When the cell door opened, I was deep in a comfortable sleep. My eyes opened on instinct alone. There could only be one of several reasons for this blasphemous intrusion: a property, medical, or library pass, cell search, new cellmate, or my door was opened by mistake. Facing the wall, I lay there with the anticipation of a game-show contestant poised to discover which it would be. An electric dial tone came over the intercom and I waited to hear my name. Instead, the amplified voice announced that we would be coming out for rec and showers in ten minutes. Perhaps my door was opened by mistake after all. I debated on whether or not I even wanted to go out for rec. I was knackered after having spent the previous night reading a collection of sci-fi stories. That venture had lasted clear until four in the morning. When you have yet to be assigned a cellmate you can read for as long as you please, and just sleep off the exhaustion next day. I peeked at the door. Should I bother to shut it or let the the officer do his job? Decisions, decisions! Regardless, I knew there was no way I could just lay there without knowing for sure what was going on.

I fitfully pulled myself from under the sheets, shivering when a bit of cold air touched my bare skin. I was clad only in a pair of boxer briefs. I reached into the compartment under the bunk, randomly searching for something to put on. Once upon a time, a metal dresser filled this compartment, but the Administration removed them after it was discovered that some of the inmates were playing pin-the-tail on their enemies. It was a pain in the ass at first. However, they were kind enough to leave our lockers and desk intact. So, being human, we adapted.

Having cleaned myself up and donning a pair of socks, sweatpants, and a red T-shirt that boasted GOYA ECI 2000 SOCCER CHAMPS in white iron-on lettering that was beginning to flake away like dandruff, I stepped into a pair of shower shoes that had seen better days (probably at the hands of an eight-year-old peasant in China). I dragged on towards the door, slid it fully open, peeking out into the hall. Sam, the laundry man, was sitting before the washer and dryer reading a Tom Clancy novel, his lips moving soundlessly over the words. His mug sat neglected on the washer, a silent advertisement for Maxwell House coffee (good to the last drop). Sam’s pale and bony legs were crossed so tightly, I couldn’t help squirming with discomfort.

“Any idea why they popped my door?” I asked.

The old man started at my voice, sitting rigid in his seat, his head spinning like a disoriented beacon. His eyes landed on me and he visibly relaxed.

“The war’s over, mate.” I put on a smug smile.

“You scared the hell outta me, English!” he scolded. The state specs made him look bug-eyed and ridiculous. He squinted at me. “What’re you doin’ out anyway? Your laundry day’s Monday.”

“Talk to the Man,” I said, pointing to the control bubble where the guards who were supposed to be guarding us lounged behind the thick glass like prostitutes.

Sam moved his mouth in a way I’ve come to associate with People of Age. He looked like a housefly examining a turd for corn bits. Then he turned and made his way toward the bubble. He waved his equally pale and bony arms to try and get the guards’ attention, the novel in his hand resembling a large brick. It’s a good thing the old man’s life wasn’t in danger because they never batted an eye his way. He kept this up until he either came to his senses or his arms were about to pop off. His skinny arms dropped and he vanished into the foyer and out of sight.

“Hey, cell three! ‘Mere for a minute!” Someone down the hail was calling for me.

There is always that one person who just sits by his door, waiting to coax some poor soul to play errand boy. Fetch me hot water. Get this. Get that. Pass this to cell such-and-such. Who cares if it’s two time zones away? And it didn’t matter that the entire housing unit would be coming out in under seven minutes; it didn’t matter at all.

I ignored him.

“Hey, cell three!” he called again. “It won’t take long!”

Yeah, yeah! Just the next two days or so!

I was about to step back into the safety of the cell when I saw Sam returning, accompanied by an ear-to-ear grin that exposed his remaining coffee-stained teeth. I tried to picture a housefly with a Cheshire Cat’s grin.

“What’s up, Lewis Carroll?” I asked.

“You’re gettin’ a new cellie,” he said, standing too close.

“Oh bloody hell!”

“After three weeks, you were due for one.”

“Yeah, and it’s still too soon,” I cranked.

No matter how institutionalized you are, there is a part of you that panics whenever you get a new cellmate. It’s enough to drive you mad! So much anxiety! Was the guy an asshole? Could you hear him sleeping in Burma? Does he hear voices that command him to wake in the middle of the night and parade naked round the cell? Getting a new cellmate is like a demented parody of The Price is Right: Charlie, tell him what he’s won!

To quote Forrest Gump: “You never know what you gon git.”

“Any idea who it is?” I asked, silently pleading with the Fates to let it be Halle Berry or Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Sam was stuck on GRIN. He leaned against the wall, folding his bony arms, revealing a tattoo of Smurfette performing an act I don’t recall ever seeing in the original cartoon series.

“He’s from lock-up,” he answered.

“Oh that’s just great, isn’t it!”

Fates be damned!

To understand the issue at hand here, an illustration: Let’s say Sam and I are neighbors in a middle-class suburb. We’re both standing at the dividing fence having a neighborly chat in the garden. Perhaps we’re dressed in shorts that shame our wives and make our children puke every time we’re near. Our conversation would metamorphose as follows:

SAM (tugging off garden gloves): I heard you’re getting a new neighbor.

ME (cleaning puke off my shoe): Really? What’s he like?

SAM: He just got of out of prison!

Lock-up is the prison within the prison. Anyone coming from lock-up is sure to be trouble. They’re welcomed in much the same way Society embraces ex-felons. There is fear, anxiety, prejudice, loathing, and apprehension–to name a few. It’s a “There goes the neighborhood” mentality prevalent in all cultures and social classes.

“Why was he in lock-up?” I asked.

“Beats me, English,” he replied, shrugging. If, at all possible, his grin widened. “That’s what you get for scaring old men.”

I shooed him away and slipped back into the cell.

It was my own fault really. Three weeks without a cellmate is a record, by prison standards. I had more than enough time to find a suitable cellmate. Those I did inquire with were happily planted with their current arrangements or couldn’t until they were committed six months to a cell (institution rules–God help you if you and your cellmate didn’t get on). I had no intentions of asking any of the hoppers to accommodate me with their loud boom boxes and endless supply of gangsta rap. With very few options available, I let Nature take Her course.
And She did: all over me.

It seemed I’d be going out for rec after all. I made my bed, collected my shower gear. A cart on whining wheels could be heard as it was pushed into the foyer. The new guy was on his way. My heart lurched and I chided myself for behaving like a coward.

The intercom rang out again: “Coming out for rec and showers! Tops first!”

Being among the Bottoms, I hurried to collect the last of my belongings, making sure to snatch up the book of sci-fi stories and earplugs. It was winter and if you weren’t among the first seven to get a shower you’d better be a polar bear. Which is ironic because all during summer there is more than enough hot water to airlift to Bangladesh. After making sure my locker was locked (this is prison after all) I rushed out of the cell, not bothering to lock the door, for my new cellmate was already pushing the blue property cart onto the tier. Because I was in a hurry, he was just a blur to me. Sam cackled and I wished I’d gotten a closer look at what was so funny. Whatever it was I was reasonably sure it wasn’t in my favor.

