more people than mattresses

i wake up again, and i assume that it’s noon, because the warden is here.  “everybody up!” she screams.  “stand against the wall!  when i call your name, tell me your wristband number!  after i call you, get in the lunch line!”

limp and i, wrapped in our blankets, stand up against the cinderblock wall together.  i have to call her limp because she walks with a limp and, even though we’ve stuck together so far and she’s the only person i’ve spoken to, i still don’t know her name.  this jail-survival tactic of mine, i later realize, is the same one my sister and i used in day care when we were little.  both painfully shy and none too comfortable with the other children, my sister and i would stay together at all times.  we would eat lunch together, sit next to one another, do all the day-care activities side by side.  since we didn’t get along then, staying together was not fun.  in fact, i think we hated it.  but it kept us from having to eat lunch alone, it helped to have an ally in case other kids tried to mess with us, and it passed the time until our dad arrived from work to take us home.

limp and i get along well enough.  she is here for resisting arrest.  someone in her apartment called the police because her music was too loud.  when the cops showed up, she turned the volume down, but didn’t answer the door.  to draw her out, they shut off her electricity.

“my baby got scared,” limp told me.  “he was crying, he got so scared.  i had to open the door.”  she showed me the bruises on her arms and wrists from where the police had grabbed her and cuffed her.  luckily, they allowed her to leave her son with her sister, who lived in the same building.

i am not sure i believe this story, but limp and i stay together all the same.  she is friendly and sympathetic, and reassures me when i tell her that i’m sure my boyfriend and his family will never speak to me again.  after retrieving our lunch trays, juice boxes, and brownies, we sit together at one of the tables.

there are four compartments.  one contains rice, one has cornbread, one hot lettuce, and the fourth is smeared with what appear to be layers of beans and tortillas.  the beans are the same color as the tortillas.  i take a few tiny bites of rice, but i’m too upset to eat.  i’m on the verge of crying again, but i decide instead to think about how funny it is that in jail, they give you a spork.  it’s not a spoon.  it’s not a fork.  it’s a spork!  the hot lettuce, though terrifying, is also hilarious.

limp is eating the cornbread.  “how is it?” i ask her as she tries to eat it with the spork.

“the same as it was this morning,” she says.  “how’s the brownie?”

“i dunno,” i say, “but it looks better than anything else.  here, i’ll try it for both of us.  i’ll be the tester.”  i break off a small piece, chewing it slowly.  “it’s okay.”

“i’m going to save mine for later,” limp says, and i follow suit.  i’m reminded again of day care, when my sister and i would save the granola bars from the lunches my mother packed for us.  curiously, i am also reminded of the day my mother dropped us off at the ymca day care on her way to work, and i realized i’d forgotten to wear a bra.  not that my nine-year-old breasts were that big, you understand, but i was still accustomed to wearing one, and it felt strange to be without it all day.  here in jail they’ve taken jewelry and hair ties and shoelaces and personal effects and anything that could be considered a weapon.  why don’t they take anyone’s bra?  i’m sure you could fashion some sort of weapon with the underwire, if you ripped it out.  you know, they could have done a lot more with that show if macgyver had been a woman.  door locks stuffed with tampons, mechanisms greased with lipstick and hand lotion.

“holy shit!” someone yells.  all the girls stand up and lean over their lunches to see what’s going on.  a few people rush over to the girl who has fallen backwards from the bench to the cement floor.  her eyes have rolled back in her head.  blood is running from her mouth onto her t-shirt.  she is having a seizure.

now everyone is yelling.  “lay her on the floor!” someone cries.  “put something in her mouth so she won’t bite her tongue!” someone else says.  a few other people have run over to the foot-wide slot in the wall of the cell and are yelling for help.  the rest of us are still staring.  two girls using the phones have not even looked up.

the girl is still shaking violently when the doors slam open and someone comes in.  it’s the same long-haired girl in the prison uniform, the one who frightened me earlier.  apparently, she’s an inmate who works here.  grabbing the seizing girl by the arm, she drags her away from everyone else, towards the garbage cans.  blood smears across the floor.  the warden runs in, someone with a stretcher following behind her.  “everybody!” she screams.  “throw away your trash and get into cell one!”  she points towards the inner cell, the one we were in before.  i toss my trash into the garbage can, grab my blanket, and race into the inner cell to save a bottom bunk for limp, who couldn’t possibly climb into an upper one.

after limp makes it over to the bunk i’ve saved for her, i grab a top bunk for myself.  once we’re all inside, the inner cell doors slam, and i watch through the bars as the woman with the stretcher loads the seizing girl on and rolls her away.  the inmate worker picks up the rest of the trash and she and the warden leave, the outer cell doors slamming, too.

it hadn’t bothered me to be locked in this inner cell before, but now i don’t like it.  it’s too small, and there are too many people in here.  it’s so small i can’t breathe, can’t stop shaking.  i’m glad these bunks are made of cement and attached to the wall, otherwise my shaking would bother the girl below me.  and i can’t seem to stop shaking.

there are more plastic mattresses than bunks, more people than mattresses.  a few girls are sitting together on extra mattresses on the floor, leaning against the bottom bunks.  they are talking loudly, laughing about drugs, about faking injuries to get out of prison, about punishments for felonies or possession.  limp gets up and sits with them, abandoning the bunk i saved.  she tells them her resisting arrest story.  i watch them from my top bunk and am struck by how much the scene below me looks like summer camp, when all the girls would be close friends after the first few days, and we would sit together on each other’s bunks late at night.  the food wasn’t much better there, but the toilets were private, we could be outdoors, and i wasn’t afraid.  i didn’t shake uncontrollably.  i didn’t want to die.

limp seems to be enjoying the conversation they’re having, but i can’t.  i can’t talk about lawyers or prison terms or fines or community service.  i can’t even think about it.  i want them to shut up, i want to go back to sleep, i want to stop the what ifs (what if we didn’t, what if we hadn’t, what if i hadn’t), i want to stop seeing your face, looking at me from the other squad car.  i want out.

they’re talking about the seizure girl now.  “she in here for crack possession,” says one of the girls, whom i will later know as wax that ass.  “she told me that when they found one rock on her, she swallowed the other fifty.”

“shit, i’d be throwin’ up blood, too,” another girl says, and they all laugh.

somehow, i manage to fall back asleep.  when i wake up later, limp will be gone.