plain china: best undergraduate writing

Volume One : Issue Two

Year Six, Month Seven, Day Twenty-Four


by Emma Thesenvitz

Troy by Eyla Cuenca Troy by Eyla Cuenca

I dream of the desert often. I have never been to a desert before. The one in my dream is flat and purely tan. There is nothing else there other than the color tan—no bushes and no trees. There are never any animals in my dream of the desert, and there are never any people. It is just me, and I stand in the pulsing heat with an uninterrupted view of nothing. The sun is bright, but in my dream I do not have to squint my eyes. It lies heavy on my skin, turning the consistency of my sweat to milk. I pulse with the heat of the sun, my heartbeat radiating throughout my body. It is exciting. I can turn in all directions and I see everywhere.

Life in prison is a melding of binaries: comrades with enemies, the individual with authority, sterile cleanliness housing the convicts of a nation. Memories with the now.

The first backyard that I remember was small and dusty, surrounded by a chain-link fence. There wasn’t much in it–mostly dirt and a couple of straggling patches of grass. A plastic Fisher Price slide, barely taller than my head, resided in one corner and a dingy kiddy pool in the other. Algae grew thick in the bottom of the pool, and we used it to play Pictionary, scratching out stick figures in the slime with our fingers. On one side of the yard was the back wall of our trailer; the other three sides butted up to the yards of our three neighbors. My earliest memories are of that square of backyard, looking into those of my neighbors. Depending on how you focused your eyes, you could almost see through the diamond pattern in the fence and pretend it wasn’t there.

Two dogs lived in the yard to the right, a Dobermann and a dachshund, and of the two, the dachshund was the more intimidating. I think it was because he was so small in comparison to his yard-mate, because he was the kind of creature that owners dress in plaid sweaters and matching hats, because he was the kind of pet that I wanted myself. He had to prove himself to me that first day I stuck my hand through the fence to rub his damp little nose. He snapped, biting down on my fingers till they bled, and there is still a scar there on my pointer finger. It is ragged and turns ruddy pink when my hands are cold. From then on I knew that I probably shouldn’t trust in appearances, and I knew that I definitely shouldn’t trust in the things I wanted most. They end up being the worst for you, as it turns out.

I woke up at seven today. The first thing I did was two hundred crunches; most of the guys here do. That’s usually the sound you wake up to, the huffs and grunts of the men in the hall doing their morning routines, pumping like steam machines. The first half of my crunches was bicycles and the second I did hanging off the edge of my bunk so that I would be at an incline. I do the harder part second, even when my muscles are trembling and my mind whispers, “you don’t need to do this.” Giving up means I’ve only done the easy half, and then what’s the point?

I loved a girl once. She was prettier than any of the lady officers here; her hair was long, brown, and shiny. She lived on the opposite side of town from me, and sometimes we would meet in the field behind our middle school to do cartwheels in the grass. I remember one day the whole field was awash in white and yellow daisies. It was early in summer and she smiled and rolled into a clump of them and then lay still. She said she was studying flowers in her biology class and plucked one of them.

Bellis perennis,” she said, pronouncing the words carefully and plopping down next to me, offering the daisy. She pointed to the petals, and the yellow nodules in the center of the head. “These are its florets.”

“Both of them? The white and the yellow part?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

It was a perfect day. The grass smelled as grass should; bitter and green. The afternoon was quiet, but not silent. Dragonflies hummed by and the air was so dry it crackled. I was happy and my chest felt too full, like it was going to burst and my organs would fly away, finally free.

“Did you know they’re considered weeds to nearly every house around here? They try to cut them down and they spray them and they dig them up out of their lawns. They prefer just plain green grass, with no flowers.” She looked sort of sad when she said this.

“Well, at least they have grass. My yard is mostly dirt,” I replied, and she laughed.

“Well, keep this one and maybe, if you leave it outside, the seeds will bury themselves in the dirt and then one day you’ll wake up with a backyard full of daisies.”

We picked handfuls of flowers for me to take home, and I left them to dry out and die in the backyard. No flowers ever bloomed. I think I should have kissed her that day, and told her that I liked her, but I didn’t.

