The first thing one notices is the chair. Comprised entirely of straight lines with minimal upholstery, it’s a chair designed for utility rather than comfort. On the seat is a device like a small heating pad on which I’m asked to sit and, in the polygrapher’s words, “take it easy,” though neither of us believes for one second this will go easily.
To his credit, the polygrapher is much friendlier than the receptionist who looked at me as though he had indigestion and told me I needn’t yell through the plexiglass partition but only speak normally, he could hear me just fine, thank you. Had I yelled? The lobby reminded me of prison, from the receptionist’s scowl to the bars on the windows on account of the seedy neighborhood. The place presumed guilt.
Back in the testing room I sit in the straight-backed chair atop a pressure sensor with arms raised allowing the polygrapher to slip two chains around my torso, to monitor my breathing. These chains too remind me of prison, of those hours-long bus rides sitting bound at the feet, hands chained to my waist with only enough slack to raise a bologna sandwich to my mouth. The polygrapher clips sensors to my fingers and straps a blood-pressure cuff around my arm. Each apparatus is fed by wire into an inscrutable black box connected to a computer on the polygrapher’s desk. A webcam records the tableau. And what an impressive sight! All these wires sprouting from my body! How sophisticated and scientifically plausible it must seem.
The scene is not new to me. It’s my second polygraph in a month, a retake after failing the first test and subsequently confessing to my therapist and probation officer my transgressions—the illicit iPod, the pornography, the late-night visits to sex shops. Before taking that first polygraph I was made to watch a video, purportedly to inform me of the testing procedures. With the somberness of a Baptist preacher, the film’s presenter had warned that my judgement was at hand. God was a black box, and the Black Box could not be fooled. “That old thumbtack-in-the-shoe trick won’t save you,” said the man sadly. Already he seemed disappointed in me. “Only the truth can save you, and it takes bravery and courage to tell the truth.”
In hindsight confessing had been rather foolish, for I realize now that by admitting to my infractions I had only played into their game. The test isn’t really about separating fact from fiction—which it can’t do—but rather about frightening and intimidating the test-taker.
Surprisingly the judge, the very one who had sentenced me all those years ago, decided not to revoke my probation but to grant me a second chance. All I had to do was take another polygraph to confirm that what I’d said in my confession is true, that I surrendered the iPod to a friend in November and have since given up pornography. It should be an easy pass, for all has been told, there is nothing left to hide.
“So you say you stopped looking at pornography on the seventeenth of November,” says the polygrapher now, sipping from an orange Whataburger cup. “And what kind of pornography are we talking? What did you look at specifically?”
I’d gone over it many times before with my probation officer and therapist. After spilling my perversions to the men in group they’d said not one word but only stared at the coffee table at the center of the circle and shuffled their feet. And what was there to say? What was the point of the exercise but to shame and humiliate me? I felt like a dog getting his nose rubbed in the carpet.
I recite again my perversions to the polygrapher: “Boys ages nine and up, mostly shirtless, some nudes, sunbathing on beaches, no sex. Men as well, Hispanics mostly, oral and anal, self-sucking, self-fucking, water sports.” I laugh. “You must hear some crazy shit in your line of work.”
The polygrapher looks up from his computer and smirks. “Oh, yes. I’ve heard it all. This here is quite tame, really. Any bondage?”
“Hitting? Slapping? Choking?”
The polygrapher continues his interrogation while on the edge of his desk sits the webcam with its iris fixed on me. I wonder if it’s already recording.
Once he’s composed the questions, the test begins. Typically the exam is run three times, but after the third round the polygrapher leans back in his chair and says he’d like to run through the questions a couple more times, to make sure the results are “nice and clean.” Were the first three rounds not so nice and clean? I feel my pulse throb in the clamps attached to my fingers. The polygrapher strikes his keyboard and once more the blood-pressure cuff around my arm tightens, and the test begins again.
“Are the lights on in the room?”
“Are you sitting down?”
