This piece was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
I'm in the yard, staring up at the concrete-colored clouds, when my last name and prison number erupt from the loudspeaker atop the wall, announcing I have a visitor.
At the gate, a guard asks why I'm in the yard in the first place if I knew I'd have a visit. I deny knowing that C.*, my girlfriend, was coming to see me, because that's easier than trying to explain what only a prisoner understands: that it's hard to breathe in prison. That no matter how long you've been in, the sensation doesn't subside—I knew that if I were to wait in my cell and she didn't come, I'd feel as if I couldn't breathe at all.
I hustle across the compound and down the long corridor that leads into the cellhouse. Before the barred door of my cell grinds open on its gritty steel runners, I've already stripped off my sweatshirt and shoes. In the cell, I splash water on my face, run a comb through my hair, and don a set of khaki prison-issue clothing I pressed earlier in the week (with a dictionary) on my steel bunk. Outside the cell, I hurry off, still tucking in my shirt.
In the sallyport next to the visiting room, I extend my arms to either side, and a guard frisks me with latex-clad hands, starting at my shoulders and working down. When he finishes, he waves at the control booth, and the heavy steel gate in front of us slides open.
"Have a good visit," he says.
I step out into a sweeping, table-filled expanse alive with sounds and activity unlike any on the other side of the gate. In the carpeted play-area at the back of the space, children are laughing. At the table closest to me, the wife of an inmate named Tristan is singing, her voice as resonant as a bell.
On the left, Steve is visiting with his son, who, at 14, uncannily resembles him. On the right, Dave is at a table with his sister and a 22-year-old who wasn't born yet when he was originally sent away.
Behind them, I spot her.
She stands up when she sees me, but looks uncertain—or maybe even uncomfortable, for the first time since we've known each other. I'm conscious that others are watching, because nothing that happens in the visiting room goes unseen.
C. and I sit down at the table together. She doesn't say anything.
Looking at her face, I note the new earrings beneath her cowl of freshly dyed hair, the remnant of a sunburn on her brow from her trip to Peru, and the tense line of her lips.
I reflect on the improbability of us. She is a success: a businesswoman who has lived and traveled all over the world. I'm not: I've spent almost every day of my adult life in prison.
She initially came to the prison to teach a class in communication skills. We grew close, and eventually she slipped a note into my hand—in a classroom beneath the unblinking gaze of two security cameras—saying, "I invite you to be more open and envision what you want."
On the next note, the next week, was her address and phone number.
She began to show up Saturday mornings so that we could work more closely, with less supervision. How could I not have fallen in love with her? What I didn't expect was when she confided that she loved me as well.
"How about some dominoes?" I say.
The hint of a smile tugs at her mouth, and she nods.
I steal glances at her as we begin to play, still silently.
What are you thinking, I ask.
"You didn't shave," she says only.
I shake my head, because I don't know what to tell her. Shaving was just more than I could handle today.
I feel a spark of indignation and turn my mind to the mental exercise I've practiced over the weeks since we last saw each other. What if I were the free person, and she was in prison? I want to think that I'd be there, that I'd have her back no matter what, that I wouldn't turn my feelings toward someone else simply because this circumstance was too difficult. But I hardly remember what it's like to be a free and fully privileged citizen, so I can't pretend to know how I would act if I were.
How can I condemn her for something I don't know about myself?
"Can we talk about the letter?"
She means the letter a guard handed me through the bars of my cell two days earlier. The letter in which she wrote that she "loves" me and would like "to continue to visit," but in which she also informed me that she's been "dating" and would like to find a way to "navigate" that with me.
I shake my head "no." I'd rather drown, I want to say.
Silence sits between us.
We continue the pretense of counting dominoes, for a time—until she looks past me at the clock above the guard station.
"I should get home."
I nod and stand up. We embrace, and I'm careful to keep my face an impassive mask, because I don't know what it will express if I don't.
Check out the Daily VICE segment on the reality of solitary.
Then she's leaving, and I wind my way between tables to the line of chairs outside the strip room, and take a seat alongside the other prisoners whose visitors have departed. I watch the guard posted at the visitor exit inspect the security stamp on the back of C.'s hand. He waves at the control booth, and when the gate slides open, she steps through and is gone.
A guard unlocks the door to the strip room, and I enter with the other prisoners. We begin to undress at a bench. I remove my shirt first.
"How was your visit?"
I just nod. Please don't make me talk.
I untie my shoes and step out of them. Pants next. I note the hole in one of my socks as I pull it off. Underwear. I mime the requisite motions of the search and am grateful to the guard for not saying anything further.
The guard turns his attention to the prisoner beside me, and I set about getting dressed. Underwear. Socks. Pants. Shirt. I step into my shoes and don't bother to tie them.
When everyone is again clothed, the guard places his hand on the steel door that leads into the sallyport.
I take one last breath and nod.
*C.'s name has been withheld for her privacy.
Arthur Longworth, 52, is incarcerated at Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, Washington, where he is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for an aggravated murder that he committed when he was 20. He is also a Marshall Project contributing writer and the author of the novel Zek: An American Prison Story.