Two days ago I was convicted on charges of assault with a deadly weapon against a police officer. It's pretty ironic really, when you consider the circumstances. Not to mention the fact that I'm a big fan of peace officers, firemen, and all the armed forces. If they ever had a vote on such things, I probably would have won least likely to be convicted of any type of negativity involving an officer of the law. But circumstances are everything, and now I must pay for my crime.
My girlfriend Julie and I had been together for four years. She was the only one who stood by me after my head injury. I used to run my own portrait studio at a mall in Bellflower and one night after leaving my store I was mugged by three teenagers. They slammed my head so hard on the wall I got brain damage, and since then I've been on Tegretol and Dilantin for a seizure disorder. Because the brain damage affects my spatial perception, I haven't been able to take pictures since then, or drive a car legally either. I collect disability and do odd jobs to make extra money.
One of the people who gave me a little job was our neighbor Darcy, a well-kept, big breasted, redheaded woman with a Cajun husband and a little prick of a fourteen-year old son. She's your typical bored SoCal wife, a bit on the heavy side so compensating with sashes, flowing tops, long skirts, and lots of jewelry. She had me over to clean her pool and do landscaping work and we got to be friends.
One late summer afternoon, after talking about how great Bernard was in bed and asking me what it was like to be gay, she seduced me. I mean she swooped in on me with her big freckled breasts like she'd been doing it all her whole life. For the next couple weeks she'd make love to me and I'd make love to her and she'd pay me to hose down her deck and we'd run around having fun.
Of course I felt guilty about it. Since the mugging Julie had been a real good provider. After a couple of months, I told Darcy I couldn't go behind Julie's back anymore. I thought the whole thing was settled, until a couple weeks later, Darcy started hanging out with the two of us like we were one big happy family. Three months later, Julie told me the two of them were in love.
Well, I fucking lost it. I got down on my knees and told Julie that Darcy had seduced me too, that it had been over for five months, and that she was a married, serial lesbianizer who was just using us. Julie said she knew about our affair because Darcy had told her. Then she said that they were truly in love and that Darcy was moving in and I would have to move out.
There's nothing like the pain of lost love combined with impending homelessness and a seizure disorder to drive you over the edge. Julie moved into a Motel 6 up the street for a week to give me time to get out of her place. Our place. I spent three days in that house drinking Tequila on top of my Tegretol. I have an old Thunderbird, sky blue, my first car, and I took it out of the tarp and started to drive. I drove up and down the street past the motel and Darcy's house fifteen times a day. My mind was obsessing on Darcy, that fucking married lesbian homewrecker moving in on me and my girlfriend.
Six days into the week I still hadn't moved out. Where do you go if you're a lesbian on disability in Southern California who can't legally drive? The seventh day I got in my car again and drove by the hotel where I saw Darcy's BMW in the parking lot. I went home and got so drunk I started speed dialing them. About the fourth time I phoned, they must have told the clerk not to take my calls anymore, so I screamed at him that I had a gun and was going to kill myself.
Well, it's true that I did have a gun. It belonged to my great-grandfather, who had fought in the Civil War. It was passed down to the men in my family, and since my father had two girls, it was only natural that it was given to me, the jock and the basketball player. The gun was a .36 caliber Remington revolver, and didn't have any ammo, but with all the alcohol I was drinking my brain was firing blue flames and yellow squiggly lines. I started to believe I really was under siege so I closed all the curtains and hid at the door with my gun.
About an hour later a police car pulled up. Behind it, in her pick-up truck, was Julie. I figured she had told the police I was suicidal and was going to have me physically removed from our house. She might even declare me incompetent because of my head injury and get me sent back to St. Joe's. I squeezed my gun hard and decided I would protect the integrity of my home and my person against any invader.
"Ma'am we need you to come out of the house right now," a cop yelled. "We just need to check on your safety."
"Get out of here. This is my fucking house."
I didn't hear anything for a moment, so I went to the door. I poked my head out, and when I saw the cops ducking behind my neighbor's bird fountain with their pistols drawn, it made me laugh.
