Copyright is held by the author.
DAYLIN’S PENCIL-LEAD drawing sits on my desk. His name calls to mind a blur of tattoos and gauges, red hair and sharp edges, and the feeling of dangling from a tall cliff by my fingernails. He got out of prison a week ago.
I don’t know if he’s mad that I never wrote as promised, or if he genuinely expected me to in the first place. It’s been four years, and for all I know, my name doesn’t cross his mind at all.
Daylin moves fast, but backroads and Sunday mornings have always been more my style. I like driving slow on a two-lane road, enjoying the view and singing along to every song on the radio. I don’t mind if soccer-moms in minivans and jerks in pickup trucks pass me by. Daylin refuses to travel behind anyone else. For him, time is a force to be beaten, not revered.
We met because I paused to watch the Quarter Horses run up the hill behind the prison one morning in mid- October. His voice sounded rich and throaty, with a slight tremble. It reminded me of smoke, whiskey, and church.
“I could watch them run for hours,” he said. “Ethereal, isn’t it? Especially beyond the fence of this shit-hole. You must be the new counsellor, over in Building One. I’m Daylin,” he said.
My fingers looked like a child’s enveloped in his when we shook hands. “I’m Emily,” I said. “I’ve been here since August.”
“I’m in Building Three. I think you should put in for a transfer. It’s better over there,” he said, grinning. His front teeth were crooked.
“I’m sure,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I better get back to work.”
“Nice to meet you, Emily,” he shouted after me.
I walked back to my building and sensed the shuffling of the atmosphere, the crackling of an energy as crisp as the Fall air. My program director, Bob, announced an opening for a lead counselor in Building Three two weeks later. I passed Daylin in the hall on the way to my new office, and he grinned and said, “See? I knew you’d end up over here.”
The internship at the prison became mine because classmates with more initiative snagged the good ones- in schools, hospitals, and rehab centres.
“It’s a six-month program for nonviolent drug offenders to undergo intensive counselling and rehabilitation before they’re released back into society,” my graduate advisor told me. “These guys don’t want to hurt anyone; they just want to go home.”
The penitentiary stood only an hour from Austin but it felt like another world, in the middle of cornfields and a Quarter Horse farm. Temperatures reached triple digits that summer. The inmates wore baggy white uniforms. Some greeted me with catcalls, others with polite curiosity. I convinced myself I was tougher than I looked, a petite blonde in a polo shirt and Sperrys.
The men lived in large dorms that housed sixty-four bunk beds and a day-room with shelves full of board games and books. A four-foot cement wall partially concealed the bathroom area. Central air conditioning chilled the staff offices and guard stations, while the men sweltered under oversized fans.
The other twelve counsellors on staff came from backgrounds of color and grit, the opposite of my boring white privilege. They grew up in places like Nigeria and Mexico, and pockets of the US almost as violent as some third-world countries. A couple of the male counsellors had completed the same in-prison rehab program years before.
Ava showed me the ropes. Everyone called her “The Professor” because she dressed the part and gave lengthy lectures.
She talked about selling her body for drugs and shooting heroin into her veins for thirty years before, “The Lord rescued me. I went to rehab at the age of 50, got married at 52. Got my master’s at 58. God is good, Honey.”
“You’re amazing, Ava,” I said. “An inspiration.”
“I just lost my husband last year,” she said. “I’ve had a good life, at 72, and these men can, too. Sometimes all they need is for someone to believe in them.” Her brown skin looked flawless.
“You could easily pass for forty-two, “I told her.
“They say the drugs stunt your development. I guess that worked out well for me,” she joked.
Outside during her cigarette break, Ava told me, “These men came from cruel backgrounds and turned to drugs. Now they’re caught in this system that doesn’t let them get better.” She paused and took a drag, blowing smoke rings into the air.
“Nobody wants to hire a felon once they get out, their loved ones have turned their backs. So where do they go? Back to what they know. Selling, using, stealing,” she said.
I shook my head. “I’ve read about this stuff in school, but seeing everything firsthand is truly a mind-opener.”
She nodded and interrupted, “Some of these men haven’t interacted with a woman, except for the female guards, for fifteen years or more. They’ll fall in love just because you listen to them without judgment,” she said.