I don’t spend a lot of time in the day room; it’s rare I stay out the entire period. Perhaps I’d be more inclined if the hoppers didn’t commandeer the televisions and force hip-hop videos upon the masses. I don’t mind some hip-hop (emphasis on some). I enjoy: all types of music. Especially modern rock, industrial, and world. I just can’t stomach day after day after agonising day of the same rap and R&B videos on BET, the only music channel we’re blessed with. And to watch these guys gather round the telly as if the videos were all-new is an equally depressing affair. Being Black, I’m “supposed” to support BET. At one time, I believe BET meant well. Now, it’s just a waste of broadcast space. I’d rather watch cars rust. Of course, it’s either recycled videos on BET or basketball or football on ESPN. I’m more of an X-Games fan myself, but my money’s not on a bunch of inner-city hoods gathering together to watch white suburbanites perform front-side grinds on skateboards and in-line skates. I think, in that regard, they’d rather watch cars rust.

When the guard announced that rec and showers were over I was fit to be tied. All I wanted to do was execute a perfect three-point landing into my bunk. Upon entering the cell, I took a mental inventory of the new guy’s belongings: TV, Sony Walkman, a pair of Timberland boots. And the cell didn’t smell like the monkey house at the zoo. So far, so good. The new guy was laying on the top bunk, fingers entwined over his chest like crochet. Being of short stature, I couldn’t clearly see his face, but looking at the skin of his arms, I saw he wasn’t Caucasian or Black. He had a small and narrow build. Almost dainty.

Suspecting he was asleep, I was careful not to slam the door. I put my things away as quietly as possible. A short while later, I head him sigh heavily. I peeked up at him. His fingers danced like the tentacles of a sea anemone.

“Did I wake you?” I asked, just loud enough for him to hear me, if he was indeed awake.
The fingers stopped.

“No,” he said. “It just feels good to be off lock-up.”

“How long were you in?”

“Fifteen days.”

“Ouch,” I replied, pulling back the sheets on my bunk. I glanced at my own TV, debating on whether or not I wanted to watch the comedies on PBS. No, I had enough television for one day. I rose to hang my shower bag on the paper clip on my locker that acted as a hook.

When I turned I found the new guy looking my way. Our eyes met and [insert The Cutting Crew’s “I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight”]..

It is, in my opinion, an oxymoron to use anything associated with masculinity and the word “beautiful” anywhere within the same sentence. There’s distinguished, good-looking, and handsome. Never beautiful! Yet, the guy I was looking at was beautiful. He was definitely Asian (probably Southeast) with short, black hair cropped into a pageboy’s. Soft, downy eyebrows were suspended over almond-shaped eyes. Button nose, pouty, bee-stung lips, smooth cheeks and tiny chin that no razor ha ever encountered. This guy wasn’t an inmate; he was adorable!

I must have swooned because I suddenly had to steady myself.

In my defense, I don’t normally go round calling chaps beautiful. I’ve never found men attractive. I don’t go all gooey when I see pictures of Brad Pitt or N’Sync. Nor have I fancied climbing into a convertible full of drag queens and cruising the block for men. However, just the simple act of laying eyes on this guy had me questioning my sexuality. He was a man, but there was something immediately attractive about him. If it wasn’t for the fact that we were in a men’s prison, I’d have sworn I was in a co-ed college dorm.

Prison is full of sexual deviants. That’s par for the course. Yet, despite some of the best efforts to pass as a woman, there was always that “maleness” that just refused to be uprooted. The husky voice, five-o’clock shadow, stubborn body hair. There was none of that here. I couldn’t even detect an Adam’s apple on this guy! I remember thinking, Whatever clinic you went to, you certainly got your money’s worth!

I was staring; I had to look away.

“I’m Aaron,” he said. “Aaron Nguyen.”

My tongue was in the midst of having a seizure. I swallowed a few times, cleared my throat. “Gavin.” Somehow, I was able to get it out. I kicked off my shower shoes, slipped under the sheets. I snuggled against the bunk, facing the wall, waiting for sleep to overtake me. Usually, I’d strip down to boxers before taking my afternoon nap, but I have this Thing about undressing in front of strangers. There’s a formal waiting period one must observe before one can just lie around half naked in a stranger’s presence.

Sanitation were in the hall, sweeping, mopping and babbling nonsense to each other. The smell of pine disinfectant crept under the door. The telly in the day room played Beyonce’s “Baby Boy” for the sixth time that day. Aaron, I was thinking to myself. Such a gender-neutral name.

“Where are you from?” he asked, suddenly curious.

“Baltimore,” I responded, eyes closing on their own accord.

“You don’t sound from Baltimore,” he replied. “You sound British or something.”

“Or something.”

“I was born in America,” he offered. “My parents are from Vietnam, by the way.”

“I always thought Nguyen was Czechoslovakian?”

He grew oddly quiet and I thought I’d offended him. I was about to apologize when he did something that transcended every ounce of logic I possessed: He giggled. My eyes shot open. Men don’t giggle!

“I get it!” He giggled some more. “Are you British?” he asked, having calmed down.

“Only on Thursdays,” I intoned, letting my eyes close again.

And he giggled again! Which meant the first one wasn’t a fluke or an anomaly. I had a cellmate that giggled! A tittering, free-spirited, and (if I may) gay giggle! A title for a book came to mind: When Your Cellmate Giggles: A Do-It-Yourself Guide by Gavin Kaplan.

“How long have you been in the States?”

“Five years,” I said. “That’s including three in here.”

Silence. Then he said, “I’m from Montgomery County. Gaithersburg.” I acknowledged him with a grunt. The guy was a giggler!

Mistaking my response, he said, “I’ll shut up now so you can sleep.”

I’m an Equal-Opportunity Prisoner. I can get along with just about anyone, provided they aren’t Idiots. We all know the Idiots. The Idiots harbor absolutely no regard for anyone but themselves. They’re the ones who swipe your parking space when you aren’t watching. In prison They’re just as callous. And you never want to be cursed to have to live with one!
After three weeks with Aaron, it was evident that he definitely was not an Idiot. In fact, he was one of the more respectful and unselfish cellmates I’ve encountered. Such cel-mates (gay or straight) are hard to come by and you instinctively try and hold on, to them as long as possible. Unfortunately, rumors about Aaron floated round the prison like rabid dust motes. Harsh and demeaning rumours. The gossip made me furious, but Aaron took this all in stride. He said he was used to it, that he dealt with ignorance all his life. He assured me that he’s heard every homophobic term known to Merriam-Webster. Sometimes I had to build upon his quiet acceptance just to keep myself in check.

Straight men find homosexuals enticing, terrifying, or both (this is not to include lesbianism, which all men tend to find strictly erotic). Sure, we’re still attracted to women, and will go out of our way to steal a forbidden glance at a breast or derriere (hey, we’re only human). But, there is something about Ru Paul or, God help us, Cojo that kindles a fire within the pit of our bellies. That fire either burns like a flame or soothes like a massage. For some, either reaction can be terrifying. So, to counterbalance the fear they prove their “un-gayness,” usually in the form of verbal or physical gay-bashing.

