In prison, despite the stereotypes, I am not raped by a gang of women with a toilet plunger; no muscled-up stud with tattooed tits claims me for her “wife”; no one corners me in the laundry room and beats the crap out of me. The guards don’t brutalize me; the warden doesn’t devote his every waking moment to making my life “a living hell.” The warden — the superintendent, actually — doesn’t even know my name.
This particular prison doesn’t look anything like the ones on television or in the movies — no honeycomb of cells stacked tier upon tier. Instead, the six low dormitory buildings are spread out across grassy hills dotted with a few small trees. Large windows let daylight pour into the dorms, and in the early mornings, as we trudge to breakfast, we often witness technicolor sunrises. But it’s still a prison with guard towers, double fences, and razor wire. It is not a country club.
I have a corner bunk in a dorm that I share with thirty-nine other women. There’s a green blanket on my bed and a beige metal dresser with two drawers. In the drawers I keep my state pajamas, my state jeans, my free-world jeans (we are allowed to have two pairs), my two state work shirts, my two state dresses, my state bathrobe, and my state socks. I keep my state sneakers under the dresser. The state work shirts are big and comfortable, but the state jeans are ridiculous, the crotch somewhere around knee level.
A soft-spoken black woman lives in the bunk next to mine. I say “lives” because our bunks are our homes, our addresses. She keeps pictures of her three children — two girls with ribbons in their hair and a boy wearing a bow tie — on her dresser. She knits most of the time and is pleasant enough, though we don’t have much to say to each other. She’s doing fifteen years; I don’t know what for. I do know that she sometimes cries for her children, and that she grinds her teeth at night. The other inmates call her Mother.
My first week in the dorm, I meet Leigh. She’s twenty-five and has wispy blond hair. She’s not exactly beautiful, but her face is interesting — wide blue eyes, ski-slope nose, freckles. I guess you’d call her pretty, but there’s more to her than that. Her laugh is as infectious as the flu.
“Hey, you want to come out to the beach with us?” she asked me that first Saturday morning as I sat on my bunk feeling forlorn and lonely.
I shrugged and said, “Sure.”
“Bring a towel,” she said.
I pulled a little white state towel from my drawer and followed her out the front doors.
“Y’all going to Cracker Beach?” a woman called Panther asked with a sardonic laugh.
Leigh grinned and said in a soft Tennessee drawl, “We all want to be dark; some of us just have to work at it.”
I followed Leigh to a small plot of grass in front of the dorm, where we spread out our towels. Before we lay down, I looked over at the fences topped with coils of shining razor wire. “Surf’s up,” I said dryly.
Maybe it was just the weirdness of the moment, or the merciless August sun and the slow saunter of inmates in blue back and forth, but laughter snuck up on Leigh and spilled from her in waves.
“Oh, shit,” she said, and wiped away a tear.
When I wake up every morning, the first thing I do is look across the dorm to make sure Leigh is still there, and to see if she is up yet.
Most mornings, we get up when the buzzer goes off at 6:30. If you want to eat breakfast, that’s when you get up; if you don’t care about breakfast, you can sleep in for another hour. Work starts at eight, and you’d better not be late, unless you want the COs to bring out the dogs and start looking for you.
Leigh and I almost always eat breakfast. Sometimes it’s pancakes, and even though the syrup is a strange goo that bears no relationship at all to maple, it is still a breakfast worth getting up for. Other times, it’s powdered eggs, cold grits, and toast. On those mornings, we eat the toast. We also drink the coffee, which is terrible and tastes nothing like free-world coffee, but you get used to it eventually and drink it without complaint.
Whatever is happening on the compound, Leigh knows about it and often gets involved. Everyone likes and trusts her. This is not an asset. Leigh has already gone to solitary once for helping somebody out. She picked up some pills that had been thrown over the fence for one of the other women. No one else would go get them, so Leigh said she would. She got caught and did thirty days in the box. They wouldn’t let her smoke or have anything to read except the Bible, and she got to shower only twice a week.
On the weekends, we usually sit out on Cracker Beach with Misty and some of the other once-upon-a-time dope fiends, listening to the radio and working on our tans. We have to roll up our shorts and the sleeves of our work shirts. The black women look at us as if we’re crazy. They go inside and play cards while we sit outside and torture ourselves with memories of our former lives.
It is on these weekend afternoons that I realize what I miss is not my old life at all, but a life I never had. When I tell Leigh this, she asks what I mean, and I explain: I miss going to Key West with a man, drinking margaritas, and slipping on rocks in the warm water. I miss going to foreign movies. I miss drinking coffee with friends and talking about politics. I miss shopping for new clothes and going to punk-rock concerts. I miss having a nice apartment in the city. I miss parties.