Ava coughed and raised her voice over the roar of a freight train passing by. “You have to be clear and direct about your boundaries, Honey.”
She put out her cigarette. “A couple of young counsellors have taken up with these guys before, and it isn’t pretty, watching them escorted out of the building by the guards, losing their licenses and reputations–those two things, you can never get back.”
Ava trained me well, and by Fall, I’d become competent in my job. The clank of the gates locking behind me no longer made me flinch. The sight of roaches and the occasional rat scurrying across the floor didn’t startle me quite as much. I learned to apply Vicks below my nostrils to mask the odors of the guys’ tooth decay and poor hygiene. And as I unraveled their stories and struggles, I settled into a level of comfort with my clients, regarding them as troubled men instead of criminals.
I last saw Daylin four Februarys ago, just before his release. “The guy who helps out in here is asking to see you, Emily,” announced one of the guards. “Says he has a question about some work you gave him.”
He looked nervous, clutching a large manila envelope. I’d stopped calling on him to help out in the office a couple of weeks before.
“I’m getting the feeling you don’t want to see me anymore. I understand, and I don’t want to ruin your life or career.” He cleared his throat. “I did want to give you something before I leave, though. I’ve been working on it pretty much since the day we met, back in October.”
He handed me a pencil illustration of a man standing on a clock tower, holding red roses and a large golden key, while demons reached for him from below.
“This is my interpretation of what recovery feels like. There may be demons beneath me, but I’m finally that guy at the top of the tower, ready for freedom (the key) and love (the roses). The time on the clock, 10:15, represents the date I met you.”
I held my breath. “This is amazing, Daylin. Really,” I said.
He grasped my hand, looked into my eyes, and said, “I’m going to find a way to talk to you out there.”
“You know that isn’t possible,” I said. “Not for at least two years — after that, maybe we can be friends.”
“Friends?” he smirked. “You know this is so much more than that. You must have no idea how you look at me. The guys even notice.” He said, “I’m thinking maybe you just need to find a different job, one without these stupid rules.”
I looked up at him and said, “There are going to be so many beautiful girls when you get out of here. Just a few days from now.”
“But I won’t be able to talk to them like I can talk to you. I think about it all the time, I don’t sleep at night, I just lie in my bunk and think about how I’m going to manage to be in your life, outside of here.”
I gulped and said, “Listen, I’m all you see right now because you’ve been locked up for six years. You’ll soon realize there is so much more for you out there. You just said you didn’t want to ruin my career. I won’t risk my job.”
His typically statuesque posture leaned and slouched, and he stared at the ground before saying, “Facebook. I’m going to write you under a fake account. Please write me back. Just give me that. Even if it’s just to tell me you’re doing okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
“Promise?” he asked.
I nodded to appease him, but I think we both knew I was lying.
He went back to his dorm, and I walked out of my office, down the hallway, and an inmate sweeping the floor said,
“Hey, Miss. It ain’t none of my business, but you seem like a real nice girl. You gotta remember where you’re at. You don’t need no prison trash. Some dudes are here because they got a drug problem. That guy’s here ‘cause he’s got a rule-breakin’ problem. Getting away with shit is his addiction.”
Later in the day, his counsellor, an older woman named Diane, said, “Thank you so much for letting Daylin help out in the office. It’s been really good for him. He’s so smart, and he’s overcome so much.”
I nodded, “He’s done a great job.”
“The foster homes, the abuse — this guy’s history is heartbreaking, but he’s strong. If he can just keep it together, he’ll rise to the top of wherever he finds himself. ”
In January, Daylin had helped me plan graduation programs for the guys getting released that month. We worked together in my office, discussing the copy of Anna Karenina I’d loaned him.
“It really got me thinking about hypocrisy and religion, and just how we all judge each other, especially in this system. Morality, relationships, social status . . . it’s all complicated, ambiguous. We’re all fucked up, in our own way.” he said. “I didn’t finish college, because of the drugs, but I majored in English, you know. Minored in philosophy.”
I smiled. “You’ve mentioned that a time or two. I had a difficult time coming up with something you hadn’t read,” I said. “I’m glad you enjoyed the book.”