Each response is followed by a moment of silence, a small prayer, while the monolithic Black Box weighs every twitch and breath.
“Since the seventeenth of November, have you viewed child pornography?”
Those words child pornography are a provocation in themselves, encapsulating my shame, my guilt, my weakness, my condemnation. I feel my face flush and scalp tingle. The pounding in my fingers travels up my arms and into my ear drums. The Black Box takes its measurements. I’m doomed, I think. Aloud I answer, truthfully, “No.”
After the polygraph I drive to the laundromat, glad to be freed of that place with its barred windows that remind me so much of prison, and also glad to have a monotonous chore to keep my mind off the test results. Typically one receives his verdict on the spot, but the polygrapher had wanted to send the data to “QA” for rigorous statistical analysis, “just to be sure.” This, the therapist told me in a text message, is a good thing, as it means the polygrapher is being vigilant, taking extra strides to ensure the integrity of the results. It’s like telling me I ought to take heart that my executioner is double-checking the integrity of his noose to ensure the quickest death.
At the laundromat I toss two loads of clothes in the washing machines and walk next door to the chicken place for a three-piece platter, spicy, with beans and coleslaw. After eating I move my clothes to the dryers and turn my attention to a telenovela playing on the TV. Two raven-haired beauties claw at one another, assumably over the Latin beauty who stands nearby looking horrified if not slightly intrigued. The man is impossibly handsome with caramel skin, honeyed eyes, and stubbled granite jaw. Integral to the plot, the man in shirtless. I am in love.
My therapist might claim I’m objectifying the man, appraising him solely for his physical qualities. In a recent group session I asked the therapist what constituted a healthy sexual fantasy. She lit up. “Such a great question,” she said peering into each man’s face. A healthy fantasy, she said, is one that shares the same principles of healthy sex: consent, respect, equality, safety, and trust. “You can remember the principles by the acronym C.R.E.S.T., like the toothpaste.” The therapist said that when we masturbate we ought to imagine either a current partner or a partner from a past healthy relationship. We could also create a story in our heads that fulfills the C.R.E.S.T. principles. That evening while showering I attempted to conjure a respectable fantasy but the narrative kept slipping into the well-worn rut in which pornography had tread from the time I was thirteen. Respect and equality were quickly dispensed for the usual rough and tumble. Afterward I felt silly and stupid. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t jerk off properly?
Folding my laundry I think now how therapy has the tendency of whittling a person down to his diagnosis. One so easily comes to see himself and the entire world solely through the lens of his affliction. Anything and everything could be evidence of sexual inadequacy, every glance an example of objectification, every erection a possible sign of deviousness.
I wipe my brow with a clean towel. The heat from the dryers is beginning to get to me. Folding my final load I notice a man several machines down watching me intently. He is in his mid-forties with navy eyes, sooty lashes, and a slash of a mouth. His stare makes my groin stir, dredging up more self-doubt and guilt. I look away, but he approaches.
“Excuse me, I was wondering if you’d help me fold my duvet. I’d rather not have it drag the floor.”
And so we stand apart from one another holding opposite ends of the slipcover, and, as in a line dance, we come together, our four corners kissing. The man thanks me and introduces himself as Phil. “I was watching you fold your clothes,” he says. “You’re very meticulous.”
One of the rules of sex offender treatment is that we’re not supposed to have sex with anyone we haven’t known for at least two weeks. But just as I’m about to lie and tell Phil that I have a boyfriend, instead of trying to pick me up he offers me a job. He says he owns an Airbnb and needs someone to make up the rooms prior to the guests’ arrival. “I need someone as meticulous as me.”
“You need someone to clean?”
“No, my cleaning ladies do that. You would be more like my assistant and a sort of concierge. You’d set out flowers and cookies, make sure the toiletries are stocked, and tend to the guests. I could pay you, say, twenty five an hour.”
Twenty-five dollars an hour to set out flowers and cookies? I tell him I’ll do it.
He takes down my number, smiles and says he’ll have to assume I’m not some mad man or serial killer.