I live at the end of a hall next to a man named King Vernal, who says I can either call him the King or Your Majesty. I have lived next to the King for three months now. My last neighbor was a man named Rick, who got transferred to a different prison, up north in New Hampshire. I don’t mind the King. He is built like a freight train, and he has round cheeks that puff up almost to his eyes when he grins or holds his breath. He’s a lifer, nine years in out of who knows how many. Until he dies, I guess.

My cell is exactly like the King’s, which is exactly like everyone else’s on our hall. It is six feet wide by nine feet long by nine-and-a-half feet tall. The walls are cement, painted off-white on the top half and a soft sea-foam green on the half closest to the floor. You can see where the paint didn’t adhere to the cement as well as it could have; there are tiny porous holes in some parts, and others have bulbs where the paint dripped, then gathered and dried. My bed is for one person. It is metal, bolted to the floor, and covered with a grey mattress pad that is pilling badly. My pillow and blanket are thin and rough to the touch, but they keep me warm. There is a metal sink, a metal toilet, a metal shelf, and a metal towel rack. These things are bolted to the wall and even though the metal is dull and scratched, the stainless steel has a clean feel.

I had to stay overnight in a hospital only once in my life. They said I could have probably gone home, but they wanted to make sure that my brain didn’t swell up inside of my skull. I was twelve and in the sixth grade. We had taken a field trip to the beach and our teacher had us count the number of living things we saw and try to figure out what exactly they were. I had the most fun at the wading pools in the rolling mounds of rocks exposed by the low tide. The water in those pools was warmer than in the ocean, heated by the May sun. I could count the rings of slick algae and the knobby layers of barnacles, depending on how often the rocks were covered by water: only a little where I stood at the top and growing steadily more abundant toward where the water was pooled. The water was clear; it smelled brackish. When I put my fingers in, they were split by the light, and it looked like the tips of my fingers were fleeing, shedding the rest of my hand like an exoskeleton. I trailed my hand through the strands of seaweed reaching up from the bottom of the pool, floating hairs attached a granite scalp. The swirled shells of tiny ocean snails clung to the sides of the pool, at least twenty blending into the inky wetness of the rocks. To be that small, I thought, would make even these shallow pools seem like an entire world. One little puddle reached on forever to them. A crab the size of my palm, horny and purple orange, scuttled just out of reach, and when I twisted my wrist to create a mini-whirlpool in the water, he bounced and drifted across the bottom. I let the salt water dry on my hand and my fingers felt grainy and sterilized.

I slipped on a dark clump of algae on my way off the rocks back down to the shore. My head hit the barnacle-encrusted bank and when my forehead wouldn’t stop bleeding, my teacher wrung her hands and called an ambulance. They said I hit my head pretty hard; the teacher heard it crack.

The hospital felt sterile too, but in a fake way, like bleach was covering a darker, dirtier truth. I preferred the salty freshness of the ocean. As I lay penned between the rails of the hospital bed under the fluorescent lighting, my head wrapped four times around in gauze, I sucked the taste of the afternoon off my fingers.

I go outside every day, during the hour I get outside of my cell. The rec yard is good for that. Even though the walls are built high and solid through and you can’t see anything outside the rectangular field of the yard, nothing blocks the view of the sky. If you go to the very center of the yard and lie on your back and look straight up, the top corners of the walls are outside of your peripheral vision and all you can see is the gray-blue sky above you. If you don’t turn your head at all, it feels like it is all around you. You could be anywhere.

Lifers are the ones who are here for the long haul. I know a few of them, other than the King. They’re the ones who aren’t ever going to know anything else. They have their memories and they have what is happening to them in an instant. The King says that he doesn’t make memories any more. He says that he doesn’t need them because memories are to save for later. He says, “If the only later that you have is dying, what’s the point?”

A daisy bloomed in the exercise yard once. It was the beginning of summer and one day a flower started coming up in the middle of the patch of grass that the guys sometimes used as the outfield for baseball games. No one noticed it at first because before the flower appears, it is just green leaves like any weed. But within a couple of days, a stalk shot up a few inches and a bud sprouted open and there, in a dusty patch of rutted grass, a shock of white blazed forth, brilliant and pure. It took all of us by surprise, I think; we crowded around and just looked at it. The leaves were dark green with a waxy sheen, like the skin on a sick person’s face. The slender stem of the flower shot up from the center, straight and true for almost five inches until it bowed over at the top where the flower weighed it down. The flower was white and yellow like a daisy should be. There were forty-seven petals. Jimmy said that that meant the flower was probably his because he was forty-seven years old. Deshawn said it was actually probably his flower because he was the one who saw it first and told everybody about it. Nobody else said anything.

