so unusual at first, but unusual is common place in a Stephen King story. Tell quickly realizes that the sneakers actually belong to a ghost, as they have flies swarming around them. Tell finally finds the courage to open the bathroom stall, and speaks to the unfortunate owner of the sneakers. The ghost tells him that he was a former cocaine dealer to rich clientele, which included Tell’s boss. Tell’s boss brutally murdered the cocaine dealer and never saw justice. The ghost is finally able to move on to whatever may lie ahead, because someone finally heard his story.
For some reason, this story has always stuck with me. It is a great metaphor: who doesn’t have a pair of sneakers, hiding behind a bathroom stall, with flies buzzing around them, causing others who walk by to want to run away and not ever, ever open that door?
In other words, don’t we all have a story about ourselves that may cause others to run (maybe even run screaming) and hide (so we believe) but a story that should be told regardless, so that we are free to finally be ourselves, and be accepted by those who matter the most?
Well, I know I have a story (or three, but I will stick to the one for today). This is not something that is well known about me, but it sure defined my life for a long period.
I got married when I was way too young (age 22). And I got married way too quickly (after 5 months). And after 5 months, you don’t really know a person. No, you really don’t know that person at all.
The first 5 years were rocky, but I stood by my ex. I firmly believed that things would work out. And we appeared to be on the right path. My ex finally graduated from college and got his first “real job.” Things started to look up. Way up, in fact.
However, things started to look way down again. In October of 2005, my ex was fired from his job. This was someone who went into a funk if he thought someone criticized the color of his shirt. So losing his job nearly put him out of his mind. And then the lies began.
His time spent on the computer became almost astronomical. He said he was for his job search. Naively, I believed him. Even though he became furtive and angry when I was anywhere near the computer, I believed him. Or perhaps I chose to become a human ostrich, and bury my head in the sand.
Until I got a phone call at work the week after Thanksgiving. This phone call would change my life forever.
My ex proceeded to inform me that he had been arrested. I was in total shock. But that was just the beginning.
My ex had not just been arrested. He was ARRESTED. And by ARRESTED, I mean he was arrested for one of the worst crimes someone can commit.
My ex was arrested for a sex crime. Even worse, he was arrested for a sex crime against a minor. A minor. Someone the law considers a child, who is unable to consent to anything, and must be protected against those who would take advantage of a child’s naivete. People like my ex.
So could it get any worse? Surely, it couldn’t get any worse?
I have learned not to ask the above question. Because sometimes, you don’t want that answer. But I got that answer anyway.
My ex was arrested in an undercover police sting, in the style of the show To Catch a Predator. He believed he was speaking to a 14 year old girl named Ashley. He was buying a teddy bear and candy for someone who was in ninth grade (or so he though).
But Ashley was not real. Ashley was actually an undercover police officer. Grants had been issued by the state of South Carolina to set up a program to catch people who felt the need to solicit minors. People like my ex. My ex was the first person caught using grant money for this program.
And it became big news. There were cameras in the courtroom. Those cameras were not there for the run of the mill assaults, DUI’s and other “petty” crimes that were typical in that court room. They were there for my ex. And by extension, for me, as I had promised to stand by my ex, for better or for worse.
And over the next few days, I got a taste of “worse.” The newspaper in our town had picked up the story, along with all the local news channels. I was humiliated, and also frightened. Going out in public became a dreaded experience. Even returning to work was difficult. I know that most only felt sympathy for me, but I was still humiliated. I had been cheated on in the worst way possible. I felt dirty and ashamed. I was also basically issued a gag order and was unable to really speak to anyone about my pain, as that may damage his upcoming trial.
I had become the dirty pair of sneakers behind the bathroom stall. People walked by, too nervous to open the stall. I began to feel invisible, almost like a ghost, unable to speak to anyone and have my story finally validated.
To make a long story short, the next several months were among the hardest and most painful that I had ever experienced in my life. I had no one to vent to, other than my ex and his family (in retrospect, I was the minnow in the shark pool). I stood by ex and tried to forgive him. He went to trial, and because of rich parents who could afford the premier attorney in town, he was only given 5 years of probation, but was forced to register as a sex offender (that’s one public profile that no one wants to have).
Seven months after the trial, I finally found the courage to leave my ex. I also finally found the courage to begin to tell my story and no longer hide what I had experienced.
People were finally able to open the bathroom stall. And the ghost behind that stall was no longer silent. Her story could finally be told. Her sneakers were no longer filthy, with guilt and shame buzzing around them, like flies around a dead body.
Finally, the sneakers were clean. And their owner was finally able walk out of the stall. And she did walk out of the stall. And then she began to run. Because when someone is finally free after being trapped in a dirty bathroom stall for so long, she is unable to contain her joy, and is eager to run towards whatever may lie ahead.