I WROTE TO MY FRIEND IN PRISON LIKE IT WAS NORMAL

This weekend I wrote an old friend in prison. We were childhood friends, neighbors, that shared a genuine connection (I think). She was younger than I was, which I liked because it made me cool in her eyes. I was used to being the youngest of my class, so this was a departure from the norm.

We would hang out often, sharing the responsibility of hosting the sleepover — I preferred their house because her mom kept better snacks — this continued for a few years. Our mothers knew one another so the two of us would see each other often at our sibling’s sporting events, around the neighborhood, or on purpose. Her mom took us to see Bad Religion in the nineties. It was the best show I’d ever been to.

But how do I write my friend in prison? Is that appropriate? I don’t know what prompted me to write. She’s halfway through her second stint inside, having served about seven of her twelve-year sentence. They aren’t small crimes, and there isn’t doubt she was complicit, a fact that has always bothered me about her story.

Around my sophomore year, I was becoming distant from our friendship. I had made older friends in high school, starting to ride around in cars and sneak out of the house. She was in eighth grade I believe, while I was in tenth. A big difference at that age, but she was mature, like me. So, from time to time, I’d invite her to a party, or to meet me at the park where I was going to sneak a cigarette. She’d get mad at me for smoking. She would never have taken one, and I would never have offered.

I don’t know if she ratted on me for smoking or what but at some point her mom got the idea that I was a bad influence. Our age difference was too great, and my friends and I were trouble. This devastated me, but I was proud too.

You see, a summer or two prior, I’d had my own older neighborhood friend. She lived across the street and would “babysit” by brother and I. I was like 11-12 years old this chick who was like 14 or so would come and just hang out with my brother and me. That was until my mom decided that she was too old and too mature to come around. So she spoke to the girl’s mom, and the girl and I never saw one another again.

So I saw my eviction from my friend’s life as a rite of passage. Finally, I couldn’t be lumped in with the “kids” of the neighborhood because I wasn’t a kid any longer. As the years passed, I would see my younger friend around from time to time. Usually, it was weird; I’d see her walking  around in places she shouldn’t. You know, as a teen it was just super obvious to me when I saw other kids sneaking around. I knew all the ins and outs of the neighborhood; you couldn’t sneak one past me.

Eventually, I came to hear that she’d gotten into some trouble and was going to spend time in prison. It devastated her family of course, and I didn’t see them around the neighborhood after that, although they remain in that house.

Due to the nature of her crimes, I always wondered what would have happened if her mom had let her remain my friend. I have no doubt the intentions of her mother — I know how things seemed — I wouldn’t have trusted me either. But the truth is that my friends and I weren’t criminals, we were artists. When I look at the list of people I was hanging out with, we’re all doing pretty well now. I don’t think I’ve had another friend in prison. On average everyone has a bachelor’s degree — not that that’s an accurate measure of anything — and most of us never got caught up in anything too bad.

So I finally wrote the letter to my friend in prison. I Googled what was appropriate to ask or say, and I did my best to be sensitive. In my letter, I said “Hi.” I mentioned that I knew it was strange, my writing her after us not talking or seeing one another for fifteen years. I asked her how she killed time and told her about the stresses of my upcoming wedding, saying I’d thought of her over the years and that I hoped she’d write back. It was a short, simple letter. I guess I thought that if I were her, I’d be touched if someone reached out, someone who remembered me before all the shit.

But, of course, I have absolutely no frame of reference for how she feels. I’ve never been arrested, much less locked up. After I’d dropped the letter in the blue box, I became struck with anxiety and fear. I began to worry about how it might affect her. Was it right to write her? Was it mean of me? I suddenly didn’t know. There is no telling what she’s experienced or who she’s become. Guilty or not, she’s lost a great portion of her life.

I imagined her tearing up the letter. In my head, I saw her writing something spiteful back. I realized all of a sudden that I was scared of the possibility that she wouldn’t reciprocate. Despite this sweet, fire-cracker of a young woman that I had known, I don’t know her anymore.

I fear that she will think I’m stupid for writing, that she will see it as self-serving in some way. Of course, I feel guilty for not being around. Not finding a way to keep her safe. Her choices are hers to own, a cross we all bear, but it doesn’t stop me from wondering. The truth is, I know that her life would have taken a very different path if those small choices early on had been her own. If she could have chosen her high school, if her mom had trusted her judgment, I don’t believe it would have happened. She wouldn’t be my “friend in prison.”

She sought rebellion, always toeing the line. Like any teenager, she was full of energy, rage, and a vision for who she was going to be. All she needed was an outlet. I wasn’t exactly “allowed” to do a lot of what I did at that age, but somehow I found my way. The friend circle I was in was safe. We ran around doing stupid shit, but we didn’t cross any real moral boundaries. We kept ourselves and each other safe.

Often, I feel guilty for even thinking about it, it’s not my story to own or to tell, but I still feel like I know her spirit.

To me, she’s not just my friend in prison.


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