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Any Which Way

They'd just moved you from F— to H—. I didn't look at your face still broken up from the brawl, didn't look you in the bruisy eye or clear, cos I was still broken up inside. Your shadow ghosted on the screen, blanking the digital Madam's delivery of another day's proceedings failing to affect us. You stood next to me, looming, so I looked at you from under and wondered what kind of missey-bitch bothered to tan the underside of her chin so well.

Serves me right for the prejudgement, you were neither Missey nor Bitch. Turned out you were a roof tiler with your dad on the outside, standing on hot ceramic all day, sun bouncing up as well as down, a double bloody death-dealing hammer. Odd job, for such a little thing. But then you had import blood showing clear in your curves, your eyes, your skin: firstwave muscle and peasant spirit.

I was army. Don't think I told you that so early on. You guessed, huh, from the scars? You sat next to me without a word. Because I was safe, you said to me later.

You were hurting inside as bad as your face looked, worse, shamed by losing your fight. There I was, like the great six-foot lump I was, looking like I wasn't ever going to say a word. You couldn't tell what I was at first glance, not indigo, not import, not firstwave; the size of me, pale skin blotchy with freckles, jet black hair but rippling like a beachy day, blue eyes but shaped like I could've been either or else.

Tell you what I was. Fresh out of solitary.

Did ok, when I first came into prison. Thought I could handle myself, I'd been living in close quarters since childhood, even before my family repatriated. Overpopulation camps first, then import detention, immigration hall, boarding school, military college, barracks, retraining camps, public housing schema, prison. The only time I ever slept alone was in solitary.

I walked in to H— holding a new uniform and scratchy sheets, knowing whatever I did in here, how I did it mattered more. The air of aloneness, you called it. I had the air down good. Alone, I radiated disinterest, not into games and power and manipulation, and not anyone's victim. Alone, no one touched me. The indigo women ignored me, the imports couldn't make head or tail of me, the firstwavers wouldn't touch me. That was good, right? At some point, I'd fought each of their crews, gunned them down like a good little soldier, out in the desalination fields where the urbanites still liked to pretend the agricultural war wasn't lagging on.

Being alone had its downsides. Without alliance, there were no grudges, no vendettas against me, but without backup, I got picked on in petty ways. Nothing nasty, nothing lethal, just wearing. Grinding. Being tripped in the caff, being dodge-balled without the dodging, being wary in the weights room, cornered in the corridors, harassed in the laundry.

The screws had a thing about what they called 'interrelations'. Stopping them was too hard, and they couldn't quite help but see them, so they made this big deal about them being consensual. Eventually all the wearing down got to me, so when the firstwave Missey offered me her word in a deal, I took the opportunity. Sexual favours to spare myself the irritation of being irritated. As good a reason as any, in H—. She and her crew called me 'Flower', and laughed at how delicate I wasn't.

Never bothered me much, what my Missey wanted. I'd been around enough men to know I didn't get off on their thingers inside me, so what she wanted was easy enough to give. I got good at making her come nice and hard, with my fingers inside and working her clit with mouth or hand. She never made a move to touch me. Wasn't companionship she wanted, the rest of her crew gave her companionship. From me she wanted orgasms, good and hard.

I never understood what she got out of it, giving herself up to someone else's hands. I'd never do it, had never done it, before you. Seemed to me like she was making herself vulnerable by making me, someone she reviled, responsible for her release.

I thought it was different with men, in the male camps. Get yourself a hole, but it's still always the Mister who's in command, in charge of his own thinger and his own orgasms, filling up the hole. But Missey couldn't force me to make her come. I could've left, stopped, I could've been crap at what I done for her. I wasn't submitting, in my mind, I wasn't her hole: I was dealing, negotiating, and she was giving up something to me.

I thought it was different, what happened between my Missey and me. Maybe she got something out of making me kneel. I was contented she didn't get off on the worse humiliations, nicking bottles from the kitchen, making the birds squat on them for viewing pleasure, making me get on with one of the others. Nope, just orgasms. I got so good at breaking her down, I felt nice and superior. And it was flattering she'd hunted me to begin with, and persisted til I dealt with her. She'd wanted me that much. Then I told her what I thought, about this power thing between us.

My Missey's firstwave crew cornered me in the showers. They had the things with them to make it humiliating, the bottles and the fake cocks. First come and worst was the violence, as bad as the rape, like violence is rape, the rape is the violence. My whole body taken away from me, surface as well as the insides. But you know how many years I spent committing the same violence to others, out on those blinding, blasting white-grit fields. The violence the retraining did inside my head after we lost the war. The violence, every day. I was numb when they took me, had forgotten the rage and adrenaline. Forgot I was a soldier, forgot to fight.

