He was no longer the player he once was, with strings of women he could call whenever he needed service, and wads of money to support them. He was no longer as sure of himself. He was a man who hadn’t been with a woman in 10 years.
She looked him up and down like a jockey examining a racehorse. Carlos thought she might check his teeth.
By Antonio C. de Baca
Editor’s note: We’re pleased to present the work of Antonio C. de Baca, who spent ten years in prison and is currently studying engineering at Boise University. The following is the first of a series by Mr. de Baca.
The air hit Carlos in a strange new way as he walked out of the prison lobby, a way he had never felt. It smelled different, too, sweet on the tip of his tongue. The breeze hadn’t really changed; it was the same as it had always been inside the prison walls. What had changed, what made it feel so different, was where he stood when he breathed—it made his skin tingle. He was no longer behind the twenty-foot fence with armed guards who treated him like a degenerate beast. He was free, fully paid up for the crime he had committed so many long and cloudy years ago.
His prison blue jeans and denim shirt were new and fit him like they were made for him, like a Gucci suit tailored for a an ex-con. The shirt was a bit snug, showing the over-developed muscles of Carlos’ upper body. But his pants were the way he liked them, baggy except around his waist, like those worn by all the kids from the hip-hop videos—his only connection to the outside world until now. His face was young yet hard for his 28 years, the way a soldier’s face looks after he’s seen death. Hints of white flecked his otherwise jet black hair. If he were to smile, a person might mistake him for someone much younger. But Carlos hadn’t smiled much or had reason to in some time—nearly a decade.
A young Hispanic woman sat on the hood of an older model red Nissan Sentra, waiting. She got off the car and waved to Carlos, her face unsure, as if she didn’t know the person she was waiting for. Carlos knew that she had to be his ride to the Greyhound Bus Station. Carlos’s cellie in prison offered to have his wife give him a ride. Carlos was uncertain about this at first. He was afraid that he might make a pass at the wife of one of the few friends he had. But he needed a ride to leave the grounds—it was policy, no prisoner could walk from the prison. Besides, he was no longer the player he once was, with strings of women he could call whenever he needed service, and wads of money to support them. He was no longer as sure of himself. He was a man who hadn’t been with a woman in ten years.
She was more gorgeous than most women he’d seen before prison. Her long black hair came to the middle of her back and reminded him of Japanese silk, and her mocha complexion reminded him milked coffee. Carlos was almost a head taller than she, and by the petiteness of her waist he knew he could pick her up more easily than the stack of weights he’d lifted so many times in prison. His heart yearned for her at first glance; he felt a rhythmic upbeat in his chest.
“Carlos Ruiz?” she asked, coming within inches from his face, hands relaxed on her hips—too close for his comfort. He caught her scent, which reminded him of roses in the sweetness of the fresh air outside the prison walls. Carlos nodded—his face red, bashful—wondering what she might think of him. He was not used to women getting that close. Female prison guards kept a safe distance from even the most well behaved prisoner.
“Come on, you can speak.” The closeness of her breath hinted at peppermint bubble gum. “I ain’t going to bite.” He was surprised that he remembered what bubble gum smelled like after ten years. Prisoners weren’t allowed to have gum.
Carlos closed his eyes before he spoke, “Yeah, you must be Antoinette?” Then he finally got the courage to look into her eyes, which matched her ebony-colored hair—dark, silky.
“Yep, that be me.” She looked him up and down like a jockey examining a racehorse. Carlos thought she might check his teeth.
“You don’t have any stuff?”
“This is it, just the clothes on my back.” He felt weird saying that. He always pictured himself leaving prison a rich man with his own car waiting for him. It was a dream all prisoners had, only to find out they had nothing upon their release, the same as when they got here. Carlos never thought that he’d have to depend on the kindness of another to get back home to California. He wondered about all the thousands upon thousands of dollars he made from selling drugs—not a penny was left. Poof! Gone the day he got arrested. He only wished someone in his family could be here to pick him up right now, but none could afford to miss a day of work and drive from California to Idaho to get him. With nothing but his clothes, he faced the cold reality of the world that gives nothing to anyone for free.
“Well, then we should be on our way.” She opened the passenger’s door for him as if she was the man and he the woman, making Carlos feel impotent, not opening the door for her. She let him pull the door closed and went to the driver’s side to start the car.