"Come out with your hands up!" the cop yelled.
Well, I stepped out of that door, but you can bet I had my grandfather's Remington in my right hand pointing straight at them.
The last thing I remember was Julie's scream. Then the ricochet of gunfire as I sank to the ground. For each bullet I heard, I saw kaleidoscopic swirls imploding. This must have been what it felt like for my Dad in the jungle, for my Grampa at Ypres, for my Great-Grampa, fighting off Yankees at Arlington. Maybe I did have a seizure because the next thing I remember, I was handcuffed, in a holding cell, and booked on charges of assault with a deadly weapon against a police officer.
The day of my sentencing I appeared in court in a light blue suit, shackled to a drug dealer named Trina. My father flew in from South Carolina and I cried as he told the judge he was never there for me because he was in Vietnam. Ever since my head injury, I sob at the least little thing. Even a stupid commercial can set me off bawling.
Because of the severity of my crime, I was convicted of a Class A felony with a minimum sentence of three to ten years. But since it was my first offense, and since the judge took into consideration my head injury, and the fact that the gun wasn't loaded, I was given the minimum maximum. He offered me the choice of three years in state prison or six months at Sybil Brand. My court-appointed lawyer squeezed my shoulder because it could have been so much worse. Only Trina, my chain gang Siamese twin with her mouth in my ear kept whispering, "Take the three years! Take the three years!" as I told my lawyer I'd take the six months in Sybil.
The first things they give you in Sybil are pink rubber shoes and a clear plastic ziplock. That ziplock becomes your friend, your companion, your lifeline. You get to keep shampoo, toothpaste, a toothbrush, a comb, and deodorant that comes in a little square foil pack. You end up carrying it with you wherever you go.
I got to keep my same jumpsuit. It's light blue for me because I'm a felon. The psychos wear orange, the murderers, red. We all sleep together in this one big room that has bunks. There's a cafeteria where we all go for meals. There's a big, nasty bathroom with a wide open shower area. There is a TV room, but I'm not allowed in because of my crime ranking. There are several cubicles where the guards like to take you and strip you; there's also a place where they watch you from behind glass.
When the guard dropped me off at my bunk bed, I noticed the other girls for the first time. There were black girls who didn't look older than twenty, white girls who were fat and ugly, and Mexican girls with really thin eyebrows. The cots were only a few feet apart, but somehow the women looked far away.
I am lucky in a few regards to my physical person. For one thing, I'm solidly built with actual muscles from doing my various odd jobs. For another, I have very tan skin, which my father attributes to a distant Cherokee relative, though the L.A. sun hasn't hurt either. Looking around at the women, I hoped I'd fall in with the blacks, as the Mexicans scared the shit out of me, and the white women all looked fucked up. Growing up on base in South Carolina, I was the only white girl on my basketball team, so I told them all I was one quarter black. I hit it off great with my teammates, and since then I've been confident I could hang out with blacks if they'd let me.
I sat on my top bunk bed for two hours, not looking around, just listening to two hundred women whispering, yelling, and stomping around. At some point I must have met Shanee.
She was noticeably tall, even in her rubber shoes. Her top half was two times as thick as her bottom half, though that isn't to say she was fat. Her jumpsuit was blue, she had very dark skin, and probably was at least forty. Her hair, mid-length and straightened, stuck out from her scalp as if it had been flattened with a skillet. This seemed to cause her some distress because she was running her fingers over it.
"I'm Shanee. My bunk's right here. I don't usually wear my hair like this. This is what happens when they don't let you use product."
"I'm Barbara," I said. "My hair looks way worse."
That was the truth. In Cerritos, to compensate for my hair's mousy thinness, I had maintained a rigid routine of mousse, volumnizer, and hairspray all sizzled together under a blow dryer. The last time I saw myself, through the haze of the bus window, my hair hung limp and inverted against my face.
"What'd you do?" Shanee asked.
I had been through this once in the holding cell. The dealers and hookers were all screaming names at me until my brain damage kicked in and I started to cry. I wanted to yell at them that it was all a mistake, but they cursed me out until one asked me what I was charged with. When I told them 245 on a cop they stopped yelling.
"Damn!" a girl said, "245?"
They all stared at me.
"White girl's hardcore," another one said. What bugged me was that girl was whiter than me.
The oldest one of the bunch, a sixty-something hooker, wasn't impressed. "What kind of piece did you use? Water pistol?"
I turned straight towards her. "56 magnum. Right in his face."
That shut them up for a second, then one of them yelled, "Man, you're lying!"
"Go tell them that," I said. "You think I'd make this shit up? You think I want to be in here?"
"Why'd you do it?" a young girl who didn't look more than eighteen asked me.
"Yeah, you get a parking ticket or something?" the old hooker sneered.
"Because I hate cops," I heard myself say. "Cause I hate those goddamn L.A. cops."
Shanee was looking at me, waiting for me to respond. Behind her, two women were scrapping over a pillow.
"245," I said. "On a cop."
Her face didn't flinch. "You want to know what I did?"
"I'm in for grand theft auto, but I didn't do shit. It was my own goddamn car. I made the payments, I bought the shit. But where I went wrong, see, was I had a credit problem so I had bought it in my boyfriend's name. Then one day he doesn't like who I'm running with, so he reports it as stolen. I got picked up for driving my own goddamn car."
"That's bullshit," I said. In the back of my mind I was thinking there might be more to the story, as she landed in Sybil. But maybe it was just as she told it.
"My own goddamn car! That shit is fucked up."
"You know," I said. "To tell the truth, Shanee, mine was a big mistake too."
"Shit," she said shaking her head. "Sybil Brand is one ugly mistake."
I tried to keep moving. Living among two hundred women in various states of anger, detox, and boredom, my strategy was to never be still. This wasn't hard, since the first thing the guards did after giving me my ziplock was cut back my Dilantin. Why they did this, I don't know, as I told them I'd start having seizures. They slashed it from 800 to 400 milligrams, and within twenty-four hours I felt the tingling in my head and the jumpiness in my legs that signalized rapid withdrawal. The next morning I was walking back to my cot from the cafeteria when I felt a shifting awareness, and started to see swirly colors in my peripheral vision. The last thing I remember as I went down was a girl with long hair in an orange suit, pointing and yelling, "Look, look, mira!"
The seizure itself isn't bad. It's that moment before it comes on. After it finished, I'd just sleep for hours. When I woke up my words would be scrambled. What bothered me was what they did to my teeth. I couldn't bear the thought of my expensive dental work being ground down day after day as I slammed my head back and forth on the hard prison floor. I begged the guards to increase my dose but they said that they couldn't.
In Sybil, other prisoners and guards are with you wherever you go. There are no windows, and the air is perpetually sweaty. Florescent lights give the walls a pink-orange glow. The sheet and blanket they give you are mildewed and never get washed.
At night there were rats that hunted around after dark. I couldn't sleep with everyone snoring, and Esme, a Colombian girl in the bunk next to mine who would sit up all night and eat her own hair. After midnight I'd usually go to the bathroom and clean it; the sounds weren't as bad and I didn't mind doing the work.
There's a place your mind goes when you really can't sleep. It's a jagged, nightmarish state with all the worse qualities of daytime and nighttime together. For me it was filled with regret. When I was down on my knees cleaning the chipped tile floor, I'd think mostly of Julie. The little things we used to do together. Drive to Togo's and get submarine sandwiches. Go to the Mexican car wash in Long Beach, order Domino's pizza when the Lakers were playing. Maybe it wasn't exciting, but at least it was home.
My mind tried to rewrite the past. If only I hadn't met Darcy. If only I hadn't been at work that day of the mugging. If only I still had my store, could still drive my car, could still take good pictures. It was as if all of my life could be traced back to random bad moments. And if those little moments had never happened, if I had simply taken a different turn that day after work, or that afternoon at Darcy's, I wouldn't be in Sybil Brand on half my normal dose of Dilantin, scrubbing puke off community toilets at four in the morning.
