My mom used to tell me to dream big. That I could be anything I wanted to be. Funny, I never wanted to work in a prison cafeteria, but that’s exactly what’s happened. Now my days are a never-ending vortex of the same mundane task, tossing two scoops of what can only be described as slop into each tray as inmates march down the service line.
They all look the same. They all act the same. It’s impossible to distinguish one from the next, even though they vary in skin color and personality. It’s a blur of one ghosted face after another.
Some of the men scare me.
Most of them do, to be honest.
But he scares me most of all.
In the montage of blurry faces, his sticks out like a sore thumb. Something about him is different. Mary, my older—and far wiser—co-worker says that something different is the way he looks at me. I laugh her comments off, but deep down I know she’s right. He’s always staring, his eyes on me even as he settles at a table and pokes his fork at barely edible food.
I look at him, too. I have for months. And while I tried not to get caught looking at first, I soon abandoned all pretense. Even when he’s not around my gaze searches for him. My body yearns for him. And when I finally spot him, it’s always more than a quick gaze.
Entrapped by those deep, piercing blue eyes, I can’t look away. I’m stuck in place, dreaming into the abyss of space between us while he eats.
Even as I’m lost in an unwelcome world of longing and desire, my hands continue to scoop slop against trays. It’s the easiest job I’ve ever had, and I’ve become accustomed to running on autopilot. I’ve become a robot, a machine, in the six months I’ve spent here.
I often find myself wondering if the inmates that pass me notice. If they see the emptiness hidden behind my hazel eyes. Probably not. They’re too lost in their own fantasies, if not of what it would feel like to rip my clothes off and fuck me where I stand, then what it would feel like to be on the outside again, living a life of freedom. Little do they know that even when I go home for the day, I wonder the same thing.
How’d I get stuck behind these prison walls? At what point in time did I say to myself, You know, maybe I should go serve processed food to the most dangerous men on Earth. Even worse, how is it that when I’m in my car driving home after work, I often feel like I’m going from one kind of prison to another?
It’s so ironic—this place is my escape from the outside world, and yet each of these men wish they could find an escape to the outside world. In here, I almost feel safe.
I jerk when I feel fingers wrap around my wrist. There’s no one in line, and I’d just scooped slop onto the metal counter in front of me.
“What’s up with you?” Mary asks with a furrowed brow, letting me go. “What are you dreaming about?”
Heat swamps my face as I imagine Street witnessing what I’d just done. I shoot Mary a weak smile as I clean up the mess I made.
“You know me, Mary. I don’t dream.” It’s a lie, of course. I dream about him and I’m sure she knows it. But I’ll never admit it out loud. I sigh and pull the latex gloves off my hands. “Reality is reality; no amount of dreaming will change that.”
“You’re watching him, aren’t you?” She shifts slightly so that her eyes are angled at Street. “I don’t blame you if you are.”
“Don’t be stupid,” I huff and flip a switch, turning the heat lamp above the dish of slop off.
“He watches you too.”
When I say nothing, when this time I manage to keep my eyes on her face, she laughs and turns to the kitchen. I follow her, but take one last glance—this time it’s a quick one—at Street before pushing through the swinging double doors.
He’s still staring at me, as if he couldn’t take his eyes off me if he tried. There is a landmine of magnets between us, with a pull impossible to ignore, but he’s off limits. He’s a man behind bars, and I’m a woman caged in another form of prison, one that’s my own personal hell.
* * *
When my shift is over, and the food is prepared for the next day, I begin the long walk to freedom along a path flanked on either side by towering fences with barbwire, one separating me from the prison courtyard, and the other cordoning off some utility buildings. My feet plod against the beaten gravel as I speed down the path, hurrying so I can get home in time to prepare dinner for my boyfriend.
He’s a man with a temper, and nothing sets him off like coming home to an empty table. Sometimes, it seems as if all I do is cook.
The dying sun beats against my face as it prepares its descent from the horizon, and a light trickle of sweat traces down my forehead. I hear the shouts of men playing basketball in the courtyard. Suddenly, my body tenses. My skin prickles. And somehow, without seeing him, I know Street is there. As if to confirm my suspicion, someone calls his name, and I stop and turn.
Street dribbles a basketball along a concrete court, weaving his way around his opponents. Any other time, the inmates wear their prison garb, but for some reason, in the yard when they’re playing basketball or working out, the prison lets them wear athletic gear, and play shirts or skin.
Street’s showing lots of skin. He’s tall; I’ve always known that, but somehow he looks taller without his shirt on.
His abs are crunched tight as he shifts downward, spinning beneath the arm span of a man on defense. He quickly gains his footing, steadies himself, and throws the ball into the basket, scoring a three-pointer with ease. In celebration, he claps his hand against a teammate’s as they cheer, and they bump chests.
