I roll over on my thin bunk to stare at the wall. I hate staring at the bars before I drift off. It always gives me nightmares when I do. Nightmares of
(blood, so much blood)
my life before this place. The things I done. So I stare at the wall and try to let my mind go blank. That’s a lot of my life—blank. Blank walls, blank faces, blank future.
I close my eyes
(Please no, please, please don’t)
and try to concentrate on the blackness behind my eyes before sleep envelops me. As usual, I fail and a face swims up at me from the darkness. Her face.
(Please, please don't)
Eventually, merciful blackness.
“Wake up, worms!”
I blearily open my eyes to blinding light and the sound of a baton being run along my bars. We shuffle single file to the chow-hall, everyone keeping his eyes down. As I enter the large room, I notice that there’s a guy in my seat. When I first got to this place, years ago, I claimed an empty table near the entrance. My seat faces the line, so I can see people as they enter, but is the third seat over from the line—that is, just out of arm’s reach. People only sit at my table if they’re invited. Everyone knows this, and no one questions it.
As I approach my table on the way to get my grub, I check the guy out. I’ve never seen him before. He’s wearing one of the orange jumpsuits that are reserved for new inmates, so he’s obviously just arrived. I decide to cut him some slack, because probably no one told him that he’s in my seat. He’s thin, almost wasted. Probably a tweaker. Nervous eyes, which is understandable. He has the look of a first-timer. Don’t get many first-timers in here, only chronic offenders. We got a saying in here for anyone getting out: “It ain’t goodbye, it’s see you later.”
I shuffle past and I lean over to him. “Hey, buddy. That’s my seat. You’d better vacate it before I’m back with my grub.” He glances up at me nervously, but doesn’t move. I try to stare him down, but he holds my gaze. There’s something strange about his expression, but I can’t put my finger on it. Before I can react, the line shuffles along and I’m past him.
I get my tray (watery eggs) and make my way back to my table. He’s still there, in my seat. I walk up behind him and stand directly behind him. I clear my throat and state calmly, “Hey. That’s my seat.”
“Hey man,” he replies, “Just sit in that one.” He gestures to another vacant seat. I wait patiently, still standing directly behind him. “I said, that’s my seat.” He turns around, again meeting my gaze and holding it. I really don’t want to have to ram the corner of my tray into this guy’s skull
(blue eyes, he has blue eyes flecked with gray)
because that would really ruin my meal. By this point we’ve attracted the attention of the guard who comes over and asks if there’s a problem.
“No problem, boss. I’m just telling the new guy here that he’s in my seat.” The guy holds my gaze for a moment longer, and just when the guard is getting ready to intervene, the guy’s face cracks into a huge smile.
“Hey, man,” he says, sliding over into the next seat, “I didn’t mean anything by it. I’m new around here. Sorry ‘bout that.” I sit down in my seat
(warm the seat is warm)
and the guard goes back to his place by the wall. “Name’s Ash. Just got in this morning.”
I grunt at him. I consider making a deal out of the fact that he’s at my table uninvited, but I’ve already got the guard’s attention. I don't need any more time in the hole.
Ash starts to talk. And talk. And talk. Man, can he talk. Turns out he’s a lawyer. Did some shady deals, and now here he is. I can barely get a word in edgewise
(he has a small scar above his eyebrow, I wonder how he got it)
not that I have much to say. I’m not a big talker. And just like that, breakfast is over and he’s up shuffling away. I look at the seat he just vacated. I have this strange urge to reach out and touch it, but I resist.
Later, I’m in my cell, when one of the guards, the big black one with the beard, knocks his baton on my bars to get my attention. “Hey, Johnson,” he says, “Got a present for you. New roomie.” Everyone knows I get my own cell. I’ve had my own cell for, like 2 years now. I earned it.
“What the hell?” I say. “I’m not supposed to be getting no roomies.”
“Can’t be helped,” he grins. I can tell he’s enjoying this. “Overcrowding. Blame the Governor.” He steps out of the way to reveal that same guy from the chow-hall, Ash, standing behind him.
“Hey, there. Remember me? Looks like we’re going to be bunkmates.” He smiles at me—
(His eyes crinkle when he smiles)
and steps into the cell taking in the surroundings, such as they are. “Nice,” he says. “We can definitely make this work.” He flashes me another smile and holds my gaze. I hold it for a second and then look down at the floor.
The guard’s eyes flick back and forth between us, his brow furrowed. “Yeah, well,” the guard says, “you two play nice now.” He lumbers off, whistling and twirling his baton.
“So,” says the guy,
(Ash his name is Ash)
“Where should I put my stuff?”
(blood so much blood)
(wait no don’t please don’t)
I jerk awake and realize I’m screaming. This is nothing new, but what is new is the hand on my shoulder. I recoil and throw my body against the wall, as far away from the dark shape sitting next to me as I can get. He doesn’t speak, but instead he just reaches his hand out very slowly and lays it on my arm. His thumb caresses my bicep gently, before reaching up and wiping away the wetness from my cheeks. His hand comes to rest against my cheek. I want to pull away, to slap the hand, to lash out against the dark shape on the bed, but instead for some reason I lean into the hand on my cheek.
Then the wetness in my eyes on my face is back and I collapse into a ball and he’s there, he’s holding me, his arms around me and for the first time in a long time her face isn’t there in my periphery
(now it’s him it’s only him)
and I’m sobbing and I feel his breath in my ear, on my neck, and then, after some time, blackness
Ash has become very popular. He capitalized on his law expertise and helps some of the other inmates with their cases and appeals. He even advises the warden from time to time. He certainly has been able to find a way to survive in here.
In gen pop we ignore each other. That’s when we actually see each other; he’s usually in the library. In the chow-hall, he’s taken to sitting at another table with some of the guys he’s helping, who provide him their protection. Only rarely, if we’re sure that no one is watching, do we meet each other’s gaze.
After lights out in the cell, however, it’s another story. Every night is the same. Before lights out, we lay in our respective bunks. But once the darkness comes, he silently climbs down to join me. We are quiet, oh so quiet, so no one else will know.
But we know. Our bodies tangle, our skin cannot get close enough. We merge, our breath and heartbeats synchronizing. Before morning, we reluctantly release each other and he silently climbs back to his bunk.
The nightmares have stopped.
Ash is getting released today. He was supposed to have another two years, but the warden made special concessions for him because he was so helpful with the law advice. Last night was our last time together, the longing making my lungs hurt. We’re sitting in the cell, me on the bed, he across the room on the chair. The air is thick with the fog of unsaid things.
The guard shows up to escort him out. He stands, holding his few things. Just before stepping out of the cell forever, he turns back to me and flashes me that smile of his. The nightmares will probably return tonight, but at least I’ll have the memory of that smile.
For the first time, I return the smile. It feels awkward and out of place on my face, which has gone so long without one. He holds my gaze for a moment longer. I open my mouth, but the words don’t come. He shakes his head; he doesn’t need me to speak. Instead his eyes laugh as he says, “Don’t worry, man. It’s not goodbye. It’s see you later.”