The gray mattress the officer gave me almost slid out of my sweaty hands. I dug my fingers into the plastic to stabilize it over my chest and shoulder. I wanted to see what I had gotten myself into, but the cushion covered my view of the cell. I changed it to my other shoulder, which made it harder to carry because, under my armpit, I held the white sheets.
“Move inmate,” the officer said.
Women in orange uniforms with the faded words Inmate DC walked around the Miami-Dade County Women’s Detention Center. Some of them were more than two feet taller than me. One of the women had tattoos from her neck to her wrists. Her hefty arms were twice as big as mine. Others were short, old, young, disheveled, prim. Our skin tones ranged from gorgeous citrine to precious onyx. I stared, which has always been a bad habit. A tall woman glared back and growled, her gold grill showing her prowess for survival. Fights, I understood, came with the territory, and I’d lose, probably many times, but what worried me the most was the money Papi would have to pay because I was in jail.
Sweat dripped down the back of my neck and back. An acrid smell of body odor was all around me. The heat in the cell took me back to Mami’s warnings. You’ll burn en el inferno.
My 4-year-old son, Kervin would likely grow up without a mother, if I was found guilty. Another consequence for my family to bear. The cushion escaped my fingers and almost hit the floor. Don’t you drop it, I told myself, lifted it, and kept walking.
I tried to understand my new environment, but stories of men in prison distorted my view. I had not heard many stories of women in jail. Instead of the movie-inspired welcome parade I expected, most of the women spoke with each other and didn’t even notice us walking in. A short line stood waiting for another to finish a phone call. Some of the women laughed. A group stood on one side of a half-wall that covered what looked like the bathroom.
The faces formed a composite of the women I had met on the streets, in school, in my hood. We were the ones who got hooked on drugs, who stole, fought, who sold our bodies or used sex as currency in exchange for a warm bed, drugs, or love. We were the ones who loved so hard we forgot to love ourselves. We were the ones who were betrayed, who fought back the impossibility of living in our skins. We were the ones who lost our freedom trying to achieve freedom. And still, my stomach twisted knowing I could become, at some point or another, a conduit for one of them to exert their power. When you have so little power, you grip that power by the throat, and hold it so strong anyone is liable to lose their breath.
One of the women yelled, “Hey officer, it’s hot as fuck in here.” It was hot, roast in hell hot. August, the hottest month of the year in Miami, had brought the sun in its glorious rage into the middle of our pit. I found out later the AC had been broken all week.
“That’s your bunk, inmate,” the officer told me, and continued to the next cell with the rest of the newbies.
After putting the mattress and the sheets on the bunk, I went to call Papi and tell him about my arraignment and bond. The judge had set my bond to ten thousand dollars.
My boyfriend, Gold, had been in jail before, and I knew collect calls were expensive. I didn’t want to increase Papi’s phone bill by calling him too much. Each call was almost $5 for 15 minutes. How much can someone explain in a few minutes? Still, I needed to call him, to hear his voice, my son’s voice, to know if they were OK, if they could forgive me.
With each ring, the word “No” bounced around in my mind. Each time, the word got louder and louder. He could say, “No, I won’t pay for your call. No, I will not be part of the chaos you have created.”
When he answered, my first words were ones I had heard myself before from my boyfriend’s lips. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Can you bond me out, please?” Worthless words that attempted to transfer the weight of my crime onto Papi’s shoulders.
“Ay mija, what did you do?” he asked.
I pulled my hair, rested my forehead on my hand, glanced to one side to make sure no one saw me break. Women by the bathroom, in their cells, walking, talking, bodies everywhere. Sweat made the phone slide within my hold. On the other side of the cell, a gray concrete wall.
Papi, my step-grandfather, raised me, and despite his faults, he valued the pride of working for the meager slice of apple pie that was wiggled in front of his nose all his life. He worked hard to instill in me an exemplary work ethic. Love and homelessness stripped away all work ethics he taught me. Courage slipped off my back and marched away from me. My voice refused to explain what he could never understand.
The day before, Gold, Reggie, and I sat in a gray Oldsmobile in the middle of a McDonald’s parking lot, waiting for Angel, as planned. Angel and Reggie were Gold’s associates, but he didn’t trust them. On the streets, everyone we met was liable to deceive us, just as we were likely to hustle them. Scarcity has a way of pitting people against each other.
When we first met Angel that week, we talked about mugging him. Angel had a suitcase he had been extremely attached to, and we inferred it had money or drugs. Reggie had confirmed our suspicion the day before. That’s all I knew.
When Angel sped into the parking lot in a stolen Accord, Reggie said, “I’m going to wait until he robs the bank because he’ll have more money.”
Apparently, the plan had changed. The night before, we hadn’t discussed a bank robbery. I wouldn’t be here if we had. Most nights, I stayed in our motel room with my son. We rarely took him out anymore. It was too dangerous.
