I have long enjoyed the art of pretending. Especially as a child. For example, on one particular family car ride, I was pretending to be asleep, mostly to avoid conversation with my little brother. My eyes were nearly shut, save for a small slit between my eyelids, allowing for a narrow window of the world splintered by the crisscross of eyelashes.
Through my obstructed vision, I could see my Scotty’s watchful gaze, a small “v” forming between his dark brown eyebrows. His features were so insulated by baby fat that I almost never saw creases in his skin. This “v” was a rare occurrence. It meant he was thinking.
Slowly, a sinister smile spread across his mouth.
Another rare occurrence. He had an idea.
He took the lollypop that had been lazily dissolving in his mouth and held it in front of him, admiring the sugary gleam. He then began moving it towards me– specifically towards my hair.
I saw what was unfolding. My reaction was not far off from the type of carnivorous attack you might see on National Geographic, complete with Australian narration. “The Taylor lies in wait for her little brother’s feeble attack. For the Scotty is not only feeble in physical strength, but also feeble in mind, unable to anticipate even the most obvious preemptive retaliation. Watch . . . as the sausage-like fingers move closer, grasping the saccharine instrument. The Taylor waits, waits, and then . . . “
POW. I smacked his hand at just the right angle so it ricocheted back into his nose with a satisfying smack. The candy flew onto the dashboard. Scotty screamed in feigned pain, startling our mother from sleep. She snapped her head around, the hardness in her eyes penetrating through her sunglasses. It was enough for both of us to fall silent.
Scotty opened a new lollypop his stash, while I looked out the window, watching the landscape. There wasn’t much in the way of civilization, aside from a rest stop here and there. Every time I saw the sharp edges of a building, I perked up, thinking we had arrived . . . only to realize it was a Seven-11 or a rogue diner in the middle of nowhere.
To pass the time, I played a game I called “framing.” I cocked the index finger and thumb of my two hands into “Ls,” touching them together to create a rectangle. I framed Scotty, my sleeping cousin, my other cousin listening to Radiohead on his headset. The pick-up truck behind us. The view in front, hilly and green. Then I noticed something in the corner of her frame – the amorphous outline of an immense building. It was just a sliver in the rectangle of my fingers, so I knew it must be the size of a fortress because it was still so far away.
“Is that it?” I asked.
“Yup,” said Jason, peeling the headset back from one ear. “That’s prison.”
I had found out the night before that we would be going to prison. My mom, dad, Scotty and I were on a trip to visit family in Maryland. It was where my grandparents lived, whom I called “Far Away Grandma and Grandpa.” Because they were so far away. (I was a very literal child.)
It was June, and so my cousins were also in Maryland for their summer break from Princeton. Adam and Jason were, without question, very smart. Their parents, two Ivy League PHDs, just had to shift over their brilliant genetics. Simple as a bank transfer dealt in chromosomal currency.
Ever since I could remember, Adam and Jason—8 and 10 years my senior—had visited my family in Los Angeles during their winter and summer breaks. They were the epitome of cool, plaid shirts tied by the sleeves around their waists. They’d fly out, unaccompanied by adults, walking off the plane wearing their backpacks by one strap, Adam in a backward baseball cap.
I watched my cousins now as they put their arms out for a security pat down. Then I stepped forward, and the guard felt inside my pockets before waiving me through. Next came Scott. He was trying to smuggle in his lollypop stash. The candies were sandwiched in each of his armpits, and so he had to walk like a tin soldier to keep them in place.
“Aww aren’t you precious,” a guard cooed, clearly disarmed by his portly brand of cute.
“Yes, ma’am,” Scotty replied, not missing a beat.
She gave him another smile before turning her attention to our larger group. “Well everyone, my name is Miranda-Jean, and I’ll be taking you to your visiting room.”
We followed her to a gray room with cement floors and cinderblock walls. It was empty except for foldout metal chairs and a sliver of sunlight creeping in through a caged window.
“Your inmate will be with you shortly,” she said, letting the thick door shut behind her.
We waited patiently as the prisoners shuffled to different visiting rooms. At every jingle of handcuffs, my ears perked up, thinking it might be Uncle Marc. It reminded me of waiting for food at a diner, eyeing every sandwich to see if it was that Turkey Club you ordered.
Finally, the door handle rattled open. A stern male guard escorted in an older man wearing a bright orange jumpsuit. The fluorescence emphasized his graying hair and stiff wrinkles. In this face, I tried to see Uncle Marc. He had seemed so different in the pictures. Then I realized that those pictures were over a decade old.
The guard un-cuffed Marc and shut the door behind him without a word, barely noticing the tense family in the room. Marc rubbed his wrists where the metal had been.
No one said anything for a while. It was Scott who broke the silence.
“Would you like a lollypop?” he asked.
“Sure,” said Marc with a smile. Scott gave him one, and then, in a surprise turn of generosity, gave a lollypop to everyone else. Except for me.
“Hey Scotty, can I have a lollypop?” I asked.
“No” he said, quickly averting his eyes.
“Hey . . . “
“You hit me.”
“You were about to attack me.”
“No I wasn’t.”
“Just give me a lollypop!” I yelled.
All eyes in the room were suddenly focused on me.
“Taylor why did you yell at your brother?” Marc asked.
“I don’t know. I asked him for a lollypop and he wouldn’t give me one.”
“Scott, can your sister have a lollypop?” Marc asked.
“No,” he replied.
“Well, can I have another lollypop?” Marc asked.
Scotty begrudgingly gave a second lollypop to Marc, which he quickly passed to me. Scotty’s eyes narrowed at the betrayal. But he didn’t say anything.
I spent most of the visit exaggerating how much I was enjoying the lollypop, much to Scott’s dismay. Marc, my parents, and cousins were engrossed in conversation about Princeton. It was a short visit. Soon, there was a knock on the door, and a guard returned to place cuffs on Marc’s wrists, joining his hands together behind his back. The fingers waved goodbye as he walked away.
On the car ride home, my parents resumed the conversation with my cousins about Princeton.
“Was it ever awkward at school with … well what had happened to your parents?” my mom asked, softening the deliberateness of the question with the vagueness of her words.
“Well, yeah,” Jason replied. “Yeah it could be really awkward. Not at first when you’re just getting to know someone, but as time goes by people are all ‘hey man, why don’t you ever talk about your parents.’ And it becomes a dance after a while, dodging the question or answering it when you feel like you can trust someone. Which is a hard judgment call to make by the way.”
“Yeah,” Adam said. “It was harder when we were younger because, you know it was in the news, so everyone knew. At Princeton we had more of a fresh start.”
Jason snickered. “Yeah, kids could be such idiots. There was this one girl, who came up to me right after it had happened and said, ‘Wow so I bet you’ll never want to see your dad again. I’d never want to see my dad again if he’d killed my mom.’” I noticed his eyes moistening at the memory. “As if she had any idea what it was like.” He blinked quickly. “Because he’s still my dad.” He leaned his head back against the headrest and looked out the window, watching green hills roll by, the fortress of the prison growing smaller behind the minivan.
I leaned my head back against my own headrest and thought of Marc in his orange jumper, of what he had done. I thought about that girl and wondered if she had ever known Marc. Known what he could be like, that he was a person, not just a murderer. That visits to see him were part of my childhood. That he would talk to me on the phone and help me brainstorm ideas for science projects, or hear out the fights I’d had with my parents. What he had done was evil, but he wasn’t all evil. There were good parts. And those are the parts I like to remember.