This last August, I took my daughter to Germany so that I could retrace old roads I had not walked down for decades. In the middle of our trip, we went to Rome with my parents.
Rome is sacred for me.
Not because of religion. I’m not Catholic. I am Christian but hold no religious emotion towards Rome.
No, Rome is sacred because when I was 19 and a brat, my mother took me to Rome for a week. And during that week I shed my bratty exoskeleton and fell in love with my mother. Now, 27 years later, she is still my best friend.
So taking the Girl to Rome was a huge experience for me as well. I was taking her to the place where we were supposed to find one another and become best friends.
Didn’t quite happen like that. And that’s okay. Don’t worry. The Girl and I are just fine in terms of our relationship.
But Rome did help our relationship in a way that I was not prepared for.
On our first real day in Rome, we migrated from the Spanish Steps to the Vatican. As we went into Vatican City and walked the length of the wall fortressing the Vatican from the world, we encountered person after person trying to sell us tours, promises of avoiding long lines. We buttressed ourselves against the pressing crowds, the shifting masses of people. I donned my patience and smiled at the sense of security. I dealt with people like this in New York. I was confident in my no’s then. I was confident in Rome as well.
In just over an hour, we made our way into the packed Vatican museum. In a steady migratory shuffle, we went through constant exhibit halls. We peered at mummy, ancient chariots, Greek statuary, and Medieval artwork.
We stood in the Raphael rooms and breathed in the collective awe as the hive of people moved and shifted and drifted around us.
Standing still was impossible. The throngs of people created a human conveyor belt ambling forward and I drifted with the tide.
Eventually, we entered into the Sistine Chapel.
The heave of people’s voices rose and fell like ocean waves. Vatican guards used a microphone to hush people who silenced until the next group entered and then the noise rose once more.
I clung to the edges, whispered to my daughter about different images and symbols Michelangelo had embedded into the work. Draped in a shawl, I did my best to remain modest, respectful, quiet. The Sistine Chapel is sacred. The Sistine Chapel is beautiful.
The Sistine Chapel is where I grew a spine that isn’t shaped like a question mark and found a voice that has no trembling edges of fear.
I drifted into the center and stood beneath God reaching out for Adam, the first man’s arm lazily angled towards God. I stared at God’s long, bolt straight arm. Adam’s triangular elbow.
I looked at Eve tucked beneath God’s arm. She is looking to the side, almost askance as though asking, “Are you sure he’s the right one for me?”
My attention drifted back to the Earth, to the quagmire of people.
To the man walking directly at me.
I had no camera. My shoulders and knees were covered. I wasn’t speaking in a loud voice. I had no concern for my behavior.
But I could sense the budding conflict. His face was drawn, his eyebrows narrowed into gulleys. His eyes were harsh; his mouth crescending in a stoic frown.
I knew he wanted me to move.
But I didn’t want to. My daughter was several feet in front of me and I wanted to keep her in my line of vision.
And I didn’t want to because I have become tired of being the one to give space to everyone and everything. I want to be nice. I want to be compassionate and accommodating and courteous. I want to be a good person. I want to represent the love of Christ and I know that means turning the other cheek.
But I’m tired of being tired of feeling like a welcome mat. I’m tired of saying “It’s okay” when it’s not always okay.
The man clearly wanted me to move. I knew space existed on either side of me. I knew that I could slide over six inches. Instead, I stood my ground and waited to see what would happen.
“Move. Get out of the way,” he said.
I’m not exaggerating. Those were his words. Maybe in reverse order. Maybe he said “Get out of the way” first and “Move” second.
He spoke in English.
He did not say please. He didn’t say excuse me. I would have graciously stepped out of the way. I would have apologized for being in his way. If he had said “Please” or “Excuse me.”
I said one word.
He repeated himself. “Get out of my way.”
I looked at my daughter, my fourteen year-old beautiful daughter who has a unique haircut. She was wearing one of her band t-shirts. Possibly My Chemical Romance. Or maybe it was 21 Pilots. Or Fallout Boy. Or Panic at the Disco. She was wearing black pants. She was slightly hunched and staring at me and this angry man who only needed a couple of inches to pass me.
“No. Not when you’re between me and my daughter.”
Yeah. I spoke in a grammatically incorrect sentence. But I said “No.” Because I knew that he would have never spoken to my husband that way. I don’t think he would have spoken to any man that way.
“Get your daughter and get out of my way,” he said. Or maybe he said “move.”
“No.” I said. I think I was smiling. I was genuinely amused. Because I felt my vertebrae align. I lifted my chin. I kind of looked down my nose at him which is hard given I’m short.
But I’m not afraid.
“I can have you removed,” he said. Or maybe he said he’d have me kicked out.
“Okay,” I replied.
You see, the Sistine Chapel is the last part of the Vatican Tour. I had achieved what I wanted. I was at the end and had seen all the beautiful things I wanted to see. And in scanning this man’s uniform and the white paper hanging over his belly, I knew he wasn’t a guard.
He was a tour guide.
Now that doesn’t mean that he deserved to be treated rudely. If he was a guard, none of this conversation would have transpired because a guard who is moving in my direction clearly is upset with me or needs me to move so he (they were all men) can arrive at his destination. And when a guard is moving, I respect his/her need for me to move out of the way.
But being told to “get out of the way” to “move?”
I didn’t care about being escorted out. I wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed. But I didn’t want to upset my parents who were exhausted and had been dealing with some incredibly stressful events recently. My parents are about 71 years-old. This might be my last trip to Rome with them.
I had stood my ground. And my daughter witnessed it.
I beckoned to my daughter. I gave the man his six inches. The American tourists who followed him made passive-aggressive mutterings at me. I squared my shoulders and let their “geez’s” tumble off my back. They have no meaning to me.
My daughter and I went to my parents and we related the story to them. And we made our way to St. Peter’s Basilica. My daughter and I made our way through yet another sacred site.
We saw the Pieta, and my father told me the story of how Michelangelo snuck into the Basilica and carved his name into the sash tucked between Mary’s breasts even though the Pope had outlawed this from happening.
My daughter and I stood before the alter and I pointed out the cache where St. Peter’s bones rest.
She and I played Ninja at the alter. She won.
We slow-power-walked-Naruto style around the Basilica. Not because I wanted to be disrespectful. If anything, we were so quiet no one knew. But I needed my daughter to own this moment. I needed my daughter to see that I loved her.
I shouldn’t have done the last two things. I’m sorry.
But I’m not sorry for standing my ground. I found the word “No” in one of the most sacred places on Earth. I captured my voice in a place where I was supposed to be silent.
I stood beneath God and felt blessed when a grumpy man confronted me and I didn’t step aside…initially. And when I did, I did it on my own terms. Not because I was told to.
I’m writing a collection of short stories about women and how they see themselves. I’m trying to bring up the fact that as much as we have changed, we haven’t. We have definitions for people (not just women) that are destructive. And these destructive expectations and definitions must be altered.
I’m thinking about dedicating the book to this man. He helped me find a new layer to my voice. And because I had the courage to tell him “No,” I have found the courage to do so much more.
Good for you, Heather! Stand strong!