Looking Good

June 28, 2016 | Adam Roberts

Adam relates what the phrase “looking good” means in the context of his personal history and how “looking  good” has more significance to his family members who describe him in that way than it might have to people who meet him for the first time.

This past August, my brother came to visit me for one of the facility’s summer picnics. It’s a very nice affair that takes place in a grass courtyard, hemmed in by the school building and the prison’s large gray wall. He’s three years younger than me, and just a really simpatico person, easy to be around.

He’s is married, with children, so our visits these days happen once a year, the summer seems to work best, though we both wish it could be more often. I make sure to have pictures taken, partly for me, but also as a way of keeping me visible to the rest of the family, who doesn’t make the five-hour drive to visit.

As it happened, my brother was at our uncle’s house the day after our visit, so he shared the picture, along with a debriefing — knowing my brother, it was a most perfunctory recounting, something along the lines of Yeah, no, he’s good .

This resulted in my uncle sending me a letter, which ended with: “You look good. I expected nothing less.” Something about it made me think that this was more than a throwaway line, that there was more to it. Not long after that, I received a birthday card from my other uncle, in which he, too, said: “You look good.” Although, his was in reference to my playing Snow White in our group’s WSKG clip. Seriously, that’s a thing

So are we a superficial family, concerned only with how one looks while he’s doing twenty-five to life?

To understand their comments you have to know the truth about me, know what my family knows. They know that a duck can appear to be floating placidly, but under the water’s surface he paddles like mad. In the late 1990s, I also looked good, but on closer inspection, my long sleeves were worn to cover up track marks. The dark circles around my eyes were from something else besides poor sleep. Baggy clothes hid just how skinny I’d become.

(Down on the floor, cooking up w/spoon, lighter and pen) When I’d make repeated, long trips to the bathroom, what did they imagine I was doing? Surely it was not me on the floor cooking heroin in a spoon, tying off, and shooting up. Nor did they imagine me tiptoeing around the house, finding my way into private spaces, sheistily stealing money like the Grinch. Leaving family gatherings on the thinnest of pretexts, to speed into the city to cop.

They know that it led to something much, much worse than the draining of bank accounts, the loss of jobs and friends. It led to a family tragedy. That’ll be 17 years ago this November. But the truth is the truth — 17 years ago, or 17 minutes.

Do they see what you see, someone who is adequately composed and intelligent sounding? Yes, but they notice more what is absent: frantic requests for money, unexplained trips to the bathroom during visits and the preposterous lies. And, I imagine, that in my participation in the Phoenix, they see someone who spends his Friday nights in theater nerdery, a positive activity, not copping dope.

The truth about me is that I’m sober, no longer letting my self-destructive urges call the shots. I am someone who has taken the heavy weight of his past, and used it as a cantilever on a bridge to a better place.   That’s what’s hidden in the comments of my family. When they say I look good, what I hear is that I’m doing good. And that’s what matters to me these days.