Time Served

On Mondays through Fridays and the occasional Saturday, we are registered nurses, yoga instructors, hairstylists and teachers. At work we wear plastic badges pinned to lapels with our names–Nika, Katherine, Chantal, Trudy–and smile without showing our teeth. After hours we are unabashed shower singers, occasional gourmet cooks, sheepish crime show addicts and avoiders of dish duty. Today, we are also girlfriends to men behind bars. We sit in stained, blue plastic chairs in different corners of the city jail waiting room, thankful we left our name-tags at home.

When we each arrived at the courthouse, sweat tickling our scalps as it dried in the air conditioning, an older security guard greeted us before we could whisper our questions. “He’s over there, sugar,” he said, smiling, pointing back to a tan brick building next door –as if he already knew who we were.

But that’s the problem. The labels on our purses, the careful strokes of our eyeliner, and the pulled, pinched pout of our mouths all say that we are not supposed to be here. This is an error. We slow down for emergency vehicles. We pay our gym membership dues on time. We take out our IDs when asked and answer questions from men wearing gold badges with a pleasant “Yes, sir” and “Absolutely not, sir.”

Yet we are here and it’s as if our names are written on the books too.

 

I want to say I haven’t slept, that I don’t plan to close my eyes until Jarvis comes home.

That I sat up all night with a vigil of candles and incense on the coffee table, hands clasped in distressful prayer. But we were in the middle of the silent treatment, so when Jarvis still hadn’t returned from his night economics class, I put away the newest Food and Wine magazine, locked the door and took advantage of the extra space in the bed. He probably went out for wings with friends, I thought, and in the morning I would find him on the couch, his drool puddle smelling of mesquite, eyes bleary and unapologetic.

The collect call came an hour later, the line full of static. “Jarvis Green,” I heard him say, his voice like a child exhausted from play, followed by the operator: “an inmate at the City of Houston jail…” and suddenly the room felt very, very warm.

Movies forget to tell real people that cellphones can’t accept collect calls, so instead of an explanation, I was left with silence. When I found his online rap sheet, his freedom added up to four digits. First charge: parking violation from last year, before he sold his car to buy an XBox. I remember that ticket. We had parked downtown without paying the hopper, thinking it was free, and came back from the gym to a smirking meter maid.

“I don’t need trouble today,” the attendant said. He rested a hand on the bulge in his back pocket and repeated himself until we got in the car.

Second charge: missed court date. Likely because he didn’t pay the first ticket. Third charge: additional missed court date. I don’t understand the wording of the fourth charge but the city still wants money for it. Petty crimes worth one thousand dollars total, more than twice our rent.

For almost nine months we’ve been playing house since my parents moved back to Barbados, but it’s nothing in the June Cleaver sense. We shop for groceries apart, the different containers in the cabinets and fridge covered in neon Post-Its with our names scribbled in capital letters. Jarvis’ PowerAde and bologna, my Greek yogurt and granola. We greet each other with subtle nods instead of moist pecks on the cheek. Some weekends I scrub the kitchen until the tile squeaks and on the first of every month I tuck a money order for him under the coffee maker.

Sometimes, though, during the night, in the bed we share, his hand brushes the V-line between my hip and thigh and I turn into his arms soundlessly, eager to pull him close. It is a quiet agreement that would confuse most except Jarvis, and he is its greatest defender.

“When you say things like that, it reminds me why you’re not my gal,” he said weeks before he became an inmate, when I groaned about his phone vibrating after twelve. Who the hell, I wondered aloud into my pillow, needed to get a hold of him this late? Was he so popular that it couldn’t wait until morning? My voice arched into the whine of an ignored preschooler. He counter-attacked: nagging, he said, is something a girlfriend does. Jarvis didn’t use such labels, thus voiding my complaint.

A car’s brakes squealed outside and I braced for the sound of an impact. When nothing happened I rolled over to face him.

“Three years later and I’m still a name on the list?”

Three years of driving him to job interviews, of his friends calling me the wrong name and laughing off the mistake, of elementary yet seductive late night text messages from his phone (“Girl stop playin u kno u want me btwn ur legs rite now”), of knowing I was one and not The One.

I pushed on: “Trudy penciled right after Marsha, Megan and Molly?”

