Dust billows up when Charlie drops the last box on the hand truck. She fans the air, but stifles a cough because Liz is watching her. There’s something about the way Liz’s eyes follow her that makes her feel vulnerable, and that’s never a good way to feel in here.
As a little girl, Charlie always cast herself as the hero in the movie of her life. As an adult, she discovered that reality wasn’t nearly as shiny as it is on the big screen. With a couple of bad decisions and the bang of a gavel, she was officially declared the bad guy. Now, instead of Hollywood sets, she has drab prison grey as a backdrop.
“That’s the last one.” Charlie feels stupid as soon as she says it because there aren’t any boxes left on the shelf marked “CHRISTMAS” and Liz can see that for herself.
“Obviously.” Liz rolls her eyes and flips her hair back. She’s got dark eyeliner swooping out from her eyelids like wings, courtesy of some contraband liquid eyeliner. If Charlie ever tried that, she’d poke her own eye out with the wand and end up with a black smear over the side of her face.
“Come on, Blanca.” Liz walks away, leaving the boxes behind.
Charlie kicks the hand truck forward and then does an awkward fast walk to catch up with Liz. It’s not like they’re friends or anything, but for whatever reason, they were put on this work assignment together and it’s just better if they don’t get separated.
“Hold up,” Charlie yells after chasing Liz for half a block. Liz isn’t even walking fast. She has that “I’m too cool to be bothered” gliding walk that all the Latina girls seem to share, yet she’s always ahead of Charlie.
Liz glares, but stops and waits anyway. “Hurry up.”
When they pass Liz’s block, the Latinas yell and whoop and say things in Spanish that Charlie doesn’t understand. Except lesbiana. She definitely knows that word.
Liz grabs her crotch and lurches her hips forward as she flips them off. They all know Liz isn’t a lesbian, but maybe spending the time with Charlie is a problem for her.
“Sorry,” Charlie mumbles, almost under her breath, and feels stupid because of it. She doesn’t need to apologize for being gay. She never did on the outside. It’s weird—half the women in here are hooking up, but only a handful admit to being anything but completely straight. As far as she knows, though, Liz hasn’t hooked up with anyone.
“Why? It’s not your fault they’re being stupid putas.” Liz’s words are rough, and she doesn’t look at Charlie when she says them. Still, it feels like Liz is defending her, and Charlie likes that.
“Right.” She shakes her head. When she’d arrived, they gave her a list of rules, both written from guards and understood from the other inmates. She’s been trying to sort through them ever since. She’s pretty sure that Liz shouldn’t be calling her people putas, especially not to Charlie, but she’s not going to point it out.
“Whatever. Let’s just get this shit done.”
They don’t talk again until they reach the common area. There’s a card game in the corner and it looks like her friend Mary might be winning. It’s hard to tell because of the way they protect the markers from view. Winnings could just as quickly be confiscated by the guards as collected by the winner.
Other than the card game and a couple women watching TV, the room is empty. Charlie parks the stack of boxes next to the wall, out of the way in case other people come in. Liz opens the top box and pulls out a stack of paper decorations. There’s a menorah, a reindeer, and a picture of a black woman in traditional African robes lighting a candle. The rest of the decorations are for an amalgam of holidays, but the majority is faded red and green.
When she was a kid, Charlie used to dream of decorating for Christmas with fancy decorations that they stored in the attic. Except the apartment her mom rented didn’t have an attic, and her mom thought decorations were a waste of money. The Department of Corrections seems to agree.
“Does it bother you?” Liz holds up a string of paper garland that looks as if a kindergartener glued it together.
Charlie shrugs. “It’s ugly, but I don’t really care. I just want to get this done.” The condition of the decorations doesn’t matter so long as they finish on time.
“No, not that.” Liz tapes the ends of the garland on either side of the window that leads to the observation room where the guards hang out between patrols. The window gives them a clear view of the area while being protected by the grating between the layers of glass. The garland droops pathetically in the middle. “When they call you that, does it bother you?”
“Oh.” Charlie doesn’t know how to answer. She and Liz aren’t friends, yet the question deserves an honest answer. But it’s loaded, the kind of thing that can be used against her. She stares at Liz and tries to figure out her motivation for asking. Liz never looks her way, but picks another sad decoration from the box instead. Charlie decides to go for it. “No, why would it?”