Shanee didn't become my fast friend like I hoped but at least she took me to meals. She also liked pointing out other prisoners and filling me in on their crimes.
"That's Angela Morales," she said at our third breakfast together, pointing to a grave-looking Hispanic woman in a red jumpsuit with a falcon tattoo on her neck. "Nickname Hell. She's Bolivian, not Mexican. She's a pimp and a drug dealer. She's hard time through and through."
I nodded. I had seen Angela Morales around before and she terrified me. Her black eyes were lifeless, her gaze intense. I already had a fear of Hispanics. Probably because I had lived in L.A. for so long and still didn't speak Spanish. That and the fact that the kids who mugged me spoke Spanish. You try not being prejudiced when your head is smashed in for ten dollars. I want to get over it, but even today when I hear the word hola, I run.
"That woman right there," Shanee said, pointing to a heavy-set white woman with thin, short brown hair and thick glasses. "Bitch is crazy. School Principal. Child molester. Six-year-old girls."
I put down my fork. "That's disgusting."
"Tell me about it. I'm fitting to beat her myself."
"Who's that?" I pointed to a very obese black woman who always sat on her own.
Shanee was about to say something, but then her jaw dropped. "Shit," she said, turning to her other friends sitting with us at the table. "Lata's back from Hawaii."
I turned to see the guard that had caught Shanee's eye. She was a young woman who couldn't have been more than four feet eleven, and probably didn't weigh more than eighty-five pounds. She had shiny black hair pulled back in a ponytail, glowing brown skin, and eyebrows plucked so thin they were no more than commas. She was pretty, petite, and I guessed her to be Filipino. The guard was winding through the cafeteria, smiling, and using her stick to tap on the benches. At every table there was a chorus of "Hi, Lata!" as she made her way through. When she got to our table, I saw her nametag said Imaculata Feliz, and I heard a forced, friendly tone from Shanee that caught me off guard.
"Hey, Lata! Hey, girl, did you have a good vacation?"
"Better out there than here with your sorry asses."
"Who's this?" she asked, pointing her stick at me.
"This here's Barbara," Shanee said. "She's sharing a bunk with me."
She pointed to my ziplock. "What's in the bag?"
I noticed that Shanee and her friends' heads all bowed down as they made a show of eating their food.
"That's just my cleaning and grooming supplies."
"You sure?" She tapped it with her stick. "Pour it out."
I watched as a girlish smile crept across her heart-shaped face.
"Pour it out!" she said, in a surprisingly sharp tone. "On the ground!"
I opened my ziplock and dumped it. My shampoo, comb, deodorant, and toothbrush all clattered on the hard cement floor.
"Now pick it up!" she said. When I just sat there, she hit the stick across my back. "Pick it up!"
I bent over to pick up my things. The tables next to us had grown quiet, but everyone was going through the motions of eating. I could see a couple girls laughing two tables away.
"You like this place?" Imaculata asked me as I was reaching my hand under the table to retrieve my deodorant. "How long have you been here?"
"Three days." I gathered my things and got back on the bench.
"Three days?" she said. "Shanee, what did she do?"
Shanee put her cup down. "245 on a cop."
I bowed my head. Fear was surging through me now; fear and anger at Shanee for telling her, though I myself wouldn't have done any different.
Imaculata laughed. "245 on a cop."
She knocked over my drink with her stick, then flipped my plate too.
"You clean that shit up, 245! You get down on your knees and you lick it up."
While the other girls looked away, I got off my bench and sunk down to my knees. As I forced my tongue along the red puddle of Kool-Aid staining the dirty cement floor, Imaculata talked to me in a strangely calm tone of voice.
"You think this is fun, 245? This is Sybil Brand, bitch. We make every day for you a living hell. You won't forget this shit here. You think you can 245 on a cop? You're gonna learn a few lessons."
When I was done licking my Kool-Aid, Imaculata Feliz walked away. I stood up and looked at my table. Not Shanee or any of the others made eye contact with me. I picked up my tray, cleaned up the spilled food, and went back to my bunk.
