“What news?” he asked. “Only the silliest, please.”
I gnawed at my fingernail until I thought of something. Go big, I told myself, putting my hands on the table that separated us. I said I was wrestling now. I thought he’d find that funny but he only shrugged. I said that infants were seen flying over Roswell. I told him it’s now been proven that the world is as fucking flat as a goddamned pancake and we should all watch out for falling off.
I worried the jail guard would hear me. I don’t know why. What did I care if he thought me a lunatic? He’d seen men do things I couldn’t even imagine. Besides, he was pasty and his mustache? So 1980s.
“More please,” he said. “Ignore the bastard.” We both looked over at the guard.
I felt “on,” so I kept on. My voice grew louder—I was playing for the audience. Matthew McConaughey might run for governor of Texas. No one knows what his political persuasion is, but likely it’s pot for everyone and guns in kindergarten. I laughed awkwardly, neither of my audience members seemed amused.
“Let’s stay away from politics,” he said.
“Right, of course,” I said.
I started in on animals; he liked them. Not bad-news stories, but the happy ones where the cockatiel saves a goldfish from suicide. You know, feel-good news. “Did you know that cuttlefish are incredibly smart? And when they’re in their egg sacs, they actually look out at the world and make some decisions about what they’re going to do before they get out.”
“Like me,” he said.
“Almost,” I said. “But there is more.”
“Save it,” he said. “I want to savor the idea of being in an egg sac.”
His orange coveralls didn’t suit him, they clashed with his skin; he looked jaundiced as if we were in a hospital waiting for his liver transplant. I sat with that for a moment. Would that be better? There’d be white cinderblock walls there too, and small windows with nurses staring in a us, maybe even a nurse loitering like the guard. The jail visiting room reminded me of institutions. School. Yes, that was it. I asked him if he remembered high school. He said he guessed he did, wondering where I was going next.
“Doesn’t this room remind you of AP Calc?”
“There you go again,” he said.
He asked the guard for water. Surprisingly, the guard grunted and went out. What on earth? I thought.
“He’s my guy,” he said of the officer in a whisper, nodding up at the camera to his left. I stared at it and then looked at the other corners. A camera in each.
My guy? What could that mean? Maybe I’d watched too many crime shows because I was suddenly flashing on him doing the guard in the hallway and the guard going all fluttery in response. I shook myself and looked at him as attentively as I could. But the guard returned with two bottles of water. He smiled up at the officer—fuck, I knew that grin—it melted souls. I had tried not to think about that smile these past months. The guard stood over us as we sat across from each other, but they were looking at each other so I thanked the guard and said cheers. The officer moved away but closer than he’d been before. Maybe he wondered who I was. What took me so damn long to get here. Maybe he was thinking my boyfriend was his.
Maybe if I hadn’t taken four months to get there, things would be different.
Once I was caught in an elevator for seventeen hours—alone. I hit every button a million times and I yelled and held the emergency button and the call button simultaneously for an hour. The dark was complete. I didn’t know it but the power had gone out all over the city. Maybe I wasn’t the only person trapped in a five by eight space in complete blackness but I was certain I was going to die. I didn’t want to revisit entrapment, being held like a prisoner.
But I knew I had to. I had to stare it down or lose him. But it was dawning on me that I was already too late.
He got up abruptly, which made the guard stutter out, “Hey man.” But he paced back and forth anyway within the small cement visitors’ room, his footsteps echoing like an alarm.
“This isn’t real,” he said. “That’s what I tell myself.” Then he started talking about polar bears. How they cannot stomach small spaces. I didn’t know he knew a damn thing about them. I mean, we’d never discussed polar bears and he was no biologist but he went on about a particular bear he’d seen at the Los Angeles Zoo when he was a teenager. How the bear’s fur was green from algae growing inside its hollow fur. “He did this over and over again,” he said, showing me as if he were the bear. He lunged toward the wall and then across to the other wall and repeated the movements exactly. The guard told him to sit down a ton of times, but he wasn’t having any of it. If the guard hadn’t been there, I was sure he would’ve climbed on the table and stood there trying to rip the ceiling tiles off. Repetitive actions, a caged bear. I was looking at a caged man. “I mean it’s just not possible that I’m no longer in charge of my days, my hours. My fucking seconds.” Then he shocked me by ramming his head against the wall. I mean hard. The guard hollered, “Hey man,” again and moved toward him.
