By Victoria Fedden.
It gets cold in Florida. Most people don’t realize that, but around Thanksgiving the temperature predictably dips down into the 40s, at least at night, and shocks all the tourists. I should’ve known better. I’ve lived here for the past fifteen years, but this morning I’m not prepared for anything, least of all shivering in a prison yard, sockless, without a jacket.
I forgot everything: the zip-loc bag, the right amount of cash for the vending machines, quarters for a soda because when they have visitors is the only time they can get a cold can of diet coke and that’s a big treat. I remembered not to wear green. They’d already sent two people home for wearing the wrong color. One man stormed off on his Harley, livid. The other woman cried and said it was Thanksgiving weekend and she was wearing lime green, nothing like the inmates’ olive uniforms, but the guards told her she should know the rules by now and she had to leave. A three hour drive up and back all for nothing. I’d driven four hours, with a four year old, which made it seem like eight. Would they send us home too?
I’m so scared I’m sick, but when you have a child who looks to your cues, you have to hide your fears so she feels safe. I fail at this too often. I break down sometimes daily, in sobs on the bathroom floor. There are days when it feels like I may literally die from anxiety, grief, regret over what this has done to my marriage and how I am damaging my child the way I was damaged. I always said I would be the one to break the cycle, but here I am, right here on the hamster wheel and I am taking my child to visit her grandmother in jail, mad because this is not the life I imagined for my daughter or myself. Just last week at preschool drop-off I watched my daughter bound into her classroom and then brazenly announce to her classmates: “My mommy cried ALL day yesterday!”
I promised myself that I would control it here, but when I see the place for the first time, the sobs swell and my shoulders contract into spasms. At least it is cold, I think, because I can wear long sleeves. No one will see that I’ve started cutting again. I thought only dyed-haired teenagers in too much eyeliner pulled that crap, but I’m 41, with tasteful blush and nude lips and I can’t fucking stop with the knives. I even confuse myself.
It looks like a school, I think. Brick buildings. Low security, so there are no razor wire fences. In the distance I can make out women in visors in identical grey sweat suits power walking a track. There are big trees, landscaping rocks in neat arrangements.
“Where did Mommom move to?” my daughter asks.
“She moved here. It’s like a school. She works here and can go to the doctor and things like that,” I tell her because it’s not exactly a lie.
“We just say Mommy’s in the army. That’s how it look like,” an older woman says, having overheard my vague answer.
You can’t tell kids that people they love are in jail. Their minds are too binary. On TV they see villains put in jail by superheroes and the world starts to look like anime and pretty soon they believe their grandma is some kind of criminal mastermind, a black and purple, octopus monster like Ursula.
They make us wait outside until count is over and that takes over an hour. What I didn’t know is that on visiting days you don’t just show up and think you can walk your ass right on in there like you own the place. There is a process. It takes time. You have to follow the instructions or you’re going home.
A folding table is set up on the sidewalk outside the building. Paperwork weighed down by a chunk of concrete somebody found to keep it from flying away because it’s windy. There are a couple of pens and an Ebola questionnaire, but no instructions. No one tending the table. 50 or so people waiting in the cold to get in, trying to figure out the process so they can see their loved ones.
My husband and I answer the questions. We find our licenses. Then we wait.
People start to get antsy after about fifteen more minutes. The children don’t seem to mind and arrange an impromptu game of tag on the patch of grass alongside the prison. They question nothing. My daughter is too fascinated with the pony tail of long, glossy braids on a little, black girl her age. She has never seen something so magnificent. I feel the tears surging and look up in a vain attempt to keep them in. A hundred buzzards hover above us, gliding in descending revolutions.
“Must be something dead out here,” one man casually mentions as he also notices the birds.
I want to say “It’s me. It’s me. I’m dead. I died when they took my mother away. I died again when the stress of it made me do horrible things that destroyed my marriage. I’m not a person anymore. I’m a vessel of loss. Let them come down and carry me off and pick me apart.”
Finally, keys rattle, the door opens and a guard shows up. A skinny kid, barely twenty. He still has zits. I can imagine his Facebook page full of racist memes. He looks like an extra from American History X.
“Paperwork,” he barks.
I hand him mine and he shoves it back at me.
“Flatten it out! Put your license in the top right corner! You think I got time to sort through all this? Hard enough trying to read you people’s handwriting,” he complains.
“Do you know how long it will take to get called inside?” my husband asks. He has to pee. The kids need to use the bathroom too.
“I’ll call you when I call you!” the kid guard says.
