Paula Sophia
29 min readApr 16, 2021


A Slice of Life Memoir

Sophie found herself trapped between sliding doors at the Oklahoma County Jail, in the zone of transition between freedom and captivity. Through two inches of security glass spider-webbed with cracks, she saw a row of inmates wearing institutional orange jumpsuits standing outside holdover cells. They were shackled wrist to wrist, ankle to ankle, with one long chain streaming through harness belts. To walk they had to step in unison, a caterpillar slowly inching its way toward another set of sliding doors at the far end of the inmate processing bay.

Sophie checked her watch. 2:30 p.m., only two and a half hours till 10–19, quitting time. She’d been summoned to the jail for a medical transport, a pregnant woman with an appointment at University Hospital. She was supposed to be there at 3:00 p.m., but she’d arrived while the detention officers were transferring inmates from booking to their prospective cellblocks. At this rate, Sophie was going to be late.

Originally published as Hystericus by Etopia Press, 2011. Art by Annie Melton

She pressed the button on the intercom box embedded in a cinderblock wall painted Pepto Bismol pink. She waited a minute, two full minutes. Impatient, she wondered if the person in the control center had fallen asleep. The speaker sparked to life, the noise a distant, malicious laugh. Music streamed through the intercom, coarse and tinny. She heard a funky saxophone blast, recognized the singer’s raspy voice lampooning the lyrics. Aerosmith.

Dude looks like a lady.

All at once the line of inmates stopped and stared at the ceiling. A detention officer clothed in black BDU’s stood near the far doors; he was laughing. He pointed at Sophie, and the inmates turned their heads in unison, glaring at her. Seized with a collective consciousness, the line slithered toward the sliding door separating them from Sophie, coiling like a snake.

One inmate spat at the glass. Another laughed and screamed, “Keep it in the closet, man!”

The coil of the snake tightened, pushed toward the door, faces pressed against glass. A white man with a shaven head, the letters ICP tattooed on his neck, licked the glass, simulated oral sex while others pounded at the door, trying to vibrate it loose.

Sophie wanted to turn her back but knew they’d take it as a sign of weakness. She faced their onslaught, stared at a weave of wire embedded in the glass, through a web of diamonds. A diamond represents strength, she thought, endurance and precision, eternity. Through the aperture of glass, she focused on the far wall, stared beyond her faint reflection, the hostile crowd, the grinning, amused, and indifferent detention staff. She breathed deep, slow breaths, biding her time.

She’d been surprised her agency had allowed her to make a gender transition on the job. The Oklahoma City Police Department allowed her to grow her hair, wear makeup, and dress as a female for in-service and court. She’d thought they’d try to fire her or assign her to a hole-in-the-wall job, out of sight, out of mind. Her chain of command had adopted the official stance of treating her transition as a personnel issue, no different than officers recovering from divorce, alcoholism, or posttraumatic stress disorder. She did have to submit to a rigorous battery of psychological tests, interviews, and fit-for-duty exams. She passed all of them, showing no significant impairment, that is, no impairment beyond the normal erosion of a police officer’s mental health after a dozen or so years of street duty. She’d scored high on the paranoia scale — a useful quality for a police officer, she’d been told, and she was a great deal more cynical and emotionally reserved than she’d been as a rookie fresh out of the police academy. No surprises there.

After nearly six months of administrative leave, they thrust her back into a patrol car. Her paranoia told her the department, thwarted in their efforts to certify her as a mental patient, had changed tactics; they’d decided to give her what she said she wanted, a chance to prove she could still do the job. She imagined her chain of command anticipating a huge public outcry. When things went to hell, when she received a barrage of citizens’ complaints, negative media attention, they’d pull her inside and say, “Look, we tried. You’re unsafe on the streets.”

But so far, so good. Nothing like that had happened in almost a week.

The outrageous behavior of the inmates told Sophie the Oklahoma City/County Criminal Justice System was stepping up the pressure — she’d never seen detention officers permit such rowdy behavior before. This couldn’t be some random incident, but she couldn’t tell for sure. Hard to resist the idea of a massive conspiracy against her, especially when she knew there had to be one. The only thing she didn’t know was how it would manifest. Was this it? A jail riot?

Finally, a female detention officer stepped toward the crowd of inmates, yelling at them. She was a large woman, not overweight but athletic, with a mane of curly blonde hair. She wore a pair of glasses with small, oval lenses. She wasn’t pretty — not in the traditional, petite, feminine sense — but handsome, capable, competent…fair.

Finally, a female detention officer stepped toward the crowd of inmates, yelling at them. She was a large woman, not overweight but athletic, with a mane of curly blonde hair. She wore a pair of glasses with small, oval lenses. She wasn’t pretty — not in the traditional, petite, feminine sense — but handsome, capable, competent…fair.

“Back the fuck off!”

She grabbed her can of pepper spray, brandished it toward the inmates.