Being three years at Eastern Correctional Institution, I’ve..er…come across a lot of gay men. I found most, if not all, of them pretentious and scandalous. And never loyal to just one bloke! Though Aaron was one of my better cellmates, I figured it was only a matter of time before he settled in and started “turning tricks” in the showers for boxes of Little Debbies.
No matter how cute and well-mannered he was, the flame he produced within me was a slow, scorching burn.

This threatened to become even more evident when, one evening, a folded note was slid under the door with AYRUN printed in huge block letters. “I think this is for you,” I said, handing him the note.

Aaron sat up in his bunk, gave me a wary look. A finger marked the page of the book he was reading. “Who’s it from?”

I shrugged. “Someone just slid it under the door. I couldn’t see who it was.”

The note might as well had been bathed in anthrax from the way Aaron took it from me. While he read it, I went back to watching Jeopardy! through my headphones. After a moment, he hopped off the bunk, tearing the note to shreds before flushing it down the loo. He flopped angrily into the chair.

I removed my headphones, turned to him. “Secret admirer?”

“The guy in forty-two wants to know how much would I charge for a blow job.” He stroked his hair with his fingers, set a socked foot on the edge of the loo.

I tried to remember who was in cell forty-two.

“Can you believe that?” Aaron went on. “Three days ago he was telling everyone I had HIV!” He crossed his arms, pouting. “That sloppy, smelly, disgusting . . . “

“He can’t be serious.” I asked.

“He gave me twenty stamps.”

Surprise hit me. “That you just flushed?”

He nodded. “He must think I’m for sale or something!”

“Or something.”

His eyes glared hard at me. But, he eventually began to ease up when he saw I meant no harm. He was about to say something, but he paused, climbed back into his bunk.

I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. However, he had just scored a perfect ten in my book.

My table-card expertise is limited to Uno and Old Maid. So Aaron taught my how to play two-hand solitaire. We sat with the desk between us, me on my bunk, him in the chair. It was 9:30 at night and most of the tier were in the day room. Aaron and I opted to stay in and watch a documentary on Lawrence of Arabia on PBS. We ended up skipping the show and playing cards instead, the tellies left silent and forgotten.

We submerged ourselves in quiet little chats cellmates often engage in from time to time: home, family, politics, schooling, etc. The longer we talked, the more respect for him I gained.

“Get out of here and go to college,” he was saying.

“What’s your major?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know yet. Probably something with computers.”

A silence between us as he put down a two of diamonds.

I broke in. “I’m curious. Why were you on lock-up? I don’t picture you as the sort who enjoys breaking people off at the knees.”

That Aaron giggle manifested itself. He pressed his fingers to his mouth like a snickering princess. He quieted himself.

“I used to be on the medical tier in five,” he explained. “But, I was moved to make room for ‘someone who needs it.’ ” He had formed quotations with his fingers. His countenance fell slightly as his hands sunk to the desk. “The guy they put me in the cell with . . . ” He paused. “Stop looking that way! It’s not what you think!”

I made an exaggerated motion of wiping sweat from my brow with the back of my hand. “Whew!”

A hint of a smile from Aaron. He explained, “All this guy could talk about was faggot-this and faggot-that.” He placed a four of hearts under a five of clubs, took a sip from his Pepsi. “I just got tired of hearing it!”

“So you dotted his eyes?”

“Nothing that dramatic,” he laughed. “I just refused to lock in with him. I told the tier officer what was going on. She basically said–”

“Deal with it or take a ticket for refusing housing,” I finished for him. “I’ve been there before. Not fun.”

He nodded, pulling a sliver of hair behind his ear. “They put me in the strip cell.”

“What for?!”

“I guess they thought I was suicidal or something.”

“Or something,” I grumbled.

Aaron hugged himself at the memory. “It was freezing! They took everything except my socks. They wouldn’t even give me a blanket to keep warm with.”

“And we’re the criminals.”

Aaron nodded his agreement before sipping at his soda.

Every once in a while, some poor inmate gets caught in the cross hairs of the Administration, drawing sympathy from some of the meanest of felons. We don’t like to see inmates suffer at the hands of the Administration, who hide behind their power, yet are about as brave as a flock of pigeons. Even if the victim happens to be an enemy, we take his side. Sure, we’d love to rip off the twerp’s head and play kickball with it, but we don’t want to see anything bad happen to him. It’s a love-hate relationship.

Much like family.

“What are you going to do about it?” I asked solemnly.

“What can I do?”

“Write up a complaint to the Warden,” I suggested. This won me a fierce leer. I held up my hands in surrender. “Okay, okay! I forgot: this is E. C. Abandon All Hope-I.”

“You’re silly!”

“They made me this way.”

That giggle came out of him again. It should have been irritating. On the contrary, it was becoming addictive. I liked to hear him giggle. Somehow, it reminded me of a soft rain drumming against the pavement.

Our game of two-hand solitaire evolved into an attempt to teach me the fundamentals of pinochle. The more he tried to explain the game the blanker my face must have become because he gave me a frustrated look. I could only shrug helplessly. It’s amazing: I can design web sites all day long, but the simplest concept of pinochle escapes me. In the end, Aaron found this frightfully hilarious. Having mercy, upon me, we moved to Spades.

I stole glances at Aaron, terrified he’d catch me and I’d be forced to explain myself. If he noticed, he never voiced it. He wasn’t much younger than I, only about three years. He was someone I’d find myself visiting a rave with (I’d probably be too high on weed or ecstasy to really notice much). Aaron’s taste in fashion leant more towards hip-hop: baggy jeans by FUBU or Phat Farm. But, he owned a pair of Jnko jeans, which are popular among skateboarders and in-line skaters. He was the type of guy you’d find in a Details advertisement. He kept himself impeccably well-groomed, constantly fussing over his hair. He washed his face at least three times a day, and he stayed married to lotions and bath talc. However, in a place where just opening a door puts you in contact with every germ known to mankind it was understandable. If not encouraging.

Aaron has an incredibly smooth, flawless, oval face. Some women would die for his complexion. His only imperfections (which I find enduring) are two renegade fangs growing just above the top canine teeth. His arms are hairless, as are his legs, which are tender and round. He’s about five-three and has a somewhat boyish figure. He wears large shirts, but the curvature of breasts rise almost imperceptibly under the fabric. When he speaks, it’s often high-pitched, like a melodramatjic actress. He would have no problem living life as a woman. It’s amazing how surgeons can transform bulky men into fine and supple ladies. It was difficult not to be aroused by him; I couldn’t deny that. I had a slew of questions that would fill a phone book. But, I kept them to myself. As much as I enjoy meeting different people, I learnt from hard experience that too many questions can become offensive after a while. But, try as I might, I couldn’t keep my eyes off him!

We drank sodas over Spades, snacked on cookies and Little Debbies well into the night, laughing at late-night info-mercials on the telly. By three in the morning, we were so wired by sugar we couldn’t sleep, so Aaron attempted to teach me pinochle again.

