We sit on the porch at a table painted sea-foam green, mauve, and lavender. Wind chimes trill in a curry-scented breeze. And in a nearby window, beside a potted pencil plant, sits a six-armed bronze figure. It is of Shiva, the Hindu god of fertility and life, and also, paradoxically, of death and destruction.
In an effeminate southern drawl, which I decide to find endearing, Andy, my date, tells me he’s never eaten Indian cuisine. They don’t have places like this back in Arkansas, he says. Andy relocated to Dallas a year ago to help care for his niece and nephews. But after only two months his brother decided to pack up the house and kids and move back home to Little Rock, leaving Andy alone in the city not knowing a soul save for a distant cousin who owns a cleaning business and for whom Andy now works scrubbing carpeted reception areas and travertine lobbies. I decide I like this about him too. He is an immigrant, an expat and cultural blank slate, much like myself freed from prison now less than a year ago.
The hummus I ordered arrives slicked with oil and studded with a purple-black olive. Andy spears the dip with a piece of warm nan, which he pronounces naan, and takes a bite.
“Lord, that is good!” he says. He’s less enthusiastic about the curried spinach enchiladas, which he decides have too much spinach.
We talk over dinner about inconsequential things such as food, work, and the notoriously fickle Texas weather. He doesn’t ask why I went to prison, and I don’t offer to explain. The night we met I’d been out drinking at a bar with my old college boyfriend, Jamie, who’s in the States teaching French for a semester at the local university. Andy had been sitting at the neighboring table having a beer with a friend when he, the friend, turned to us and asked if we knew what time the restaurant across the street closed. I said I didn’t know.
“Are you not from around here?” asked the friend.
Jamie brought a Shiner to his mouth and smirked.
“I’ve lived in Dallas most my life,” I said, “but I’ve been away for awhile.”
The man asked where. I said it was no place he’d ever heard of, a small town out in West Texas called Big Spring.
Amazingly, he said he’d been there. “I have a friend who lives in Big Spring. What brought you to West Texas?”
Again, that smirk from Jamie. He hasn’t changed much in the fifteen years since we dated. His waist has thickened somewhat, and he smokes now, a habit he picked up living in France. But his hazel eyes still retain the same preternatural wetness I remember from our youth, and when he smiles, as he did then, the lids narrow and the corners tug upward giving his face an Asiatic quality.
Since getting out of prison I have, on occasion, felt compelled to confess my past to perfect strangers. I confide to passengers on the train, to the stylist who trims my beard, to the man curling dumbbells beside me at the gym. I tell them, frankly, that I spent the last decade of my life in prison and have been out now less than a year. I enjoy the shock it brings; people are so insular and guarded nowadays, I enjoy throwing them off. Surprisingly their reactions have been without exception positive. They congratulate me on my release and offer me luck in the future. A few have admitted they have friends or family members who are incarcerated. No one asks what I did.
It’s encouraging to find such unexpected warmth in a world that seems to conspire to convince us it contains none.
Mellowed by a gin and tonic and feeling once again confessional, I admitted to our neighbors my reason for being in Big Spring. “I was incarcerated there.”
Andy, who until then had been shyly smoking a cigarette and playing a slots game on his smart phone, sat up straight. He flicked his platinum hair from his eyes and said, “Lord, but you don’t look like someone who’s been to prison.”
I sipped my drink and wondered what someone who’s been to prison looks like.
Eventually, and without asking my crime, Andy offered me his number. He started again when he saw my flip phone. “Lord, do they still make those!” he cried. I passed it to him, and he and his friend took turns folding and unfolding it.
After Indian food, at my suggestion, Andy and I walk to a nearby coffee shop where we find a live band performing outdoors on a small wooden stage. Andy believes the tableau planned—the soft folk music, couples nestled in the lawn, golden lights hovering like fireflies strung amongst the elms. But while it is only happenstance that I should have brought him here on this particular night, we each feel the moment undeniably ordained.
