Belonging in Gray
The guard opens a dating app during lunch and that’s where he sees the boy. His hair is a shaggy loose curl and his skin is brown like dry soil. He has a tiny scar on his face—a line across his cheekbone. The guard messages him something like, wyd? But what he wants to say is, you are the most beautiful boy I have ever seen. When the boy messages him back, the guard feels a little flip in his stomach, and walks back to his block smiling. A colleague asks him what he has to smile about. This colleague prides himself on being tough and using his height and girth to intimidate. The guard laughs, rapping his knuckles against the glass pod, creating a hollow bell.
He and the boy have been talking for a few weeks. They went from the dating app into texting, and moved quickly into talking on the phone, the guard lying on his bed, staring at the ceiling, his low mustard walls bare of art. Through the crackle of the speaker the guard talks with his hand on his stomach rising and falling. He wants to meet right away, he has imagined the feel of the boy’s skin, the heat of his breath. The boy tells him on the phone that he wants more time for them to know each other before they meet. Their conversations last hours.
A few things the guard has learned about the boy:
He loves Japanese cartoons.
He has never had Japanese food.
He lives with his mother, who has health problems.
He turned 21 this past December, which makes him a Capricorn.
He has an internship with a youth non-profit, which pays him little but gives him free bus fare.
He gets the hiccups when he laughs.
A few things the boy has learned about the guard:
He lives alone.
He financially supports his mother, who also has health problems.
He watches basketball and women’s tennis.
His go-to playlist is called Rap Queens, an assortment of female rappers.
He turned 27 this past September, which makes him a Libra.
He wants to take the boy out for dinner.
The guard does not refer to himself or his colleagues as guards. They call themselves COs to the outside world, which means Corrections Officer. To each other, they’re just officer. They are thick men, with sometimes ruddy faces. A few are Puerto Rican like him, with hair cut so close to the skull that the curl pattern can’t be seen. At 8 am on a Tuesday, the guard’s shift has just ended. He was frozen, a sixteen-hour shift. He wants gin—the astringent floral taste of clear alcohol. It’s morning but warm, and gin is how the guard imagines the coming summer. There is a motel bar down the street from the facility that is always open and has no windows. The bar is brown with fake leather booths along the wall. The bartender is older and Irish with a voice like shifting gravel. He likes cops and jokes, When are you going to pay your tabs, huh? In the year 3000.
Gin? What kind of faggy drink? One from the group says to the guard when he orders, someone he doesn’t like very much.
You care so much about what I drink? You gonna buy the next one, you in love with me or something? Everyone laughs, even the bartender.
They drink well into the day, gin and beer and whiskey. They become louder and louder, their voices and laughter crowding the bar, into the lobby. They stay all day because they don’t want to go home, and be alone. To go to sleep and wake up and come to work again.
When the two finally meet in person, the guard chooses a Japanese restaurant not far from either of them. He learned of the restaurant through an article in the paper, in a section on trends. Outside, a line of young white professionals wait for a table. When the boy arrives, they recognize each other immediately, from the dating app and also because no one else waiting for a table looks like them.
I have a reservation, the guard says.
The boy nods and smiles, but inside the restaurant the boy’s face changes. There is a bar with young people eating and drinking, and the tables are small and close to each other. Everything is brushed metal. The boy and the guard are seated in the middle of the room, and given menus that look like a lowercase list. The guard comments on the prices when he notices the boy looks small in the room.
Is this ok? The guard asks.
The boy says the restaurant is loud.
Would you like to go someplace else?
The boy nods, and when they step outside into the night air, the boy explains that he doesn’t like being in crowded places or loud rooms. The guard feels embarrassed at choosing this restaurant, trying to be someone he isn’t.
They get tacos from a cart and wander around the empty downtown streets. It’s quiet. After a while the boy says, let’s get some ice cream. They sit on a bench, the guard with strawberries and cream, the boy with mint chocolate. Something about the sticky melting sweetness, and sitting on a bench facing in the same direction has changed the evening’s awkwardness. The boy and the guard fall into an easy back and forth, talking about how they spent their childhood summers riding bikes low to the ground, eating too many hot dogs at block parties, shooting off fireworks from rooftops.
At the end of the evening, the guard walks the boy home, turning down streets farther and farther from downtown. The boy lives on a quiet block of row houses, brick and steep. He points out his apartment, a window glowing blue static.
My mother’s always got the TV on, she can’t go to bed until I’m home.
Maybe one day I can meet her and she won’t have to worry, says the guard.
She will always worry, says the boy. He thanks the guard for a nice evening and scuttles nervously up the stoop. The guard asks if they can go out again and the boy calls down yes, from the top of ten steps. The guard swims home in the humid night, elated.
In the locker room the guard is putting on his uniform, which has recently been laundered by inmates and smells of industrial soap. He hears another uniform’s belt heavy with keys clatter to the floor. A coworker is bending over, struggling to keep balance and when the guard walks over, he smells a familiar mix of Listerine and cheap vodka.
Hey man, you gotta call out, says the guard.
I can’t go home. I have to work. It’s the blue and it’s the gray, he slurs, pointing at his uniform and at the door.
You’re putting us all at risk when you do this, says the guard, as he helps him get dressed—boots and shirt and belt.
When the guard checks on him later, he’s asleep in his pod, his body almost in a pile on the desk. He calls the supervisor to send him home sick, knowing this means someone else will be on a frozen shift. And that person too might reach for a drink at the end of sixteen hours.
The guard is drunk. He is with a supervisor and they have been drinking all afternoon. At work they are tightly wound, a string humming at a high vibration. But after work, they drink and unspool together. Relaxed into a loose knot, they complain about another guard, coming from a max facility, who has been on edge and will not allow even the smallest of slights. With something as simple as an inmate banging on a glass window, the one from max will snap into action. He cuffs inmates into a hog tie, their bodies folded over and their faces to the floor. The supervisor hates line officers coming from max. They cause resentment among the gray, making all of their jobs harder.
The supervisor says loudly, his mouth sticky and slurred, We don’t guard anything! We don’t even have weapons.
The guard agrees, he holds up his glass and rattles the ice cubes inside, and whispers, There are more of them than there are us.
The supervisor explains to the guard, to everyone in the bar, we are not guards. We are managers. We manage people. We manage them from here to there. And then back over here and then back over there. Shower, eat, recreation, sleep, shower eat recreation sleep, again and again.
The guard nods. Managers, he says. I’m a manager.
To the managers, they clink their glasses.
The guard takes the boy out again, this time on a walk by the river. It’s been dry and the water is low. Small flowers push up between the sidewalk and the bridge, and there is a breeze. They make their way to a park which has a wide-open field of soft, tall grasses. The guard has brought a blanket and fizzy alcoholic drinks. They are sipping from cans when fireflies appear. The boy is excited to see them, says he hasn’t seen lightning bugs in a long time. They are quiet for a while, watching the yellow green blinking. The boy explains that he has spent some time away from nature, and being there, even if just a little river and park with lightning bugs, has made him feel good in a way he didn’t realize he was missing.
Summer is like being alive, he says.
Can I kiss you? The guard asks.
The boy smiles. Yes.
I have something to tell you, is how he starts. I really like you, and I understand if this is a dealbreaker for you.
Ok, says the guard.
I’m not sure how to say this.
Let me guess, says the guard. You’re married. To a woman.
The boy doesn’t laugh. He takes a shaking breath and explains he was recently released from prison. He was in for a little more than two years.
What did you do?, the guard asks. The boy winces when he says this, and his face looks thin.
Dumb stuff, when I was young. I was with a bad crowd.
The guard has never really told the boy about his job. He has mentioned working nights, but most of their conversations have been about things like music and their families, their likes and interests. When the boy tells him about his time inside, the guard realizes he always knew, that there were things about the way the boy held himself that were familiar. Like he was beat down, resigned.
The guard sits up, straight and rigid, and takes the boy’s hands. I don’t care, he says. It doesn’t matter.
He unbuttons the boy’s shirt while the boy takes off the guard’s belt, and their bodies together are fevered.
It’s early, the time between morning and night, and they are in bed talking. They have had a perfect evening. They saw music in the park, a throng of people dancing together, sweaty at dusk. They had drinks in a bar and drew pictures of each other on cocktail napkins, the ink sinking into the paper and their likenesses fuzzy. And the guard didn’t drink too much—he knew just when to stop.
Now, in bed, it feels as though they can talk all night. It’s warm in the room, and their legs are thrown over each other’s hips, as dreams and fears tumble out of their mouths. The boy seems uninhibited this evening, less quiet, less jittery.
What’s it like to be Boricua with such a small butt?, he asks. You must bring shame to your family.
After a while, he begins to talk about his time inside. When you hear the jangle of keys, you think of freedom. You can almost forget you’re in a cage until you hear the keys.
But you weren’t in an actual cage with bars, though? Says the guard.
Well, jail is bars, and then you’re sentenced and it’s more like metal and glass. But I was in Seg a lot. Segregation. So, I was there a lot for my own safety.
Solitary Confinement?, says the guard, quietly, pretending not to know what Seg means. Pretending not to know exactly why the boy would be placed there.
Yeah, for my own safety they said. Because I’m such a queer. The boy becomes quiet. He exhales through his nose and says, what is safety, is it being locked in a room for months? For years? Is that safety?
The boy seems like he is going to cry or yell or fight, and the guard can’t take it. He doesn’t want to see it. So, he says, what’s the best thing about being out?
Everything inside is beige and gray. So, when I first got out, I noticed color. All of the color. I wish people’s houses were more colorful around here.
Like at home, the guard says.
Like home, says the boy.
When the guard gets ready for his shift, he tries to avoid thoughts that follow him from his shower to his breakfast to his commute. He wonders what happened the night before, what tensions between gangs he may be walking into. He is always nervous before the workday begins.
It is one of those tense days. There is a feeling that is bending and about to snap. Inmates are quiet, and the ones the guard likes won’t make eye contact. One inmate sucks his teeth as he walks by the guard, and he knows with another CO this would be a provocation. The guard, sitting in his glass pod, has the urge to pace. To wander up and down the tiers, looking at inmates’ thick white socks, their gray uniforms baggy around their waists, looking at where they place their hands. Some COs stoke these tensions, mocking inmates on their way to the cafeteria or the yard, making racial comments—themselves wanting to bend something until it breaks. When the shift passes without a fight, without a moment where guards have to be on someone, the guard feels as though he has escaped. He drives away from work, speeding, hoping whatever was brewing happens while he is asleep.
The boy and the guard are out walking in the sun. The air smells like pollen and dust, warm cement. The guard wants to take the boy’s hand and kiss his knuckles in public, he doesn’t want to care. As he is having this thought, he hears a voice calling to him across the street. It’s a CO, and he jogs over to say hello.
What a great day to have off, right?, he says to the guard.
The guard begins to panic—a watery stomach, thickness in his throat.
Yeah, it’s hot though, says the guard. He introduces the boy as his friend.
The CO says hello and then spends five minutes talking about golf with the guys from work. You should join us, he says by way of saying goodbye. After he leaves, the boy asks, You’re not out at work?
Not to everyone. Some of these guys are really macho. I don’t want to deal with it.
That guy seems like a cop, the boy says. The guard agrees and explains that most security guards are retired cops.
But you work in a group? You don’t work in a lobby alone?
Depends on the day and time, the guard says. Anyway, who cares about that guy, he sucks. You want to see a movie?
But in the theatre, the boy changes his mind, uncomfortable in a dark room with too many people.
The guard wakes in the night to the boy crying. He thinks the boy is having a nightmare—he has had some when they are together. But then he sees the boy is awake. The boy apologizes while crying and the guard asks, what’s wrong, how can I help?
After a long silence, the boy admits that sometimes he thinks of taking his own life, but he doesn’t because of his mother. It would destroy her, the boy says. After a pause, he says, and you.
The guard sits with this information in his chest, feeling it expand inside him like water freezing.
I have to tell you something, the guard says.
Oh no, says the boy.
The guard says, I work in a prison. I’m not a security guard; I’m a corrections officer.
The boy stands up in a flash, like lightning. So, you lied to me?
I didn’t—I didn’t want to lose you.
I knew it. I can’t trust you, the boy says.
You can, you can trust me. The guard begs without begging.
Did you ever beat anybody up? The boy asks. His eyes are dry.
Only because, the guard begins to respond, but the boy shakes his head, no longer able to listen.
They can be violent, the guard stutters.
The boy wipes his face, Why does this happen to me?
The guard reaches out to touch his shoulder, but the boy has moved across the bedroom, punching his things into a bag. He is dressed quickly and his face, gritting, turns away from the guard. He stops for a moment as if to say something, stuck in midstride, but instead shakes his head. He leaves the apartment without looking at the guard.
The guard lies back, nauseated, and looks up at the ceiling. He imagines the boy is there, a weight on the bed next to him.
He visits his mother once a week. His shifting schedule makes it difficult to keep even the weekly appointment, and the nurses look at him with tired eyes that are used to families not visiting their elders. The guard wants to explain every time that he wishes he could be there more often. He imagines a lot of people say this.
His mother is wearing a pale pink housecoat and the room smells like old laundry and citrus.
They aren’t taking care of your hair right, he says. They need to be conditioning it more.
She waves his comment away with a thin wrist and asks him to sit on the bed with her. He does, he curls up next to her on the slim hospice bed as if he were a boy. Then he tells her about his broken heart.
On his way out of the facility, an administrator stops him and says they’ve sent a second notice.
Yes, of course, I’ve been a little scattered. I’ll pay online tonight, he says.
I know you will, she says. You always pay on time.
All of the CO’s love lives are in shambles, so when the guard is thin and sad, the others just shrug. They go out for drinks, like they always do, this time to a bar by the women’s prison that has a nautical theme. Mermaids in fishing nets watch over them from turquoise walls with City Girls on the jukebox.
