She threatened to kill him again.
It was a little past five on a Saturday morning this time. I used to turn my music down a notch or two to see if I could determine the grievous offense that had driven her to murder. Now her furor terrifies me. I turn the music up. I still hear their vitriolic hatred for one another in the silences between tracks. Sometimes those silences feel far too long. Rage has been a constant in my life for years, and the embodiment of domestic dysfunction that resides in the apartment next to mine is simply the latest specimen.
I was on the cusp of marrying when last I wrote, talking about learning how to live again beyond prison walls. I didn’t get married. Lessons were learned. Not how I’d envisioned it.
Emotionally/financially devastated. Thanksgiving. Hit a deer with my car. Christmas. New year. Put my car in a ditch. Moved 90 miles away in a snowstorm for a new job I wasn’t remotely qualified for to an unfamiliar city larger than any in which I’d ever lived. A new beginning. Another one. Again.
Ups and Downs
The apartment was filthy and tiny. Now that it’s clean and settled into as my own space it’s all I really need. Medical diagnosis confirmed the worsening nerve pain I’ve been dealing with for nearly two years will require surgery. Glad to have a cause and course of action going forward. Unfortunately surgery is a prospect which is nine months on the horizon at best, so I cringe and limp on. Although I’m too proud (or just plain stupid) to limp, so I walk with my back straight and my head held high while inside I scream in agony. Better medical care than behind prison walls, but red tape abounds in every bureaucracy.
A big part of learning to live has been learning to fend for myself. My family and friends have all been immeasurably helpful, and I couldn’t have succeeded without their love and support. Now the tasks of living as a free citizen were solely my own. Budgeting, paying bills, grocery shopping, setting up an internet service. Once more pretty much everything was new and unfamiliar to me. My bed is the first I’ve ever had that wasn’t handed down or scrounged from somewhere. I love it, and have many times sprawled across it, stretching my fingers and toes out to the edges like a cliché kitten basking in a puddle of sun. Living alone for the first time in nearly eighteen years was the primary adjustment. Although, I wasn’t really alone for long.
Threats and Curses
“I will choke you until you stop talking.”
Her voice was taut and cold making it sound less a threat and more a promise.
“Go ahead bitch. Do it. Do it!”
His voice was high, thin, reedy. It matched his slim physique and jittery demeanor.
“I will. I’ll do it. I’ll fuc . . .”
My music swelled, sparing me her stupendous use of expletives and penchant for threatening serious bodily harm.
My neighbors moved in a few weeks after I did. They just showed up fully formed and completely moved in one day while I was at work. I’ve passed him twice on the stairs and we each mumbled an obligatory “Hey”. There are two children. And a dog at least some of the time. Like their mother, however, I have never seen any of them. I hear them laughing, watching TV, living. It’s the arguing, the threats and curses, that have become the constant in my life. Ever reliable.
My job was going well. In the beginning I’d felt like a complete fraud. I was essentially telling guys how to do their job when they have been doing that same job for years whereas I started three days ago. It wasn’t long before I found out that the Quality Control guy is generally not well-liked. I also wasn’t only the new kid on the block, but I’d been hired from the outside rather than the job first being offered to union members. That gave me two strikes before I even started. Maybe two and a half strikes. I recognized their angry suspicion and disdain, I’d seen it every time I was moved to a new cell house in prison. It was something familiar that I could navigate, and I did so by putting my head down and working my butt off.
The more I learned the less I felt like a counterfeit. It was daunting but exhilarating as I was moved around to receive training in both departments of the manufacturing company on all three shifts. I changed between shifts and departments over fifteen times in fifty days. It was disorienting, I never knew if I was coming or going, and in an unfamiliar city all I did was go from work to home with weekly stops for gas and groceries. Whatever hours I was working had no influence on the neighbors.
“You can’t be that stupid. You can’t, because I wouldn’t be with someone that stupid.”
This time her voice was a caterwaul with maximum volume and intensity.
“I’m not stupid, I just did what you said.”
He had no backbone this time. He must’ve really screwed up.
I’d leave for work at 11pm, they’d be at it. Awake at 5am with no music playing as a buffer I heard her call him a terrible father, a bad fuck, a worthless piece of shit. I hoped the kids were sleeping and swiftly scoured my music collection to find something loud and rocking enough to drown her out. Late nights, early mornings, middle of the day, it didn’t matter when I found myself at home. Her fury was no respecter of sleep schedules. Despite the anger and inconvenience, their endless arguments and threats were a kind of comfort to me. Most everything else in my life was new again, often confusing. Two people yelling and threatening each other? That’s just another day in prison, and I’d had plenty of experience with it.
