Ruby on the Outside, p.1Nora Raleigh Baskin
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because I followed her out of class,
in the early fall of 1979,
our freshman year at SUNY Purchase,
asked her if she wanted to be my friend,
and she said yes
Thank you to Charles Grodin for putting me in touch with Sister Tesa of Hour Children and for first making me aware of the serious issues facing incarcerated women today.
Thank you, Sister Tesa.
I couldn’t have asked for more honest, intelligent, insightful, authentic, and generous voices than I got from Anthony Bautista, Kiki Leonard, Jeaniah Williams, and Theresa Warren. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Huge gratitude to Kellie Phelan, who answered my endless questions and inquiries up until the very end of this writing process.
To Jenifer McShane, for making the very important documentary film, The Mothers of Bedford, and for her artistic encouragement.
To Emani Davis for spending time with me, sharing her life, and introducing me to the book, All Alone in the World.
To Alessandra Rose, who gets things done, and got me into the Bedford Hills Facility, which is no easy task.
To Rick Downey, supervisor of Volunteer Services at Bedford Hills for answering all my questions on the “inside.”
To Nancy Gallt, Marietta Zacker, and to Kristin Ostby, and to everyone at S&S for believing in me and continuing to make my dream come true.
And as always and forever, to Steve, Sam, and Ben, with love.
Note: Any mistakes regarding the Bedford Hills Women’s Correctional Facilities are mine alone.
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 v
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.
No one in my whole fifth grade knows about my mother. I’ve kept that a secret and it hasn’t always, or ever, been easy to do. There are so many things they tell you to ask your mother about when you are in school. I know they mean “either of your parents, or grandparents, or legal guardian” but most people, teachers included, just reduce that mouthful to “your mom.”
Get your mom to sign this.
Ask your mother’s permission.
Did you mother buy that for you?
Does your mother know you are eating that?
When people hear about Matoo they sometimes think I am Native American or African, which I can understand since that’s what her name kind of sounds like. But it’s nothing that interesting.
It’s just Ma T-o-o. Or, more accurately, Ma T-w-o.
Like not my real mom, but my second mom.
“Mom Two” just sort of morphed into Matoo when I was starting school and it stuck because if I called her Aunt Barbara, or Aunt Bobbie, people always wanted to know where my mother was. But if I called her Matoo, they were confused enough not to ask.
I’ve learned not to invite questions if I possibly can help it. So if someone wants to think I am a one-eighth descendant of the Iroquois tribe or from a long-lost Egyptian dynasty, I let them. It helps that I have long dark hair and brown eyes. But there is a girl who hangs out at the pool here who really does look like an Egyptian princess. I’ve seen her now two days in a row.
“Oh, that’s Margalit something or other. They just moved to those units by the front entrance. You don’t know her?” Kristin tells me. We are lying on our stomachs, on towels stretched out on the concrete by the pool. It is still a week before the end of school but summer is definitely here already.
Kristin was my friend from Mt. Kisco Elementary, but she is more like my condo friend because we aren’t in any classes together at school. All the years I’ve been living here, from first to fifth grade, we never once ended up with the same teacher.
But Kristin and I come to the pool every sunny day after school when the weather is warm, and most cloudy ones too.
“No, I never saw her before,” I say, but, of course, I had seen her.
Yesterday. I couldn’t stop watching her. Kristin wasn’t here yesterday. She was visiting her grandmother in Brewster, but Matoo and I were here. It was Saturday and boiling out even though it’s only June, and the pool was packed but there was this girl. She was alone. The whole time I watched her, I didn’t see her talking to anyone, not any other kid, not any parent or grown-up. But she didn’t seem concerned with that at all. It’s hard to say why, but I could just tell she seemed very comfortable being alone.
And that kind of intrigued me.
I watched her sitting on her towel in the grassy area reading a book. She was wearing a one-piece purple bathing suit with a green diagonal stripe from her shoulder to her hip. I couldn’t see what she was reading, even though I tried to walk by on my way to the concession stand and get a peek. Whatever it was, it must have been good. She rarely pulled her gaze away from the pages.
And it was also kind of interesting the way she got into the pool, swam around a little, like she didn’t care if anyone knew she was there or not, got out again, and just walked back to her spot without wrapping a towel around her waist like a skirt. Lately, I feel naked when I get out of the water, like I have hide myself or at the very least, I walk really fast to get back to my spot and sit down. But this girl just strolled slowly like she wasn’t worried about being seen or being seen not looking perfect, which made her look, well, look perfect.
But today, she is just reading a book and she hasn’t gotten up once. I can only watch her from across the pool and wonder what she’s really like.
“Margalit’s a weirdo, so you’re better off not knowing her,” Kristin says.
I don’t know where Kristin is getting her information, so I take it with a grain of salt, an expression Matoo uses.
“Ruby, you’re not even hearing me.”
Kristin is annoyed with me. “I was saying that Margalit’s a weirdo, so you’re better off not knowing her,” Kristin tells me.
“Oh, sorry. I am listening. What did you say?”
But I’m not really that sorry, because a lot of the time Kristin is annoyed with me, which was another reason we probably weren’t such good at-school friends. When Kristin had other choices, she usually chose someone else. But to tell the truth that was fine with me. Kristin was a little too close to my home life for comfort. I liked to keep school and home as far apart as I could.
On the other hand, Kristin is going away all summer to camp and I’ll be all alone here. To top it off, this September I will be going into Fox Run Middle School and without a best friend, someone I can trust, well, I just have a bad feeling about it.
“I mean, just look at her. Don’t even bother,” Kristin says. “She’s different.”
Now I am really intrigued.
I’ve never intentionally missed a visit to see my mother. That’s not to say there haven’t been weekends we didn’t get to go. Weeks we didn’t get to go, or couldn’t go, or someone was sick, or the car was not working, or there was a lockdown at Bedford Hills and we waited for hours and never got inside.
When she first went to jail, before her trial, before she got sent to Bedford Hills and we were still living up near Saratoga somewhere, I didn’t see my mom for eight months. But since then I’ve never willingly turned down a chance to visit my mom, until just now.
“I’m just thinking I can’t go with you this time, Matoo,” I am saying, but even as the words are coming out of my mouth I am regretting them. I feel bad already.
But I have to stay home today, because I know Kristin is going away again—she calls it a “play-date” which seems to be another mothery-type expression that never made its way into our house. And I am hoping that while Kristin is away, that girl Margalit will be at the pool and I’ll get a chance to meet her.
“Well, it’s visiting day and I’m just thinking you are going to come.” Matoo is wiping out the top shelf of the fridge with a paper towel.
I am standing at the doorway to the kitchen watching her, and now I am really thinking hard. The air conditioner kicks on and the hum is like my brain working. I know I could just tell my mom the truth.
I can always tell my mom the truth.
And the truth is I’ve never had a real friend. A best friend, not just a condo friend. I think, partly it’s because of my secret-keeping. I think the thing about having a best friend is that you don’t have any secrets, at least not from each other. Most girls I know, and even boys I know, have one really, really important friend that rises above all the others who are just regular friends. It’s the kid who always comes over after school. Sometimes they even have special sayings together. The boys make up crazy handshakes. The girls do each other’s hair or dress alike on prearranged days and then act like it was just a coincidence because they are such good friends. There are two girls in my school who call each other “twins” even though they look nothing alike. They aren’t even sisters.
Ruby on the Outside by Nora Raleigh Baskin / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes