I don’t really know Mr. Levi.
He’s a correctional officer at the prison where I spent 9 months of my incarcerated journey but he was never assigned to my particular units or zones. I glimpsed him, once or twice, making the old women in the med lines blush when he complimented their hair. He seemed nice, but he really wouldn’t be able to tell me from a can of trouble-making paint, so I was only startled — not offended– when he stopped me on a Friday afternoon.
“Hey,” he shouted from more than 20 feet away.
I came to a dead stop.
Your movements are not your own when you’re a prisoner. You sit when an alarm sounds, you stand when you’re told to stand, and you stop when anyone with a badge calls you.
“Where’re you goin’?” he asked.
I hesitated because I didn’t actually have a pass. The officer who sent me out of the unit didn’t write one because I never get stopped. There’s a lot of reasons for this, but I think the biggest is that I always look like I know where I’m going. Probably because I usually do, and I always make certain it’s a place I should be. Prison or not.
“To the property room,” I explained cautiously. I was on my way to pick up a book someone-wonderful sent to me.
“Where’re you coming from?” he asked.
“The honor dorm,” I said, still frozen to the spot. I didn’t know him well enough to expand the conversation or move without express permission.
That’s how you get a rubber bullet in your back. At least, that’s the running joke on the yard.
He waved me over and when I was closer, he asked again, “Where’re you goin’?”
“Where’re you comin’ from?”
Then he asked again. Something about the tone made me lift my eyes to his and we stared at each other for a few minutes until the twinkle in his eye found its way to mine.
A smile bloomed on my face and I responded to the unstated question, “You could ask me 100 more times and I’d answer. I’m sort of a Polly Programmer.”
He laughed and waved me on.
A week later, I passed him while going to canteen. “Good morning, Mr. Levi.” I said.
“Where’re you goin’?” He asked. This time, safe in my knowledge of his disposition, I giggled and waved as I walked away without answering. I rarely ever saw him, but it had became our inside joke.
One day I spotted him from the other side of a long walkway. He seemed uncharacteristically frazzled, and a little less-swashbuckling than normal. So I shouted:
Lost in thought, he came to a dead stop. Like a prisoner. I suppose the dark alleys of our minds can make prisoners of us all.
“Where’re ya goin’?” I questioned.
A myriad of emotions played over his face. Amusement, thoughtfulness, confusion, exhaustion. I smiled until he smiled back, lending him his own twinkle, and then walked away.
It made me think of how lucky I was to only be a prisoner in physicality, not in spirit or mind. And how lucky I was to always know where I was headed. To always know what comes next.
My husband would often tell people he loved that about me– how it was a trait of mine he aspired for himself. I always go forward, not backwards or in circles, and I do it without stepping on an ant or getting lost in my own shadow.
Then he died, and everything in my life became past tense.
I always knew where I was going.
I always went forward.
I was loved.
And everything not-true about my life became true, or possible.
I somehow managed to go backwards, stay still, squish ants, and get lost in my own shadow. All at the same time.
Then a few months later, I was released from prison.
Standing in front of the gate, I waited to parole. The watchtower guard had to go though all the normal steps for the release of an inmate. My mom was just outside, maybe 20 feet away, but I wasn’t allowed to look at her so I stared forward and waited.
There was some commotion as they searched for an officer who could be noted on file as the one who officially let me free. I didn’t turn around until I heard it.
“Where’re you goin’?”
A stream of emotions washed over me. Fear. Anticipation. Sadness. Loss. Grief. Amusement. Exhaustion.
I shrugged. I smiled. A twinkly tear washed out of my eye.
“Home.” I said because it was an answer– not because it was true.
Prison killed most of my home. The rest died with Dave.
I have no idea where I’m going, or if I am strong enough to go anywhere at all, but I am trying. I am thinking about it, and working on it, and trying to find my way back to present tense.
Right now there’s a big blank space where purpose should be, and my thoughts are caging me in more than state-funded fences ever did, but I tell myself it’s worth the effort.
At the very least, figuring out who I am and what comes next will be useful in case I ever again run into Mr. Levi.
I owe him an honest answer, and he owes me a twinkle.
This is the question currently driving me, written for The Daily Post’s Weekly Challenge. Where’s your piece? (I’m back, friends, and I expect rampant participation on all things.) As one of my niece’s favorite songs goes, “When a dinosaur stomps, get ready to play!”
But first, Best Beloveds–
Where are you going?