Sabine stood in front of her apartment door, trying to ignore her shaking hands.
“Cell phone. Purse. Lunch. Car keys. Smokes.” She scanned the area for anything she might have forgotten. Her crossword puzzle workbook and Dave Eggers novel both stared at her from the kitchen table like two dogs eager for their morning walk. She considered them both, remembering that the human resources woman had told her she’d be able to take her lunch in the car, a perfect place to synthesize her three biggest addictions: nicotine, caffeine and reading. But Sabine was well aware of the vortex these combined actions could generate. One cigarette would lead to two cigarettes, the time ashing onto pages of unaccounted-for passage. Better to leave the books behind. At least for today.
All set, Sabine turned the doorknob to leave and saw that her hand was shaking.
“Oh, hell,” she said and marched into the bathroom. She took two extra kratom capsules and a propranolol and washed them down with faucet water. She dried her face and peered into the mirror.
“No dangling earrings and business casual,” she said to her reflection, repeating the words the human resources woman had told her over the phone.
When Sabine had pressed for more information — “So, like a long skirt and a blouse…? For sure no jeans, right?”
Sabine could hear the eye-roll in the woman’s voice.
“This will just have to do, I guess,” Sabine told her reflection, as she considered her outfit, the maroon short sleeve blouse with just a hint of ruffles at the neck line. Feminine, but not sensual. Conservative, but not pants suit conservative. And the black slacks? Snug, but not clingy tight. The heart pendant that contained her mother’s ashes she knew she’d have to remove, but for now, Sabine wanted her mother close to her heart.
She straightened her back. Lifted her chin. Turned to the side. Raffi had greenlighted the outfit last night, but might he have greenlighted a tutu and a tiara?
She felt her mother’s presence and heard her mother’s voice say “Stop worrying.”
“Like that will ever happen,” Sabine said aloud and checked her eyeliner for the gazillionth time.
Although she would be embarrassed to admit this aloud to anyone other than maybe Raffi, Sabine was already starting to miss her old job. Yes, the uniforms bordered on ghastly with shirts the color of cartoon blood and lapel pins the size of coasters emblazoned with the words every customer could count on from a mile a way — “Yes I can!” — all the employees were equally condemned to wear them. She had developed a cozy camaraderie with her workmates and any stress the job had initially brought had dissolved over time. In less than a year she was given her own department to manage, nearly full-time hours and a raise (albeit negligible). She had felt wanted and appreciated. But in the end, it was a dead-end job she was overqualified for, a job meant for college students and bored retirees who needed to get out of the house in order to make themselves feel useful. At Raffi’s brother’s dinner parties Sabine would characterize her customer service position as a filler.
“We just moved here from California,” she’d say, knowing from experience that whatever came next would fail to trigger as much interest as being a native of a land people escaped to, not from. “I’m just working at Ollie’s until a state job opens up.”
“California you say? Why the hell would you move here?”
“Oh, you know, the weather.”
“Yeah, right, that’s hilarious”
Raffi got an earful from Sabine the night before her first day. He couldn’t grasp why instead of being proud of herself for landing such a promising, hard-to-get job and excited for the opportunities it would bring, she was focusing on all the possible things that could go wrong.
Although fully capable of shielding her anxiety from others in most ways, Sabine’s hands had consistently played the part of betrayer. While smiling and maintaining eye contact her hands would be placed firmly behind her back, and not because she was instinctually falling back on her military training. She’d never been in the military. She was hiding her hands because they were usually shaking.
Sabine took the gold Corolla, the one with the busted driver side mirror, the loud exhaust and the screw implanted in the rear right tire, all wounds acquired during the past hellacious winter Sabine was surprised she’d managed to live through. She had forgotten that Raffi had told her about the screw and that – until it was remedied – the Corolla was off limits for anything but around-the-town driving, lest the tire hit a pothole, causing the thing to blow while on the windy, hilly, 55 mph roads, such as the ones that separated Dunkirk from Bellamy. In her attempt to quell the anxiety tightening around her chest and churning in her guts, Sabine had reasoned that by leaving Raffi with the good car, she was doing her karma a solid, potentially raising the odds for a successful first-day orientation. She realized how ridiculous such reasoning sounded when she said it out loud to Raffi the next day, but that was the next day, the day after the most humiliating day of Sabine’s 40 years in this life.
“It’s just orientation,” Sabine reminded herself imagining her mother saying those words. Sabine didn’t use to have these imaginary conversations until three years after her mother’s death, soon after she and Raffi moved to New York. The practice evolved in a free-range, organic manner and Sabine found it helped to both ease her tension as well as keep her mother in her life.
