Jamie feels himself relaxing, feels the blood moving around his body in gentler waves, tastes the bit of foam in his mouth just slightly souring. “I want to hear whatever you feel like telling me. Honest.”

Doreen again raises her eyes to his. “You look a lot like your picture, you know?”

“Yeah?”

“Not all the guys do. But you do.”

“Well, good I guess?”

“Yeah. Good.”

Jamie takes another sip of his coffee and looks at Doreen again, this time more fully, lets himself really see the hair, its dark brown almost black color, likely dyed that way, and the way it floats in airy tufts around her face, and her breasts which are prominent but not showing any cleavage. “So we talk about pets now?”

Doreen laughs and Jamie hears the sound, small and sharp and jewel-like.

“My day in two words, teenage boys.”

“Yeah?”

“My sons, fourteen and sixteen. The older one, of course—oh forget it. On the way here I told myself I wasn’t going to talk about it.” She shakes her head and raises her right hand to her right eyebrow.

“It’s okay.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Jamie nods. “But maybe you want something a little stiffer to drink?”

Again, Doreen laughs. “That would be alright.”

And Jamie is on a good date, maybe the best date he has been on since he started this process, or the first one where he’s been funny and not just nervously waiting to talk. And the strange part is how normal it feels, how it’s like he’s a guy who a woman might like to talk to, might even want to holds hands with, and not some predator just waiting for the chance to feel a woman’s flesh, or just a bad guy who did a bad thing and should never be loved. And even as these thoughts percolate in his brain, he tries to quiet them and stop thinking and just be there, be honest, be plain, be himself, and more than that, listen, listen to this woman who is in front of him and is, herself, kind and funny and human.

Doreen stays for two glasses of wine and they talk about her kids, her son who is rebelling (drugs, a DUI), and the younger one who is angry at her for the older one’s rebellion, and the ex-husband who is more interested in his new girlfriend’s kids than his own, and her parakeet, Stacey, and Jamie’s Rhodesian ridgeback, what is the deal with the ridge anyway? And so, they talk for almost three hours, and it’s easy, and Jamie doesn’t lie to her, no, but also doesn’t really mention, and by really, he doesn’t mention, his time in prison, but not by lying, just because it doesn’t come up. And so they end the date, they part ways out front, and they hug, and she feels soft in his arms, but also strong, not limp, and he tells her that he’d like to see her again, and she says this is good because it’s what she wants, too, and then Jamie is driving home and gets home and takes Albert for a walk around the neighborhood, and he lets the dog sniff anything and everything he wants to sniff for as long as he wants to sniff, because Jamie feels good, feels generous, feels like this is what it’s like to be a free person, and it is nothing like the air in a cell thick with the breath and loss of a hundred desperate and dying men.

 

In the morning, Jamie is consumed by his routine. The guiding principle of his survival during the time of his incarceration was routine, was living by a strict schedule and giving each hour over to a precise activity or task, and this same way of living is what has made the transition to the outside world possible. On the weekends, when he does not have to work, he rises at 6:00am and does fifty push-ups and seventy-five crunches and twenty pull-ups, then reads for thirty minutes before washing his face, brushing his teeth and combing his hair. When he’s finished cleaning up, Jamie goes to the kitchen, feeds Albert, takes him outside for a walk around the block and then back upstairs to make coffee and oatmeal for his breakfast. He drinks his coffee black and eats the oatmeal with a ripe banana or some frozen blueberries, a luxury he did not have while in prison. When he’s finished eating, he takes Albert for a three-mile walk, returns home to write letters for an hour (to his friends who have not been released), then he goes grocery shopping and on any other errands that have accumulated during the week. After lunch, his afternoon is taken up by practicing guitar, a trip to the dog park with Albert, a visit to his aunt where she lives now in the nursing home, and a trip to the library to check his email. Jamie is saving up for a computer, but has not yet purchased one. In the evening, he eats dinner and watches television, unless he has made plans to see a woman. To this point, Jamie had not had the prospect of a second date, and it is this nervous energy that makes this Saturday feel different than the others.

At the grocery store, touching the avocados, or at the dog park, watching as Albert plays tug with a standard poodle, he senses a feeling like hiccups in his bloodstream or, yes, maybe butterflies, the prehistoric sense of a crush, something he has not felt since his youth, and for clear reason. Jamie is not entirely sure why this date feels so different from the others, though he is aware of his omission and its role in their seeming connection. On past dates, had he not made the women laugh, only to spoil it with the slip of I-committed-a-violent-crime-when-I-was-sixteen-for-which-I-spent-my-life-in-prison? It was a lot for any person to take in, and maybe it wasn’t even a question of timing, maybe it was a kind of flag on the play that meant he was forever out of the running, at least to the average woman.

