Seeing Things Differently
I was sitting at Sbarro’s Pizza in the mall taking a break from shopping and eating a slice of deep-dish cheese pizza when I caught parts of a conversation happening two tables next to me. It was two-thirty in the afternoon, so it was kind of empty in the eatery.
“So what’s it like to be back?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, to be free again - I mean, to be back to the places you haven’t seen for so long?”
“Well, of course I missed it. It’s strange being back, actually.”
“Well, everything looks different now.”
“Well, it has been nearly six years, a lot happens, even to a suburb. There’s been a lot of construction around here, and -”
“I don’t mean it looks different because it changed. I mean it looks different because I have.”
“How have you changed?”
“You mean how did being in prison for half a decade affect me?”
“Well, what do you mean you see things differently? Like colors look wrong? I don’t get it.”
“No, it’s not like my vision is different, at least not literally. It’s just that people seem different to me now. The places all look the same, one street looks the same as the next, it looks the same as it did five years ago. But I see things about people now, things I never noticed before.”
“I don’t know, exactly. But I read people. It’s like I know what they’re thinking without having to talk to them, or even know them.”
Then they both paused. I guess their timed pattern of one person eating while the other one talked finally got messed up and they were both eating at the same time. Oh, did I mention that they were both women? One had a baby in a stroller sleeping next to her, that one was the one that didn’t go to prison. They both looked like they were about twenty-eight years old. Regular suburban women.
“You see, it’s like this: when I was in prison, I was all alone. Being in a federal prison means the crimes are big time, so everyone in there had a big chip on their shoulder and wanted to either have you for their girlfriend or beat the shit out of you when you were on laundry duty. And of course everyone knew that I was the cop killer, and everyone also knew that I swore up and down that I didn’t do it. So when I went in there they all thought I was some big sissy, and I knew right away that I was going to be in big trouble if I didn’t do something fast.”
“So what’d you do?”
“Well, I figured they knew that I wasn’t a tough bitch or anything, so the only persona I could put on that would make people scared of me would be to act like perfectly calm ninety percent of the time, calm, but tense, like I was about to snap. And periodically I would have a fit, or threaten violence in front of guards, timed perfectly so that I would never actually have to do anything, but enough to make everyone else think that I was a little off the deep end, a bit crazy. Then they’d give me space.”
“So... did that work?”
“Yeah, for the most part. But the first thing I had to learn was how to make my face unreadable.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you can see someone walk by and know they’re bored, or sad or angry, or happy, right?”
“Well, I had to make sure that when people looked at me all they saw was a complete lack of emotion. Absolute nothingness. I needed people to look at me and wonder what the hell was going through my head. Then all I’d have to do is squint my eyes just a little bit and everyone would see so much anger in my face, you know, because usually there was nothing in my face to give me away.”
“And when you got angry -”
“- And when I got angry and threw a fit and smashed chairs and screamed at the top of my lungs and contorted my face all over the place; I just looked that much more crazed and in a rage. Like out of control.”
“Wow. That’s wild.”
“And I became completely solitary. I talked to two other people the whole time I was there, at least in friendship.”
“Wow, two people?”
“Well, in a screaming fit, or in a fight, then I’d be yelling at people, but yeah, I had to limit the people I talked to. Couldn’t let others see what I was like.”
So I was sitting here eating my pizza listening to this, and then I remembered, oh yeah, I remember this story from a long time ago, they convicted this women of killing a cop, shooting him at point-blank range, and just in the local paper three weeks ago they found the person who really killed the cop, and they let the women they convicted of the crime five years ago free.
It seems the cop pulled her over and had her license in his car when the murderer
came up in another car, and this woman managed to get away, but the cop died and her license was there on the scene. So I get up and go to the fountain machine and refill my Diet RC Cola and come back to my seat and I just start thinking that that’s got to be rough, I mean, going to federal prison for over five years for a crime you didn’t commit and then having them come up years later and let you out early and say, “oh, we’re sorry, we had the wrong person all along.” It’s like, oh, silly us, we made a mistake, please do forgive us.
But how do you get those years back, and how do you get rid of those memories?
So I just spaced out on that thought for a minute and the next thing I knew they were talking again.
“And I knew from the start this one woman didn’t like me, I could just tell from her face. We never spoke, she was like my unspoken enemy. And so once I was doing laundry work, and there are rows of machines and tables for folding and shoots for dirty clothes to fall onto the floor and pipes running all along the ceilings and steam coming out everywhere. And there were others there with us, and guards, too, but once I looked up and it was totally silent and no one else was around except for her. No other prisoners, no other guards, nothing. And she was just standing there, facing me square on, and she was swaying a bit, like she was getting ready to pounce. And I knew that she planned this, and got some of the other inmates to distract the guards, so that she could kill me.”
“Oh my God, so what did you do?”
“Well, I turned so my side was to her, and I grabbed a cigarette from my pocket and put it in my mouth. Than I said, ‘Look, I’m not interested in fighting you, so-’, and then I reached into my pocket, the one that was away from her, like to get a lighter, and then I took my two hands and clenched them together like this, and then I just swung around like I was swinging a ball-and-chain, and I just hit her real hard with my hands.”
“Oh my God.”
“Yeah, I was hoping that I could just get in one good blow then get out of there, like teach her not to fuck with me again.”
“Oh my God, so what happened?”
“Yeah, so here’s the punch line, so when I hit her she fell back and hit her head on a beam that ran from floor to ceiling, and just fell to the floor. So I go through a back hallway and find everyone in the next room and just sort of slip in there, but then I hear a guard asking about Terry, that was the woman I hit. and everyone looks around and they see me, and I have no expression on my face, so they don’t even know if Terry saw me or not, and so everyone starts to look for Terry and they find her dead, right where I left her.”
“Oh my God, you killed her?”
“Well, she hit her head on the beam, my blow didn’t kill her. But no one knew who did it to her, and of course no one bothered with an investigation, so there was no problem. But after that, no one ever bothered me again.”
“Holy shit. You killed her. When did you know she was dead?”
“When they found her, probably. Not when they saw what kind of shape she was in, but the instant they saw her I thought, ‘she hasn’t moved.’ And I knew then she was dead. It was kind of unsettling, but I couldn’t react.”
“Kind of unsettling? I think I’d be screaming.”
“But that’s the thing, all these women had killed before, at least most of them had. I’d be condemning myself if I reacted.”
They sat in silence, the young mother staring at the other while she ate the last of her pizza.
The murderer grabbed her soda and drank in between words.
“Yeah, so prison - and everything after that, really - seemed different. I figured out how to remove all emotion from myself when I had to.”
“And once I figured that out, how to make my face unreadable, it was easy to be able to read what other inmates were thinking. I could read anyone’s face. Someone could twitch once and I’d know whether they were afraid of me or not. Any movement made it obvious to me what they thought of me, themselves, or their life. That’s why I look around here and just see what everyone else is feeling.”
“Really? What do you see?”
“I see some dopey men and some bitchy women.”
“No, it’s true - and they care about little details in their life, but they don’t give a damn about the big picture. They scream if someone cuts them off in traffic, they freak out if they have food stuck in their teeth after a meal. But they don’t care what they’re doing in their lives.”
They got up and walked over to the trash can, dumped their paper plates and napkins into the trash.
“I see a lot of people walking around with a blank stare, but it’s not an emotionless stare. It’s that they’re all resigned, it’s like they all assume that this is the way their life has to be.”
“Oh, come on, it’s not that bad.”
“Yeah, it is. It’s like they all were in prison too.”
And they walked out into the mall, and I sat there, staring at my drink.
Copyright Janet Kuypers.
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