Friday, September 13, 2013

To Catch A Shadow

By Terrell Carter

I would awaken to blackness. It would be the middle of the night. Like dragonflies, my eyes would dart back and forth - where am I? Instinctively I would reach out and feel for her; she wouldn't be there, just empty space. Then it would dawn on me, I wasn't home, my wife wouldn't be here--shit, I'm still in prison. I would blink rapidly as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. What time is it? I would turn on my TV to check the time, 3:30 am, just like I thought.

Like an organic alarm clock, a dream had awakened me. It was the same dream, day in, day out and without fail it awakened me at 3:30 am. In this dream I would be driving, I would pick up my cell phone, one of those big bulky ones from the early nineties with the carry on case and the shoulder strap. I would dial her number, and the phone would just keep on ringing—where the fuck is my wife? I would be doing different things in this dream, from driving to just walking down the street, but the one constant would be that I would keep calling and she would never answer the phone. But then my dream would shift and I would go from calling her to actually being with her.

We would be in the house, sitting at the dinner table. The flickering glow of candle flames would leave dancing shadows on the walls. The room would be cast in a romantic dimness and the faint aroma of jasmine would linger in the air. Maxwell's smooth tenor, singing about a fistful of tears, could be heard pumping softly through the speakers located strategically around the room for maximum sound effect. There would be no one there but me and her. I would be talking, I think she would be listening, but I'm not sure, for she wouldn't be facing me. But then something I said would cause her to look my way. Butterflies would explode into flight in the pit of my gut and my heart would pick up the cadence of a marching band's drum line. I would feel an urgency that would intensify by the second. I would be staring at the woman I love, but I wouldn‘t be able to see her face. Why couldn't I see those naturally arched eyebrows that gave her such a serious look? Why couldn't I see those dark browns that sparkled every time she smiled? Why cou1dn't I see that jet-black hair that contrasted with and framed her light skin? Why couldn't I see that infectious smile? It would be as if she was a reflection of everyone and no one. I'm desperate. Why couldn't I see her face?

In this dream I would mustered all my mental strength to conjure up her beautiful image, but it would be to no avail, she would remain faceless--I would awaken to blackness with my breath coming in gasps, the pressure of four walls would be closing in on me and there would be no where for me to go.

My heart would he still pounding and my whole being would be engulfed by extreme vulnerabilities: does she really love me? Will she abandon me? Is she with someone else? I would clench my fist and pound on my flat, hard jailhouse mattress in anger and frustration. I hate to feel that way, trapped by the circumstances of forty-foot walls, watchtowers, rifles, razor wire, being powerless and at the mercy of strangers who judge me without knowing me.
To love and be loved while serving time is an elusive thing, almost impossible to procure, like trying to catch a shadow. It will be under a constant assault, sabotaged by forces you have no control over.

"BZ-5409, you have a visit!" When the correctional officer announces this over the intercom system, for me Christmas had arrived early. Like a child who goes to sleep with dreams of presents in the morning I was filled with a joyful anticipation. In a few moments I would no longer be separated from the woman I love. Happiness had fired the first shots of a war that is being fought within me, but it immediately had to take cover.

"Lift your right foot, your left foot, alright bend over and spread 'em." No matter how many times I've heard those words and been coerced to perform these depreciating acts, each time the embarrassment is renewed. Another man had commanded me to bend over to peer into my rectum. My eyes sing a song of hate as I glared at the correctional officer. Is that a spark of lust in his eyes? Rage and humiliation had happiness pinned down, firing salvo after salvo. With each round fired I'm reminded of my powerlessness, but if I want to see my love this is what I must endure--the dressing room area of a penitentiary visiting room.

I changed into my visiting room attire; a flimsy brown jumpsuit and I stepped into the visiting room. I glanced around, taking in my surroundings: hard plastic, brightly colored chairs are set up like a Greyhound bus station waiting area. Vending machines are lined up against the far wall with everything from bottled water to microwavable chicken wings for sale. The paint on the walls was a drab beige contributing to an atmosphere that's subdued. A low murmur of voices permeated the room; every once in a while a snatch of a phrase, a word or two becomes distinguishable from the undertone. My head is on a swivel as I turned each time a word became distinctive. To my right a baby cried, to my left a couple argued, straight ahead a child screamed in delight. But then I looked towards the door where my wife will enter and all sounds became indistinguishable once more.