The lesson was interrupted twice when we both had to make mad dashes to the loo.

When I was in third grade, we did our best to stay well away from Johnny. Johnny, sickly and scab-ridden, was notorious for picking his nose and sampling the contents like Gummi Bears. This of course shot down any chance of his becoming Mr. Popularity faster than a goose during Open Season. He was always last to be chosen for any type of recreation, and no one willingly chose him as a partner for class projects.. All of our personal possessions were absolutely off-limits to him, no exceptions. Punishable by sever punching and/or wedgie. Because of his addiction to booger candy there was an ever-present chasm between him and us when queued up. Whoever was unlucky enough to be behind him in the queue tried valiantly to persuade someone else to go on ahead because suddenly his shoes were untied or she dropped her lucky penny. A pushing and shoving match would usually ensue:
“You go first!” “I’m not goin’! You go!”

Kids have such strict moral ethics. Violate just one of these handed-down codes and you’re getting fed Rock Soup. Or course, we never really grow out of such nonsense (just ask anyone accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials). Because Aaron and I were inseparable, very few chose to associate with us. At least in public. We were a clique of two and it suited us just fine. Prison life had gotten that much more easier to deal with due to our budding friendship. After surviving a month in the same cell we were more comfortable with one another. We weren’t lovers or pranced round the prison holding hands. We were just to people that really enjoyed being with one another. A lot of the guys couldn’t understand this, and some would ask if I’d “gotten in the pants yet.” I used to try and explain that it wasn’t like that, that Aaron and I were good friends, I would have had more success running for Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia.

Aaron is a great talker, and an even better listener (you don’t find that too often in men these days). He listened patiently as I rattled off about my weed habit. How it so conveniently helped me lose my job at Chesapeake Internet, ditch my girlfriend, and snuff out what family and friends I had left. I’d never discussed my addiction with anyone and it was feeling of removing a backpack filled with iron after a long hike. He also gave me tips and pointers on how to dress because I have no fashion sense outside of Target stores and clip-on ties.

While lounging in the library one afternoon, we secured a table well away from the rest of the group. Aaron hovered over; a Cosmopolitan while I flipped through a book on amphibians. Though there was quietness between us, the settling lull of library patrons washed over us in currents.

I was reading a section on salamanders when Aaron asked, “How come you never asked if I’m gay?”

(Yes, folks! Straight out of the blue, it’s Aaron Nguyen!)

I blinked at him, taken aback. “You what?”

His eyes were locked onto mine. “Why haven’t you asked me if I’m gay?”

A wave of heat flushed over me. I tried to shrug off my embarrassment.

“I guess. . .I guess I never really cared one way or the other.” He studied me like a judge at a Spelling Bee. “Besides, it’s pretty obvious. I mean not too many chaps go around with . . . ” I indicated his chest. He was wearing a yellow button-down with the top two buttons unhinged, exposing smooth skin underneath. I added, “I’d be lying if I said I haven’t fancied handling them just once.”

He smiled politely, face reddening. He flipped absently at the magazine, pausing on an advertisement for Estee Lauder.

“I didn’t mean to offend you,” I apologized.

“It’s not that.”

“Well, I’m sorry anyway.”

He accepted with a nod. After a moment, he leaned forward, elbows on the table, tiny chin propped in his hand. “Are you?”


He nodded.

I cleared my throat. Was it getting just a tad bit warm in here? “I never fancied men.” I paused, reflecting. “Come to think of it, my only fancy was a nice fat spliff.” I crossed my arms, leaning on the table’s smooth surface which held a lingering scent of Pine Sol. “I dated girls in high school. But, once I started up with weed, relationships were overrated.”

“And they say marijuana is a social drug.”

I nodded at the sarcasm.

“I’ve always been afraid to go out with people. Guy or girl.” He went on, “I’ve always been too self-conscious.”

“Wow! The last of the virgin males!”

He smiled shyly, waving off my remark. “I’m not.” He flipped idly through the magazine. “The first time I did It I was twelve. It was with a girl from school.” He paused. “It didn’t work out very well.”

“Most twelve-year-old know squat about sex,” I offered. “Real sex anyway.”

He didn’t reply. He chewed at the inside of his cheeks, eyes on the magazine before him. He paused to study an article on hair care.

“I take it you didn’t enjoy it?” I ventured.

He shook his head no. “I hated it, actually.” He sat up. “It just didn’t feel right.”

“Again, most twelve-year-olds–”

He grinned a bit, stopping me. “No, not like that. It’s hard to explain.” He sighed. “When you go home, are you going to smoke weed?”

The sudden change of subject caught me by surprise. I glanced at the poster of a colorful parrot urging us to READ. I doubt it,” I said. “I make better decisions when I’m sober.”

“Like not selling drugs to policemen?”

“Something like that.”

That Aaron giggle came again, but died just as suddenly. His dark eyes danced back and front. He finger combed his hair repeatedly. “This is going to sound stupid, but . . . ” Anticipation crept up my spine. “I don’t think I’m gay.”

“Okay, I’m confused.”

“It’s hard to explain.”

“Are you bisexual? That seems fashionable these days.”

Aaron shook his head, gnawing at his bottom lip. “I’m not into women.”

“Well, I think we both know that.” He scowled at me. I surrendered. “Sorry. Couldn’t help it.” I put on a serious face. “So…you aren’t gay, but you aren’t attracted to women.”

“I know it sounds—” He paused to let some guys pass. They lingered for a painfully long time. The one with a giant Afro kept flickering his eyes towards us. Secret agent he is not. Finally, they moved on. After they were out of hearing range, Aaron continued. “It sounds crazy.” He pulled a lock of hair behind his ear. Suddenly, I wanted to do that for him, just to feel his hair. “Everyone thought I was a boy. I had a . . . you know…” He left it dangling (pardon the pun). “When I was a baby, my mother noticed that I didn’t have . . . testicles.” My eyes involuntarily squinted the way they usually do when I’m utterly taken by surprise. Aaron gave a nervous laugh. “Dad was like,” he put on a gruff voice and waved his hands vigorously, ” ‘Don’t worry about his balls. They don’t start showing up until he’s eight anyway!’ ” He smiled at the memory, resumed normally. “My mother was young and had no idea if he was right or wrong. So, by the time I was eight, everyone pretty much forgot that Little Aaron still didn’t have any balls yet.”

“Not too many eight-year-olds need to have their nappies changed,” I commented. I lowered my voice to whisper, leaning close to him. “You have no testicles?”

A brief pause as someone pass. I suddenly wanted to make a whip and drive everyone out of the library. When the guy passed, Aaron shook his head no.

“At all?”


“Not even a one?”

“I don’t even have a scrotum.”

Somewhere in my head a tiny bell was sounding. “What do you have?” I asked carefully. He just stared at me, patiently waiting for me to realize. “You have both?”

He nodded.

“But, you’re still a guy . . . right?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Another parade of silence between us. We spent it staring at the media before us. Someone buggered up, I thought. A small laugh escaped me and Aaron’s eyes darted at me.

