Posts Tagged ‘Texas’

Stuff I wrote in Texas

He drinks his tea black. No lemon. No milk.

“No milk?” I ask and he tells me they don’t get real milk here. It’s only the powdered stuff. I remember seeing powdered milk at breakfast too. Texas lets me down, yet again.

Here I am, in this big room. And I’m just thinking. Thinking, thinking, thinking.

Thinking about America, with it’s rules and regulations and McDonald’s restaurants. Thinking about a kind blogging friend who has spent all evening emailing me with kind words. Thinking about the kind taxi driver who called me ‘nice’ and gave me his phone number and invited me to dinner at his manager’s restaurant where they serve potatoes and cabbage and chicken. He likes bacon with cabbage, he said.

The restaurant is called ‘Florida’s’.

We stopped at a garage so I could get cash out to pay him. He bought me a bottle of water and drove me around the town to cheer me up and hugged me when he dropped me at the hotel.

Carl, his name is. I didn’t call him. I didn’t go to Florida’s. I didn’t feel like eating.

I told Vaughn about about a book by Paulo Coelho. The book is called Veronika Decides To Die. Was it inappropriate to talk about it?

My auntie is going to collect me in Houston tomorrow. After I leave Livingston.

I don’t want to leave Livingston.

I do want to leave Livingston.

I guess I’ll have a big breakfast again tomorrow. Today, I didn’t eat after my breakfast. Just water and lukewarm decaf coffee from a flask.

He still thinks about women. About being with them. I ask him when he started thinking differently about it, given that some people might go stir crazy. He says other things keep him going. Letters.

He looks at me.


I think about what to write to him. This man. This lovely man who laughs at my quaint English insults and complains about his stubble.

I don’t care about the stubble.

I care about his gentle manner and his calm voice. I care about his kind words and his capacity to comfort me in my tears. Comfort me? In my tears?

He says he’s not worried.

I wish I didn’t have to leave.

I don’t know what to say, how to end the conversation. I shrug my shoulders and feel helpless.

I loiter afterwards but am told I have to leave. I look back and wave but he’s behind a mesh screen and my eyes are too bad to make out anything except his vague shape.

I’m tired now.

More polystyrene cups. More powdered milk. Another day in Texas. I read. I eat breakfast. I think.

Maybe I’ll make a cup of tea. Black. No lemon. No milk.

(For other things I wrote in Texas, click here.)

The phone call

“Are you doing okay?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

I should have said yes. I should have been strong and said yes. Instead I said no and he ended up convincing me that things would be alright, that he was alright, that he felt calm, no matter what the outcome.

I had just finished making a Vietnamese beef stew. It was sitting beside me as I spoke to him. I didn’t touch it.

“It’s so good to hear your voice,” I told him. He laughed gently.

I thought he would have some contact time with his family but I later read that the only time they are allowed to see him is after he has died, in the funeral home. They are allowed to go and touch his body while it is still warm.

He asked what I had been doing that evening. I told him I’d been watching RuPaul’s Drag Race Allstars. We laughed about the whole drag queen scene. He said he once dressed up as a woman to go to a Halloween party when he was about 20. A man had grabbed his bum at the party, thinking he was actually a woman, and he had been horrified. He’d never dressed up as a woman ever again.

The truth is, I’ve never entertained the idea of grieving for Vaughn because I didn’t want it to tear me apart. When I first met Vaughn, about five years ago, I had also met another man on death row, Ruben. Meeting them both devastated me. I couldn’t believe the situation these men faced every day. It was one of those things I couldn’t ignore.

I came back completely different. I intentionally fell out of contact with some friends. I applied to law school. And I resolved to do something about the situation. I read everything I could lay my hands on about the death penalty in America. My mind was totally absorbed.

For about two months after returning, my mind was in a completely different world. A world of unfairness, of bad lawyers and bad trials, of men from poor backgrounds who were killed and faded from the world without a trace. A world of brutal murders and serial killers. Of guilt and of innocence.

And I felt hopeless. I felt crushed and hopeless. My every waking thoughts were of the men I had met and my struggle to understand that they would be dead one day soon.

It was hard. It was really hard.