Then she entered and upon seeing me she smiled, and her smile immediately joined the war waging within me, turning the tide. Humiliation was shot in the head and anger was on the run. My love walked into my open arms and pressed her soft body against me. She squeezed me tight and just for an instant I forgot where I was. All that existed was me and the warm embrace of the woman I love. We took a seat, lost in each other's presence, but only for a moment. For the joy that I felt came under assault anew by the oppressive weight the beast brings to bear. Cold, hard stares empty of compassion, and electronic eyes watched our every move. The State was on high alert, for the expression of love through intimacy is a capital offense.

"Excuse me sir, could you please remove your hand." Anger stopped running, and I struggled to remain calm, because if I didn't there would be a heavy price to pay. So instead I just removed my hand from my wife's knee and I glared at the correctional officer as he walked away. Despair replaced humiliation in the war. Anger had a new ally and together they launched an all out offensive sending happiness ducking for cover. I wanted to touch her, kiss her, hold her tight and never let go, but like a storm cloud, a constant threat loomed over our heads. If I act on my natural desires, my visit will be terminated, my wife will be banned from the institution, and I will be placed in the restrictive housing unit, more infamously known as "the hole." So although my wife was close she still felt miles away.

My physical contact has been reduced to minuscule spots of time and arbitrary enforcement of rules. These restrictions on physical interactions are a constant erosion on a relationship that is swallowed whole by the insatiable hunger of a beast, causing me to feel utterly alone while in the midst of thousands. This artificial environment’s very nature is designed to break all ties and reduce me to something other than what I was created to be. I've been left exposed, and in the process an empty space has been revealed that’s been filled with the tools of the beast: insecurities, paranoia, and jealousies. These tools work from within; they become a part of who I am, constructing in me a method of self-sabotage. I see phantom threats; I create bogeymen of self-destruction that put a chokehold on the relationship that I desperately fight to maintain.

Layer by layer, my humanity is being stripped away until I become a man devoid of the connections that make me whole. And now after two-decades of being confined, I've been completely contaminated. Paranoia, jealousy, and insecurities wreak havoc on my mind. I called my wife and as the phone rang my heart raced--will this be the time that I call and she doesn't answer? When my wife tells me she's coming to see me, anxiously I wait for her, but will this be the time that she doesn't show? Every promise that I get from her is tainted by seeds of suspicion. Like a contagion, the infection of the beast spreads to my subconscious where it manifests in a dream that keeps repeating itself - why won't she answer the phone? Why can't I see her face?

Society has marked me, I've been designated a thing, incapable of redemption, unworthy of normal interactions. My wife's family and friends, influenced by these societal dictates, press her, they question her sanity, "Girl what's wrong with you? What can you get out of fucking with a jail bird. How can he provide for you, Make love to you? Girl you crazy!" Despite these circumstances I've been blessed. You see, I'm one of the rare few who has been able to capture this shadow, but the struggle to maintain it still remains. Although, I've been able to survive the on going battle with institutional obstacles, the self-sabotage, and the pressure my wife faces from her family and friends, the beast’s hunger is never sated and until I'm completely devoured it will continue to feed. But at the same time I will continue to fight--I refuse to be eaten alive. God forbid that I succumb, that I stop fighting, for if I do, that hunger will have been satisfied--and I will have been totally consumed.

To love and be loved while doing time is an elusive thing and as long as I as I trapped in the belly of the beast, I'll be forever chasing this shadow.

Terrell Carter was born and raised in Philadelphia Pennsylvania and is currently on his 21st year of a life-without-parole sentence at Graterford Correctional Institute.  His published works include Guilty Reflections (revised edition), Guilty Reflections II (War of the Soul), and coming soon, Tainted Soul.  These works are available through

Terrell Carter BZ-5409
SCI Graterford
PO Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426-0244

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