“No, I’ve never killed anyone,” I say. “But I am a sex offender.”
His smile falters. Then, deciding I’ve made a joke, he smiles again only to hesitate once more when he realizes I’m serious.
“I just finished serving ten years in prison for downloading child pornography.” I’ve become accustomed to talking about my past. People, gay men in particular, are generally understanding, and Phil looks more intrigued than turned off. He says my criminal past shouldn’t be a problem and asks that I meet him the following afternoon at the property.
The next day I park across the street from a handsome two-story craftsman with yellow siding and white trim. An American flag hanging from the columned porch billows over a crisp green lawn. It was built, Phil tells me, in the 1940s and was on the verge of collapse when he bought and renovated it. He converted each floor into a separate living space with the upstairs accessible by a side stairwell. At the far end of the backyard beside a car port is a third unit, what Phil calls “the cottage,” a space just large enough to accommodate a bed, bath, and kitchenette.
Having toured the property, we sit now on a small porch off the cottage in wicker rocking chairs. Beside me Phil looks out across the backyard rocking and sipping mineral water. In the waning afternoon light a strand of lights strung amongst the poplars blinks on. One of the bulbs has burned out, and Phil sees that I’ve noticed. “That’s what I need,” he says. “Someone with an eye for details.”
Earlier on the tour I’d plucked a stray ball of lint from an oriental rug as much to impress him as it genuinely bothered me. Yet as particular as I am, I’ve begun to understand that Phil is downright obsessive. Over the course of our walkthrough he found several items in need of “correcting,” as he put it. He pointed out that the drapes ought to be opened prior to the guests’ arrival, to let in the most natural light. Also the lamps should be switched on and the thermostat set to precisely seventy-two degrees. In the cottage he spotted more lint on a duvet and sucked it up with a cordless Dyson. In the bathroom he discovered the washcloths folded incorrectly and the toilet paper stacked haphazardly. “They should be stacked in a pyramid. Three rolls on the bottom, two in the middle, one on top.” Before leaving the bathroom he pointed to the footprints I’d left in the shower mat and had me rake them out with my fingers.
He turns to me now in his rocker. “So what was prison like?” he asks. “If it’s not too personal.”
The question surprises me. People far closer to me have never asked about prison. Perhaps they figure it’s a subject I’d rather forget. I hardly bring the matter up myself, but not because it makes me feel uncomfortable but because the breadth and otherworldliness of the task is too staggering to take up, like cataloging the insects of the Amazon. Where would I begin? And who would understand?
“It was frightening,” I say, which is the truth though not even a fraction of it. And anyway, when people do inquire about prison, what I understand them to be asking is about the bad stuff. They want to be entertained. They want the things they’ve seen on television and in the movies to be verified. But the truth is more mundane, more subtle than that.
“It becomes your life, like anything else,” I say. “You wake up, you go about your day, you go to sleep. You can get used to anything.”
Across the backyard a light turns on in the downstairs unit. A dog barks. My answer has disappointed us both.
“You took me by surprise at the laundromat,” he says. “You don’t look like someone who’s been to prison. You don’t look like the type.” By “type” he means I’m not black.
“Circumstances,” I say. “Everything is circumstantial. There’s no such thing as good people or bad people, only circumstances.”
“And what are your circumstances?”
“I’m an addict.”
“And when did you realize you’re an addict?”
“When I got out of prison and went back to doing the same things that put me there.”
In the violet light Phil’s navy eyes appear black. “Ten years is a long time,” he says. “I ought to be more careful myself.” He swallows his water. I say nothing.
“I mean, some of those pictures can be a bit dicey. It’s easy to click on the wrong thing.” He goes on to say that he is partial to heterosexual incest, with air quotes around the word incest, for he says he doesn’t really believe what he sees online is of actual mothers and sons. But this is of no difference to him. It’s the story, he says, that turns him on, this and the expressions on the young men’s faces.