“Because they’re being bitches.”
“Sure, but it’s true.” She shrugged and taped a round decoration to the wall. She thinks maybe it’s supposed to look like a glass ornament for a tree, but she can’t be sure. Not that it really matters. Nothing about these decorations from 1983 is going to make people feel festive, anyway.
“Hmm…since when doesn’t the truth hurt?” Liz says it quietly enough so that Charlie thinks she wasn’t meant to hear, so she doesn’t respond.
Charlie works with an eye on the clock. She’s not sure if she’s allowed to leave at three or if she has to stay until the decorating is done. It’s twenty minutes away, so she works a little faster, just in case.
Liz purposefully blocks her, standing with one hand on her hip and a crooked half-smile on her face. “What’s your hurry, Turbo?”
“Nothing.” Charlie checks the time again. “I just have a thing.”
It’s more than a thing, but she doesn’t like to talk about it because most of the other women in here would think she’s being pretentious. It’s easier to leave it alone.
“A thing?” Liz looks skeptical, but she steps to the side. “What kind of thing?”
This time, Charlie takes the box with her. They’ve cleared three of the five, but she doesn’t want to take the chance that Liz will stop her again. “It’s just…reading.”
That was the simplest explanation. Hopefully, Liz would accept it.
“What’s that even mean? Just reading? You going to the library?”
“No, the visitors’ room.” Charlie pulls about a thousand cotton balls from the bottom of the next box and half of them fall on the floor. What the hell is this mess even supposed to be? She looks closer and sees that they’re glued together in little stacks. Snowmen. Liz stops what she’s doing and helps Charlie pick up the ones from the floor. They spread them over the top of a bookshelf like a tiny snow army. Except that they are gray with age, so it looks more like a dust bunny migration.
“Who goes to the visitors’ room to read? What aren’t you telling me?”
Charlie sighs. She’s not going to get away with not telling Liz the details. “They asked for volunteers in one of my classes.” Her English composition class to be specific, but Liz wouldn’t care about that. “We read letters to Santa.”
“That’s it? You just read the letters? That’s dumb.” Liz went back to the decorations. One more box to go.
“No, we write back.”
“What? Let me understand this. Little Joaquin writes to Santa, asking for a tricycle or whatever shit, and he gets a letter back from an inmate? Ain’t that something? His parents would shit for sure.”
Charlie had thought about that and decided she didn’t care. She likes the idea of Christmas. She especially likes that she might be helping a kid to believe in Santa for just a little longer. If she’d gotten a letter from Santa when she was a kid…well, that would have been something. It would have been better than anything her mom ever gave her, including the time she got the art set with the case that doubled as an easel. That only had two colors of paint missing and half the tablet was unused.
“I like it.” She speaks softly, not really wanting to argue with Liz, but unable to not say something.
“Yeah?” Liz looks at her for a moment, her face blank. Charlie thinks if she’d ever managed to perfect a look like that, she might not have ended up in here in the first place. “How come they didn’t ask the rest of us?”
Charlie hangs up a reindeer. Someone had drawn an oversized penis on the animal and she debates putting it back in the box. She decides the other women will enjoy the artwork, so she leaves it up.
“I don’t know. They said they wanted students.”
“Shit. I could be a student.”
Charlie almost asks Liz if she can read, but stops herself in time. Plenty of the women in here can’t. That doesn’t mean they won’t kick her ass for asking. Instead, she nods and says, “Yes, you could be.”
“That’s right.” Liz nods like she’s decided something important.
“Why don’t you?” There are a few Latinas in her classes, but they are older. None of the girls Liz’s age signed up.
“That’s for punks.” Liz’s answer is immediate, but the look on her face says maybe she doesn’t believe the words.
“Maybe.” Charlie doesn’t agree, but Liz looks like she’s rethinking her answer anyway. Maybe if she gives her some space, Liz will change her mind on her own.
They work in silence for a few moments, then Liz asks, “You learn anything good?”
“I think so.”
“But what’s the point. Nobody gonna hire a convict.” Liz draws out the word “convict” into two hard syllables.