A few minutes before Reggie’s comment about the bank robbery, Gold had told me we should walk away. Maybe it was his way of letting me know he didn’t agree with Reggie and Angel’s plan. At the time, I didn’t realize the depth of his hesitation. So I refused to leave. After all, the car we were driving belonged to the man who was babysitting my child.
Gold and I had hung out with Reggie for months. He came into our life the same way most people appeared when we were homeless: in waves, appearing for a few months and disappearing once our association was no longer fruitful. Every day, we focused on making money. We sold drugs, stole, conned people, worked at temp agencies a day at a time. We did anything that could provide us with enough money for food, a room, and some smokes.
I always felt included, like one of the boys. Yet that day, I felt on the outskirts of the conversation.
In a haze of drugs, desperation, and greed, we sat there until Angel ran out of the Accord with two cream-colored bags and jumped into our car. He threw the cloth canvas bags onto our car’s floor. He had changed the red cap and shirt he had on earlier. “Vamos, mano,” Angel said, urging Reggie to flee.
Reggie slammed the gas pedal and my back bounced against the backseat. He quickly made a right out of the parking lot and another right eastbound on West Dixie Highway. The street buzzed with daylight and traffic.
The money bags sat there, inches from my feet. The enticing scent of fresh dollars invited me to take it. My hands itched. My right leg shook to soothe me. Would I make it if I jumped out with the money? I wondered.
Angel had taken the money, and thus it belonged to him. Not Gold. Not me. Angel had not shared his plans for the money, but I thought he’d waste it on heroin. I foolishly assumed that my reasons for wanting the money were somehow more worthy. I didn’t know if the three men had discussed splitting the money or, if so, how. It wasn’t rare for me to tune out and wait for Gold to share the specifics of any mission we were involved with. I was his backup, but didn’t always know all his dealings. He led me into all sort of situations, and I was always loyal. That’s why he trusted me. I trusted him because he had taken care of me and my son.
That day, he was particularly quiet which, to me, meant he was still pondering the situation. Still, I dreamt of renting an apartment for us. We had been homeless for four years. As a mother, and as the girlfriend of a man whose friends often sold their girlfriends, I was exhausted and afraid of the ways our lives kept descending deeper into poverty and crime.
In the car, our bodies shifted with the movement of the vehicle. Angel’s eyes scanned the avenue. The world zoomed around us. Cars. Wind. Coffee and exhaust aromas blended in the air. The sun shone on us. Words flew in the car too fast for me to catch. The wet suede under my hands. Blood pooled in my knuckles. The money still at my feet.
The police sirens pierced my ears, but they were going the opposite way.
Then a thought broke free. “Shit! We robbed a fucking bank.” All the pieces of the puzzle finally fit. The note Angel had me write was used in a bank robbery! My intoxicated mind didn’t connect the dots until it was too late. The realization made my stomach plummet.
A cop driving westbound crossed my line of sight. I looked at him. Our eyes locked, for a few seconds, and he was gone.
Reggie slammed the gas pedal and cut in front of cars, jerking to the right lane, then the left. The gawking cop made a U-turn and zipped up behind our car.
The roads around us pulsated with afternoon energy. I sat closer to Gold, who was in the front passenger seat, so I could glance out the window. My body swung side to side with each turn and forward every time Reggie pressed the brakes. I glanced back. The cop appeared determined to stop us, but Reggie was determined to escape. He wasn’t going back to prison. Soon another cop cut us off and our car went sideways into the left lane. Police cruisers surrounded us.
Reggie had no choice but to stop the car. The officers quickly rushed the car. Two or three cops pointed their guns at us. “Put your hands up,” one of them said. We put our hands in the air to show we didn’t have guns.
For a few seconds, no one moved. The officers yelled, “Out of the car. Now!” Gold got out first, and an officer grabbed him, threw him on the ground, and handcuffed him. I froze, my mind blank. My chest pounded; my legs shook. One of the officers approached my door, his Glock pointed at me, and said, “Get the fuck out of the car.” The barrel of the gun was so close to my face, I imagined the bullet rushing out and piercing my forehead.
I got out, paused. My legs threatened to not hold me upright. “He carjacked us,” I lied. Of course, the officer didn’t believe me. The lie even caught me by surprise.
The officer pushed me onto the scorching asphalt. Vapor rose from the ground. Small rocks from the asphalt dug into my skin. Even the inanimate blue butterfly on my tank top wanted to fly away but was pinned under me and the officer. The plaid shorts offered no protection. Who wears shorts to a robbery? I thought.
The officer pulled my arms back, handcuffed me, and pulled me up. Kervin’s still at the motel, I thought. My mouth went dry. Why did I leave him there? What the fuck these people looking at? Is that a news van? I tried to swallow the nausea. I hope Papi doesn’t see this on TV. Oh god, Gold’s mom. I lowered my face and stared at my legs. A couple of small rocks from the asphalt had left imprints on my skin. I had a large scrape above my knee.
