Just Bitting

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This excerpt is from Candy and Blood. Available for purchase on Amazon now.

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My world was turned upside down, and I wasn’t really sure how to navigate the strange new terrain in which I found myself.

My buddy Kevin, a guy who I’d known for two years and who had been my cellie for nine months, was moved into the same cell house as me. The rumor was that he was suspected of homosexual activity in his previous house, so he was separated from his…special friend. Believing that I knew Kevin better than that, I dismissed the gossip as ridiculous. Then Kevin admitted freely and openly that the rumors were, in fact, entirely true.

bpw-logoMy first thought? I gotta say, I was a bit insulted—apparently I wasn’t his type. (A strange thought for a heterosexual man to have, but that’s where my brain went first.) I was having difficulty processing this bombshell. A big part of me didn’t even believe him, like perhaps this was some elaborate prank being pulled on me. It wasn’t.

I don’t purport to understand the mechanics of the gay man’s mind, but I do understand that homosexuality isn’t widely welcomed in prison. Therefore, I would expect a man to choose to hide his sexual orientation. However, that’s not what Kevin was doing. To hear him tell it, he’s not gay; he’s just bitting, merely passing time. This seems like little more than an easy excuse for a person to hide behind. Or perhaps it’s just my own puritanical sexual proclivities shining through. I mean, you’re either gay or you’re not, right?

When Kevin asked me point blank if I thought of him any differently now that I knew his story, I felt like I was being put on the spot. All I could manage was to numbly shrug my shoulders and give a noncommittal grunt. I couldn’t believe what Kevin was telling me—and that he was suddenly open about it.

Although Kevin was admitting to passing time, he continued to deny he was gay. I found myself thinking back to our time as cellies. As much as I scoured my remembrances, there were no hints or missed signals that should have betrayed his tendencies. Kevin is a big, swole guy who works out constantly, but this describes over half the guys in prison. The point is, I saw nothing soft or effeminate about him, like most geechies in prison. I assume he was keeping it on the sly. Even as he claimed he was just bitting, Kevin began to talk about his boyfriend (Yes, Kevin used the term “boyfriend” while still denying being gay). As he described missing him, Kevin displayed an obvious tenderness and affection for this other man. He went on and on about wanting to go back to the other house with his boyfriend, and I couldn’t help but wonder what exactly Kevin received as a present for his recent birthday. I decided I didn’t want to know.

Part of me was genuinely offended, but not because I wasn’t Kevin’s type (in hindsight, it’s probably a good thing I wasn’t). What bugged me is that I had lived with him and had no idea. It made me wonder who else I had no idea about. After Kevin became more open about his sexuality, I also couldn’t help but think how it reflected on me. I’d gotten suspicious looks from people who knew I’d spent nine months in the cell with the guy—it was assumed that I, too, had resorted to passing time. The thought was abhorrent to me.

Kevin was my friend, but his revelation changed everything, and I didn’t know how to react. My options, as I saw them, weren’t many. Should I subtly distance myself from him? Shun him entirely for the sake of my own reputation? Just ignore the newest elephant in the room and act like nothing had changed? It was knowledge that couldn’t easily be forgotten, and Kevin didn’t make it easy on me.

www.telegraph.co.uk
http://www.telegraph.co.uk

Within an hour of looking me in the eye and admitting to engaging in homosexual acts with his boyfriend, Kevin told me he hadn’t had a letter or visit from his girlfriend in a while and that he was worried she may be back on the nod. (Oh, did I not mention that Kevin also has a girlfriend in the world?) I could almost hear my mental gears grind as I tried to shift to the new topic of discussion. Before I could get there, Kevin was back to talking about his other paramour. He cursed and angrily lamented that he would have to start missing the early-morning yards and gyms so he could leave with the early line and go to the prayer room to visit his boyfriend. This, more than any of his other declarations, was the most disturbing statement for me to hear. Let me explain.

In all the time I lived with Kevin, he never missed a Rec. I used to talk shit to him that he was a dope fiend for working out—meaning he was compulsively addicted to it. That was our little friendly joke. He pretty much never voluntarily took a day off. Even when he was injured I usually saw him just work through it. Kevin’s decision to skip Rec let me know how serious he was about his boyfriend. The fact that he was willing to go to the prayer room told me he wasn’t going to try to hide it anymore.

The prayer room has a communal bathroom with toilet stalls in it that, whether intentional or not, the C/O on duty is lax in patrolling. It’s common knowledge that only those who are most flagrant with their homosexuality go to the prayer room. I imagine that some go there merely to socialize with others who share their own sexual preferences, but that’s not the case for everyone who attends the prayer room. Suffice it to say, there may be men on their knees, but there’s not a whole lot of praying going on. Scheduled chapel services are also common meeting places for homosexuals in prison. It has gotten so bad that to openly confess Christianity is to expose oneself to suspicions of homosexuality. To hear Kevin’s sudden new plans for attending chapel and prayer room religiously—by which I mean faithfully, which is to say regularly, and not full of faith—is tantamount to a confession that he is gay. Of course, according to him, he’s just bitting.