“You’re a good counsellor because you’re just as fucked up as the rest of us,” he said. “You work really hard not to let it show, but I saw it from a mile away, before I walked up to you watching the horses that day.”
“Maybe you just see what you want to see,” I said.
“I see there’s a whole lot more to you than meets the eye, and you’re beautiful,” he said.
I’d taken enough psychology classes and attended enough workshops to recognize it was my own brokenness that drew me to Daylin. My background with men permeated my mind with memories of betrayal and hurt: my father bailing on me before I became old enough to remember him, a distant uncle making me touch his dick when I was just eight years old, and an ex-boyfriend whose hands left permanent scars on my neck. I’d been through a cutting phase, a drinking phase, and a half-hearted attempt at suicide.
It felt natural to immerse myself in an imaginary romance with a man kept in a cage, under lock and key. He couldn’t touch me beyond our brief handshakes. There were no other women to vie for his attention, so his admiration belonged to me alone. And with guards all around, he couldn’t hurt me. Daylin called it right. I was fucked up.
I didn’t respond when the Facebook message came to me in March, from a faceless profile under the name, “Robert Faux.”
I’d thought about Daylin for months, imagining his strong body pressed up against mine, knowing I’d feel tiny and soft against him. I wondered if his crooked teeth would feel strange against my tongue, and where his tattoos began and ended. When I made out with other guys I met in bars, I ran my fingers through their hair, picturing his blanket of short red curls. As my infatuation with him festered, I dated furiously for a while. I thirsted for that spark, that intrigue, that energy that pulls and catapults and defies sensibility.
After Robert Faux messaged me, I located Daylin’s real Facebook account and studied his pics. His hair had become long and greasy-looking outside of the prison program, which had required close shaves and short haircuts. Tattoos covered so much of his body that only his face and neck were the colour of his pale flesh. He wore huge black gauges in his ears and superhero tank tops. Girls with piercings and ink-stained skin stuck out their tongues and flashed peace signs as they posed with him.
Everything had looked so different in our self-contained world, where I’d begun to view Daylin as a colleague. Beyond the gates of the prison, in the realm of my own upper-middle-class upbringing and social expectations, I’d never be seen in public with someone who looked like him. The ethical and professional restraints on our relationship became irrelevant–I realized I didn’t actually want to know this person in real life.
Robert Faux’s message read, “I think of you every day. Fuck the rules. Write me back.”
Three months later, I Googled “Daylin Mccann,” and came across his brand new mugshot. He’d robbed a young couple at gunpoint as they were moving into their new apartment. The state of Texas sent him back to prison for two more years.
I completed my internship the year after Daylin left. The work became lighter, and my spirit more at ease in his absence. Ava told me I had become an excellent counsellor, and she wrote a recommendation letter for my new job in a school. I became engaged to an attorney named John, and we shared a high-rise apartment in Dallas. We attended political fundraisers and brewed our own beer. The smoothness and safety of my life with John compensated for any “spark” that might have been missing, and I was happy.
He’s rarely crossed my mind in the four years since I saw him last, but Daylin’s instant message doesn’t surprise me when it comes in. I’ve thought of him for the past week, since he visited me in an odd dream that felt like a premonition. In it, his skin became alabaster and inkless, and his hair morphed into active flames. He held my hand and asked me to protect him from giant snakes slithering toward him. The next morning, I pulled the clock tower picture out of a box at the top of my closet and placed it on my desk.
Daylin’s Facebook profile reflects a change in seasons and maturity when I look him up. Gone are the gauges and Batman shirts. He’s finished his degree in English at the University of Texas at Dallas. His teeth are straight. He’s a handsome man of thirty-two who wears button-down shirts and pressed jeans. His bio states he’s managing a recycled bookstore.
“Remember me? I hope so. I see you’re in Dallas. So am I. Coffee?” he writes.
I’m sitting at my desk in my office at school. After a few minutes of staring at my phone, I sell myself on the innocence of coffee and my curiosity, and reply, “Sunday?”
He’s taller, more striking than I remember. My white off-shoulder blouse and black pencil skirt hug the curves I’d dressed to conceal in the prison. When I comment that his hands are shaking, he replies, “I’ve already had too much coffee.”