I made a minute dog ear in the book. “When I was seventeen, before I became totally bored with porn, one of my mates lent me a video called Horny Hermaphrodites 3.” I snickered, recalling the video vividly. “There were women parading about with rubber penises–or is that penii? Anyway, they had them glued to their pubes. They were supposed to be hermaphrodites. But, there is no way you can bend a willie like that and not pay the price. And their pubic hair looked more like toupees!” I chuckled, shaking my head.” ‘Real and Authentic Hermaphrodites’ the box said! After watching that, I was convinced that hermaphrodites didn’t exit. And my mate was out of thirty quid.”

“And to think that was part three,” Aaron commented, disgusted. “I’ve seen a few of those movies. Out of curiosity. They aren’t even close.”

“How did you get past the DOC physical?”

He lifted his hands. “I never got one. I guess the doctor didn’t feel comfortable touching me.”

“Strip searches?”

“The guards never really look. Besides, it’s big enough to notice.”

“They probably suspect you’re just another member of the Lipstick Squad.”

His mouth fell open as if I’d performed a conjuring trick. “The what?”

“The Lipstick Squad,” I explained. “Ginger, Cupcake, Swiss Roll–you’ve seen them. Ginger’s got tits out to here.”

“The Lipstick Squad?”

“That’s what I call them anyway.”

Aaron giggled into his hands. “You’re silly!” He let the laughter cease. “I don’t think they like me too much.”

“You’re a hell of a lot more attractive,” I said, not daring to meet his eyes. “Also, you don’t have to go out of your way to appear like a woman. It just happens for you.”

“You’re saying they’re jealous.”

“Of course! They won’t say it aloud, but you’ve got half of the prison making Fifis over you.”

“Fifis?” He gave me an odd look.

“Let’s just say it’s a sex toy made from a towel, latex gloves, and body lotion.”

A burst of laughter escaped Aaron, ringing throughout the library, turning heads. He pressed his hands to his mouth as if trying to keep the laughter in. I got a kick out of watching him, and I had to laugh.

“It’s true!” I said. “Some of the guys are pissed at me because they think we’re a couple.”
He waited for the laughter to die down. It wasn’t easy for him. Eventually, it dwindled into that giggle of his. “Are we a couple?”

I wasn’t ready for that. I cleared my throat. “I think we’re really good friends. One who happens to possess certain feminine endowments.”

He seemed to accept this.

“If someone finds out, you might get hurt.” I had to fight back the image of anyone hurting Aaron.

“I’ll be okay,” he said. “As long as we’re cellies, I won’t have to worry, right?”

I agreed. “But, what about the showers? Lots of voyeurs about.”

“Even you?” he asked coyly.

Again, I wasn’t ready for his question. I shifted in my seat. “I’m too afraid of what I might see; I might feel inadequate.”

He giggled.

“Would you consider yourself a man or woman?”

“I don’t know,” he replied simply. “I was raised a boy. I have a penis.”

“Aren’t there tests you can undergo?”

He nodded. “Yeah.” He fondled his hair. “But, I’m scared of getting the wrong answer.”

“Which would be…?”

“I don’t want to be a man.”

I feigned shock. “What’s wrong with being a man? Outside of the fact we’re the reason the world is so muggled up.”

He took this in stride. “It would be serving life sentence in a stranger’s body.” Some more inmates passed. Some gaked, some made snide comments. None of them would be caught dead at our table. Aaron watched them leave. “If I were a woman, I wouldn’t feel so guilty about falling in love with you.”

[Insert The Cutting Crew’s “I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight.”]

I don’t how long we sat there in silence, watching the other. I had an itch on my cheek, but I ignored it. Afraid to moved. In the end, I didn’t have to.
Aaron rose from his seat, picked up the magazine. “I’m going to look for a book before the library closes.”

He left me staring at the book in front of me.

Aren’t some amphibians hermaphroditic?

For the next several weeks, we walked on eggshells, both of us embarrassed at his bluntness. Though our friendship was still intact (it would take more than mere honesty to break us apart), there was a certain dreadful anxiety at what would happen next. What should happen next? And when?

I’ve always been too high to be sentimental. And after my incarceration, that part of me was shelved, as more of a defense mechanism than anything else. Prison is not the place for sentimentality. It is a sign of weakness and the Predators will pounce on you as easily as a wolf savages a lame sheep. Felons use a person’s feelings like toilet rolls. Not even the drag queens expressed their feelings. “He’s my Baby-Boo” isn’t the same as “I think I’m falling in love with him.” The former suggests that a game is being played. Whereas, the latter casts that game far beyond the playful chitter of sexplay and spirals both parties into the harsh realm of Relationship, where hearts are broken and emotions are as easily torn as butterfly wings.

The more fond of Aaron I became, the more a riot of feelings surged through me in hot electrical jolts. Sometime after Aaron’s confession in the library, I had developed strong feelings for him. And that terrified me so much that some days I intentionally tried distancing myself from him, allowing my emotions to sort themselves out, struggling with my own natural desires. I didn’t want to jump into this prematurely. So I spent a lot of time brooding, or as Aaron referred it, “in one of my moods.”

One night Aaron clumsily wrapped his small arms round me, telling me that I was his best friend. It wasn’t unlike being embraced by a woman, and I hated myself for trying to rationalize that fact, to justify my growing desire for him. I began to tremble, a faint convulsion that began in my legs and rushed up to my shoulders. Sensing this, he pulled away, quietly composing himself before apologizing. “It’s all right,” I assured him.

He seemed unconvinced, sat in the chair. Normally he’d sit on my bunk. I tried to tell him that I wasn’t angry. He only staied at his hands like a chastened school boy.

Later that night, we lay in our separate bunks, talking amongst ourselves about childhood embarrassments, crushes, and life beyond prison. When I checked my watch it read 2:24. Eventually, our conversation ran until the only sound was the humming of the air vent. We knew the other was still awake, but were far too content with the silence to chase it away. At one point, I reached up to stroke the thin layer of metal that made up the underside of Aaron’s bunk. As if sensing this, he peeked over the side of the bunk, a mere shadow in the darkness. He stretched out his open hand.

I held it.

Despite being soaked through by the rain, Aaron burst into the cell as gitty as a . . . well, as a little girl who’d just gotten her first gold star in math. He’d just come from Classification with legal mail that evening. Outside, the downpour hammered against the window like a drunken sailor. At the first sign of lightening I knew there would be an institutional lockdown. Aaron had pulled an envelope from within his dripping coat. He waved it as me as if calling forth a truce. “Guess what!” he demanded, closing the door behind him. I put aside my book, stared at the envelope, suddenly afraid. Legal mail is just that: legal mail, or mail from courts or attorneys. Usually, it held only good or bad news. It was obvious Aaron had gotten the former. “My modification of sentence is set for next month. Isn’t that great?!”

“Yeah,” I remarked, sounding wounded.

He put up the cardboard blocker we use to keep people from peeking into the cell when one of us is on the loo. “My lawyer thinks I have a really good chance of going home. Being that.this is my first offense and all.”

