Cotton Swabs

Rod keeps a plastic soap dish filled with cotton swabs in his locker. I offered to refill it for him from a box of swabs I bought at commissary, but he insisted on doing it himself. “I like my Q-tips a certain way,” he said.

From the box he plucked a single swab and stuck it in his ear. With exaggerated scooping motions, as if he were spooning porridge from a bowl, he explained that if you rotate a swab the wrong way, the cotton will unravel. So before filling his soap dish, he tests a swab to determine the direction in which its tips are wound. Then, assuming the swabs are produced and packaged pointing in the same direction, he projects the results of the test onto the entire box and puts the swabs away with all counterclockwise ends pointing toward the back of his locker. Thus he can be assured that the next time he reaches for a Q-tip, the swab will be perfectly positioned to be rotated first clockwise in his right ear and then counterclockwise in his left, thereby eliminating any possibility of the cotton unraveling in his ear, which he says “feels funny.”

I asked Rod when his Q-tip compulsion began. He said it started after he came to prison. I wonder if, eight years from now, I’ll be arranging my own Q-tips.

There’s a deliberate and finely honed economy to everything Rod does: He showers every other day. He washes his work clothes once a month and his bed linen every two months. The cardboard shade he’s constructed for his window includes a tiny pull tab for easy removal. He arranges his shoes in a precise order: sneakers and shower sandals go beneath the bed with sneakers nearest the wall; work boots go under the locker, but not so far back that they’re difficult to reach. I know this because after cleaning the room one day, Rod pointed out that I put his shoes back incorrectly. “Now don’t let that happen again,” he said chuckling. But I knew he was genuinely annoyed, so I took to memorizing the exact arrangement of his shoes, including how far he like his chair from his bed.

It isn’t his habits that are disturbing; everyone has quirks (I like all product labels in my locker facing forward). What’s unsettling is the religious intensity with which Rod observes these habits, and the aggressive unease that comes with their interruption. I once witnessed him erupt over a misplaced marker which he accused an officer of confiscating. Later, he found the marker in a zipper bag along with the rest of his colors. The relief on his face was pitiful.

It’s depressing living with someone who’s spent fifteen years of his life incarcerated. Everything about Rod–every gesture, every tic, every glance, every remark, every intense habit–reminds me of danger. His eyes are like a bullfrog’s, always tracking the periphery. When shaking hands, he makes a note of which is dominant. He awakes every morning at 5:45 so he can be dressed and ready when the cell doors are unlocked, in case of an ambush.

It scares me to look at him.

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