You are a superhero. Best mom on the block. You serve healthy breakfasts, the right ratio of carbs to protein. Every morning you wake up at four a.m. to finish your novel. It has to be done now. You pop a painkiller, or three. You drink your tea. You watch light fill the sky. Buzzing on painkillers, you are invincible.
Breakfast is ready for your daughter and husband at six a.m.; dishes are washed thirty-four minutes later. The painkillers make you queen of the commute as you drop your daughter off at school. People drive too slowly. Your twelve-year-old daughter cringes when you honk, or flip other drivers off.
You feel only slightly bad.
“It’s a big, bad world,” you say. “Toughen up, kid.”
She is so small, so lovely, as she descends the stairway down into school. In the last year, there have been three lockdowns at the school. Gang members. Police.
As you drive away you think: God, keep her safe.
You don’t realize that the biggest threat to her safety is you.
You pop another painkiller for stamina, as you race to boot camp. You are back to a size two, you are strong and everybody loves you. You pass slow drivers. You honk. The music is blaring. Life is good.
You can do six loads of laundry in a day, write twenty pages of your novel, teach five writing classes a week. You vacuum, you dust, you clean. The house must be perfect. Life is perfect. But there are college bills ahead for your daughter. Plumbing issues in your 1920s house. You are suddenly, vaguely afraid. You feel you are on the brink of financial ruin. But you don’t do the worst thing you can do. You don’t take a drink. Instead you pop another painkiller. You tell yourself being addicted to painkillers is okay, since you aren’t drinking. They are doctor prescribed. They are legitimate. You don’t stop to question why you keep it a secret though.
The fact is you haven’t had a drink in years. Your head tells you that you are sober. Therefore you are sober. But some days, that niggling thought intrudes.
This isn’t sobriety. You are a liar. These things can kill you.
You remove these doubts by swallowing another painkiller. It makes the lie go away. You grocery shop, eat dinner, teach. Your students love you. They laugh at your jokes. The lie is gone.
Then one day, you rear-end the driver in front of you. It’s his fault. He slammed on the brakes at the same moment you were looking down at directions to the writing class you volunteered to teach.
In that startling flash of metal on metal, bumper meeting bumper, you seethe. And now you have to pay a $500 deductible because that idiot driver slammed on his brakes. You will earn a point on your insurance.
You drive your busted car home, limping, festering at the injustice of it all, hating Los Angeles, taking on traffic as your own personal martyrdom. I never chose to live here, you think. You got stuck in a place you hate, you think, because of your ex-husband’s ambition. You need to relax. Suddenly, vaguely, after years of swearing off alcohol, you stop at the nearest liquor store. You drink a pint of vodka in your car. It burns going down. It’s wonderful. The first pint sets off a craving for more. You drink more.
Life is good. Painkillers and alcohol. A hand and a glove. The yin for the yang.
A tiny voice says this: “You will die. You have fallen completely off the wagon.”
To get rid of that voice you drink more. Swallow more painkillers.
* * *
Ten hours later, you are arrested. A neighbor has heard you fighting with your husband. Los Angeles Police Department officers show up. Suddenly, vaguely you find yourself sitting in the back of a squad car in handcuffs, next to your husband who is also in handcuffs. In the holding cell at the Northeast Community Police Station, you and your husband are separated. They read you your rights. Just like TV, you think. They ask if you want to make a statement. You do not understand that you are in deep shit.
“Fuck no,” you say.
You are taken away in a squad car to Parker Center jail. You are wearing your spaghetti-strapped summer dress and sandals. The cop tells you that your husband made a statement against you. They charge you for domestic violence. Bail is set at $50,000. At the county jail they ask you if you have a problem with lesbians or people of other races.
“Fuck no,” you say. “Not like you, I’m sure.”
The booking cop and the arresting cop are over you by now. But you think this is funny. You’ll be going home in a few minutes. Then they throw you in a holding cell with a bunch of other women. There is a phone on the wall. One of the women tells you how to dial out. You call home. A recorded message says, “An inmate from county jail is calling you. Please press one to accept the charges.”
Your husband answers. Why the fuck is he home and not in some skanky-smelling jailhouse holding cell like you? You scream at him for “snitching” on you. He says he never made a statement. You call him five or ten times, screaming at him. He swears he never gave them a statement.
“You got fucked by LAPD,” he says. “They are lying.”
You pause. Your husband never lies. Suddenly, vaguely, you realize the small room is freezing but you are hot. Livid. After awhile, a deputy, sick of your rage, comes in, grabs you and pulls you out of the holding cell. You fight like a pit bull. It takes five deputies to handcuff you. They toss you in an elevator, tell you to face the wall. You don’t comply.