I suddenly realised I was facing a beast bigger than myself and if it wanted to take these men from me, it could. It just could. I could fight and I could kick and I could scream. And still, it would take them.

That’s a horrible thing to realise. We are lead to believe that we can affect positive change if we speak up. If we use our voices to enable those less fortunate than ourselves, then we can help them.

Realising that the intention to kill carried the might of the state and that my ability to beat it was minuscule was a hard thing to take on board.

I felt sad. I just felt overwhelmed and sad.

Yes, I enrolled in law school and yes, I sold my soul to the bank for a loan for the fees and yes, I studied the most boring land statutes with gusto but my intention could only ever be to help in a very small way. To someone who has always thought big, this was hard.

Then, a few months ago, I got a letter from Vaughn about his execution date. I was worried for him and I was worried for me. I was worried about coming back from visiting him and being crushed. I worried that my hope and faith in the world would be lost.

And so I determined not to be destroyed by it. I determined to go and see him and have a nice time and hopefully cheer him up in his last few weeks of life but not to return a broken woman.

I couldn’t. I just couldn’t let myself be destroyed. It wasn’t an option. Things are nice in my life right now. I mustn’t let this draw me away into a shell and re-realise the devastating truth that a man had been killed and I couldn’t do anything to help him or to stop it.

And so I came home from Texas and I was fine. I barely mentioned that I’d been away or where to or why unless it came up in conversation and I was asked specifically why I went. I managed to keep my thoughts and feelings in a box and keep it shut.

Every so often, waves of panic washed over me when I thought of the approaching date. I waited til they subsided then went on as normal.

And then July 18th came. What a horrible horrible night.

After we spoke for a while on the phone, there was a beeping on the line and mid-conversation, he said, “It’s call waiting. I’ve got to go.”

And I said, stupidly, like a rabbit in the headlights, “O! Ok, bye! I… I wish this wasn’t happening.” And he hung up.

And that was how I said goodbye to him.

At 00:46 that evening, I read that he was dead. I gasped. I knew it was coming but I felt someone had ripped a body part off. Torn my throat out or punched me in the stomach or something. Unexpectedly, there were tears. I thought I’d be too shocked to be upset.

I went upstairs and lay down and stared at the ceiling. I had an early start the next day and I hadn’t the time to sit up and understand it all.

I just knew that I mustn’t be ruined by it. I mustn’t let it overwhelm me. I mustn’t shut down and shut people out.

So I continued on. I kept a level head and I worked and read books about other things.

And I forgot.

I forgot about Vaughn. And about his death. And about the time I spent with him.

And I didn’t feel anything. That scared me. The fact that I didn’t have any emotional response to the situation anymore.

I remember calling Vaughn back after about an hour. I wanted to talk to him again and I was suddenly frantic about what was about to happen.

The lady on the other end said the line was busy.

I called back twenty minutes later and she said that he had made a choice to take no more phone calls.

In his last words, he said “Miriam, I love you,” and I thought, “Who’s Miriam?”

What to do when you don’t know what to do

Something pretty sad happened about ten days ago. A man I cared about was killed by the state of Texas.

The following week, I received two letters from him. That was wierd. I was in a pretty wierd place about the whole thing anyway. It felt sort of like it had happened but more like it was a story I was telling people about an imaginary world. An imaginary world where we kill each other to teach others that they shouldn’t kill each other. We strap them down and give them an injection and watch for 22 long minutes while they gurgle and choke and die.

This world sounds too crazy to be true. So maybe it’s not true, I told myself. Maybe this whole episode is happening in my mind.

And so, as time went by, I went from being pretty gutted half of the time and disbelieving the other half, to now total disbelief. There are no more letters arriving in the mail from him.

He is fading from my mind. I don’t know how to make myself understand that it has happened. It feels that maybe the whole thing never existed, maybe he never existed?

Walking into the high security unit last month in Texas and talking on a telephone to a man behind a glass screen seems like it happened a million years ago. In my imagination.

The whole thing is getting harder and harder to comprehend. Occasionally, when I do sit and think about it and this suddenly awful feeling washes over me, I quickly move my thoughts onto something else before the sorrow overwhelms me.

I’ve been moving my thoughts on pretty efficiently for ten days now.