His fingers fall to his hips, pressed against his body where the line of his black basketball shorts melts against tanned skin. A spider spins a web beginning at the arch of his right shoulder, and trailing all the way to his elbow in the form of an ashen-colored tattoo. On his left shoulder, a tiger with the same bright blue eyes as Street threatens to pounce.
His teeth sink into his lip, and it’s like he’s putting on a show. But there’s no way he can know I’m watching, right? He hasn’t even shifted his attention in this direction, giving me time to study him. He has a strong jawline and even though I can’t see it now, he has a long scar just under his right ear, where some left-handed nemesis tried to cut his throat in a fight.
It happened before I arrived. From what I know, Street’s been here about a year and still has several years left. When he walks, that scar will go with him.
If he doesn’t stay clean, it’ll be a way for someone to identify him.
But for me, it will always be a sign that there’s much more to him than meets the eye.
A guard caught me staring at Street once and assumed I’d been staring at his scar, which in all fairness I had been.
The guard told me he’d gotten it during a prison riot, when one gang had gone after another. “Street’s one of the few inmates not in a gang,” he’d said, and I’d heard the hint of admiration in his tone.
“So he just got caught in the cross-fire?” I asked, unable to squelch my damn curiosity.
“Nope. He waded right in.”
“Oh,” I’d said weakly.
“Saved a newbie. A kid that had been targeted to be raped.”
“Oh,” I’d said again, this time my voice stronger. “That’s…nice.” I’d known it was a lame thing to say, but if it were true, it was damn nice, literally putting your neck on the line to save someone else. Even if you were a man in prison who’d obviously made mistakes.
According to Mary, who’d heard it from another guard, Street is serving time for a burglary gone bad. Apparently the house owner had interrupted him. Someone had pulled a gun. The owner had been shot but lived.
The talk was that Street had accepted his fate, never trying to fight the ugly fight of feigning innocence. It doesn’t erase his actions, but now when I see his scar, I’m reminded of a book I read about a young Odysseus who joined his grandfather and a group of uncles for a hunt on the wooded slopes of Mount Parnassus. Odysseus was the youngest of the group, but when the men and dogs spotted a giant boar, Odysseus was the first to go after the beast with his spear. The boar dodged the blow and gored Odysseus in the knee. Thereafter, the scar was used to identify Odysseus, but also to symbolize his rite of passage into manhood. The scar helped make Odysseus into a man and marked him as one.
I view Street’s scar the same way. No matter his past sins, the scar will forever be a testament to his bravery.
Jesus, Katie, you’re a fool.
I’ve romanticized the scar, romanticized Street. Except for random bits of information, I really know nothing about him. Most of what I know is what I see. Yes, I really like what I see, but what does it say about me that I’m drawn to such a man for the shallowest of reasons?
Those biceps, and a particularly beautiful smile.
His lips, and did I mention his eyes?
Maybe it’s the hint of danger in spite of my relative safety. He can’t touch me, but what if he could? What if I couldn’t stop him? The thought heightens my desire not just for physical release, but for an adventure to escape my mundane life.
His head cranes in my direction, and with a fire burning in his eyes, I know I’ve been spotted. I’ve been caught. I swallow a lump in my throat as I try to turn away, but crave just another second of visual contact.
He bites his lip again, and this time it’s intentional. He’s beckoning me, letting me know that he’s spotted me, and I know, more than ever, that he thinks of me the same way I think about him.
Sometimes, the torture continues into the depths of the night where I’m left yearning for something more while my boyfriend snoozes beside me. Sometimes, the only way I can shut it all off, and close my eyes, is when I picture Street on top of me.
Picture him inside me.
I shake the image out of my head and once again walk down the path, fighting the urge to turn back around for one last peek.
* * *
I sling my purse over my shoulder, and dangle my keys in my hand. I smile at Ken, the prison guard behind the counter as I shuffle toward the front door; one of only two routes out of the prison.
But something catches my attention—behind the counter and behind Ken, an unfamiliar guard with a severe, attentive face has a phone pressed against her ear. Her eyes shift, and she hangs up the phone with an amused but abrasive smirk.
“Fucking animals,” she says with another shake of her head.
“What happened now?” Ken questions without flinching from scribbling on a notepad.
“There was an incident on the courtyard.”
“Let me guess,” he groans and spins to face her. “Someone was running his mouth, and someone else threw punches.”
“Close, but no cigar.” She reaches for a pen from her pocket and clicks it, prepared to do some scribbling of her own. “An inmate stabbed another inmate with a shank.”
“Christ. Did you recognize any of the names?”
“The victim didn’t ring a bell, but the attacker was Thomas Street.”
“Damn,” Ken sighs. “I thought he was one of the good ones.”
“They’re animals,” she says, and my stomach sinks to my feet. “They’re only good until they’re not.”
I swallow a lump in my throat, and swipe my tongue against my lips. Before they realize I’ve been listening to their conversation, I’m out the door.
I’ve known it my entire life—I have the absolute worst taste in men.