By Nicole Marie Hilton, September 22, 2020
I heard two men outside of the padded cell. One fiddled with some keys, the lock clicked, and the large metal door swung open.
They found me sitting quietly, cross-legged, on the cement floor by the drain. The always-on bright light overhead lit up the white and orange striped jumpsuit I had been given the day before for good behavior. The Book of Mormon, divorce papers, remains of my lunch, and an uneaten cookie were off to the side. For the first time in my life, I hadn’t wanted sugar. Because of that and how freezing the cell was, I was fifteen pounds lighter than when they had initially put me in there.
The shorter of the two men came into my cell and sat down beside me. He apologized for being out of town for the past four days, and explained he was the jail psychiatrist.
“Nicole, do you know why you’re here?” he asked.
“Yes, I tried to commit suicide with a gun,” I said.
“So I heard,” he said, looking at a bundle of papers in his hands. “And…how do you feel now?”
I smiled at him and said, “Well, I feel fine.”
I didn’t try to hide the bruises up and down my arms and hands from when I had thrown myself against the walls and the door. As far as I was concerned, that was a whole other lifetime ago, anyway.
He asked me some more questions, and I answered all of them honestly. Whereas before I had been absolutely starved for human contact, now I regarded the presence of this man in my cell as a curiosity—nothing more.
He seemed more and more puzzled, eventually getting up and leaving, the huge door clicking into place loudly behind him.
I heard him talking with the guard through the cat flap as they left. “Don’t know why she’s in there, let’s move her out.”
I sat there, one part of me feeling neutral at the news, another part stunned that my ordeal was almost over. I stood up and did some jumping jacks, raising my body temperature so I’d stop shivering. I looked around the cell. I knew every inch of it. I smiled at the memory of what this place had been to me before: a torture chamber. A hell I couldn’t escape from. But now…?
I pondered on the conversation I’d had with Jesus. He had stopped talking about an hour before. He had been everything I had hoped for and more in a Savior. There is no way to describe how it feels talking with Him. He had known everything—everything—about me. And yet He loved me unconditionally, forgiving me of all I had ever done wrong. His knowledge of me led to shared experience and hilarity between us. No one listening to us converse would have picked up on half of what we were talking about. His knowledge, and his Love, were complete. Absolute. And He was still with me. I knew that now…
The liberation I had experienced while reading the Book of Mormon was so much greater than the walls around me. I still couldn’t explain the miracle that had happened in that cell. I had fallen to the greatest depths of pain and sorrow I had ever known in my life, and yet that little bundle of pages had pulled me out of it to experience a joy even greater than my suffering. How had that happened?
While pondering on this, I heard officers come down the hallway again. They came to my door and opened it. One of the officers gestured for me to finally step out of the cell. I thought, could it be true? I’m to be physically liberated as well?
Almost shaking, I stepped barefoot out into the stark white hallway. One of the guards led me away, and I looked back at my crucible, tears welling up in my eyes. I left my temple prison behind.
* * *
The “Fishbowl,” as it was called, was a large room crammed with about twenty bunk beds. Three of the walls were white washed cinderblock, while the fourth wall consisted of windows looking out onto a cafeteria. That was why they called it the Fishbowl—I suppose all the women inside of it felt like trapped guppies, ever gazing outwards towards the cafeteria and the hallways which led to freedom beyond.
The two guards who had liberated me from my solitary cell led me down hallways and through doors, eventually to this other cell—which to my delight was full of women of all sorts.
The door slammed shut behind me, and about fifteen faces were turned in my direction. The part of me that had become neutral when it came to human contact was suddenly bulldozed by another part of me that was very loving and relieved to have that contact. I started weeping freely, and ran from woman to woman, embracing them!
“What the —- do you think you’re doing?!” said a middle-aged Hispanic woman.
“Oh, I’m just so glad! So glad!” I cried.
“Well go and shove your ——– hug up your —. It’s not welcome here!”
I laughed. Nothing she could say could dissuade me from dancing around the room, clasping my hands to my heart, loving on everyone in sight. More than just her cries of dismay were heard. Apparently, I’d interrupted everyone in their brooding.
I couldn’t imagine why everyone wasn’t getting along. Not when there was so much to be thankful for! I mean, even the thought of being in this room with just one other human being was enough to send me into raptures of delight—let alone fifteen other human beings!
The only one who didn’t complain about receiving a hug from me was my old friend Hannah Morris*, who had been processed with me about four days prior. She still had bruises all over her body, but they were yellow and green now instead of purple in color. She sat there on her bunk as confident as ever.
“What’s up, Nicole? Out of solitary?”
“Yes, Hannah, yes!”
I lost no time telling everyone everything about my life—sure that they would come to understand why we could all be rapturously happy now. This did not go over well with the group as a whole—everyone acted like I’d interrupted something important and solemn.
But no one was more troubled at my appearance than the middle aged Hispanic woman. She sat up against the back wall on a top bunk, becoming angrier by the minute. Soon, she took advantage of a gap in one of my stories, and screamed at me.
“You ——- little ——–, SHUT UP now or I’ll shove your ——- face up your —- until you can’t breathe!”