Briefly the other women appeared in a sophisticated mental slideshow, their pictures and stats cycling by, each more sultry and exciting than her predecessor. Taryn: brunette, songwriter, likes Pilates and red velvet cake. Stella: strawberry-blonde, dreamt of becoming an EMT, current lingerie sales rep.

“Please, who’s named Marsha anymore?” The mattress bounced as Jarvis laughed at his joke, missing my glare in the darkness. “You see anybody else in my bed?” He kissed my neck in a soft line sloping towards by ribs. “Just you, girl. Just True.”

Tonight, sure, I thought. But while I’m at the school, reprimanding sophomores for forgetting their vocabulary homework, or before my clothes took up half his closet – who then? Once, while he was out, I thought I smelled a perfume I didn’t own on the pillows. One second and I couldn’t find the spot again, yet my hands shook for hours as I lay there, alone, thinking who, who, who besides True.

“Anyway, that possession shit is tired,” Jarvis continued. “All that ‘he’s mine, she’s mine, who you talking to, where you been’ nonsense. Other people jumping in the business like it’s a public swimming pool.”

He sighed as if to reserve a moment of silence for the unhappy couples arguing in their homes right then, spreading out stacks of hotel receipts and call logs on the coffee table before their partners like a jigsaw puzzle they hesitated to solve.

“That doesn’t happen with you and me. Outside of here” – the mattress shook again with his circular gestures, indicating the bedroom – “I’m Jarvis, you’re Trudy. Independent. Unlabeled. I know I’m with you but I don’t go around telling folks. That’s private, right?”

It was a question, but there was no lilt at the end that signaled I could agree, protest, or ask for an explanation. Two chilled fingers lifted the elastic of my panties and dove under the cotton. My head emptied. I forgot my witty line comparing unlabeled men to items missing price tags: people just assume they’re free for the taking. Another time, I thought, as I lifted my face to brush his lips.

The phone buzzed again; the table clock read 12:41.

“So what are we doing?” I asked. “What is this called?” The cords of my body were coiled too tight, aching to stretch somewhere stable. I needed a definition, any word that would make me more than another warm mass in his bed.

Another sigh, a heavy draw inward: he was annoyed. “Just cool out, True.” His shadowed head dipped towards the foot of the bed. “What, you don’t wanna be here anymore?”

There it was; he didn’t say it but the word enveloped the room: Leave. It was a threat loaded with promise for both of us. If I packed up, he would have to move or find someone else to share his apartment with, and I would be on the street. And then – would we still be friends or lovers? Strangers? I wasn’t ready to consider it.

Before I could speak, his tongue – flat, long, penetrating, insistent – interrupted my thoughts. Typical. If the conversation isn’t going his way, Jarvis finds a different route.

Months ago when I came to Jarvis crying about my parents’ move and he handed me my key as if it were a lost earring, I saw the exchange as a sign of our friendship, our casual comfort with each other: satisfied without cause for extra commotion. Yet when I woke in the hushed apartment alone, light gathered in unusual corners and hiding from others, I felt like a hung-over guest in a stranger’s motel room.

 

Minutes build into hours. The lobby feels like a pressure cooker. I gnash my gum and glare. I have a degree, dammit. Someone like me isn’t supposed to be here. I tried to put this in my tone when I first talked to the officers, but they just told me to take a seat. With a glance around the room, though, I could guess the same thoughts had gone through the other women’s minds when they arrived. It doesn’t matter who I was before – I’m here now. Without my consent, I am just like all of these women: startled, anxious, fearing the unknown, trembling with wordless anger.

As we wait for updated news about our lesser halves, our muscles seize from the strain of keeping our great – not just good – shoes off the urine-smelling tile. Kat’s are especially fabulous: tangerine peep-toes in a size that only elves could make.

Nika shakes her head. “Girl, I couldn’t wear those in the ER.”

“Present from my husband,” Kat says. She swings her legs. “Pinch like hell, though.”

At work our roles are easy; here, we don’t know our lines. Every slam of a door, every loud shout in the hallway makes us jump, thinking Now, that’s him coming now. But nobody’s man appears and the officers’ lazy reply of “wait ’til after the shift change” to our questions isn’t enough. Our feet aren’t hurting any less, so we cheat.

With a gold-polished fingernail, Chantal beckons us to follow her to the restroom down the hall. Inside the floor is wet and three of the four stalls are missing toilet paper. I make a silent promise to will away any desire to pee until I get home.