Charlie doesn’t know if that’s true, but that isn’t the point, anyway. “So what? I’m supposed to be dumb because that’s what people think?”
“Nobody thinks you’re dumb.” Liz regards her seriously, then ducks her head. It looks like she might be blushing, but Charlie can’t be sure. She’s a little stunned to hear that Liz thinks about her at all.
“So, these letters…what do they say?”
Charlie considers the letters, how most of them are from spoiled kids asking for toys that don’t really matter. Those kids get a form letter back from Santa. “Most of them are crap. Rich kids telling instead of asking.”
Liz purses her lips together and makes a noise that sounds a little bit like a disappointed sprinkler. “Then why read them?”
“Because, some of them…they’re kids like I used to be. Hoping for something they’ll never get.”
Liz nods, slow and thoughtful. She has the last decoration in her hands and the clock has just reached three o’clock. “Maybe I could read some, too?”
Charlie takes the faded paper Santa from Liz and tapes it to the window. She tries to position it so that it will look like the guard in the chair has a Santa head. She’s pretty sure they’ll make her move it, but she thinks it’s funny anyway. She stacks the empty boxes on the hand truck and says, “We need to hurry, then.”
This time, Liz takes the hand truck from her and pushes it all the way to the storage room. She doesn’t stop to talk to the other Latinas when they pass her block. “Ignore them bitches.”
When they get back to the storeroom, they realize that someone locked it while they were gone. Liz taps her foot impatiently and Charlie smiles because who would ever have thought that Liz would want to read Dear Santa letters from a bunch of five-year-olds. But here she is puffing about being late because some asshole locked them out.
Charlie sees one of the guards who doesn’t give her the creeps and she fast-walks to catch up with him. They’re not supposed to run and the consequences vary depending on the guard’s mood. She thinks this guard might be gay because as far as she knows, he’s never hit on any of the women. Maybe he’s just a decent guy, but she doubts it. Still, she likes that she’s never walked in on him getting a blowjob from one of the inmates.
She finally catches him. Liz rolls her eyes as he searches through his key ring, grumbling the entire time about being interrupted. It takes a long time, but not as long as it would if she or Liz asked him to hurry. He waits until they put everything inside the room and relocks the door. Thank God for that or someone might steal all the busted-ass decorations.
“God, that took forever.” Liz walks fast, and not that sliding, cool gait of hers, either. She looks like she’s in a hurry and that makes Charlie smile again. “Hurry up, Blanca.” Liz checks to make sure Charlie is with her.
“My name is Charlie, not Blanca.” She knows enough Spanish to know what Liz is calling her, but she figures since their bonding over Santa, she’ll take the chance and try to teach Liz her real name.
Liz makes an annoyed face, pursing her mouth and furrowing her brows. “I know your name.”
That surprises Charlie. She’d noticed Liz, of course, but who wouldn’t? Liz looks like an angry, East Los version of Penelope Cruz. But this is the second time Liz has said something to make Charlie think Liz has noticed her. She wants to ask about it but isn’t sure how. Instead, she asks, “Then why do you call me Blanca?”
It’s a stupid question. The Latinas call all the white women Blanca. It’s just the way things are. Liz looks at her sideways, but doesn’t stop walking. They’re almost to the visitors’ room. The look on Liz’s face, as if she thinks Charlie is a special kind of dumb, makes her wish she hadn’t asked.
“Forget I said that.” Charlie shakes her head and hates the way the words come out as an uncertain mumble.
“No, you’re right. I can call you Charlie. Just… bitches will give you shit if I do.”
That sounds backwards to Charlie. She’s pretty sure they’ll give Liz a hard time, not her. “But they won’t say anything to you?”
“Please. Nobody messes with me.” Liz speaks with that false machismo that women develop after a few years inside. Or maybe it’s not false for Liz, but so far it is for Charlie. She’s only been here for six months, so maybe by the time she finishes her two-to-five years the machismo will be real. She hopes not. That overconfident “fuck you all” doesn’t really match the rest of her personality. Still, maybe Liz is right and nobody messes with her. Or maybe she’s decided she’s willing to take it. Either way, Charlie isn’t going to argue.