I had been telling a story while doing push ups on the cold cement floor—a habit I’d picked up from being in solitary.
I paused and knelt on the floor, looking up at the woman. Everyone was looking up at her as well, and when I glanced around I noticed looks of intense dislike across the rest of the women’s faces. Obviously, the Hispanic woman was even less popular than me.
I didn’t know how to respond to her. I’d never been talked to that way before.
Just then, Hannah Morris spoke up: “Nicole. You don’t have a broken back, you have a titanium spine!”
At that thought, I jumped up and adopted the Hispanic woman’s language. “WHY DON’T YOU SHUT YOUR PESSIMISTIC FACE OR WE’LL SHOW YOU WHAT THE INSIDE OF A —- REALLY LOOKS LIKE!”
There was an explosion of yells from the surrounding women. They clapped and cheered and patted me on the back. The Hispanic woman up on the top bunk had her mouth open and a look of shock on her face. She didn’t utter a peep for the rest of that day.
I slept okay that night.
* * *
The next day, after we were served our lunch of lasagna, two officers stood outside the door. They opened it, and called each woman who needed medication out one by one. They soon called my name, and I left the Fishbowl to get my medication, surprised that suddenly they had my medical information (they hadn’t given me my medication the entire time I was in solitary).
I approached the officers and one extended a little cup with big white pills inside of it to me. I realized they didn’t have any water with them, and I hadn’t brought my cup of water with me.
“Sorry, can I run and grab some water? I forgot,” I said.
The officer holding the cup of pills smirked, then said in a mocking baby-ish voice, “Oh, did you forget your water?”
The other officer had a hard look on his face when he said, “You should have thought about that before you came. Take the damn pills and get back in the Fishbowl where you belong.”
I was stunned. They were going to risk a prisoner choking instead of letting her walk twenty steps to get a cup of water?
It looked like they were serious. I’d never felt such a sense of prejudice and being treated unfairly in my life. I could tell they treated every imprisoned woman this way.
I slowly reached out and took the little cup of pills. I threw my head back and took them, and as I tried to swallow them they got stuck. I gulped and gulped, my heart quickening as a stress response. The pills inched down my throat, past the point where I’d be choking on them, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Feeling thoroughly demoralized, I turned and walked back into the Fishbowl.
Over the next day, several women were released because they had made bail. I was given a phone call a day, and continually asked my (now) ex-husband to bail me out. He kept on saying he was trying to get the money together. Each time I was made to go back to the Fishbowl after yet another depressing phone call, I felt the sense of freedom I’d achieved in solitary leaking out of me, the walls growing closer and closer around me like a noose. I thought I was beginning to understand why all the women in the Fishbowl were so morose.
The way the guards treated us didn’t help the situation, either. On the third day of being in the Fishbowl, after another gruff taking-of-the-pills, I sat down on my lower bunk and looked at my hands. I remembered being in solitary. I remembered how I had felt like a forgotten rat in a science lab. I tried to feel around inside of me for that sense of human-ness, that humanity which surely must be within me somewhere, and I located it around my heart and behind my eyes. I thought, I am still a human being—even if the state or others don’t believe it anymore. I decided that, though others might take advantage of me, treat me like an object, or curse at me and wish me dead, I wasn’t going to listen to them. I was going to listen to Christ—and what I had experienced in solitary was real. Deep down, to those who mattered most, I knew I was a queen.
I got up from my bunk and strode to the one table that stood in the midst of the bunk beds. It had a deck of cards on it. I took them out of their tattered box, and looked at the depressed women who surrounded me. “Who wants to play Handkerchief?”
Handkerchief was a game my friend Shelli Barnson had taught me, where you assign a saying and a body motion to each number or face card in a deck of cards. You had to remember the sayings other players came up with, and yell them out with the accompanying motion as fast as you could. If you laid down the ace, you would yell, “handkerchief!” I’m not quite sure how players won—that rule is now a mystery to me. What I do remember is that the card game could get quite loud and raucous as it progressed, especially as players added funnier and funnier sayings and gestures to the game.
I had three takers, Izzy*, Juana*, and Arianna*. We sat down at the table, and I explained the rules to them. We started playing, and the other girls started putting lewd sayings and gestures into play. I shrugged and continued playing as well as my memory allowed. Soon the entire Fishbowl was filled with yells and laughter as we got better at associating the cards with the sayings we came up with.
“Number three, I need to go pee!” I yelled, hopping off my chair and doing a I-need-to-pee dance.
“Number eight, her baby daddy is the cocaine dealer!” we all screamed, pointing to an imaginary man.
The game became more and more hilarious. Arianna had tears streaming down her face. Izzy and Juana couldn’t breathe for laughing. We all got up to do the gesture for the king card, when time seemed to stop for me. The sense of freedom I’d missed for a few days descended upon the scene and I saw the laughing faces around me frozen for a moment in time under the florescent lights.
Something told me to turn towards the wall made of windows, and as I did so I saw those two guards standing there, their mouths slightly open and their eyes wide. I smiled at them and then turned back to the game. I was free.