In my high school Spanish class, we read a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A bulb breaks, spilled light fills the room, two boys at home alone float atop the photons.
I spoke very poor Spanish. I knew the word for “swim,” but not for “drown.” The story ends with a party thrown by the boys for their classmates. The other children brought no rafts. Light pours down and the boys’ boat rises and their classmates die. The little corpses bob amidst furniture, fistfuls of condoms, and a television flickering with nudity.
The flood of light is dangerous.
In jail, there’s a moment each day when everyone’s agony is synchronized. A guard yells “chow time” at four fifteen a.m.. The men brace, their brief solace snatched away. The lights go off at midnight and then it’s less hard to be locked up. Eyes closed, maybe even sleeping, the jail is not so different from any other place.
“When the lights come on,” T tells me, “that’s when the darkness comes.”
And so that final second – after a guard yells, before they flip the light switch – is excruciating. All the guys agreed.
T spent his final days here hoping no one would come from California. He’d served his full sentence and unless they extradited him – which they could only do if a representative showed up in person – the judge had to release him. “They’ve got less than two weeks,” he told me, and then, at our next class, “they’re down to four days.”
T asked me once, “Is it selling out, thinking I’m going to dress real different once they let me out? I used to wear, you know, jeans, some baggy shirts, but I’m thinking now, I get out, I want to dress real nice. I don’t want them to mess with me, you know?”
It isn’t selling out. It’s shameful, sure – but he’s not the one who should feel ashamed. Everyone else in this country should feel ashamed that he can’t dress the way he wants, not without drawing undue attention from the police. My pallor and Ph.D. let me wear my hair in dreadlocks, dress in tattered clothes from Goodwill or the dumpsters, and still be treated with respect.
To be treated as well as me, T, with his melanin and Hispanic accent, has to look much “nicer.”
We demand most from those who’ve been given least.
The first poem T wrote was a lyrical persona piece from the perspective of a threatened woman. After he finished reading it aloud, the class clapped and someone asked to hear it again. T started to read a second time, but then choked up and began to cry. He’d never had a room full of people actually listen to him. Twice.
Another man hugged him. After about ten seconds he said he was okay and continued reading. And after that day, he wrote two or three poems each week.
On his final day in class, he was shivering beneath a blanket but was happy – “four more days and they have to let me go!” He planned to stop by Pages to Prisoners, maybe volunteer.
California came to collect him with two days to spare.