“Do what I do,” Chantal says.

We spend a half hour pinching our cheeks, biting our tongues and pulling out eyelashes until salt-water clumps the mascara. If the makeup streaked, our anguish would be more convincing, but alas, we bought it before we were cast as The Down Ass Chick, unaware we might have to challenge Halle Berry’s Oscar acceptance tears.

Earlier while I got dressed at home after calling for a sub, I turned on the radio. On the local hip-hop station, the DJ looped songs where rappers praised their ride-or-die girlfriends, ladies who stood by their men, no question, even taking the fall during run-ins with cops. None of these ultra-women had a problem slipping a loaded artillery weapon into her Hermès purse in case shit got real at the movie theater. This, the stereo seemed to advise, is who I needed to emulate: The Down Ass Chick. They are tough – carved from the ribs of their suitors but with legs and asses that make other, lesser men wipe their mouths in disbelief.

Why had I never met these women? Surely we must have passed each other in the dairy aisle at Kroger. Still, I felt inspired – a chance to prove to Jarvis that I deserve the pronoun we. I grabbed my checkbook and hooked on my pushup bra. An officer might need extra incentive to let Jarvis slide, I thought as I adjusted the girls in the mirror.

Now, under the off-white fluorescent bathroom bulbs, I feel like a fraud.

Chantal wets a paper towel and dabs our cheeks. “Need to look like we’ve been crying,” she explains. “Like, bawling so hard we threw up.” She blinks rapidly as she works. “There, look at you now.” We turn to examine the damage, and the dirty mirrors reflect four confused women who walked into the wrong audition.

Regardless, we parade triumphant back to Officer Vargas, the desk sergeant. “Any word?” we say, hopeful this display of despair might inspire a new answer. We think we are slick. Nika works a real tear down her jawline. “How much longer?” we ask. “Is there anything I can do? Should do?”

Officer Vargas adjusts her bifocals and smiles – or is it a smirk? “Cute, ladies.” She shakes her head behind the bulletproof glass. “No, nothing yet,” she says. “Hang tight, sweetheart.”

It’s recycled, but her sympathy feels original. Our chests contract. We resist the urge to reach through the opening in the glass and squeeze her hand.

Beside her, an antiquated computer monitor details in green text our beloveds’ offenses and the hefty fines to be paid. Two hundred and fifty dollars for a missed court date, when the one moronic parking ticket would have been thirty-five bucks. The descriptions are written in a code we – women like us – never had to learn: numbers next to a string of consonants, abbreviations, words like “warrant” and “fine” that don’t bring a clear picture to the mind’s eye. The only phrase we recognize is “failure to appear in court.”

Yes, we think, failure is definitely the operative word.

 

Officer Vargas says we can confront the ones who dragged us away from our Wednesday afternoon routines at four o’ clock. It is twenty to three. Chantal has been here since ten. Nika posted bail at noon. Kat and I checked in after one. Nobody came dressed for such a long visit. It’s too cold for two of us, too warm for the rest, and nervous sweat makes it impossible for us to share sweaters. We’ve spent less time at the mall looking for boots and at least then there’s an end reward, even if it’s just a pretzel from Auntie Anne’s.

To keep from staring down the clock, we talk. At first in frightened chirps (I wish I knew everything was okay. Why won’t someone tell me what’s happening?) and then deeper cutting tones (This is what I get for letting that fool back in my house. Calling himself a man. If he was such a man he wouldn’t be in here). Here, we do not have to pretend that this is an exciting adventure. It’s just us. The affirmation gained by tearing the men down allows us to scoot closer, putting away our magazines and phones to look at each other. Each concealed face reveals the same trepidation rippling under the lip-gloss, rouge and foundation. We want them to walk through the doors, unchained, but don’t know if they will be the same ones we wanted before, and if they are not, if we will still want them at all.

Nika found Warren’s toothbrush still dry after she woke up. “I knew he was either in jail,” she says, “or in the morgue.” According to Officer Vargas, Warren was caught driving with an expired license, something she didn’t know until this morning, in addition to some missed speeding tickets. Off the record, there is a whisper that he wasn’t alone when the police pulled him over. Livid isn’t a big enough word to describe her feelings.

