The Happiest Man Alive
The soft thuds of syncopated drops fell all around him as he walked through the morning drizzle. The trees emerged out of the fog as if they were being created as he walked, which in a way they were. The ground was soft and spongy underfoot, the air was cool, damp and fresh, the light was dim. Was it sunrise or twilight? He dismissed that thought. It didn’t matter.
He focused on sound. It was the sensation he missed most. He focused on the branches and leaves against a soft breeze well above his head, a breeze he didn’t need to feel on his skin. And the drops of condensation from the fog. The heady smell of earth filled his head. In his deprivation he had learned that accessing once sense opened and widened all the others, heightening all sensations beyond the sum of their individual qualities.
His skin felt clammy…was it dew or perspiration? He shivered a bit. Not only didn’t he mind that his threadbare clothes left him defenceless to the elements, he welcomed the experience.
She was waiting for him there like she always did. He always came up to her from behind. Her mahogany hair was down, long and wavy, covering her graceful shoulders. Her hair tapered down her back, echoing the slope of her back tapering into her succulent waist. He wrapped his arms there pressing his hand against the womanly curve of her womb, burrowing his face in her hair. What was that smell? Lavender? Eucalyptus? Her?
He pulled her into him. He loved the angular feeling of her bones under the healthy curves of her physique. He liked to dig his fingers deep into her flesh, as if penetrating her muscle and sinew would save him from all his torments. He tried to burrow into her the way bears burrow in the snow for refuge from winter. Not being able to surround himself within her left him feeling vulnerable and alone.
His mind leapt. A sound. In the distance. He forced his attention back to her. She was facing him now. The fire in her eyes gave him resolve. It was always harder when she faced him. He could be completely invisible if he wanted, scrutinising as he focused on her while not being seen at all. He hadn’t remembered her breasts as full as saw them now.
He was not aroused. Her body seemed like a miracle to him now, closer to a work of art than a natural wonder. It humbled him. A sense of peace and serenity washed over him. He was in a river, on his back, squinting from the sun as a tsunami gathered somewhere far off.
The jangle of metal keys. Iron bars. The violent slam of his tin dinner plat being slammed against the wall. The tsunami rushing in. The dankness of his cell. The horror of the fluorescent light. The prison guard he hated most, wielding the baton hard across his already broken ribs, “Get your ass up. You have an hour in the yard.”
At least the pain radiating through his torso immediately consumed all his thoughts. It mitigated the utter despair of returning from the bliss of his meditation to the reality around him. Suddenly, he was freezing, standing naked in the rain in the middle of the empty prison yard. He felt deeply a sound he couldn’t hear.
Silence and darkness. A sting across his cheek. It took him a moment to get his bearings. “I’m sorry,” he heard, “I didn’t mean to hit you.” He didn’t recognize the feminine voice in his ear. “You were screaming so loud - … I don’t want the neighbours to call the cops.”
She was in a shabby robe, an empty water glass in her hand. She had stopped caring what she looked like these past few mornings, but in a way that made her more appealing to him. It allowed him to be more relaxed around her. Maybe that’s why the nightmares had started.
“Was I screaming?”
“I’m going to make some coffee,” she said gently as she pattered out of the room.
He realised he was naked, and the bed covers looked thrown across the floor. He was starting to have night terrors. It troubled him deeply that he had been more comfortable, more sedate, in prison. The world scared the shit out of him.
He pulled on some sweat pants and found a sweater as he rushed out of the room. To him the shabby, hole she lived in felt like a mansion, and he constantly found himself rushing to get from one room to the next of the two room squat.
“Are those mine?” she asked looking at his utter ridiculousness. “I don’t mind, but maybe we should get you some pants that fit…and I hate to be the one to tell you, but pink is not your colour.” She smiled expectantly trying to break the tension. “Coffee?” as she handed him a mug.
“Don’t be afraid of me. I promise you, I’m not a violent man.”
“Not while you’re awake anyway.” She was trying to keep things light.
“I’m not used to human contact. My body was completely sensory deprived for years.” He tried to explain.
She got serious. “I don’t think they ever intend that people in solitary will get out.”
“No, they don’t.”
They drank their coffee in silence for a while, and it made him feel close to her. Tender.
“I want to sleep with you. It’s not that I don’t. It’s that I can’t,” he tried not to sound too intense.
She considered what he was saying, “Most ex-cons get their hands on me and bunny fuck me until I bleed sometimes. I don’t mind your lack of interest….too much.” She smiled a bitter sweet smile. It was the sweet that kept his interest.
“Is that why you…haven’t wanted to either?” It was awkward conversations like this that made him miss solitary confinement and the brutality of men. He wasn’t good at delicate, and he preferred silence.
He wanted to figure her out. There was nothing particularly special or pretty about her, but there was nothing off putting either. She was real, and she was present, and the simplicity of that was like manna from heaven to him.
“I watched you sleep for a while that first night. Whatever you started dreaming about was good…really good,” she hesitated, “You make a lot of noise when you sleep,” she laughed remembering for a moment. Then she softened, “I know the reality of touching me is… disappointing.”
Her voice was soft, as if it was caressing his ears. “You’re not a disappointment. You’re foreign to me. Everything is foreign to me. I am traumatized by memory…and I am estranged from reality. I can’t do things I used to love before all this. I was a poet, and I can’t read, and I can’t write. I don’t recognise what words look like. I know what they mean but my eyes don’t recognise the squiggles they see.” He fell silent again.
She said nothing for a long time, “Who do you dream about?”
The question surprised him. No one ever asked him that. “I used to live in Vermont. In a cabin. Stowe. I taught at Champlain in Burlington. I barely remember it but I spent all my time outdoors. Solitary, but outdoors. I thought I was going to die in prison. I hit a guard. On purpose. Because I knew they would lock me in solitary. 23 hours a day in a tiny cell. No human contact. And an hour a day alone out in the prison yard. Yah, most people wretch just at the description, but for me…” He was silent for longer than he meant to be.
“You don’t have to tell me. I don’t understand but I think I get how horrible –“
He jumped in, “No. That’s the problem. It wasn’t horrible. I meditated almost all the time. I walked the trails by my cabin and created the seasons and time of day or night…and her…but she wasn’t real. She was just in my thoughts…and memories…not all of them were good ones. But in that cell, in my mind, I was freer than I’ve ever been. Freer than I am now. I am lonelier in this room with you right now than I ever felt in that cell – Not because of you – but because we can’t connect. Having people around – being around people – is awful…for me. Having to take other people into consideration all the time is stifling. It gets in my way.’
“Like this place. It’s huge to me, it’s at least three times as big as my cell, and it’s got things like pillows and a coffee maker - but I can tell you hate it. I can tell you feel confined. And it’s ugly and dingy to you, and so I can’t enjoy it because I’m concerned about how much it brings you down. And you’ll never see it the way I do because you haven’t had to shit in the same room you live in on a toilet that doesn’t even have a seat or a lid.’
“I’m sorry. This is horrible. I’m being horrible. For me, this is horrible. Being confined alone with nothing but time and my mind, I was the happiest man alive. The only thing better about here and now is that my body is free to move and I can feel the sun on my skin when I have a fleeting moment to get out into it.” He fell silent again.
At some point she moved into the bedroom again without him noticing. When he walked into the room, she was just finishing making the bed. “And your voice.”
“What?” She asked barely containing her disappointment.
“Your voice. The only thing better about here and now is that my body is free to move and the sound of your voice.”