I staggered to the bathroom to put my contacts in. In front of the mirror, I paused, wearily eyeing myself. Behind the façade of my tired face, the old litany was scrolling through my head, like headlines at the bottom of a TV screen: “Come on! Do you know how much time you wasted this week and last?! The deadline for those college homework assignments is only a week away! You’ve wasted all week doing unimportant stuff or buried in your computer screen. You can never get it all done now! You’re crazy! Why didn’t you just do it instead of pushing it off? Why would you cripple yourself so? You’re such a failure! I hate you! I hate you!”
I scrubbed my eyes with my eyelid wipes and mentally replied to the scornful voice, “I know. I know. I’m really tired of this by now. Can I ask you a question? Why do you hate me so badly? Can you tell me? I don’t understand. Why do you hate me?” Instantly, intense emotion welled up inside, and I started crying. Whoa! Was this why that voice was so insistent? Fifteen minutes later, after I had settled comfortably on my couch, instant tears pushed back up. Gently, I asked the little girl to step aside so I could talk to my other voice.
“Why do you hate me?” I asked again.
Instantly, my critic spoke. “Because you aren’t enough.”
“What do you mean?”
“You aren’t enough. You aren’t strong enough. You aren’t good enough. You aren’t enough of a woman. That’s why I hate you. You must get better, and you aren’t. You must be stronger and accomplish so much more, and you waste so much time on other stuff. You must become better. That’s why I hate you. I want to push you to be better. You’re not good enough.”
“What’s your name?”
“My name? I hate you.”
“So, your name is Hater.”
“Why do you hate me for not being enough? Why do you think I’m not enough?”
“Because….” Hater turned around and jerked open the curtain hanging behind him. “Because of this. This is Dirty Girl.”
And then, I see her, a thirteen-year-old girl, curled into a ball, naked and shivering on the lower bunk of a white metal bunk bed. The sheets are rumpled and stained. Her rapist has just left her.
And then, I feel it, the overwhelming, agonizing shame of that teenager, her overwhelming sense of humiliation. This was supposedly “sex,” and it was supposed to feel good and she was supposed to give her “lover” pleasure. But, she couldn’t. It didn’t feel good. It hurt. He kept asking if it felt good, and she only felt scared and humiliated when she told him it didn’t. She hadn’t been enough. She should have made him feel good, and she didn’t. She failed. She failed! She wasn’t enough.
I feel it all for her, and I sit and weep at the devastation and the brokenness, the agony of her humiliation and shame filling me too. Then, gently, I lay down beside her and gather her—this girl, naked, shivering, scared, and so ashamed—into my arms. I hug her close, and just hold her, and tell her over and over, “Oh, I am so, so sorry. I am so, so sorry. You didn’t have to be enough. You shouldn’t have had to be enough, not in that way. You weren’t meant for this. Oh, you are enough in all the ways that matter. This, this is wrong, and it is not meant to be. I am so, so sorry. This is not the truth about you.” I weep, and then, I feel her shudder against me as her tears break forth.
I look up, and that’s when we see Him: Jesus. He is standing by our bed in the shadows, and He is crying. He’s not crying quietly; He’s sobbing. A man, a grown man, sobbing. He looks at both of us. The girl looks at me and I nod, and she flings herself into His arms. Jesus hugs her tightly, still crying, His eyes meeting mine over her head. Through His tears, He smiles at me and nods slightly. I nod back, my eyes fixed on the tableau before me.
As her sobs cease into an occasional hiccup, Jesus gently lifts the girl to her feet. On a chair beside Him is a white bowl of water, a sponge, and a towel. Gently, He dips the sponge into the water—warm, soothing, lavender-scented water—and rubs it over her, gently, tenderly. He washes the tears from her face and the stains from her hands. He wipes her back and cleanses every part of her, removing the reminders of it all. She stands there, eyes closed, his gentle hands and the warm water calming her. Then, He takes the towel, fresh from a warmer somewhere, and wraps it around her naked body, drying it off, warming her shivering skin, and then holds her close for a moment.
He beckons a nearby angel, whom I hadn’t noticed until now. A look of awe on his face, the angel steps forward and hands Jesus a silky white dress with lace overlay and a fur shawl. The girl’s eyes are still closed, but she has stopped shivering. Smiling now, eyes full with all the love in the world, Jesus drops the dress over her head and settles it on her shoulders. Her eyes snap open, startled, as she feels the soft, white dress against her skin. Jesus’ eyes twinkle slightly as He wraps the white shawl around her shoulders.
She looks around, and I do too. Somehow—I don’t know just how—but the small, dark bedroom of a hundred nightmares—with its ugly green carpet, lavender walls, and metal bed—has disappeared. In its place is the perfect dream of a room, with purest white curtains hanging at the windows and pinks and yellows of all shades scattered about the room on pillows and throws and chairs. Off to the side, a canopy bed with delicate draperies seems to float in midair. A cathedral ceiling soars above while floor-to-ceiling windows flood the room with glorious, golden sunshine.
In the center are Jesus and the girl—the once naked, dirty, stained girl—now dressed in purest white. Jesus smiles at her, lifts her chin, and gives her a tender kiss on the cheek. He holds her close, and from somewhere nearby, slow music begins. She lays her head on His shoulder and closes her eyes as Jesus leads her in a slow dance. Once more, overtop her head, my eyes meet His and hold as they sway to the music. I’ve never seen such love as I see in His eyes.