We don’t stay but take our coffees on a stroll through the neighborhood. At a busy intersection, while waiting for the light to change, Andy turns to me and asks the color of my eyes. I wonder if perhaps the traffic light is playing tricks, turning my brown eyes amber, but he explains that he is colorblind and sees the world only in black and white. In fact, he admits to having consulted his mother via FaceTime before our date to ask her whether his outfit matched.
Eventually we arrive at Andy’s car, a lime-green Veloster.
“Are you aware your car is lime-green?” I said.
We climb inside and the cabin smells of cigarettes and cardboard air freshener. The seats sit so low and recline so far back that I feel cocooned and safe.
“You’ve been polite to not ask why I went to prison,” I say to the dashboard. And then I tell him everything—about the pornography, my criminal charge, prison, probation, treatment. I feel as though I’ve been talking too slowly and for too long, and my mouth is tired, like I’ve been chewing cereal without milk. Midway through my confession I dare a glance at Andy’s face and see there a look of sympathy, and I understand, in a self-satisfied way, that I’ve pulled off a great con. And although I know he won’t refuse me, I say to him anyway, in a show of humility, that I’ll understand if my past makes him too uncomfortable and he doesn’t want to see me again.
He says, of course, that he does want to see me again. He doesn’t care about the past, only about the present and future.
I pick him up from his apartment the following day. A dog in the neighboring unit barks ferociously when I rap on the knocker. Andy answers the door still damp, his platinum hair freshly moussed. He wears pink shorts with a navy shirt that reads, “VERS TOP,” and I wonder what his mother must have thought of this particular outfit.
The apartment is dim and sparsely furnished with a brown rug and brown futon. An oversized table in the kitchen is piled with unfolded laundry. I trail Andy through the apartment as he frets, plucking clothes and bric-a-brac from the floor. Passing the bathroom I see a sink littered with hair- and skin-care products. In the bedroom against one wall is a bed dressed in a navy velveteen comforter, above which hangs a monochrome print of a leopard. Poppers and a bottle of lube sit on the nightstand. Opposite the bed is a television, a black monolith that takes up most of the wall. Andy asks me what I like to watch.
“I don’t own a TV.”
“No TV? Lord, but what do you do!”
My decision to not own a television has been met by my friends and family with a curious amount of resistance. When I tell them I don’t want a TV they react as though I’ve opted to forgo indoor plumbing or have decided to forage for my food. I tell them if I can go a decade without watching television in prison, it must not be important. There is, however, another reason for not owning a TV. While on probation I’m restricted from owning a smart phone, computer, and any device capable of connecting to the Internet, including smart TVs, which is most every television sold today. But I don’t tell Andy this. I tell him I prefer other activities to watching TV, such as yoga, writing, and reading.
“Lord, I don’t read!” he says. “I can’t comprehend a damn thing.”
The afternoon is bright and overcast, and on the car ride to the arboretum Andy double checks an app on his phone to confirm the weather will hold.
Inside the gardens, meandering paths have been lined with thousands of pumpkins in celebration of autumn. The orange, white, and mottled green gourds stand at the beds’ edges like sentinels against the encroaching nature. Small signs staked in the ground identify each plant by both its scientific name and its more colorful, cheeky informal name. I touch Andy on his elbow and point to some of them—Turk’s Cap, Beautyberry, Frogfruit. But Andy isn’t paying attention. He is aiming his phone at a crop of nearby flowers. He tells me he has an app on his phone that can identify any plant simply by taking its picture. He demonstrates by snapping a photo of violet-blue scabiosa blossoms. His phone thinks for a moment, declares the flower a fall aster. Andy shrugs and walks off, still snapping photos. The incident reminds me of when, some years ago, the editors of the Oxford English dictionary purged a number of seldom-used words from the iconic tome, many nature related. Words such as fern, ivy, and mistletoe were cut to make room for more prominent, pertinent words, including voice-mail, MP3 player, and blog. As Andy aims his phone at the trees I wondered who, if not our computers or books, will remember the catkin.
Technology fails us again when later, while walking through vegetable gardens planted with peppers, squash, and okra, the sky unleashes a torrential rain, the kind of downpour that is heard before it arrives, drumming the earth like fingers on a tabletop, closer and closer until it’s upon you.