The male detention officer at the opposite end of the holdover bay continued leaning against the wall, arms folded, smirking.

The snake recoiled from Sophie, began circling around the female officer who was crouching in place, ready to fight, serious as a mongoose. She let loose a stream of spray. The snake lost integrity, reverting to a bunch of individual men as each head ducked, every eye winced. At this point, several more detention officers swarmed the holdover bay, batons raised, ready to beat the snake into submission. Every man on the chain gang slumped to the floor, shoulders hunched, heads tucked, shuddering as if they could already feel baton strikes across their backs. As quickly as the snake had come to life, it lay there writhing in death.

“What the fuck were you guys doing?” the female officer shouted. “Why’d you let this get so out of hand?” Her eyes gleamed, on the verge of tears.

Sophie felt an emotional tug for the woman, an attraction born of appreciation, the possibility of friendship. The errant pepper spray lingered in the air, seeping into the ventilation system, causing Sophie’s throat to clench, her eyes to burn. The female detention officer approached the sliding door.

“You okay?”

Sophie nodded.

The officer put thumb to chin, raised her head, and smiled.

Sophie smiled, trying not to cry, grateful for a sign of reassurance. She was glad for the pepper spray, glad to have an excuse for reddened eyes. When the slider finally opened, she walked across the threshold, holding her breath.

Everyone tried to do their jobs without looking at her — this large woman, over six feet tall, big enough to be a linebacker in the National Football League. She wore a short-haired wig carefully pinned in place that morning to compensate for a receding hairline. Though she had tried to blend some of her own hair with the wig, the hot weather outside and the stifled air inside the jail had caused her to perspire. She became intensely self-conscious, imagining her real hair wet with sweat while the wig stayed dry, a hideous giveaway.

Sophie licked her lips, noticed how dry they’d become, and wished she could apply a fresh coat of lipstick. Then she worried about her mascara, wondered if the stuff was as waterproof as the manufacturers claimed. Her eyes itched from the pepper spray, but all she could do was blink, otherwise she’d look like a raccoon if she succumbed to the temptation to rub away the sting.

“What’s that?” A gruff, unfriendly voice reverberated down the hallway. “Are you crying?”

She saw the jail lieutenant standing behind his desk. He had his hands on his hips, a disgusted frown on his face. “No, I’m not crying. It’s the pepper spray.”

Lieutenant Gilbert spat into a trashcan next to his desk, probably a wad of snuff, but he seemed to emphasize the act.

“You know, you’re a safety risk. I’ve never seen the inmates so riled up.”

Sophie forced herself to stop blinking so she could glare at the lieutenant. “I’ve never seen them like that either. I’ve never seen your staff let them get so rowdy.”

Gilbert took a can of Copenhagen out of his back pocket, shook it vigorously, thumping it with two fingers. He restuffed his lower lip with the brown dirt, sucked on it.

“If I get hurt…” Sophie said, brandishing a threat. Then she grumbled to herself, “If I get hurt, Lieutenant, it’s your ass.”

Gilbert answered with another glob of spit, a stringy mess clinging to his mustache. He wiped his mouth with his forearm. “What was that, officer?”

Sophie ignored the challenge, decided to fight this battle another day, focusing on the business at hand. “Where’s the patient?”

Even as she asked the question, she saw a pudgy woman sitting on a bench, left wrist cuffed to an iron bar embedded in the wall. She had light brown skin with African features, long black hair, frizzed out as if she’d been shocked from a bolt of electricity. Her eyes, without makeup, looked lost in her face, set back, small and frightened, her mouth a twisted, defiant sneer.

“My arm’s asleep,” the woman complained.

Sophie took a manila folder from the lieutenant, flipped through some paperwork inside. She glanced at the list of charges; saw the term Domestic Abuse, read a line in the status report, “…beat up her mother…” The inmate was a regular visitor at the Oklahoma County Jail with numerous arrests: possession of a controlled dangerous substance, assault and battery on a police officer… A tattoo of a teardrop on her upper right cheek revealed the likelihood of gang affiliation.

“Great,” Sophie said. “A pregnant gangster.”

“You need to take her to University Hospital, to the Ob-Gyn department,” Lieutenant Gilbert said, his voice a forced, professional monotone.

“She’s been complaining about stomach cramps.”

The woman stood up from the bench, pointed at Sophie. “I’m not going with that freak.”

The lieutenant’s eyes blazed with amusement. He tried to suppress a smile but couldn’t quite conceal his delight. “She’s all yours…ma’am.”

Sophie read the name on the folder. “C’mon, Angelina, beggars can’t be choosers. Let’s go.”


Sophie glanced in the rearview mirror of her patrol car; saw the woman looking back. She looked angry, eyes narrow and cautious.

“I saw you in the paper a few weeks ago. Aren’t you scared? Don’t they beat up people like you?”