I went out to see the flower every time I was out in the yard; I think most of us did. Just to see if it was still there. One day it wasn’t.

I heard later that someone stepped on it; whether it was by accident or on purpose was unclear. Later on he got attacked by a couple of guys in the dining hall. They fucked him up pretty bad, enough so that he couldn’t see out of one of his eyes and he had to stay in the hospital ward for a few days. I don’t know if it was because of the daisy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was.

Dinner last night was good. Spaghetti and meatballs, with brownies for dessert. Milk or water. If a prisoner uses his utensils in a malicious way, they get confiscated. He must eat in a separate place, with others who have the same problem, and they don’t get to eat with anything other than their hands. They eat finger food, usually the Loaf, which can be cut off in slices. It has everything you need in it: vegetables, beans, bread, cheese, raisins. It is terrible, a punishment, and I make sure to eat the good food that I am given carefully and properly.

My mother used to read to me on weekends during the summer, outside on a blanket. We would bring lunch in a basket, usually tuna or chicken salad, and she would lay my head in her lap and read me her favorite parts from books she was reading. She had an affinity for French writers and biblical advice.

Le bonheur ne vient jamais comme on l’a imaginé,” she would chant from above me. “At the moment of temptation, sin and righteousness are both very near.” These words became our mantra, and we would say them over and over to each other. We were lying there once, listening to the lilting timbre of our own voices, when a raven flew over us. I saw his shadow pass on my mother’s forehead and the brief darkness made her look older. He was a silhouette in the sky, backlit by sun until he was nothing but a blotch of ink on a blue-and-white paper sky. He flew eerie figure-eights among the clouds and then stopped, hanging in the sky, motionless. He should have fallen out of the sky then, I thought, but he didn’t, wavering above us as if our words had cast a spell and frozen him where he was. When I stopped speaking, he flew away, and I felt like I was God.

Head count is every day at 8:40 a.m. We leave breakfast and head back to our cells and stand in them next to the barred door. A guard walks by and checks us off on a list. The hall is between thirty-two and fifty-four stride lengths, depending on which officer is walking it. Each footstep echoes and runs around inside of your head for a while even after the officer is gone. No one speaks until it is over.

I ask the King about his life before he got in here.

“I was the security guard at a stadium,” he says.

“Did you like it?”

“Not really.”

“Why not?”

“No one really listened to me.”

I wonder, sometimes, what the King did to get in here. He is the biggest mystery in this hall; everybody else always announces the depths of their crime as soon as they arrive. But not the King, and when I ask he just stares at me for a few seconds and then starts to hold his breath until his skin tone deepens as the blood rises to the surface. When he lets it all out, it’s in a low whistle like a loon, and he never replies. “All my life is in this moment,” is all he ever says. “There is nothing outside of it.”

Panopticon. Someone always watching. If a mole sees a hawk flying across the sky, he will not try to run back to his burrow, he will not try to fight. He will stand frozen, paralyzed by his knowledge and his fear of what his actions may lead to. But what happens if the mole can never see the sky? He will never know when the hawk is there—if it is ever there at all. So what does he do?

He can take his chances, or he can stay paralyzed forever.

The eyes of the law are always watching, they tell us. We know this well; we are in prison, aren’t we? We took our chances.

I am up for parole in a little over a year.

“Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary,” someone once said. I think I know mine. I dream of it often, so much that it worries me. My mother once said to me, “Be careful what you wish for, because it might just come true.” If I find this desert, what am I supposed to do when I get there?

I want it so bad that I might ruin it.

I had the dream again last night, only this time there was a tree there, amidst all the tan. I don’t know what that means. I like it when everything is flat, when everywhere you turn it goes on forever, slipping around the curve of the globe like a fitted sheet. The tree confuses me. I have never been in the middle of a forest before, and I don’t think I’d like to. All those trees would be threatening, I imagine, ready to press into you and suffocate.

I asked the King what he thought about it, but he just grunted and shrugged.

About the Author


Emma Thesenvitz

Wheaton College

Emma Thesenvitz is a 2009 graduate of Wheaton College in Massachusetts, where she studied English, creative writing, and French. She currently works as a copywriter in her hometown of Seattle, Washington.