“Did the bear ever get released?” he asked, stepping away from the guard and sitting back down across from me. His forehead was red from where it had met the wall.
“I don’t know,” I said. I’d never been to that zoo. I tried to think up an answer but my mind was blank. It wasn’t like they were taking stressed animals and shipping them back to their homes in the Arctic in those days. Or in these days. They’d never done such a thing. “Likely they gave him meds. Maybe the bear took Klonopin.”
“I’d like to jump into a basin filled with Klonopin and hang with that bear. I’d tell him to run for it. Leap the fences. Get the hell out while he can.” He looked over at the guard, who nodded and grinned. Like a walrus with that mustache.
He hummed—the sound I knew like my hands—like we were driving down the 405, the light traffic surprising the hell out of us. The hum of cheer. Hope.
And sometimes, I suspected, to self-soothe.
“What else do you know about cuttlefish? What if the cuttlefish doesn’t want to break free of his egg or realizes it’s all a big mistake this being born thing?” His hand was up on his face, feeling at the red spot that likely would become a nasty bruise.
I didn’t have a comeback. I stared at my chewed fingers.
“What about something else?”
I came up with a doozy: a story of a little girl who stole the cookies from her mother’s cookie jar, ate every single one but made sure she had plenty of chocolate on her hands to smear all over her little brother’s face and lips. He cried as she smudged the chocolate because he hated being messy. The brother was grounded and the little girl sat pretty by herself outside by the big eucalyptus tree while her brother sobbed loudly and beat at the wall between their rooms.
“Wow,” he said. “I feel as if I know that story.” He stared with his olive eyes until I had to look down.
“Little girls know how to use their charms,” I said.
“Boys can be such chumps,” he said.
When his attorney arrived, I had to go. My visit had been last minute. As I mentioned, I had been shillyshallying about seeing him. Scraping along, belly to floor, dithering. She looked at me as we passed; as soon as I saw her, I was up and leaving. I didn’t want him to kiss me or hug me or even say good-bye. I knew that would be it for me. If she knew who I was, she’d likely want to grill me. Force me to be a witness or admit things at his appeal. This attorney was pretty. Too young. Too too. His eyes brightened when she entered because she brought with her the sunshine and the salty air of hope.
“How now, Brown Cow,” she said, breathy and playful. “You growin’ a horn?”
The guard opened the door for me but I couldn’t stop myself from looking back. Her perfectly manicured fingers were on his forehead, stroking the red spot.
What scared me wasn’t losing him. It was the wind whipping at me as I walked to my car. The way it tugged at my hair and my shirt and how the seagulls circled overhead, squawking and whistling. What terrified were the clouds—how unfettered they were. I could go wherever I damn well felt like going. What I was capable of shocked. I should return to Roswell and make myself ride the flying saucer. He was too much like the little boy; he’d never tell on me, even as he bloodied his head on the wall.
“I have this fear that I’m going to be sent to space without my consent,” he said. We were lying in his bed; it was our first time together. I’d thought it would be a one-nighter but I found myself reluctant to leave him.
“You’re an anti-astronaut,” I said. I went on about zero-gravity, what it does to a body. One of the most important physiological changes that might negatively impact an astronaut was post-flight orthostatic intolerance. Astronauts who had orthostatic intolerance were unable to maintain a normal systolic blood pressure during head-up tilt, had elevated heart rates and experienced presyncope or syncope with upright posture. This problem affected 30 percent of astronauts who flew short-duration missions and 83 percent of astronauts who flew long-duration missions. This condition created a potential hazard for crew members during re-entry and after landing, especially for emergency egress contingencies. “But I’d be there to see to you.” I leaned in and kissed him and never left. That was six years ago.
“I could do it if you were along,” he said, but then he added that it was unlikely NASA would call since he hadn’t finished high school.