I never asked Aaron what landed him in prison. It’s none of my business, for starters. No matter how tempted I am at times, I never ask about a person’s criminal charges. This is a place of various crimes–some minor, some major, some extraordinary. That’s just a personal part of people I’d rather not get involved with. Everyone has their skeletons. My grandmum used to say: “I can’t tend me own garden if I be pokin’ round someone else’s.” She had a lot of neat little sayings like that. Some of them made absolutely no sense to me until I was older. She passed when I was in’vy senior high school year. Shortly after, I took up smoking weed.

Aaron set about removing his wet clothes, slipping out of his coat. He loosed the belt on his jeans, came out of them without warning, letting his large T-shirt hang enticingly over his boxer shorts. His legs were fabulously smooth, almost daring to be caressed. He pulled on a pair of sweatpants, then came out of the shirt. I was offered my first glimpse of his small, round breasts. Darker nipples rising, above the sloping incline, hardened by the chill in the air. A hint of a woman’s figure just above the waistline of his sweatpants. Something stirred within me. I felt a surge of embarrassment. I fixed my eyes on the floor, suddenly interested in the spots within the cement. After donning a dry T-shirt, Aaron began pacing the cell like an expectant father, his fingers rising to race through his hair. Somewhere down the hall, rap blared from a lone radio.

I made to retrieve my book; it felt a ton.

“I just want the chance to start over,” he was saying.

“Don’t get your hopes up too high,” I advised. “Maryland likes to hold inmates hostage.”

He stopped his incessant pacing to flop beside me on the bunk. He put an arm around me. “Well, if not, I can stay here with you.” He pressed his head against my shoulder. The aroma of coconut rose from his hair. He pulled away before I could bury my nose in his hair. “But, if I do leave. I’ll keep in touch.”

“Heard that before.”

He recoiled as if struck. “I will!”

“You’ll forgive me for saying I have my doubts?”

He spun off the bunk and sunk before leaning his weight on my legs. For a moment I thought–well, never mind what I thought. “Will you put me on your visiting list?” he asked, smiling up at me. I shrugged. “Will you?”

“I guess.”

“Gavin!” He struck my arm with his tiny fist.

“Okay, okay! I will!” I cried, massaging the swelling node on my arm.

He grinned his accomplishment, rested his head of my thigh. Without thinking, I lifted a damp strand of hair from his forehead, tucked it behind his ear. Taken by surprise, he sat up. His eyes were upon me, searching.

“You have beautiful hair,” I whispered, stroking another strand.

He pressed his cheek into my hand, closing his eyes to the sensuousness of the moment. “No one’s ever been so good to me.” It was a whisper, more like a sigh.

A sudden banging on the door brought us to attention.

“Take that out of the window!”

Aaron smiled helplessly, then hurried to oblige. He ripped away the blocker. “Sorry! I forgot to take it down.”

The tier officer was a CO II by the name of Sawyer. He stood at the door, scowling. His steel-gray eyes searched the cell for contraband, followed by examining us for any signs of “hanky-panky”.

“We’re still virgin in here!” I waved at him before picking up my book.

“Don’t put that window blocker up again!” Sawyer’s nasal voice grumbled, frustrated that he wouldn’t be writing tickets today. “Next time, I’m giving both of you a ticket!”

We tried to keep a straight face , but it wasn’t possible. A gale force of laughter rushed out of us.

Sawyer mumbled something then left.

“When’s the little one due?” Juicy asked out of the side of his mouth.

Without taking my eyes off the action upfield, I replied, “That depends on how far along you are.”

His jaws tensed. “I’m not the one goin’ around with a faggie under my arm.”

“Have you tried switching deodorants?” I asked, pinching my nose.

Again his jaws clenched. One could see why he’s nicknamed Juicy. His entire body is spongy. As if simply squeezing him would bring forth water.

Upfield the ball was being handled by the opposing team. I waited, No sense in tiring myself.

“I shower everyday!” Juicy commented.

“Golden showers don’t count.”

Someone from Juicy’s team blasted the ball out of the goalie’s box. My eyes followed its course as it rose into the cloudless sky, momentarily lost in the sun. It was coming in my direction when it began its descent. Before the Sponge could react, I had the ball trapped under foot, searched for one of my teammates upfield, and rocketed the ball to him. I heard Aaron squeal in delight from the side-out. In turn, Juicy’s teammates moaned collectively: “Dammit, Juicy! Don’t let him play you like that!” Our player took a shot at goal. He missed by mere inches, the ball ricocheting off the metal post and back into play. The other team had the ball. It was passed to Juicy, but I was easily able to strip him of it and dribble it through some of his players and down the field. Finding a teammate, I sent him the ball. He passed it to another player who shot at goal. But the goalie was there to catch the ball before it could settle into the back of the net. I glanced at Aaron. We shrugged at one another. This was a tough team to beat.

From behind me, Juicy said, “I see you got a cheerleader on the sideline.”

“He’s a fill-in,” I said. “Your mum couldn’t make it.”

He stepped around me to confront me face-to-face. “Don’t be talkin’ about my momma!” I don’t usually pull out the Mother Jokes. It’s too risky. The same guys who spend all day calling women bitches and whpres are the same one who go berserk if you speak a word against their mothers.

“You best watch yo’ mouth!” he warned, jabbing a spongy finger at me. He stumped closer, his stomach giggling. I was suddenly reminded of Jell-O.

The inmate referee tweeted his whistle, a shrill and annoying wail. He jogged over to us, jammed an arm between us. “You wanna fight, take it off the field!”

With an audience, the Sponge took full stage: “You don’t know who you messin’ wit’!”
Someone from his team pulled him away, trying to get him to calm down. For Act Two, the Sponge spat a barrage of curses, flaying his arms flamboyantly in an effort to intimidate me. I saw a nature show on mountain gorillas that did the same thing. Maybe there is something to Darwinism after all?

The game resumed with the Sponge and I placed at separate ends of the field. I was hit by a wave of frustration. It wasn’t Juicy what was wrong. Not even the game, where the winner would go on to the championship. In just five days Aaron would be going for his modification. I felt like Atlas bearing the impossible weight of the world. I wanted the best for Aaron, but that meant his leaving, moving on with his life. Possibly forgetting about me all together. That was most frightening. Even though he talked me into putting his name on my Visitor’s List, I knew from experience inmates always promised to keep in touch when they leave. But never do. I had another three years left before I could even smell daylight again. Of course, I had the address of his parents, where he’d be staying, but what’s the point of writing just to get no response? I wouldn’t be able to cope with the let-down.

And what if the judge denied Aaron’s modification of sentence, leaving him to do the rest of his eighteen months? That would surely devastate him. And I wouldn’t be able to stand to see him disappointed.

Later that night, we watched the usual: Doctor Who on PBS. Aaron had never heard of the old sci-fi series until he moved in with me. It was my ambition to convert such lost souls. We lay in my bunk, Aaron draped over my chest, my arm around him. We weren’t sure if this was a rule violation or not. But, since the tier officer wouldn’t be doing his rounds for another two hours, we decided it really didn’t matter. My fingers danced unfettered through his hair, unleashing that fragrance of coconut conditioner. (Okay, so I cuddle with my best mate; you wanna’ make something of it?)

