It’s visiting day, and somewhere my son, Aidan, who just turned two, is getting ready. They drove twelve hours to get here and my mom said they were staying at the La Quinta in Bryan, but that means nothing to me. Confined to the walled eighteen acres of this prison, I am completely ignorant of the size or layout of the city I live in.
Going to visit Mommy they’ll be saying and in my mind I see him raise his arms so my grandmother can pull his shirt over his head, his thick hair standing up from sleep. I imagine the strain of keeping him still to redress him, tie his shoes. It’s seven forty-five.
My stomach is twisted up in bittersweet knots while I pull on my khakis, tie my own steel toed shoes, tuck and button and make certain I’m visiting-room-regulation-ready. I look at my watch. It’s seven fifty-two. Five minutes later I check my watch again. It’s still seven fifty-two. Time is moving slower than usual. It feel like I’ve been preserved. Embalmed.
I sit on the tight, tucked edge of my bunk, I’m longing to see him and wracked with the anxiety of how, after six months, I might go about being a mother for half a day. I have to focus to hold my body still while gale force winds arc up over my heart, through my throat and crash like waves into my belly. It’s seven fifty-nine.
“Attention! Attention in the Unit! Inmate 15894-045, you have a visitor.” The sound comes crashing in and though I expected it, I am startled and so is my roommate, Boobs, who turns onto her side and adjusts her earplugs, causing the metal bunk bed to shift and hit the cinderblock wall with a thud. The springs beneath her plastic mattress let out a shrill and painful squeal. A voice across the building screams at the intercom, “Shut the fuck up!” another in response to the first voice, “Naw! You shut up!” and “For real! I’m sleeping here!” The fact that addicts are so naturally adept at self-destruction makes the shouting, the general din of this place, reeks of overkill.
“Attention in the UNIT! Inmate 15894-045, report to the visiting room ASAP!”
Another blast through the sleeping unit stirs another chain reaction of groans, shifts and protests. A few room lights switch on as I gather my courage and head for the door. He is here. He is waiting to see me.
Dark pavement recedes under my steps, it plods away under the swollen sky as I walk the length of the compound towards the visiting room with its little playground, board games, vending machines and tears. The humid morning steams and softens the wrinkles in my clothes; heavy doors loom large. What lies beyond them, looms even larger. In a couple of minutes I’ll be with him. I’ll be able to hold him. The empty ache of separation has made him seem like a dream. A sweet, but fleeting, dream.
I watch my hand reach out and grip the solid door handle and pull it towards me, I smell the acrid years of microwaved ham sandwiches and pizza rolls and hear hinges whine my arrival. The officer looks up, and, even though she knew I was coming, she’s clearly annoyed to see me. “It’s about time,” she says. “Do the Dance.”
The dance is legs wide, arms to either side like wings while she pats me down. Later I will strip naked in the bathroom, and I will be searched more intimately, but, right now, I don’t care about violation or my lack of civil rights. There is no periphery, there is only the point. My son, all legs and black hair a-blur. He is here and he is running.
When his thunderclap of a body collides with my own, the impact takes my breath. He clings, face buried in my collar where he will stay for thirty full minutes. I wrap my arms around his heartbeat, his warm weight, and I know he is real.
“We were first in line,” my mom says.
“Im glad,” I reply.
“We miss you,” says my Grandma.
“Thanks for coming,” I say.
No one really knows what to talk about. There’s no language for this, no points of common ground. My grandmother holds her purse close, a silver cross hangs around her neck. I consider telling her how I’ve learned to say the Hail Mary in Spanish, but reconsider when words fail me. It’s superfluous information. Like I’m talking about making ashtrays at summer camp. My mother just stares, her head cocked. She comes up close and starts petting Aidan’s hair.
“Are you glad to see Momma?” she asks this rhetorical question an octave too high, and a head too close to my ear. She keeps staring, keeps drinking us in, shaking her head and smiling a smile that threatens to melt into tears, threatens to spill over, to fill the room and leave no space for anyone else to feel anything. I turn away. I want this moment to be mine. I don’t want anything to interrupt me and my arms and this boy growing sweaty in the curve of my neck.
“Let’s find a table,” I suggest.
We sit near the indoor play area, next to the vending machines and I close my eyes for a minute. I want to cry, am desperate to cry, but don’t.
“See that man over there in the cowboy boots, Meg?” Grandma says, nodding toward the exit door. “He was next to us in line. He visits that blond lady there.” She nods again in the same direction. “He told us her story, it’s so sad. She’s innocent, got framed.” Now the head nodding gets rhythmic, matches the tsktsk of her lips while she contemplates the injustice of this place. It’s weird to hear my Grandma say “framed.”
While I appreciate her ability to believe, her desire to see it all as so unfair because I’m here I’m socially inept and out of practice making small talk. I don’t want to be the center of attention, don’t want to have nothing to say, don’t feel like I have the fortitude to explain the inexplicable. My answer comes out sharper, more sarcastic than I mean it to.
“Yeah, right. Her and everyone else here. I wonder how much he puts in her commisary account every month.”
My grandma’s face falls. She looks tired, sad and stricken. I wish at that moment that I was a gentler, more patient human being. I don’t know how to right what I’ve said because It’s true, about the woman using her cowboy, but who cares, I just feel so out of words, so incapeable of talking right now. I inhale the smell of his hair. I want to contain it. To keep it in my lungs, to float with it up and up and up until we both dissapear into the wide Texas sky outside of this room, away from everyone and everything awkward and all the things said and unsaid.
I get it, I’m here, It’s what happened. I sleep with regret, I practice faith, surrender, I do my best to make it all worth something, accept it, be grateful, blah, blah…but, Goddamnit, I think. This is my baby and I want to go home.
Home. The word dissolves, transforms as I think it. It becomes abstract, loses meaning, wrings out the weight of what’s lost and washes it in wretched isolation. My tears spill onto Aidan’s salty hair, onto his uncharacteristic stillness, his tiny high-top shoes. He squeezes in tighter, our hearts pound together. Louder, like the volume in the room as families continue to navigate security procedures and wait in turn for their particular inmate.
Our story, The Story, repeats itself. Children cling, mothers weep and we all become participants in the same heartache, playing our very best games of everything-is-alright, wishing we were anywere but here. I look around and it feels like I’m standing between mirrors, witness to the infinite reflection and mine is in every khaki uniform in the room. I feel the lines of separation become blurred and my raft of isolation is temporarily beached. The desolate city fills with people, and the flames subside.
As the day wears on, my Grandmother, my Mother and I, we talk more freely, even laugh while we become weary trying to wrestle with the minutes, knowing it will be months before we see each other again. I push Aidan in the swing, buy him strawberry Pop Tarts from the vending machine. I rock him in a chair while he naps, whispering, “Soon, little man, I’ll be back with you soon.”