She was smoking and would continue to smoke, the windows rolled halfway down, the AC blasting. She was headed East on Route 20 towards Silver Creek. From Silver Creek to the Seneca Nation where she’d hop on the 438 to Bellamy. A 38-minute drive according to Google. She gave herself an hour.
“You’ll go in, meet the pharmacist, exchange pleasantries… you’ll watch some training videos. Sign some leftover paperwork that needs signing. Whop-bam-boom, the day is in the can. How hard can it be, poo”?
“Oh, I don’t know mom, I’ll manage to dig up something from my suitcase of wacky embarrassing first impressions.”
“Oh, you will not. Everything has been turning for the better. Your finances are in the black, Raffi has more classes at JCC to teach and you’ve got a state job in less than a year of moving to a new state. That’s got to be worth something.”
“Oh, I got the job all right. But can I keep it? Because it’s a state job, I’ve got one whole year of probation. 365 opportunities for me to fuck it up.”
Upon her approach to the facility, Sabine put out her cigarette in a glass juice bottle she kept in the car as an ashtray. A big yellow sign announced what stood ahead:
Bellamy Correctional Facility
She followed the road that wound gradually up a hill overlooking the neighbouring residential area to the west and rolling green hills to the east. Slowing to 15 mph, Sabine became aware of the deep reverberating groan of the Corolla, uninhibited as it was by a properly functioning exhaust system.
Heading towards the vast, multi-acre parking lot already filled with vehicles, she located what a sign identified as the Superintendent’s Housing on the right. To the left was where she was going to be headed after she found a parking spot. The administration building, a one-story, metal and glass structure attached to the front of the much older and imposing, dull-red brick building that made up the bulk of the facility. It had all the aura of a building showcased in a horror movie about zombies from an insane asylum.
Structurally speaking, the whole thing was designed kind of like a turtle, with the admin building acting as the head of the turtle poking out from its shell of high fencing wrapped in miles of razor wire. Four concrete towers jutted from the shell and Sabine knew those towers were manned and that she more than likely had eyes upon her at that very moment. Could they hear the unmuffled roar of her Carola? Does sound, like heat, rise? Or does it spread out and dissipate like a fart? Sabine chuckled at the thought of having driven her car 28 miles farting all the way.
As a smoker who didn’t want to smell like one, Sabine had a few tricks up her sleeve. One, she always applied scented lotion afterwards, and two, while doing the deed, she made sure to wear a “smoking” shirt or jacket (depending on the season). That day she used a flimsy thrift store cardigan. Thirdly, she kept a pack of gum with her at all times.
After finally locating a parking spot, about a football field away from the admin building, Sabine removed her smoking shirt, vigorously applied her lotion, and unwrapped a piece of “splashing mint” Trident just as she thought, “wait, this is a prison facility. I probably shouldn’t bring gum inside. Is that a thing? I don’t know, nobody said.”
Sabine chewed the gum and checked the time. 7:48. She waited until the clock showed 7:50, took out the gum and wrapped the chewed ball in its original wrapping. She texted Raffi: “I’m here. Love you”, and included a heart emoji followed by several kissing emojis.
She did remember that cell phones were strictly prohibited. Get caught bringing one in and most likely — this being her probationary period — Sabine would be fired on the spot. She wasn’t sure about her lunch (which composed of an apple, some almonds and a chocolate protein bar), but she remembered the HR woman told her she could go to her car during break, so Sabine decided to leave it. She checked her eyeliner one last time, removed her pendant and wrapped the chain around the stem of the rearview mirror. She cradled the silver heart in both her hands and kissed it gently.
“Wish me luck.”
She got out of the car, took a deep breath and walked the sun-drenched parking lock to the front door of the admin building.
She walked through the empty vestibule, opened the double doors to the check-in room and was immediately blasted with cold, conditioned air, a stark contrast to the sweltering heat of the parking lot. She recognized the odor of mass-produced food and disinfectant, reminiscent of a hospital cafeteria. Subtle dizziness swept over her, then quickly evaporated. She approached check-in desk behind which sat a hefty, thirty-something woman dressed in her CO uniform, a light blue short-sleeved button shirt, L. Stobnicki written on her name tag.
“Hello, I’m Sabine Beal, the new pharmacy technician?” she said, but in her attempt to harmonize friendliness with professionalism, her introduction came out sounding like a question.