I guess they'd forgotten I was a soldier too, or they thought I was safe because I hadn't ever fought anyone in H—. Later, I got angry, lying in hospital ward, remembering everything I forgot. A couple of days out of hospital, I went after them at nights, when the screws were off playing cards thinking they had the cruisy shift. Malicious, like. I didn't even have self-defence as a defence, and after it was over, they put me in solitary.

The food was wretched, so I stopped eating. Days, maybe weeks I didn't part my lips. Except when the screws realised, they force-fed me. Had to do it, they said. Didn't want to, were angry at me for making their jobs harder, peeling apart my lips and being bitten and working their thick fat tubes inside me. Was their duty, they said, to keep me alive so I'd pay my time.

I knew all about duty. The priest came in to talk to me, he'd been military too. Told me I had to think of eating as my duty, my watch, but he never saw the foul stuff they brought. But, did I know my duty. So dutiful was I, the screws started bringing me more. Another idea the warden had, a well-fed woman was a woman less likely to fight, get moody, less likely to snap. Months in a square cell, eating. My muscles failed me, I was only skin and flab. And mouth, which I'd tried to forget I had. They'd opened me up and I couldn't close myself off again, gaping and gobbling, so there I lay, this monstrous thing they were turning me into.

When I wasn't eating, I lay on the cold concrete and imagined myself spreading out, skin-thick, wall to wall. Everything touched me now, there was no way to avoid it, no way to avoid that clammy concrete floor. I was liquid inside this spreading sack, slit at the head and slit between the legs, but I told myself I was still untouchable. Hit me, kick me, I was fluid, man. My liquid self inside this great sack of skin would form up again, without impression. When I got out, I dunno how much fatter I was. So much for me ghosting through this prison. They'd changed me, my Missey and the screws and myself, filling the shape of my cell.

I moved back into stalls. My Missey had been moved out of my cell, and I was alone for over a month before you came and sat next to me to watch the digital Madam telling us the news.

You had the top bunk, until I got thin enough to sleep up there again. Took another two months before we said a meaningful word to each other. Yeah, you talked. You always talked. But noise isn't meaning.

You didn't walk in trying to look independent. You didn't walk in radiating your unvictimhood. You stalked into H—, nose in the air even with your jaw wired and one eye swelled shut, hair the yellow only happening after years of sun-bleaching; eyes, hair, skin all the same shade. You walked out of the firstwave Missey's cell without a handshake, you spat on the ground in front of the indigo mob before they spat at your turf, you sneered at the imports without a second thought.

You'd been someone, in F—. Your family was important on the outside, in the right ways to make a difference in H—. The lady mobs knew. Your arrogance wasn't brave, like I'd thought it was: it was expected, and you were terrified. You had choices to worry about when the rest of us didn't. You were only in for fifteen years, citizenship waiting for you, hanging like underripe plums waiting for the season.

And you sat next to me.

First real conversation we had was about the digital Madam and her news. Watching the screen, when you suddenly asked why we spent all this time watching news never affecting us. You got me in a good mood, or maybe you'd worn me down all those days of unanswered talking. Sometimes it affected us: laws passed and unpassed regarding the death sentence, occasional fugitives to give us hope, updates on the agricultural war that wasn't happening. Keeping in touch a world outside continuing without us. Putting our lives into perspective.

Funny me of all people would say such a thing, you said. Because you'd thought me detached from everything. Impervious. Aloof. Alien. No idea why you saying so stung. I'd already thought you were arrogant: for you to call me aloof, then what did that make me?

I wasn't aloof, I think. I was wounded. They'd changed my shape, my Missey and the screws, changed me.

I was touched, you reckoned, when I'd lived my life wanting to be untouched.

I remembered a time when I'd been, not the life of the party, but welcomed. Social. You couldn't work the job I'd done without being social. Had to be aware of hierarchy, peers, friends; who'd watch my back and who'd look the other way. We hated each other's guts, swore at each other, pranked each other, but there was a precious trust there. We'd do everything we could to keep each other alive, we were soldiers.

Inside the prison, life was nothing like that. Almost the inverse: we pretended to be friendly, but trusted no one. Conversations had to be forethought, scripted, so you'd know what response to expect, so no one surprised you. And you never relaxed, ever. Detachment was as close to calm as any of us got. So I didn't know what it meant, when you stood and touched my shoulder after our conversation, a pat blazing through me like fire.

It started with my hair. You watched me brush it out, then noted how much pride I took in it, compared to what I'd done to my body. Because I hadn't always looked like that, you noted. Saw the stretchmarks, you said, saw how I moved, like I wasn't expecting myself to get in my own way. You were bloody adamant about your health, fitness, you did pushups every day and you argued with the mob in the caff over the grease on the fritters. I reckon you had the same feeling I did, you hated the way prison tried to change your shape, tried to change you. Except I let them change me, where you fought every day.

