I hoped the prison was going to be adorned with roses, or frilly red streamers that dipped and curled along the concrete walls. Instead, in the gray and drab afternoon, a wilted balloon hung limp off a nearby street post.
Almost everything was prohibited. I’d found that out after a two-minute google search with chocolates and a balloon bouquet already purchased. I set the box of his favorite truffles and wafers on the passenger seat and the cherry-colored balloons swayed in the trunk. The car ride had been quiet, music was off and thoughts loud, but after switching off the ignition, the silence became suffocating.
The air outside was heavy, thick, a cold kind of February humidity that mussed my hair and made me sweat. I walked across the empty parking lot, visualizing how it would be. Maybe the words were going to drip off our tongues like honey, effortless and aching, our need for conversation desperately drowning the uneasiness. Or maybe we were going to stand there and stare at each other, two strangers trying to speak but failing, finally settling for fidgeting and anxious side glances.
I smoothed down my clothes, checking again that I’d followed the dress code and pulled the door open. The air conditioner was on, despite the weather, but it seemed like I was the only one who was cold. Officers in suits walked around, stone faced and authority rolling off them in waves. They looked at me, gave brusque nods, and kept walking, hands lying light on their holsters.
I’d never been inside a prison before. Never thought I’d ever be, but here I was walking to reception, gulping as a drug-dog led by a stocky policeman sniffed around my feet, walking away after a minute.
The receptionist, in a suit like the officers, looked up and smiled at me. It wasn’t much; her shoulders were rigid and the deep-set crinkles running along her face told me she’d seen too much, but I was warmer than what I’d been when I entered. I returned the smile.
“Welcome. Please check in.” She pointed to a clipboard resting on the counter with dozens of signatures, contradicting the near emptiness of the reception area. I picked up the blue pen and wrote down all the information needed, sliding it back to her. She picked it up, read it, and placed it back. “How’s your day, Jean?”
I stood there for a few seconds willing my mouth to work. “I’m alright, thanks. And you?” I remembered my manners. “Ma’am.”
"I’m just fine. Who are you here to visit?” She glanced at me from the computer. "For confirmation.”
“Kade McPhee.” My stomach twisted and I tapped the side of my leg with my fingers. This wasn’t the first time we were going to talk to each other; he reached out to me two weeks ago, asking if I was okay seeing him after so long. That was the first time in two years I’d heard his voice and I still hadn’t processed anything. My gut screamed at me to say no, but my mouth was defiant. His name flitted in my mind, taking up forbidden space – when I stirred the pot of squash soup I made for dinners, when I went out for chili dogs a block away from my apartment, and when I drove the five hour trip to my parents’ townhouse, shrouding myself in the familiar smell of my old room and home cooked foods I used to hate.
“Okay, grab the slip that comes out of that box and you’ll have a seat until you get called.” She went back to her computer and I walked to the little machine where my slip jutted out. I pulled it and put it in my pocket, walking to the empty chair near the vending machine and attempting to bury myself in the stiff non-cushion seating.
Three other people sat staring at their phones or rubbing their hands together, sending jittery glances around the room. I resulted to pretending to use my cellphone; I was on my lock screen, but I moved my thumb up and down in repeated motion, often pulling up the control center.
The only noises audible were the clacking of the reception keyboards and the delicate patter of the drug-dog’s paw steps. I started feeling cold again, felt the air conditioner make its way into both of my layers and create goosebumps.
I tried to wonder what he’d be like, but it was harder in here than it was in the parking lot. It wasn’t a dream that made my stomach hurt, but I was sitting here waiting to see him in two years, hit by awareness and the truth that was suddenly too heavy. I got up and walked to the restroom by the entrance door.
I didn’t know much about prisons, but the bathroom didn’t look like it belonged. I stayed there for a long time, running possible sentences in my head, walking around and fanning myself even though I was still shivering. Talking to him had never required prior thought.
When I got out, only one person was left in the seating area. He got called ten minutes later. It was me, the receptionist, the policeman, and the dog. I used my phone this time. I scrolled through messages from yesterday to seven years ago all the way at the bottom of my contacts, won levels in games I didn't play, and explored apps I never payed attention to.
“Jean Collins. Security’s ready for you.”
I stood, masking my feverish heartbeat with a small smile, and followed the guard through the door and into a room with lockers.
He handed me a key. “Place your mobile phone, keys, jewelry, food items, everything in the locker. Close it and come with me.” His voice was gruff and his posture stiff and straight. I did what he ordered and returned to him empty-handed.
I walked through a metal detector and they told me to remove my earrings when it rang and turned red. After I went through again, it was quiet. I didn’t know why I was upset; small pearls weren’t going to make a drastic difference, but they were his favorite and now they were lumped in with the other presents I’d brought but couldn’t show.
Five minutes of security running their detectors down an inch above my clothes and instructing me on what to do once I got in the room, and then I surrendered my pass and the first guard opened the door. “He’ll be out in a few minutes.”
The room was full of gray monochrome tables with four chairs around each, a little red peppered in on the seats. Two of the people who were with me in the reception area were talking to their folks in orange jumpsuits. I sat at a table farthest from them and waited, swallowing saliva until my throat stopped letting me.
In the middle of an inhale, the door opened. Voices hushed, time slowed and my heart rate rocketed. His hands were cuffed behind his back until they weren’t. He walked, measured and deliberate, making his way to me and gently sliding back the seat.
He looked different – his raven hair was wild and unkempt, the coffee eyes I’d been so used to like the receptionist’s. He was paler, broader, sturdy built, like the guards. Nothing like college Kade. Words stuck to my throat like adhesive. “Hey Jean.” His voice was rougher. I’d heard it two weeks ago but hearing it in person made my gut twist and my legs tremble.
