Sara’s boyfriend was in prison. We were sitting at her kitchen table, eating scrambled eggs, bacon and vodka, and she was showing me his letters. This was three nights after Christmas. Two a.m. She’d taken the shoebox down from the top shelf of her bedroom closet, pulled out some envelopes, and flattened a few letters on the table. Written in pen on notebook paper, there was one about a guy who got punched out of his chair for asking if he could switch the cellblock TV from Live at the Apollo to Saturday Night Live. Another about a man who took a spoon in the eye at breakfast.
An hour before, we had fucked. Now we were getting to know each other, knocking the possibility of friendship around—something neither of us was sure we could handle. Her long red hair was tucked behind her ears, and I could see one of her pink nipples inside her robe. She covered it, and then slid her favorite letter across the table to me. A sketched-out drawing of the prison, like a blueprint or a map that someone might use to get out, except it put the two of us inside, me and Sara.
We’d met at a party earlier that night. I was heading up a stairwell that she was going down. The power went out and everything seemed to tilt, pushing us against the wall. We kissed right there, in the dark. When the lights came back on, we were downstairs amongst a crowd of people, all of them waking up from the blackout, blinking hard. Sara held my hand and grabbed a bottle of something clear from the fireplace mantle, clutched it to her chest, and pulled me through the house. Out the front door, across the lawn, to her Jeep and her apartment and her bed. The frame was loose and slammed against the wall. She didn’t speak or smile, kept her eyes closed and, though she was on bottom, controlled everything. Suddenly she pressed her hand on my chest, twisted her body, leaned over the side of bed and vomited. Her ankles stayed locked, and she lay back on the bed, eyes now open, nodded and said, “All right, I’m good.”
Her first words to me. I was nineteen, and she was twenty-two, already tired-eyed in a way that made her that much more pretty.
Now at the table, she held a snapshot she’d pulled from the box. “He doesn’t really look like this,” she said. In the picture, his head was shaved, his cheeks bloated, and he had a long goatee. The orange collar of his prison jumpsuit was just beneath his ears. “He made himself ugly in the weeks before the trial. For obvious reasons.” She pointed with her thumb over her shoulder to the refrigerator. “That’s how he really looks.”
I glanced up at the Polaroid hanging on the fridge and saw she was right. In that picture, he was skinny with a clean face, smiling.
She poured vodka into both of our glasses. “His name is Ryan. And you’re what he’d call a jody.” She looked up at me to see how this would fall. Not in a mean way. Only curious. “That’s what they call a guy who fucks around with a prisoner’s girl.” She smiled. “I bet you didn’t guess this morning that tonight you’d be a jody.”
“I didn’t even know you had a boyfriend,” I said.
“My first jody,” she said, holding up three fingers pressed together. Scout’s honor.
Looking at her, I realized she was trying this out, wanting to see how it felt to say the word out loud.
The boyfriend stared at me from the picture in her hand. Fat, scruff-faced, and angry. I said, “Why’d he go to jail?”
“Stole a bunch of tools from the back of somebody’s pick-up,” she said, staring down. “Needed money for heroin. After he got arrested, he worried he’d go through a bad withdrawal in prison. Some people shit themselves or piss their pants just standing there talking. Some black out and cum in their pants while they’re eating. But he hardly withdrew at all. He even gave up smoking.” She snapped her fingers under the table. “Piece of cake.”
Later that week when I saw Sara in the doorway of a kitchen in a different house, her clothes surprised me. The simple fact of them. Jeans and a soft pink cotton shirt, her hair down. Standing there, her eyes were searching for mine, as if she’d just at once appeared but had been waiting all night. And there was want in that weird way that want reaches through a crowded room. I realized she was beyond pretty, beyond me. That she was the type who only gave in small hard doses.
An hour later we were sitting on the back steps of the house, alone in the cold and windy dark, passing a bottle of Southern Comfort. We both knew she needed to end what we’d barely started. “It’s not you,” she said.
I took a sip from the bottle and asked if she always looked away when she talked to people.
She said, “I do it so I can see exactly what I want to say.”
Years later I heard Ryan picked up every habit he dropped in prison, once he got back to Sara. That she left him a few months after having waited out the three years. By this time I knew people who’d gone off to jail, who pissed their beds and came on themselves in prison cafeterias. I had also learned that jody is the name for someone who takes care of your girl while you’re in prison, and I was never that to Sara. I was a stranger in the space she kept for him.
Still I remember that first night at the kitchen table, Sara letting her robe fall loose. “How’s the food?” she said.
I said my mouth tasted like butter and battery acid, and she smiled.
She looked out the window and said something about how she hated to see sunrises. If I wanted to crash there, I could. No problem. Her eyes were glassy blue, and, like always, she looked away when she said it. I wanted to touch her hand. To make her look up at me. But I knew better.