“He’s been driving my car for months, looking for a job,” she moans. Her pearl pink scrubs are freshly pressed, her braids pulled back. She glances at her phone several times as she talks. “I thought about not even coming down here to get him. But then he’ll miss another day of work tomorrow and that can’t happen.”

Warren is not hers; her fingernail underlines the air to solidify her point. She hesitates when she sees our confusion. He stays at her house, in a separate bedroom, she explains, because they have a son together. Nika discovered she was pregnant a month after they broke up. His name is Shane. The picture of him eating animal crackers on her keychain makes us all coo. He’s two years old and at day care, and if Warren isn’t released before five, Nika will have to pay overtime for picking the boy up late on top of the bail money she already spent.

Looking at Nika is like staring at a mirror, the opposite and the same. I’m too curious to be polite. “Why do you stay with him?” I ask. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just break it off?” They are questions I’ve asked myself, but my answers feel cliché, like I am too weak to trust being on my own.

Behind her glasses Nika’s eyes appear wide and wet. “I only put up with this because my son needs a father,” she says. “I’m woman enough to admit that I can’t do it alone.” She purses her lips. “But maybe I’ve been alone this whole time.”

 

Chantal witnessed her boyfriend’s arrest outside of the Whataburger a few blocks from her house. “Public urination,” she says and tries to laugh. We have trouble smiling. “He didn’t want to wait to go inside with me. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, so they slapped on public indecency too.”

Darnell is twenty-five, thirteen years younger than Chantal, and has already proposed to her. Twice. The night he was arrested he had planned on the third as a charm when nature called; Chantal had glimpsed the ring in his pocket when police searched him in the parking lot.

“He’s not ready to be a husband.” She waves her arms at the waiting room. “Case in point.”

In between prattling about their May-December romance and the struggle for a blessing from his skeptical family, Chantal shows us the deodorant and fresh shirt she brought for Darnell when he gets out. Hers is love, full and fierce despite the circumstances. She’s not a wife or mother yet but it’s a role we can tell she’s been studying.

She keeps saying, “The last time,” and I think, So this ain’t her first rodeo. A glance at the others confirms our mutual ponderings. Will this, too, be our fate, spending more afternoons in this replicated room? It’s hard to imagine. Jarvis is the opposite of a seasoned felon. He supervises the morning warehouse crew at IKEA while taking two night classes at the community college. He trims his beard before and after work, tweezing out stray hairs that his razor won’t catch. The sun doesn’t set on Jarvis’ five o’ clock shadow. I doubt he is enduring his lock-up with grace.

A door squeaks open somewhere in the building and we all flinch but no one appears.

“You know,” Chantal says, “he’s not even my type? I’ve never been with a guy like him.”

We clap our hands and shake our fingers at each other. We were just thinking the same thing. Nika likes academics, Kat won’t date anyone who doesn’t go to church or the gym, and Chantal usually gravitates toward professionals, like the oil executives in suits who walk by her Midtown salon. The men locked somewhere inside this building don’t have private offices or own three-piece suits. Sitting in this lobby, it doesn’t feel like they ever will.

I’ve played the no-label game with Jarvis for so long I’ve forgotten my type. The only men I meet these days are the parents of my students during conferences. “English teachers never looked like you back in the day,” some might say, after I’ve told them their child has a fifth grade reading level in high school. “If I were Nicholas, I’d be too distracted to read properly too.” Sometimes the single (or not) dads offer dinner as we shake hands goodbye, and I say no. Jarvis shakes his head whenever I tell him, but he’s just like them, imagining the prim schoolteacher crawling toward them across a bearskin rug.

I tell the other women and they laugh. We all met these men who see our jobs as a vehicle for their fantasy. They wanted to see Kat practice downward dog in their bedrooms or have Nika take their temperature wearing nothing but a stethoscope. But in the morning they didn’t want to rub our feet, swollen from standing for ten hours, or make us coffee and listen while we talked about the client who paid with a bad check. They instead dropped us off at our doorsteps, and a day later sent texts saying how great the other night was while asking for risqué camera phone pictures in our prescribed uniforms.

We deleted the messages and went to work.

asterism

A few weeks ago on my way to work a guy on the light rail asked for my phone number. As we approached the Medical Center he appeared in front of my seat, smiling. “I’ve been trying to make eye contact with you for three stops,” he said. “Now I have to get off or I’ll be late.”

