A week before my 25th birthday, my phone was stolen by three tweens while I was walking home after a night out. To recap: they asked for help, I gave it with little-to-no question, and my dumb ass got taken advantage of by a bunch of children. The incident was more mental assault than physical; one that had repercussions immediately (spending the wee hours of the morning in a police station within earshot of the underage offenders; notes of despair, vulnerability, and regret) and in the months that followed (chiefly, never wanting to help anyone, for any reason, ever again).
I’m ashamed to admit that I took the long way home for months after the incident in an effort to avoid the kids (two boys and a girl), who live around the corner from me. Almost a year later, I can’t walk past their apartment building without deafening awareness of where I am and what it means. Part of my apprehension stems not from what the tweens will do when I see them again, but from how I’ll react when it happens. I’m afraid I’ll lose control of myself, that I’ll flip out or feel helpless or be reminded of how trusting and optimistic and blind I was the night I fell for the game they ran on me. I still hate myself for being that way, for ignoring my common sense to play the hero in someone else’s time of supposed need.
Mostly I’m afraid I’ll feel these emotions because I’ve already experienced them, once, when walking home one Sunday afternoon after a few drinks with my roommate. The sun was still out and our arms were full, each of us carrying take-out. The kids spotted us from a block away and began to run in our direction. “Oh my freaking… dude, it’s those kids! Turn. Run!” I yelled, not for a second thinking of how pathetic this was, how unnecessary, how… embarrassing. I didn’t think about why this was my first instinct, to run (or walk briskly) away from these kids. I just saw them and I reacted and when we reached our apartment, we were panting and laughing at how insane the whole scene was but internally I was repeating, “Goddammit, I suck.”
Because of their proximity to my home, I think about these kids often. One thought I return to is how they’ll remember that night five, ten, twenty years from now. I guess that all depends on if they outgrow hustling strangers — something I think they’re all capable of. I believe that because I relate to them; it’s one of the reasons I stopped to help them that night. I looked at them and saw myself in trouble, having done something I shouldn’t have, needing help, needing an adult’s help, a cool adult, to whom a younger me would’ve felt indebted and… would not have robbed… though admittedly, even the whole stealing thing is not foreign to me. Younger me serial-thieved books from the Brooklyn Public Library, among other things. While the library isn’t a living, breathing, seemingly benevolent young person, perhaps my stealing hurt someone similar; maybe someone got fired or couldn’t check-out the book they wanted because it was sitting on my bookshelf with a shredded cover I’d mutilated for thieving purposes. So yeah, I don’t think these kids are monsters, they’re just unfortunately very similar to who I used to be.
In particular, the girl. She was the oldest of the three; thirteen I believe. And while I don’t know where she’ll end up, I have a good idea of what the next few years of her life will look like. I know that she’ll probably frustrate all of her teachers; they’ll want to shake her by the shoulders and tell her to apply herself because they’ll see past her arrogance and her eye rolling to the intelligence she’ll pretend she doesn’t have. They’ll wish she used her big mouth for something other than running it, smacking gum, talking back whenever one of them tries to encourage her. She will hate herself while simultaneously projecting an air of superiority over every girl who has what she wants, the way only the puberty-stricken can. She will inspect her ass in the mirror and contemplate the shape of it and this will happen at a younger age than any of us want to think about. She will date some 14-year-old who doesn’t necessarily not deserve her, but who will have no idea how to treat her anyway. One day, when going to her next class or getting off of the public bus, she’ll look back at the seat she was sitting on and notice a brown stain, her period leaking through the sanitary napkin she wears because she’s too young to wear a tampon or too afraid to or because her mother won’t buy them for her, and her stomach will drop and her head will drop and she’ll walk wherever she’s going with immense hatred for being a girl, for being herself, for being alive. She will take a class with an animated teacher, a class where talent is celebrated rather than intellect: drama class or chorus class or art class and she’ll want desperately to drop the indifferent façade and shine, for once; she’ll want to make her classmates laugh during an improv exercise or she’ll want to sing the way she does in the shower but instead she’ll exert minimal effort, she’ll draw a stick figure and she’ll sit in the back of the class and whisper rudely, disruptively; she’ll laugh at how earnest the other kids are because if she doesn’t do that, someone might mistake her for one of them. She’ll steal again, maybe a nail polish from the 99-cent store, and this time she won’t get caught.
When I think about her that way, I don’t feel as bad for wanting to help.