We find shelter beneath a small gazebo along with another couple, a man and woman. Coincidentally, the man has on his phone the same app as Andy and is snapping pictures of some ivy growing up the gazebo’s legs. He laments to the woman, “If this rain doesn’t stop soon I’m going to run out of plants to photograph.” Meanwhile, Andy is consulting his own phone, cursing his radar app for breaking its promise of dry weather.
With their noses pressed to glass, none of my companions beneath the gazebo seem to really see the rain, or rather they see the rain only as far as it is an obstacle to be dealt with, to be reigned in by the devices in their hands. Which is unfortunate, because it’s a beautiful rain. Tremendous. The rain is a presence. It is everywhere at once. It might well be raining across the entire world, drenching every surface, inciting every leaf and petal to shimmer and dance. In prison we were made to stay indoors during even the lightest of showers for fear of lighting strikes, potential injuries and lawsuits. I wish Andy could appreciate the rain as I do, but I know he cannot.
It ends as suddenly as it begins, like god’s palm muffling a chord. Back in the gloom of his apartment he approaches me all eyes, mouth, and hands. I let him kiss me, because it’s been many years, because it feels nice to be wanted in this way and to feel that I have something to give. When we pull away he asks me if I’ll be his boyfriend, and I laugh.
“We’ve only just met.”
“I won’t hurt you.”
“I know you won’t hurt me,” I say. “I’m afraid I’ll hurt you.”
Over the following week we talk two to three times a day and text each other many times more. He calls me babe, baby, and baby boy, and I take to trying on him different pet names, gastronomically themed, and never the same name twice. I call him muffin, crumb cake, and lemon bar before moving to cuts of meat, such as pork chop, brisket, and mutton. “Lord, you’re a mess!” he says laughing when I call him beef tip.
I don’t speak of Andy to anyone but Jamie and the men in my sex offender treatment group. We meet, the eight of us, every Wednesday in a carpeted room on the fifth floor of a nondescript office building sandwiched, ironically, between a cabaret and strip club off the highway.
Through floor-to-ceiling windows along the eastern wall one can watch the planes taking off and landing at nearby Love Field. It comforts me to watch them from this distance, their roaring engines silent, their trajectories over the treeline serene and assured. I find myself gazing at them whenever the discussions veer toward the unsavory subject of polygraphs, which they often do. Many times we have spent the greater part of the ninety-minute sessions dwelling on polygraphs—the stress of taking polygraphs, the tricks for passing polygraphs, the questionable accuracy of polygraphs, the possible penalties for failing polygraphs and the exorbitant cost of retaking them. Fear of the polygraph presides over every meeting like an ogre sitting silent and formidable in one of the empty plastic chairs that forms our circle. He sets the tone of each of our sessions and often the agenda, as when during opening check-ins the men confess to having viewed “pornography.” One man admits to catching glimpse of a bare posterior on television; another tells us that an errant Google search for “seersucker robe” pointed him instead to “see-through robe.” Such paranoid and trivial confessions, made in earnest, are the offenders’ attempts at “coming clean” and smoothing the wrinkles of their consciences so that they may score winning marks on their next polygraphs. Actual therapy comes second to keeping one’s polygrapher and probation officer pleased.
Today during check-ins, when it comes my turn to share, I pull my attention from the planes and tell the group that I’ve been seeing someone.
“I told him everything on the first date,” I say. “And he accepted it just fine.” I’m quick to add that we haven’t yet had sex. In the contract we sex offenders are made to sign prior to entering treatment, we agree we will not sleep with anyone we haven’t known for at least two weeks. I told Andy about the rule during a heavy make-out session. He laughed and kindly released my dick. Who came up with this rule? he asked. And why two weeks?
“I think it’s fantastic that you’ve met someone,” says David, a sex addict in his late forties with gray melancholy eyes. The only other queer in the group, David and I share an implicit pact. If ever we are made to vote our fellow offenders from the circle Survivor-style, David and I will surely be the last men standing. “That’s so brave of you,” he says, “to lay it all out there like that. I’m not sure I could have done the same.”
