Trigger warning: These lines describe the sexual exploitation of a young woman.
It wasn’t like I showed him anything
he hadn’t seen before. Besides, he took
the ones with clothes, the good ones, only if
I did a few from the waist down. Once,
we hadn’t been together for two years,
because I promised my friends I’d score, I posed–
one last time I told myself–for a hundred
dollars worth of coke. One hundred dollars.
When I said I didn’t want to end the shoot
the way we always did, he offered more:
a twenty dollar bill to fuck. I walked out.
I know if he called right now with fifty
bucks worth of cocaine, I’d consider posing.
What scares me is for twenty-five I wouldn’t.
I wrote these lines, which tell a true story–my memory is that the last two tercets make up pretty much an exact quote–more than a thirty years ago. I was an undergraduate in college at the time (I think it was my junior year), and I was working part-time as a youth advisor for the local Jewish Center. I remember thinking when I wrote them how important it was to tell stories like Ruth’s, and I tried unsuccessfully for many years to get the poem published. Over time, though, I came to realize just how much of Ruth’s story is missing from the poem: how “he” got her to pose nude in the first place, for example, or the fact that she was not older than sixteen when it happened and that she was only seventeen when she told me about it.
The Ruth in the poem of course is not the same person as the Ruth I knew in real life, and there is nothing in the poem that hints at why its Ruth has chosen to tell her story, or to whom; and there is no exploration of how telling the story changes her or how hearing it changes her audience. The lines remain, in other words, a generally faithful rendering of a disturbing story a girl told me a long time ago, a girl whose face I can still see, whose last name I still remember, whose trust changed me, but a story which–I think this might have been the first time I tried to write about a topic like this–I was not able to transform into art.
I have not thought about Ruth in a very long time, but this morning, as I was paging through the drafts of poems on my desk, trying to decide which one to work on next, I took the time to read these lines all the way through, which brought her back to me. I hope, wherever she is, that she is happy and fulfilled.