“Hey, what’s a beautiful girl like you doing in a place like this?”
It was dialogue straight out of a Katherine Heigl movie, only this was no rom-com meet-cute. This was Boulder County Jail, and my would-be suitor was wearing an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs. Worse, so was I.
The truth was, I didn’t know what I was doing in a place like this either. I was certainly fuzzy on the chain of events that led to these circumstances.
I was home from college on Christmas vacation, visiting my parents in their new town. I’d broken up with a boyfriend a few weeks before, but then again, that was nothing new. I was highly medicated and bored out of my mind. I didn’t know anyone in town, there was nothing to do, so I went to California Pizza Kitchen, naturally.
I was 22, and the delight of being able to order alcohol in a chain restaurant (with heightened carding policies, for those of you who never tried to break the law as a teenager) still hadn’t worn off.
Two Stellas in and the cute bartender was starting to pay me some attention (the currency I’ve always craved). He asked if I was doing anything later. Me? Oh just let me check my busy social calendar. I agreed to meet him after his shift, a few hours later. But what to do in the meantime? Drink more, obviously.
I wandered into a Japanese restaurant and plopped myself down at the near-empty bar in front of the bartender. Two hours later, we were the best of friends and he was pouring me drinks I didn’t ask for but wouldn’t dream of refusing. I’ve always been the all-or-nothing type.
The night gets foggy after that.
That’s inaccurate. It gets pitch black after that. I don’t remember a thing until waking up on a cold surface with a scratchy blanket wrapped around me. FLASH. Pounding headache. FLASH. Unfamiliar metal clanking. FLASH. This isn’t my parent’s strange new home or some unfamiliar boy’s bed.
This is jail.
My new “friends” had called the police when I couldn’t remember my parent’s new address. In between my fingerprinting and mug shot, I was told that I struggled in the cop car, kicked the window, yelled obscenities at them. This was unfathomable -- I almost didn’t believe them.
I’m relentlessly, obnoxiously polite to strangers, waitstaff, anyone who helps me, let alone authority figures. I have a near-compulsive need to apologize and thank people constantly. Hearing that I had to be strapped into a restraint board to keep from hurting anyone was incomprehensible. But I felt the soreness in my arms, and when I looked down at my wrists there were fresh bruises in angry rose-colored stripes where I’d struggled against my bonds.
So there would be no drunk tank nap and slap on the wrist for me. I was charged with resisting arrest.
My first call was to the aforementioned ex, who reassured me that plenty of awesome writers and artists had been in jail and I was now in good company. It gave me a laugh, but failed to soothe the sting. The calls to my family that followed were sobering in more ways than one, as well they should have been.
My cellmate was a white-collar criminal; she’d been forging checks to support her daughter. She prayed for my soul and was the one to show me the ropes -- not the kill-or-be-killed of prison flicks, but the ones I cared about: the beauty ropes.
These women were endlessly resourceful: colored pencils for eyeliner, lip liner, and eye shadow (yeah, it fucking hurts to apply). If you bend every other prong of the standard-issue comb, it becomes a makeshift brush. I devoured these tips with the voracity of an undercover Allure reporter, already forming the article in my mind. "Beauty, Incarcerated," the headline would read.
The worst thing about my short time in jail? Honestly? Besides the indignity and the shitty food and the crushing boredom and the derision from the staff and the self-loathing just being there obviously inspired? Chapped lips.
OK, maybe I’m being a little facetious, but I was parched. My lips were cracked and bleeding, spoiled with a steady diet of Fresh Sugar lip treatment. Licking my lips only made it worse, but I couldn’t help it -- it was Pavlovian. It sounds stupid, but I remember that agony more clearly than anything else. When my cellmate shared her makeshift chapstick (shave gel mixed with something pink that I never actually identified) with me, I practically kissed her.
But for the first time since childhood, I stopped looking in the mirror every time I peed (in a metal toilet in full view of my cellmate, natch). I didn’t worry about my hair. Choosing an outfit was irrelevant. The eyeliner and mascara from that awful night had long since streamed down my face during the initial oh-my-god-I’m-in-jail waterworks and been wiped away. I hadn’t gone makeupless for years, but in there it didn’t matter. It was just a bunch of other women I’d never see again.
In fact, I’d practically forgotten that I even had a face until the catcaller, when suddenly I was reminded of my entirely ornamental purpose in life. The first thing I felt was flattered. Flattered. Wow, he thinks I’m beautiful even without any makeup. It took me an embarrassingly long amount of time (years after that) to realize that beauty has nothing to do with catcalling. An embarrassingly long time to disassociate male attention from self-worth.
In total, I was incarcerated for all of 56 hours. And my case was eventually thrown out. It hasn’t been all roses and self-actualization since then. It’s been a long, hard road paved with intense introspection and court-ordered therapy, and it isn’t half-won yet.
But the foundation was laid in those trenches of rock bottom, when I saw a part of myself I never thought I’d see; never wanted to see; desperately needed to see. I faced down the me that couldn’t be found in the mirror, and even if I didn’t exactly win, I sure as hell didn’t lose.