The conversation is beginning to arouse and frighten me, and I’m relieved when the back door of the house opens and a small woman emerges, tottering towards a Volvo parked beneath the car port.
“Evelyn, my dear!” Phil calls. “Evelyn, you must come meet my new assistant.”
The woman and I exchange smiles.
“Evelyn, I trust everything is to your liking. How’s Audrey?”
Evelyn says her daughter is just fine. She’s inside with the dog and she, Evelyn, is just on her way out to pick up cold cuts for supper. Once the car port’s gate has closed on the back alley, Phil raises the issue of the homeless people who camp out there and leave behind trash. Cleaning up the litter will be another of my responsibilities. The subject of incest having passed, Phil steers the conversation towards the neighborhood, property taxes, and eventually politics. He’s a Republican and doesn’t mind telling me the 2020 election was rigged and it won’t be long before the Democrats enforce Sharia law and begin killing off us homosexuals. “Our freedoms are in jeopardy!” he shouts. He sits back in his rocker and wipes his mouth. I check my watch. I tell him I have to be at work in a half hour.
Walking me up the side yard past blue and brown pales, Phil explains the recycling schedule but reiterates that my primary responsibility is to make the guests feel welcome. Here he clears his throat and offers another of his corrections: “You might have been a bit warmer toward Evelyn.”
That night is karaoke night at the Noodle House. The dining room and patio are packed with patrons slurping pho and sucking on edamame pods. Beside the bar, standing at a microphone, a diner sings Dido’s “White Flag” with surprising competence. Later in the evening, as the drunks descend to temper their impending hangovers with spicy pad Thais, the singing will devolve into slurred yelling and laughter.
Back in the kitchen, beside the ice machine, I sit on a five-gallon bucket of soy sauce shoveling stir fry into my mouth. Rachel stands beside me at the prep table rolling egg rolls, the wrappers fanned out before her like playing cards, each topped with a dollop of pork mixture. Deftly she rolls each wrapper to the length and thickness of a cigar. She turns to me suddenly, remembering something. “You had your polygraph today.”
I nodded, head bowed, noodles wagging from my mouth.
“How did it go?”
Just before the first polygraph, after a particularly hectic night with record sales, Rachel took me out for a drink. I wondered later if the occasion were more than purely celebratory, for after receiving our drinks she turned to me, her eyes becoming pointed, and asked how I was handling probation. She looked so different away from the kitchen, her silvery blonde curls freed of their usual hair net. I noticed for the first time that she was quite beautiful. I admitted to her I was scared of the upcoming polygraph. She shook her head and smiled, said I had nothing to worry about because I had nothing to hide. I only looked at her and continued to stir my gin and tonic.
She pulled her stool closer. She said she has a friend who takes polygraphs and he has a trick for passing. “Before answering a question he says to himself, I am not wearing pink socks.” Her friend had learned the trick from a guy who did work for the government. It worked every time. She tossed back her Jack and Coke and laughed in her wonderful, gravelly smoker’s laugh. “Just make sure you’re not wearing pink socks on the day of the test.”
“So did you pass?” Rachel asks again.
I swallow my noodles, lick coconut sauce from my lips. “The jury’s still out.”
Later that evening while taking out the trash, the garbage bag hot and leaden with uneaten food, chopsticks poking through the sides, I stare up at the night sky and am surprised to see so many stars in the middle of the city, more stars than I’d seen in the remotest prison in Mississippi. There the perimeter security lights had cast the yard in a ghostly gloaming which made it seem as though the sun never truly set and which blotted out the stars.
Several blocks to the west Cityplace Tower rises above uptown, its edifice lit from below by amber beams. The dramatic shadows across its arches and columns bring to mind ghost stories told by flashlight. Twelve flights below ground is the vaulted cavern that is Cityplace Station. It was nearly a year ago, fresh out of prison and still living at the halfway house, that I would take the Blue Line into uptown and from there walk the ten or so blocks east to the restaurant. With time to spare before my shift I would stroll the nearby shops for no other reason but that I could. I had yet to begin probation or treatment then. I had no apartment or bills, no car to urge me anywhere. Nothing and no one had yet staked their claims on me. It was the essence of freedom, so I thought. Though now I wonder if it had been too much freedom too quickly. But after being locked up for a decade it felt like breathing pure oxygen to ride that train and walk those blocks and to stretch my legs and feel that pavement beneath my feet.
