February 2012: A night class in St. Louis, I sat down between two students — I was observing a class before I made a decision about where I would go to school in the fall. One of the students leaned over to me immediately, “Are you visiting?” Before I knew it, I was talking about sexual predators, incarcerated gang members, and skydiving. The student was a second-year MSW who was doing research on violent offenders, interviewing hardened criminals, and working in prisons. She explored traumas and sexual violence, went into morgues to look at bodies of individuals with gunshot wounds. The conversation led us up to, through, and out of class where she drove me to my hotel and wished me luck on my decision.
Now, I tell people Kimberly is the reason I came to St. Louis. If there are people as smart, interesting, and passionate as she in this school and city, this is the place I want to be. Once I moved here, it was coffee Tuesdays before her job in the jail got her busy and we switched to Mexican or vegan meet-ups in the evening and “write nights” where I slammed poetry and she worked on novels. Stronger and more kick ass than I’ll ever consider myself, this is a woman with her skydiving license who jumps out of planes on the weekends, a vegan who won’t touch alcohol but who will drink an entire bottle of de-alcoholized wine for breakfast. An artist, a writer, a photographer… In a time when I stopped writing poetry, she wrote stories and emailed them to me until I was inspired to find my own pen again. In a time when I was new and adjusting to a new city, she brought me weekly vent sessions, distracted me with her photographs, told stories about the love letters that get written in jail cells. It is a friendship that has come to span moving trucks and break ups, and now, waterfalls.
This past weekend, I finally jumped on the opportunity to model for Kimberly during one of her photoshoots. I had been looking at her pictures from shoots for months, and finally, after being fired from my weekend job and deciding to embrace the freedom, we hopped in my car in a thunderstorm and drove to GoodWill. We found a prom dress on the sale rack, and while I could hardly pull the form-fitting gown over my hips, I could still laugh, so we bought it and drove to a parking lot in Forest Park. With the sun coming out and the concrete drying, we opened the car doors to make a dressing room and played music as she did my make up in the street. I wriggled into the gown in between a bush, Kimberly and our friend Ellie as bodyguards, and my car, embarked to find waterfalls, and spent the next hour shooting. I’ve never modeled so at first, I was laughing awkwardly and hopelessly at myself. Kimberly was saying, “Channel Vogue. Think high fashion.” Then it happened. I channelled. But I didn’t think of magazines — those mechanisms for promoting feelings of inadequacy in their viewers, even me. I thought about boxing classes, about lawyers, about people who command a room and make me feel stronger, about being confident and not afraid. Respect is something I give myself.
Before the end of the shoot, I had scowled, squatted, cocked my hips, climbed into the water, sat under the downpour. I had let everything go and we were laughing, scrambling along the banks, picking dandelions– Kimberly’s pants were rolled up to her knees as she stepped into pools to get better shots. At the end, Kimberly was scrolling through the photos and freaking out in delight– these are awesome. Awesome was the immense liberating feeling that I had overcome my awkward. I had stood tall and given myself permission to be free, to strut. I faked it until I became it (my favorite saying). It could have gone so badly, if I had kept my shoulders hunched, shrunk into myself, kept giggling awkwardly… I said to myself, you are strong and confident –It’s time to have some fun. If nothing else, that is something I want to remember every day when I wake up. You got this; it’s time to have fun.
(Thank you, Kimberly, for being awesome).