Visitor

He is late, of course. He is always late. He leaves late, he gets lost, he hits traffic, he postpones or outright cancels due to unforeseen circumstances. Once he called me from an airport to tell me he’d missed his flight; he’d gotten the departure date wrong entirely. In the fourteen years I’ve known Jamie—in the years we dated in college, in the subsequent years we remained friends, in the years he’s visited me in prison, in Mississippi and in Texas—he has never once been on time. Which paradoxically makes him one of the most dependable people still in my life.

At six foot four Jamie easily stands out in the crowded visiting room. From afar he appears both foreign and familiar, like an old beloved painting rehung in another room. I see him afresh: the flat shining face, the upturned woolen brows, the thinly lidded, almost Asiatic eyes. He looks lost among the other civilians, until we spot each other, at which point he smiles to reveal tidy rows of small, evenly spaced teeth, kid teeth, which his sister had once called Chiclets, and which I had then felt immediately endeared to. I pick my way toward him, and when we hug, the first of two allotted hugs, the crown of my head reaches his chin, my cheek his shoulder. His arms around me also feel foreign and familiar.

He says it’s good to see me, he’s sorry he’s late.

We take seats opposite one another. Brown plastic chairs molded by inmate labor. We truly do build our own prisons.

Though he’s been here once before, he says he was again confused by the many prisons in the area and couldn’t tell which was mine. To the east lies a minimum-security “camp” and to the south a detention center for illegal immigrants. The first time he visited Jamie stood in line for a half hour before realizing he was at the neighboring private prison. He observed that the people there had looked so miserable, and I wondered whether he meant the staff or the visitors.

As the ladle of justice generally dips from the nation’s poorest stocks, always there is a faint whiff of poverty about the visitation room. The obese in wheelchairs. The infirm shadowed by oxygen tanks. The men’s fingernails black and the women’s gaudily lacquered. They shine, the wives and girlfriends, like baubles of glass and gold plate. On stalactite heels they totter around the vending machines, snapping up their sweetheart’s favorite snacks before they arrive and stacking them like Jenga blocks on the empty seat.

The older women, the mothers of inmates, dress more sensibly. Many have been coming to see their sons in rooms like this for far longer than the young wives and girlfriends. They know to wear comfortable flats that are easy to slip on and off, and wireless bras to appease the metal detectors. They know to bring a sweater to ward off the institutional chill inherent to all such rooms. Many wear the same outfit to every visit. They lay them out in the hotel room the night before, beside clear makeup bags containing exactly twenty dollars in ones and change.

Sitting beside these grandparents and young mothers are the children, whose fashions I’ve noticed in the nearly eight years I’ve been down are becoming increasingly gender resistant. Girls are sporting camo and flannel. Boys are wearing their jeans tighter, and they no longer fear pinks and pastels. On a carpet at the back of the room the very smallest children watch cartoons, which have also changed with the times. Bugs and Scooby have been replaced with a new sexless breed neither animal nor human. Geometric shapes with mouths. They spit and spasm across the screen, competing for a sliver of the children’s dwindling attention spans.

The room itself is a Technicolor chaos. Children crawling on the floor and running between chairs. Colors flashing. Microwaves humming. Sodas fizzing. The room’s very lights flicker off and on, signaling to inmates the start of another hourly bathroom break.

To be honest, I don’t much look forward to visits anymore, particularly this one, which has come at the last minute unbidden to steal me from my gray and comfortable routine, to drop-land me into the past. Someone once warned me at the beginning of my bid: first you hate the fences, until you come to depend on them.

Jamie reaches out and squeezes my knees, giving me a start, and tells me again how glad he is to see me. He tells me he plans to visit more often, now that he’s back in the States teaching French at his old alma mater. He insists the drive was no trouble, and besides, he’s taken up bike riding and the nearby state park has decent trails at which to pit stop.

