Through the Walls

I press “1” to accept the call from Washoe County Jail and hear his faint voice come through the static of our connection, 178 miles away from where I sit in Oakland. After more than a decade locked in solitary confinement, in a tiny prison cell in Crescent City, he was finally released earlier this year, put out onto the streets to make it on his own. In the Spring he marveled over the hacking sounds of lawnmowers, the soothing slowness of traffic, the mundane bites of life you wouldn’t be able to savor without having spent 15 years in solitary confinement, away from the sun.

And suddenly its over again. He is back behind bars, 178 miles away. 178 miles, but it may as well be further.

In our fifteen allotted minutes he rushed to tell me how he’d ended back in the place he’s spent most of his life, as I scribbled notes and said “I love you” in every empty space to my friend through the receiver. “I’m sorry,” I tell him. “I love you,” I tell him.

The phone cuts us off in the middle of a sentence so I can’t tell him goodbye. Tears stream down my face and I clutch my stomach in pain. People around me pretend not to notice.

***

The next morning on my way to work I sit numbly in traffic. I glare at the slowly approaching toll booth as the radio blares power chords. “Ooh ooh, this is gonna be the best day of my life”. A tear rolls down my cheek.

The week ahead of me is a full and busy one at work, and I’ve packed a bag so I can sleep by the ocean in the back of my car instead of driving back and forth into San Francisco each day. All day I’m driving around, picking up donated food and permits and things to make this fundraising event pop, or drilling screws into the walls from which to hang frames filled with donated art. I imagine him in his cell, reading everything he can to get ready for the looming court date.

When the sun gets low I drive out toward the water and stop at a cafe. I pour a shot of whiskey into my tea and pull out “Our Enemies in Blue”, an AK Press book about the police. I crane my neck to read the title split open on the table across from mine and see him reading “The War on Cops”. We awkwardly grimace at each other, a moment of acknowledgment. This stranger is 5 feet from me but he may as well be further. I feel alone.

I am living too many lives. In one life I am hanging an art show, stressing over tea cakes, failing to mediate a brewing battle between friends. In another life a piece of my heart is about to be locked away, maybe forever, in a violent and twisted place, while everyone around the prisons pretends not to notice. In this life I am drunkenly falling asleep in the back of the car, face still wet from crying.

***

When I wake up the next morning I’m pleasantly hungover, my need to imbibe coffee just a bit more pronounced. I trudge through the sand before stripping naked. I walk into the ocean’s lips, timidly at first, then more boldly as the waves pull me deeper. A smile tickles my mouth, then a soft giggle, until soon I am naked and splashing deep into the water, laughing and alone. The ocean licks away the streaks left on my cheeks from the night before and kisses my whole body. I still hurt, but she heals the hurts that can be healed.

Now all I need is coffee and an end to the Prison Industrial Complex.

***

178 miles away his arms are covered in battle scars depicting the many, many chapters of his struggle. Some of them are in his blood, battles with colonizers that stole his ancestors and their home. At Pelican Bay he wrote to me and told me he spoke Nahuatl with his fellow prisoners so the guards couldn’t understand. Some of the scars he inherited from his mother while she slept on the bench at the bus stop with him as child curled against her on one side, his brother on the other side. Some he carries from the streets of Los Angeles.

He smiled warmly and broadly as he told me stories from the days he starved himself. The guards took all their blankets and turned the air conditioning all the way down. Every half hour they would come through and pound on his door to “make sure he was alive”, so he couldn’t sleep. I tried to imagine what it must have felt like, yelling through the toilets to make sure his comrades were still there, bellies aching for nourishment less than for freedom. Now he is back again.

I am forgetting how to talk to my friends.

A lot of the time as I write my blog, I realize what I am trying to say part way through, and can end it in a nicely concluded way, conveying whatever message I think there is to take away. But here I am sitting, typing and re-typing, deleting everywhere I try to take this narrative.

My friends are fighting with each other. Actually, we probably aren’t friends anymore. He feels “unsafe”. The word hits me and bounces off the places of me I wanted to keep soft. In my brain I know that words are dangerous. I know that a neglected pronoun or a misplaced flirtatious wink can build up and up into another name on the list of lost comrades, into the scars of another sexual assault, into the internalized traumas that we carry each day. I know. I know I know.

Words matter. We are all fighting to survive, and fighting one battle doesn’t make it harder to fight another one. But in one life, a misplaced word can end a relationship. And in a different world every conversation is riddled with those same words, without apology. I don’t know how to hold both.

I don’t know how to be angry when someone misgenders me and then to be just as angry when my friend tells me the judge can decide to put him away in life just for one more rough night in a life full of them. I don’t know how to nod and agree as a friend tells me she can’t be around her ex because of her bad communication and then hold his broken lover as the state pulls hims away from her again. The violence the state does to him doesn’t stop with him, it passes through his flesh and leaves battle scars on the woman who holds him up, on her children, on me. I don’t feel mad when the men whistle at me on my way to work. I don’t know how to be offended by a music video anymore. I am trying, I am. I know, I KNOW the whistle, the music video is a part of the foundation on which that prison stands. I know. But right now I don’t know how to feel both.

***

Back in one world the event went off without a hitch. I danced with monsters through the night and fell asleep in the arms of my imperfect lover, ex-lover, lover again. We woke up together and set about trying again to kiss away the scars we’ve left on each others’ skin. “Can I touch you?” I ask him. Can I touch you? He asks. Can I touch you?

Can I touch you? Through the walls can I still touch you?

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