Stobnicki gave Sabine a quick head-to-toe look over. She stood up and as Sabine began writing her name in the ledger, Stobnicki said, “Hey, come with me for a second.”
Sabine could feel her face begin to flush as the CO came around from behind the desk.
“Do you need my I.D.?” Sabine asked, opening her purse.
Stobnicki continued walking towards the double doors.
“Let’s step outside for a minute.” Her tone was polite but stern.
“Oh, okay,” Sabine said, trying to calm her nerves. Am I going to get a pat-down?
Stobnicki held the door open for Sabine. When it closed behind her, the woman took a step forward.
With her voice just above a whisper, her eyes dropped down to Sabine’s chest, then back to Sabine’s eyes, “Are you wearing a bra?”
Taken aback, Sabine had to actually think for a second. She hadn’t worn a bra in somewhere close to 10 years and those were padded push-up bras she only wore when single and going out to the clubs. They didn’t make regular bras small enough for her that weren’t made for training 12-year-olds. And those would bite into her sides and wouldn’t let go.
“I’m wearing, like, a tank bra,” Sabine said, trying to remain calm. You’re not carrying a bomb and she’s not asking you about a bomb. She’s asking you about a bra for some reason.
“Well, this is a men’s prison and you don’t want to be walking around in there like that. Do you have a sweater or a sweatshirt?”
“I have a sweater in the car,” Sabine said just to answer the question. For some reason, she wouldn’t allow herself to be witnessed looking at her own chest. As if to do so would trigger a prank set up for just this occasion and everyone would laugh at her. This woman would laugh and so would all the other invisible viewers behind monitors in rooms containing a jungle of alarm buttons and transmission devices.
“Why don’t you go and get that.”
“Okay,” Sabine said because what else was she supposed to say? She found that her legs had no need for further explanation as they carried out the CO’s orders and carried Sabine out of the vestibule and back into the parking lot.
“I don’t want to be walking around in there like what?” Sabine said out loud and now that she was alone, felt safe enough to find out what all the fuss was about.
“Oh,” she startled herself by what she saw. “The air conditioning. Shit.”
A wave of shame washed over her. Of all the things she was stressing out about, her paperwork, her outfit, her hair, all the stuff she should or shouldn’t bring…she hadn’t given a single thought to her nipples.
Like her shaky hands, Sabine’s nipples seemed to have minds of their own. Normally unnoticeable through most kinds of fabric, if they became stimulated, they woke up wide-eyed and bushy tailed ready for a game of peek-a-boo. And that was fine with her because it never seemed to be not fine for anyone else. Raffi, in his Raffi way, might give them a little playful pinch from time to time, but that was Raffi and that was in the privacy of their own home when Sabine wore only one thin layered tank top. In all her years of customer service jobs, she never once had a boss ask her to put on a bra or a customer utter an inappropriate remark. Unlike some other women she knew, her breasts were not attention grabbers because, quite frankly, there wasn’t much there to grab. Everyone knows that with breasts thar be nipples, for both men and women. Some guys in t-shirts even nip out from time to time. What was the big deal?
But no matter how much Sabine tried to calm herself with rational explanations for her nipple oversite, she couldn’t stem the tide of shame and self-loathing. How could she be so stupid yet again? This isn’t California, it’s New York and it’s not a customer service job at a dumb department store, it’s a state prison for men. Men who murder and rape cute little blondes like her.
The wool cardigan would have been perfect in shielding the perpetrators of Sabine’s shame if it had come with the belt to close it. But alas, when she purchased it for 5 dollars at the thrift store last winter she bought it sans belt. Also, the design of the sweater was such that the bottom hem barely reached her belly button when standing normally. Still, she could hold it closed long enough to appease the likes of L. Stobnicki and safely make the walk to the pharmacy where she’d be spending all her time anyway, Sabine figured. Problem hopefully solved.
On her return through the vestibule, Sabine opened the doors to the sign-in room surprised to see two more Correction Officers. All three now were staring at her with shrewd, appraising eyes. Sabine froze and the silence in the room was palpable. She felt the sweater open like a pair of curtains, revealing the very un-shy twin actors who awaited applause before taking their bows. Sabine remained paralyzed.
Standing with Stobnicki behind the desk was another female CO, this one younger, perhaps in her mid-twenties, petite, with elven features, but if this woman was an elf, she was an elf that had adventured too long in Mordor. She had the hard look of someone who’s seen some shit.
