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When It Comes From a Stranger

When It Comes From a Stranger


Sometimes I think the first time I ever received a genuine, kind truth—one that I didn’t feel the need to second guess or over-analyze—was in jail. I was 19. My eyes were bloodshot and puffy. It was clear I'd been crying, and though I never actually saw my face the entire twelve hours I spent in there, I'm sure I looked as hungover as I felt. I sat in a small cell, no bigger than 6x4, with seven other women, one of whom sat easily on the silver metal toilet in the corner, her cotton blue uniform slacks gathered at her ankles as she shit.

Most of the women took turns speaking and recounting how they’d found themselves there. One stole a car in a town a few counties north of Orlando and was transferred to Orange County Correctional Facilities (where we all were currently) that day. There were several drug busts, a couple prostitution charges. They talked with an ease I couldn't understand and a breath I couldn't catch. A few women seemed to know each other. Not in real life, but in the lives they spent in there. It felt routine. They seemed not comfortable, but tolerant of where they were. I guessed they’d been here before.

Two wooden benches lined the walls, but I sat on the floor in the corner closest to the door, my back pressed firmly against the wall. I crossed my legs at the ankle and hugged them to my chest in a way that made me feel protected. I sat as still as I could. Any movement would knead my spine up against the cement, sending a cold, sharp spasm up my back. A tall dark-skinned woman wearing no make-up sat directly in front of me. Each of us wore a badge clipped to our cotton shirt with our first name printed black in all caps. Hers read Kimberly. She was the most talkative of the group. I can't remember now why she was arrested, but I remember she was vocal about it. Vocal in the only way a person who is rigid in their convictions can be. You could tell that whatever it was she did, she felt that her illegal actions were justified. If it meant jail time so be it. I remember looking to her as a comforting figure because of this, kind of like a mother. Though I knew what I had done was wrong, it felt important for me to not castigate myself in here, to not lose myself. For me, I knew that line was thin. Kimberly became a figure for me—the one who would keep from crying, the one who would help hold my chin up, if not for myself than for her. Anyone who’s needed to bet on their resolve in a time they’re least willing to understands this feeling. I would bury my self-pity in her. Her austere nature was almost calming because it was the first time since I’d been in there that I looked at someone, including myself, as more than a criminal. As so much more than what they were confined to within these walls.

She kept conversation between the women steady.

“Do you think we’ll be next?” One woman asked the room.

“No telling,” Kimberly said without looking up. “It’s different every time. Guess it depends on when the public defender decides to show up today.” I listened for clues, anything that might tell me where I was heading next. I’d spent the majority of the early morning moving from room to room—my last name being called, an officer escorting me down a long hallway toward a room with other inmates and then leaving without a word. I was too afraid to ask anyone anything. I knew that if anyone in here could point me in the right direction it’d be Kimberly.

I wonder now if she was as scared as me, if her need to hear her own voice was as appeasing to her as it was me. I do remember she had a kid. That's what she kept repeating. She needed to get out to see her kid. At one point her eyes moved over me. She didn't miss a beat. She nodded her chin and asked what I’d done, why I was there. I looked at her for a long time before finally answering, and when I did, I looked down at my feet. My eyes couldn't meet hers when I finally admitted I was arrested for a DUI. She was silent, and I remember thinking that would be the end of our interaction. Instead, Kimberly sighed, shook her head, and said evenly, "You don't look like you belong in here."

Later I would think a lot about what it meant to belong somewhere, let alone what it meant to look like it, to maintain a role simply by appearance. What is the standard physical criteria of an inmate and why did I stand out as the exception? I've only ever been able to answer this one way and when I think about that day, my answer remains the same. I didn't look like I belonged there because I looked lost. Not sad, not angry, not scared, but absent. My eyes were a perpetual question mark and my mouth wasn’t open in shock, but not quite closed in a thin line either. More so stuck in a lowercase "o" where a small gap between my lips let in just enough air I needed to breath, a gap that seemed to circle around the questions "where am I?" and "how do I fix this?"

I looked up and offered Kimberly a small smile—what might have been the only time I did in there—and expected her to return the smile. Instead, she simply looked away, shifting her head and her attention elsewhere as if what she said was purely business, an item of agenda in a minute meeting. I don't think she understood in that moment how much I'd been needing to hear those words. I hadn't understood this myself until she said them.

There's an odd awareness between strangers who exchange dialogue, whether it's a quick conversation, a small sliver of advice, an insult, etc. Perhaps we’re more willing to take what they have to say at face value. It's different from getting advice from a parent or a close friend. We want to believe our mothers and fathers, best friends, and spouses are always giving us the truth no matter what, but that's not always easy to trust when what they typically have at heart is "our best interest." I wonder, and sometimes worry, that those closest to us cannot separate truth, from what it is they think we want to hear because unlike a stranger they may be in want or protection of our feelings.

Something about a stranger's lack of investment—how by nature they’re already held at a distance—is comforting. I've always found it easier to publicly speak, perform, or sing in front of complete strangers rather than the people closest to me. Maybe it’s as simple as seeking approval; somehow it is, for me at least, harder to do with the people I love the most.

Kimberly’s comment was a complete departure from what I was used to. I realized she’d offered her opinion without my asking, and it was almost because of this that I was able to take it at face value. I knew that what she said she meant. I knew that this, these eight words, would mean more to me than any kind of comfort my mother or stepfather would offer me later—months later—once there was nothing else to do but accept what I’d done and the consequences that came with it, once we’d begun to move forward.

I knew I’d never forget Kimberly. I’d never forget our brief interaction.

When I was released from jail, I was told I had ten days to drive before I lost my license for six months, ten days to apply for a business purposes permit in order to keep my driving privileges. I was away at college when this happened, so the next day I drove the hour and fifteen minutes it took to drive home to tell my mother and stepfather. I fidgeted the entire drive back. I replayed the scene over and over in my mind, what I would say, how they’d react. No matter how many different scenarios I played out in my head, one image kept resurfacing. They’d have the same blank stare as I did in jail, looking right through me almost, and they’d use the word disappointed. Soon it was the only word I heard in my head. My mind went to Kimberly again, but larger than that—a collective. I wanted to be delivering this news to a room full of strangers rather than the two people closest to me. The two people who I'm confident love me most in this world. The term "ripping a bandaid" is a depreciation. This was nothing like it. It almost always is much worse, the sting lingering for much longer.

I sat down on one of the kitchen stools and told them I had news. They could tell from the look on my face that it wasn't good, that this spontaneous trip wasn't just a nice, “Surprise! I'm home from college.” I told them I'd been arrested for drinking and driving, that I got a DUI the night before. For a second, they didn’t say anything. A large knot formed in the back of my throat. My mother brought her clasped hands to her mouth and I willed them to stay there. I didn’t know if I could handle what might come next. And then John—strict, rigid, curfew-enforcing, law-abiding John—stood up from where he sat, walked over to me, and gave me the deepest, most sincere hug he's ever given. Even to this day he hasn’t hugged me again like that, the way he did five years ago.

He let go of the embrace, rested both of his hands on my shoulders, and looked me in the eye. “This doesn’t make you a bad person,” he said. I let the knot in my throat go and cried into his shirt. In that moment—a moment of pure grace and pardon—I remember thinking how John felt like the strangest man in the world to me.

Miranda Campbell is a third year MFA student at Georgia College and State University. She works as a graduate assistant in the school's Special Collections and is a freelance editor for Triplicity Publishing. Her nonfiction appears in The Laurel Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Chaleur Magazine.