Their eyes locked for a moment, meeting at the point of reflection. Was the prisoner trying to insult her or was she awkwardly attempting a conversation?

By the time Sophie returned her attention to the road she found herself rushing toward a red light. She slammed the brakes and stopped a little too hard. The force of inertia propelled the passenger forward. In the mirror, Sophie saw the woman’s head smash the Plexiglas partition between front and back seats, leaving a streak of sweat. No blood, thank God.

“Why the fuck you do that?”

Sophie hadn’t stopped like that on purpose, but she knew an explanation was pointless, an apology an admission of guilt. She listened as the woman thrashed in the back seat, threatening to kick out a window, but after a few moments, Angelina grew tired, leaned back, streams of sweat running down her face like tears.

“I asked you a question, bitch.”

Sophie bristled from the insult, but she had to laugh. At least Angelina had called her something female.

“Don’t they beat up people like you?”

Sophie glanced at the mirror, eye to eye once again. “I could ask you the same question.”


“Don’t they beat up people like you?” Sophie asked, intending to put her prisoner on the defensive. “Ever hear about Jasper, Texas?”

“What do you mean?”

“That’s where some white supremacists drug a black man to death behind a pickup truck.”

The woman leaned back in her seat, gazed out the window, sighed. “I get your point.”

They drove the next few blocks in silence, past 10th and Western where Sophie saw Lonnie the prostitute standing by the pay phone waiting for another trick. She was playing it cool, had toned down her look by wearing jeans and a T-shirt instead of short shorts, a halter top and high heels, but anyone on the prowl could tell by her nonchalant manner, her languid pose and wide-legged stance that she was working.

Up the street was the Coney Bologna, a coffee shop owned by a schizophrenic artist named Murray. He’d filled the old brownstone with paintings, creepy renditions of an altered reality where eyes lurked in shadows and hands floated through the air. He didn’t have an espresso machine, just a regular coffee maker and a display case full of day-old cookies and donuts he’d bought at the 7-Eleven across the street. His patrons were mostly high school kids, punk rockers, and slam poets, some with body piercings, blue hair, and sleeves of tattoos.

She drove by the Antique Lady Lounge, an old shanty of a bar nestled in the shadows of a tall pecan tree at the curve where Western and Classen intersected near 13th street. She saw Murray’s tall frame inside the entrance of the bar. He looked gaunt, haunted.

The prisoner spoke again. “You’re an abomination. The Bible says you’re an abomination in the eyes of God.”

Sophie ignored her at first. Here it was again, the Bible-thumper assault. When all else fails, cite the good book. Sophie did not argue the scriptures, most of the time. If she defended herself at all, she used her knowledge of scripture to expose other people’s hypocrisy.

“I read your file, Angelina. Domestic abuse? Against your mother? What’s it say in the Bible about honoring your parents? It seems like we’re both abominations. See you in hell, huh?”

Angelina frowned and leaned close to the Plexiglas, face swelling in the mirror. “You don’t know me. You don’t know shit about me.”

She collapsed against the back seat, blinking tears, one streaming down her cheek. Sophie felt certain she’d won the argument but wasn’t sure it was worth it.

The University of Oklahoma Health Science Center had become a city in its own right, a massive complex of hospitals and research foundations, over ten square blocks on the east side of Oklahoma City. Sophie drove down NE 13th street, past Presbyterian Tower, turned right on Lottie Avenue, and drove to the emergency entrance of University Tower.

After negotiating the byzantine hallways at University Hospital, Sophie and her charge finally arrived at the Ob-Gyn office on the fourth floor. The receptionist at the desk was a thin black woman, hair pulled back in a severe ponytail. She had glasses perched on the tip of her nose, a chain loop fastened to the frames. She licked her fingers, thumbed through a stack of folders.


“Sergeant Meyers, Oklahoma City Police.”

“Not you, the patient.”

Sophie handed the receptionist Angelina’s folder from the jail. “Angelina Hernandez.”

“You’re late.”

Sophie had a whole slew of good excuses, none of which would satisfy the receptionist, a fierce gatekeeper to the doctor. “Yes, I know.”

“Sit down. It’s going to be a while.”

Sophie glanced at a clock on the wall: almost 3:50.

“Okay — at least I’ll be getting some overtime for this.”

The receptionist didn’t say anything else. She thumbed through folders, answered the phone, and looked down her nose at the patients biding their time in the waiting room.

The waiting room had a dingy, post-antiseptic feel to it. It was clean enough, but the light green carpet was getting threadbare. A path of dark, matted fibers led to the receptionist’s window from a cluster of wooden chairs and battered wood boxes used as coffee tables. The ceiling had soaked tiles, the odor of mold beginning to overcome the most recent spray of Lysol. Cheap, reprinted paintings hung on the wall depicting well-groomed white children playing doctor: a girl bandaging a dog’s paw, a boy driving a go-cart made from a wooden crate with a red cross painted on the side. Another painting showed some kids hoisting a crate constructed to look like a medi-flight helicopter, a small boy in the cockpit. All the paintings depicted pre-Depression era neighborhoods with towering oak trees, brick streets, and humble little wood frame houses surrounded by white picket fences.