Opposite the desk sat a bald, thick man who looked as much like a corrections officer as Emily Dickinson looked like a hermit cat-lady poet or Willie Nelson looked like a country singer. He was made for the role. When Sabine entered the room, he was leaning in his chair like an old-timey cowboy in a saloon, his legs straight out, the toes of his black boots shooting up towards the ceiling. He sat up and looked ready to stand when the elf woman went around the desk to take a better look at what all there was to see.
The man put his hands on his knees and crouched forward.
“Does that sweater tie closed or anything?” He said in the tone of someone asking a neighbor struggling to start his mower if he’d bothered to check the oil.
“That is so inappropriate,” the elf woman whose name tag read S. Sweeney, said. Her tone was significantly more aggressive than the man. She was glaring at Sabine with such disgust, a pile of shit wrapped with pig intestines would have received more acceptance for its presence in that room.
Mentally, Sabine was checking out. Time for auto-pilot, she seemed to say; I’m going nappy time.
“No,” Sabine heard herself say to the CO in the chair. “But I can do this.” She felt herself grab the corners of the sweater and wrapped them around her upper torso.
The man sighed. “Are you going to walk around all day doing that?”
“If I have to,” Sabine said as Sweeney the evil elf began pacing right in front of her. Sabine snapped back into her body, a sensation that caused her to feel woozy in the guts and wobbly in the knees.
“This is completely inappropriate what you’re wearing,” Sweeney said. “This is a man’s prison.”
“Okay,” Sabine said, feeling a pinch of anger being added to her shame soup. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think about the air conditioning.”
“This isn’t about the air conditioning, this is about you and your inappropriate outfit.”
The man got up.
“Okay,” he said. “Why don’t we umm…” he glanced over to Stobnicki who cleared her throat before saying to Sabine not unkindly: “There’s a dollar store in town and they have stuff you can probably pick up really quickly.”
“Yeah,” the man said. Sabine saw his name was P. McCarthy. “That should do it. Go to the Dollar Store and uh…get what you need and c’mon back.”
“This is so inappropriate,” Sweeney repeated and it suddenly occurred to Sabine that this little elfish woman who could probably take down a couple orcs with her hate-filled gaze alone, should they bust through the door and make things even more surreal than they already were…this woman actually believed that Sabine was doing all this on purpose. That she came to a men’s prison with the intention of seducing COs and any prisoners she might potentially encounter with her small breasts and bullet-sized nipples.
Sabine couldn’t help herself and let out a half-gasp/half-laugh. Like someone had performed the Heimlich maneuver on her and instead of a chunk of food, out sprang a clownfish.
“Sorry,” Sabine said.
“That’s okay,” McCarthy said.
“So inappropriate,” repeated Sweeney. “You’re not going out clubbing with your girlfriends, sweetie, this is a professional atmosphere.”
Sabine wanted nothing more than to grab the bitch by both her ears, pull her face down and send her sprawling backwards from a swift knee to the jaw. And yet, Sabine wanted the same thing to be done to her. This was all her fault, after all. It would have been so easy to find a bra, to wear a bra. If only her car were a time machine.
“Where’s the Dollar Store?” Sabine asked.
“Oh, it’s real simple to get there from here,” Stobnicki said. Her polite kindness juxtaposed to Sweeney’s incredulity added to the dreamlike atmosphere of the entire exchange. “Just go out the same way you came, turn left on Chestnut, go three blocks I think it is and it will be on your right. You can’t miss it.”
“Okay,” Sabine said “I’m so sorry.” She turned to head out the door when it occurred to her to get some more information. “Should I get long sleeves, or..?”
Sweeney barked her reply which echoed dully in the fluorescent-lit room and against the cream-colored concrete walls.
“You need to get yourself a bra.”
Sabine refused to cry during her trek through the parking lot just in case the guys up in the tower had scopes and were checking for tears. Like this was some conspiracy where they all had placed bets on the new girl. Well, Sabine decided she’d be pals with whoever wagered she wouldn’t, and held in the tears, even as they welled up behind her eyes.
She opened the Corolla’s mirrorless door realizing as she did that, she hadn’t locked it.
“What is wrong with you, Sabine?” The tears gushed out even as a wave of panic surged through her. The words of the human resources woman echoed in her mind.
“There are prisoners that work outside sometimes doing landscaping. They’re not supposed to be out in the parking lot, but they’re cons, they’ve been caught doing things they’re not supposed to do.”
Sabine’s panic subsided after finding that everything was still in its place, but the tears continued.