I didn’t let on how surprised I was that he hadn’t completed school. “Perhaps space is the only answer to our current planetary predicament. I don’t know. What do you think?” I asked.
He didn’t know how to answer that.
“What happens next?” he could’ve asked.
The newspapers were filled with the end. Not if, but when. The collapse of bees and ocean currents, no more right whales. Beaches filled with death. What was to become of little cuttlefish in their egg sacs?
That said something about the world, didn’t it?
He said it wasn’t that he didn’t care, but it was too much to dwell on. He was so good at putting bad news aside, packing it away, like winter sweaters and LPs. Out of sight, out of mind.
I had this dream we were in a space capsule together. There was a saltwater tank that held an octopus and a starfish. We had everything we needed. I felt no panic in our small quarters, only awe as we orbited the gorgeous sphere that is Earth. I leaned back into his arms and the only sounds were the easy gurgle of the fish tank and his breath in my ear.
We can do this, I remember thinking. We are doing this.
We had traveled together several times, twice by train, many times via airplane, but I kept on about our carbon footprint and he told me I was spoiling all the fun. We took one road trip. I thought he wanted to see Roswell. He stopped at the entrance to the UFO Museum and said, “Wait, I thought you wanted to go.” “No, you wanted to go,” I said. We looked at each other and laughed and then he grabbed my hand and we went to the gift shop and bought matching tees that said, “I got beamed up and all I got was this stupid tee.” He insisted we take the flying saucer ride that was for parents and kids five and under. I told him I’d watch. I didn’t tell him about that time in the elevator. When he got off the ride, he told me we had to do something about the planet. It was imperative. “All those little kids are thinking they’re gonna have a planet to live on.”
“You’re the brains, I’m the brawn,” he said as we drove away from the desert. We’d purposely never spoken in detail about what I did, how the organization I worked for was doing its best to stop things like pipelines and freighters, plastic factories and refineries. I told him not knowing kept him safe.
I shouldn’t have let him get involved because the brains got away with it but the muscle got caught and now he was just as afraid of small spaces as I.
On the news before I came to visit him there was footage of a group of children suing the government over the wrecked planet. What on earth were they to do now that it was left to them in ruins, they wanted to know.
I’d driven past flower farms to get to the prison, the smell of lavender and malathion mixed with the salty air. Ah, Lompoc. There were groups of laborers working the larkspur in teams of four but they seemed sluggish in the afternoon sun. Likely their nostrils were getting burned by the chemicals, even as they wore bandanas as if they were outlaws.
Look at all that color, I said to myself. Focus on the purples. The rose pink. Acres of color, as far as the eye could see. If he had a window to look out, he would see and know that, despite everything, the world was still here. Even if he would never again be a part of it.
There was a different guard when I went back the following week. The heartbreak that hit me was this guard had no fascination for him. This guard detested him. He was on his own.
“Fred was here a few days ago,” he said. Fred was his best friend from high school. A paraplegic after an IED exploded outside Sadr City, Fred had a penchant for pot and melodrama.
“How’s he doing? Coming here—that’s a long trip for him, no?” I thought Fred lived in Petaluma.
“You think he came by wheelchair?”
“Fred said I should rat you out.” He looked over at the guard who stood directly behind me so I couldn’t see him unless I did a one-eighty but I didn’t need to see the man’s face to know he didn’t give a shit.
“Yeah?” I had been waiting for this.
“The best advice he ever gave me,” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“That I won’t take.” He stood and was about to do his polar bear pacing when the guard told him to sit and he did. The guard had a pail of fish and he was a trained seal. The fish was maybe a candy bar. Or yard time. I’d heard fish could be anything when you’re a prisoner.
“It’s raining out there today.”
“Where’s your umbrella,” he asked. “The best thing about being in here? I don’t ever have to think about the weather. Weather, schmether.”
We’d both been pretty religious about looking at our phones first thing; examining the weather was our ritual.
“I had to check it when I arrived. You know, no sharp objects and all of that.”
“This place is starting to lose its charm,” he said.
“You know what they say, ‘when the going gets tough, the tough go to Alaska and hang with the moose,’” I said.
