I'm in the Big Yard, staring up at a blanket of concrete-colored clouds, when my last name and prison number erupt from the loudspeaker atop the wall.
I remember when knowing that she was here would fill me with so much excitement my heart felt as though it had skipped a beat. I don`t feel it today, though.
At the gate, a guard asks why I`m in the yard if knew I`d have a visit. I deny knowing that anyone was coming to see me. Because that`s easier than trying to explain what only a prisoner understands.
It`s hard to breathe in prison. The experience is inextricably woven with a feeling akin to your head being held beneath water. No matter how long you’ve been in, the sensation doesn`t subside. There are gradations, though. I know if I were to wait in my cell and she didn`t come, the effort to breathe would cross the boundary of mere struggle and move into asphyxiation.
To be fair, C. has always shown up when she said she would. Even when she`s worn-out from work, or exhausted after an overnight flight. On the other hand, it hasn`t always been C. And once it happens to you, you know better.
Sometimes the guards don`t make the call for a prisoner as quickly as they should and visitors end up waiting in the Visiting Room. I hate the thought of that, so I hurry across the compound and down the interminably long corridor that leads into the cellhouse. Before the barred door of my cell grinds open on its gritty steel runners, I’ve already stripped off my sweatshirt and shoes. In the cell, l splash water on my face, run a comb through my hair, and don a set of khaki prison-issue clothing that I pressed earlier in the week with a dictionary on my steel bunk. Outside the cell, I hurry off, still tucking in my shirt.
In the sallyport adjacent to the Visiting Room, l extend my arms to either side and a guard frisks me with latex-clad hands, starting at my shoulders and working down. When he finishes, he waves at the control booth and the heavy steel gate in from of us slides open in time to the laborious drone of an overburdened electric motor.
"Have a good visit."
I step out into a sweeping. table-filled expanse that was once a movie theater, and is now alive with sounds and activity unlike any on the other side of the gate I just passed through. In the carpeted play area at the back of the space, children are laughing. At the table closest to me, Tristan`s wife is singing, her voice as resonant as a bell. On the left Steve is visiting with his son who, at 14, uncannily resembles his father, except, of course, the younger version has hair. On the right, Dave is at a table with his sister, and a 22 year-old nephew who wasn`t yet born when Dave was sent away. I see Gabe`s wife brought her mother this week, and the two of them are playing cards with Gabe at their table. Behind them, I spot C.
There she is.
C. stands up when she sees me. She looks uncertain. Maybe, for the first time since we’ve known each other, even uncomfortable.
I`m conscious that others are watching, because nothing that happens in this space goes unseen. It's just the way the Visiting Room is, the way I imagine a crowded shopping mall is. Gabe’s wife waves as I pass by her table and I can`t help but wonder if she thinks that everything is all right.
C. and I sit down at the table together. She doesn`t say anything.
This doesn’t have to be hard, C.
"How about some dominoes‘?"
The hint of a smile tugs at the corners of C’s mouth and she nods. But she`s gone when I return with the game. I spot her on the other side of the room, in the line of people awaiting a turn at the vending machines.
As I again take a seat, a burst of` unrestrained laughter from the play area draws the gentle admonition of a mother. The children listen to the woman and fall quiet, at least for the time being. All of them know each other. Most are here every week. One is a little girl in braids so heartstoppingly cute that I`ve wished more than once she was my daughter.
Nothing in this room takes away the punishment of prison. If anything, this is where the distress and harm of incarceration is more indiscriminately dispersed than it is on the other side of the gate -- here it`s inflicted upon the non-incarcerated. The pain is on display at the conclusion of each visit, when guards make the call for visitors to leave. Tristan`s wife stops smiling. Steve’s son embraces his father. Dave`s sister loses the battle with her mascara. Gabe`s wife takes hold of her husband`s arm. And sobs rack the little girl in the play area. There isn`t a non-incarcerated person who visits someone they love here who hurts any less than the incarcerated.
That’s just how the Beast works.
Yet, it`s warm in this space. I don`t mean the temperature, because most visitors, like C., have to wear their coats. This building is a breezy monolith of brick and stone mortared into place at the turn of the last century. The warmth here is cultivated between people and radiates out from what they are to each other. It`s the one place in the prison where the warm social markers of "brother," "son," "father," “grandfather," "friend," and "husband" are allowed to emerge from the constrained menagerie of last names and prison numbers locked away in four-story cellhouses on the other side of the steel gate. During the time people are together in this space, the institution can fade to a kind of` backdrop of white noise and the person you`re with can sustain you to the point you`re no longer conscious that you, and they, are being crushed. I know because I’ve experienced it, if only for a time.
