In Brené Brown’s incredible work on shame and vulnerability she talks about the shame gremlins. This is a short, playful piece of fiction about shame, a lady with a frayed bathing suit, a hot summer’s day… and a gremlin.
She had carried shame so long that she’d come to expect its weight. She unconsciously hunched her shoulders with the expectation of the weight of the world. And the world, as always, obliged. Perhaps she didn’t look as bent over as she felt, but whenever she caught sight of herself in the mirror it seemed as though she was shrinking, height wise at least.
She always had a niggling feeling that she took up more space than she deserved and that if she could steal a little less of it she might just feel more worthy, more able to fill it.
To anyone else the swimsuit could have torn because it was old. Its seam could have pulled because of a loose thread caught on the edge of a rock pool or the facets of a beautiful ring. It could have been an invitation – to laugh, dive into the sea in her dress and let the current ruffle its skirt like coloured waves. An invitation to shop, treat herself to something new in a pattern waiting to be fallen in love with, but she was so accustomed to shame that felt sure it tore because of her.
There she was, taking up space again.
She noticed the curve of her belly rather than the curve of her smile, the dimples on her thighs rather than her cheek, that one red spot on the canvas of smooth skin. Perhaps the weight of her shame had worked its way under her skin and left it swollen. She felt the pull against the fabric. That was why, it must be.
But she couldn’t quite make herself move. The urge to hide met the urge not to be noticed, and moving would only make it worse. Moving would make them look. Maybe she could freeze here for just another moment until the burn of the sun on her back grew worse than the burn of shame in her belly.
It was there, lost in the darkness of her shadow that she found something amiss. There was something wrong with the shape, and not the kind of wrong she’d found in her flesh a moment ago. It was as though something was missing. Her dark twin seemed somehow hollow.
Something moved. She couldn’t place what, or how, but there was a shudder in the shape, like a mirage standing up, and right before her eyes she saw it pull.
A single line of her shadow was being drawn away, like that errant thread that started all this. Pulled by tiny hands, attached to a small shape with long fur. As suddenly as it began it stopped, sensing that it was being watched, and looked up at her.
Small, round, with enormous ears and tiny eyes. If it had a mouth it was obscured by fur made of shadow that danced like long hair under water. It watched her curiously.
There wasn’t a question of it being hers, her body responded with recognition while her mind reeled with shock.
‘They’re going to see it, what will they think?’ With a sudden lunge she scooped it up and tucked it inside her suit by her chest.
She grabbed her bag and hurried to her car, fumbling for the key as she walked. She didn’t notice the pulled thread of her swimmers brushing against her thigh. She barely noticed the small hands tugging a thread of shadow from her chest either. She just burned with the urge not to be seen. Not to be judged.
No one else felt like this, she was so sure of it. She wondered how so many things could make her different while none made her unique.
She pulled her car door open and slammed into a wall of hot air. Sweat prickled her forehead but still she slid inside, hoping that the blast of cool could make her forget the heat that was suffocating her.
She squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath. Perhaps she could breathe the creature away. It wasn’t possible that it was there to begin with. Impossible things can’t look up at you while they steal threads of shadow.
The creature, having no knowledge of its own impossibility, prevailed. She opened her eyes to find it on the passenger seat, scampering to and fro with the jerky movements of a rodent, stopping every few moments to turn one of its oversized ears her way and listen.
To her horror it had grown.
They would see. What would they think of her? What would they think of it?
Had she been focused outward she would have seen that no one was passing the car, let alone looking in. She would have seen that no one had been looking at her at all. Everyone that day had been observing more to catch their own reflection in others expressions than see them in the first place. She didn’t notice of course, because she was doing much the same.
“Go away!” She commanded, not sure if she even managed to say it out loud. With trembling hands she put the car into gear.
She tried to ignore it as she drove, but still it scampered to and fro, pulling itself in front of the air conditioning. She noticed a murmur coming from it, a faint babble of voices as the air blew the shadow of its fur. She couldn’t make out what was being said, there were too many words layered on top of one another. She only knew that the voice, every voice, was hers.
As she pulled into her apartment carpark it scampered up her chest. She pushed it down. She wasn’t ready to look at it yet. It was something to be ashamed of, just like everything else. It grew a little more.
She shut it in the car, but it appeared behind her as though it had never left, scampering in circles now, running rings around her. She tried to push it behind her but it ran around her leg, then her torso, perching itself on her shoulder. The needles of its claws pinched her skin.
This is how she walked through the carpark of her building, pushing away this creature of shadows and voices, her feet still bare, her swimsuit still torn. And with every person she passed the shame grew more. She judged herself for them and the judgements were as sharp as the claws pinching her more with every step.
She somehow made it to the elevator with scarcely a breath, hitting the button for the doors to close before noticing the woman already standing in the corner… with a creature of her own.
She instinctively went to push her creature behind her but before she could both the dark shapes had leapt from the women’s shoulders and pressed the stop button.
The elevator ground to a halt.
There, in the forced stillness, the women realised they were not alone. Perhaps they never had been. They had something horrible and wonderful in common. Something that was suddenly tangible.
Had she seen the other woman like she saw herself she would have only seen a coffee stain on a white t shirt and a broken heel. She would have seen smudged mascara and half moons under her eyes. But of course didn’t, no one ever does. She saw the sprinkling of freckles on her nose instead, and the golden hue of her hair. Then she heard her giggle.
The blond woman was watching their creatures, and despite her own fear, she chose to do the same.
She got curious.
The creature’s fur was longer than before, and the voices that came from it louder. This time she didn’t try to push it away – she stretched out her hand to it instead. It approached hesitantly, its bravado replaced with shyness. She looked at it, and really saw it for the first time.
To her surprise she realised the shadow of its hair was a lithograph made up of every word she’d ever thought in shame. Tiny letters strung together by dark space. She ruffled its hair and felt a few whispered words shake loose. Words she didn’t want to repeat. Words she never would have said to anyone else. They evaporated as they touched the ground.
She lifted her eyes to the woman in the corner. They held each other’s gaze and smiled. They smiled for the absurdity of the moment. The woman ruffled her own creatures fur and the same words whispered themselves away.
“You too?” She asked.
“Me too.” The blond woman grinned.
At this very moment, the first that the two of them had really seen another human outside of their own heads that day, two little dark creatures began to shake. They shook with the excitement of wet dogs, but instead of water it was words that splashed. Words that flew through the air. Words that weren’t needed. Every one of those words of shame said itself out loud. At first they shouted with the velocity, but as the creatures fur got shorter the words dropped to a whisper.
She never saw the creature go. It would be easier, perhaps, to pretend that it had never been there to begin with, that she had just somehow ended up in an elevator with another beautiful messy soul one summers day. That her cheeks were wet with happy tears rather than the splash of doubts and fears she didn’t need anymore. Melted words that seemed so solid at the time.
It would be easier, perhaps, but she felt too curious for easy. So when that elevator moved again she pulled herself to her bare feet proud of every broken thread holding her together.
She didn’t need to check her shadow when she stepped back on the sand. She knew its wholeness and brokenness all at once, she knew its curves and the space it demanded.
She loved all of it.
She was not alone.
Copyright Nirvana Dawson 2019