By Jennifer M. Dryden (c) March 2010
Note: This is the second part to “Concentrated Breathing,” a non-fiction piece that is posted a few posts down. Click here to read the first part: http://wp.me/pEbtR-M This is a chapter… where it falls within the book I’m writing, I don’t know yet. Please realize this doesn’t follow right after Concentrated Breathing, but does rest within the pages of my growing memoir.
My tear-stricken mother locks eyes with me on her third attempt to make me look at her. “He’s your brother!” she pushes the words out of her mouth with guilt laced through as if she took acting lessons from a soap opera actress. Her hands grip at her hips, grinding into her bones; that always symbolizes she means business. If my mother could even mean business. My dry eyes stare into her moist ones, emotionless and empty just like she accuses my heart of being toward Chad.
“I’m not going,” I say matter of factly, diverting my eyes to my cell phone. I text my boyfriend, Ty, and tell him I’m coming over.
“You haven’t seen him in six months. It’s time to go. He misses you.” She unzips her coat as if she’s making this conversation last until I cave. I won’t cave. “Would it kill you to fake it?” I laugh under my breath. Whatever.
“I’m not going,” I push from my gut this time, repeating my answer one final time before turning my back and mumbling, “Drive careful.” I notice my mom wipes her cheeks with a blue tissue, the ones from the upstairs bathroom, and I hear keys jingle in her hands as she retrieves them from the side pocket of her purse.
“I’ll call you when I get there,” her voice is sullen now, no power left to talk me into a three hour drive to an overly chilled, blindly white-painted cement block visiting room, where I sit for four hours on yellow metal chairs around a two-foot by three-foot knee-high table, talking about sugarcoated reality and how the cats are doing. It’s just old and fake and no, I’m not going to be fake with Chad. He’s the last person on Earth that deserves a false reality. He’s in prison for a reason. “I just don’t understand why you won’t go see your own brother, Jennifer.” She’s back to this question again? Are you kidding me, Mom? He’s in prison. I want to say this but I don’t. She knows my answer and the only reason she asks again is so I “think about it” and hopefully “come to my senses.” I don’t want to start her tears again and frankly, I just want to be alone. I kiss her cheek to get her out the door faster. I retreat to my room where I gather my things for Ty’s.
Fifteen minutes later, I’m full-speed-ahead to anther day with the Heuton’s – the normal family I depend on way too much. Ty’s family has a married Mom and Dad, a spoiled shihtzu named Kali, and two sons, Ty and Nathan. Nathan is just a year younger than me. Ty is a year older than me and I prefer it that way. Ty and I have been dating since April 6, 2005 and so that makes it two years and a few days. He remembers Chad’s sentencing day but only by my story version because my family thought it “should only be a family thing,” so Ty couldn’t come October twelfth.
The usual three and a half songs play over my Panasonic car stereo until I park my black 1993 Eagle Vision by the mailbox of my second home. I grab my purse, slam my driver’s door and walk up the driveway. I step back and glance at the house’s perfection – white with tan trim and maroon accents, ranch style with a basement for only Ty’s and my eyes. I step onto their front porch, which spans the length of the house’s front and open the door without knocking. The door’s squeak triggers Kali’s tapping against the hard wood floor. The grey and white shihtzu turns the corner to stare at the front door intruder. The first two months, she would run and bark at my heels, sometimes even jump up to my knees, but now she stops at the kitchen, turns and trots back to the den, where the Heuton’s traditionally sit watching television – Tuesday through Thursday it’s American Idol. Ty meets me halfway in the kitchen and embraces me with his long arms; the same arms that keep me stable. They embody my confidence.
“Hey you,” he says, kissing me before playfully pushing me away. I smile half a smile back. “What’s wrong, Jenn?” His face wrinkles and eyes lower as he looks at me inquisitively with concern.
“Mom’s just trying to get me to go see Chad again…” I say, trailing off into an eye roll.
“Oh, well why didn’t ya go with her?”