After what happened at breakfast, I didn't talk much with Shanee. Anyway, she got on road crew. Every morning at five, she and a hundred other girls would put on their orange suits, all dancing and singing because they were so happy to pick up trash on the side of the highway. The guards told me I didn't have a hope in hell of making road crew or cafeteria clean-up. Part of my punishment was that I couldn't work.
I had one thing going for me that helped me fill up the rest of my time. Before leaving for South Carolina, my father had put two hundred dollars on my account to use at the Sybil Brand kiosk. Besides toothbrushes, shampoo, and soap, they sold Kit-Kats and Jolly Rogers, which the girls called Zoom-Zooms, and one day a week they sold Moonpies. Those Moonpies were worth their weight in gold. The only thing more valuable was coffee. For a premium, the kiosk sold tiny packets of Nescafe instant. We were limited to seven per week, and at $2 a pack, that shit was like prison cocaine. I quickly found out that through trading my Zoom-Zooms and coffee I could not only recoup the Dilantin the guards had cut me off of, but an ample supply of Ativan, Klonopin, and Thorazine, the psych meds most girls were prescribed. I started taking the Dilantin, and hoarding the other pills in a napkin under my pillow. Then, one day, I saw Ember.
I had just returned from the cafeteria when I noticed a mop of flaming red hair poked out from under a sheet on a pillow. Maybe because I am dark, that strange orange brightness and freckly white skin has always intrigued me. I watched as the hair kept flipping back and forth on the pillow like a fish on land. The girl was squirming so much, the sheets were all twisted and the blanket fell off of the bed. She turned over again, and I saw her.
She had brown eyes. They were squinting as if the place was too bright. Her face was freckled and young like a kid's, but something in her gaze was older. She looked like a world-weary Raggedy Ann doll.
"Hi." I said, realizing that she had caught me staring at her. "I'm Barbara."
She gave me a look of extreme agitation, then twisted herself into the sheet again, flipping onto her back. She gripped both sides of the sheet between her hands, pulling on it as if she were trying to break it in half.
"Are you OK?" I asked.
She stopped still for a moment, and without looking at me, yelled towards the top of her bunk. "I'm fucking dopesick, OK?"
"Leave me alone." She unraveled the sheet and pulled it over her face.
Later that morning, when Imaculata Feliz was doing a strip search of some new murderer in a side cubicle, I pulled some pills from my stash and went to her bunk.
"Hey, I have something for you."
"Give it to me," she said, without turning.
I handed her the two pills, which she stuck in her mouth and swallowed.
"I'm Barbara," I said.
"That's a pretty name."
She turned towards me. "Shut up, please. Just leave me alone, OK? Thanks for the pills."
I returned to my bunk but late that night before cleaning duty, I went back to her bed. She was still writhing around, but she was quiet which told me she must know a few things about jail.
"I brought you two more," I said.
She sighed and this time she looked at me. She took the pills, stuck them in her mouth, swallowed, and started crying.
"You know what the fucked up part is? Tomorrow is my birthday."
"Oh," I said. "Happy birthday."
"Yeah. Happy birthday."
"What are you in for?"
"What do you think? Turning tricks."
"Well," I said, wanting to say something to cheer her up. "That's not so bad. They probably won't have you here long."
"It's my fourth offense."
"It's my third time I've been here."
"Well," I said, not knowing what else I could say. She looked so young to have been at Sybil three times. "I'm going to clean the bathroom. At six I can bring you another two pills."
"Can you come back before then? Just to make sure there aren't rats. I hate being on the bottom bunk."
"Sure," I said. "I can do that."
The next morning I brought Ember her two pills at six. She was in bad shape then, running back and forth to the bathroom to throw up. I felt sorry for her being in prison on her birthday, so I went to the noon N.A. meeting where I swiped three Oreos and one pink frosted elephant cookie with colorful sprinkles and hid them under my sleeve. Then I spent $4 of my stash on two Nescafes because I knew I could trade them for codeines. I wrapped the cookies and pills in a napkin, and gave them to her for a birthday present.