Most of the patients were African American. A Hispanic woman scolded a crew of kids fighting over the meager selection of abused toys displayed in a broken-hinged box. No white people. A little girl sat in her mother’s lap crying. She had braids in her hair, pierced ears, a real cutie with a mile-long pout. Every eye in the room scrutinized the cop and her handcuffed companion, but nobody looked scandalized, just concerned or indifferent. They’d seen this before.

But what they hadn’t seen before was such a large woman in a police uniform. Sophie’s appearance among them had caused a ripple of debate framed in whispers, some loud enough to be heard: “Oh, bless her heart… What a shame… Only the Lord almighty can be the judge…”

The judging statement assured Sophie that the women were talking about her. She sat down on one of those wooden chairs, utility belt scraping the sides, gun and hand-held radio draping each arm. It was a tight fit. Angelina sat next to her, squirmed in place, trying to find a comfortable way to sit with her hands cuffed behind her back.

Sophie picked up a battered copy of National Geographic dated September 1998. She glanced through the photographs, the nature shots: elegant pink flamingos in their natural habitat, elephants lounging in a water hole, a tiger in captivity staring longingly through the bars of a cage. She glanced through the pages depicting people in Havana, Cuba, the shadowy streets, the suggestion of a seedy underground, the silhouette of an ambiguously gendered person dancing. Sophie stared at that picture, absorbed by it, the curve of shadow suggesting the flow of a skirt, the flip of hair suggesting a pompadour. She wondered if the photo might have been a double exposure capturing glimpses of a man and a woman dancing intimately. She was brought back to real time by the nudge of her prisoner, a kick in the shin that hurt more than it should have.

Sophie stood. “What the — ” She stopped herself from swearing. “What’s your problem?”

“They called my name.”

Sophie escorted her charge to the back of the office. A nurse led the way through a maze of treatment rooms, past scales, past advertisements for pre-natal care, childhood immunizations. “Due before two,” they said. They ended up in a room in the farthest corner of the office, a place out of sight from the front.

The nurse, a young lady with short brown hair streaming with streaks of red dye, smiled at Sophie, a hint of recognition, perhaps. She had a heavy build but wasn’t what one could call fat, pleasantly plump with a voluptuous bosom. It was nice to see a friendly face, Sophie thought, but the nurse assumed a firm, professional stance when she asked, “Does she have to be handcuffed?”

Sophie nodded. “She’s a violent offender.”

“But this is a doctor’s office.”

Sophie read her nametag. Julia Ortega, RN. “I know, but she’s my responsibility.”

Ortega frowned. “She’s a young woman, a mother-to-be… Certainly, as a woman, you can understand that she must feel as comfortable as possible for the examination.”

As a woman, a fellow woman…an appeal to female empathy. Sophie released the handcuffs, and the nurse motioned toward the door.

“Now, officer, I need you to leave us.”

Before she transitioned, Sophie had been with male patients while nursing staff applied a catheter, watched and winced as they shoved the tube up the penile shaft. She’d seen doctors treating men who’d been bitten on the ass while fleeing K-9 dogs — all of it in the name of prisoner security. It wasn’t that she wanted to gawk at the patient’s genitalia or even watch any part of the exam. She just wanted to be there, do her duty. Being asked to leave felt like a snub, a denial of her status as a woman. The surge of emotion churning in her chest surprised her, and, for a moment, she blinked tears. She complied without complaint, slipped out of the exam room, and found a wooden chair in the hallway.

A short woman with a waist-length ponytail and big eyeglasses hurried down the hall. She had her face buried in a folder, flipping through a stack of papers. Her studious gaze and clinical demeanor said doctor, a curious juxtaposition to her stature. When she saw Sophie she smiled, thin-lipped and mouth closed. She nodded, rolling her eyes slightly, her smile turning to frown as she entered the exam room.

Sophie studied a set of illustrations posted on the wall. The female reproductive system. She keyed on the shape of the ovaries, which resembled the testes she’d seen in similar posters of the male reproductive system. Though the organs were similar in shape and function, the ovaries were deep inside a woman, integral to her body, while the testes seemed like an afterthought, attached at the last minute.

She could have been born female, should have been. Slightly more than half the world was female, but somehow through the roulette wheel of DNA she’d been born male, through the complex web of biochemical processes she’d been deprived of a mind that matched her body, and through the dictates of society prescribing roles and behaviors she’d been taught to repress her inclinations toward femininity. If only the Y in her XY chromosome pattern hadn’t lost a leg… She could have been a balanced person saved from feeling awkward all her life, from overcompensating, from trying to be a he-man: an athlete, a soldier, a cop.