And I’m worried I won’t ever be able to understand what’s happened because I’m doing the moving-on thing automatically now.

So now I don’t know what to do. How to move on. At the moment, it seems I have relegated him to a compartment in my mind that I’m not sure I’ll open again.

But this man was important to me. He meant a lot. He was a real person and his life must not be allowed to mean nothing.

I guess I’m asking you all what I should do? How do I live with the awfulness of what has happened but not spend all day feeling miserable?


Today, the state of Texas want to kill a man called Vaughn Ross.

Vaughn has meant a lot to me.

I hope he is still alive tomorrow.

Chillin at NASA. As you do.

Recently, whilst in Texas, I found myself at a loose end for a day so my auntie and I decided to go to the NASA space station.


I knew my mind was going to be blown and it was.


First, we went into a little theatre and watched a short film about the beginnings of space travel. To the right of the screen was the actual lecturn, behind which Kennedy gave the famous speech about the US joining the space race, you know? You know the one? (I sure hope you do because, until I saw this short film, I did not know it.)

Next there were lots of space-type things, like spaceships and space buggies that had been in space.




Then we saw some moon rocks. Obviously. Obviously there were moon rocks. I’m always hanging out with moon rocks. Just an ordinary day in my life….


Then there was a little bit of moon rock in a glass box and you could put your hand in the box and touch the moon rock! I have touched a peice of rock from the moon! A little bit of something off something that is 250,000 miles away! 250,000!


My mind. It is blown.

Then we went on a tour thing round the space centre. We visited the control room that was in use from 1962 to 1975.




Then we went to see the Saturn V rocket, which was massive.




That dark bit on the front (left of the picture) is where the astronauts stay. All the other bits are detached and stay in space.

After that, we had something to eat and went back to digest all the information. I still haven’t though….

Phone conversations I had on Tuesday


TDCJ: Texas Department of Corrections, how can I help you?
Me: Hiya, I’m just calling to inquire about visiting an inmate. I was planning to come next week. I’m flying from England. But I’ve not received the paperwork to allow me to visit. I think the post is going slowly or something. Is there anything I can do to speed things up?
TDCJ: The inmates are allowed to change their visitor lists middle of next month.
Me: O, ok. On his latest letter, he said he’s changing it end of this month.
TDCJ: No. It’s the middle of the month.
Me: So what can I do about coming on Monday?
TDCJ: You won’t be able to visit on Monday.
Me: Is there nothing I can do?
TDCJ: You can come but you won’t be able to visit.

3.30pm Lastminute dot com, how can I help you?
Me: I have to cancel my flight for this Saturday. I remember taking out a cancellation policy on the flight. Yeh, it’s a nonrefundable flight, unfortunately. You can get a refund on the taxes. Not all of them. But a few.
Me: How much would that be? £147
Me: Really?! But the flight was £574! That’s hardly anything back. Yeh.
Me: Can I rearrange the flight? I’m probably going to go at the end of the month instead. Ok, you’d need to pay the difference, if the new flight costs more. And the airline charges £100 for admin fee when you change. And we charge £45. And you’re only allowed to travel between Monday and Thursday.
Me: Monday and Thursday in the same week? Yes.
Me: So I have to get from London to Texas, to the prison for two days of visits, back to Texas and back to London? In four days? Yes.
Me: And how much am I looking at for that? If you travel at the end of June, going Monday 24th, returning Thursday 27th, the extra charges you will have to pay will be £472.
Me: What?! Wait a minute. My flight was £570 to start with. That’s almost double! Yeh. Shall I book it for you?
Me: You know what? I’ve had a pretty rubbish day. My head is aching and I’m knackered. Can I just call you back? Mam, can I ask the reason why you need to cancel the flight? Delta have a policy that you may apply for a full refund in certain circumstances.
Me: (Deep breath.) My friend is on death row in Texas and he has an execution date next month. I wanted to go and visit him but the prison just informed me that I won’t be able to visit, even if I go all the way there. So I’m not… I can’t go… There’s no point. I can’t use those flights. Ah ok. I’m so sorry to hear that.
Me: So will I be able to get a refund? No. The special circumstances are something like if your family member is ill.
Me: Is this not a special circumstance? He’s being executed in a matter of weeks? No, I’m sorry. So shall I change your flights for you?
Me: No. I. Just. Just leave it. I can’t be bothered anymore. I’m exhausted. Bye. But mam, I…
Me: No. No more. If I could just….


