[Ed. Note — Joseph Urbiniak is an inmate at Harnett Correctional Institution in Lillington, N.C., and is the plaintiff in a pending lawsuit against the N.C. Department of Corrections to secure the right of LGBT prisoners to possess non-sexual, LGBT-themed books, newspapers and magazines. Q-Notes is publishing a collection of Urbiniak’s writings in this exclusive, short-run column about life as a gay man in prison. Names of individuals in the story have been changed; in some stories, Urbiniak refers to himself as Sebastian McShane.]
“Hey, Bastian! Is that you?”
I turned around in my chair, parked in front of the TV in the day room, to see who’s screeching my name. Standing in the doorway with his hands on his hips is a tall, slender young man with long blond hair and a smile that fills his entire face. It’s Donny — Donna to his friends.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I ask.
I get up and dart across the room and we hug. The eyes of a dozen other guys are drawn to the commotion. Some turn away in disgust, while others are amused, their faces registering mixed emotions: another queer on the camp.
“I just got off the bus. They put me in the dorm next door.”
“It’s really great to see you. How long’s it been? Three years?”
“Yeah. I think you left in ’96.” Donna grabs my arm. “C’mon, let’s go outside and you can fill me in on this place. Bet you got a cute boyfriend.”
Before I can say that I don’t, he drags me outside. Today, our unit has the big yard, about the size of a football field. Donna drags me to the farthest corner and we sit in the cool grass. The sun is going down and, as fall approaches, the early evening air is getting chilly.
Donna bombards me with questions: What’s the camp like? How are the officers? Is the food any good? Anyone looking for a boyfriend? What are the guys here like?
I answer the questions while interjecting some of my own about the facility where we met and became friends.
“I really like the living arrangements here,” Donna says, laughing. “Two-man rooms! This is 100 percent better than living with 42 guys all in one big room. Honey, I think I’m in heaven. If I’d known it was like this, I’d of come here a long time ago! I mean, privacy!”
We both laugh, then drift into silence. Donna affectionately places his hand on mine, and I’m surprised by how much I’ve missed his affection.
“You heard about Wayne, didn’t you?” he almost whispers.
I watch a ladybug climb a spire of grass and fly away when it reaches the tip. I haven’t heard, but I know what the news is.
“He died last year. His mom sent me a card.”
“Did he ever make it home?”
“Yeah. About eight months before he died.”
We’re both quiet, holding hands. The loudspeaker in the yard crackles: Yard closed. Report back to your assigned dorm. Yard closed.
We get up, and as we walk across the field toward the concrete fortress, Donna drapes an arm over my shoulder. His touch comforts me. Just before going back to our dorms, we agree to meet again at the morning yard call to catch up on each other’s exploits. Then we say good night.
Back in my room I lie on the bunk and stare up at the ceiling. Wayne was one of my first real friends in prison. He introduced me to Donna. I met Wayne in the dining hall when I sat at his table for lunch. We began hanging out afterward. He was older than me, in his mid-forties, with brown hair highlighted with gray, and a pale, sunken look. He had AIDS.
Wayne was easy to talk to. He didn’t criticize or make fun of others and always had something interesting to say. In prison, trust is something one doesn’t dole out easily or often. Friendships and trust are betrayed on a regular basis; by evening, your best friend from the morning may be trying to kill you. I trusted Wayne.
Often we sat together in the afternoon sun at one of the picnic tables in the yard that overlooked a highway, watching the free people whiz by in their cars and trucks. We talked about our crimes: how it wasn’t fair that I should get 50 years because my boyfriend happened to be 16 or how he wasn’t really sure why he had robbed that convenience store — he was drunk and angry at the time and it just seemed like the thing to do.
We talked about our futures and our dreams: mine to become a writer and his to sell his house and travel before he died. Sometimes we’d get philosophical, talking about life, death and whether all those people we’d watch driving by really were free in fact.
We talked about his illness a lot.
“One of the doctors told me the state wasn’t going to pay for my medication,” Wayne told me one afternoon. “He said, ‘You’ll be dead soon anyway, so why should we blow 500 a month on medication for you?’ So I hired an attorney and took the DOC to court. Now I get whatever medication I ask for.”
Wayne diligently watched the news and scoured magazines for any kind of new treatment available, writing down what he found. Then, on his monthly trip to Central Prison for blood work — an hour-long drive sitting handcuffed and shackled in the back of a van with steel mesh welded over the windows — he’d pull out his list and discuss with the doctor which treatments he wanted to try.
“You know,” he told me once after seeing his doctor, “the nurses at Central told me I’m the only patient they’ve got who takes an active interest in his illness.”
“Yup. I’ll go in and talk about medications, discuss symptoms, try to find out what’ll work best and what’s not working. They say most of the other guys are only worried about getting a snack bag every day. Some won’t even take their medications.”
“Yeah, it is.”
One afternoon Wayne seemed particularly annoyed. I asked him what was wrong.
“There’s a guy in my dorm who keeps asking me to have sex with him.”
“Yeah. Can you believe how stupid some people are?” He looked up at the traffic. “And you know I’m open about having the disease. I told him, ‘You don’t want to have sex with me. I’ve got AIDS.’ He said, ‘Well, I just wanna get some of that ass, that’s all. It’s not like I’m gonna give you some ass.”
“Some people just don’t have any brains,” I said.
“Yeah. And you know what really pisses me off? He got angry because I said no. I probably saved his life and he’s mad.”
I looked into Wayne’s eyes. There wasn’t any anger in them, but there was hurt and compassion. He turned away and we sat together in silence. He reached for my hand, holding it tight, as the world drove past on the highway.
— Joe Urbaniak was sentenced in 1995 to 20 years imprisonment for indecent liberties with a child and crime against nature. He hopes to be released in 2010. He was awarded Second Place for Memoir in the 2003 PEN Prison Writing Awards and has recently earned his B.A. in Business Administration.
He has requested that Q-Notes publish his contact information in hopes of finding penpals. Write him at P.O. Box 1569, Lillington, NC 27546. All correspondence should include his inmate number: 0415899.