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The Locked Diary #4: ALL IS FAIR IN LOVE & PRISON

I am one of those New Yorkers who feverishly loves the city. I don’t care that she’s loud. I don’t care that she’s exorbitantly expensive. I don’t care that she’s the sole reason I haven’t acquired normal adult things: a home, an in-unit washer and dryer, a dishwasher, a child. I don’t care how many times she robs me of my finances, my dignity, my sense of safety and security in the world. I don’t care that her seedy bars and top-tier eateries and charming drug dealers regularly kick the shit out of my body, mind and spirit. Like all abused women blinded by lust; I just can’t stay away. New York is daddy and daddy beats me ‘cause he loves me. Also: I’m a glutton for life. And one day in New York City harbors more life than a decade spent anywhere else. My high school best friend and hairstylist to the stars, Owen Gould, once told me that the reason he loves living in New York so much is because it’s the one place in the world he never dreads returning to, even after a long blissful vacation free of responsibility. He moved to LA last month. But that’s beside the point. Or maybe that’s precisely the point? I think about all of this as I stare out the window of the plane, swollen organs wrapping themselves into tiny intricate knots, pending doom curling heavily into my lap, like a fat cat that isn’t mine.

New York was my first love. I never thought any person, place or thing would ever top my love for my city of origin.


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And then I met Asa.


I’ll never forget the moment I realized I loved her the most. We’d been casually dating—no labels, no pressure—for a few months, when she offered to drive me five hours upstate to visit a family member in a maximum security prison. I was hesitant to accept her offer because the last girl I’d dated had a nervous breakdown after accompanying me there: “THIS IS TOO MUCH FOR ME! YOUR LIFE IS TOO MUCH FOR ME! YOU ARE TOO MUCH FOR ME!” She feverishly screamed the whole way home, like a cranked-out, hyper-stressed law school student being denied her prescription amphetamines at the pharmacy, two days before her first stab at the bar exam. I warned Asa about this but Asa didn’t care.


“I can handle it,” she insisted, crisscrossing her gamine legs, her big seafoam eyes staring blinklessly at me through a veil of dark blonde bangs. “That’s what they all say,” I muttered into my manicure.


“Get the fuck outta here,” Asa cackled, “I’m taking you.”


Prison is in the Catskills, an objectively strange, 111 miles stretch of countryside and mountain tops in southeastern New York. She drove; I quietly gazed out the window, taking in the bizarre scenes that define this bizarre, neglected crown jewel of nature: Hasidic women sit on plastic chairs sunken into an overgrown lawn of a dilapidated trailer park, troops of small children climbing over their overworked limbs like baby gorillas. Feral teens in dirty blue jeans lurk outside of gas stations, prowling for beer and opioids, reeking of unintended pregnancies and big theatrical dreams. It’s a smell so powerful I know it will linger in my hair for several days. Furrowed-browed men, their skin an alabaster so translucent you can see their insides, trudging uphill, cigarettes stored into the gaps of their wide-set teeth, clutching bibles and bottles of Jack Daniels. Lanky maple trees earnestly swaying in the wind gawky as they scatter leaves the color of oxblood onto the rundown streets. Powder blue skies streaked with neon clouds so bright white they sting your eyes. Stargazing mountains taunting their prolific beauty in the unreachable distance. The dead grass that lines the long, windy road to prison. The car moves slowly; cautiously toward the prison. She knows one wrong move will attract the wrong kind of attention. The kind of attention that has irrevocable consequences; like a lifetime of incarceration. I understand her trepidation. Once you’ve been to these parts you begin to quickly understand that we’re all just one wrong move away from being stripped of our dignity, our freedom. Barbed wires crawl up a soviet gray cinder-block wall like rose vines—and we’re here.


****

Asa grips my hand as we walk toward the prison entrance. I grip her hand back. Our fingers fiercely cling to each other like the war has just ended. Right before we make our way inside we wordlessly pry our hands apart and stuff them into the safety of our pockets, before stepping into the ugly fluorescent light-flooded facility.


“Who are you here to see?” sneers a lady-in-uniform. She’s trying to be Machevilliean, but her paunchy squat frame and palpable self-doubt make her read more Napoleon.


“Dash Levenstein,” I over-articulate, as if there’s a language barrier, which I guess in an abstract, proverbial way, there is.


“I don’t need a name. I need the inmate's number.”


“Of, course!” I blush girlishly, “55555-XXX.” I bat my lashes as if I’m in a slapstick movie: Oh, ding-dong! Silly me!


The lady hands me a clipboard. Her stubby fingers brush against mine and for a moment we lock eyes. “Sign,” she orders, looking away. I sign. Asa signs too.