Looking down at the table, I concentrate on breathing -- full, slow, and unconstrained breaths. I have to resist the impulse to respire frantically whenever I`m in the Visiting Room. It starts the moment I leave the cellhouse - the feeling that I`m floating up from the frigid depths of a dark ocean. Passing through that last steel gate feels like I`ve broken to the surface, where I can finally gasp and pull in air.
C. is there when I look up. It`s been several weeks since we last saw each other. I steal glances at her as we play dominoes. I note the new earrings beneath her cowl of freshly hennaed hair, the remnant of a sunburn on her brow from the trip to Peru, the mask of concentration as her eyes stay unwavering on the dominoes in front of her, and the tense line of her lips.
What are you thinking C.?
I reflect on the improbability of us. C. is a success: A business woman who has lived and traveled all over the world. And I`m not: I`ve never spent a day of my adult lite outside prison. She came inside these walls to teach communication skills, which she imparted with an assertive, goal-directed business demeanor. On the first note she slipped surreptitiously into my hand in a classroom beneath the unblinking gaze of two security cameras, she wrote, "I invite you to be more open and envision what you want." On the next note, the next week, was her address and phone number. She began to show up
Saturday mornings so we could work more closely, with less supervision. How could I have not fallen in love with her? What I didn`t expect was when she confided that she loved me as well. Clasping my hand in a back hallway of the prison, she vowed to get me out in six months. And why shouldn`t she have believed she could? She can move a company in or out of the country at will.
That just isn’t how the Beast works, C.
But how could I argue when I wanted so much to believe it too? She asked prison administrators to withdraw her clearance to enter the prison as a volunteer and we began to visit. She brought her family - two sisters and a brother in law - here into this space and introduced me. We sat at one of the large tables on the other side of the room, and talked and laughed, as though we were one big family. Six months came and went, and came and went again, while we cultivated the vision of what our life would be like when I got out, where I`d work, and how we`d live together. I was sure we`d do it.
How could I have been so stupid?
C. catches me looking at her.
"You didn`t shave."
I shake my head, because I don`t know what to tell her. Shaving was just more than I could handle today.
"Everyone says that when you get out we`ll be together."
They’re wrong C.
I wonder how she can think that. Is that how relationships work outside this space? I feel a spark of indignation and turn my mind to the mental exercise I`ve practiced over the weeks since we last saw each other -- I swap circumstances with her. What if I were the freeperson, and C. was in prison? I want to think that I`d be there, that I`d have her back no matter what, that I wouldn`t turn my feelings toward someone else simply because I think this circumstance is too difficult. But I have no idea what it`s like to be a free and fully-privileged citizen, so I can`t presuppose to know how I would act f I were. How can I condemn her for something I don`t know about myself?
"Can we talk about the letter?"
She means the letter a guard handed me through the bars of my cell two days earlier. The letter in which she wrote that she "loves" me and would like "to continue to visit." The letter in which she informed me that she`s been "dating" and would like to find a way to "navigate" that with me. I shake my head.
No, C., I'd rather drown.
Silence sits like a brick between us. The line of her lips presses more tightly together and a furrow of consternation appears between the delicate double arc of her meticulously tended eyebrows. We continue the pretense of counting and laying dominoes, for a time. Until she looks past me at the clock above the guard station.
"I should get home."
I nod and stand up. We embrace and I’m careful to keep my face an impassive mask, because I don`t know what it will express if I don`t.
You can do this.
I hold C. a moment longer than I told myself I would. And I sense her hesitancy to release me as well. Or, I imagine I do.
I wend my way between tables to a line of chairs outside the strip room and take a seat alongside other prisoners whose visitors have departed. I watch the guard posted at the visitor exit inspect the security stamp on the back of C.’s hand. He waves at the control booth and, when the gate slides open, C. steps through.
A guard unlocks the door to the strip room and I enter with the other prisoners. We begin to undress at a bench in the uncomfortably constricted space. I remove my shirt first.
"How was your visit?"
I nod at the guard.
Please don’t make me talk.
I untie my shoes and step out of them. Pants next. I note the hole in one of my socks as I pull it off. Underwear. I mime the requisite motions of the search and am grateful to the guard for not saying anything further.
The guard turns his attention to the prisoner beside me and I set about getting dressed. Underwear. Socks. Pants. Shirt. I step into my shoes and don`t bother to tie them.
When everyone is again clothed, the guard places his hand on the steel door that leads into the sallyport.
I take one last breath and nod.
Arthur Longworth 299180
Monroe Correctional Complex – WSRU
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272
Arthur Longworth is a five-time national PEN award winner whose essays have been published by The Marshall Project, VICE News, and YES! Magazine. He is also the author of ZEK: An American Prison Story (Gabalfa Press, 2016), a work of creative nonfiction that lays bare the experience of mass incarceration from the inside. For more info., go to: ArthurLongworth.com