I became desperate for affordable housing, living—sort of—on little more than minimum wage in an expensive college town. That is why I answered the cryptic advertisement for a roommate wanted in a house out in the woods. Except for the premonition that there was something strange about the wording, the place sounded delightful. There I might find a retreat from the pavement and population where I didn’t always feel at home. One day after work I embarked on a short drive into the wonderful forested hills of Michigan.
Only on the final stretch on a private lane that connected cottages nestled in the greenery did I grow alarmed. It had recently rained, making the road slick with thick red mud. I wasn’t sure my car could get out of the driveway, but I walked boldly up to the front door.
A man, the perfect type-cast for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, including the checkered shirt and full beard, towered in the frame of the door. At well over 6’ 6” I couldn’t take him all in and I had to steel myself, and catch my breath, to politely enter the spotless, custom kitchen. He started to speak, but I was distracted by a peculiar smell that I have never smelled before or since, emanating from a small pot barely simmering on the stove. To the right, off of a sitting room, I noted a greenhouse area crowded with tall, unnamable plants. Even as I liked the place, my hair stood on end, so I tuned into what he was saying in order to hasten the tour. I needed to get out.
As he guided me toward the corner of the house, he interviewed me. Strange questions. We passed the second bedroom, the door partially ajar, where a strawberry blonde lay napping in a puffy bed surrounded by stuffed animals. He explained she was studying medicine at the university. I looked at him curiously, then back at her, then at the child’s toys. I am not the only one who brought a stuffed animal to college, a soft, cuddly thing to help cure home-sickness, but like most girls in the dorm, I only brought one.
Still puzzling over the girl, I glimpsed at the empty corner bedroom, expertly vacuumed and impeccably cleaned like the kitchen. Two large windows looked out into the woods. An added bonus was the large closet, a rare find in that region. The person who had lived here before, I was told, had suddenly packed up their things and left by the end of the day. I could see—no, not see—but sense why. Briefly I wondered if I would leave the house alive. Altogether the place bothered me in a Silence of the Lambs sort of way. Surely if they had let the other person go… I moved to end the interview, now.
This is not a story I tell. For one thing, I have never been able to find the words to capture the strangeness of the place and its inhabitants. You’ll just have to believe me. More than that, I am embarrassed that I went to the house at all. It’s one of my most vivid examples of a dangerous situation I blithely survived. There are other situations where others might have been hurt, but I walk out unscathed. Similarly I have befriended people before realizing later I really shouldn’t have. The reason I think is this: I am myself. My naiveté is laughable, but my lack of guile catches certain types of people off guard.
A few months before my encounter with the scary man I was taking a Kung Fu class in a warehouse district in Detroit. (That’s another story and another setting that’s almost impossible to describe.) I was paired with a student who looked as if he lived his life in a cave with computers for friends. In fact, I think that’s pretty accurate. He came out only for elaborate Goth promenades in the night and this class. We never spoke. What did we have to say to each other? On this morning his thin, fine hair had grown into his eyes in greasy strings. Although I don’t remember the loft being hot, sweat poured down his pasty, pudgy face. We were partnered because he was recovering from a bad automobile accident, and I was “gentler,” shall we say, than some others in the room. If I come across as shy or reserved or quiet now, you should have seen me back then. Silence, in this case, made me even more uncomfortable than attempting a conversation, so I tried talking. I got him to talk about his accident and recovery and I was thinking about a half dozen different things while he talked when I heard myself declare, very seriously, “You should take a bubble bath,” to relax, I suppose. Then my eyes bugged out. What had I just said? Did I remember where I was? The people I was with? I stopped asking myself questions when, throwing his head back, several drops of sweat flying to the floor, he belly laughed. My friend asked me later what I said because my Kung Fu partner told everyone else that at that moment he wanted to wrap me up in a hug and defend me for the rest of his life. Thank goodness he kept that from me. A few hours later we walked to a nearby joint that sold falafel and Turkish coffee. I looked around me, bemused at the crowd I found myself in, completely unafraid of dangerous Detroit. But what, what, was I doing here? I might have had the protection of a pretty deadly group, but I did not belong. Who talked of bubble baths to people who took seriously the art of maiming or killing with a few imperceptible movements of their hands?
My ignorance of the world and a lack of imagination when it came to other peoples’ motivations navigated me into and through and out of fires. When I woke to find myself in a fire, I kept walking until I can get out. Other times I awakened after the danger had passed. At some point, after so many foolish situations, though, I had to grow more cautious.
When I started working in corrections, I thought a lot about my encounters with risky people and riskier places. I was younger when I stumbled through danger, I told myself, I didn’t know what I was walking into. From those experiences, I was certain, I could glean nothing. At thirty-years-old I was walking into a den of thieves with my eyes wide open, maybe too open, to learn from my past. I didn’t know what to look for.
From the very beginning staff sized me up and pulled me aside to advise me, “You need to a real B@$!# to make it here.” I thought I was prepared to become louder, more assertive, and sometimes downright mean, but I don’t have the nature, I guess, to become the kind of person everyone told me I had to be.
Also from the beginning, my boss told me I’d fall flat on my face. “That’s OK,” he assured me, “you can come in here frazzled anytime you want. Just give it one year before you decide to call it quits.” I think he even said I could cry, but I soon learned he didn’t mean that. He told me this several times along with, “If you don’t fall on your face, well… you’re probably doing something wrong.” Curiously, I had fewer problems than the teacher next door, but not all was perfect. Two classes in particular liked to push my buttons. Some days I was lucky to keep my composure until well beyond the parking lot. Even my gentle class would point out I was too tense. Well, I wanted to ask, how did they expect me to act after all the scary stories and warnings thrown at me during the Training Academy?
After weeks and weeks of uncertainty, trying to heed a variety of advice from the veterans, I realized I couldn’t be the person other people wanted me to be, I couldn’t go on living out other peoples’ expectations. If I was going to fail, I was going to fail honestly. I was going to be myself.
My students can tell you better than I at what point I made that transition. One offender, who intimidated me by his sheer strength and height, broke into a wide smile during a facility function around this time and pointed out that I had finally relaxed into my role. He made it sound as if he approved, not that it could possibly matter to him who didn’t even have my class. Comments made by these individuals out of the blue like that have a way of making you feel exposed, if not naked.
While I do not want to walk into dangerous situations with my eyes open or shut, I do best in those situations when I am authentic.