Next is the usual drill: I remove my bra and stuff it into one of those brown baggies they give you on airplanes, so you have something to vomit in. I’m too seasoned in prison etiquette to wear jewelry or metal or whatever else stands to slow down the checking-in process—but it still takes thirty minutes and a light fondle from a ruddy-faced security guard to get through. I wait patiently for our turn as a morbidly obese rabbi and a dead-eyed teen and her tight-lipped mother are escorted down the long hall into the freight elevator that ships the free to the un-free. The ten silent minutes we wait for the guard to come and get us feels like a nine-month pregnancy. Finally a new guard, a bleach blonde who could be almost pretty if it weren't for the sharp, coarse hairs shooting like daggers from the sea of fecal brown moles clustered below her chin or her heavy pungent spritz of gunpowder and burnt hair perfume or the dumb anger firing unnecessary gunshots from her blank beady eyes…


“Hi,” I lamely squeak.


She doesn’t say hi back. She folds her arms over her heart and says: “You can’t come up.”


Anxiety perches inside of me on her hind-legs, like a meerkat. “Why?”


“You’re too late.”


My trembly finger gestures to the plastic clock tick tick ticking like a bomb on the cracked yellow walls. “What do you mean?” I chew on a nail. “Visiting hours end at 5 pm. It’s 1:10 pm?”


“You can stay till 5, but I can’t let anyone up after 1:30.”


I’ve frequented this institution several times and have scoured the website thousands more and have never been privy to this rule before. But prison isn’t a place to argue. Prison is about relinquishing your power to people who are drunk on authority and slap-happy to slam your body to the floor, I’ve seen it happen several times before. “Fair enough, but it’s only 1.” My voice is shrill. I hate when my voice goes shrill without my consent. It feels like a betrayal.


The prison guard licks her thin cracked lips with her fat red tongue, obscenely. “I’m not letting you up.”


I don’t want to cry. Not here. But I can feel tears working their way through the ducts; pooling into the sockets of my eyes. “Very well,” I say like the headmaster of a boarding school before rushing outside. The second the cold air breezes my face, a guttural sob brings me to my knees. I feel shaky. I feel awful. I’m sick sick sick with guilt. I know my family-member has been looking forward to this visit. He’s my age and hasn’t had a visitor for six months. He’s been padlocked for eight years. When I told him we were coming he was over-the-moon. “I even got my haircut,” he gushed over the phone, just yesterday. I know what a rare privilege it is to make an inmate gush. I know that visits are a lifeline and he’s drowning in these waters. I know that he’s been starved of all that is kind and gentle and humane and connected and that he’s getting weaker by the minute. I know that just a few hours spent with two women who are rooting for him, who believe in him, who will bestow him with integrity and love—will serve as tiny beams of light and warmth in this freezing cold monkey-cage. I imagine him waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting for me. My tears are not a delicate ballet pirouetting down my cheeks. They are clumsy, fat and splashing into the pavement.


How did I fuck this up so royally?


I hear a girl rasp: “THIS IS SO FUCKED!” I look up and see Asa.


“I’m so sorry,” I whisper.



Asa ignores me. I can tell she’s contemplating something by the way her lower lip twitches in tune with her green-blue eyes. She looks like a rockstar in her shiny black pants, her Chrissy Hynde shag recklessly moshing into her sharp collar bones, her electric blue aviators lounging over her sun-streaked head. Before I can apologize yet again, she’s buzzing security, muttering “open the damn door,” beneath her breath. They aren’t going to buzz her back in. Once you leave you can’t come back in. It’s a rule.


BUZZ.


They’re buzzing her back in. Why are they buzzing her back in? Why did she buzz to get back in, to begin with? This isn’t one of those high-end appointment-only Madison Avenue boutiques you need to ring the bell to enter, it’s a maximum security state prison.


I am too sad to continue to wonder why Asa has the gall to break these rules and as to why the humorless guards are letting her. I just listen to the sound of my bloated teardrops smacking into the ground and hope she doesn’t end up arrested.


SWISH. The sound of a closing door breaks me from my trance. I’m met with the most peculiar view: Asa with her long Bambi legs and swaggy narrow hips wedged between the thick-fingered guard and the guard with the hairy moles, stands before me. The guard’s eyes look jarringly different. Their eyes have a newfound softness to them. They look almost human.


“They’ve got something they want to say to you,” Asa says, coolly.


The guard with the moles, sighs. “Look, we didn’t mean to make you cry. We’re sorry. We’ve just been dealing with some riots and if you come in one second after we’re allowed to bring people up, it could turn into a real shitshow.” Her voice is gentle like a preschool teacher.


I’m so taken aback my tears crawl back into my eyes, confused as to what their role in this bizarre plot twist is.


“It’s a new rule. And ‘ya know how slow that elevator is. I feel bad for ya. I really do. I just can’t have a riot today, ya know?” The husky, small guard pipes. “What’s your family membas’ name?”


“Dash Levenstein,” I manage.


“Oh, he’s a cutie. I’ll tell him what happened. Okay? Promise,” she smiles. “Why don’t you two stay the night and come back in the morning? I got a cousin over in Montecillo who owns a bed and breakfast right by the casino. I’ll give you his numba. He’ll hook it up.”


“That’s a great idea,” Asa says brightly. “Give me his details, I’ll book us right now. You down to gamble tonight and come back tomorrow, babe?” Asa asks.


I can’t help but smile. She’s never called me babe before. And I’ve never been so in love.



TO BE CONTINUED…


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