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A hand uses a blue razor to shave one's legs.
Illustration by Sarah Rogers

“Curtis, you want your razor?”

The voice echoed through my cell, disrupting my solitary ruminations on the book I was reading.

Had I heard that correctly?

When I looked up, my eyes confirmed what my ears had disbelieved. An officer stood at the door of my cell. She was wearing latex gloves. In her hands was a slotted plastic board, where about 30 blue razors could be seen dangling. 

Razors, that is, for shaving.

It took me a moment to wrap my brain around the thought. The possibility of performing such a trivial task reduced me to dumbfounded silence. When I finally managed a slight nod, accepting the offer, the officer selected the appropriately labeled razor, placed it on the shelf formed by my open pie flap — a hinged opening in a cell door through which trays, mail and other items may be passed — and disappeared down the line to the next cell, repeating her query to my neighbor.

I set aside my book and rose from the bunk, shuffling softly across the bare concrete floor. I stood for a moment, scrutinizing the razor, as if I had never encountered such an object before.

I had arrived here, in the women’s segregation cell 8F11, of the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail only two days prior. But in the month since my arrest — a month I’d spent languishing alone in the Bexar County Adult Detention Center in San Antonio, Texas, far from home awaiting extradition — I had not so much as seen a razor.

The thick, dark hair carpeting my legs was soft. It provided, or at least I liked to tell myself it provided, an additional layer of warmth against the chilly, climate-controlled air blasting from the ceiling. But it itched and made me feel far from feminine. I was overjoyed at the prospect of being smooth and hairless again.

In the dim light, I peered closely at the thing. It was a men’s razor, generic, of course — and surely manufactured and sold in bulk by the Bob Barker Company, like everything else in the jail. It had a single blade and no moisturizing strip, presaging the razor burn sure to come. Even so, I couldn’t have been more thrilled if it had been a Schick Intuition!

I hastily removed my red scrub bottoms and folded them neatly, placing them at the end of my bunk. I perched my right foot on the edge of the steel commode, then grabbed my state-issued washcloth and bar of soap and lathered my leg.

Then I began shaving.

As I stood at the commode, I thought about all that I’d experienced in the last month: I had been terrified beyond expression, berated, belittled, poked, prodded, weighed, measured and interrogated for hours. I’d been chained and fettered, ink-stained, photographed, caged like an animal and paraded before the public to meet their damnation.

I had voyaged to the depths of despair and the threshold of Death’s lair, poised for the plunge.

And yet, there I was, standing in a cold gray cell, shaving. I almost laughed at the absurdity of my excitement and the inexplicable sense of hope I suddenly felt. I was struck by the way my short incarceration had changed me already: No longer was I the pitiful, haunted creature I had been the morning my past mistakes finally caught up with me.

Though I was still far from healthy — just beginning to recover from addiction — the hand holding the razor was steady. The eyes that met my gaze in the mirror were clear and alert.

An hour passed. A few knicks, a handful of curses. Finishing up, I sat on my bed applying lotion — a generous gift from the lady in the adjoining cell — on the hairless legs of a brand new woman. That night I lay in bed relishing the caress of cheap cotton sheets sliding over my bare skin. I felt peace in my heart. Like the hair on my legs, something else was gone, I realized: the need to perform for another. My smooth legs were for my own enjoyment.

In that cell, my life was mine alone. I smiled to myself in the semidarkness, marveling at the comfort I’d long sought elsewhere, and drifted off to sleep.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Mithrellas Curtis is a writer, who strives to transform her life from one of pain to one with purpose. As a peer recovery specialist, she seeks to use her experiences to help others on their own journey to recovery and wellness. She is incarcerated in Virginia.