I stared, the conversations I’d rehearsed in my head absent from memory. “Hi.” It came out squeaky, like I forgot how to talk. I pulled my lips taut and glanced away, at the people who were talking in hushed voices to their inmates and at the guard who stood near the door.
“Thanks for coming. I know it’s Valentine’s day and you probably don’t want to spend it here. It means a lot.”
I turned and looked at him, really looked. He gazed at me with tired eyes and lips with downturned corners. At twenty-six, deep wrinkles ran the length of his forehead and I wanted to reach out and lay a hand on his shoulder, some act of consolation, despite what my head told me. “How’ve you been?”
He stayed silent for too long, eyes trained on my shoulder but distant. He glanced at me for a moment before exhaling and running a hand down his face. “I hate it in there, Jean." His shoulders slumped. "Waking up everyday wishing I was home in a real bed. I mean... I don't know." A stretched pause. "What about you?"
It was so simple but I was stumped, staring at the dull olefin carpet with a faded daffodil-colored stain in the middle. “That's a good question.”
It was; maybe that's why I took five minutes, thought about it and then answered with an "I don't know." And it wasn't a complete lie, rather twisted and gnarled so it formed a crooked truth.
"Why don't you know?"
"Well, I don't know a lot of things." I knew he'd press for more. That's what he always used to do, after heated arguments when my goal was to hold a silent treatment until the next morning, and I'd get cornered and give out answers until the anger dissipated with each response and my attempt at holding a grudge felt pointless. "I'm not sure how to feel - about this, about us, about what you did."
We looked at each other, eyes speaking things our mouth couldn't. "Murder, Kade."
His eyes grew wide and he latched on to the edge of the table. "I'm not a murderer."
It stung, emotionally and unutterable, realizing he was in denial. And again when rewinding my mental tape, and knowing that love wasn't a short lived candle flame. I adjusted myself in the seat and looked at the gray monotone table. "You aren't a murderer?"
His gaze was his response. I willed myself not to cry, mentally promised myself that I could have the chocolates I left in my car as a reward.
Kade hung his head in his hands, breathing into them for a moment. “I-I’m so sorry, Jean.” He looked at me, his eyes carrying too many emotions for me to process. "You know what I did and I never wanted to do that to you, having you know something like that." He trailed off and stared at the ceiling, Adam’s apple bobbing. "I mean... how many birthdays did I miss?"
My throat felt dry and I knew what came next. "On the last one, I went out for Mexican food with my friends and we pulled an all-nighter.”
He looked back down and folded his arms on the table. “My favorite food is Mexican.”
What I’d thought in the parking lot was a reality. We glanced between the guard and ourselves, drowned in a deafening silence. I wanted to hear noise, his or any one else’s, but it was quieter than when I arrived and it was overwhelming, pushing me deeper into my seat and closing me off.
I didn’t answer him. I didn’t know to. Looking at his face shot gut wrenching memories at me, memories I didn’t know how to handle and process – when we met at the community college event on the wrong date and decided to go to the small ice cream place one block down the street, the stupid laughs we shared at two in the morning when we couldn’t sleep, the starlight picnics we surprised each other with for no reason - intrusive memories that forced their way into my head. “No. I’m not."
"Do I call you babe?" I asked him. "How do I even address you?"
He stared at me, looking punctured.
“How much longer? How many more sleepless nights?" My voice lowered to a whisper.
“Hold on, Kade.” I inhaled a shaky painful breath. “These last two years have been hard. You hear the stories. Jail doesn't look fun and when I thought about you being here..." My vision blurred and my eyes became wet. "I don't- I don't know what to do."
Kade’s lower lip quivered and he leaned forward, lifting my chin like it was the fragilest thing. Sudden and brief, his eyes looked bright, his skin was the same shade of tan it used to be, and the forehead lines faded. We were reckless in love, juggling between different majors, and our largest problem was finals. I blinked and reality set in.
The memories hovered as we made eye contact and his eyes began to water. “I'll tell you.” His jumpsuit sleeves went down and scars ran down his arms, some faded some not. He didn’t pay attention. "I’m not making you happy when I’m in here.” He wasn’t asking me. "You're miserable and I can't do that to you.” A single tear ran down his cheek and dropped on the table. “Seven years, Jean. I’m sorry I messed it up.”
I shook my head, confused and disoriented. I knew that love wasn't a flame, and I only had to wait a little longer. "Wait, Kade–"
“Listen to me, babe. I need you to leave here and forget about me.” He glanced at the table and exhaled. “Find somebody that makes you happy. Find someone who’s smart and won’t mess up like I did. I can’t sit in my cell knowing I’m the reason for the way you’re feeling. You don’t have to wait for me.”
An odd jagged feeling hit when I realized we were on opposite pages. My shoulders shook and he rubbed them, an attempt at comfort but it only made my trickle of tears become a stream. “Kade.”
“Let me know when you find someone, okay? I won't be mad. You’ve already done two years. You’re done now.” He looked at me, a tired smile barely stretching his tear-stained cheeks, and pressed a kiss to my forehead. Lost and shattered, I leaned into it, relishing one last time in the soft embrace.
I watched him walk slow to the guard, get cuffed and led out, the door slamming shut behind him. Tears tightening my face, I sniffed and headed out, picking up my things at the lockers and leaving after waving to the receptionist and checking out. Outside carried a different air, air of things cracked and broken and quiet. I hadn't kept the promise to myself but the balloons still swayed in the trunk and the box of chocolates still sat untouched on the passenger seat, and I was still going to treat myself to a piece or two.