It is 3.45pm. I am ready for bed.

And that, my friends, is what happened to me on Tuesday. My mind is tired. My head is aching. I’m wondering when we became so addicted to rules and regulations.

And I’m sad.

*As a postscript to this, I called on Wednesday and had changed their minds. I do not have to travel Monday to Thursday in the same week. Problem solved! I’m going in late June and it only cost £280 to make the adjustments. Phew.

Books that remind me of stuff

One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Reminds me of being in Laos, in a town called Vang Vieng, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I hired a bike for the day and rode out into the fields by myself and found this abandoned bamboo hut up on stilts. I climbed into it and sat down and read the last few chapters of One Hundred Years Of Solitude while listening to a cricket on the roof and the sounds of nature. It was lovely.

Lord Of The Rings
The first one. I don’t remember what it’s called. I started reading it right before I flew back to Namibia. I’d lived there for a year on my gap year and was going back 10 months later to work for some friends. I was reading it on the flight and did quite a few changes so I read that book in Scotland, England, Holland, South Africa and Namibia. I loved that it had taken such a journey with me.

Paulo Coelho, I’ve forgotten what it was called
I read this in an airport somewhere. I think on the way to Morocco. My friend and I did a lot of travelling together over the space of two years and on this flight we had a stopover in Spain, I think. I had bought this book in the airport in London. In the airport in Spain, my friend slept and I was knackered but trying to stay awake and I just tore through this book. I had finished reading it in a few hours.

Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami
I read this while travelling through the Philippines with the same friend. We stayed in this little B&B on an island called Bohol. We’d found it because a lady on the boat there had started chatting to us when we were singing Whitney to pass the time. She told us to stay there and it was such a good find. No-one else was staying there so we pretended it was our own house! We stayed up late playing card games and reading. I loved this book! I finished it and left it there for the next guests.

I had been reading Shakespeare in school and not really liking or disliking it. I just didn’t understand it mostly. Something clicked at some point and I wanted to read more of it. I went to the English cupboard at school and borrowed a copy of Hamlet and loved it. I just got it. I remember feeling really excited because I knew there was a whole stack of Shakespeare out there for me to discover.

Leon: Ingredients and Recipes
I was a few months post-op last year and had finally got over my fear of eating (I was terrified in case eating caused the same problem and I had to go back to hospital and by this point I was pretty scared of hospital). I was eating more and was strong enough to stand up for the time it took to cook dinner. I found this book and loved the first section, about ingredients. If any of you are into food, this book is amazingly fascinating. I went on holiday to Portugal and was still quite delicate, so instead of jumping in and out of the water and running about, I sat reading this book in the sun. It was lovely.

Famous Five
Reminds me of my childhood in general and how much I wanted to be George.

The Janice Project
This was the first romance novel I read that formulated my idea of what my potential life partner should be like!

Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeta Naslund
I read this book in Namibia while I was training for a trek across the Great Wall of China. I used to go on the stair machine for an hour every morning to prepare. My body was fine with it but my mind was bored. A friend lent me this book to keep me entertained and it worked. A few years later I kept thinking about it but couldn’t remember the name. I was in an out of the way town in Texas, waiting for a bus, when I saw a little book shop in the distance. I thought I’d kill some time there and found a few books I wanted. I went to the till to pay and right there, next to the till was this same book! Same cover. I recognised it immediately and got it. It was just as good, if not better, the second time around. I’ve been daydreaming about visiting Nantucket since I read it.

The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd
I might have got his name wrong. Found this in Laos, in Luang Prabang. Opposite our hotel there was a little cafe/bookshop. It was the first I’d seen in Asia so I was pretty excited. We sat drinking exotic teas and absorbing the book joy. I found this tucked away on a shelf and loved the cover. It’s a woman’s diary of moving to Japan just after the war. I can’t emphasise how good this book is. If I could only read a few more books ever again, this would be one I’d choose. Read it.