He asks if I get many visitors, and I tell him my father comes twice a month. There isn’t much for us to discuss, but Dad and I are content to sit quietly and nibble Pay Days and watch the other families. Sometimes he’ll motion to a visitor and share whatever back story he’s gleaned from the waiting room: And that lady there drives all the way from Oklahoma every week to see her husband, and that woman there was made to change because the guard said her pants were too tight, and she had to drive to the next town over to buy slacks at a WalMart. Occasionally a small child will wander over, and my father, raising his chin from his chest and rubbing his drowsy eyes, will smile. The children stare back, dark eyes wide and unknowable. I often wonder how much they understand, what questions they must ask, what gentle deceits their mothers must tell them: Daddy’s in timeout because he did a bad thing.

Jamie looks taken aback when I tell him I haven’t seen my mother in seven years. We talk on the phone, but visits are rough on her; she can’t handle seeing me in prison. Though in the beginning she tried. She came with Dad a few times that first year. Sitting erect on the edge of her chair she’d asked innocent questions about my cellmate and about the book selection in the library and whether I was getting enough food to eat, all the while pulling her cardigan tighter and tighter around her shoulders. It seemed she was shielding herself from more than just the unrelenting AC. When our time was up she allowed my father to lead her from the room by the small of her back. After no more than five visits she stopped coming. She told me on the phone that Daddy’s driving scared her.

Now and then I catch sight of my mother when I’m shaving in the dorm, or when I’m washing my hands before serving officers in the officers’ mess. I see her face in the bathroom mirror, her dark tired eyes, her brows raised in a sigh. It’s a fleeting impression, like a peripheral ghost that disappears the moment you turn.

Jamie goes to the vending machines and returns with a root beer. They’re out of water, he says. Around us the room is quickly filling in. To Jamie’s left a Hispanic family plays Uno with a fraying deck of cards. To his right a woman in red slacks twirls her wedding ring while the man beside her, an inmate, speaks to his folded hands. Nearly all the room’s some hundred chairs are occupied, and I wonder whether Jamie might be asked to leave to accommodate new arrivals. If he were to leave I could go back to the dorm and lie in my bunk, pull the blanket to my nose and sleep. I’d be disappointed, of course I would. But I’d be relieved, too. I sip the root beer and twist the cap tight.

How’s teaching? I ask.

It’s going well, he says, though when he says it his head tilts to one side and his eyes slide up the wall behind me, which means he’s become bored with teaching. I’m not surprised. Jamie was never one to stay still for very long. Always moving. Always changing course. Back in college he dragged me from hookah bars to rock climbing classes, from art festivals to volunteer programs. Trying to keep up with him was exhausting, and there were many times I dug my heels in, demanding we stay in instead, watch British comedies, be in bed by nine. Though secretly I appreciated him for forcing me outside my comfort zone, and I envied his free spirit. He used to say that what made our relationship work was that we were polar opposite: he the extrovert and I the introvert, he the optimist and I the skeptic, he the adventurer and I the nester. He was fond of telling our friends that I kept him grounded, that like a balloon he’d float away on any breeze if his string weren’t tied to my counterweight.

But over three years into the relationship, as we neared graduation, my weight had begun to feel more like an anchor dragging him back. I could no longer hold on to his string. Nor could a single country contain him, for after graduation he moved to France and went on to wander the entire breadth of Europe, backpacking across Germany, sightseeing in Italy, vacationing in Russia. At mail call I receive pictures of the Eiffel Tower, the snowy Alps, and the Royal Palace. Once he sent me a photo of a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner he’d hosted in his tiny Parisian apartment, his French dinner guests crammed around the table looking mystified by a sweet potato casserole. He wrote in his letter he’d had to visit four shops before he found marshmallows.

Jamie sips the soda. He says he’ll commit no more than two years to teaching before returning to France, his true home, as he calls it. He plans to fly back this April to spend spring break with Jonathon, his boyfriend. He tells me they’ve been dating for less than a year and that it’s going well, though I catch Jamie’s eyes traveling up the wall again, and he admits that the sex is a struggle. Jonathon is inexperienced and and self-conscious.