Once my training was complete I was awarded the prestigious position of third shift. This honor was bestowed upon me because the other guy quit. So I would be a night dweller for the foreseeable future, snatching scraps of sleep while the sun shines, mocking me. I was resigned to this fate. Then Covid-19 hit the scene and everything changed again. Again.Bitting
Of all the changes and challenges in my life over my first ten months of freedom, adapting to comply with shelter in place laws has been the simplest transition I’ve made. In prison parlance, the term “bitting” has numerous and sometimes salacious definitions. The one which best applies here is used in reference to an individual who has not only learned to live his/her life with as little friction as possible with those around them, but also navigates the constant stress and uncertainty by staying busy and focused on their goals.
Being legally mandated to remain at home except for my job as an essential infrastructure worker hasn’t changed my routine much. I work, I go home. Gas and groceries. I follow the news a lot more closely. People refuse to obey these laws, claiming their civil liberties are being trampled. Even as the death toll continues and most medical experts predict worse on the way. I see instances of people going stir crazy, succumbing to the fear of the unknown and the burden of being trapped in a mire endlessly navigating the unfamiliar. Enduring isolation and anticipating the next crisis in order to best adapt are skills I honed for over sixteen years behind prison walls.
An Embarrassment of Riches
The phrase “the world at your fingertips” has perhaps never before in history been more true. I’m still constantly marveled by the technological advances that the average person doesn’t look at twice, and an entire generation has come of age never knowing a time without them. So how is staying inside so terrible?
Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and about a thousand other streaming platforms provide anything in the world to watch. Google and You Tube let us research, watch, learn, laugh. Listen to music, watch concerts, visit museums and foreign countries. Explore exotic locales and animals. Want to know how to crochet or do origami? Build a boat? Not a problem. Yoga, weightlifting, cards, candle making, animal husbandry, whatever can be imagined there are lessons and sessions available. I’m fully aware that it has been like this for a while, but to hear about it and then to experience it for myself is something else entirely. I haven’t even begun to be able to wrap my mind around it.
It is for this reason that I find it so mind-boggling and aggravating when these orders put in place for public health are referred to as lockdowns. I’ve been in a cell for weeks at a time with only the nothingness of pure thought to entertain and pass the time. Sometimes there were books or paper. Not always a pen. I can’t understand people feeling they have nothing available to do.
That being said, the remarkable similarities between my current living arrangements and my prison ones are hard to deny. I don’t go out much besides work. Only socialize with a few people. My only real piece of furniture, my beloved Queen size bed, is where I spend the bulk of my time. It’s where I sleep, eat, watch TV, read, write, pray, figure finances, use my computer. There’s a nice little shelf for my cup of coffee or water or whatever. It is far more nicely appointed, and somewhat larger, but for all intents and purposes it’s little more than another prison cell. This is why transitioning to quarantining has been effortless for me. I know how to live in prison, especially one with a better bed, food, TV, music, internet, and the ability to message, email, text, call or video chat with those whom I care for most deeply. Even the voice next door and the violence she promises doesn’t really bother me. Although I’m in no hurry to meet her.
I have been wondering about the friends I left behind prison walls. Thinking about a particularly nasty flu bug that tore through the prison population one year. A cell house was vacated of the healthy and a quarantine set up for all those afflicted. They didn’t treat them mind you, just checked their temperature once a day, and as long as they had no fever and were exhibiting no other symptoms they were let go. The space quickly became inadequate, but men continued to be sent every day. Guys were sleeping and puking on the floor. There weren’t adequate shower or toilet facilities, but since it was only to be temporary, rule of law was ignored. The place became a petri dish. That time there were only a few hospitalizations. I can’t imagine what havoc Covid is wreaking inside. What decisions are being made and actions implemented that put inmates in even greater risk because they’re viewed as less deserving. Less than human. All these things are beyond my control.
Out Of My Hands
I have no idea what calamity will befall us next. I do know we need not stumble when calamity comes to call, as it inevitably does. Perhaps not always in the form of a worldwide pandemic. What sustained me through the fear and uncertainty for years was my faith in my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Every day I drive through a traffic circle on the way to work. I see the confusion and thinly-concealed terror in the eyes of the drivers trying to negotiate through the busy and pointless traffic affectation, desperate to discern if fellow travelers will obey rules or zip through and hope for the best. Always yield to traffic from the left should be fairly self-explanatory.
I see that same look in faces of co-workers as they talk about the latest developments and projections. How long will this last? How many dead in the end? Will there be an end to it? Are we talking months or years? Now that masks are mandatory, it has become more difficult to pick up non-verbal cues, but the eyes don’t lie. People are terrified of this new unknown. Understandably so. Ten months ago when I stepped out of prison, who knew that the best advice anyone probably could’ve given me was to invest all the money I could in face masks? Unfortunately I didn’t do that. So much has changed, and continues to change with each news briefing. Lately not much for the better.
I still have the voice next door, and I count it a bizarre comfort. More comforting however is trusting that my Heavenly Father is still in control of the situation. That truth is a certainty no matter on which side of the prison walls one resides.