The uterus was a whole different thing, a unique part of the female anatomy having no counterpart in the body of a man. The womb, a universe of its own during gestation, and the expansive hips to support that universe — a man could never have those things. A woman was built to create and sustain new life.

Sophie felt her belly, felt her stomach growling from lack of lunch, but the emptiness was more than hunger. Something was missing, and she knew what it was. For the first time since she’d begun the process of gender transition, she worried that she’d made a bad decision. She could never be a woman, not really.

She’d never know what it was like to be a girl, to be a young woman, to menstruate, to feel the magic of a new life growing within, to give birth. The emptiness, a black hole churning inside, threatened to devour everything she was, everything she’d ever been.

At the center of that spinning spiral of insight was a question: what now?

Before she could formulate an answer, the doctor left the exam room, almost slamming the door. Sophie stood up, expecting trouble.

“What’s the problem?”

The doctor looked up at Sophie, eyes enlarged in her thick lenses. Sophie saw confusion in those eyes, compassion perhaps, but, gratefully, no hostility. “I’m done with the examination,” she said. “The patient is upset. She might require a sedative.”

“Did she hit you? Threaten you?”

Though it didn’t seem possible, the doctor’s eyes widened even more. “Of course not, she’s pregnant.”

Sophie could think of a litany of examples considering how pregnant women were no less prone to violence than anyone else, considered telling the doctor why Angelina had been arrested, but stopped short. The doctor had given the patient bad news.

“She had a miscarriage?”

The doctor vaguely nodded, eyes softening. “I can’t confirm that. HIPAA, you know, medical privacy….”

“Yes, HIPAA.”

The doctor squeezed herself next to the wall, slipping past Sophie, making sure they didn’t touch. “Thank you, officer. I’ll be giving her a prescription for some Valium. Can you make sure she gets it?”

Sophie doubted the detention staff at the jail would allow Angelina to take a hit of Valium, had started to tell the doctor not to waste her time when the door to the exam room opened. A puffy-eyed Angelina walked out, red cheeks, hair pulled back into a disheveled ponytail. When she saw Sophie, their eyes met for a second, but instead of the former defiant glare, she looked defeated, hopeless. After a moment, she raised her head, offered her chin toward Sophie as if to say, “Go ahead, I can take it.” Sophie pulled a pair of handcuffs from the back of her utility belt.

Nurse Ortega stood behind Angelina, watching Sophie, looking at Sophie with pleading eyes, shaking her head slightly. Sophie read the cue and replaced the handcuffs. Ortega beamed a warm smile.

“You’re not going to act up, right?” Sophie asked.

She was supposed to handcuff a prisoner, especially a potentially violent one.

Angelina nodded. “Whatever.”

They walked out of the doctor’s office. Sophie stayed close, right hand hovering over Angelina’s left elbow ready to grab her should she freak out and make a run for it, but Angelina remained compliant, sauntering down the hallway, the sound of shuffling feet echoing in the vacuous, sterile space. By the time they got back to the patrol car, Angelina had recovered her composure, had hardened her expression. Sophie checked Angelina for weapons and opened the car door. Angelina climbed inside without protest. Once the door shut, Sophie breathed a sigh of relief. No escaped prisoner, not today.

Sophie stopped at the intersection at 13th and Lincoln, waited on the traffic light to change. When she looked in the rearview mirror, she saw Angelina’s eyes staring at her, studying her. She didn’t have the look of contempt she had before, just curiosity. Sophie wasn’t sure how she felt about curiosity. So many faces had conveyed hatred toward her, so many voices had condemned her to hell, including Angelina’s, but unabated curiosity was something new. Despite Angelina’s attempts to act tough, she now had a softness she hadn’t had only an hour before. Something in her eyes reflected humility, disappointment. They stared at each other for a long time, long enough to accumulate a line of traffic behind the patrol car, long enough for a driver to get impatient and summon the nerve to honk at a police car.

Embarrassed, Sophie jolted herself out of her daze, stepped on the accelerator and rushed through the intersection just as the traffic light flashed from yellow to red. More honks and skids approaching from her left told her she’d screwed up, had almost caused an accident. She noticed the railroad crossing near 13th and Broadway started flashing and started to accelerate, not wanting to get stuck at the crossing so close to quitting time. She topped the speed limit and kept going, but it was obvious she wasn’t going to make the crossing before the gates came down. Sophie considered zigzagging through the crossing, but she wasn’t sure she could make it. She looked in the mirror and saw a wide-eyed, frightened Angelina, slammed the brakes, and lurched to a stop just past the wide, white line indicating the minimum safe distance from the train crossing.

“What the fuck? You trying to get us killed?”

Sophie settled into her seat, placed the car in park, and tried to avoid the annoyed looks of other drivers she’d delayed back at the light on 13th and Lincoln, drivers who might have beaten the train except for her dawdling. The train click-clacked past them. Slower and slower it went, the space between beats longer and longer like time itself was winding down. Sophie couldn’t move the car forward, couldn’t back up. She was stuck.