I pitch the trash bag in the Dumpster behind the restaurant and long for that time when freedom had been its most visceral. So quickly did life encroach with its demands and obligations to make one feel he’d lost his autonomy. I’ve promised myself many times that I would take the Blue Line again, explore the city for an afternoon to recapture that freedom, but of course I never do. And now it seems time is running out.
That night I dream I’m in prison and someone is asking me how much time I have left before I go home. Then I wake, not in a bunk but in my bed, in my apartment, and the giddiness I felt in the dream is replaced by crushing disappointment. I am already out. I have been out for many months, and freedom isn’t what I thought it would be.
I rise and dress in a pair of stained kitchen jeans and a tank top I’d bought at the prison commissary. Phil has said we’ll be repainting the kitchen floor in the upstairs unit. Before leaving my apartment I send a text to the therapist asking if the results of the polygraph have come in. She says they haven’t.
I park across the street from the craftsman and let myself in through the front gate, which is pass-code protected. In the backyard I find Phil at a patio table laden with cans of paint, tins of turpentine, stir sticks, and sandpaper. He says there are more tools to be fetched from his office, a rented efficiency in the neighboring apartment complex. The kitchenette and bathroom are devoted to storage, stacked with neatly labeled cubbies filled with spare light bulbs, batteries, detergent pods, towels, napkins, travel-sized soaps, shampoos, and moisturizers. Phil reviews with me the contents of each cubby and how they fit within his orderly system. “The green trash liners are for the cottage while the orange are for the house, with the exception of the en suites which get the yellow liners.” Locking up the apartment I’m touched when Phil hands me a spare key.
Before we can begin painting, Phil says we’ll need to stop by the hardware store and laundromat. Outside on the street he surprises me by stopping before a monstrously aggressive dooley on a raised suspension. I climb, literally, into the passenger seat and we take off roaring down the boulevard, rolling through stop signs, Phil pointing out the bakery and florist where I’ll be picking up the cookies and flowers for the guests. Pulling into the laundromat’s cramped parking lot, Phil sits a little higher up in the driver seat and smiles grandly. “They’re watching me,” he says, referring I suppose to the customers inside the laundromat. “They don’t think I can park this thing.” Nor do I. The truck’s parking assistant blares objections and I think we will surely swipe the Hyundai to my right with the dooley’s broad side mirror which sticks out from the cab like a boat oar. He has to back out and reenter the space head on. The truck’s bed sticks out three feet in traffic, but he does indeed park the thing.
It doesn’t take long to confirm what I’d already come to suspect about Phil, which is that he is fussy, scatterbrained, racist, and a pain in the ass. A regular at the laundromat, Phil is greeted by the staff with starched smiles. Three times he tells the clerk at the counter, who understands English perfectly well, that the two queen sets he’s dropping off are to be folded and bundled separately. Then at the hardware store Phil discovers he’s left his phone at the laundromat, only to find upon returning that the phone is not there. After imploring the staff to dial his number, and after hearing no ring either at the counter or in the truck’s massive cab, we return to his office to find the phone lying where he left it, on his desk. “You’re losing your marbles, Phil,” he says, for he has a habit of scolding himself in the third person.
After two additional trips to the hardware store on account of having forgotten the masking tape and then the brushes, I’m rather done with the whole enterprise. Back at the house when I excuse myself from masking the baseboards to take a leak, Phil says what I fear he’ll say, which is that he prefers I use not the bathroom just down the hall but the apartment’s bathroom next door. I decide then that I don’t much like Phil.
