The Hygienist

The last time I saw Jay was at the commissary Monday morning. His number had been called moments earlier, and he'd returned from the window carrying a laundry bag of toiletries and instant coffee. Save for some sugar-free peppermints, he'd bought none of his usual indulgences—no sodas, no Zebra Cakes. He said he was trying to slim down. As he turned to leave I watched him pop a mint in his mouth, slip another in his shirt pocket for later.

Later Jay vanished.

Of course nobody vanishes in prison, not in a place where confinement and accountability are key, are indeed the entire point. Barring death or a pardon, there is no place for an inmate to vanish to. There is only here, behind these fences and locked doors. In the greater world it's unavoidable that a few citizens should slip between the cracks now and then. But in prison, when a man fails to report to his bunk for the census count, a ritual that validates our very existence some six times a day, it can mean only one thing.

"They locked up Jay."

Jack pulled out his ear buds and wiped the bangs from his forehead. He'd been jogging the track when I flagged him down. The hairs on his chest glistened silver against a fresh sunburn.

"Jay's in the hole," I said again. "He never showed at lunch, and when I went to the dorm I found the CO clearing out his locker."

It had taken the officer a half hour to pack up Jay's belongings. His book collection alone filled an entire duffle bag and caused the assisting orderly to sway on his heels.

"Why the hell did they lock him up?" Jack asked.

I motioned toward the dental clinic just beside the track. For two years Jay had been enrolled in the dental assistant program, working and training alongside the prison's dentist, and also the clinic's pretty blonde hygienist.

"You think it had to do with her?" Jack asked.

"What else?"

Within minutes, indeed before his mattress had been stripped and his pillow nabbed by fellow inmates, the compound was rife with speculation as to the nature of Jay's infraction. The prison rumor mill Inmate-dot-com, so called for its ubiquity and utter lack of authority, choked on the influx of gossip as if hit by a DDoS attack. Some supposed Jay had been caught with pornography. Others said he'd had a beef with the West Texans. Yet a few inmates recalled noticing, while having teeth pulled, a particular warmth between Jay and the friendly hygienist. Naturally the netizens latched onto the latter speculation, and from there rumor descended down the darkest, most scandalous path: they were caught in a chair-side embrace, they were seen smooching behind the x-ray machine, they were found fucking in the dentures lab.

An officer once said he didn't understand why inmates bothered pressing him for the skinny. "You guys know more of what goes on around here than we do." Which for all its unreliability says something about Inmate-dot-com's uncanny ability to more than occasionally hit upon the truth. When a day later the hygienist was seen being escorted off the yard, head down, dark shades shielding her face, an affair was all but confirmed.

Certainly Jack and I knew of the relationship. As Jay's closest allies, we were made privy to certain flirtations and innuendos. But even Jack wasn't aware, rumors aside, of how far the affair had progressed in recent months. In retrospect, what's remarkable wasn't Jay's brazen relationship with an officer but that he should have shared with me the details of the tryst, that we should have shared any of all the things we shared with each other, that we should have been so close in a place where trust and intimacy are so rare.

Jay and I were more than allies. We were workout partners and bunkmates. We were fellow expatriates in a foreign land, and we bonded initially over our shared wonderment. We mocked prison, the officers, the other inmates. We poked fun at prison politics and joked that we ought to found our own affiliation based not on race or hometown but on the candidate's holding a college diploma.

Jay himself had been taking correspondence courses for a doctorate in counseling. His dissertation, ironically, was on sex addiction. His locker was filled with dog-eared tomes on psychology, theology, philosophy, and on human sexuality. Jay claimed he was bisexual; an experience with a childhood friend when he was eleven left an impression that lasted into adulthood. I scoffed: "Letting your wife fuck you with her dildo doesn't make you bisexual." I told him that as a gay man I resented popular culture for deciding that sexual deviation was suddenly cool. Proclivities aside, I maintained that sexuality is more practically defined by who you eventually wind up with, who you love."

"Love has nothing to do with it," Jay said. "We're capable of falling in love with whomever. If you and I were on a deserted island, I'd just as easily fall in love with you."

We discussed everything; nothing was off limits. Not even the reason for our incarceration. Our collecting habits, we learned, weren't all that different. Jay had kept his hoard of some 10,000 images and videos organized by age, whereas I'd kept mine, half that size, arranged by names. When haunting file-sharing networks, Jay's ritual was to search in ascending order from "2yo" to "14yo," while I searched in descending order from "14yo" to "9yo." Jay's favorite series was "Vicki"; mine was "Florian."

