Sunday, August 8, 2021
Abstract painting with black, yellow, white, light pink, and blue.
Artwork by Amy Bernstein


For all of the moving and changing parts of my life, there has always been one constant. Loneliness colored every memory, every season, every fragment, every detail; filled them all up, slow and steady like a drip from a faucet. It wears its name loudly, now, egotistical and obvious; for so long it had remained hidden, peeking through the cracks, lurking around every corner. 

Loneliness is a very good friend of mine. Had I only allowed it to be, acknowledged it for what it was, the course of my life may have turned out differently.

I sought to banish it with every resolve in me, went to no ends to get rid of it—replacing, filling, snuffing. It only nagged and protested still; sometimes it waned for a bit, only to come back even stronger. Always prevailed, never truly receded.

It was so embedded in me; it actually became me.

I just wasn’t sure what its name was.

Oh, but it knew me.

The metal door bangs open, making me jump. I sit up quickly and take in my surroundings: metal toilet, concrete floor, green-striped strangers sitting so close I could smell their sweat. I look down to see that I am wearing the same uniform—a shit brown T-shirt and fluorescent orange foam sandals. They are the ugliest things I’ve ever seen in my life.

A correctional officer stands just outside the doorway, wearing all black and a dignified and slightly bored look on his face. He smacks his gum and addresses the room without looking at a single one of us,


I don’t know what to do, so I watch what the other women in my cell do. My eyes dart back and forth among the three of them. They’ve been coming in and out all night, and only one of them I recognize since I came in is still here. She is heavy-set, her blonde-dyed curly hair falls around her chubby face in two-toned ringlets. She is the most confident of the three, so I trust her actions, weird as that sounds. She seems to have been here before. She smiles at the officer, and I notice she has no front teeth. Still, her smile is infectious and huge, she makes you smile back. She rocks back and forth, a tick she’s picked up for comfort, and holds out her hand greedily for a breakfast tray. The other two women are still sleeping, balled up on the concrete floor with their thin cotton blankets over their faces. The lights never go off.

One of them is facing toward me snoring, and the other is so skinny I can see her hip bone jutting out of her side.

She’s deathly still.

The officer must have been thinking the same thing, because he nudges her orange sandal with his black boot to make sure she’s still breathing.

“Dude, what the fuck!”

Her anger scares me, and I watch the CO’s face for a reaction, but there is none. He simply announces breakfast again, clearly impatient and ready to move to the next cell.

He looks at me and raises his eyebrows, and I shake my head no so he could move on. As if I could eat anything right now anyways. I’m so anxious and upset, I’d probably throw it up immediately.

The door bangs closed again, and I turn my attention to the blonde in the corner who’s already gobbled up the dry cereal and bread. She opens the small carton of orange juice and drinks it in a matter of seconds, belches, then throws it in the corner of the cell. There are remnants of several meals scattered around, and I know there have been several women who’ve done the same. It is sad to me that the cells never get cleaned. It seems almost inhuman that these people who are mothers and sisters and daughters to someone have been an afterthought; they are variables of a dead-end job for these correctional officers, who seem miserable. The COs have been exposed to these conditions for so long, the shock of this banal and dismal cell is something they no longer see. As a matter of fact, they don’t see us at all.

This notion stirs up emotions in me that begin to surface, and I am glad the blonde woman has rolled over to go back to sleep as tears well up. It is difficult to control the insanity thundering through my head as I think about everything that has happened. The alternate endings I wish are tenfold. I cannot believe I am here.

Here, in this concrete cell next to a metal toilet with an attached sink splattered with human excrement and god-knows-what. Here, in these ill-fitting recycled clothing marked “Polk County Inmate.” I am an inmate.

I, a college student at private university of which finals are next week. I, president and historian of a sorority in which I founded. I, a 19-year-old daughter and sister.

I’m not exactly sure how long I’ve been sitting on this floor, but I know my ass hurts. I am freezing cold. I’ve been listening to men and women scream and cry and beg and argue all night, but I can’t see through the one-way mirror inset the round desk the COs use to maintain order and control the seemingly hundreds of locked doors.

I know it has been at least hours. I have lain on this floor for hours.

It is clear to me that we are being held here waiting for an undetermined amount of time for an undetermined outcome in which we can only pray ends in our release. The anticipation and fear I am feeling is more intense and unlike anything I’ve ever felt or experienced before. It is a mixture of desperation and anger, disbelief and regret. The only thing I’ve done is cry and stare at the walls, rewinding the moments which sent me to this hell over and over again.

I don’t look at the other women who share this cell with me because I don’t want them to talk to me. These women have nothing in common with me, they have no idea what I’ve lost. I am scared of these women because they are not scared. It’s as if they’ve done this before. They probably do this all the time, it’s probably normal for them to go to jail. I have no idea why they’re here or what they’ve done. They are probably drug addicts or homeless, they probably smoke crack cocaine and sell their bodies for money. They are criminals. I am in such shock, I can’t acknowledge that these women are mothers and daughters and sisters, too. That they have lost things and people that were important to them, just like I have.

But I do not think that. I don’t have sympathy for them because all I can see is my own pain. I have room for nothing else. I am selfish.

I am different. I do not belong here. This must be a mistake. I have responsibilities. Responsibilities that occupy most of my mental capacity 24/7, 365; but in this ten-by-ten cell, those thoughts couldn’t be farther away. 

No, right now I am in shock. I have driven myself to insanity, the same scene is playing like a projector on the backs of my eyelids over and over again. I can’t make myself stop. I rewind and pause, rewind and pause; deleting and inserting alternate endings that would have led me anywhere but here. Anything is better than being here.

And in every ending, his face appears. The face I’ve stared at and know better than my own. His patchy beard, the slight gap in his two front teeth, the lips I’ve kissed a million times. How could he have done this? I thought I knew him, but the love I know would never have put me in this situation.

And then the tears begin to stream, their path must be a river on my face. Silent sobs require repressing the boulder in my stomach, but my energy is all used up. I have been gripping my head with my hands and strands of my hair mix with a million others from a million other women before me.

The worst part is that being here is not why I am crying. I’m this upset because I haven’t slept without him in so long. I can’t breathe without him; I don’t know what to do or who to be without him. I just need to see him, and I hate myself for needing the reassurance that we are okay and will make it through this. I realize I’ve been trying to decipher the voices I hear from the space under the door, but I can’t hear him.

I need to know he’s okay. I love him, and I hate him so much right now. Is he even thinking about me? How could this happen? I wanted to go home. We should have just gone home.