“Lunch. Purse. Smokes. Cell phone. Okay, Sabine, can you just go to the stupid dollar store now without causing the apocalypse.”
She cried as she drove, trying to remember Stobnicki’s simple-enough directions and was nearly half-way through an intersection when she realized she had gone through a stop sign. She slammed on the breaks, launching the contents of her purse and lunch bag which scattered onto the floor, between the seat and who knows where else.
“Could this day get any worse!” Sabine bellowed, followed quickly by: “Don’t answer that. Please. I’m sorry. This is all my fault. Not God’s, not the CO’s, not the HR woman – wait, you know what, it is her fault a little bit. Some information about the dress code would have been nice. No Nipples Allowed. Wear Bra At All Times. Red alert. Warning. No Nipples Allowed.”
Sabine was interrupted by the blaring of a car horn, snapping her back to a reality which had her firmly situated in the middle of a four-way stop intersection.
“Sorry!” Sabine yelled out the closed window making sure not to get a look at the other driver for fear it would be too much for her to handle.
At the Dollar General parking lot, she did her best to pull herself together. Checking herself in the rearview mirror, her face flushed and puffy around the eyes, Sabine decided she couldn’t just go inside a store and participate in anything resembling a normal transaction. In fact, Sabine wasn’t sure she was going to be able to do anything the rest of the day. Momentum had carried her to this place. She parked here to regroup, not to buy anything. Not yet, anyway. She needed a familiar, loving voice. She needed someone to talk to. She needed Raffi.
Her hands were shaking out of control.
“Be still,” she told her hands and took a deep breath. After a quick search around the passenger side floor, she located her pack of smokes and her phone.
Her call to Raffi went straight to voicemail.
“Shit, he’s still in bed. Of course, he is.”
The only other person Sabine could share such a humiliating tale with was her best friend, Mandy, but Mandy lived in California where it was five in the morning.
She took a deep inhale from her cigarette and let it out in a billowing gush that carried her woes out the window to be swept by the humid summer breeze.
“Mom?” She said, and reached for the locket she expected to find nestled against her chest.
A wave of white shock swept over her and her heart froze mid-beat. Then she remembered and sighed in relief and looked at the rearview mirror to see that the locket she had hung around the mirror not even a half-hour ago was gone.
“Stolen,” she said, defeated, resigned, bereft of any more tears. A stillness filled her chest and something shifted in her mind ever so slightly. It was a sensation she felt only once before when she had come to the earnest realization that her mother was going to die for real. That there was nothing anyone could do but accept it.
That’s when it happened.
Sabine heard her mother’s voice. She didn’t hear it in her head, because, she would later explain to Raffi, she was certain, it didn’t come from there. Nor was it a feeling in her chest. She heard her mother’s voice as if her mother were sitting in the back seat as if she had been a witness to this horribly embarrassing display the entire time. And instead of judging her daughter, Sabine’s mom was saying the one thing that always seemed to make everything just a little bit better.
“I’m right behind you, Boo-boo.”
Sabine made no physical reaction to her mother’s voice, other than to smile. She didn’t check the mirror. She didn’t turn around. Since her mother’s death, Sabine had wished on countless occasions that she would be able to hear her mother’s voice or that she would at the very least, come to her in dreams. It had never happened. Until now. Sabine wasn’t going to spoil the moment by wishing for any more than this. So, she just smiled and said what she would always say. “I know, mamma.”
Sabine took her time in the Dollar General. She decided she wasn’t going to worry about the stolen locket or anything else she couldn’t change that had happened that morning. She would buy the bras and some gum and some chocolate. She would go back to the prison, hold her head high and get to work.
Walking with her bag of items, Sabine figured it would be preferable to put on a bra while parked at the Dollar General parking lot, rather than the prison’s. She was also going to chow down on the entire bar of Hershey’s dark chocolate. And maybe give Raffi another call. Or maybe not. The worst was over. She had learned from her mistakes. Her nipples would no longer be a threat to mankind, at least not the ones working and imprisoned at the Bellamy Correctional Facility.
She smiled at her ability to recover from trauma so quickly and as she walked around the front of the Corolla, a shimmer of light flashed from the base of the windshield and caught the corner of her eye. Sabine stopped and lowered her head slightly to see around the light, to find the source of the flash. It was small, and roundish and metallic. It was the heart-shaped locket that contained her mother’s ashes, resting between the windshield and the dashboard.
“But how?” Sabine said aloud, the answer dawning on her even as the words left her mouth.