But I can’t remember going to a single party in the past six years. And I didn’t buy one new outfit or record album. Being a junkie was a full-time, twenty-four/seven job.
This other life, the one that I miss, is nebulous to me at first, so I start to keep a list. The first item on the list is “Key West.” (I put “Margaritas” in parentheses.) I have lived in Florida most of my life and never once been to the Keys — too busy getting stoned — but I’ve heard that the water there is as warm as a good narcotic and looks like liquid islands of blue and turquoise and green. If I close my eyes, I can hear the sea gulls.
My brother buys me a subscription to the Sunday New York Times, and I get a lot of ideas for my list from the Times Magazine. I put down “Visit New York City” and “Broadway plays.” Then I read an article about wedding chapels in Lake Tahoe, and I write, “Get married at Lake Tahoe.” “Dublin” goes on the list, and “A new blue car.” I put “College” on the list, too. Then, just for kicks, I add “Magna cum laude.”
In one issue of the magazine, I read an article about cave divers and how they use a rope to guide themselves out of the lightless caves. I think about what that must be like — swimming blind, knowing that if you let go of the rope, you’re lost forever. It feels vaguely familiar.
Leigh and I cut out pictures of pretty men from the New York Times Magazine and tape them up inside our lockers. “A man who is not a junkie” goes on the list. When I lie in bed at night and look at my list, I run my finger over this last item and wonder if there might be someone out there who could love me — someone who is not a junkie. This thought makes me ache, and I’m glad that I have a corner bunk, so I can turn my face to the wall.
Mother stays on her bunk most of the time, with two big skeins of yarn beside her on the smooth blanket. I can hear the click-click of her plastic needles. (Steel needles, of course, are not allowed.)
“You OK, bunkie?” she asks every once in a while, without looking up from her yarn.
“Fine,” I answer, because how can someone with only three years complain to a woman doing fifteen?
We never say we are in prison. Instead, we say, rather unimaginatively, that we are in hell. I remember reading No Exit when I was about fifteen, and this place is a pretty accurate facsimile. We are trapped here with people we don’t want to be around — for eternity, it seems.
These are the things I hate about prison: the unrelenting shouting, loud discussions, and even everyday conversations carried on at full volume; never going to the bathroom or taking a shower behind a closed door; the fact that, after every visit from my mom, a correctional officer looks into each of my orifices; the noise that goes on even after everyone is asleep (farts, coughs, grunts, teeth grinding); never getting to eat fresh fruits and vegetables; the gnats that have to be waved away from our dinner trays during the summer; the din in the cafeteria.
Somehow, all the noise never manages to drown out this little sarcastic voice in my head that says, This was a great idea. Why have a normal life when you can live in this vacation paradise?
No one in prison is innocent. We are in here for strangling our babies, running over our husbands, forging checks, breaking and entering, and holding up convenience stores. We are in here for possession of a gram of cocaine and a ton of marijuana. We are in here for kicking an old man to death for three dollars. We are in here for helping our boyfriend kidnap and rape another woman. We are in here for racketeering, extortion, embezzlement, and vehicular manslaughter. We are junkies, alcoholics, retards, geniuses, bikers, gang members, hookers, debutantes, abused wives, and the merely unlucky. The youngest of us is fourteen; the oldest, sixty-seven.
I have become a model prisoner, though I am not sure how it happened. I have certainly never been a model anything in my life. But in prison, I toe the line like a ballerina. During the day, I go to my job in the printing room and operate the litho press. After work, I volunteer for extra cleaning jobs. I’m always on my bunk for count, I don’t fight with anyone, and I don’t homosex. At night, I play backgammon, chess, or Scrabble. I tutor other women who want to get their GEDs. I don’t join in when the white women bitch about the black women, and I don’t pay attention when the black women bait the white women. I read and stay calm and focused. By all appearances, I am ready to take my place among the citizenry.
But at night, my dreams are a battlefield. In one of them, I see my mother and my brother being burned alive. In another, I am running through a tunnel, and a man who looks like a wolf is chasing me, intent on torturing me with a pair of pliers. I get in my Cutlass and drive, but my headlights won’t work. The darkness closes in on me, getting blacker and blacker. I’m pushing the accelerator, but the car won’t move. I can see the speedometer edging toward 120 miles an hour, but still the car is not moving. Then it’s rolling over and over, and the darkness is ripping the skin off my face.
One morning, after such a dream, I stand in the hallway in front of the full-length mirror and lift my bangs. There are gashes in my forehead.
“Oh, my God, Trish, what happened?” Leigh asks.
“I gouged myself again,” I say.
