I had been in the loop for two days. A cold concrete place with no bedding, mostly used as a drunk tank. I was wearing a soft purple sweater from REI and blue jeans, but they had taken my shoes and underwear.
They stripped me down entirely in a hallway and then pushed me into a room. I took a cold 2-minute shower, naked next to two women I had not yet met. Watching us, from a plexiglass cage, were another three women, these ones in uniform. Before sliding a towel through the window, I was instructed to open my mouth, close it, put my arms up, turn around, bend over, etc, a choreography I’d memorized by now. Finally, I toweled off, slicking the freezing droplets off my body, and put on the clothes provided. A pair of underwear with holes in it, a size too big. A bra with a stain on it, a size too small. A navy shirt and navy pants, a shapeless smock. A black pair of socks with holes in it. A pair of rubber sandals.
We waited outside the room for directions. More women joined. Eventually a uniformed officer walked up, pointed at me, and then pointed at the ground directly behind him. I immediately scooted over to stand there. He told the other women, “Get in line”, and they did.
I was always the line leader in elementary school, too, I remembered thinking, inanely.
I followed him down a hall and then another. I started to notice I did not feel well. I had drank only a cup of water over the last two days– the fountains in the loop did not work. I had eaten only two slices of cheese. That part was more my fault than theirs. I had been on a sugar-free diet for 7 years prior, and sugars had started to make me sick if I consumed them. The 20 slices of bread they had given me had gone to other girls, as well as the 5 packs of cookies, 5 small containers of milk. I would have tried the meat, but they would not inform me if it contained beef, and because my family does not eat beef traditionally, it also makes me sick. I didn’t want to sit in puke for however long, so I did not eat. It didn’t seems like a rash decision till we took one turn after another.
I still hadn’t had a chance to call Dave, but I tried not to think about that because it turned my already whirling stomach even more.
When the circular walk stopped, the officer pointed to a pile of bedding. We each grabbed a bed roll, complete with a sort of mattress pad, a pillow, a sheet, and a small bag of necessaries– soap, a toothed comb, a toothbrush, and some toothpaste.
Standing back in line, the bundle weighed on my already shaky knees. I tried crossing and uncrossing my eyes to focus.
The officer tried to make eye contact with me, eventually giving up and just announcing to my feet: “M21. Go home.”
All this to just… go home?
I blinked in confusion until he waved his arm at a door behind him, exasperated. Looking over his shoulder, I saw a collection of fishtank rooms with glass doors looking into two person cells. Each had number overhead, and the entire area was labeled M.
I walked through the door and saw that 21 was upstairs, so I made my way up. Some women were out of their cells, and they stared silently as I hobbled up, holding my bundle. On the fifth step , I just couldn’t do it anymore.
I fell over, and stayed down.
The officers started yelling threats. It didn’t matter. I couldn’t move. When they started explaining how they would hurt me, tears bubbled into my eyes and I strained to rise, but the heavy bundle was pressing me down into the stairs.
I heard footsteps and I braced myself for pain, but then, instead, the bedding was lifted off of me. I saw two feminine hands slide under it to lift it up. There were tattoos everywhere, and the ones on her fingers read “PORN STAR”.
Freed from the weight of it, I was able to stand, shakily. I couldn’t see her face, but I heard her voice. “Come on, bunkee. We got this.”
I followed her for a few steps before I realized she was pregnant. Eight months, I guessed. Her belly gave me a boost of adrenaline because it was something I recognized. All of this was strange, but babies are the same everywhere.
In the room, I cried. I had a million questions, none about her. How does this work? What time is it? When will I be able to call my husband?
She answered as she made my bed carefully, placing me on the top bunk. She brewed two cups of instant coffee, and sat me down. We talked for hours until I was reassured, and then we finally called it a night.
It was a kindness I recognized at the time and I vowed I’d pass on to my next bunkee if I ended up with one.
And I did.
When my original bunkee left, I got a new one that same day. I made her bed. I brewed the coffee. I stayed up all night while she sobbed and anguished. Two days later, she went home.
I was alone for awhile, but when my new-new-new bunkee came, I made her bed, too. I brewed the coffee. I stayed up all night while she sobbed and anguished. Four days later, she went home.
And when my new-new-new-new bunkee came, I finally understood the extent of that original kindness.
To meet someone’s suffering and not measure it against your own, to see someone’s journey and not be exasperated at their exhaustion even if you had been running that same path for years longer. To know that someone’s anguish is a matchstick in the wider scheme of things, but to hold them as if the whole world were burning, and you were appointed to accompany their holy grief.
I had been handed a plea deal that suggested 99 years, and the bunkee in my arms, based on what I’d learned from my time so far, was looking at a maximum of 3 months. She had spent hours in the loop. I had spent days. She hadn’t been there long enough to understand that her cup of coffee was 5% of my networth inside. That I could have used that scoop to buy a few more seconds of phonetime with my husband, to say i love you, a few more times. She wouldn’t be here long enough to repay it.
All she knew is that she was scared, and this was a terrible thing to experience, and that she was tired. She wanted to rest on something close to kindness, so she pressed herself against my shoulder and lamented about her life.
I thought of those tattooed hands, and the pregnant belly behind a stack of bedding– and I held her and petted her hair, and let her cry.
I think about those hands all the time. They held a singularly defining moment of my time, shaping everything yet to come.
I continue to rely on their grace even now.
In the world around me, people are trapped inside. The comparisons to jail are endless and tone-deaf, but suffering is suffering is suffering is suffering. And even when I cannot speak the words, I still can speak the actions and lift up what I can.
Come on, I think.
We got this.
Discover Prompt : Teach ; In collaboration with #AprilCheerPepper