by Ross Ulbricht
I awoke in the fetal position with the sheet wrapped tight around me. My hip bone was sore where it pressed through the thin mattress to the metal bunk, but it wasn’t that — nor the ever-present fluorescent light — that woke me. The top of the mattress where my head laid at an awkward tilt was soaked through with icy water.
That cold — colder than the air I could not escape from — alerted my stupefied mind that something was wrong. I sat up and looked at the window that served as a headboard. It was dark outside, that much I could tell. Even if the window wasn’t frosted, there was so much condensation on the glass and bars that I couldn’t see out anyway. The water had pooled on the sill and run under the mattress.
I folded the mattress in half, too numb to be exasperated, and mopped the water with my already damp towel. Then, I sat on the folded mattress and wrapped myself again in my sheet as my eyes got used to being open.
The walls, floor and ceiling were grimy gray concrete, enclosing a space 8x10x8ft, a perfect man-made prism of straight lines and right angles. But etched on the walls, was all manner of chaos: gang names and numbers, neighborhoods and area codes, lewd sketches, threats, hate, and desperation. I had seen those artifacts of past inhabitants so many times, their meanings no longer registered.
From where I was perched on the top bunk, I could see the small stainless steel toilet and sink reflecting the too-bright fluorescent light mounted in the center of the ceiling. Strung across the opposite wall was a clothes line, a strip of sheet with a pair of bright orange pants and a bright orange rag draped across it. One end was tied to a stainless peg. The other was tied to a plastic spork that was jammed between the door frame and the heavy metal door that took up most of the far wall.
Looking at the door, I felt its weight upon me. The walls were different, inanimate. They could offer no relief even if they wanted to. But the door was my captor. It stood there — indifferent to my longings, my frustration and fear — unmoving, closed.
“You awake?” I said, and my voice caught up in my throat. I could see my breath.
“Yeah,” came the reply from below, from the bottom bunk.
“The damn condensation soaked through again.”
“It’s dripping down the wall down here.” My cellmate’s voice was low. He did not seem interested in talking, but he did not seem interested in not talking either.
“You know what time it is?” I asked.
“They brought the pill cart around about an hour ago, but I don’t think they’ve done the count yet.”
I held my head in my hands and began to doze again. How long had I been in this prison cell? Had it been three months yet? As a free man, my domain was limited only by my conscience and the laws of physics. I could go anywhere, do anything. A vision came to me of that time we hiked through the redwoods north of San Francisco. I could see for miles all around from the bluff we climbed. And that night, around the campfire, the stars went on forever, dimming into the ink of infinite space.
I was a non-violent, first-time drug offender, but I was given life without parole anyway. My life, my world, my space became very small that day I was sentenced. No longer the laws of Nature but the laws of man defined my domain. And now I was in the Hole: the prison within the prison. After months in here, it was easy to imagine there was nothing else. I was in a box, just drifting through emptiness.
The space of my outer experience was reduced to the bare minimum and stayed that way long enough that it no longer held my attention. Like the faint noises that can only be heard when all other noises die down, the inner space of my own mind took on great significance.
Memories and fantasies were far more vivid than anything my naked senses could perceive. The subtle stirring of my breath and the feelings of movement within me felt like great waves of experience. Every success, failure and missed opportunity I had ever had played itself out in the theater of my mind, that space where even Nature’s laws are not absolute. Alternate endings to those episodes and entirely new ones came from some as yet untapped creative spring. All I had to do was let myself be swept up in it.
I was back in Costa Rica where my father lived, surrounded by jungle, beaches and ocean. The salty air was fresh and full of life, the spring water a vital elixir. My wife was there, sitting next to me in the sand, and a little boy toddled up to us holding out a seashell. He looked like us. It was the son I never had, the family and life I never had. I held them both close to me, warm and soft, and listened to the waves crash on the beach.
“Hey cellie,” I heard from below and snapped back from my reverie. “Turn around. I got to sit on the pot.”
Physical space, no matter how unwanted always found a way to reassert itself.