I sit at a table with Danny. Lunch time. Bologna sandwiches with potato chips.
“I’m a foodie,” Danny tells me.
“Oh! How does that work in a prison?”
“You can do all sorts of stuff with food. You just have to be creative. You gotta keep yourself busy. And safe.”
I ask if that is hard to do.
“Listen, there are two kinds of guys here,” he explains. “Some got in trouble because they needed money and others because they’re sociopaths.”
“Which one are you?” I ask playfully.
“I’m a sociopath,” he says. “You especially have to be careful around guys like me.”
I wasn’t expecting that answer. I look over at the guard assigned to watch us.
“I killed my girlfriend. I was high on crystal meth.”
“You don’t need to tell me about this, Danny.”
“I want to tell you.”
I wasn’t allowed to have sweets when I was a kid, my father called them “junk food.” At school, I’d put butter on a slice of wonder bread and sprinkle sugar on top for lunch. It was rebellious and delicious, the crunch of the sugar mixed with the salt of the butter. The yielding bread, so unlike the tough sprouted wheat from home, melted in my mouth. Piece after piece. I was chubby.
When my father was on business trips, my mother would heat up Swanson’s TV dinners or Gorton’s fish sticks. It was a treat for me and my two older brothers and a night off for my mother from cooking the elaborate meals my father expected when he came home from his office.
My mother and I sip coffee in the Café Bistro at Menorah Village Memory Care Center. She eats treats that they leave out for residents. Cookies, Jell-O with whipped cream, ice cream, brownies. She never ate sweets much before but now they fuel her shrinking frame. She weighs 85 pounds. People with dementia often crave sugar so snack time is popular here.
“When do I get to go home?” my mother asks.
“When you’re feeling better,” I lie.
“I have a right to leave, you know. This is not a prison. You can’t keep me here!”
Danny is not supposed to tell me what he did to get sentenced to life without parole. The college running this prison education training program has a clear “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. We had a session on dehumanizing language. Calling them “prisoners” is stigmatizing, we learned; they are people who have been convicted of felonies. Or people living in a prison. The last one struck me as odd. Do these guys really consider this maximum-security prison their home? I ask Danny and he says, “Hell no. Call me a prisoner. That’s what I am! I am being held against my will.”
Zaftig. This is how my lover describes me. I am gaining weight; the only thing I fit into are my emergency pair of “fat” jeans. He grabs my stomach, my breasts, tells me that I am “hot.”
I see my mother almost every day. It takes all my energy to figure out where she believes she is in time and space at any given moment. When I get home from these visits, I eat. Potato chips. Tortilla chips. Cheez-its. The salty crunchy snacks comfort me. I shove handfuls into my mouth, sometimes gasping for breath between bites.
“How do you like your apartment?” I ask my mother. I make a point of not referring to 105 as her room.
“Get real, Rebecca. It’s a hospital.” Sometimes she thinks she’s in a hotel.
“Imagine living a whole life to end up in a place like this,” she says, “with all these old people.”
“But you like it here. I get to see you. And the food is good!”
“Too good,” she says as she grabs her stomach enlarged by the spreading cancer she doesn’t remember she has. “I’m turning into a real fatty.”
“I want to tell you.”
Danny is putting potato chips in his sandwich. I copy him. We smile at each other as we chew, the soft white bread contrasting with the crunch.
“I was high. I was young, stupid. My girlfriend pissed me off so I tackled her to the ground and I just pounded an ice pick into her face, over and over. You couldn’t recognize her when I was done. She was a beautiful girl.”
I should say something but I’m not sure what. Danny’s looking at me, expecting a response.
“What do you cook in prison?”
“All kinds of things. You take what you can get from the mess hall, from the commissary. I have a hot plate in my cell. I combine stuff, try to make something new.”
Danny tells me that he ran a marathon in prison, 26.2 miles around the yard. He hurt his knee so doesn’t run now.
He pats his stomach. “That’s why I’ve gotten fat,” he says. “And too much of my good food.”
Rebecca Tiger teaches sociology in a college and jails in Vermont. She’s written a book and articles about drug policy, celebrity and addiction. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in BULL, MER, Tiny Molecules and Wilderness House. You can find her on twitter: @rtigernyc.