“That’s probably the cruelest thing you’ve ever said.”
I was goading him, wanting him to do what he needed to do to save himself. But he was showing me he wouldn’t. I saw it in his face, the set of his jaw. The egg sac had no charm, he was admitting this, but it was his.
He said Alaska made him long for open space. I suggested candy bars and then asked the guard if that was permitted. I had a Mars and a Butterfinger in my pocket. The guard nodded and I put them on the table between us. He picked up the Mars and played with it some. I did the same with the other.
“You ever play a shell-game,” he asked.
He took both bars and moved them about. I could see the difference between the bars quite plainly poking from under his large hands but pretended I couldn’t. We played a few rounds and I felt like a babysitter trying to entertain a toddler with peekaboo. Then I caught his face, how tired and depressed he was.
He was going to do the long-haul even if it killed him.
Another lawyer arrived. This was unexpected, and, as it turned out, the guy had the wrong room. He was a sad looking public defender in a baggy suit. I mentioned it was good he didn’t have to deal with a lawyer like that. His face brightened for a moment.
“Yes,” he said. “Yvonne Franklin is a keeper.”
I imagined then his taking her advice and telling the whole truth. I knew she was after him to do that. I saw it play out in slo-mo. Our roles reversed. I hated orange. But I hated myself more. I came back into the room and told him he should do what she said.
And that I wouldn’t be coming back. I was going home. To our home.
I was going to drive all the damn way back to San Diego. I was going to open all the windows and let the wind whip me around and around and before I got home I was going to stop somewhere and dance. Even if it were an old-folks home with polka music and bingo in the other room. I was going to show old folks how lucky they were to be alive. How lucky they were to be able to go from point A to point B. Maybe it was difficult, maybe they’d have trouble catching oxygen, but what the hell, I’d tell them. You’re freaking alive and free. Look at all those years you got to live worry-free. No one told you the planet was dying. Or if they did, you looked the other way.
He stood and told the guard our visit was over. He needed to get back to his life.
“My life,” he said, looking at me with the smile that killed. “The one where I beat off with other men and we challenge each other. We learn to love each other and.” He stopped midsentence, leaned over the table and pushed the candy bars at me. “We are loyal.” He put his hand to my cheek and the guard told him to move.
“C’mon, Greene. Time to go.”
He lost his appeal and my name was never mentioned. They moved him up to Herlong the following year. I kept my phone charged in the event he might call. But he didn’t. He wouldn’t see me when I schlepped up there and my letters went unanswered. I went to therapy to try and get over my anxiety about small spaces, in case.
I hadn’t gotten over it. But still I went to therapy.
Some nights I used the Sky View app to see what satellites were overhead. I thought I saw him once, just past Jupiter. The stars were a million brilliant ants.
How did I live with myself?
I told myself the things that I believed mattered: he’d done something important. He’d changed the course of history. But those were lies. He’d done something stupid that I put him up to. Sure, he stopped millions of gallons of crude—but only for a week, at most. No one cared but me and the legal system and the oil company. Not one journalist bothered to interview him. I put earplugs in to keep out the self-recrimination, but it seeped in anyway.
Where was the freewill police? He didn’t have to do it.
At first, when friends asked what had happened to my boyfriend, I told the truth. Mostly I got odd stares, disbelief. Spit in my face. My father asked how I slept nights.
I began telling people that the judge had not been interested in my admission. No one was going to check that out. I went to work each day and told myself what I did mattered. After all, I was the brains.
Who knew what the cuttlefish thought, waiting in his sac, planning out his twenty month adventure—for all his sophistication and intelligence, a very short existence. Kill or be killed. Camouflage or die. No one to help out. It was all on you.
But when he did, propelling his pointed anterior cuttlebones at the egg sac wall with brawn, he was an astronaut untethered—at long last. His khaki iridescence, a trail of the softest ink. The world was his.
Swim little cephalopod. Swim.
Anamyn Turowski’s publishing credits (current and forthcoming) include The Massachusetts Review, December, New Ohio Review, Terrain.org, among others. She is a graduate of Bennington’s Writing Seminars and was a recent fiction judge for Millay Arts.