“We will taser your ass,” one of them says.
You face the wall. The elevator moves. Up or down, you have no idea. When the doors open the five deputies are on you. They drag you, kicking and screaming, through a thick metal door that opens automatically. They place you in front of a cell.
“What is this?”
They throw you so hard, you fall against the edge of the metal “bed” and you bleed. They don’t care. They laugh. They toss in a blanket, lock the door and leave.
There is no more vodka. There are no more painkillers. Your cell is small. The fluorescent light blinds you. It never goes off. You are freezing. There is a small metal toilet, a sink and a stainless steel mirror screwed into the cement wall. You look at yourself, your face distorted.
You are struck sober.
You lie down on the plastic-covered bed roll suspended on a bunk. You are alone.
People like you do not go to jail. Your two books have been published, the second one in English and twelve foreign languages, and made into a film for God’s sake. You have a master’s degree. You make your child lunch.
That small voice pipes in. “I told you so,” it says.
* * *
Ten Things They Don’t Tell You About Solitary Confinement
1. After your husband posts bail, it will take almost eighteen more hours to be “processed.” To be fingerprinted, body-searched, to have your mug shot snapped, and various other indignities.
2. You will not sleep. It is too loud. Toilets flushing, the woman in the cell next to you throwing up every half hour. She is likely detoxing. On the other side, an inmate carries on an endless conversation on a phone that does not exist, to a person she hallucinates is on the other end.
3. The deputies make rounds every fifteen minutes, banging their billy clubs on your door. Most are men.
4. Because they are men you will be afraid to pee. When you do decide to pee, they will not give you toilet paper.
4. You no longer have a name. You are a number. The billy club bangs against your door every fifteen minutes “Wake up, 333,” the deputy shouts. Or sometimes you are a profanity. “You awake, bitch?”
5. A disembodied voice will speak over a loudspeaker every hour or so, but you won’t understand the words because they are clearly not intended for lock-ups in solitary. They sound like the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon. “Wah, wah, wah, wah.”
6. There is no such thing as time. You can’t tell whether it is day or night.
7. Very quickly you will catch on to the routine. An automatic door somewhere — likely the one you went through — opens every fifteen minutes. The sound is deafening. It is the deputy who bangs on your door. “Wake up, 333.” After about the fifth time, you do not move. You stay under the scratchy, foul-smelling blanket, your face hidden. You know that once you hear the automatic door open and close again, you have fifteen minutes to pee. There is still no toilet paper and none seems forthcoming.
8. Food arrives. It looks like a dollop of shit. It comes covered in plastic on a paper tray. You will wonder if it is shit. A small carton of milk and a small carton of orange juice and a banana comes with it. You drink the orange juice and eat the fruit. You will save part of the orange juice container for toilet paper.
9. You will fear detox and suffering.
10. You will be amazed that it never arrives. Hours have transpired and you do not want for vodka or painkillers. You will adapt.
* * *
The disembodied voice blasts out. You have no idea what it is saying but inmates are being let out. You watch them through the window of your cell. Women in their prison blues being herded somewhere.
A deputy comes to your cell. Unlocks the little door under the window.
“You won’t be going to court with the rest of them,” he says. “Tomorrow. Maybe.”
You don’t know what that means. Court? You have to go to court? It must be morning if they are going to court. After the women are escorted out, two deputies come to your cell. They open the small locked shelf beneath the window, the same shelf they put the shit-food on. One of them is a man, the other a woman.
The male says, “Are you going to behave?”
You say nothing.
They tell you to put your hands through the opening and handcuff you. You notice that the spaghetti straps on your summer dress have been torn. They get you some prison blues, take your handcuffs off.
The man says, “Stand down.”
You don’t know what this means. You back away, uncuffed, and they shove the clothes through the tiny door. Then they tell you to put your hands through the tiny door so they can cuff you again. They open the door to your cell. They grab you, one deputy on each side. The impossibly loud automatic door that separates solitary from regular jail opens and you think they are letting you go. They put you in the same elevator they put you in earlier when they brought you to solitary.
The male deputy says, “Get in, face the wall.”
You follow orders. The elevator door shuts. The elevator moves. You do not know which way it is going. It is so slow, so quiet as to be imperceptible. The doors open and the two deputies are waiting for you. They walk you out of the elevator and past the holding cell but they don’t put you inside. Across from the holding cell, they process you.
You ask if you can call your husband. They say yes. They give you a meal and put you in the locked holding cell. It is another packaged bowel movement. But this time they give you two bananas and two orange juices. This small act of kindness softens you.
