Ruby on the Outside
It’s all she’s known her whole life, Matoo explains to her friends on the phone when she thinks I can’t hear her. “Ruby doesn’t remember anything different, so for her it’s normal,” she says about me.
But Matoo is wrong.
My dog, Loulou, might not know what it’s like to walk off a leash, to walk free and choose where she wants to stop and smell and when she’s done, and then decide for herself to mosey over to the next interesting spot and sniff, or not. She might not have any memory of running around outside without a collar around her neck. But that doesn’t mean she likes it this way.
You can not know any better and still know you don’t like something.
“C’mon, both of you,” Matoo says to me and Loulou. “We’ve got to get back inside. It’s so hot out here and I should start dinner.”
I hate to do it, but I tug on Loulou’s collar so she knows it’s time to go in. She lifts her head and looks at me, because I am the one holding the other end of this leash. I am the one who can make her come when I want to, and she knows it. I’ll never know what she’s really thinking or what she smells in the grass, or those leaves, or the side of the building, but I can tell she doesn’t want to go inside yet and I feel guilty making her.
Except it is hot out here, I do agree. And I am pretty hungry, come to think of it, so I give her little yank.
Loulou is straining her head toward some tuft of grass, locking her hind legs and gripping her claws into the ground so she can get one last, good inhale.
“Let’s go, Loulou. There’s nothing there,” I say.
Nothing that I can see anyway.
But just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there. And just because you don’t remember something doesn’t mean you don’t miss it. And just because you are used to something doesn’t mean it’s normal. So I give Loulou a little more time to sniff around and I know she appreciates it.
When I was little, I didn’t understand. Every time we visited my mother in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, I expected she was coming home with us.
“Not this time,” my mother said. “But I’ll be home soon. I promise. Soon.”
So, I thought, next time. Next time is long enough to be soon. But each time, my mother said again, “Not yet. Not this time, sweetheart. But soon, I promise. Don’t forget I love you. I will always be here for you. I will always be your mother.”
I didn’t know why she was saying that. Of course she was my mother. I just wanted her to come home already.
So maybe this visit was “soon” or maybe this was the time we would all walk out together. If not this week, then next, or the next. Or the next. After a while, Matoo started warning me before we even got inside, but I still didn’t get it. We pulled into the parking lot, which looked pretty much like any other parking lot—if you didn’t look up at the barbed wire—like a parking lot at the A&P and the one at the Petco and the one at the Home Depot.
Matoo said, “Ruby, Don’t keep asking your mother when she’s coming home. It’s not nice.”
I didn’t understand.
How can wanting your mother to come home be not nice?
I wanted to hurry inside but a long line was forming by the visitors’ trailer. My heart started beating faster, which is something my heart does whenever I am anxious about something, and right then, I was in a hurry about to get inside to see my mother. I tried reasoning with my own thoughts, to calm me down. Talking to myself.
It’s okay. The line will move. No matter how long it takes. You will get to the front. No one will stop you from seeing your mom. And no matter how long it takes, she’ll be waiting for you.
So my mind was talking, but my body did something totally on its own accord as if it was not listening at all. My heart started pounding harder. And then it was hard to breathe. The harder it was to breathe, the more my heart started to worry and beat faster, until finally I was wheezing and barely sucking in air, and my chest hurt. I reached up and took Matoo’s hand, and at the same time, I willed my heart to slow and slowly the air made its way back into my lungs.
Finally, Matoo and I made it to the front of the line and inside the trailer, where there were seats, and even some old toys and books and all these posters on the walls with all sorts of encouraging sayings. Of course, I didn’t call her Matoo back then. She was still Aunt Barbara. The line of people moved a little faster in here, and finally we made it inside.
We put all our belongings in a locker, showed our IDs. But we still had to go through all the security: the metal detectors, the wand search, the hand stamp, the gated doors, the big black bars, the hand stamp check, the sign-in, more bars, and finally we got to the visitors’ room where we were assigned to a table.
That was hardest part. Waiting. Waiting again, with my heart threatening to start pounding again and my feet jittering. Sitting at our table with the big number twenty-eight marked on the top, watching everyone around us talking, laughing, hugging their mom, or sister, or daughter, while I was still waiting.
Matoo started to say something. “Ruby—”
She was going to warn me again. To be nice. Not to keep asking my mother when she was coming home.
“I know. I know,” I said, because I wasn’t listening to her. Because I had a plan.
“That’s rude, Ruby. I am talking to you,” Matoo said.
I sat up straight and listened, all the while going over my strategy silently in my head. I might have only been five or six at the time, but I was getting very good at living inside and outside my head at the same time.
Matoo was talking, but I could see the correctional officer sitting at her desk, way high up, at the front of the long visitors’ room.
Some kids from a long time ago must have drawn that colorful picture they have covering her really tall desk, so the picture looked all friendly, but that woman sitting there was the boss of this room and everyone in it. She was the one who told everyone where to sit. And she was the one who asked people to leave when they were getting too loud or fighting. She was the one who told people when their time was up because other visitors needed to come in. And everyone did what she said, so I knew she was most certainly the one to ask.
She was the key player in my plan.
“Are you sure you are listening to me, Ruby?” Matoo went on.
I nodded. I folded my hands the way they taught me in kindergarten and waited.
I don’t actually remember much of that visit except for the very end, when it was time to leave and my mother got that sad look on her face and I got that horrible stomachache. We had moved from the table into the children’s center by that time—a little area that looks just like a nursery school, separated from the rest of the visitors’ room by a wall of windows. Just before we were about to leave, I jumped up, pulled open the doors, and headed right for the big, tall platform where the officer in charge was sitting. Sometimes she came down from her post and walked around, but right then, she was sitting at her desk working on something, something I couldn’t see because it was too tall. And she looked down at me.
“Please,” I said. “Please, can I take my mommy home with me today? Please, I know it’s been soon.”
I talked as fast as I could, before Matoo could catch up to me, before anyone could stop me.
I went on, “I know because every time we come here, it’s sooner, and now I want to take my mommy home with me. Please, can you tell my mommy it’s soon now? Please, can you let my mommy come home with me today?”
“Whose child is this?” the correctional officer said. She looked as sad I was.
“Please, please,” I cried. “I really want my mommy.”
Then Matoo was there, pulling me back, trying to tell me something I couldn’t understand. She was right next to me, but my mother was not. My mother stayed back at the table, because she wasn’t allowed this close to the exit door. It was like there was something keeping her away from me, something invisible that only she could see. But just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Because there was something about that place that made you just know that someone could stop you from doing whatever it was you were doing, at any moment, for any reason whatsoever. In this place, you couldn’t go where you wanted to go. And you couldn’t be where you wanted to be, until finally you stopped thinking it was possible.
But that didn’t mean you liked it.