When I was in middle school, my social studies class room was dominated by a large map that hung over the white board, which the teacher would roll up during tests. The map was dominated by Siberia, a sprawling white mass on top of the globe. It filled one-twelfth of the land mass of the whole Earth, yet that was all I knew for certain of the place. A bleak beauty and indelible fear surrounded the entire subject. As we learned about the ice fields and snow, the emptiness became a source of obsession for me. Its white spaces seemed to recede into fantasies and apprehension: permafrost: great cities lost among ice floes, where mammoths sleep under glaciers: gulags, and the slow rebuilding of nuclear missile silos. The violences of geography and time seemed too cold and too vast to be precisely real.
As I am driving down a black-top road in another place that seems to me as foreign as, and much less beautiful than, Siberia, the memory of my middle school map puzzles me. Why does this place conjure the same vast loneliness of Siberia? What is it about isolation that makes me feel so at home?
The answer impends through the darkness of my imagination, and presents itself just as I see the first sign for the prison: It is the place from which you will not return. Where you freeze in time.
I am going to prison to interview a person who, I believe, has something important to tell me about Enron. My Enron book has turned me into a journalist; it is a lifestyle and a pursuit that suits me well. I am born to write, of course, but I never believed that Enron, dead now ten years, would become such an all-consuming passion – the subject that will define my ability.
I am nervous about meeting him because like everyone else I know who worked there, I am in awe of this person. I realize that is not very journalist-like, to love your subjects the way I do, but it’s the only way I know how to write. I must feel compelled; I must be motivated by my own strangling desire to know.
The prison is located in the middle of nowhere – the Siberia of America. The building looks like a rejected entry for the LBJ Library.
I have been warned that the correctional officers can be jerks; they can decide, arbitrarily, that I will not be allowed to visit today. I’ve been given a sheet that tells me what I can and can not wear (no open toe shoes, for instance, no short skirts.) I have dressed in a way that no-one could possibly find fault: black wide-leg pants, a white shirt, black cardigan, smart patent leather heels – but not too high. I’m the very picture of modesty. I am, in fact, plain as an Amish teacher.
Despite my fears of being manhandled, and the warnings that they are jerks, the correctional officers are polite to me and they do not seem to even care what I am wearing (success!). It takes about forty minutes before I am admitted into the visiting room.
The visiting room is small. My eyes scan the people at the tables, and snag when I recognize him. We have written letters for nearly a year and I feel like I know him intimately, but this is the first time I’ve actually seen him. The shock of it sort of dazes me. He is looking at me, wondering if I am me, and I smile. As I approach, he stands up. He is wearing khaki prison clothing, and when I hug him, I feel his body lean underneath the heavy fabric. For those two seconds, I noticed that he feels warm and good.
I am not allowed to bring anything into the room with me – no notebooks, no pens, no cell phones. Only a bit of cash for the vending machines. I buy us Cokes and M&Ms. To my surprise, though I was nervous, there is no awkwardness at all. Like our letters, we fall immediately into conversation about who we know in common, who said what, and the personal details of our daily lives.
His eyes are calm and intelligent, though they seem to dim at times and a weary cant comes to them, like clouds suddenly appearing on a sunny day. At one point I ask if he is lonely – a question that seemed ridiculous to myself as soon as I asked. He says he tries not to think about things in terms like that. “Loneliness is a negative,” he says, “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what I don’t have.”
“What do you think about, then?”
“I daydream a lot.”
It seems impolite to ask what he daydreams about, so I didn’t prompt him. Instead, I changed direction and asked him about some of the challenged Enron transactions, the things that would be on the record in my book, the data clusters that would complete the picture of Enron.
Yet the conversation did not stay on that trajectory. We kept talking about personal things. Though it was in no way romantic, I was reminded of that particular experience of being newly in love and telling my beloved the story of my life. It is a universal discussion; every couple in the world has had this conversation. It is edited and truncated, but it is the first introduction into the history of each other. As he spoke, I listened with the queer, new experience of already knowing this. I’d read books, I’d talked to others, I’d researched the public record. It was unnerving to have pre-determined opinions about him.
At some point, he was talking about something that had been painful to him, and I reached across the table and took his hand. That strange darkness came to his expressive eyes, like he was looking out at the burned chapels and razed fields of his past, and I wondered if I’d made a terrible mistake. As I began to move my hand, he covered it with his other hand. “It’s nice,” he said.
I knew he was lonely. I knew why he hadn’t answered me directly: silence gives dignity to the suffering, and intensifies it.
The warm, pleasant contact was not romantic. It was not sexy. That added a strange, intimate dimension to it, which humbled me.
The meeting lasted six hours. As visiting hours came to an end, we said goodbye but I was reluctant to leave. I felt the need to impart myself to him, to give him myself so he would be a little less lonely. As he hugged me goodbye, I pressed a chaste kiss to his cheek.
That evening, in the hotel, I could not sleep. I kept thinking of my friend. I got out of bed and drove my rental car around the small town. I found a park, and sat on a bench under the thumbprint moon, thinking about the private pain in each of us, the Siberian loneliness that attacks at odd hours. But I remembered those fortunate moments, too, inexplicable in their wonder, in which a cold sun shines, substantial and explicit, bright as glass, inexhaustible, and true, melting the glaciers, creating a small path for one soul to tentatively, gently, touch another.