You said a body was a responsibility; health looked better than beauty any day, a body was a gift and a vehicle, it was a person's responsibility to keep it running well.

I used to think that too. I was a soldier, sweetheart, what do you think I used to do all day, except oil myself like another bloody gun? I didn't say that to you. I said, and what if a person's in this shithole for life? What then? My body's not my responsibility, it's theirs now.

Or maybe it started with the arguments. Easy to argue about things we didn't care about, so we argued at the news. Remember seeing some of the other prisoners looking at us in astonishment; I mean, not only was I arguing, you were making me laugh, too, with how excited you'd get. Passionate, you were, and absurd, you'd go on about inaccuracies in a bloody pirate movie for days, and you such an expert on historical films.

Then you claimed my hair. You took over the brushing and the braiding, because by then it was so long I almost couldn't handle it on my own. Then the gym. Not that you ever pushed me, not after the first conversation. You'd just go for a walk, and I'd come along. The walks became jogs; you'd ask for my help spotting, but never make a move to do me unless I'd asked first. Helping, never pushing. It was so different to the way they'd chivvied us in the barracks that I never noticed what was happening until there we were one day, sparring, you flat on your back after I'd done you in a throw, and I straddled you, and breathed free again while you howled surrender.

I'd get our seats in the caff, and you'd get the drinks.

And then you'd got my back too, didn't you, and I had yours. Dunno how long we were looking out for each other before we realised we were doing it; I only knew the day when Missey's lot tried to shank me in the laundry, and you came out from behind with the bleach and an expression like you were willing to risk a second industrial accident to your record. You never saw me see you, I don't think. You told me you knew I had your back after I took the knife meant for you; took it in my arm, took it out, and gave it back point first before I'd fainted. You put your own knife into the dead bitch's hand so it wouldn't look like I'd slit the throat of a defenceless broad, and swore to the warden my retaliation was pure, simple, clean self-defence.

You had friends. You never went back on someone, never broke your word. Eventually they were my friends too, never quite the same way, but they'd laugh at my jokes, even if there was always something about me.

They were scared of me, you reckoned. Even with you, I was alone, no one ever guessed what motivated me. I understood why the ambiguity terrified them. In here you had to know what made other people move, otherwise how else you could get yourself out of their way in time? So I got friends because I was good entertainment value. But you, they liked you for honour.

Dunno if anyone out there ever realised we were together in those days, so soon, that you were my Missus and I was yours. You would've told them if I'd let you, you liked talking about sex so much. Almost as much as you liked sex.

You liking being penetrated, you told me a story about you and two blokes, when you were on your hands and knees, and you kept your head down and just let them go at it until they couldn't any more. For me it was the opposite, touch everything except my hole, staying in control, seeing what I could do to you. Maybe I felt too much, couldn't take the intensity of having it inside as well as out. It was overwhelming when you made love to me - when anyone did - so much that I almost couldn't come, then when I did, it'd black me out with the force of it.

You'd look at me, spread me, talk to me. Tell me how neat a cunt I had. Not like your cunt, you reckoned, fleshy and so ready, always embarrassed how easily you came. I didn't like being touched there because it was so much, so I never knew how to take you just looking at me, your gaze almost as much presence as your fingers, rapt.

You liked my body. Long, you'd call it, sort of square, solid, reminded you of the rounded women in paintings in galleries, almost masculine, but with high, well-connected tits. But you were all curves, not a masculine line on you, tits hanging heavy, arse poking out, even your fingers were soft. You were beautiful. Didn't feel right, us looking so different and having to say the same word to each other. Beautiful.

I liked the big freckles on your shoulders and back, liked how strange they looked against your tan, how random and huge they were, but I worried they'd become cancers. Individuality and vulnerability both there, in those freckles. Me, I'd had the vaccine. The only marks on me were my scars. You'd stroke them but never ask.

You'd knot your teeshirt, three knots in a row, put it between my legs and push me up against the wall behind our bunk, tell me to clench my legs, and back and forth we'd go till I came. I liked putting my fingers in you, liked how much you loved it, how you'd lose it all over my palm and wrist. Felt like a double standard for a while, not wanting you in me, but wanting to be in you. Except you said it was perfect.

Occasionally you'd say it. It's perfect. This is perfect. Everything was for us, except for the fact we were in prison. Every now and then you'd have that shock-realisation of just how comfortable you were, how wrong it was, to be home just because we were together. It's prison, you'd say. Shouldn't be proud of avoiding being beaten up, proud of staying out of the drugs, proud of the pettiness. Me, I dunno. Most of life is petty; imagine having a mortgage. Imagine killing someone just because you were told to kill them.