The energy between us is tangible and causes the air to catch in my throat. We stare at each other and smile.
“I can’t believe we’re sitting here like this. I’ve thought about you for years,” he says.
“I’m sorry that I just couldn’t write,” I say.
“I get it,” he says. “I really do.”
“I’m proud of you for getting your degree,” I say. And managing a recycled bookstore? What a perfect job for you.”
He takes my hand and touches my engagement ring. “Look at you. Are you happy?” he asks.
“I am,” I say.
He kisses my fingers before releasing my hand. My skin tingles and my heart races.
As I drive home to the apartment I share with John, I mentally rehearse all of the reasons I’m not going to see Daylin again. But I know I’m going to. I’ve known since I first heard his voice when I watched the horses run four years ago. I tell John I’m going to happy hour with a teacher-friend from my school, and I meet Daylin the next day, and twice a week, for the next two months.
His studio apartment is full of books, and his original graphic drawings decorate the walls. He tells me a couple of his pieces were picked up by art magazines. We talk about our favourite books and music, and he plays guitar and we share secrets and fears. His naked body is less perfect than I’d imagined, with a sprinkling of sandpaper red hair all over it, and scars on his chest. But the taste of his skin, the smell of my sweat mixed with his, the energy he emits that makes every scintilla of my being aware of him—having sex with Daylin exceeds my every expectation, and I crave him.
“I want you to break up with John,” he says one day.
“I have to,” I say. I haven’t let John touch me in about six weeks.
I plan to get to the apartment just in time to shower before John gets in from work, but when I open the door, he’s standing in the middle of our ransacked living room. A half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels sits on the coffee table. My body tells me to run, but I close the door and say, “What’s going on?”
“What’s going on?” he scoffs. “I just found out my fiancee is a fucking whore, is what’s going on.”
I stand in the hallway, speechless.
“You’ve been acting like a total asshole, completely checked out. I knew something was up, so I went through your computer. Whoring around behind my back, with a fucking piece of shit criminal. You’re trash, Emily. I’m so disgusted I could hit you.”
He steps forward and I brace myself for the punch. It doesn’t come. I’m shaking. “I’m sorry,” I hear myself say.
“You’re going to get what you deserve, by the way. I don’t know what you expect to happen here, but this guy’s going to fuck you over. That’s what criminals do. I need you to leave by tomorrow night. I’m out.”
I call Daylin as I’m packing my stuff, and he says, “It needed to happen, Babe. You belong with me. Move in.”
And I do. I move in. We lie in bed the next night, and I say, “I don’t feel bad for not wanting to be with him anymore. I couldn’t help that. I almost feel like I don’t have a choice in this, like I have to be with you.”
He rolls on top of me, pulls me tightly into his chest, and says, “I love you.”
We spend the next ten months in a state of unrealistic bliss, a bubble bound to break, a speeding car destined to crash. Daylin’s mind fascinates me, he’s constantly reading, learning, and creating. We cook, go to yoga, take long drives through the country.
Our physical relationship becomes more intense, and I’m convinced we’re physically addicted to each other. Not a day goes by when we don’t have sex at least once, and it’s even better after our rare fights.
On October the 15th, we drive to the hill country to celebrate five years since the day we met back at the prison. It’s just after midnight and the temperature has dropped down to seventy-five. He’s driving too fast on a two-lane road, steering the truck with one hand and rubbing my thigh with the other. Faith No More blasts from the stereo. He brakes in time to miss a family of deer, and kisses me as they pass. We spot a shallow pool between the hills and park on the side of the road. “Let’s go swimming,” he says.
The clear water has the slightest chill and the crescent moon shines on the surface. Our clothes lie wadded up on the rocky shore, and when he’s inside me it feels like we’re part of the earth, the stars, and he says, “I didn’t know it was possible to feel this good, to be this happy.”
In December, an ice storm blows in while Daylin’s in Portland for a graphic artists’ conference. He calls twice a day and says “I miss you,” and, “Can’t wait to get back home.”
He smiles when he walks in the door after his trip, but his eyes look tired and his shoulders are slumped.
“You’re home a day early,” I say.
