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BETWEEN BARS | When I’m 36

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I’ll be 36 years old when he gets out of prison in 2030. It occurred to me that scientists have been saying that by that year all the polar ice caps will have melted.

Across the street from Auburn, there’s a small gas station with a convenience store that sells Marlboros and sodas and lottery tickets and bite-sized snacks. Upon my first visit, I found it odd that a string of local businesses would situate themselves so near to a maximum-security facility. I guess Auburn prison has been around for so long that it’s merged into the landscape like a wall in the city. I wonder if, upon release, he would walk out of those double doors and head into the convenience store to buy himself a snack. Then I think: Would the store still be there?

He shows me a picture of his fiancé. He first met her on the phone, unplanned, through a mutual friend. They began chatting regularly. He proposed to her, and she found a ring. She visits him when she can. They are hoping to have a marriage ceremony inside the prison if all the paperwork gets done.

He tells me that he deeply regrets what he did to get locked up. He says that he is ashamed of what he did and wishes for anything to reclaim that moment, to reverse time and talk some sense into his younger self. I nod and tell him I believe him, because I don’t know what else I can say.

We’re supposed to be working on his writing assignment on culture this week. He notes that prison has all kinds of people, but they can all be described by the age of their soul, which you can tell from their demeanor, rather than their crime or sentence. Soul is about an inmate’s attitude about his incarceration and what he does to keep himself going day in and day out inside these bars. Some people, especially the young adults, have given up even before they settle in for their first night. They are mistrustful and disgruntled about their circumstances. They act like they don’t need anybody and so their time is spent brooding alone. Many old inmates, he points out, are like this too. They just don’t care anymore.

He tells me that he knows he has an old soul. How old, I ask him. He says, well, old. It’s old because he’s put himself together and sought help and established himself. He does see a light at the end of the tunnel. There is a day when he will get out. And he wants to make the best use of his time, because he has a whole lot of it before he will ever see the street.

Then he offers me some advice. How I should not make the same mistakes he did. How I should remember this conversation should any situation arise where I feel out of control, or angry, like he was, angry enough to commit a crime that would land me in prison. Then he tells me something that I have not heard in a very long time. In fact, it’s been so long since I last heard it that it took me several moments to understand what he was saying.

He tells me that I have so much time to live, to just breathe it all in. He says that I have all of the time in the world. I want to ask him what is there to breathe in, and how do I know that I have time, and what for. He does not elaborate.

No one seriously means that I have all of the time in the world. I would have laughed if a student on this campus was brave enough to preach that to me. I only have four years on this campus, and I’m already on my last. What do you mean I have time? In grade school, if my teacher cooed at me to take my time, it was a clear sign that I wasn’t understanding things fast enough. Telling me that I have more time has either been a lie or an insult.  

But he says it so differently that I want to believe him that time is permanent even though life is short. Time to be alive, and to breathe in the autumn air I never seem to actually smell. Time to be with friends. Time to talk to my mom and dad and four little brothers who have even more “all the time in the world” than me. Time to keep focusing on my studies, so I can receive this education in full. I paused a few times this week to think about all this time in my hands. I don’t plan to be 36, or even 26, anytime soon.

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