“Why’d you do it?” Angelina asked. “Why’d you switch your sex?”

Sophie wasn’t shocked, not even offended. She’d become accustomed to blunt questions, but she’d stopped giving answers. Trying to answer that question was pointless because people didn’t really want to know. They just wanted to argue, to tell her she’d made a mistake, that she’d defied God, and who was she to defy God?

Sophie decided to deflect Angelina’s question by asking another question. She studied the teardrop tattoo on Angelina’s cheek, the woeful stain, a permanent mark of sadness. She felt like she could guess what had happened in the young woman’s life — most tattoos like that were emblematic of family and friends lost to gang violence. Before Sophie would even consider answering Angelina’s question, Angelina had to ante up and reveal an aspect of her own personal struggle.

“What’s that teardrop for?”

Angelina’s eyes narrowed. She stared at Sophie’s reflection, eyes shimmering with moisture. She blinked. “My brother died.”

“Drive-by shooting?”

“No, officer… He died in Iraq.”

Sophie realized she’d made a hasty judgment. Mollified, she looked away from the mirror. “Sorry.”

“I miss him, you know? We were close.”

The train had almost come to a complete halt, inching forward slower than a decrepit old woman behind her walker. Sophie heard the whistle of a second train coming from the north. This was going to take forever, she realized. The digital clock on the dashboard of her patrol car showed 4:15 p.m. By the time she got Angelina back to the jail, drove back to the station in rush hour traffic, and turned in her paperwork, it was going to be close to six o’clock.

Sophie grabbed her radio mic. “1A64 to headquarters, please advise Will Rogers I’ll be late.”

“10–4,” dispatch acknowledged.

She gripped the steering wheel, right hand twisting the hard plastic like it was the throttle of a motorcycle. Sophie didn’t have plans after work; she just wanted the day to end, to get out of uniform and relax, to shut herself in her apartment for some peace and solitude away from people’s stares and judgments. Plus, tomorrow was her day off. She checked her mirror and saw Angelina’s pinched face, eyes brimming with tears.

“You don’t care, do you?”


“You don’t care about my brother, about me, or people like me. You’re just like a typical cop, except you’re worse. You’re a cop and a freak.”

The second train was now parallel to the first train, and they passed each other, gaining speed ever so slightly.

Once, when Sophie was a boy, his friends had dared him to stand between two passing trains. They were so close, within arm’s span distance. It had seemed easy at first, but when the trains gained speed, the movement of two large forces in opposite directions made him dizzy, made him feel like the ground itself was shifting beneath his feet. When he closed his eyes, the illusion hadn’t gone away, and he’d felt himself swaying, gravitating toward walls of steel propelled by razor sharp wheels. He’d been afraid to move, afraid to step to the left or right, forward or backward, afraid he’d be sucked into the momentum, torn apart by gigantic forces. Shards of gravel had bitten his face, stung his arms. He’d been at the center of a vortex, the wind spinning around him, the rhythm of one train countered by the rhythm of the other, consumed in a thunderous, clanging cacophony, the sour smell of diesel stinging his nose, settling in his throat, making him retch.

When the trains finally pulled away from each other, he’d stood there, alone. His friends had abandoned him, disappeared. Deafened, numb, and sensually overwhelmed, he felt like he’d been sucked into an alternate universe, left alone in space and time, eternally isolated. He’d walked home certain he’d find his house empty, certain he’d be alone for the rest of his life.

He’d had bad dreams about the trains for years afterward. Except in the dreams, the trains went impossibly fast, the force of their momentum tearing him apart, obliterating his body, destroying his identity. He’d tried to control the dreams, tried to visualize grabbing one train or the other, holding on for dear life, holding on and taking the ride wherever it would take him, seizing power by making a choice instead of standing there churning in the vortex of indecision.

Sophie removed her glasses, rubbed the bridge of her nose, and closed her eyes while the trains went by. After a time, the rhythmic clang subsided, becoming distant, but the crossing arm remained in place, the warning lights still blinking.

The traffic behind her crowded closer together, cars inching forward, jostling for a chance to make progress. Horns honked. Voices yelled. But the railroad crossing hadn’t changed. Sophie edged her patrol car toward the tracks, looked left and right, and saw no oncoming trains. She suspected the double trains had short-circuited the system somehow. A blue MINI Cooper slid from behind her, edging up, almost parallel, but the pretty blonde driver stopped short of passing a patrol car.

It seemed the whole line of traffic was waiting for Sophie to give in to her impatience, to flagrantly violate the law and drive between the crossing arms, to give implicit permission to everyone else to do the same.

“Go,” Angelina said. “What are you waiting for? The lights are fucked up.”

“Why are you in such a hurry to get back to jail?”