Charlie shrugs and smiles at Liz. She doesn’t know what else to say and it doesn’t matter anyway. They are at the visitors’ room. She holds the door open and likes the way Liz smiles a little in return.
Liz pauses in the doorway. “Are you sure it’s okay for me to be here?”
Charlie sees the coordinator, a volunteer with a tight bun who likes to be called Mrs. Gregson, and waves at her. Mrs. Gregson nods and starts toward them. “We’re about to find out,” Charlie replies.
Liz twirls her hair and shifts from foot to foot. Charlie almost puts her hand on Liz’s arm to reassure her, but stops short of actual touching.
“Charlotte, it’s good of you to join us today.” Mrs. Gregson always speaks with stilted formality, but she isn’t being snide. She’s glad to see Charlie.
“I brought reinforcements.” This time Charlie does touch Liz, nudging her forward. “This is my friend Liz.”
She feels Liz tense at the word “friend,” but Charlie doesn’t elaborate. It’s an introduction Mrs. Gregson will understand.
“That’s lovely, dear. Nice to meet you, Liz. Is that short for Elizabeth?”
Liz nods and shakes Mrs. Gregson’s hand and even chokes out a “Nice to meet you, too.”
Charlie leads Liz to an empty table with a box of letters on it. Next to the box is a stack of form response letters, some blank paper with North Pole letterhead, a cup of pens, and a box of envelopes.
“We just pick one and go for it?” Liz grabs the top letter and sits down. She looks a little skeptical.
“Sure.” Charlie selects her own letter and pulls it out to show Liz. It’s pretty standard, some kid asking for expensive toys. “When they’re like this, I just send back a form letter.”
She tri-folds the letter and stuffs it in the envelope. They have to handwrite the address on the front, but she enjoys the practice. Her letters are still a little bumpy. She hopes the kids believe it was written by an elf or something.
“What’s this other paper for?”
“In case you read one you want to write back to.”
“Not very often.”
Liz opens a handful of letters. All of them get a form letter in return.
They work for an hour before Charlie reads one that makes her want to cry. It’s from a little girl whose brother is sick. Her dad died last winter and her mom said they might have to move in with her aunt soon. She doesn’t ask for anything, but wishes Santa a Merry Christmas and hopes her brother gets better soon.
She offers the letter to Liz. “Read this one.”
While Liz is reading, Charlie thinks about what she wants to say. If she were the real Santa, she’d take the toys those other brats ask for and give them all to this kid and her brother.
“What are you going to tell her?”
Charlie shrugs. “I dunno. I’ll thank her for writing and tell her that Santa loves her. And maybe tell her to give her mom and her brother a hug.”
It wasn’t much different from the form letter, but Charlie felt good about writing the words herself, like maybe the kid will think it’s more special this way. She shows it to Liz when she’s finished, something she’s never done before. If Mrs. Gregson is ever near her when she comes across a letter like that, she shuffles it to the bottom of the pile until Mrs. Gregson leaves. Yet she feels okay letting Liz read what she wrote.
Liz hands it back. “Everyone thinks you’re smart.”
Charlie signs the letter “Santa” with big letters, like she imagines a man responsible for the happiness of all the children in the world would do, then folds it carefully and puts it in the envelope.
When she finishes, she notices Liz is still looking at her. She doesn’t know why Liz said that about her being smart, but apparently she wants a response. “What? They only think that because I’m quiet.”
“Is that why you really wanted to do this? Because you’re still learning?”
“Oh, that.” Charlie tried very hard to form her letters properly. What gave her away? “Yeah, I like the practice, but that’s not why I’m doing this.”
“It just makes me feel good.” She watches Liz, expecting her to scoff or roll her eyes, which is what she would do if any of her friends were here.
Instead Liz smiles and says, “Yeah, me too.”
Their hands touch when they reach into the box at the same time. It feels nice, but Charlie pulls away.
“Why don’t you have a girlfriend?” Liz doesn’t look up from her letter.
“I do. Or, at least I did.” Charlie’s girlfriend, Amanda, hasn’t been to see her in six weeks. They haven’t talked on the phone in three. How long before she should officially move Amanda into the “ex” category?
“What’s that even mean?” Liz asks.
“We’re not communicating very well these days.” Charlie doubts Liz cares about Amanda.