I hadn’t noticed. My newest commuter novel kept me re-reading sentences seven times before I could figure out the dense vocabulary. I wasn’t sure if I hadn’t missed my own stop. As I looked up I realized the stranger wasn’t just some dude trying out a line but a Professional Man, clean shaven in gray scrubs and no visible tattoos – likely the subject of many a nurse’s work crush, and he was talking to me. Instead of replying like a coquette, I gaped at him.

“So would it be a waste of time,” he continued, “to ask for your number, before I leave?”

Jarvis’ face crossed my mind for less than a second. “No.” I even volunteered to type it into his phone, not expecting more than a story for me to tell the other older English teachers during lunch – a chance to gloat for fifteen minutes and then return to grading reading quizzes.

I couldn’t help it. The students bombed their reading quiz, and I needed to take out the frustration. “Someone wanted my number today,” I told Jarvis later that night. He was watching ESPN in the living room, legs spread long and wide across the couch cushions. I stood in the kitchen, barefoot in a pair of his sweats, balancing my checkbook. My hair, still damp from the shower, dripped occasional spots on the counter.

“Why, to tutor their kid?”

“For a date.” I turned to face him. “A guy on the train. He works at one of the hospitals.”

He didn’t look away from the TV. “What for?”

“I know you heard me.” My hands were shaking. He kept his arms crossed, the highlights flickering across his slacken face. “What do you think about that? If someone else asked me out?”

“True, I told you what it is.”

He rolled over on to his stomach as if he was done talking but it looked too much like surrender. I wanted a fight, a tussle, a battle over me like the drama of Camelot that my freshmen were slowly trying to read. I walked over to the couch and shoved his legs to the floor. “That’s all? You wouldn’t be mad?”

He sighed with his eyes closed. “You want me to jump up and down like an asshole, talk about how you only belong to me and I’ll kill any fool who wants to step in? That’s not how this works, True. I thought you wanted to avoid that tired shit. I know I do.”

He wasn’t going to give me what I wanted. I abandoned the game and traded in talking for touching. In the bedroom his goatee, freshly cut and coarse, rubbed against my shoulder until the skin prickled.

“Bend back a little,” he dictated while he gently pressed my hands to the wall. There was extra gravel in his voice. “Does that feel good? Do you like that?”

I didn’t answer, but he finished without seeming to notice.

 

Kat appears young but is the only one with a ring and a fresh burgundy bruise creeping from under her shirt collar. She says little about her situation. The secrets her petite body must hold, we wonder. We only know that she teaches yoga and sells houses, her man’s name is Thomas, and their downstairs neighbor called the cops on him this morning.

The whispers she and Officer Vargas exchange sound more urgent than our boyfriends’ stupid problems. “It’s up to you, honey,” Vargas repeats. Kat bites her lip and asks for more time to think. It takes a collective summons of strength to keep from asking, “Think about what?”

We’re distracted by a woman in khakis and a faded green polo rapping on the office glass. She points to a young boy on the other side, standing with a few other inmates. “Sign the release paper, dammit,” she hollers. “I gotta go to work. Stop playing.”

A few officers stand inside the office watching, waiting. The boy shakes his head and says something we can’t hear. A male cop interprets: “He says he’ll just stay here and serve the time.”

The woman growls. Her nametag says “Paula,” but her posture and the bags under her eyes say Mother. Her purse looks second-hand, the leather strap clinging to the buckle. Her shoes are scuffed and worn. “That’s that jail talk. I already paid his bail. I know y’all don’t give refunds.” She bangs a fist on the counter and presses her face to the glass to look at her son. He can’t be older than sixteen. “Boy, come out of there. Sign the paper so I can take you home.” Her voice catches, cracks then resurges stronger. “Let’s. Go.”

The boy keeps shaking his head until the woman stomps out of the room cursing. For a minute it’s quiet, and then we suck our teeth and scowl at the boy, but he has already turned back to his new friends.

 

When the women look at me, I shrug. “We’re not really together,” I say. “At least, that’s what he says.” Unlike my parents and co-workers, they nod instead of furrowing their brows.

As far as why he’s here, Officer Vargas told me Jarvis had a warrant for his arrest because of the tickets, and last night he was picked up somehow. “Wrong place, wrong time,” she explained. “Maybe a friend got pulled over, and they ran everyone’s IDs. I see it a lot. Folks go months without knowing the police are looking for them and then one day, you drive too fast by a cop and bang! Everything catches up to you.”