After that, she started to talk with me more. She was twenty years old, from Crescent City, up near Oregon, and came to L.A. to get into fashion design. She fell in with an older boyfriend, started using dope, and two years ago ended up working the streets. Her parents were hippies. Her father was dead, and her mother, a crack addict, lived in Seattle.
She asked me what I was in for and I told her the truth. I said I'd been jilted by my girlfriend of four years and pointed my Civil War Remington at a couple of L.A.P.D. When Ember heard that she burst out laughing and soon I was laughing too. It felt so good to have something be funny. It was the first time in Sybil I'd laughed.
Over the next couple weeks, my visits with Ember gave a spark to otherwise soul-numbing days. Imaculata Feliz took every opportunity to give me a strip search, flip my rack, or make me pour out my ziplock. She took away my toothbrush for no reason. She liked taunting me when I was naked, calling me "ugly" and "mangirl," then sticking her stick in my butt.
The guards cut back my Dilantin again, and I had to spend more money on Moonpies just to stay normal. I was busted unfairly for a winemaking scheme that involved several white girls. They hid orange peels in the toilet tanks and let them ferment. The guards found them while I was in cleaning. My punishment was I was only allowed two trips to the bathroom per day, and they confiscated my pink rubber shoes.
I knew I had to be careful about my visits with Ember. The rule in Sybil Brand was no "p.c.," or personal contact, which was ironic considering there were 200 of us in such a tight space. Still, we were not allowed on each other's bunks, could not touch, and at meals had to sit six inches apart. Every time I visited Ember I would walk ovals around the front of her cot while she sat there talking. As I got to know her better, we started opening up about personal things. One time, standing up barefoot, circling her bed for the twentieth time, I asked her what it was like hooking.
"It's not as bad as you think, to be honest. There's worse ways to make money. I only did it for dope. It's not like I liked the guys."
"So you don't like guys?"
She shrugged. "What's to like?"
Later on, we were talking about our dreams after Sybil. I had heard other girls do thateveryone has such big plans.
"What's your biggest dream?" I said. "I mean your ultimate fantasy?"
She shook her head. "My dream is impossible."
"Just tell me."
"My dream is to hug a tiger. Out in the jungle. A big, wild tiger. I put my arms around him, and he's so soft he just melts under my hands and he growls."
"That would be cool."
"To own a riverboat," I said without hesitation. "And drive it up and down the Mississippi. It would have all kinds of guest rooms and a bar and a restaurant and gambling."
"That would be awesome," she said. "I could be your first mate."
"Yes, you could." I imagined myself at the wheel of a boat in a blue captain's hat with Ember in a little white sailor's suit by my side. "Yes, you could."
I don't know exactly when I started to fall in love with Ember, but I know that from the beginning I wanted to spend all my time with her. I enjoyed hearing about her past, and when I told her things from my own she usually laughed. Maybe laughter is the seed of love, because the more we laughed together the more I knew that I loved her. Being with her made me think things weren't really so bad.
"You know what, Ember? When you get out, you can drive my car. I have a blue Thunderbird. You'd look so good driving it."
"That would be awesome. If I had a car I could go back to school for fashion design."
"You wouldn't have toyou know, do that anymore, because I can support you. I have this lawsuit against the security service at the mall where I was mugged. When I get out I'm giving my lawyer a call."
It was a slight exaggeration. I did have a lawyer, but two years ago he told me my case was dead in the water.
"My friend got a settlement once. It was for millions of dollars."
"Yes, and there's this new operation for seizure disorder. They hook you up to this video monitor and they map all your brain waves so they can operate. Then when everything's cool I'll go back to photography."
That bit was partially true. They did have new procedures, but probably only for rich people who could afford to spend months at Mayo or Stanford.
"Yeah," Ember said, a smile pushing the freckles higher up on her face. "And we can be artists. I'll have like this awesome apparel line for the stars and you can be my photographer."
I felt a wave of happiness all the way down to my stomach.