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The Dirtbag

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When I say that my cellie Ray was a shameless, filthy, unrepentant dirtbag, rest assured that I’m telling the truth.

When you live in a tiny cell, everything is compounded, made exponentially more aggravating or disgusting thanks to the simple fact that two grown men are essentially inhabiting a closet with a toilet. I don’t expect much from my cellies; as long as they’re respectful and clean (meaning both good hygiene and relatively tidy), I can get along easily. Ray was a good enough guy; we met on common ground with some movies and TV shows. At times we could carry on an intelligent conversation—a true rarity in prison. What made Ray so rough to live with, though, was his utter lack of awareness of his deplorable hygiene.

Being a fairly plump guy, Ray would sweat more than the average person. His natural odor was a heady musk that would probably attract a moose in search of a mate if Ray were to ever head into the wrong stretch of northern territory. He washed himself thrice a week as shower facilities were made available to us, but on the days in between, Ray wasn’t a big fan of the bird bath. He would come in, fresh from lumbering his way up and down the basketball court, and jump his sweat-slicked, naked-from-the-waist-up body onto his top bunk. The sheet that covered his mat quickly developed a yellow stain.

Besides not-so-slowly turning his sheets dingy with sweat, Ray also had an alarmingly abundant supply of sores, scabs, and burst pimples all over his body. Lying in his rack, topless, as was his wont, provided nasty red accents to the dirty yellow that was already coloring the canvas of his sheet. The longer he persisted in not putting his sheets in the laundry, the more varying hues of dried blood appeared with browns and maroons adding themselves to the tapestry of filth.

photo by "africa"  www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by “africa”
http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

When Ray wasn’t lounging partially nude, he was dressed in long pants, a thermal long-sleeved top and a sweatshirt—going from one extreme to the other, as if he was afflicted by alternating flashes of hot and cold. He would live, sweat, bleed, and sleep in these clothes, which held in his incredibly aromatic funk. That B.O. seeped into the sheets and mat and, it seemed, into the very walls of the cell. The fact that Ray was spectacularly flatulent only added more noxious fumes to the mix. Remarkably, I became largely immune to it, except when I would walk back into the cell after being gone for a while and be assaulted by the odor anew. As a young adult, I’d once had a pair of dwarf hamsters whose cage I rarely ever cleaned to refill it with fresh bedding. That same damp, musty, pungent, fecal fragrance is what Ray created, and it’s what filled every cubic inch of the cell.

People came to the cell to check in or talk to me, and they were immediately chased away by the foulness emanating from within. I tried gentle nudging and encouraging in an effort to convince Ray to alter his habits of wearing the same clothes for days without changing and never washing his sheets, but nothing I tried ever yielded positive results. In the seven months we lived together, Ray only washed his bedding once, and that was only because the C/O made him do it.

On that occasion, the officer handing out mail had to key open our door to pass through a particularly thick envelope that wouldn’t slide under the door. As soon as he swung the door open, his nose scrunched up in revulsion. The resulting look on his face made him look like he’d just swallowed a mouthful of something truly grotty. He met my gaze, and I just shrugged and rolled my eyes upward to where Ray lay in his bunk above me. The C/O surveyed Ray in all his bare-chested, bloody, filthy glory and was struck momentarily dumb. His mouth worked up and down as if words were meant to be spilling out, but for a long time nothing came. Finally he looked back and forth between Ray and me a few times before motioning to Ray and saying, “Step out here for a minute and talk to me.”

I wasn’t privy to their conversation, but a grip of minutes later, Ray came back in, grumbling and cursing under his breath as he stripped his mat. The C/O closed our cell door with the parting words, “I’ll be back in a bit for them, and I’ll see if I can’t find some bleach.” Ray wasn’t happy, I was hopeful, and it was a nice thought by the C/O. It didn’t help.

www.jackson-pollock.org
http://www.jackson-pollock.org

The laundered bedding came back with spots and blotches of dried blood intermingling with the yellow-brown sweat streaks to culminate in what could pass for a lost Jackson Pollock work. Beyond that, the stench was too terrible in its amazing power to be dispelled by something as simple as laundry soap and bleach. It had seeped into the pores of the concrete. Nothing short of burning the place to the ground would ever be able to exorcise Ray’s odor from the premises. It was a lost cause, and despite some outside input from the C/O, Ray remained a filthy dirtbag until the day he went home. I was blessed with a reprieve from the wretched filth after seven months when I had a court writ and was temporarily shipped to another joint. Wherever Ray resides in the world right now, I imagine it greatly resembles a pigsty. After all, being a hardcore, unapologetic dirtbag is a tough habit to kick.

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