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Jail, Institutions, or Death by Shannon Frost Greenstein

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“I miss my mother,” I admit aloud, nearly in tears.

I am in jail again.

In NA, they say you have three possible futures on heroin:  Jails, institutions, or death. But I quit going to NA after ninety days, once my court-ordered ninety meetings were up. I quit after I was free to go, but before I learned how to avoid those three possibilities.

I just couldn’t stomach those meetings. They were so goddamn depressing. I don’t know if it was the father admitting he was stealing his toddler’s pain medication, or the woman who wept tears of absolute self-hatred after her relapse, or the weak coffee – always lukewarm but still utterly burnt – but the entire 12-step process just reeks to me of hopelessness and the sadly macabre.

The jail cell is stark; industrial; freezing. I am in a unit with other drug users and moderately-dangerous thieves, our crimes ranging from innocuous possession of THC to the truly caustic, Carfentanil and meth and coke tainted with Fentanyl. It’s not everyone’s rock bottom, but it’s definitely on the way down for most and a hard landing for the unlucky rest.

I am dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, my street clothes a world away. There’s a strange freedom in being one of countless orange inmates, the anonymity offering me a new history. No one here knows how gifted I used to be, how much potential I had. There is no chance of running into anyone from my hometown, barely-masked pity and judgement in their eyes as we make awkward small talk and I try to hide my track marks.

“Shut up.”

My “roommate” is a very large Latinx man named Jose with uncannily good hearing.

Rumors say he was arrested while under the influence of PCP, and it took four officers and a German Shepherd to tackle him. He and I don’t speak and don’t acknowledge one another, but live according to a strict contract:  Namely, I stay out of his way and he doesn’t beat the shit out of me.

It’s a good arrangement, but at the moment, I want nothing more than a hug. I want someone to wrap me in their arms and tell me I’m still loveable and that there might be hope for me yet.

Instead, I bury my face in the flat, pungent pillow on the top bunk where I am laying – my “roommate” wanted the bottom, and I wanted to keep my teeth and repeat this thought to myself, over and over again, like a mantra; like a prayer.

I miss my mother. I miss my mother. I miss my mother.

She tried so hard to help me. The interventionist said she was enabling me, but whatever my mother did, she did out of love.

I usually try very hard not to think about her; I’ve conditioned myself against it. Every time my brain begins to recall the look on her face when she threw me out, a wall goes up and everything turns numb. I don’t think. I don’t remember. What I do do is find some drugs, and that’s basically my main coping mechanism. In prison, though, there isn’t always a steady supply of drugs, so I find myself picturing her more and more every time I’m here.

Now, with the air around my mouth growing hot and stale, with my eyes squashed against the pillow, I find myself yet again going over where I was when I’d heard she died, a compulsion to obsess.

My brain is eating itself – circling inward and back through time, one memory triggering another – and suddenly I’m back at the intervention. My father and my sister are there, my aunt, my former college roommate. My mother, of course. She was the only one I cared about. The rest of them spent the entire time criticizing and berating me, but she…she only wanted to love me. She wasn’t shaming me for the myriad of poor choices I had already started making. She just wanted me, exactly as I once had been, before everything started going to shit.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” I murmur into the pillow.

“Shut UP, I said.”

Only I’m crying now.

Slowly at first, but then evolving into full-body ugly-sobbing, my body shaking uncontrollably with the sort of wails that hurt your diaphragm and leave you winded, I’m desperately trying to muffle the sound of my crying. I feel as if I am breaking in half from the pain of it all, and the illusion of fragile control I’ve built up around myself begins to dissipate away.

I feel the bed frame shake as the leviathan below me shifts to a standing position, rising to his full height. The rational part of my brain is screaming at me, reminding me that weakness is death in prison and crying is weakness made corporeal, but I’m literally at a point of despair beyond rational action.

I tense through my sobs, awaiting the knee in my back or the arm at my throat or the dick against my ass, but it doesn’t come. Fifteen seconds pass, and then a full minute, and then five, and still Jose stands, silent, next to the bed.

I do not know how long I stay facedown on the bed, but by the time my breathing is leveling out and my tears have stopped, I am utterly exhausted. It is a physical, emotional, psychic, spiritual exhaustion, as if I have wept out something vital and am now feeling its void. With the last of my energy, I roll onto my side and curl into the fetal position, still not looking at Jose, whose eyes must be just about level with mine.

“I want my mother, too.”

My eyes jerk open in surprise.

“She’s dead. I watched her die.”

Slowly, I raise my head and look at him. He is staring at me but not seeing me; he is including me in his memory and narrating the events for my benefit without even realizing I shouldn’t be there.

“It was a drive-by. They were looking for me. She was at the window by the sink, and then all the glasses were broken and the sink was full of blood.”

His voice is wistful, like he’s recalling summer vacation as a child, but his face is ugly and terrible, as ugly and terrible as it must have been as he saw his mother bleed out from a bullet intended for him. His hands are balled into such tight fists I can see the crescent wounds from his nails digging into his palms. He looks very unstable, like he’s feeling every possible emotion all at the same time, like there are too many feelings to be contained in one human body and the excess is bleeding out through him like stigmata.

I have less than no idea what I’m supposed to do in this situation. I’ve never been one for empathy, so I have very little experience comforting anyone. Am I even supposed to comfort him? This is the man who threatened to kill me if I used his towel, so I’m a bit wary to invade his personal space, let alone touch him, let alone hug him.

I reach out my hand, slowly, like I’m approaching a pitbull known for aggression, but stop just short of his bicep, my arm quivering in midair as my frontal lobe does a cost-benefit analysis. Finally, in a moment of sheer courage, I allow my hand to drop, feeling the rough orange jumpsuit under my fingers and, below that, pure iron disguised as muscle.

“I’m sorry.”

His thousand-yard stare continues as if I haven’t spoken, though his lips curl up infinitesimally into a sardonic smirk.

“You think you’re sorry, but you don’t know. You don’t know how bad it can get. Do yourself a favor, get out of the game while you can. Go to some lily-white rehab and get clean. You’re young still. Maybe you can still make something of yourself.”

I shake my head, but can do nothing more than that to enunciate the complex thoughts ricocheting through my skull.

As quietly as he stood and waited for my crying jag to end itself, Jose disappears from my view. I feel the bed shake as he lays back down. And just like that, we’re back to hating one another. 

He’s wrong, though. It is too late to make anything of myself. It has been too late since that first burst of dopamine, a gift from the Vicodin I pilfered from my parents’ bathroom cabinet. That’s how the spiral started; but it was so slippery, and it was so steep, I didn’t have the strength to climb back up once the downward slide began.

And now?

Rehab if I’m lucky; fatal overdose if I’m not. After all, they say it at every meeting: Jails, institutions, or death. And to think…

I used to be the gifted kid, just like you.

Shannon Frost Greenstein (she/her) resides in Philadelphia with her children, soulmate, and persnickety cats. She is the author of Pray for Us Sinners, a collection of fiction from Alien Buddha Press, and More., a poetry collection by Wild Pressed Books. Shannon is a former Ph.D. candidate in Continental Philosophy and a multi-time Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Pithead Chapel, X-R-A-Y Lit Mag, Cabinet of Heed, Collective Realms, and elsewhere. Follow Shannon at shannonfrostgreenstein.com or on Twitter at @ShannonFrostGre.

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