tourniquet

I met a man at the Laundromat the other day.  He was fumbling with a washing machine, trying to get his clothes clean, I assumed – of which there were only a few.

Without asking, I helped him and found it a little odd that he seemed to be a blue-collar guy, yet doing his wash was hard.

I felt him looking at the side of my head as I gently took over, pushing the quarters into the machine, releasing the lever.

He must have felt awkward as well; he apologized and confided to me that he’d just been released from prison.

“They don’t exactly teach you the basics I guess,” was all I could think to say as I nonchalantly moved to try and keep him at bay.

“Washing dirty clothes isn’t a basic son,” he said.  And then he sat down.  Interested, and a little scared, so did I.  He wasn’t intimidated by me.  Possibly intimidated with me.  Maybe it was me.

I thought a free conversation in an unabridged location must be overwhelming considering his recent incarceration, so I talked to him, or I tried.  I didn’t know what to say.

As much as I wanted to make him feel welcomed, I couldn’t think of what I could say that might help him.  I know what it’s like to live in open air.  What I don’t know is confinement and how life changes in there…and affects you.  So I asked him.

The look on his face hinted to me that perhaps I had crossed a boundary.

His eyes hit the floor and we were wrapped in silence.  Bad judgment, I thought and remembered the violence I’d seen on TV.  I apologized.

He ignored my apology and asked me, quite pointedly, if I really cared, if I really wanted to know.  And you know, I did.  So he told me.

I sat on the bench, which is chained to the ground.  He ran his fingers along the chain links and told me how, for many years, his dreams felt the same way.

“Mostly,” he said “they consisted of the past.  Then I graduated and I moved on to the crass self-loathing and punishment and night time theater that were tormenting reminders of how I came to be there, in prison”…the broken person that he was, a reenactment of the reasons that he sat isolated from the changing of seasons.

“I wasn’t allowed to eat when I wanted,” he said.

“And then I learned to dream,” he told me.

“A time came five years ago when I couldn’t wait for the daytime light to go because the minute I closed my eyes, I was gone.  My dreams were sifting and lifting me through metal and above concrete and I was drifting over my child that I wasn’t able to meet.”

Dreaming.  Not nighttime visions of women and tropics, conceptualizing the future, and learning the past had been myopic.

“Very soon, the bridge between night and day and sleep and awake disintegrated and I loved sunburns and stars equally,” he said.

There were leaks in the prison ceiling where rain would slip through cracks and drizzle onto his forehead during the winter.  “In time, I grew to love being awoken by the rain,” he told me.

He looked up at me while I was on the dryer and he was on the bench and I was a little higher, but that wasn’t how it felt.  He knew I was listening, or so I thought.  He told me how he learned to listen.

And he didn’t mean how to pay attention to the words that other mouths use, but how to monitor himself. “Listen for clues, that the shell that you’ve built is starting to wilt and the rough that was raw that you’ve begun to declaw is now sensitive and nervous and hungry, not murderous.

Listen…to the thin sheets of quiet that make up your diet of solitude and exclusion and fear of intrusion upon you…and your space…and your face…and your race…and your case…and your grace.”  For a moment I was afraid he’d forgotten I was there, but I was listening.

“Listening keeps you safe,” he said.

He told me then how he learned to write in prison.  Not how to draw letters, make words and build sentences, how to write…how to squeeze sadness and loneliness…wring them out until they’re shapeless and color dripped from his fingertips.

“The difference,” he said “is writing a letter with weaknesses to your woman about how her memory bends you and your tears taste a lot like her, how her lack of writing won’t offend you.  You understand it.

You write that and then mail it to the address of a stranger because she hasn’t given you access since you spent your first day there.  She’s only fuel now,” he said putting his head into his hands.  “But you need fuel son.  We all need fuel.”

We closed our dryer doors in unison.  “I learned how to be strong,” he breathed quietly.  “Prison made me strong.  Not strong like an ox, but like a widow,” he pointed out.  And then he added glumly, “But also like a fragment that used to be a whole and a piece that was once a part…of something.”

Strong enough to dream in the day and think through the night and rest when it’s over but wake up in spite of the lingering expectation that nothing is changing.  “That’s so short-sighted,” he laughed.  “Really the only thing that doesn’t change is the scenery, and it makes your thoughts stagnant and mossy.”  And then his smile disintegrated in small evaporating pixels, replaced by a flat line of melancholy.