Leigh stares at my reflection in the mirror, then shakes her head.
Sometimes I claw my arms, sometimes my neck. I have no idea what the dreams mean, but they keep coming — not every single night, but two or three times a week. In the dreams where no one is after me, I’m always trying to get high. I have barrels full of cocaine, garbage bags of heroin, gallons of methadone, but I can never get high. No matter how much I take, I never feel anything.
I go to the prison shrink with Leigh and some of the others. He likes us. The group-therapy sessions don’t do anyone any good, but at least they get us off the compound for an hour a week. And we get to be with a cute man. I go to church, too, where they moan and holler the name of Jesus. The preacher tells us there is only one way to heaven, and otherwise we are going straight to hell. I try my best, but I can’t believe in any God who would use an imbecile like this for a mouthpiece. I also take the college course that is offered once every six months, if they can find someone to teach it. Right now, biology is being taught by one of the classification officers, who happens to be a creationist.
They keep you busy in prison, for obvious reasons. We have our workday, our church meetings, our AA meetings, our NA meetings, our classes of one kind or another. But still we manage to get into trouble. We make hooch in the kitchen. We smuggle in pot and sell toothpick-thin reefers for two dollars apiece. Sometimes we fight and steal from each other. And we hide in the bathroom and brush each other’s hair, which we’re not allowed to do, because it might lead to homosexing, but everyone does it. It’s our one secret pleasure.
Before I came to this prison, I thought people in the joint spent all their time lying in their cells reading, but I manage to make it through only about one book a week. It’s difficult to concentrate in the noisy dorm, so I turn on my radio and put on my earphones to shut out the noise, then train my mind not to hear the radio as I read.
I don’t read for pleasure, or for escape. I am looking for some sort of explanation — of this place, of my life, of what I’m doing here. So I read Crime and Punishment, which is about an intellectual murderer named Raskolnikov who finds redemption in a Siberian prison. I whisper his name to myself like a mantra: Raskolnikov. I love the sound of it, each syllable like the jab of a knife. I think about the creationist biology teacher and his God who flipped a switch and made the world. Raskolnikov is like antivenom to counteract the poison of stupidity. I want Raskolnikov’s God, the one he discovers at the end, but I have no idea where to find him.
I also read Heart of Darkness, which is about a man who travels up the Congo River in search of someone named Kurtz. When he finally finds him, Kurtz is crazy and sick and living in a hut surrounded by shrunken heads. Just before he dies, all Kurtz can say is “The horror. The horror.” When I finish the book, I hold it up and stare at the cover as if that will help me understand what I’ve just read. But I can’t fathom the mystery. I place the book on my dresser. Mother has a white Bible on her dresser. She has pink rollers in her hair and is steadily knitting what looks like a baby blanket.
“For my sister’s baby,” she says without looking up.
“Oh,” I answer. I pick up Heart of Darkness and start over from the beginning.
One night, Leigh sits down next to me in the game room. I’m playing chess with our fellow ex-junkie Misty, a little biker chick who used to have her own Harley out on the streets. Misty has me in check, of all things; her rook is bearing down on my king.
“So, did you guys hear about that big retarded girl in C Dorm?” Leigh asks, taking a hand-rolled cigarette from Misty’s pack of Bugler tobacco and lighting it.
“That ugly whore?” Misty asks. Misty calls women “whores” and men “bitches.”
Leigh nods and blows smoke over our heads.
“Damn, Misty,” I say, “how’d you get so good? You aren’t supposed to be able to beat me.” Misty is a paradox, affectionate as a puppy dog and sharp as a straight razor. I taught her how to play just a couple of months ago.
“I’m whipping her ass,” Misty says to Leigh, laughing.
I finally see a way out of my humiliation, but it’s going to cost me my queen.
“She went down on about twenty women all in a row,” Leigh says, all hush-hush. “They just lined up in the bathroom and went into the stall one after the other.”
I look up at Leigh, holding one of Misty’s white plastic pawns in my hand, and picture that moose of a girl with her red hair and her big, porcine lips. I feel a tingling between my legs, and suddenly I don’t want to play anymore.
“Jesus,” Misty says. “Twenty? Didn’t her tongue get tired?” She takes my queen.
“I concede,” I say.
Misty studies me suspiciously; I’ve still got plenty of pieces on the board. “You can’t concede,” she says.
“Sure I can,” I say. “You win.”
Misty clucks her tongue and shrugs her shoulders. “OK,” she says, “loser has to put up the game.” And she gets up with a swish of her long, dark hair and kisses Leigh on the cheek, which is illegal as hell, but she gets away with it, as usual, because the COs have discovered that she’ll kiss them, too, if they let her. Then she takes her Bugler pack and strolls out of the room.