You asked about why I'd become a soldier. I still don't know. The easiest place to be; I knew what to do, to be good, to be right. But it was a job, soldiering: I was never really a fighter. A real fighter would have protested at her trial. Would have explained about extenuating circumstances surrounding the murder, would have said what he'd done to her to deserve his death. But I couldn't do it, couldn't fight, couldn't hide behind the chance they give to the women.

They wanted me to say I was a victim. To say I couldn't get out of the situation any way but for killing him. But it would've been a lie. I was a good soldier, I knew what I was doing. I was afraid, but not out of my mind, could've knocked him out, clinched him, whatever. But I'd killed him instead, because I wanted to and because he deserved it. That's what I said. Full conviction. Life. Then you.

We were watching the digital Madam, like usual, when the law changed. Such a small law, meant for the citizens, the free people out there, not us in here. But even such a little change rippled into our safe little cells, and I felt it then: this was why we watched, for those ripples. We were still alive. I asked you that night, with butter on my fingers and my fingers in your arse, you moaning into the pillow. Marry me, I said. You laughed.

In here, you asked me, scowling. Told me I was mad, told me what they'd do to us, if we made it public, the slagging and the threats, the fights, the risk of rape. Screws and cons.

Yeah, I knew. I just didn't mind.

You asked, what happens when we get out?

When you got out, I reminded you. We both knew I was staying in here. Then I told you, if we stopped liking each other, we'd divorce. Just like other people do. It's not like we were bound to success any more than anyone else; not like the possibility of failure should preclude the trying.

You said, the caff's a horrible venue, and it's the only place they'll let us do it in here.

It was a yes, did you know that?

So I promised you we'd do it with style.

Well, ask with a bit of style, you snapped, you didn't want to have to tell the kids I proposed with my fingers in butter and your arse.

I asked again in the kitchen while you were on scrub duty, asked the friendlier screws to help out. Six candles on the central bench, the lights out, and I kissed you while you still had soapsuds on your hands, which was better than butter and come, and every time you do the dishes now you can remember that I asked you with your hands all wrinkled and wet.

The warden was outraged, but the priest was considering us, properly, carefully. You didn't notice, on account of being engaged in full argument with the warden, who'd said it wasn't right. Why the hell not, you roared, seeing as all us were having sex with each other anyways, at least you and me were trying to do it right!

Well, the warden didn't like that, telling to her face that the guards were turning their blind eye to the goings on. The warden insisted nothing of the sort was happening, you insisted it was. You shouted they didn't want us to have sex just because it was a power thing, keeping us under control. Power and demands. The warden pointed out we were in prison, we were being punished: sex wasn't a right.

Quiet, I agreed with her. Everyone looked at me, startled. But she was right, wasn't she? Sex wasn't a right, ok. But marriage was. And that's why the law was changed. Marriage was our right.

Right then the priest said he'd do it. No worries.

The warden threatened us. If we went through with it, she'd separate us, move us out of our shared cell.

We'll have our conjugals, I said. Prisoners got six conjugals a year, I said, with their spouses on the outside, no reason why we should be denied the same just because we were both in here.

The warden agreed, sullenly.

Seeing as we were two prisoners, I continued, that meant we have six each per year. Twelve visits. Once a month.

Even the priest was amused.

But you were looking at me, panicked. You wanted me. Reaching for my hand, wanted me, wanted our nights together.

I told you I wanted our conjugals. I wanted what surrounded the conjugal, the rights, the worth. Wanted a room where we'd make love with candles and a bed we slept in together, for a night. We'd cook a proper meal together, in control of it and the ingredients, where we'd pick and put on music, shower together afterwards. A relationship, twelve times a year, that wasn't in prison.

There were always joke marriages going on. One prisoner in her jumpsuit, the other one in a wedding dress made of tacked on craft goods or well-woven toilet paper. One year I remember a dress made of sixteen rolls of toilet paper, from a prisoner who used to make clothes, amazing; ruffles, rouching, a long train and a tight fit like a fishtail. But this was a real marriage, not a farce, so you said there was no way we'd be wearing toilet paper; the other prisoners kept stocking up anyway.

Don't mind the buggers, I told you, when you went livid on finding out. As long as it was a stylish affair, they'd lap it up. Anything to break the monotony. But then the bastard guards went and got the both of us suits for the ceremony. It might've surprised you how insistent I was that we have proper dresses. Me in coffee-cream like my skin, and you in a mahogany shimmering when you moved.

The priest stood over us, the warden frowned at us, the prisoners cheered us.

I went first, vows and affirmation. I Blossom Willows Promise You Love and Forever. Mumbling, after we kissed, so that's why they call you Flower, and it was the first time you'd heard my name.

January 2011

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