“Does it feel like love?” Chantal asks.

“Who can think about love in this room?” Nika grumbles. “Love gave me stretch marks and a toddler pretending to be a grown-ass man.”

Kat cackles and rubs the mark on her neck.

Chantal waves Nika off. “Does it?” she asks again. She leans toward me, her fingers gripping the arms of her chair. “You said it’s been three years. That’s gotta feel like love to you, honey.”

“Don’t be so sure,” Kat says.

But Chantal wants to know. She looks like my students when I pass back their graded papers, so earnest and hopeful yet dreading what I might say. I tell her yes, it feels like love, just so she’ll smile, but she probably knows it’s a lie.

I scratch a mosquito bite on my ankle. “I don’t know why he called me, though,” I say. “I’m not his girl, so why bother.”

I expect laughter and cosigning, but they frown. Of course he called you, they say. Was he supposed to call Tyrone or some other no-count homeboy instead? Hell no. We–the women–always know what to do. We are prepared for these types of emergencies. It’s been built into us by God Himself. I can’t tell if this is what they believe, or if they’ve been listening to the same songs on the radio.

 

Three-ten. The mood needs to lighten. Nika tries to joke and we join in, planning the abuse we will unleash on the men as soon as we get a few blocks away from the jail. “Don’t want to be brought back ten minutes later,” we giggle.

A buzzer sounds, and a door unlocks. We freeze mid-snicker, eyes on the release gate. A teenager with a box haircut in a dirty Texans jersey shuffles out. None of ours, but we watch him anyway. The boy could be our kid brother, a cousin, a mentee from the Boys and Girls Club. Not old enough to earn the cooled spot next to us in our beds but bold enough to lick his lips as we pass him on the street. There is a jaunt in his step when he notices the audience in the waiting room. He loudly tells Officer Vargas that he wants to make a call, and she directs him to the pay phone with a flicked wrist. Searching for a coin, the boy pats his pockets and the possessions returned to him in a plastic Ziploc. Train ticket stub, two cigarettes, a bobby pin – no money. He turns to the women in waiting and meets our eyes.

“’Ey ladies,” he says and smiles. His teeth are tiny.

Ignoring him is as easy as breathing.

“How y’all doing?”

What kind of answer does he expect? Inane questions deserve inane responses. We’re doing fine today, just waiting for our men to quit joking around and come out of there, so we can go to the grocery store and the laundromat, because we’re out of spaghetti and clean underwear. But we’re being selfish. How are you, sugar?

“Fine,” someone replies.

“Wondering if someone could help me out.”

Before he begins his next sentence, his face registers our fury, guesses at the rage that will spill from our Revlon lips if he foolishly asks for a quarter. One more thing for us to give up for a man. We will rip his jersey through the middle, cleaving the seven from the two, our French tips transformed into poisoned claws. He will become a sacrifice, the goat roasted on the spit of our discontent, an appetizer until the real offenders are released into our care again.

Or maybe that’s not what this churning toxic feeling looks like. Maybe it looks like an untouched dinner plate in the microwave. Hair in rollers and plaits while eyes flick between the silent phone and the crime dramas on TV. Sweat and coconut grease sliding down the neck until the phone finally rings with an automated recording confirming the worst.

Maybe it’s a longing for familiar calloused hands gripping hips. Hushed instructions. The occasional smack or bite. A designated towel to cover the wet spot on the sheets.

It doesn’t matter. Whatever its name or how it looks, it feels like a vomited meal that’s been reheated and fed back to us with a knife and fork.

Chantal pulls out a quarter from her wallet. “Here you go, baby,” she says. “I know your mama wants to know where you are.”

Of us she is the eldest, one faint gray hair winking from her bob, her purse more sensible without an obvious label stamped all over the fabric. Eldest and yet this doesn’t stop us from glaring at her when the boy grins, says, “Yes, ma’am” and, using her donated coin, calls up a person who answers to the moniker “shorty” then saunters outside to await his ride. Chantal, wise and humble, avoids our eyes.