“I wish we could stay like this forever,” he said softly.

“In prison?”

He pinched my side. “You know what I mean!”

Our eyes found one another within the light of the telly. I wanted to kiss him, trying to summon up a swarm of courage. I’ve had mates tell me: “Dude, I could kiss you!” But, that was usually after I’d scored a few poly-bags full of weed. For that, they’d probaly kiss the ass-end of a warthog. Yet here I was wanting to plant “tulips” upon my chum! My best mate! Had prison finally gotten to me?

“Could you ever have sex with a man?”

(Yes, folks! Straight out of blue….)

I cleared my throat. “The closest I’ve ever been to a naked man was when I was flipping through Fox and my thumb brushed against one of the male models.”

I waited for that giggle of his. Instead, he sighed, snuggled against me. “If I’m really a guy?”

He paused. “Would you?”

The question hung like swamp gas.

“I’d do anything for you, Aaron.” I stroked his face.

“That wouldn’t be fair.”

“I would though.”

“Don’t do it for me; do because you want to.”

Words swam round my head as I struggled to fit them together into a tangible sentence. I could only grasp at nothingness. Finally, I said, “I’m willing to try it.” I went on. “If I don’t like it, then . . . We’ll just go from there then.”

He smiled lightly.

I kissed the top of his head.


“Do you want to see?” he asked.

I felt my heart flare. “You don’t have to.”

“I want to show you,” he said rising. Without warning he flicked on the light. We groaned as we were both blinded.

When my vision cleared Aaron was putting up the blocker. By now I was sitting on the edge of the bunk, staring up at him as he stood over me. A soothing fire burnt within my belly. I wanted to draw him close, press myself against his body.

His shirt came, revealing those supple breasts, his flat, soft stomach. His belly button was just a tiny pinch in his skin. My eyes rose to meet his. He smiled at me. I smiled back. His hands slid down the length of his stomach, vanished momentarily inside his sweatpants. I caught a glimpse of fine, dark pubic hair. (No toupee here.) The sweatpants slowly lowered, releasing its secret.

Over the years I’ve had cellmate after cellmate. Some have gone home, others to lesser security. A few were transferred to other institutions. One took the scenic route out of prison by way of a real-drama version of Hangman. Some of them I enjoyed immensely, others I merely tolerated. A select few were about as pleasant as waking to a bed full of venomous snakes. Regardless of their demeanors and habits, they were all just cellmates. A necessary evil of prison life. Aaron changed all of that for me. For starters, I’ve never been in love with any of my cellmates before. Aaron was certainly the more attractive of the lot, and definitely the most unique.

Needless to say, when Aaron left for his modification and never returned, a profound part of me keeled over and died like a poisoned roach, complete with jerky death throes. Days. No Aaron. Weeks. No Aaron. A month. No Aaron. The only tangible evidence of him that reemained was a purple washcloth hanging from the peg above the sink. Whenever the door opened, my heart would leap and I’d anxiously wait for my buddy to come strolling into the cell with that Aaron giggle of his. Each time I was met with disappointment.

When an inmate goes to court, his bed is held for six months, unless he’s released and won’t be coming back. Which seemed to be the case for Aaron. A little over a month after Aaron’s departure, I received a new cellmate. A giant Neanderthal straight out of a J. R. R. Tolkien novel. And just as smart. Our conversation consisted of  “Sheets are here” and “You goin’ to chow?” His everyday presence made more real the fact that Aaron was gone.

Depression is an opportunist. It crouches in wait for that particular moment when you’re most vulnerable, then attacks. with a ferocious fury. It feeds upon weakness like a leech thrives on blood. Crafty and subtle, It sows doubt within the soil of your mind with hopes of producing a bountiful crop of paralyzing hopelessness that threatens every aspect of your health. I sank further and further in its quagmire with each new day. Frightened and confused, I attempted to fight off its effects, throwing myself into various projects: reading, writing, even drawing (I find I have absolutely no talent for art). Some days when I felt more “up to speed,” I’d breathe a sigh of relief that It had finally run its course. Then a crashing thought would plummet me into a spiraling vortex of anger and sadness.

The weeks rolled by unmolested. There was no letter from Aaron. To make matters worse, the address he gave me suddenly turned up missing after a cell search, along with several knick-knacks I kept in a cup in my locker. Whatever mail I received was frowned upon when I saw it wasn’t from Aaron. Waves of violation crashed into me, dwindling me into nothing. I wasn’t suicidal; I had no plans of rigging up my own gallows. But by the way I slithered about the compound performing my daily routine, I might as well had tucked myself into a casket!

How could he do this? Just drop a person like a cancerous sore? So many questions raged throughout my head. Why did allow myself to get involved with him? To allow such strong emotions to develop for him? There were no answers. Only more questions.

I was the butt of many jokes! Especially since my prowness as a perpetual smart-ass was severely hampered by my depressed state. I was wounded and the vultures were circling. Even bug-eyed, turd-inspecting Sam couldn’t resist a couple of low blows.

For the first time since Aaron and I became cellmates, I craved weed. I recall lying on my bunk, contemplating who on the tier had access to the drug. All I wanted to do was allow it to take its full effect upon me and draw me deeper into its embracing arms. To just close my eyes and smoke it all away.

A year later, I’d slowly come to accept that Aaron was gone. Wounds heal; the world keeps turning; there’ll always be Paris–yadda! yadda! yadda! Determined not to be broken, I simply hardened my heart. Carried my head high, chest out. The Lipstick Squad, interestingly enough, were the only group to really see beyond my facade. They sympathized with me. Even going so far as to send me encouraging notes. Some even offered their “services.” Sexual or moral support, I’ve no idea; I never asked.

Regardless, I refused all condolences, opting to shed myself of cumbersome emotional baggage. I vowed to stay neutral to the world around me, shutting off all sensitivities. I was still in much pain; I knew that. But, the only way to keep such a thing from happening again ws to never allow it a chance to repeat itself. So I took up my cross and bore it.

Gratefully, the jokes came to a drizzle. I was working as an education clerk by then. The job itself was quite enjoyable, if not all together fun. It helped keep my feelings at bay and on a strictly professional level.

You’d never know I was so alone.

It was Saturday morning when the tier officer woke me: “Gavin Kaplan!”

I rose groggily, faced the intruder. She nearly stood inside the cell.

A round and pudgy woman with thin specs and a gruff demeanor from having been raised the only girl amongst seven brothers. I liked Mrs Andrews, just not this early in the morning–on a Saturday to boot!

“Mr. Kaplan isn’t in right now. Please leave a name and number–”

“Visit, Kaplan!” she broke in. She held up a pass between two fingers, set it on the chair. She left without locking the door.,

A groan escaped me as I forced cobwebs of sleep from my brain. It was probably just as well I woke up: I’d dreamt I was being chased by a giant, rabid Pac-Man, Tiredly, I cleaned myself up, got dressed, wondering if perhaps my sister had finally managed to pay a visit. I asked myself if it was proper etiquette to ask for money before, during, or after a visit. When I left, my cellmate was still snoring under the blanket. Perhaps dreaming of frolicking through Middle Earth.

