Queen B’s real name is Bianca. But she likes to be called Queen B, and so that is what I call her. Queen B has a wife who is a lesbian stud and who likes to be referred to as “he.” Queen B calls him her wife. I do not know his name. What I learned yesterday, though, is that he is jealous because Queen B and I write to each other. In fact, he got so jealous that he broke up with Queen B, the devastation of which caused Queen B to start cutting her arms again. The break up and the cutting happened a few weeks ago, but I just found out about them yesterday, and not from Queen B who continued to write to me cheery and meaningful letters even though she was cutting herself again.
I found out about the jealousy, the break up, and the cutting from a letter I received from Linda. I do not know a Linda. Linda got my address from Queen B’s wife, who somehow managed to get a hold of one of the envelopes I sent Queen B that had my name and address on it. I’m not quite sure how this happened, as I believe Queen B is in solitary confinement. (Which, if that’s true, then I don’t know how she’s dating another prisoner if she’s not even allowed to come out of her cell. I have yet to ask Queen B for clarification on this matter). Along with all of these felon lesbian drama updates, Linda also told me that the “flix” Queen B sent to me were not pictures of herself, but were really pictures of Queen B’s sister. Linda also asked me if I wanted to have sex with her when she gets out of jail in a few months. Do you want to be my girlfriend? She asked me. Until I received her letter yesterday, I had no idea this woman existed.
In fact, I have never even met any of these women. But here I am caught up in lesbian drama going down between three black women in a high-security prison in Texas. And here I—a white woman who has no run-ins with the law other than a speeding ticket from ten years ago that is now off of my record—sit at a coffee shop in Denver wondering if Queen B’s real name is not Bianca, but Anastatia as Linda said it was. I don’t know how much I can trust this Linda chick, though, because in the part of the letter where she told me that Bianca’s name was really Anastatia, the handwriting was so completely different that it was obvious someone else wrote that sentence. Weird.
Both Linda and Queen B/Bianca/Anastatia call me “Ma.” I do not know what this means, nor what the connotations of it are.
I don’t know why I did it, but I did it. Perhaps it was about a comment my aunt said to me last year. I sent her a draft of an essay I was writing about the multiple types of fucked-up-ness in our family, and she immediately wrote me an email in response to the essay saying she thought it was very offensive. Offensive because it shed an ugly light on the family. I think our family has many ugly lights to it, so why not just state them and bring some sort of beauty to the pain/ugliness by writing about them? My aunt did not agree with this perspective. She told me to “keep those thoughts in your journal,” and that I should put my writing talent to do something good for the world. “Write about starving children” she wrote, then went into a three-paragraph rant about all of the starving children in the world.
That was a year ago. A month ago I sat in front of my computer writing about god knows what, but something that most likely showed the multiple types of fucked-up-ness of my family, and I randomly got the urge to do some sort of volunteering for something. I was currently unemployed, and so while I searched for a job I spent all of my free time writing. Am I being selfish? I asked myself as I looked up from my computer to stare out of a window for a brief moment, pushing this question into the air as if I were asking some god I do not believe in if it was fine that I wrote twelve hours a day instead of using that time to look for a job. I had just moved to Denver, and all of the (passive) job searching I was doing was centered on getting a job with a non-profit (because I should, you know, put my MA in Women’s Studies to use). I knew nothing about the non-profits in Denver, so I thought that if I started volunteering somewhere—perhaps teaching youth how to write, or writing bits of essays for some organization’s website—I would soon learn what rad non-profits were hiring.
And then an idea entered into my head. I should write a prisoner. That could be a neat way to put my writing to good use. Because while I disagreed with everything my aunt said to me in her spiteful letter last year, somewhere lodged inside of my head was the idea that I should use my writing for some good—to not totally feel selfish, you know?
Plus, I like communicating with people through letters, because I’m better with my words when I write, and I believe that writing people letters gives the recipient a chance to work on her own writing. Entering into the endless maze of Google searches I looked at the numerous websites that provided information on how to start writing an inmate. There were hundreds of inmates out there advertising themselves on these websites in hopes of getting a response.
How to choose?
I decided to write someone who might be ostracized in the jail. My first thought was to write a transgender prisoner, but then I decided to ditch that idea—mostly because I do not identify as transgender, so I did not know what all I could say, could offer.
I decided to write a woman (the MA in Women’s Studies influence) then narrowed my search to a bisexual woman, because I was recently bisexual. From lesbian to married a man just a few months ago, I figured I could use some good lesbian folk to relate to. These two criteria narrowed the search significantly, but there was still a huge list of inmates to scroll through. I decided to write someone who would be in prison for a long time, reasoning that she might feel hopeless, sad, and disconnected from the world with the fact that she has so many years left in prison looming in front of her. And finally, I decided to write someone who was in solitary confinement because, shit, that might be the loneliest of lonely people in the world.