“I agree,” says Milton, who is homeless. “That’s very brave of you to talk openly about your past.” He is the only member in the group who is exempt from taking polygraphs. Due to various health ailments, the sensors are incapable of getting a read on him. His vitals come up flat. He is essentially, according to the computer, a corpse. If votes were cast, Milton would be the first man booted from the circle.
Sitting at the head of the group, our facilitator and therapist nods at Milton before turning to me. She is in her early fifties with a smooth face and a penchant for wearing flowy things—dresses, cardigans, shawls—articles that can be wrapped, gathered, and petted. She tells me before the group that she is proud of me for being honest, for coming out of my shell. She says I’m making good progress. Her smile is warm and genuine and makes me blush.
We spend more and more time together. Being with Andy is easy and requires no effort, no thought at all. We share Tex-Mex dinners and sandwich-shop lunches. We see movies and go bowling. We do domestic things, such as grocery shopping, and on one occasion I cook him a dinner of salmon croquettes, wild rice, and roasted vegetables.
The sex, when it comes, is easy too. We lie on his velveteen comforter, our hands and mouths moving with an intelligence all their own. I know instinctively the parts of him that will respond before I’ve put my mouth to them—the oily skin behind his ears, the taut flesh above his hip bones, the shallow impressions between his groin and the roots of his legs. True to his tee-shirt’s claim he allows me inside him our first time together, and I fuck him greedily from behind like a little boy devouring chocolates before dinner. Afterward I lie with my ear to his chest and marvel at the sound. Every beat is a proclamation of life. “I can hear your heart,” I say, but it loses its profundity as soon as the words leave my mouth. Andy puts his phone down and asks me what day it is. I tell him it’s Sunday.
“You realize we’re two days early,” he says. “We weren’t supposed to have sex until Tuesday.”
In October we attend the state fair. Some of the men in my treatment group aren’t allowed to visit fair grounds, parks, or any places where children gather. But I’m fortunate in that my own probationary restrictions, which differ between offenders and are often arbitrary, only restrict me from being alone with minors.
We take a train to the fair grounds, and I explain to Andy, who has never taken public transit, how to read the timetable and the map of multicolored lines like electrical wires posted above the car’s windows. He’s enthralled. “Lord, I feel like I’m in New York City!” he says when the train descends below ground.
At the fair we get lost among the stalls: rigged games with unbeatable odds, old men hawking ball caps and stuffed prizes, fat-armed women dropping corn dogs into vats of hot grease. At the top of the Ferris wheel we witness the city and beyond. Andy takes pictures with his phone while I, having dared myself to look down, watch the teeming swarms of fairgoers below. As with ants, their desperate business, at so great a height, seems insignificant. Farther down still I lose myself in the machine’s thick web of beams, gears, and pulleys. I imagine a mechanical failure stranding Andy and me at the wheel’s pinnacle, and me bravely, nimbly spidering to the ground. In an alternative fantasy I slip and fall. I can hear the sound my body makes dinging off every strut on the way down.
At the petting zoo I pay an old woman five dollars for a Solo cup of feed and immediately realize I’ve been duped. The animals aren’t hungry. All morning and all afternoon they’ve been grazing from the hands of some thousands of children and adults. Their troughs are overflowing with the uneaten pellets and they sit now in the middle of their pens withdrawn and heavy-lidded.
There are the usual barnyard species—goats, hogs, sheep, and donkeys. There is also more exotic fare, including a pair of glum camels, an unamused kangaroo, and three hateful peacocks who flap their wings at the gawking spectators. In one corner of the barn a keeper antagonizes two zebras, swinging a feed pale as if to shoo them. The beasts rear back on their hind legs, wide-eyed and terrified. One of them stampedes the enclosure. A crash of muscle on metal. Children scream and cheer while parents capture the atrocity on their phones to post later on Facebook.
Noticing that I’ve gone missing, Andy lowers his own phone and looks around to find me squatting alone beside the goat pen, a kid goat lapping wildly at my arm. I try to find reassurance in the gesture, but I know the animal is only after the salt in my sweat. Andy looks concerned, and just a little frightened.
“Why are you crying?”
“I don’t know,” I say, but of course I do.
