Photo by Adil Janbyrbayev on Unsplash

Innocence vs. Maturity

2000 was the year many had predicted would be the tipping point to the end of the world.

I was six years old, just getting settled into the first grade.

The 1990s had been good to me and I knew I would miss them. My idols were Britney Spears, Aaron Carter, N’Sync and the Backstreet Boys. I loved Beanie Babies, playing Mario or Donkey Kong on my Nintendo 64 and drinking 7-11 Slurpees while organizing my Pokémon card collection.

I hung out outside with my neighbors every day until the street lights switched on. There was no fear, no social media, and no complications in my innocent world.

My family didn’t even have cable TV. Slip ‘N Slides, Play-Doh and Easy-Bake ovens were some of my only regular interests. I went to church every Sunday, youth group every Wednesday, and studied as hard as my six-year-old brain could on my spelling homework and arithmetic problems.

I don’t know when that innocence became ignorance. I don’t know when I got critical, skeptical and complex. I can’t recall the very moment when I turned jaded and grew up.

But now, I’m 23 years old. It is 2017 and I would do anything to go back to the first year of this century. In the 17th year of the century, I find myself broken and melting away with nostalgia for my youth. I’ve lived such a hard life, and now all I can do is find time to cope with the stress of surviving it.

The six-year-old was an artist, an actor and a leader. She was smart, she was funny and she was brave. She wasn’t calculated or swayed by time or experience. She was pure and she was clean.

She is my role model.

If I could have one wish today, it would be that she take my place here in 2017. Because I know she would be able to live my life with a lot more happiness in her innocence than I ever could.

Night Time

“Nah,” I slurred back at them, as I grabbed my bottle and backpack and began to swerve away in a drunken stupor.

I loved the streets, survived on drinks and trusted the dark. Night time was my time. A time of freedom without consequence. A time when anything could be possible and I could be anyone I dreamed of being.

When I got a block away from my friend’s house, I realized I was whispering to myself, “bad habit, bad habit, bad habit,” and I laughed, more for pity at my own joke than for actual humor.

I sure knew a lot about bad habits. I took the last swig of my beer, tossed the bottle in a gutter, and climbed onto the nearest bus stop bench for a few hours of shuteye. Morning would be here before I knew it, and with it, a hangover. So for now, a little rest was the best thing I could do for myself.

I was 14 that year. It was 2008, and I was a rebel without a cause.

Now, as an adult, I thank my lucky stars that I managed to survive that year. And I thank God that I am no longer a victim of my own bad habits.

I am older and wiser now. I am released from the expectations and disappointments of my youth. I have learned, grown and blossomed into a woman. A woman who loves and a woman who lives. A woman who can have fun and stay safe at the same time.

I once was a perfect example of what not to be. But today, I am an example of exactly what I should always be.

Free.

Winter

Winter is known for the holidays and for the ruthlessness of its cold. When I think of winter, I can’t help but correlate it to my life.

The holidays were the highlights of my life. The night I had my first kiss, the day I got my first allowance, the moment I finally graduated from high school, and all the times I won certificates or awards for my hard work. The overall season of my life has been winter — frosted with the chill of utter cold.

I am in prison as I write this. I have been here for eight years. I may never get out. I am mentally ill, according to the doctors. But to me, I’m sane. After all, if I can’t trust my own judgement, whose can I trust?

I have seen death, destruction, illness, and pain. I have witnessed accidents and premeditated evil. But I have also survived to share my story.

During winter, you can always put on another layer of clothes if you feel the frost. And if you bundle up, your own body can generate enough heat to keep you warm and comfortable. I generate my own heat. When life gets below freezing, I throw on an extra set of smiles and welcome the challenge.

When the icicles of pain form in my chest, I melt them away by remembering my past holidays and by planning for my future ones.

Sometimes winters feel like summer to me. I don’t complain in the winter, nor do I complain about life. For as a wise person once said, “we can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.”

The Gift of Mercy

Every child loves a little mischief. I liked a lot of trouble.

I was 10 years old when my terror began to rain down on my sweet suburban neighborhood in San Diego. Jessie and I were best friends. We did everything together. We also liked to walk on the wild side every now and then.

We began sneaking out at night to toilet paper houses, innocently at first. We wanted to be grown up like our siblings. And we wanted to be daredevils to break the monotony of suburban life. But then adrenaline hit and it became an addiction. Every Friday night Jessie slept over and we stocked up on toilet paper. Later we began gathering eggs. Three months down the road, we had tomatoes as well.

There were articles in the neighborhood newsletter on gang-related vandalism. Rumors were flying that hardcore college punks were moving into the suburbs to destroy our beloved homes. Who would have thought it was only a couple of pre-teens getting a kick out of watching a community squirm?

They set up traps. People sleeping in cars, helicopters patrolling, neighborhood watch members standing guard on street corners. But we camouflaged — dressing in normal clothes, walking my dog as a cover, with all of our vandal supplies in school packs on our backs.

I was 11 by the time Jessie and I were caught, on a Friday evening, well past midnight. I was smearing tomatoes on the door of a random house when it opened. There was no car in the driveway and the lights were out. But when a muscle-bound Navy SEAL suddenly confronted me, I nearly peed my pants in fear.

Jessie ran away, but I was caught. The family called my house, and my sister came to drag me away by the ear, stumbling over her own feet with apologies on my behalf. I got grounded, and my mother made me bring flowers with an apology note to the victims of my vandalism.

A year later I was at the community park on a swing. A mother and her child came and got on the swing next to me. The mother stared at me, and I realized she was the Navy SEAL’s wife.

A rush of blood went to my face, and I looked away in shame. I remembered that night so clearly, and instead of the proud insolence I felt when I was 10, I now felt guilt and regret.

They say a little bit of mischief never hurt anyone, but I say that’s not true. Every action has a reaction, every soul has emotions, and every choice has an impact in one way or another.

I thank the Navy SEAL and his wife for not reporting me to the police. I thank them for giving me a second chance. I didn’t deserve it, but what they gave me was a true gift.

A gift of mercy.

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Heather D’Aoust

Heather D’Aoust is a writer incarcerated in Corona, California. She also publishes under the name Jeff-Free and uses the pronouns they/them.