An officer told me to sit in his car. From the back of a police cruiser, with my head down, I peeked at the commotion. Cops were talking among themselves. Four or five other cruisers were parked in odd ways, still blocking the traffic, and a line of rubberneckers drove by trying to see what the officers had caught.
The same officer I’d locked eyes with approached the window. “Let me talk to this one,” he told the officer who sat in my cruiser.
My arms hurt from being pulled behind me and I couldn’t lean back onto the seat.
“Do you want to know how I knew it was you?” His judgement finger moved toward me. “Because you almost got away.” A prideful smile formed on his face.
To my nod, he responded, “You looked so guilty when you saw me. I could tell by the look on your face it was you.” Two of his fingers moved toward his eyes, indicating our previous connection. We saw each other. Yet we didn’t.
After a while, the officers took us to the Coral Gables sub-station. In a dark room, I was to sit at a table and wait. Time froze. Only the cold wind of the vent moved. Cuffed, the only way to warm myself was to put my head down on the table and hope folding my body over itself would keep me safe. Part of me thought they’d release us. What should I do? I mentally asked Gold, even if I didn’t know where he was. Sometimes, our connection was so strong I felt I knew what he was thinking, but what was he thinking that day? What was he thinking when both of us were in police cars while Kervin was at a motel room with practically a stranger? What was I thinking?
At the jailhouse, I tried to convince Papi of my worth. “How’s Kervin?”
“Oh, ahora, you remember him? You left him at the motel and didn’t think about what could happen.”
“I didn’t plan any of this.” Afraid of the answer, I asked, “Was he okay? The detective told me he was going to call DCF.” I cleared my throat, exhaled, looked at the ceiling without raising my head, trying not to cry.
“They called me and brought Kervin here. I didn’t have a car. How can you do something like this?”
My excuses weren’t worthy enough to break the silence. Jail wasn’t deep enough for my body to hide from the disappointment in his voice. Stripped of my own bullshit, I said, “I don’t know.”
“I told you, you should’ve left ese estupido. He’s been dragging you through the floor. A woman isn’t to be out on the streets like that.”
“I don’t know how long I’ll be here,” I said, interrupting what I knew would go on for hours when we only had minutes.
“How much is the bond?”
“Ten thousand, but you only have to pay a thousand and a collateral.”
“Only? Mija, yo no tengo dinero. I had it when your grandmother went through what she went through. Back then, I owned a house, a company. Now I’m a muerto de hambre.”
Another voice came through the phone. “This call has two minutes remaining.”
“It’s my first time in here. Maybe they’ll let me go. How’s Kervin?”
“Asking where you’re at, moving around, touching this and that. When can we visit you?”
The voice said, “There’s one minute remaining in this call.”
“I added you to the list. I’ll call you back. Papi, te quiero mucho. Tell Kervin I love him too.” My voice cracked and my nose itched. I wiggled it to stop the tears.
“How much these calls are going to cost?”
After the click, I debated between making my grandfather pay another five dollars to bridge the distance I created or letting him use the money for food.
I was in the cell alone. In a corner of the bunk, I curled my body into a ball. Droplets of sweat and tears fell on my new uniform. Past the frosted window, a blurred view of Seventh Avenue captivated me. The avenue was quiet. Only a couple of cars passed as the afternoon started to settle down. I’d never noticed the avenue’s long black torso, its endless double yellow lines, and the matrix it formed.
When you took Seventh Avenue south and over the Miami River Bridge, it led to Little Havana, an improvised neighborhood dominated by Cubans. If you went east, you’d run into Overtown, a historic Black neighborhood, and north on N. Miami Avenue you’d end up on the streets I called home, Wynwood, another neighborhood once called Little Puerto Rico. A bit further north, Little Haiti. To the west was Allapattah; mostly Dominicans lived there. North of Allapattah, Liberty City, another Black neighborhood. The jail sat right in the middle of all our neighborhoods. I strolled road after road each night for four years. Each time, I hoped I’d find a way home. Yet all the routes led to the pen and, for that, my whole family would have to pay.
Nilsa Rivera Castro’s work appears or is forthcoming in Huffington Post, 50 GS Magazine, Six Hens Literary Journal, Home in Florida: Latinx Writers and The Literature of Uprootedness, Turning Dark into Light: A Mental Health Anthology and elsewhere. She’s a nonfiction editor at Doubleback Review. She is working on her memoir My Invisible Home and is an MFA nonfiction candidate at Vermont College of Fine Art. Online, she can be found at @nilsawrites and Nilsa Rivera on FB.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Aye Mark/Flickr Creative Commons
Well done Nilsa! Just came across this. Loved it.
i love this! this is Awesome.
Wow. Just wow.
Brilliant. So much so, I was almost late dropping my kids off at school, as I was so absorbed in the story.
The ending is absolutely brilliant. Powerful story, beautifully told.