Enclosed in the Nissan, Carlos realized that it was the first time in a decade he’d been alone with a woman. He watched as Antoinette pulled the car out of the parking space and started driving away from the prison. Carlos felt smal1, insignificant. He looked down at her legs as she slipped onto the highway to Boise. He couldn’t see an inch of her skin through her black Levis, but knew that they were more perfect than any Playboy model’s. She caught his eyes on her legs and smiled at him, which made him blush, humbling him. He knew that he shouldn’t look at his friend’s wife with hunger, but that’s what he felt. The scent of Atoinette’s rose perfume in the car didn’t help either.
“Boise has changed a lot since you’ve been gone.” Carlos didn’t know how to respond, so he just nodded, agreeing, wearing a smile that felt insincere. He never thought that, after spending nights and days with killers for so long and showing no sign of anxiety, an Aztec queen who looked as sweet as a caramel mocha would make him feel as anxious as a boy on his first date. So he just sat there in silence as she drove. ”What does it feel like to be free?” she asked, breaking the silence.
“Different.” It was the only word that came to him that didn’t make him feel like a coward. But cowardly was exactly how he felt, suddenly cast into a world he hadn’t seen in ten years and remembered little about, with few connections, no money and no means to take care of himself.
Antoinette pulled into a lot, where several Greyhound buses were parked and waiting.
“Is your ticket inside?” She started to play with her long hair. His eyes followed her hand comb through its silkiness.
“Yeah.” His voice lacked confidence. “They already paid for it back home. I just need to show my ID. They were supposed to leave me some money too.” He pulled out a bright orange ID card. It was a state-issued prison ID. He showed it to her as a kid buying beer with a fake ID would—nervous, unsure, quickly putting it back into his pocket.
Carlos started to follow her inside, his eyes never leaving her rear-end as she walked in front of him. She had the most perfect body, one he hadn’t seen in the flesh in years. It was better than any of the women on TV, because she was real. She didn’t look like the media whores you see on TV, glamorous, blonde, blue eyes, big tits. No, she had that exotic appeal that was so rare on TV.
As they walked inside the station, he felt like every eye was upon him. To one obvious gawker, he wanted to say, what the fuck are you looking at? The typical response he’d give to someone looking at him that way in prison. But something inside him told him to leave those comments in prison. Carlos gave him an iced stare, inflicting a chill in his challenger, before Antoinette grabbed his arm and led him to the counter. He felt like a little puppy in her grasp. He knew that she knew he wanted to pounce, and that she was only trying to help him stay out of trouble and get on his way. He still felt the need to portray the gangster image that he had kept up for so long, since elementary school. Always trying to be tougher than everyone else. If he met a kid who was bigger, he’d use a stick. He was quick to join a gang, and in the gang he wasn’t scared to show that he could be as hard as the hardest gang member.
“Do you have a ticket for Carlos Ruiz?” Antoinette asked the man at the counter.
“Do you have some form of ID?” he asked, smiling.
Carlos handed his prison ID to the man who looked at it as if he was surprised and embarrassed for Carlos. Carlos wanted to ask him if he had a problem with that ID, but before he could speak the man handed it back and started to print a ticket. All that time behind bars, no one had ever looked at Carlos as if they were ashamed for him. With fear, yes. With respect, yes. But never with the contempt that this man showed.
“It says that we’ve some money for you also, the man said, handing him 200 dollars.
Antoinette led him to one of the seats in the bus station. She looked at her cheap plastic wristwatch and then to Carlos. “It looks like your bus should be leaving any minute now.” She smiled showing her straight teeth.
Carlos was free. He didn’t know how he should feel, and worse, he didn’t know how he should act. There were too many people. There was no order to the way people moved. In prison, everyone moved from place to place in straight lines. Prisoners had to ask before moving around. Everything was structured.
People in the bus station moved about freely. He liked it even less when someone walked behind him. It brought back feelings of one of his enemies stalking, ready to make a move on his life.
His face must have caused Antoinette warning; she put her arm on his shoulder.
“It’s OK,” she said. “No one is out to get you.” He felt disgraced. He failed to hide his apprehension from her, a feeling that he kept hidden for so long from so many hardened men. Her hand on his shoulder brought him comfort. A loudspeaker announced the departure of the bus for Reno. Carlos stood up as if he was going to be late, even though the bus line was a few feet in front of him.
Antoinette stood up and gave him a hug. He wondered why she was hugging him. Her breasts pushed up against his chest. He squeezed her tighter, moving his hands down to her waist, but stopping there. He wanted to kiss her, but he couldn’t.
He let her go and got on the bus without looking back. §
Antonio C. de Baca spent 10 years in the Idaho State Prison. He attends Boise University, where he writes and studies engineering. He is the recipient of an honorable mention for fiction from the PEN American Center.