Though Sophie hated working late, she rationalized, overtime was overtime, and extra money was never a bad thing, especially when you were trying to finance a gender transition. Plus, she wasn’t looking forward to experiencing another gauntlet of abuse once they got back to the jail.

“I’m not,” Angelina whined. “I hate just sitting here, waiting. I want to get moving.” She sighed. “I just want to get this over with…. I want to go home.”

There was something despondent in her voice, a break in her thin veneer of defiance. Sophie knew it was useless to offer consolation. After all, Angelina was going back to jail, and she’d had a miscarriage. What do you say to that?

Angelina hugged her stomach, bent forward at the waist, hair streaming over her face.

The blue MINI Cooper zigzagged around the gate arms. Another vehicle, a new silver Mercedes, stopped next to the patrol car, the driver a middle-aged woman with frizzy dark hair. She had no eyebrows besides what she’d penciled in, cheeks pocked with age spots, mouth rimmed with bright red lipstick. She didn’t look human, more like a frightened ghost.

Sophie checked the tracks, saw one of the trains backing up, moving toward the crossing. Realizing that the crossing arms weren’t malfunctioning, that the problem was a stalled train, she stayed put, glaring at the frenzied woman, warning her not to proceed. The traffic behind her was backed up all the way to Lincoln. Some vehicles did U-turns, heading back east, determined to find an alternate route.

Sophie’s cell phone rang, and she checked the number on the screen; it was a departmental number, probably Lieutenant Gilbert checking her status. She pressed the red button to silence the ringer. She didn’t want to talk to that asshole.

Angelina sat up, peeked over Sophie’s shoulder. “You got a cell phone?”

Sophie looked back and saw the eager look on Angelina’s face, a hopeful, pleading expression.

“Can I use your phone?”

“Why? Why should I?”

Angelina’s hopefulness faded. “I just want to call my mom. Is that so bad?”

The train continued backing, slowly, until it completely blocked the crossing. Then it stopped. At this point, the traffic became a chaotic collusion of honking horns. The frizzy-haired woman in the car next to her looked desperate, like she was on the verge of tears. Sophie wondered what could be going on in that woman’s life that a slow train crossing would bring her to tears. Her cynicism told her the woman was upset merely because she was late to her next country club social, that she was a petty, vain woman who’d been spoiled all her life, that she couldn’t handle any kind of setback. Because of this, Sophie felt superior to her, found herself looking down on the woman, scowling at her. The woman stared at her steering wheel, chest heaving. Sophie suspected the woman had never had to deal with a hostile workplace, an identity crisis, or the humiliation of going to jail.

But then she felt convicted by her judgmental attitude, wondered if the woman was addicted to prescription drugs or if she’d just found out her husband had died. Sophie remembered a passage in the Bible, something about not judging others unless you want to be judged the same way, something about the measure of mercy given being the measure of mercy received. So, it was time to pony up and be as generous to others as she wished them to be toward her. She offered the phone to Angelina.

“Promise me you’ll apologize to your mother,” Sophie said, worried she may regret it later. She worried about Angelina getting all churned up, becoming difficult to control, worried that an incident would reflect badly on her, get her into trouble.

“What?” came an incredulous response. “You’re serious?”

Sophie handed her cell phone through a small gap between the car cage and the ceiling. “Keep it short, please.”

Angelina beamed a look of gratitude at the rearview mirror. “You’re the coolest cop… Thank you, thank you.”

Sophie saw her face, her sincere, penetrating eyes. She felt exposed, then looked away, suddenly bashful. She listened to Angelina dialing the phone, heard the soft purr of ringing on the other end of the connection.

“Oh, God, please be home. Please be home.”

The ringing stopped, a silent pause, then an automated voice. Nobody home.

“Mama, it’s me. Pick up, please.”

Another silent pause, and Sophie felt the tingle of suspense. Why wouldn’t the woman answer the phone? Then she remembered. Angelina beat on her, that’s why. But she hoped something in Angelina’s voice was more sincere than it had ever been. Sophie heard herself praying, whispering, “Oh, God, please.”

They waited, holding their breath, listening for the click, the voice of affirmation, but after what felt like an eternity of agonizing anticipation, they heard a beep, a click, a dial tone.

Angelina closed the phone, held it in her hand. Sophie wondered if the young woman was going to throw it against the cage and start thrashing around in anger, wondered if she might try to kick out a window. Then she’d have to handcuff Angelina again, would probably have to use her pepper spray. She started to regret her friendly gesture, started mentally scolding herself.

After a moment, though, Angelina thrust the phone through the gap. “Thanks,” she said, collapsing into the seat, into silence. The train hadn’t moved. The traffic behind her still jumbled tightly together. More cars made U-turns, but she was stuck. And that was how her whole life felt: stuck in the wrong body, stuck in a hostile work environment, stuck in traffic, stuck, stuck, stuck. She felt herself wanting to thrash the car, wanting to punch the steering wheel, the cracked dashboard, the police radio, wanting to silence the dispatcher’s dispassionate voice, a voice that didn’t seem to care about the preponderance of human tragedy festering throughout the city. All of this seethed inside Sophie, but Angelina remained silent, motionless.