Visits are bittersweet. It’s a chance to converse with family and friends. However, immediately before and after, you’re subjected to an intense strip searchl And not your average, run-of-the-mill “squat and cough” either. Oh no, no! It’s the whole dehumanizing nine yards: Open your mouth, lift your tongue, lift your arms, lift your nutsack, spread your cheeks (Ha! Ha! Funny, wiseguy! Now spread your other cheeks!), etc. Want to experience first-hand how cattle live? Contact your local travel agent for a prison near you!

Having been assured I wasn’t smuggling Bibles in my rectum, the guard escorted me into the visiting room where several other inmates from all over the compound sat with their visitors: wives, girlfriends, mums, dads, sons, daughters, etc. It’s difficult to see other inmates who are housed in separate units, so it’s not unusual to see inmates spending more time talking to each other, leaving their visitors to scratch their heads in wonder. I was assigned a seat within the maze of thigh-high counters–one side separates Us from Them. I waited, quietly tapping my thumbs against my thighs. Money. Before, during, or after? I was conscious of the snickering and whispers and eyes sneaking glimpses at me, from both inmates and visitors. No doubt heads were leaning in to tell how I found true love in a prison cell. That was okay because Aaron looked far better than some of the women I saw that day. At the thought of Aaron I became depressed again, having thought I would be over him by now. Should I tell my sister about him? No, better not. She’d laugh her ass off. Big brother’s got a boyfriend! No, better keep mum on this one.

That was when Aaron walked in and [insert The Cutting Crew’s “I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight”]. My eyes followed him, blinking madly as if trying to make the illusion disappear. It was him! He looked different somehow, but I knew it was him! There was snickering off to my right; I ignored it, watching this mirage make its way around the maze of seats. For a moment, I thought he was going to pass me by, but he planted himself in the empty chair before me, his smile never leaving his face. My hands clenched into fists, sweat beaded upon my forehead. I wiped it away with an arm. I could only look at him. He’d grown his hair, which was pulled into a tight, silky ponytail. Individual strands rung over his face. His pouty lips were moist with gloss. No make-up, unnecessary for such a clear complexion. I tried not to, but I couldn’ t help but notice the perfectly round orbs pushing ag.nst the fabric of the black turtleneck he wore. He caught me looking and I felt the blood rush to my cheek. My eyes floated over his shou1der, trying to correct the mistake.

“Hello, Gavin.”

There was a painful pinch in my chest as the stitches tore from my heart. Sitting before me was a whole new, yet all the same person! “Hey,” was all I could manage.

He smiled, exposing white teeth. Those fangs refusing to be omitted. “I missed you.” He stroked a hanging bang from his face, settling it behind his ear.

“Is that why I haven’t heard from you?”

His smile faltered. “I’m sorry,” he offered. He squeezed his hands together as if kneading clay. His nails were unpainted, natural. A sweet fragrance found my nose. I couldn’t place it.

“You could have written,” I went on, the pent-up frustration threatening to unleash itself. “A simple letter: ‘Dear, Gavin. Can’t talk now. Here’s a mail-bomb to tide you over. Toodles!’” His creamy cheeks reddened and he scratched the side of his head with a fingernail. I composed nyself. Mostly because I was about to burst into tears. “I just thought you’d write,” I said. “They took the address you gave me during shakedown. It was in a cup along with some paper clips and elastic bands and things. They just took the whole cup.”

A pained look crossed his face. He bit into his bottom lip. “I thought you didn’t want to write me.” He sighed. “I should have written. I’m sorry.”

“Why?” I asked. “Why so long?”

“To be sure.”

“What about?” I asked a little too loudly.

He glanced somewhere to my left. My own eyes drifted over his should, landing on a frowning inmate whose eyes darted from me to Aaron to Aaron’s arse. His wife or girlfriend caught him looking just as his eyes settled a third time on Aaron’s rear. She slapped the counter, angry. Good, serves him right.

“I went to see a doctor,” said Aaron. “About . . . my problem.” Another sigh. “She gave me a physical. A proper physical. I have my answer now.”

“Whether you’re male or female?” I asked, suddenly curious.

He nodded.

“It’s taken a year?” I enquired.

He shrugged. “I wanted to see you sooner, but I couldn’t visit until I was out for a year. I was going to write you, but it was my mother’s idea to wait. To see if I still felt the same for you. And you for me.” He added, “She said it wasn’t like you’re going anywhere any time soon.”

“Touche.” I agreed, taking that fragrance again. “You told your mum about me?”

He grinned. “She wants to meet you. Of course, Dad’s having a hard time dealing with all this. He’s coming around though.” He met my eyes. “I told her all about you. About us.”

“There is an us then?” I asked, slightly askew. I was failing miserably at being angry.

“That’s up to you,” he said shifting.

The guard’s radio blared in my ear as he passed behind me, startling me. I covered my ears, shook my head, grumbling. “I swear they do that on purpose!”

Aaron was pulling a letter from his coat pocket. He explained, “They said not to pass anything, but I can read it to you.”

“What is it?”

“The results from my physical.” He began unfolding the letter. “I don’t want to know,” I said quickly.

A frightened look crossed his rose-petal face. “What?”

“I don’t want to know,” I repeated.

“But, you need to know. I want you to know.”

Somewhere a child whined.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “You’re Aaron and I love you for that.”

He let his hand fall, the letter meeting the counter. Tears glistened in his eyes. I was reminded of a leaf after a gentle rain. He caught them away with his finger.

“I love you,” I said. It came out as a helpless plea. “I want you just the way are. No hormone pills. And none of this–” I made snipping motions with my fingers.

He burst into that Aaron giggle, covering his mouth. I wanted to take his hand, but the rules forbade it. Instead, I just met his eyes.

“I went crazy missing you,” I said.

He leaned on the counter, propping his head in his hand. “I love you too, Gavin.” His eyes cut towards the still-folded letter. “But, you need to know. It’ll only eat at you until you can’t take it anymore. Believe me, I know.” I was about to disagree. “Otherwise, you’ll never be sure,” he said.

My eyes fell on the offending stationery lying between us on the counter. I could just make out a logo and a telephone number. It’s amazing how paralyzing a simple piece of paper can be. Suddenly, I hated the Chinese for even inventing the damned stuff. What was so wrong with painting pictures on cave walls anyway?

Aaron waved the letter at me, leaving the ball in my court. I hate when people do that. I’m in prison for Pete’s sake! I shouldn’t be expected to make decisions!

“This is like waiting for a bloody HIV test,” I commented, trying to joke away the responsibility. He only smiled, waiting. Of course he was right. The answer would alleviate those future nights of lying awake wondering about my partner’s gender. I let out a sharp breath, rolled my shoulders like a big-eared boxer ready to take on Iron Mike Tyson.

“Okay, Alex,” I said. “I’ll take Lady or Gent for $500, please.” Aaron burst into another giggle. He could hardly unfold the letter.

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