“She giving you a hard time? Want me to talk to her for you?” Liz asks with a straight face and Charlie thinks it’s adorable. She can almost picture Liz walking up the steps to Amanda’s house, her entire gang of fiercely made-up Latina girlfriends behind her.
Charlie shakes her head, forces herself not to smile. “She’s not answering my calls. Doubt she’ll answer yours.”
“Oh, she’s on the outside?”
“That’s no excuse. Bitch is crazy to not treat you right. You should dump her.”
“Maybe I will.” She’s been planning to do just that for over a week, but can’t do anything until Amanda picks up the phone.
“Then what? Got someone new lined up?”
Charlie almost asks if Liz is volunteering, but doesn’t because she’s afraid of the answer. She kinda wants her to say yes and would be sad if she said no. On the other hand, she’s terrified of what it would mean if she did say yes. Relationships are hard enough without prison rules to navigate.
“What about you?” Charlie changes the subject instead of answering.
Liz pauses long enough to grab a new letter. They’re making good progress, the two of them. “My boyfriend,” she shrugs slowly, “he’s okay, ya know? But he…he’s not a long-term thing.”
“I’m sorry.” She’s really glad that she didn’t make the crack about Liz volunteering to be her girlfriend. As a general rule, she doesn’t play with straight girls. It’s just too complicated.
“Don’t be. I just got him to get my mom off my back. She thinks if I don’t have a man, I must be gay.”
“Are you?” Charlie ducks her head and looks around to see if anyone else is listening. Liz is being cool, but if anything is going to get her popped in the mouth, that question will do it.
“I dunno. Maybe. But you can’t tell nobody that.”
Charlie sits up straight, squirming a little. “So, why tell me?”
Liz shrugs one shoulder, shakes her head, and bites her bottom lip. She’s definitely flirting. Charlie is almost sure of it. She feels her face flush with heat, so she looks at the letter in her hands and clamps her mouth shut to keep herself from saying something stupid.
“All right, everyone. That’s time for today. Bring your addressed envelopes up here.” Mrs. Gregson’s cheerful announcement breaks whatever moment that’s building between her and Liz. Charlie’s pretty sure it’s a good thing, but she’s a little sad they didn’t get to finish the conversation.
Liz walks to the front with her, their shoulders touching occasionally. Charlie apologizes the first time because it’s not polite to bump into people. By the third time, she figures it’s on purpose, so she just smiles and watches Liz from the corner of her eye.
They drop their letters into the outgoing box and Mrs. Gregson asks if they’ll be back the next day. Charlie glances at Liz when she says, “I will be.”
When Liz agrees she’ll come again, too, Charlie’s stomach does a giddy, flip-flop butterfly thing. She ducks her head and tries not to smile, but she can’t help herself.
As they’re walking back to the cellblocks, Liz says, “It’s movie night.” She leaves the statement open, as if there will be more words to follow that don’t quite make it out of her mouth.
Charlie nods. She doesn’t always go to movie night. Yes, it’s something to do, but it’s crowded and not everyone showers regularly. She likes to practice her reading in her bunk instead.
“Are you going?” Liz asks.
“I don’t know. You?”
“’Course. I could save you a seat. If you want.”
Charlie can’t imagine sitting with Liz. One white girl in the middle of the Latinas would cause people to talk. “Really?”
“Yeah, like in the back, away from the others. You know?” Liz’s shoulder touches hers again.
Charlie stops walking completely. She wants to look at Liz, to make sure she understands what’s happening. “Serious?”
Liz chews her lip again. “If you want.”
She wants. She had no idea how much she wanted until right this very minute, but she definitely wants.
“Great.” Liz smiles. It’s not the first time Charlie’s seen that happen but it feels like it. She almost takes Liz’s hand, then remembers where they are and how they’re not allowed to touch.
When they reach Liz’s block, she turns off without really saying anything, but she’s still smiling. Charlie realizes her cheeks ache because she’s been smiling, too. She rubs her face as she passes the common area. The decorations look a little brighter now.
She touches the Santa head as she passes by on the way to her own cellblock. Maybe she’s the bad guy instead of the good guy, like she always wanted to be, but maybe that’s okay. Maybe she and Liz can be bad guys together for a while.