“Ty, seriously?” I say through tense teeth. “You know I can’t go there… not yet.” Definitely not ready. I just calmed down from the last visit. He nods and gently leads me into the den.
I sit passenger seat in Mom’s red four-door Grand Pre as we track our way through Google map’s directions to our final destination of Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Oakdale, Iowa. We take exit 240 on I-80 east and turn left on Coral Ridge Road heading north. “It says to go about a mile on this road and we should see it on the left side.” I point my finger to my brother’s new home on the magnified map we printed out. “Mom, my stomach hurts.” My eyes stay glued to the map but my heart races and my stomach lurches forward as we stop at the final stoplight.
Mom looks over at me with sympathetic eyes. “It’s okay to be nervous, hunny.”
“It’s just so weird. I mean Chad’s in prison… isn’t it weird to you?”
“Yeah,” she says, nodding her head. “It is.”
“I don’t want to go in.” My fast food breakfast inches upward and I cough, tasting the syrup from my hot cakes and sausage. I take a drink of my McDonald’s orange soda, which is watered down from our three-hour drive from Carroll, to try and calm my butterflies. “I’m scared.” This confession seeps from my buttoned mouth as I try to be as much of a grown up as a freshman in college can be. I shouldn’t have said that… it’ll just make Mom more nervous. Breathe. Calm down.
“The paperwork we filled out was approved so we shouldn’t have any problems getting through security,” she says referring to our three-page visitor’s form we penned in after Chad’s first letter explaining he was okay and where the state had placed him. “We’ll just see how today goes.”
We turn left into the parking lot of a sectioned series of three-story buildings – some parts are brick but most are gray with concrete. There are two sets of barbed wire fencing about two-sizes of my five foot-seven height but with the added loops of barbed-wire wrapping the tops of the double-Jennifer fence, it stands about two-and-a-half of my heights. A flagpole marks the entryway to the prison and the American flag and State of Iowa flag whip in the wind, banging against the metal pole like it means to hurt it. The sounds remind me of a windy day on the playground at school. Two places to find flagpoles: schools and prisons.
“Just bring your ID. Leave everything else in the car. Here, give me your purse, I’ll put it in the trunk with mine,” my mom instructs, probably comprehending the IMCC’s rules for visitors sheet we received with our approval letters. I do what I am told. Standing in silence outside the car, I glance over my brother’s new home. Prison. Wow. Never thought I’d be going to see my brother here. I let myself feel sad for a second before Mom steps to my right and motions toward the flagpole and the door into the prison lobby. One more refreshing deep breath and we enter the double doors, meeting four rows of plastic blue chairs.
The plastic blue chairs introduce us with other visitors like us, but they’re not like us really. We don’t belong here. Chad doesn’t belong here. I’m embarrassed. I shake my head to myself and try to accept reality. I won’t sugarcoat reality. I won’t turn into Mom. Believe what you see; it’s life. I suck it up and place my ID, which has left two lines engraved in my palm from my tight grip on it, into the box along side my mother’s. A chesty male voice echoes out of a speaker into my right ear as the guard behind the tinted glass speaks, “Who are you here to see?”
“Chad Dry-den,” my mom answers too loudly, saying our last name in two chunks so the guard understands. I look around to see if anyone was watching us but the four strangers scattered on random blue plastic chairs don’t move. My cheeks go pink as my sweating intertwined fingers tighten around each other. We don’t belong here.
“Sign in on the yellow sheet and take a seat. We’ll call you when he’s ready,” the guard speaks at us. When he’s ready? What does that mean? My mom nods and we enter the first row of blue plastics and sit side-by-side. I cross my legs lady-like and place my hands together in my lap. My mom sits with her legs together, hands just like mine. I read the shiny black plaques on the cement wall to my right. One has a dead police dog named Beck on it, awarding him eleven years of service with the police department. Below it there’s a plaque of the current police dog with “2006 –” on it. Just waiting for that dog to die too, or what? There are other plaques lining the wall including some officers’ names and awards for various sections of the force but twenty minutes later, my eyes snap back to the tinted window when the same loud voice echoes, “Dryden, you may go in.”