Sunday evening, 6:22…
It’s been one of those rare weekends where I have accomplished almost all of the things I had set out to do on my mental to-do list. Cleaned the house, went out to dinner, had a couple of drinks, put out a shit-ton of interview requests for Dangerous Conversation, did the food shopping and even made it to the gym both days. But I said “almost,” didn’t I? Something did not quite make it to the “done” side…what on earth could it be? (Long pause) Oh yeah. Writing.
Normally when I write, I like to wait for inspiration to hit me, and when it does the essay practically writes itself. But over the last several weeks, when inspiration came knocking I was busy doing other things (ah, hell—I was probably just sitting on the couch). Either way, nothing got written, even when I had the best of intentions. There was the deep introspection that came after I attended a screening of Dirty Wars and got to meet journalist/writer Jeremy Scahill; the optimism I felt after attending the Restore the Fourth March in NYC, where hundreds of us gathered to protest the NSA’s surveillance program; and then there was the anger and sadness I felt in the days that followed the George Zimmerman verdict. All of these things were events that I felt compelled to write about, yet didn’t. Now, sadly, the ship has sailed and inspiration has left the building. So here I sit on my couch next to my boxer Tillman (who shouldn’t even be on the couch) trying to salvage something, at least one interesting thought—but I’ve got nothing.
Maybe I should have a drink? It seems like ideas that I think are brilliantly interesting come to me after several cocktails. Take last night, for instance. I was telling Mike about the letters my Aunt Fay had given me, the letters that I had written to her during my early twenties when I spent two years in prison. I read them all Friday night in one shot. There weren’t a lot of them, but it was definitely an overload of material for me to chew on in one sitting. After a few drinks at dinner Saturday night, I was finally able to sum up my thoughts for Mike in one line: I was blown away by the level of maturity that came out of those letters.
Profound, I know. Up till now, I had always looked back on my youth and thought that I had been a totally self-involved imbecile. The truth is, after reading those letters, I feel like I had a way better understanding of my life than I realized, maybe even better than I do now. Back then, I had nothing but time to think. I pondered the meaning of my life and was still able to look at myself in a relatively objective way. I seemed to be very self-aware. Maybe believing that I had been a moron was a defense mechanism for the fact that I had done some really shitty things. But at least I understood that I was exactly where I needed to be at that moment.
I wrote about the joy I found in all of the little things, like the twice a year visits from my family and friends, the chicken sandwiches I so loved that came out of the visiting room vending machine, and the relished time I spent in the yard with my best friend, Heather. I relayed my excitement and nervousness over speaking at the first AIDS awareness day ever held at Albion, expressed enthusiasm at becoming certified in HIV counseling (which I did) and relayed my optimism about the future.
There were times, however, when those letters got dark—like when I came to the realization that my childhood had all but ensured that I would end up either addicted to drugs or in jail. I expressed concern over my mother’s drinking issues, but was mature enough to realize I did not want to get caught in the “blame game” like so many others in my family had before me. But perhaps what was most shocking to read was when I declared that “my first Christmas in Prison was relatively uneventful due to the fact that I had not killed anybody. ” I know, not exactly my proudest moment; but in my defense, it was not said out of callousness. It had been a long running tradition between my mother and me to resort to gallows humor when situations became too horrible to stomach, which sadly happened often in our family. I will confess that after reading that line, I both cringed and chuckled, and I almost left it out of here completely. But I had promised myself long ago that if I was going to write, I was going to at least be an honest writer. I would much rather have you hate me because you think I’m an asshole than have you love me for something I’m not. I’m flawed. If you know me you know that. So there it is, and here I stand before you, naked and wrapped in poor taste.
With every letter that I read, there seemed to be something I had completely forgotten over time. Like when the entire dorm (89 women) sang happy birthday to me as I walked in from work one afternoon. Or the time I had a debilitating cold, and my good friend Teddy forced me to eat raw cloves of garlic. Apparently her Abuela Diaz taught her that garlic could cure all things. Sadly for Teddy, it did not cure HIV (there is that damn gallows humor again…you’ll get used to it).
The funny thing is, I have always prided myself on my excellent memory, but it seems I had forgotten some pretty monumental moments that happened while in Albion CF. It’s strange to me how the mind decides what it’s going to retain and what it won’t. I can still remember why I fell down a flight of stairs at age three. In case you’re curious, I peered through the banister and saw a box of Yodels on the counter. I really had to get to those Yodels, but I paid the price: a busted lip and an angry mother. And yet, somehow I managed to forget that there was a time in my life when I truly believed I would have kids—but there it was in my very own writing: “when I have kids.” It’s ironic how what you once thought life had in store could one day turn out to be most insane thing you can imagine.
After all of these revelations, I think what shocked me most about the pile of letters strewn in front of me was how ridiculously candid I was about prison life in general. Up to that point, I always thought I had held most things about my time behind bars close to my chest, at least as far as my family was concerned. While my aunt Fay had always been my “cool” aunt, I still blushed after reading in one of the earlier letters that I was not gay “yet,” but there were plenty of women who wished I was. Wow, someone sure was a little full of herself. Good to know that prison did not quell my confidence when it came to my desirability.
After reminiscing about my younger self, the one thing that really made me want to kick my current self in the ass was the decision I made back in 1997 to burn all of my journals. Writing has always been something I have taken comfort in, and after two years I had come home with books upon books filled with anecdotes, self-discoveries, tales of woe and sometimes, yes, just plain drivel. I remember thinking that if I went through the ceremony of burning all my stuff I would magically be able to put that part of my life behind me, never to look back or have to remember it again. I guess at the time I could not imagine wanting to revisit the young woman who once had it all figured out.
So here I am, a much older woman sitting on my couch, trying to piece together the puzzle that is my life. It’s now 9:12 PM. While I didn’t necessarily feel inspired to write, I did. I suppose you could say it’s been a good weekend.
Author: Cynthia Cone is a heavily tattooed Ex-Con with no college education and very bad punctuation. She currently lives on Long Island, NY where she pays extremely high taxes, likes to drink, rage against the machine and shop at the GAP.
Cynthia is also a satellite producer for the radio show Dangerous Conversation which can be heard on radioio.com.
Contact Cynthia at email@example.com