A few names remained on the list, and I picked the one at the bottom, a woman named Bianca, who was in a Texas jail. I lived in Texas for ten years. So looky there, a connection already! Also, I wanted to set up a boundary between my inmate pen pal and I so that when she did get out in six years she wouldn’t be able to come looking for me if I would be living states away. After all, I had no idea what would become of this pen pal relationship. If something turned sour, I didn’t want to be living down the street from her. She was, after all, a felon. I also chose Bianca, because she liked to be called Queen B, and I liked that.
I wrote a letter right then. I slipped it and a SASE into an envelope and mailed it off, not even certain it would ever reach her or even be read by anybody.
Perhaps I did this for myself, to—in a selfish way—feel as if I was contributing to the world, that my writing actually has a purpose. Perhaps I did it to see what would happen, to create another situation in my life I could write an essay about—like how I asked to see my father’s ashes, and then memorized each word my mother said as we pulled them out of her basement in order to be able to include them in an essay I would write later on that night. Or perhaps a part of me was lonely in this new city and wanted to make a friend.
A month later the SASE sat in my mailbox. She wrote me back. She had questions, of course. She was unsure as to why this stranger was even writing to her. What did this white woman want?
There is something about how she says she needs to be able to trust me, to know that I’m not going to bounce after she opens up to me that makes me want to write to her more. Because this makes so much sense, this statement about not getting wrapped up in letter-writing-relationship if I’m just going to stop writing her one day. I’m appreciative of her honesty. I can see her hesitation. Why get emotionally involved with someone who might stop writing? I promise her, give her my word that I am here and that I’m not going anywhere.
Her handwriting is beautiful, though some of the words loop into each other. There are bits of bubbly letters I cannot decipher. She must have pushed her blue pen quite hard into the paper as she wrote, because the words make indents on the back of the page. Words raised, I touch them and feel like I’m reading something in Braille.
Being in jail is the best thing that has ever happened to me.
She writes this to me in her first letter.
Huh?!? My initial reaction. Then she explains.
It taught me the value of life and made me appreciate my freedom.
She mentions she was in a gang, but doesn’t tell me what she’s in jail for. I do not ask. She tells me to listen to the rapper Z-RO, because that music feels like her life. I do.
She is a poet. The writing keeps her going, keeps her alive. I feel the same. We write.
I send her Audre Lorde. Sister Outsider. She tells me which black gangster fiction I have to read. I send her some of my own essays. She tells me about her favorite rapper and how a Justin Bieber song reminds her of me. I send her pictures of myself and those close to me. She asks for stamps, legal pads, and envelopes so she can use them to write to me, as well as to sell them to her fellow inmates for some cash. I do not know what she needs money for, what it is she can even purchase in jail. I do not ask. I send her the requested material. I tell her about my alcoholism and bipolar disorder. She tells me about her bipolar disorder and her previous addiction to ecstasy. We talk about tattoos. We talk about our love for the word “resilience.”
Same shit different day.
She argues with her wife, trying to figure out how to live without her. The guards are disrespectful, and she is bored.
We all need something to believe in/someone to believe in us.
She trusts I will not leave her, or rather that I will not stop writing to her.
What’s life without a challenge?
She has challenged herself to change, to learn something from this experience, to one day get out and re-create a life that is not full of crime.
For me prison was the best thing that happened for me.
I am speechless.
Opinions are like assholes, everybody has one.
Reading is my escape, poetry is my passion.
I hope that if you gonna be around you gonna stay around.
Her last letter arrived on March 8, 2013. It came to my mailbox the day after I got the letter from that stranger chick Linda—the one filled with the prison lesbian drama gossip, the one in which she asked me if I wanted to have sex and be her girlfriend. Queen B’s last letter mentioned something about how another inmate was going to write me, and that I just shouldn’t write that inmate back, that I should ignore her letter. I listen to what Queen B says, and when I write her back I ask her what’s going on with the cutting. Why didn’t you tell me?
It’s been two months since I got that last letter from Queen B. She stopped writing me. I do not know why. Embarrassed/guilty about the cutting? Angry that I called her out on it? Or are the guards being assholes and confiscating her letters for the hell of it?
is she dead?
A valid question. It’s odd to be in a relationship with someone whom you will not know if the reason why she is not writing to you is because she has died.
I have been antsy these past two months to know what is going on with Queen B. What’s happening with all of the lesbian drama?!? Who said what and who did what and what are you doing about it all? My mind explodes with questions that might forever go unanswered. Each day I dutifully, anxiously check my mail, hoping that a SASE with my handwriting on it will be waiting for me.
There never is.
Perhaps, then, the lesbian drama ended in death.
This, I will never know.
Chelsey Clammer received her MA in Women’s Studies from Loyola University Chicago. She has been published in The Rumpus, Atticus Review, The Coachella Review and Make/shift among many others. She received the Nonfiction Editor’s Pick Award 2012 from both Revolution House and Cobalt, as well as a Pushcart Prize nomination. Clammer is a weekly columnist for The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, as well as the assistant nonfiction editor for both Eckleburg and The Dying Goose. Her first collection of essays, There is Nothing Else to See Here will be published by Thumbnail Press in Fall 2013. You can read more of her writing at: www.chelseyclammer.com.