"It could happen, Ember," I said, stopping still at her cot.
"Yeah, and I'll only do dope once a week."
"You won't need to do dope cause I'll make you so happy."
I couldn't help myself. I wanted to kiss her so bad but I knew that I couldn't so I just put my hand on her leg.
"I can't wait to kiss you," she said.
"Neither can I," I said, as I took my hand from her thigh. I didn't even mind that in the far end of the room I caught a passing glimpse of the shiny black ponytail of Imaculata Feliz.
After meeting Ember, Sybil did not seem so bad. Suddenly all of the bunk beds were charming as antique furniture. The strip searches and insults were minor unpleasantries. Even the rats didn't bother me much. I tried thinking of them like this woman Cherise did who named them all Desmo and called them her babies.
One day I paid a girl three Nescafes to steal crayons and paper from the kids' visiting room. I drew a picture of Ember with orange fire billowing out of the top of her head. On it I wrote, "Emberthe flames of my love." I put it under her blanket so she would get it after lunch.
When I came back from the cafeteria, my rack had been flipped. My mattress was on the ground with my sheets and my pillow. I looked over towards Ember's bunk. Her stuff was tipped too. Before I had the chance to turn around, Imaculata Feliz was coming my way with her stick.
Imaculata grabbed my arms, put handcuffs on me, and dragged me out through the hall into one of the cubicles. She opened the door, and there in the corner was Ember. Imaculata locked the door behind us and ordered Ember to lie on the ground.
"On your knees, 245," Imaculata told me.
I got down on my knees, with my hands cuffed behind me. Imaculata took her keys off her belt and slashed open Ember's blue suit, then yanked down her panties. She placed her booted foot next to Ember's head.
"Fuck your whore."
I looked at Imaculata. Ember lay still as a lizard, her eyes closed.
"Fuck your whore."
"No!" I yelled.
Imaculata lifted her foot and kicked Ember hard on the side of her head. Ember screamed. I tried to leap forward, but I couldn't keep my balance with my hands behind my back, so instead I fell onto my side.
"No!" I said. "Don't fucking hurt her." I got up again on my knees.
"Shut your face, 245!" She lifted her boot above Ember's face. "Fuck your whore."
I looked at Ember. She was crying, but I tried to make eye contact with her. "I'm sorry," I whispered, bending my head down, my cuffed hands rising over my back. I moved my face close to Ember and forced my tongue to move, just as I had when I licked the Kool-Aid off the cement floor.
"You like that dyke, whore? You think that feels good? You like that whore, dyke? You like eating whore? This is Sybil Brand, bitch. We're gonna teach you some lessons."
Afterwards, I was put in solitary for 48 hours. It was just as well since I couldn't stop crying. A guard gave me 200mg of Dilantin, but it wasn't enough. I hoped I would have a seizure so that I could sleep.
Two days later, they let me out. I wanted badly to see Ember, find out how she was doing, apologize, tell her we couldn't talk anymore, not until we were free. I went back to my bunk, and nobody looked at me. Later on, after dark, I walked over towards Ember's. She was lying on her bed, her head on the pillow, her face towards the bunk above hers.
"Ember!" I whispered.
She turned towards me and leapt from her cot. "Get the fuck away from me!"
Several of the women who had been asleep jumped down from their bunks and came at me, hitting and pushing me. I put my hands up to shield my head while Ember just stood there screaming. "Get the fuck away from me you fucking dyke!"
I wanted to yell something, tell her that none of this was real and all that mattered was outside except one special thing between us. But she kept screaming and the girls kept hitting, and in the corner of my vision were the squiggly lines and I realized that Imaculata was right, there were awful lessons to learn and they're all taught in Sybil.
That night I swallowed the stash of pills I had saved. The next thing I remember was waking up to the smell of ammonia and the sight of a beige-coated doctor above me. I tried to scream, but no sound would come out. They kept me in psych for over a week. By the time I got out, I was on just as much Thorazine as had put me in there in the first place.