“I’m homesick for the life I had before prison and I’m lonely for the relationship I built with my walls,” he said.  “I don’t think I belong here.”

“But…I’ve learned how to fight,” he continued.  “I fought like hell in there.”

He watched me and added that he’d been fighting for years before going to prison.  “In prison,” he said.  “You have to fight harder.  The stakes are higher.”  I nodded, thinking he meant the obvious.  “Not to protect myself from others,” he added, correcting my unspoken assumption.  “Fighting the new self against the old self, providing either exists, and then protecting the old self, once you’ve beat it into submission.”

“Allow the old self to rest and relax.   While the new self moves forward, the old stays in the past…but it’s a struggle,” he told me.  “Sometimes the new self proves to be too inexperienced and idealistic.  It’s rejected by the world and you feel pessimistic and the old self wants to take over, because it knows how.”

“You’ve got to really fight to keep growing,” he said.

He lit a cigarette, inhaled and closed his eyes and breathed smoke filled thoughts through his nose.  They floated above us and hung for a bit.

“And fight to dream and dream to write and write to live and listen too.  All that,” he went on, eyes still closed.

“After all, behaviors are learned,” he added.  “It’s like walking a tightrope over hell, you learn that the struggle is really inside of you.”

I think he sensed my discontent, how his words were sliding down me and sinking in as they went.  He closed one eye and attempted to explain and make me feel better.

“I’ve bled a lot,” he confided.  “In prison, I learned how to bleed.”

By then I knew he meant not to let blood run, rather leak truth at times and share with someone.  How to feel pain, show pain, respect pain, feel disdain towards yourself and the things you’ve accomplished that have hurt others…and share it.

“For so many years I fought like a sailor, nervously packing leaks in my exterior as others popped free until, eventually, my armor was permanently disfigured.  I poured out of myself into a fluid permanence.  Now I change and flow and reshape and grow…share shortcomings and repent all the anger I’ve spent.  My choices brought on agony and left all these cracks you see.”

I felt it from him then.  It entered me.  An onslaught of consequences that cut through his heart’s defenses and bled him dry throughout his sentence until…he grew an understanding of experience.  And now he was bleeding again…on me.

“Let red run,” he said quietly.  “But don’t run out.”

I usually don’t fold anything at the Laundromat.  After I’d creased my final shirt and placed the last sock in my basket, I sat down and asked if he had any regrets.  Again I felt forceful.  I knew he was remorseful, but I’d asked anyway and I was sorry the minute I did.

Through tears, he told me, “The one thing I haven’t yet learned is how to stop bleeding.”

And I knew what he meant.  He meant how not to deplete himself of all he’d become by salvaging strength and insight and bandaging the gaping wounds left from self-inflicted truths and attempts at feeling resolve and remorse and surviving a divorce from a self that was worse and now lies dormant, but is still there.

“Your memories and dreams live in the same room, and that’s weird,” he added.  “And I don’t know how much of either anyone wants to know about.”

It was disappointing for him when I picked up my basket to leave, I could tell.  But truthfully, our conversation had grown uncomfortable for me.  Shame and sympathy had awoken a pain in me that said I was guilty…for something.  I didn’t know what or why.  But I wanted it to go away.  I think he thought he was driving me away.  I think I wanted that to be the case.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know you son,” he said.  “But I can’t stop bleeding.”

We shook hands and he sat, again looking up at me.  “I went into prison a fledgling, and I came out a swan.  I’ve missed the migration and everyone’s gone, and it’s cold, and it’s lonely.”  He didn’t say that, but I thought it.  “Every day I dreamed of the outside and now that I’m out of prison, I don’t know what to do.  I don’t know how to do.”  I thought that too.  Then I left.

I made a short drive home long.  In my car, I thought about how charged the man was in his cell.  I thought about the irony of how harnessing his body released his soul and transformed him into a lit match in a box, where he was only supposed to be warehoused.  Now, on the outside…he was afraid of fire and had closed his release valves for safety.  Unable to purge, he was swelling inside…an internal hemorrhage.  I wonder if the dam will break again.