What’s her name, a line officer asks the guard.
Emma, he says. It is almost the boy’s name.
Well, fuck Emma, says the line officer. He is getting divorced, like half of the guards. They are rarely home, they drink too much, they fight with their wives, and sometimes, they hit them.
There is plenty of ass in the sea, says another. Look at all the women here.
There are plenty of women in the bar, mostly female officers from the prison down the road playing darts and sitting in booths. Even the bartender is a woman, serving them wearing a sports bra under white overalls.
The guard begins to laugh, a deep laugh that begins in his belly and radiates out to his hands. He hasn’t laughed in days.
Look at the women, he says. Do you notice anything about them?
The women, mostly from the Caribbean like the guard, are Black and Latina with thick hips and tight hair. They are sharing drinks, and singing along to the music. They are drunk with heads wavering while sitting on each other’s laps. They are arguing and joking and flirting.
Lesbians, says the line officer, dejected.
The guard laughs and laughs.
There is a group of officers that the guard avoids. They are white and work in Seg. It is known, but not spoken aloud, that they are white supremacists. It is rare for a non-white guard to be assigned to Seg because of this, and when they are, they focus on being in the yard during recreation.
The guard has been assigned to Seg because there has been a fight in the cafeteria, and there are more inmates there than usual. This is the guard’s first time working Seg and he tries not to think of the boy.
One of the officers is supposed to show him around but doesn’t. He is bald and middle-aged and muscular. He sneers at the guard and says, You’re wearing the wrong uniform. You belong in gray.
The guard does not respond—these men have a lot of relationships among the white officers and are close to the warden. They do whatever they want. So, the guard does his job: he takes inmates metal trays of food, he takes them to the yard, he stands for hours.
He sees the boy everywhere but doesn’t see him. A woman with hiccups on the bus, the back of a glossy head of curly hair, a group of skinny young men smoking cigarettes—they all remind him of the boy. It feels as if the guard is haunted. The boy is always at the periphery of his vision, present but just out of sight.
One night he goes to a lounge alone, to drink or to pick someone up. It’s the type of place the boy would make fun of—a corny bar with red leather and a fake electric fireplace with purple and orange flame. Everyone the guard talks to bores him; no one is as funny, or smart, or beautiful as the boy. When he drinks, he adds to the pile of unanswered texts: asking the boy for forgiveness, to talk, to give him another chance.
There’s an inmate the guard likes who has been in the system for a long time. An old head is what the others call him, the others being in their late 20s and 30s. The old head has only a few years left on his sentence, and he is measured when he speaks. The guard thinks this is because he has accepted his life, that being inside for so long has become something unpleasant that he’s used to, like an ill-fitting shoe. The guard and the old head chat during recreation, against the wall where there is a little bit of shade. He pulls something out of his pants pocket and hands it to the guard. A piece of white soap, intricately carved into a swan.
Before I forget, this is for you, kiddo, says the old head.
Why not? asks the old head. I can just make another one tomorrow.
During the morning briefing the guard is told he has a frozen shift, another 16 hours. He doesn’t complain. He has to work Seg again, which is boring and lonely and he doesn’t complain about that either. He goes to bring one of the inmates outside for their hour of recreation. He stands and looks into the small cell where they stay for twenty-three hours, noticing for the first time in a long while the dull scratches on the glass, the rusted corners of the bunk beds, the acidic fluorescent light. He looks at the slab of concrete that is a bed built into the wall, and the metal toilet screwed into the floor, the slot in the door where food is served.
Is this the best we got, he wonders.
One night, there is a loud popping, like gunshots. The guard, startled, crouches into a defensive position, imagining the worst of riots he has only heard about. After a moment of sweat and a racing heart, he realizes the date—July 4th. One block of inmates can see the fireworks through their windows, and they are cheering and clapping, and the ruckus they make catches on through the different tiers. The guard catches sparkling edges from his position near the day room and the crack and sizzle echoes through the facility, making it seem like a small little building. The guard decides to bring inmates in. He starts with A block and then B and then C block, bringing groups into the day room one by one to watch the fireworks for ten minutes. The inmates don’t jostle for more time, and they don’t get angry or push each other. They make room for one another at the window, stepping aside gingerly, and asking each other, can you see, can you see? They check the time to make sure another block will have a chance. At the finale, the fireworks boom and rattle one after another, and everyone falls silent. The guard looks away from the fireworks and at the inmates. He watches their eyes and teeth shine as explosions of gold and red and blue light up the sky.
Photo courtesy of Corri Seizinger; view more of their work on Shutterstock.