We discussed child pornography with the same enthusiasm and nostalgia with which the convicted drug dealers discuss the hustle. We worked ourselves to arousal, unloading our most prurient interests, recollecting our most prized and perverse acquisitions, and waxing romantically on the beauty in juxtaposition: dominance and subservience, experience and innocence, caretaker and child.

"I love incest," Jay said.

"Incest is great," I agreed. "You should put that in your dissertation."

In our more sober moods we dared to probe the nature of our addiction. We wondered if pornography itself weren't a kind of drug, if watching is the same as participating, if there exists such a thing as a victimless crime. One evening Jay pulled from the many books in his locker Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and opened to a passage he'd marked earlier.

"'The question is,'" he read, "'am I a monster, or am I myself a victim?'"

After a stretch of silence I asked Jay if we were pedophiles.

"Yes," he replied. And I recall feeling no shame. On the contrary, I felt relieved.

With all that we entrusted each other with, it wasn't surprising that Jay should have divulged to me the details of his affair with Miss Hill. From a cleaning I'd had months earlier I remember her as a masked hovering figure, blue-eyed and freckled, gentle with the floss. Jay further elaborated: she had a pierced naval and a sweep of stars trailing across her hip and down below her panties, of whose cut and color he'd comment on daily.

"G-string today," he'd say. "Red."

It became our custom at the end of every evening to hold a rap session in which Jay would spill all that had transpired in the clinic that day. Lying together on his bunk eating pork rinds, he'd tally the kisses and close calls and estimate the number of times Miss Hill had come. His efforts at pleasuring her were often hampered by her keys. The belt was always in the way, getting caught in the elastic waistband of her scrubs, all the while jangling and ringing something awful. Jay called it her chastity belt. Strangely, she refused to ever take it off. It was the one rule that as an officer she would not break, as if unclipping it might have made her transgressions all the more real and intractable.

I suspect it was the belt that finally exposed the couple. Two days prior to his detainment, Jay and Miss Hill had been in the stockroom fooling around when Nurse Wilburn breezed in on some errand.

"Yoo-hoo!" she cried. "Where's everybody at?"

Had her tone registered suspicion or cheerful ignorance? Jay could not recall.

"Oh, we're here in the back"—Jay smoothed his smock and wiped the wetness from his beard—"just doing a bit of inventory."

And what had been Wilburn's reply? Had she said anything at all? Again, Jay could not remember. He'd been lost in Miss Hill and in the subsequent scramble to dress. Miss Hill's belt had cried out like a chicken being strangled by a mongoose. In that evening's rap session, Jay expressed concern over the noise. It's likely the ringing keys gave the lovers away.

Were they indeed lovers?

In a note she slipped him, Miss Hill questioned the meaning of their affair, where they were headed, why she should find herself so ridiculously and infuriatingly drawn to a man she could not have, not fully anyway. She signed the letter, anonymously, with a grade-school yet touching heart. More than once I asked Jay if he loved her. His answers were always flippant: "I'm just having a good time," he'd say. "I'm just in it for the fun."

Certainly Jay was boisterous about his relationship with Miss Hill. But I didn't know him to be callous. I suspect his feelings for the hygienist, having steeped and mulled in the two years they'd worked together, were much warmer than he was willing to admit. He'd slip candies in her desk, leave idle notes in her purse wishing her a good night and safe drive home. Once he plucked for her a blossom from the rose bush outside the chow hall. And yet I'm not convinced Jay was in love. Rather I believe that what drew Jay to Miss Hill was that she, that anyone, should be drawn to him, a convict, a sex offender, a self-professed pedophile. He was astonished when one afternoon she pulled out her wallet and showed him pictures of her two young daughters. Before leaving the clinic that day, Jay stood in her office doorway and thanked her.

"For what?" she asked.

"For not seeing me as an inmate. For not being afraid to show me those pictures."

She looked up from her desk, suddenly stern. "I'm not afraid of you," she said. "You messed up, is all. Everybody messes up."

That afternoon of Jay's disappearance I returned to the bunk we once shared and sat on his bare mattress. His locker was empty. All the books he'd collected and annotated were gone, with the exception of one. He'd given it to me days earlier, insisting I read it. I pulled it out then and turned to the passage he'd highlighted.

'And what if I am a victim? In proposing to the object of my passion to elope with me to America or Switzerland, I may have cherished the deepest respect for her and may have thought that I was promoting our mutual happiness! Reason is the slave of passion, you know; why, probably, I was doing more harm to myself than anyone!'