After he leaves, we subside into silence. Our Girls Club is too fragile. One man’s presence, the mere scent of the danger between his thighs that controls more of our actions than we like to admit, is enough to turn us into strangers again. Nika checks her voice mail. I wish for the nth time that I brought a book to read. Kat examines a hangnail. Chantal looks like she wants to talk more, or scream, or weep. She instead adjusts her belt on her dress and gets up to ask Officer Vargas for another update.

 

In our separate corners, we chew the cud of our anger slowly, when a tall blonde in pumps enters the room. Her outfit looks like mourning clothes from Neiman Marcus. All of a sudden, we feel much less glamorous in the face of her authentic shoulder bag. Officer Vargas and she chat for a few moments. She is told the same as us: visitation at four, possible release around five, charges and fines may apply. “So I just pay over there?” the woman asks, pointing behind her. “And he’ll be out?” She is already reaching for her wallet as if money could solve these problems. Vargas told us earlier to keep our pocketbooks closed. The more time these men served, the less they owed in fines. By the time they are released, she says, the city may just ask for some community service hours instead of cash. It’s not the money they should worry about, though, but what other things they will need to repay when they finally walk out.

The blonde’s hand trembles as she brushes some lint from her blouse. Even with her Louis Vuitton checkbook cover she’s like us – frightened and full of questions. But as soon as Vargas finishes giving her instructions concerning bail, she clicks back outside. We cut looks at each other.

“She seemed in a hurry,” Chantal says.

“Late for her spin class,” I say.

We dissolve into laughter, improper and loud. Nika howls behind her hand and Chantal’s shoulders bounce. My stomach cramps. Kat holds her face, torso bent towards her lap. It takes a moment for us to see if she’s joined in the joke or succumbed to a greater grief. Minutes ago she signed a sheet of paper then disappeared into a back room with an officer we didn’t recognize. She returned with puffy eyes, hands clenched into fists.

When she lifts her head, Officer Vargas calls her name. She’s taken off her glasses.

“They’re taking him to county, honey,” she says.

Kat nods as if she understands but her body stiffens. The mark on her neck turns violet.

“It’s been a long day. You should go home and rest.”

“By myself?” Kat asks, her voice a whisper.

Another policewoman offers to drive her home. Kat gathers her things and gives us each a smile. “Alright, ladies,” she says. Her drawl makes me smile weakly. She slides a white Chanel bag onto her shoulder and fixes her side ponytail. “Be good.”

We mumble a stunned goodbye as she leaves. Chantal makes the sign of the cross and murmurs, “Bless her, Lord.” To us, she says, “County means she’s pressing charges on the bastard for knocking her around. They’re transferring him to Harris County jail with all the other fuck-ups.” She smiles at her curse. Nika and I murmur, “Amen.”

 

asterism

 

Ten minutes to four, Vargas calls us to the desk. It’s visitation time. Nika opts to stay behind. Warren doesn’t expect her to be here and she wants him to stay ignorant for a little longer. Chantal and I fill out the forms to go upstairs. Name, age, driver’s license number. I hesitate at a box asking for my relation to the inmate. Chantal puts “fiancée” on hers with a flourish. “Friend” doesn’t fill up the space like “girlfriend” does but my current location makes me too nervous to lie.

I put “roommate.” It fits just right.

The visitation room needs a makeover. Thick layers of yellow, flaking paint cover the steel walls, counter and stools. It looks just like TV but on an alternate level of awful. There is a phone receiver and a small glass window, just big enough for us to see the inmates’ eyes.

“Should we pray?” asks Chantal. I’m too jarred by the swift change in scenery to say anything but yes. We hold hands and bow heads, asking God to help our men become the men we need them to be. “May they learn from all of this,” Chantal pleads, “and return to Your brighter path, Lord.” We’re interrupted by fists banging on the wall. Jarvis’ gray eyes squint through the inch-wide window.

“True,” he says softly. “I didn’t think I’d see you here, girl.”

His voice, defeated and tired, unlocks something and I’m crying for real, salty snot running down my throat, eyes aflame. I use the edge of my tank top to wipe my nose. Next to me, Chantal pushes her gold fingers to the glass. She smiles as she talks to Darnell, and I cry harder because she looks so happy, as if the past cluster of hours happened in a dream. This is the end, I think. In an hour when they let our men go, I will have to do the same. It’s been a long day. I look at Jarvis.

“I’ve been here,” I say. “God, have I been here.”