He’s a living breathing Milgram Experiment, an old study which basically proved that when put in any perceived position of power over others that even the sweetest human being can turn into one sadistic motherfucker. This kid is an asshole redneck on a power trip, that’s for sure.
Outrage erupts among the waiting families. We don’t deserve to be treated this way. We aren’t the ones who committed the crime. We simply want to see our family members. Every one of us had an empty seat at our holiday table this year. We share a common bond and we’re mad because enough of our dignity has been stripped already. Why are they making it worse?
When my mom went away, I began my own sentence. It’s not only the convicted who get punished. Their families suffer too. We mourn our losses alone, humiliated. I remember how scared I was for my mother and how I worried about what she would eat and if someone would try to mess with her, and I did some research. I had mentioned to a friend, feeling slightly upbeat that day, that the prison didn’t sound that bad.
“Disgusting. They commit a crime and they get to go in there and have fun taking crochet classes? That’s what our tax dollars go to? So these people can have hula hoop contests and play dodgeball while the rest of us out here have to work and pay for it?” my friend replied.
That’s when I stopped talking about it much. People judge. Having a relative in prison marks you. No one understands how conflicted you are. You still love the person, you know? And you finally understand the pathetic mommas you see on the Channel 7 news at five crying their eyes out saying their baby boy coulda never shot up that bank. He was a sweet kid. I used to laugh at those idiots. Now I am one.
My mom made the best Christmas dinners. Ham and pineapple, candied sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese. Soul food. I hold the image of her in her red lipstick and sparkly shoes, a champagne flute in one hand while she mashes potatoes with the other, Michael Buble caroling and her doing a little off-beat dance, and I can’t reconcile that with charges of stock fraud and manipulation, money laundering, whatever else the indictment read.
But we are all complicated and contradictory.
The older lady who tells her grandkids that their mom is in the army has been telling me about her daughter. Skimming from her employer or Medicaid fraud. Maybe it was drugs. I can’t remember and I choked up when I told her about my mother.
“Everybody make mistakes, baby. It’s ok. She still a good person,” she says.
She asks me if I need a zip-loc to put the money in.
“I always bring a box for the new folks who don’t know yet,” she explains.
That’s when I get it. These people out here, they’re like my tribe now in a way. I am not alone. We all miss someone. We are all embarrassed and ashamed and confused as hell. None of us, not a one, signed up for this, but here we are, trying to get through it by showing kindness to one another because we know we’re all we’ve got now. So we laugh and we tell stories to pass the time. I hand out paperwork whenever someone new shows up with the same lost look in their eyes that I just had. We rally around the daughter who drove nine hours to find that she was permanently banned from visiting her mother (embezzlement by the way) because she accidentally had half a Zyrtec in her pocket.
“You never get to see her again?” I ask and I can’t help but notice how much this girl looks like me. We could be sisters, I think, and then I realize, we kind of are sisters now.
“Not for three years ‘til she gets out,” she says.
Nine hours. Alone.
They give us numbers. I am 71. When the guard calls our number we can go inside. We can pass through security, wait for our family members and then buy them a frozen pizza and a soda from the vending machine. We can hug them and talk for an hour. It’s not a lot but better than nothing. Better than the past six months have been for me. Better than Thanksgiving without my mother. My mashed potatoes never turn out like hers.
68 is wearing a tank top, which is not allowed. Modest dress only and they aren’t going to let her in with a cardigan, which is all she has, because they say it’s too much like a jacket and I guess you can conceal something in a jacket. I don’t know. At least it isn’t green I think.
“I didn’t know it was gonna be so cold in Florida,” she says with a shiver.
I offer to let her borrow my pullover. I’m wearing a tee shirt underneath. I don’t need it. We’re family now anyway and family helps each other out. 71 and 68, me and her. Besides, it’s warmed up. I’m not so cold anymore.
Victoria Fedden is a writer, mother, remedial yogi and occasional English teacher from Fort Lauderdale, Florida who loves mornings, cats, fluffy pillows, big mugs of strong coffee and sordid, hilarious literature. Victoria is the author of the humorous memoirs Amateur Night at the Bubblegum Kittikat and Sun Shower: Magic, Forgiveness and How I Learned to Bloom Where I Was Planted. She blogs on her website at www.victoriafedden.com. Her writing has appeared in Real Simple, Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy and The South Florida Sun Sentinel and various other publications. Please visit her facebook page at www.facebook.com/victoriacfedden for updates, inspiration and excerpts from upcoming projects.