At 3:30pm, Jamie, as per his usual Saturday routine, takes the pound cake he had purchased that morning at the grocery store and heads to the Future Dreams Retirement Facility to visit his aunt, his mother’s younger sister, Gloria. Gloria, who had taken him in after his release, who he had lived with for five months before getting an apartment of his own, whose own health had since deteriorated in the last six months leading to her move to the retirement facility and her gifting of her car, a 2003 Buick LeSabre, to Jamie.

Knocking softly on her door, Jamie enters after hearing her scratchy, come in, and entering, gives his aunt a warm hug and a kiss on her left cheek. In preparation for Jamie’s visit, Gloria has seated herself at the small table in her suite, and using her water boiler, boiled a pot of tea for the two of them. Jamie’s aunt is a smallish woman with a wreath of white hair and a slight hunch to her back. Her husband, a lobsterman, had passed away nearly twenty years prior and the two had never had children. Gloria is the most kindly religious person Jamie has ever known, and a particular lover of animals, so that Albert’s adoption had initially been at her suggestion, and the subsequent naming in honor of her late husband.

In the sizable suite, Gloria looks on Jamie with fond eyes, and Jamie smiles, settling himself at the little table and slicing the cake he purchased for the occasion.

“I got cinnamon this week, how’s that?”

“Looks delicious. I’ll take a big slice, honey.”

Jamie nods and cuts into the buttery cake, placing a large slice on the small, porcelain tea plate and handing it to his aunt.

His aunt lifts the teapot to fill a cup for Jamie which he takes, holding the delicate vessel in his large, somewhat calloused hands.

“You seem good today, honey. How you feeling?”

Jamie nods. “I’m good. Been a long week, but I can’t complain. How about you? You seem good, too.”

“I do, I feel good today. Not doing the stairs anymore is really helping I think.”

“I’ll bet.” He smiles and sips his tea and lets the easy quiet build between them.

Jamie appreciates the fragility of the space he shares with his aunt and the sense of trust that this tiny, delicate woman gives him. It is a hard to describe feeling and he has never really tried to describe it, but there is something precious in the bones of her hand and the loving way she sees him, like they are just two people together in this suite with its afghans and its china and its photos, framed and placed like windows all around the pale yellow walls. It is like Jamie can be with his whole family in this space, and they can look at him and he can look at them, and it is quiet, and not angry, and safe.

“I dreamed about Margaret again last night. She was telling me how much she loved you, sweetie.” Gloria speaks, then slides a large bite of cake into her open mouth.

Jamie nods and closes his eyes, not meaning to but trying to picture Margaret, his mother, even still.

“I’ve been dreaming about her a lot lately, Jamie. I don’t know, what do you think that’s about?” Gloria looks toward him and her eyes appear magnified through her glasses’ lenses.

“You miss her? I’m not sure.” Jamie picks up a piece of cake and places it in his mouth, the flavor of cinnamon briefly tingling his nose.

“She was alone in the dream, I mean it was just the two of us and we were back on Mulberry street where we grew up. Remember that house?”

Jamie nods, studying the teapot with its small painted flowers that are maybe lilies or, if not, lilacs.

“I don’t know why I keep seeing her. We’re not girls in the dream either. We’re both grown up, but we’re back at the house. Strange.”

The flowers look hand painted, and it’s possible that they are hand painted. They look so delicate to Jamie and almost realistic.

“You know she loved you.”

Jamie nods but doesn’t open his mouth.

“She forgave you, I know she forgives you, honey. She—.”

Jamie reaches to take his aunt’s hand in his own and gently squeezes her fingers. His aunt’s eyes rise to meet his and they smile at one another for what is maybe a long moment, and then he places his aunt’s hand back on the table and he reaches for a sip of his tea.

“This cake really is delicious, honey, thank you for bringing it.”

“I’m glad you like it. Maybe we do chocolate next week.”

“I would like that.”

An hour or so later, after a few hands of rummy, and a walk around the gardens, Jamie is saying his goodbyes and making his way out of the home and back to Albert and the rest of the evening. In the car, on the short drive to his apartment, Jamie decides that he will call Doreen when he gets back and see if she would like to see him again the following weekend. He imagines their voices on the phone, and he can almost hear the lilt of her voice in his head, the potential that could come out of this for both of them and briefly, for a moment, Jamie lets himself feel confident that maybe this one could work.

 

The call to Doreen is successful if the slightest bit awkward, but she does seem happy to hear from him, and though he wonders if he is a bit too eager, they make plans for the following Friday evening to get some food and some drinks and to spend some time together. So then it’s just a question of getting through the week and not getting too obsessive over what the date will be like and whether she’ll look him up online in the time between (which he has heard is something that people do to one another) and whether he will find a good way to say the unsayable, and whether waiting till the third date is just a recipe for this thing, like all the ones before it, not going anywhere, but for lack of honesty instead of honesty, full frontal and present.

When Friday finally arrives, even Albert seems aware that something is at stake and his fervent licking of Jamie’s face upon his arrival home from work seems intent on expressing good wishes and an excess of love.

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