Just then, a flicker of movement catches my attention, and my eyes fall on Hater. I had forgotten he was here the whole time too. The utterly flabbergasted look on his face breaks the spell, and I burst out laughing. “Might want to close that mouth before a fly falls in!” Jesus snorts in laughter.
“Huh? What?” Hater shakes his head as if waking from a dream.
“I said, ‘Close that mouth before a fly falls in.’”
“Oh.” His mouth snaps shut, but his face is still stunned. Hater collapses on the floor like his legs can no longer hold him.
The girl giggles. Jesus grabs her hand and holds the other one out to me. “Come on. Join us.” I grin and grab His hand.
“Come on, Hater,” I call over my shoulder. “Join the party.”
“Me?!” He looks startled.
“Of course, you!” I hold out my hand to him.
His gaze switches between our faces, disbelieving. Still a trifle bewildered, he grabs our hands, and our circle is complete. The tempo of the music changes, and in a moment, we are all dancing in a circle, chanting in time to the music, “Ring around the rosy, Pockets full of posies…” We keep dancing until we are laughing too hard to continue. We collapse on the bed in one big pileup, breathless. Hater tickles me, and I playfully punch him back until Jesus pushes Hater onto the floor with a thump. The girl leans down and pulls him back onto the bed, and he sprawls over all of us, sending us into more peals of laughter. Finally, we all calm down, and a gentle silence descends.
Finally, Hater sits up, “So…”
“So…what?” I ask, watching him closely.
“She’s not the Dirty Girl anymore. And well, you aren’t either. I didn’t know you weren’t still thirteen. I thought…” His voice trails off.
“You thought I was still thirteen, still feeling all that shame, didn’t you?”
“Yes. I didn’t know you are so strong and capable and grown up and beautiful and unashamed and clean and…and…and…wonderful! I thought I had to protect you. I was sure all that humiliation would destroy you. I was just trying to help you survive. I didn’t know. I’m sor…”
I cut him off. “I know. Hater, you don’t have to apologize. I understand.”
“Yes. You were right. When I was thirteen, all that shame and hurt and humiliation would have destroyed me. I might not have survived if you hadn’t taken on that burden to protect me. Thank you.”
“You’re thanking me? But…I thought I was helping you, but I wasn’t. Not really. I was just spouting all this hatred at you. What I was doing was holding you back.”
“Yes, you were holding me back now, but you weren’t then. You helped me. You were doing what you needed to do to help me survive. If you hadn’t been there, I might not have survived with my mind intact. Thank you for being there.”
“Oh…. But now what? I don’t hate you anymore. You don’t need me anymore. What am I supposed to do now?”
I grin at him. “What do you want to do?”
“You’re giving me a choice?”
“Of course. You are a part of me! I need all parts of me so I can stay balanced.”
“Hmmm.” Hater’s face is thoughtful for a moment. “Can I be your cheerleader? That’s what I was trying to be anyway. That’s what I thought I was, but I did it the wrong way. Now, I’d like to do it the right way: cheer you on, remind you that you are really amazing, and help you meet your goals.”
“I love it!” I respond. “That means the name Hater doesn’t fit anymore. Can I call you Cheerleader instead?”
Hater’s face lights up. “I’d love it!”
“Then Cheerleader it is!”
“Super!” He grins. “Dirty Girl doesn’t fit anymore either. Hey, what’s your new name, Dirty Girl?”
“I’d like to be called ‘Pure.’ After all, Jesus made me clean.” She looks up at Jesus, shyly and adoringly.
“I like that too!” I exclaim. “The name Ekaterina means ‘pure’ in Russian. What do you think of that?”
“Ekaterina.” She rolls the name off her tongue. “I like that.”
We look over at Jesus, and He smiles approvingly. “Sounds like the three of you have figured it out.” He looks at me and smiles. “I have great plans for this amazing woman, and both of you can help her live out My purposes for her by reminding her that I love her dearly, I’ve washed her clean, and I’m cheering her on.”
“You can count on us!” Cheerleader says.
Ekaterina has been shifting from one foot to another. “Come on, Cheerleader. I want to go outside. Let’s leave the old fogies to talk to each other. I’ll race you to that tree along the fence!” In a moment, the two have flown out the door, chasing each other pell-mell across the grass. Their laughter floats back to me on the breeze.
I turn to Jesus, deep contentment in my heart. His face has that look of gentle, indescribable love again. He opens His arms and I walk into them. For long, precious minutes, He hugs me close. “You know I love you, don’t you?” He asks.
I look up at Him, my face serene. “I know. And now, so does she, my Dirty Girl. Thank you for freeing us both.”
“Always. I will always free you, remember? I will always save you.”
“I know.” I snuggle closer into His arms.
“I meant it that I have great plans for you. I also meant it that you are an amazing woman. Don’t ever forget it. If you do, ask Cheerleader or Ekaterina to remind you. Or ask me. I’ll always come running!”
“I know, and I will.”
“I love you. Always remember, I love you so much.” He hugs me close one last time, the tender smile on His face the last thing I see as He disappears out the door.
I stand there, gazing at the beautiful room around me, remembering—not the nightmare—but the fairytale I’ve been given. I slowly walk outside and lift my face to the sun. In the distance, I can still hear Cheerleader and Ekaterina laughing. I stretch out in the velvety soft grass and close my eyes. “Once upon a time” really does happen.