Andy suggests we leave, and I don’t object. He gives the Solo cup of uneaten feed to a little girl whose own cup is still full. She smiles prettily at Andy and her parents thank him.
We have our first argument the following day. Andy, who must leave for Houston to replace a lost driver license, suggests I join him for an overnight stay. His text comes while I’m at the laundromat loading clothes into a washing machine.
“I can’t go,” I write back. “I’m finishing my laundry and I have to work tomorrow.” Only the numerical keypad on my flip phone is a bitch to type on, and the word “tomorrow” comes out “tonsils.” I’m stabbing at the backspace key when Andy calls.
“I can’t possibly go,” I say loading change into the machine. “It’s too short notice, I have nothing packed, and I’m in the middle of washing clothes.”
He suggests I finish my laundry at his place after we’ve returned from Houston.
“Andy, I’m already at the laundromat. My clothes are already in the machine.”
He starts to pout, a habit of his I’ve recently picked up on, and, in that effeminate southern drawl that I once found endearing but which has lately begun to grate, he tells me he is sorry, that he is only trying to spend more time with me. “Lord, you’d think you’d be happy!”
“Andy, Houston is too far. And even if I wanted to go, I can’t travel outside the district while I’m on probation.”
Quarters spill on the floor, and as I bend to pick them up it occurs to me that this—this being free without being free, this feeling of being put upon by boyfriends and therapists and probation officers, this feeling of being disconnected from everyone and everything—this might be the true source of my frustration.
“And to be honest with you, Andy, you’re being very clingy right now and it’s turning me off.”
I’ve stung him now. His line goes quiet, and when he does finally speak, voice flat, it’s to tell me he’s sorry for being clingy and that he will call me when he’s reached Houston.
He still sounds wounded when we speak later that evening. When I ask what he’s up to he tells me he is doing nothing, only lying in his motel room bored and alone.
I close my flip phone and stare for a long time at nothing. Then I slip on shoes, douse myself in cologne, and grab my keys. Across the street from my apartment, the Back Door is nearly empty on a Tuesday night. Three glassy-eyed men sit at the bar. A couple shoots pool in the corner. On a TV mounted above the liquor shelves a late-night comedian I’ve never seen cracks jokes about celebrities I’ve never heard of. I order a gin and tonic and take a seat.
Even with the bar empty as it is, it isn’t long before I’m approached. An Asian or Island Pacificer with jet black hair and jowls breaks from a circle of old queens and sidles up beside me. He says his name is Eddy and traces my jaw line with two fingers.
“I like your beard,” he says.
His fingers, fat and dry and brown, move to my bicep.
“Nice tattoos. This one looks like a paint brush.”
“They’re Photoshop tools. I used to be a Web developer.”
Eddy asks me what I’m looking for and I tell him I don’t know, which is the truth of it.
I finish my drink in three swallows and walk back to my apartment where I undress and go to bed alone.
I call Andy the next afternoon as he’s driving back from Houston. His moodiness from the previous day has been overshadowed by anger at having arrived at his appointment in Houston with the wrong paperwork. His license renewal was denied.
I tell Andy I went cruising the night before.
“You had sex?” He sounds more surprised than upset.
“No, I didn’t have sex.”
“You went cruising and you didn’t have sex?”
“I’m not very good at cruising.”
Now he’s confused. He says he doesn’t understand, and when I tell him I no longer want to see him he promptly hangs up.
The breakup does not conclude with a phone call but is strung out over the next four days through text messages. On my flip phone I punch out tired apologies and vague excuses: “This is all too overwhelming for me,” and “I’m sorry but I need more time to work on myself,” and “I don’t know that I’m ready for a relationship yet.”
Andy’s replies coincide closely with grief’s five stages. He moves from denial to sadness and then to anger, as when he texts me at three in the morning to tell me he hopes I have fun “fucking other guys and kids.” Eventually my phone goes silent and I erase the message thread. A five-week relationship ends with the obliteration of ones and zeros.
It’s something I’m beginning to appreciate about the freeworld, this reliance on texting, the comfortable buffer it provides, and the tacit permission it gives us to not face each other.