“Couldn’t wait to get back to you,” he says.
We have sex, but he doesn’t finish, and says, “Jet lag, I guess. It’s been a long week.”
There’s a shift in his energy, a coldness that develops over the next few weeks, and it’s a brutal blow, to both my heart and my ego. I feel him distancing himself, so I begin to pull away, too.
I’ve become so enmeshed with him that I’m terrified of walking away, but I secure an apartment and make arrangements to move out after Christmas. I’m 30-years-old and pretty, with friends and a career I love. This hurts, but it’s not going to break me.
He’s worked late every night this week, so I haven’t invited him to the Christmas party I’m going to at the Rustic downtown. I hear his key in the door. My red dress is short, my heels are high. He pauses at the entryway and stares at me.
“Sorry. I guess sometimes I forget how fucking gorgeous you are,” he says, smiling.
“Thanks, I suppose. I’m heading out to my work party,” I say.
“Do you have a few minutes?” he asks.
He’s ravenous and wild, and my dress is on the floor and we’re on the couch, and he shakes and trembles and sighs before collapsing on top of me. He looks into my eyes and says he loves me. I don’t know where he’s been, but he’s back, and I’m just not with him anymore. I’m sad that I’m missing my party.
“What’s been going on with you, Daylin? Since Portland? You’ve hardly looked at me for the past three weeks. I assumed you met someone, or . . .”
“Oh my God, Emily. No, Babe. Please don’t think that way. You’re my everything.” He props his head up to look at me. “I just wasn’t feeling well. Maybe a little depressed. It happens to me sometimes.”
I fall asleep, but he stays up into the night and sleeps too late in the morning. He misses a few days of work, complaining of a fever, then a stomach virus. He’s thirsty and pallid. He rejects my offer for a ride to the doctor.
The Saturday before Christmas, we’ve planned to go to dinner before I leave to spend the holidays with my parents in Houston. Daylin’s car has been in the shop for a few days, so I loan him my 4Runner when he says, “Babe, the bookstore is short-staffed, everyone’s calling in. I need to go in for just a couple of hours.”
“I’ll be ready to go by, what — 6:30?” I say.
He hugs me and says, “I’ll be back long before then.”
I take three shots of vodka at seven, smash our new set of blue Ikea dinner plates against the wall at eight.
By nine o’clock, I’ve left ninety-five voicemails and even more texts. The guy at the bookstore told me Daylin stopped coming to work over a week ago. I’m not worried that he’s hurt or in a hospital. I’m mad as hell because I know where he is. I felt it as soon as he came back from Portland. I take an Uber to 7-11 to pick up a bottle of wine, and when I reach into my wallet, half of my credit cards are gone.
When the police arrive the next morning, the officer taking the report asks me, “So how did you meet this guy?”
He smirks when I say, “I was a counselling intern at the prison he was in . . .”
“And you thought he seemed like a great catch?” he laughed. “Aren’t there rules against that?’ he asks.
“Of course. We didn’t get together for years later, after he got his life together . . .” My voice cracks and falters.
“Yeah. Looks like he really got it together,” the officer says.
I’m grateful that my car is intact when they find it outside of a rundown motel in a part of town I’d only seen on the news. The officer tells me Daylin was arrested in a room along with an emaciated, tatted-up girl of 20. The pair was in possession of heroin and methamphetamine, a couple of firearms, and my credit cards.
At Christmas dinner, my dad says, “I really don’t know what you expected, hooking up with a goddamned criminal. Those people don’t change. All those state-funded rehab programs are a joke, a complete waste of money that could go to kids, single moms, people who actually deserve it.”
I’m too drained to argue, but I silently disagree. While most of the men I worked with in the prison program returned to their lifestyle of drugs and crime, plenty did go on to succeed. I don’t know if it’s good counseling, God, innate resilience, or a combination of the three, but, as Ava had once told me, “As long as a person is living and breathing on this Earth, and there’s time left on the clock, it’s not too late for change.”
I’d so wanted Daylin to be that man on top of the clock tower, ready for love and freedom. I guess we both fell for a fantasy version, the man he wanted to be. I roll down the windows, relish the fresh wind in my hair, and toss his pencil illustration out the window.