Sophie heard a whimper, turned around and saw Angelina’s chin quiver. Oh, God, here it comes, she thought.

“You okay?”

Angelina didn’t respond. She hid her face, curled into a fetal position in a corner of the back seat. Her torso twisted, a ball of grief rising through her body. Her shoulders heaved and her voice squeaked, something stuck in her throat. She sounded like she was choking, and Sophie started to open the door, started to get out of the car to check on her prisoner, suddenly afraid Angelina had gotten a hold of something in the doctor’s office, something she could use to hurt herself, but she finally exhaled, a great, loud moan giving way to unrestrained sobbing, shaking.

“I feel so…empty…”

A train whistle blew loud, drowning out Angelina’s anguish, so loud the sound reverberated inside Sophie’s chest, emphasizing the fear that she’d never been fully human, nothing but a shell walking around, functioning but not yet truly alive. Empty.

“I want to…hold my baby.”

Sophie thought about the baby, the lost child, the lost heartbeat. There wouldn’t be an ultrasound snapshot of a child growing within. There wouldn’t be an affirming kick of life. Nothing could be more intimate, alien, and familiar all at the same time. She wanted to hold her baby, too.

“I know,” Sophie said.

They cried together, waiting for the train to move, unconscious, unashamed, letting it ring out of them, voices mingling mournfully in a song of sadness. After a long minute Angelina reached up, thrust her fingers through the gap between cage and car, stretched fingers begging for human contact. Sophie reached back, grasping. Their fingers curled together, a tenuous but affirming grip. They held each other until their cries subsided, faded to tiny, tingly convulsions of grief.

Sophie looked up, blinked tears out of her eyes. The train had moved, the crossing arms raised. Finally, they could proceed.

After a short, silent ride through downtown Oklahoma City, Sophie parked her patrol car in the sally port at the Oklahoma County Jail. Angelina strained to look in the mirror, combed her hair with her fingers and checked her eyes, trying to pat the skin down so they wouldn’t be so puffy. Sophie waited for Angelina to finish, then did the same. Her makeup was ruined. Mascara had run down into the sockets below her eyes, giving her the dreaded look of a raccoon. The eyeliner she’d put on that morning was gone, and the eye shadow was just the shadow of a memory. Her cheeks still had blush, but they were streaked with sweat and tears and looked blotchy.

“Oh, goodness,” she scolded herself.

She reached to the floorboard in front of the passenger seat and lifted her handbag to her lap. When she opened her purse she heard Angelina giggle, or maybe it was another strange-sounding sob. But when Sophie looked up to the mirror she saw her passenger’s face smirking.

“You are such a woman,” Angelina teased.

The playful tone of voice startled Sophie. Was it another insult? The only time anyone had ever said that to Sophie was when coaches teased her in football for making a lame attempt at a play or when she struck out in baseball, swinging blindly, frightened at a wild pitch. To be called a woman had been a put down. She self-consciously returned her handbag to the floorboard.

“Let’s go,” Sophie said. She stiffened her resolve, resumed her professional stature and removed Angelina from the car.

Angelina stopped. “Handcuff me,” she said. She placed her hands behind her back. “I have a reputation, you know.”

Sophie quickly placed handcuffs on Angelina’s wrists, but she made sure the cuffs were loose, as comfortable as possible.

After a few minutes, they stood in the foyer between the doors and waited. Sophie expected another riot, expected to hear some crude announcement over the intercom, but it never came. They just waited.

Angelina leaned against the wall opposite Sophie. She didn’t look particularly sad at that point, just aloof. She’d put on the mask.

Sophie pressed the intercom button once again, pressed it half a dozen times trying to wake the control booth, but nothing happened.

“Goddamn it,” she seethed. “Here we fucking go again.”

Angelina stood up straight, alert and serious. She stared at Sophie, nodded her head. She struggled to say something, voice squeaking, but eventually it came out, “You want to know something?”

Sophie expected another insult, braced herself for it.

“I wasn’t making fun of you just a minute ago. No matter what anyone says, you’ve got the heart of a woman.”

Sophie wasn’t ready for that. She leaned back against the wall, grateful and amused at how just one kind comment can make a day.

“Thank you,” she said, blinking to contain her tears.

They watched while two detention officers escorted another line of inmates through the far doors of the inmate processing bay. Sophie waved at one of the officers, a young guy with a shaven head.

“Hey, can you tell someone to open the door?”

He stared beyond the glass like he hadn’t seen her, turning his back. Sophie and Angelina waited for the doors to open.

~ End ~



Paula Sophia

Social Worker, Teacher, Writer, Retired Cop, Veteran, Author of Shadowboxer, Dirty Laundry, and Hystericus