When I got sent back to my bunk, Shanee was gone. There was a middle-aged white woman up there, smelly and mean as a dog. I spent most of my time half-asleep. Several times I saw Ember walk by with Angela Morales. I tried to make eye contact with her, but she looked right through me. She must have been high; why else would she hang out with Hell?
One Sunday after breakfast the guards told me to get up. I thought maybe I was going to have a blood test or some sort of hearing, but instead they walked me down the entire length of the prison. They led me into a narrow cubicle shielded by glass. On the other side of the glass was my father. His hair was trimmed to the scalp, Marines-style.
"Happy Birthday, baby," my father said. He looked clean-shaven and tan.
"Dad," I managed to say.
I could tell by the look in his eyes I was not doing well. It was hard for me to talk on the Thorazine, and though I understood things, my own world took place in slow motion.
"Don't cry, baby."
My Dad always told me not to cry, even after my head injury. It's not that he's harsh, he just can't handle it. We've always had a special bond. He knows I have girlfriends, but we don't talk about itit's sort of like "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
"You know it's your birthday, don't you?"
I shook my head.
"Are you doing OK in there?"
I shook my head again. I was in no condition to lie. He didn't flinch, though I knew he wanted to scoop me up in his arms.
"Honey, you can't let them break you. You can't let them break down your dignity."
I started crying more since I thought it was pretty apparent that any dignity I ever possessed had long since gone out the window.
"Honey, when Ed Penicek was in Namyou remember Ed Penicek, right, from Lejeune? When Ed was taken prisoner, the Viet Cong tried every torture tactic their dirty red hearts knew. He was held in a cage underground for six months. After that, they buried him up to his neck in a hole. When they let him out once a week they kept him tied to a feral dog. I was talking to Ed one night after exercises and I said, "Ed, you were a prisoner of war for three years at the hands of the notorious V.C. How did you survive that?" And he said to me, "George," he said, "I didn't let them take away my dignity." My father looked at me, and repeated his last sentence slowly. "I didn't let them take away my dignity."
My tongue was numb with things I couldn't say. But I'm not a prisoner of war. I'm a dyke with brain damage and a string of bad luck.
"Honey, don't let them break you."
I spent my next weeks in a haze. During the day I would get up only for meals. At night I would lay in my bunk and just listen. Cherise would talk to her rats. Three pregnant Nazis were plotting some sort of a Holocaust. Esme had begun weaving crucifixes out of her own hair to sell. She would sit there in the dark, delicately pressing her black strands into the shape of el dolor de Cristo. She had one woven into the side of her head. A new woman, big as a fridge, woke everyone up screaming, "Don't MAKE me kill again!"
One day, after breakfast, I was walking back to my bunk when I noticed a tiny area of paint that had chipped off the wall. I went over and saw that it wasn't a wall, but a covered up window. I put my eye up to where the paint had peeled off and could see outside to a slab of cement and the bottom half of the tower where the guards watched over the building. I went back to the hole a few times that day, watching the changing light on the grainy beige surface. The next morning I went back to look through it again, but they'd painted it over.
Ember got released. They never kept hookers in long. A girl told me she was working for Hell on the outside. I can't say I wish her the best.
Since I've been in, plenty of girls have gone out and come back. Though they say they hate Sybil, in here they know how to survive. Life in the world, with all of its choices, must be too hard for some girls to handle. Sybil, with its florescent glow, the bunks, and the rats, offers a structure at least, and walls that keep life hemmed in to some manageable moments. Sometimes I find myself feeling like those girls. That life outside is too big, the possibilities for pain too endless, while in here I've at least seen pain's limits.
To pass time, I imagine a highway. The sea is in front, the mountains behind. The sun is high in the sky. I drive my blue Thunderbird, pressing my right foot hard on the gas. As I cruise, a bald eagle flies beside me. I look out of my window at him and he winks. I notice my spatial perception is fine, but the rest of my brain doesn't work. A pleasing hollow fills space where my thoughts used to be. I have this sudden sensation of freedom. And yet I am not very free. I can't remember what my crimes are, but I know that I must be guilty of something.