This time you are alone in the holding cell. You surmise this meal is breakfast. You eat the bananas and drink both orange juices. Your lips are so dry and chapped they burn. You call your husband. Before he can say hello the recorded message says, “An inmate from county jail is calling you. Please press one to accept the charges.”
You husband presses one.
“Get me out of here,” you say.
He says he posted bail hours ago. The bondsman told him they are dragging their feet because you were insubordinate.
“They are punishing you,” he says.
The deputies leave you in there for a long time. You are so cold you crave what now seems like the comfort of your own cell, with the blanket and the picnic table bed. It is meat locker cold. You think that even a fly would not survive this cold. You call your husband every five minutes. He sounds terrified and lonely. He says he is doing everything he can.
“Do more,” you say.
You can hear his voice crack. He is near tears. “I am,” he says.
Outside you hear a man screaming. A door opens somewhere. Ominously the man stops screaming. Did they kill him? Then a single-file line of about twenty men is being marched past the window of the holding cell, handcuffed, a deputy in front, one in the middle, one in the back.
Then that voice — the old God consciousness you had when you were once really sober; sober for years, when your life was perfect—that voice says, “Someday you will be grateful for this.”
The same elevator routine takes place. You step in now without an order, you’ve learned the drill. The doors close, the elevator moves, and again, you have no idea if you are going up or down. The doors open, the deputy is there, waiting for you. You don’t fight. He opens your cell. This time you are allowed to walk in without the indignity of a fight, a bloodied lip. The door closes, a key turns in the lock.
You lie on your back. You are still clutching the pink sheet of paper with the arresting officer’s name on it, the charge, the bail amount, date, time of arrest. You bring your knees up and place your hands on your thighs. You close your eyes.
And you remember. Those years when you were not taking painkillers and pretending you were clean and sober. Those years when you did not drink. You remember your divorce, your beloved dog — a gift from a friend — dead now. He was your sober puppy, with you when, after your divorce, you sought help and stopped drinking. You remember the God you had invented, to whom you turned your will and your life over to each and every day. You remember how every morning you prayed. Though you are a secular, non-practicing Jew, though you are not religious, you remember that still you prayed to some unknowable force. Every morning, “Thank you for giving me another day.” Every night, “Thank you for another sober night.” You remember meeting your new husband. How hard you fell. How beautiful he was. How loyal and fiercely he loves you. You do not cry. You do not feel sorry for yourself.
You lie there perfectly still. Your head is under the covers. Your hands are on your thighs. You feel the wash of surrender. You stop fighting. You stop blaming the police, your husband. You do not blame yourself either. You are just an addict, an alcoholic who lost her way. You are not the person lying on this picnic table bed. You are not the sober person you used to be. You have no regrets. You have no hope either. Your are silent, humming in the blank space of complete acceptance. You are no longer your body. Neither are you your mind. There is no self-hood. There is only the soft pull of peace.
You do not pray. You have no thoughts. This experience is like none other you have ever had. You don’t stop to question it. You know that you are loved but you don’t know where this love comes from. It fills your cell. Everything is silent. You no longer hear the vomiting, the toilets flushing, the doors opening and closing. You no longer hear that disembodied voice over the loudspeaker. You know that you are safe.
You accept that you may be here for a long time. You lie still. You think of the poem by Mary Oliver.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves…
Behind the locked doors of your cell, you have found your freedom.
* * *
When bond is posted and they unlock the key it’s like nothing ever happened. They don’t even cuff you. One of the same female deputies who dragged you into your cell years and years ago says, “Lucky you, someone bailed you out.”
You realize that nothing that happened in the last twenty-four hours had anything to do with luck. You know this as deeply as you feel a presence walking beside you. It is not the God of your Jewish ancestors. It is something that cannot be named. As you walk through the doors toward the elevators the deputy makes a joke, but you don’t hear it or respond.
Then she says, “You were so drunk. What happened?”
“I’m sorry,” you say.
You do not explain that you have been returned to yourself. That you have experienced liberty, through no power of your own. This, you think to yourself, is grace.
She presses the button on the elevator. Out of habit, you walk in, face the wall, wait for it to move. But you don’t have to do this anymore. You are no longer an inmate. Still, you do what you have learned to do. And again, the female deputy does not enter the elevator with you. The doors shut.
This time you feel the movement, the direction of the elevator.
You are going up.
* * *
Sean Ford is the creator of “Only Skin” and “Shadow Hills.” He graduated from NYU in 2002 and the Center for Cartoon Studies in 2008. Now he lives in Brooklyn and designs books and walks his dog.