Kyle strutted cockily through the yard, his face a mask of indifference.
"Move!" one of the guards shouted at him. "Move, move, move!"
The boy stifled a smirk. He felt sorry for the guards. They'd been screaming at him since sunrise, trying in vain to "break" him. Now it was nearly sundown and their voices were beginning to go hoarse.
Kyle understood why they had put him in the program. Scared Straight was designed for "high-risk youths"—and he dearly fit the bill. Since the Winter Formal, he'd been hooking up with the same girl, Alison, every weekend. And recently, over Gchat, she'd asked him what they were. Still, that didn't mean he'd end up imprisoned in a long-term relationship. He was only seventeen, after all. His entire life lay ahead of him.
He glanced at the other teenagers in his group. They'd all acted tough on the bus ride to Park Slope. But all of them had ended up breaking. Christian had lost it first, during the tour of Belle Cochon.
"Look at this fucking restaurant!" a red-faced guard had screamed at him as he shuffled through the candlelit bistro. "This is the kind of place you're going to have to take her to every Saturday night! Because when you're in a relationship, Saturday night is date night!"
Christian tried to keep it together, but when the guard shoved a menu into his hand and made him read out the price of the steak au poivre, his lips began to quiver.
The other kids managed to hide their fear—until the tour of Bed Bath & Beyond.
"Look at this fucking bench!" a guard shouted at them. "This is the bench you're going to have to fucking sit on while your girlfriend picks out weird shit for the bathroom! And then, when she comes over with two fucking identical light fixtures, you're going to have to pretend you prefer one of them over the other! 'Cause otherwise, she'll say you're not 'participating'! What do you think about that shit?"
By the time they left the store, every kid was trembling. Every kid except for Kyle. He wasn't scared at all. At worst, he was bored. And now the day was almost over. He just had to get through one more hour of bullshit and he'd be home free.
"Okay, listen up!" a guard shouted. "Your program is coming to a close. But before we let you back onto the street, we've got a speaker for you. His name is Dan Greenbaum. And he's been in a long-term relationship with his girlfriend, Sarah, for seven years."
For the first time all day, Kyle felt his shoulders tensing up. He'd never actually met a real inmate before.
The guard took a key out of his pocket and let the prisoner out of his brownstone. He was wearing a standard-issue uniform: khaki pants, Kenneth Cole loafers, and a sweater
from Brooks Brothers.
"My name is Dan," he said. "I'm twenty-nine years old. And I' m serving a life sentence as boyfriend to my girlfriend, Sarah."
He paced down the row of teenage boys, his jaw clenched tight with bitterness.
"My story started out simple," he said.. "A random hookup, a couple of dates. The next thing I knew, I had a drawer for her clothes in my apartment. Then one day, I
looked up, and I was here. Trapped in a Park Slope brownstone for the rest of my goddamn life."
The prisoner stopped pacing—right in front of Kyle.
"What did this punk do?" he asked, staring icily into the teenager's eyes.
The guard checked his clipboard.
"Hooked up with a girl named Alison six times," he read. "She recently asked him 'what they were.' "
The prisoner whistled.
"That's how it starts," he said. "That's how it fucking starts."
He grinned at Kyle.
"You ever hang out with her friends?"
Kyle shook his head awkwardly.
"Why not?" the prisoner asked. "Answer me, boy!"
"I guess ... I don't really like her friends."
The inmate laughed and clapped his hands sarcastically.
"I don't like my girlfriend's friends, either," he said. "But guess what? I hang out with them every fucking Sunday. Sarah throws a weekly dinner party and invites everyone of
them over. They quote Borat for hours and I have to laugh, like it's a new thing. If I don't, Sarah accuses me of being 'antisocial.' That's my fucking life now! Every single Sunday! A dinner party with her fucking friends who still quote Borat! What do you think about that?"
Kyle tried to look away, but the prisoner grabbed him by the chin and pulled his face toward him. Kyle could feel the man's hot breath on his skin.
"You ever hear of Junot Diaz?" he spat.
"No, sir," Kyle mumbled.
"He's a writer," the inmate said. "Sarah's got me reading this book he wrote. It's so fucking boring I can't get past page fifty. My eyes just glaze over. But guess what? I've gotta finish the whole fucking thing, because she signed us up for a book club and I'm going to have to fucking talk about the book in front of her fucking goddamn friends. What do you think about that shit?"
Kyle felt the blood draining from his face. He hoped the prisoner would move on to somebody else. But the inmate could obviously sense that he was on the verge of breaking.
"Want to see some fucked-up shit?" the inmate said, rolling up the sleeve of his sweater. "Check out these fucking triceps. Look how fucking developed they are. That's from Pilates. Do you know what the fuck Pilates is? Neither did I, until I had a long-term girlfriend. Now I've gotta do it every fucking Wednesday because she cried one time and said I needed to get serious about my health! Are you listening to the fucking shit I'm saying?"
Kyle bit his lip, trying his best to keep from crying. The inmate folded his arms and stared off into the distance.
"I used to dream about busting out of here," he said. "Just dumping Sarah and being single again. But now? This life is all I know. I'm an institutional man, pure and simple. Hell, even if she released me, I wouldn't know how to live on the outside. Where would I go to pick up girls? Is Radio Bar still cool? Or is it played out? I don't even know, like, what the cool places are anymore."
He took a step toward Kyle, boring into him with his dark-brown eyes.
"Prison does things to you," he whispered. "Strange things. At first, the routine makes you crazy. But after a few years, you get used to it. Then, at some point, you start to crave it. You start to look forward to the monthly grocery trip to Costco. A new episode of Mad Men is enough to get you through a Sunday. Your world's so small you can fit it on the head of a pin. And the sick truth is you like it that way."
Kyle felt a scalding tear roll down his cheek. The inmate smiled subtly at the guards; they smiled back at him, nodding with respect.
"Well, I'd love to stay and chat," the inmate told the boys. "But I've gotta go back inside and pack. Sarah just sentenced me to three days in the hole."
Kyle knew he wasn't supposed to ask any questions, but he couldn't help himself.
"What's the hole?" he murmured.
"The hole is what I call her mother's house in Connecticut," the inmate said. "We go there twice a year. Her sister's going to be there this time and the whole thing's going to be a fucking nightmare."
Kyle watched in silence as the inmate shuffled back into his brownstone. Then he
took out his cell phone and broke things off with Alison by text.
© Simon Rich
This electronic version of ‘Scared Straight’ appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the publisher. It appears in The Last Girlfriend on Earth and Other Stories by Simon Rich, published by Serpent’s Tail, 2013. Book ordering available through amazon.com and amazon.co.uk -
Direct link to: paperback
Direct link to: ebook:
This story may not be archived, reproduced or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.
The Barcelona Review is a registered non-profit organization
Simon Rich (U.S.) is the author of Elliot Allagash and What in God’s Name and he has written film scripts for Lorne Michaels and Judd Apatow. His work has been published in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair and The Believer, and he was nominated for the Thurber Prize. Until recently, he was a staff writer at Saturday Night Live; he currently writes for Pixar.