I fold up the chessboard and place it in the box. Outside, it is dark, and the windowpanes are black squares covered with steel mesh. I’m thinking of how it used to feel — a man’s arms, his cigarette scent, his warm breath in my ear, his hand in my hair. No particular man, just any man.
Leigh grinds out the cigarette, though it’s only half smoked. I look over at her and stare into her dark blue eyes. She stares back. I feel a lurching inside, as if I have taken a step and found there is nothing beneath my feet.
“So,” I say, “if you were in C Dorm, do you think you would have let that retarded girl go down on you?”
Leigh grimaces and says, “Hell, no.”
We both know it’s not the female-on-female aspect of the thing that bothers us. You expect lesbians when you come to prison, and if you were a junkie on the streets, well, you probably put on a show or two with your girlfriend to get some guy’s rocks off and earn yourselves some cocaine, or whatever. Hell, most of the couples in this place treat each other with more respect than any hetero couple I’ve seen. But this is different, kind of like a gangbang in a way, only the girl didn’t realize it.
“Would you?” Leigh asks me.
“No,” I answer. And then I tell her what I would never have told anyone else in a million years: “But I would have wanted to.”
That night, when I go to bed, I don’t bother to read Heart of Darkness. Instead, I think about that lurching feeling, about the darkness inside me. I wonder about those twenty or so women who sat down and opened their legs for the retarded girl. How did it feel, her warm, gentle tongue obeying them like a dog? Is this the difference between those of us inside and the people on the outside: that we know exactly what we are capable of, whether we act on it or not?
I fall asleep and dream that I am in an enormous stone house. I am sitting by a cold, empty fireplace when I hear a noise at the other end of the house. Somehow I know that a killer is on the loose. I look around the room for someplace to hide, but there are only a few couches and one chair. Then I am no longer in the room but on the staircase, and the killer has smelled me. He — or she, or it — is coming after me. I run up the stairs, but the steps rotate in a great circle under my feet, and I get nowhere. I can hear the killer coming closer and closer. I try to scream, but my lungs have no air in them. I jump from the stairs and find myself in a bedroom. I slam the door and pick up a long cane that’s lying on the floor. I’m holding up the cane, waiting for the killer to come in, when the door opens.
At that moment, I force myself to open my eyes. When I realize where I am, I am grateful. Even prison is better than the place where I’ve been.
Later, I find a long scratch across my cheek.
I have signed up for art class two nights a week. The art teacher has disliked me from the moment we met. She told Leigh I was a phony. Maybe she knows the model-prisoner bit is just a facade. But I go to class anyway. I take a hunk of clay and throw it into the center of the wheel, then place my elbows firmly on the sides and hold the spinning clay in my wet hands. My thumbs press down into the middle of the lump and slowly pull out a bowl or a jar. Something about this action — the clay spinning around and around and the feel of it in my fingers — is mesmerizing, even seductive. When I pull a shape out of the mass, I think of a midwife pulling a baby from its mother’s womb. I make coffee cups for Leigh and me, and one for Mother, who gives me a maroon-and-white afghan she has knitted.
One summer night, I leave the art room and head back to the dorm. A gardenia bush by the door of the education building thrusts dozens of voluptuous white blossoms into the air, spreading their heavy fragrance in a wide radius. I carry the scent with me as I walk “home.” It is one of those incredibly rare moments in prison when I am actually alone.
At the steps that lead down the hill to my dorm, I stop for a moment to check out the night sky. You never see the stars like this in the city. Looking up, I can almost forget where I am. For just a second, I am standing on a beach in the Florida Keys. And then the oddest thing happens. All around me, it’s as if everything is a projection, an elaborate, three-dimensional picture that’s always in flux: the glittering stars, the succulent gardenias, the cockroach on the sidewalk, the dorm, with its big, lighted windows like blank eyes, and even me. I’m part of the projection, too. Not a bit of this is real. One day, I’ll be in Key West — no, not one day, but right now, because when I get to Key West, it will be now. The stars twinkle at me as if they’re glad I’ve finally gotten the joke.
Then the door to the dorm opens, and the CO sticks her head out and says, “Inmate Lenox, if you don’t want an escape charge, you’d better get in here for count.”
Inside the dorm, it’s noisy and warm, with women walking up and down the aisles, wearing their slippers and their state bathrobes, their faces scrubbed, teeth all brushed, and I feel a strange affection for them and for the sound of their intertwined voices, their discordant melodies. Mother puts her knitting aside and picks up her Bible. I think about the retarded red-haired girl in her dorm; how all of us just want the same thing, and how we’re not different. Not really.