It’s nearly two o’clock by the time we get down to painting. For someone who claims to have renovated an entire house, Phil is inept at painting. He can’t fill the pan without dribbling, doesn’t know how to properly load the roller with paint of even how to fully seat the brush on the roller, for it hangs a good two inches off the handle. His strokes are weak and ineffectual. He rolls and re-rolls over the same patch of floor, and as the epoxy begins to set and turn sticky, bits of the old paint flake off and cling to the brush and to the freshly laid paint. He tweezes the flecks off the brush with his fingers, and by the time we are finished his hands are a tacky mess, as are mine cleaning up his spills. Afterward in the backyard while washing ourselves with turpentine, I think the worst is behind me. I’m ready for the cookies and flowers. But Phil lands me a blow: tomorrow he wants to attack the laundry room and stairwell floors.
The next morning I find Phil sweeping the laundry room off the kitchen. He says he needs to return to the hardware store for more paint and asks me to stay behind to mask the baseboards.
He is gone longer than I expect and after having taped off the laundry room and back stairwell, I take to shuffling among the various upstairs rooms. The house is quiet and filled with clean morning light. The hardwood floors and silk rugs feel pleasant beneath my feet. In the parlor I sit at a large round game table with built-in coasters. Stacked to one side are board games—Monopoly, Parcheesi, Scrabble. I wonder if I’ll ever own a home, if I’ll ever get out of the restaurant and have a career with a salary that doesn’t require me to side-hustle for a queer, right-wing fussbudget.
My phone rings then. I can tell by her voice, tiny and apologetic, that the news is not good. The therapist says she’s heard back from the polygrapher. I’ve failed my second polygraph. She has no choice but to discharge me from treatment. I close my phone and gaze out the leafy green windows at the manicured lawn, the American flag billowing off the front porch. The antique glass panes have a half-melted lollipop quality that causes the light to shimmer. Or perhaps it’s my tears. I never liked those group sessions, those embarrassing and shameful confessions, the endless talk of polygraphs and masturbation and what is and isn’t a healthy sexual fantasy. And yet, inexplicably, right at this moment I miss those men.
I rise from the table, walk to the master bathroom and take a piss.
When Phil returns we set to work painting. The stairs leading from the upstairs laundry room to the downstairs back patio are steep and winding. We work from the top down, Phil rolling while I cut in with a small brush three steps below him. Rolling is the easier task, which I suspect is why Phil chose it. Cutting into the corners of each step and riser is slower going, and by the time we reach the middle of the stairwell, my head start has vanished. Phil is now only a step above me and shows no intention of slowing. Nor with his back toward me does he even notice me directly beneath him. His bare feet, stippled with paint, wag in my face. I haven’t finished the current riser but move down a step anyway. Phil moves down a step as well, then another. I look up at him thinking he might look back to see how I’m getting along, but he’s oblivious, just keeps on painting with that damned roller still hanging two inches off the handle.
I see then how my life will play out.
I stand slowly and back quietly down the stairs a step at a time. Phil doesn’t notice. The patio door at the bottom of the stairwell has been propped open for circulation, and I step over the threshold onto the deck and slip into my sandals. I set down my brush, pull the spare key from my pocket and place it on top of a paint can with a soft click. I take one last look up at Phil’s back. Then I run.
I run around the house, down the narrow side yard, past the recycling bins. I run across the front lawn. From inside the house I hear a dog barking. Had Evelyn or her daughter chanced to look through the living room window just then they might have caught the blurred figure of an escapee.
At the front gate I have a moment’s panic thinking I’ve forgotten the pass code before remembering it’s the same as the house number. I fling the gate open, dash down the walk and am almost hit crossing the street by an SUV. The driver lays on his horn as I jump into my own car, laughing, paint on the steering wheel and on the gear shift, but I don’t care. I am tearing town the road. I am flying. I am on the Blue Line, whipping through the city, pulling into Cityplace, ascending the escalators to the surface. The city, the pavement, the air. I will recapture that freedom. I will have my second chance. And this time, somehow, it will all work out.