I can’t tell you much about what happened that day, but I can tell you what I was wearing.
The dress was a slate gray American Apparel shift, cinched at the waist with a vintage brown belt I had thrifted for a dollar and change. The hemline was slightly too short for my office day job, so I tossed on a rust-colored knit cardigan to render the ensemble appropriate. It was high summer, and soon I was sweating right through the made-in-the-USA cotton. The rust turned to mud against my armpits and thin, dark streaks outlined the threadbare belt, which had begun fraying around the edges months before.
Covering myself up that day felt like punishment. My body was my proudest commodity at the time, a beguiling physical shell that belied how inside I felt as though a cheese grater had scraped over the mound of trust, kinship, and tender sentiment collectively considered the heart. That scorching season I preferred to be as bare as possible.
As I dressed and put on makeup that morning, I listened to to MIA to keep myself from crying. The bang-bang rhythm of “Paper Planes” steadied my wrist as I painted black liner across my lids and shined my lips with a clear gloss. Afterward, I stared at myself in the mirror for a moment.
“You can do this,” I thought to myself, while looking back at my terrified expression.
“You have to do this,” I thought to myself, while looking back at my trembling chin.
“Fucking do this,” I said aloud before I left the bathroom to go gather my things and head for the car.
The day before, a Sunday, my sister had called and casually asked if I was close to a Target.
“I can be,” I said. “Why?”
“Well, I forgot to get a couple of things at the store, just in case.”
“What do you need? I can run by Target, no problem, sis.”
“I just need a few white bras, no underwire.”
“Y’know, so that I can’t rip it out and stab anybody in prison. Ha ha.”
“Ha ha,” I laughed back unsteadily. “Sure, no problem. Love you!”
“Love you, too!”
I can tell you that I hung up the phone and sobbed. Then I called my father and asked him if he could go by Target and pick up a few white bras, no underwire. Just in case.
“Sure, no problem,” he said. “Love you!”
“Love you, too!”
Sweltering at the courthouse in my belted dress and cardigan, I had to stop myself from hyperventilating in the bathroom where my sister and I had gone for a brief respite as her lawyer and an assistant district attorney haggled in a conference room.
“Are you OK?” she asked me.
“Yeah. I’m fine. Are you OK?”
“I’ve just been praying for a sign, for something to show me that I’m going to leave today. I need a sign,” she said.
“Don’t worry about looking for a sign; it’s something that just has to come to you.”
“You’re right,” she said, and paused for a moment. “Listen, when we walk in there, I want you to take my purse, OK?”
“I want you to hang onto it because if I’m gone, I’m gone, and I don’t want to be worrying about who I gave my purse to.”
We were holding hands by this time.
We never held hands.
“I have to pee,” I perjured.
Locked in the stall, I put my head between my bare legs and breathed as slowly as I could.
Later that afternoon, when the judge smashed his gavel, my sister let out a guttural cry on the defendant’s bench. My body began quaking when she stood up, and the bailiff put her in handcuffs. As she was escorted out of the courtroom, she glanced back at me as I clung onto the strap of her purse like a life raft.
Walking out afterward, my peripheral vision was clouded, and I didn’t stop until I was in the middle of the vast and mostly vacant parking lot. The sun blazed without any trees around to block its heat, and once again, I crouched down and put my head between my bare legs. Only this time I screamed toward the earth. At least that’s what it felt like. By that point, everything had gone silent, so whether I whispered into my palms or let out a blood-curdling scream that rang all the way to the temporary holding cell my sister was being transported to would’ve sounded the same to me. It would’ve sounded garbled and muted like someone yelling for help underwater, just like the time I almost drowned as a child, and she was the one who saved me.
I can tell you that my sister saw the anguish on my face as she was leaving because that’s what she wrote, in perfect cursive, in the first letter she sent me from prison.
“I’ve been worried about you and just hope that you’re OK,” she wrote.
“Are you kidding?” I replied. “I should be asking you that. Ha ha.”
I can tell you that the stack of letters we sent back and forth the proceeding months sit in my desk drawer, and I glance at them every time I have to retrieve, say, my checkbook to pay rent, or fish around for stray quarters for the washing machine. Aside from documenting how incredibly we missed each other, they chronicle the same minutiae we would talk about on the phone on any given day before all this: who I was dating, who I wasn’t dating, and how our parents drive us crazy. Every now and then, I would even acknowledge with a quick hello or warning of gratuitous detail about a handsome guy’s face ahead, the third person in our private conversation whose job it was to skim over our sisterly epistles, and I wondered sometimes whether the same warden read all of my letters and how he or she might weigh in on my romantic ebbs and flows. I censored out nothing, except for the overshadowing fact that she was there and that, strangely, this was the first time we had ever written to one another.
A couple of times, she called me up, the din of the prison making it sound like perhaps she was just ringing from a bustling subway platform or a crowded bar.
“There are roaches in the showers, and I have to be careful about making eye contact with some of these women,” she might say.
“That guy I was dating—you remember, the one in the band?—well, he’s moved on, so it seems,” I might say, casually, because the worst and unfathomable heartbreak had already happened.
“I miss you.”
“I love you.”
I couldn’t tell her much, but I could say that at least.
Cristen Conger is an Atlanta-based writer, a podcast co-host of Stuff Mom Never Told You, and the internet's unofficial Curator of Lady Knowledge. Her work specializes in all things women, gender, sex, and getting laughs. Not always in that order.