Fourteen years ago our first time had been behind an elementary school. Summer break. The school was deserted. We dawdled shyly around the empty playground, pushing swings and hanging from the monkey bars. Jamie pushed me into an alcove off the building. Hot brick warming my stomach, Jamie’s body warming my back. I unbuttoned my jeans and slid them down to my ankles. It wasn’t long after that we heard the siren. A police siren, first far away, then a block away. Then it seemed its piercing scream had reached the roundabout in front of the school, where it died suddenly. Jamie and I took off running, still wrestling to put our clothes on. We jumped in his mother’s old silver Grand AM with the sticky passenger door and cracked hubcap. Floorboards smelling of motor oil and French fries. We peeled out of the teachers’ parking lot, hearts hammering, hysterical. We never saw any patrol car.

I watch the root beer move down Jamie’s throat and try to remember what his mouth had felt like when we were young, but I can’t. Nor can I remember if he’d been a good kisser, or even a good lover for that matter. Though I do recall fragments of his body, the broad pale torso shot through with dark fur, and the flesh of his backside, astoundingly firm, like boiled meat. And I recall the smoothness of his penis and how it curved upward when erect, so that when standing before him my hand’s natural inclination was to reach for him palm up.

The lights in the visitation room flicker. I excuse myself, and in the bathroom an officer watches me and two other inmates piss. My mother’s weary ghost in the mirror above the sink.

Outside the bathroom a little girl in the throes of her imagination, spinning blindly with arms outstretched like egg beaters, nearly topples into me. I jump back. I’d always been nervous around children, never knowing quite what to make of them, whether to indulge them or regard them with earnest. Now I’ve come to fear children. Irrationally I imagine that had I bumped into the small girl she might have shattered to pieces. The room would look up. The guards would come running, accusing: the monster claims another victim.

Jamie once said he thought I’d make a good father. He said I was patient and playful. Jamie had wanted children, but I didn’t. It was one more way in which we differed. Jamie had wanted to raise a family, move to France, travel the world, ski the Alps, and climb the Tower of Pisa. As the relationship entered its junior year, as our younger fluid selves cooled and separated and hardened into two distinct adult forms, our differences seemed less negotiable. Opposites don’t always attract; sometimes they repel.

He was silent throughout dinner the night he broke up with me. He’d hardly touched his chicken teriyaki. He was quiet too on the car ride home, no doubt rehearsing his lines, building his resolve. I didn’t press him much; so complacent had I become with our increasing unhappiness I’d given almost no thought to Jamie’s reticence. Which might explain my genuine surprise when later that evening at his apartment he suggested we separate. I fought against it. But why? I asked. Because, Jamie said, we want different things. Different things? Was it true? Of course it was true, though I hated being the last to realize it, hated that chintzy mollifying line. Jamie the spender and I the accountant: I demanded firm reasons, an itemized register of grievances that could be examined and disputed and reconciled. Pathetically, I promised to change. I promised to be less rigid, to put in more effort at parties, to finally move out of my parents’ house. I cried and fought to preserve the relationship, even as I felt tremendous relief at its dissolution.

Jamie finishes the soda. He looks around the visitation room, at the family playing Uno, at the children watching cartoons, at the woman in red slacks now quietly holding her partner’s hand. He turns to me and smiles.

What? I ask.

He shakes his head and continues smiling, elusively yet kindly.

A couple of years ago, in the midst of a severe depression, I called Jamie from prison. Reaching him wasn’t easy. I could never remember the time difference between Paris and Texas, and his U.S. number wasn’t always in service. But on this evening, on the sixth ring, he answered. Even across so many miles of wire and water he recognized the distress in my voice.

“What’s wrong?”

I gulped for air. “Can you do me a favor?”

“Of course.”

“Can you tell me everything will be okay?”

For a few panicked seconds I thought he might refuse. I’m sorry, he might say, but I can’t tell you that. It’s just not true. You fucked everything up, and it will never be okay. I turned from the receiver, smashed shut my lips and eyes.

“Oh,” he breathed finally. “Oh, of course it’s going to be okay. Don’t cry. Everything’s going to be fine, I promise.”

Mercifully, at quarter to three, an officer announces visitation is over. Gradually the room collects itself. Daddies give one last hug, husbands one last kiss. I walk Jamie to the door feeling as I do after every visit, like my boots are one size too big, like they belong to somebody else. I hug Jamie very tightly, the last of the allotted two.

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