NONFICTION: The Living, by Melissa Valentine


The Living

Melissa Valentine


Oakland, CA 



A letter addressed to me has been slid under my bedroom door. In the return address corner is Junior’s real name, Christopher Valentine, followed by a long number. His handwriting is of the precise, practiced sort that has never written much except from prison, as if his life depends on it. For many days I do not even touch it. It lies on the floor in a heap of my teenage life: graded papers, glossy fashion magazines, photos taken with friends, books, clothes, a letter from my brother.

He mostly writes to Mom and Dad, promising things that make them boast for a week, that he’ll get his GED in prison, that he’s reading one of the books Dad sent, that he plans to go to college when he gets out. But this letter has my name on it. I crank open my bedroom window and step out onto the roof. With a cigarette, a lighter, and the letter, I sit on the warm shingles of the roof and stare out over the neighborhood into a sea of rooftops and trees. I light up a Marlboro red and look at the stick figure drawing he’s included in the margin of the thin paper. A boy behind bars with the caption: “I want to come home.” The visual melts my angry façade: I miss him. Who am I without the parameters of my sibling? My edges bleed and search for new boundaries. I begin.

Dear Melissa,

What’s happening with you? Do you like Tech? You better be going to all your classes and doing good in all of them. If I could have the chance to do everything over, I’d probably be in college right now, but instead I’m in San Quentin. Who knows where they’ll end up moving me. Everybody used to say if I ever ended up in jail or prison, I’d end up being somebody’s bitch. I’ll be damned if that happens. Look at this shit, I know this should have been two or three paragraphs, but I don’t know how to do that shit. I know you’re not a boy and wouldn’t do half the things I’ve done. But look at me and ask yourself, is this any kind of a life to live? It may look good on the outside, but ask anybody, including me. It feels like shit on the inside.

I look out above the trees, numb. This is my spot. On the roof I can think, just be. I can imagine what it feels like to exist apart from my family, outside of this house. Prison produces a different kind of dead. It is an insidious, poisonous kind of dead that kills not only the prisoner, but the family, too, especially the parents, especially if the prisoner is eighteen and mostly a child. I take another drag from my cigarette and continue.

Mom and Dad don’t know what to say about me, I don’t either. I feel discouraged to try and go to community college. Look at me. One big ass paragraph. I can’t even write a letter let alone get past ninth grade Algebra. There’s a reason for everything, but for a person who always has a reason or excuse for everything, it gets old. This shit in here is degrading—taking showers with thirty other boys. There isn’t much a person could do or say to make me feel worse than I do, ‘cause there aren’t too many things worse than being in prison. I can’t think of many words to tell Mom and Dad except I’ll be home soon.

For a few more lines he scolds me for doing poorly in school. Not seeing any irony in doing so, he demands I improve my GPA. He bribes me, telling me he’ll buy me my first car when he gets out, a Lexus. “Love, Jr.” My cigarette burns away between my fingers. I take in the last drag of smoke and toss the butt onto the neighbor’s ivy-covered roof. I throw the letter back inside my room onto the floor and stare out above the rooftops and trace them all the way up to the cemetery at the top of the hill where our street ends and meets the dead.

The absence of Junior creates a void that takes the life from us.




“You need to see your brother.” My parents chide me. The truth is I do want to see him. I want to tell him I love him. It sounds nice in my head, but I know the thoughts will fail me; they will not verbalize. I do not yet trust myself to speak, to voice the silence both learned and inherited.

When I finally join my parents in the champagne-colored Nissan Sentra and make the short trip to San Quentin, it is not because they make me, it is because some primitive, cellular part of me knows that what is happening to him must be seen; it must be given a name; it must be spoken. What is happening to him is also happening to me.

Dad drives because Mom doesn’t know how. She is the black breadwinner and he is her white chauffeur. It is easy to find both darkness and humor in the unlikeliness of their love. When they married in 1972, miscegenation had been legal for just barely five years, and in Mom’s home state of Alabama, it was still technically banned.[1] While my mother picked cotton in fields outside Selma, my father practiced yoga on the manicured lawns of his private high school. Just as it is necessary to see my brother behind bars, I find it necessary to confront the uncomfortable histories that precede my parents’ union, the history that formed me: what has happened to them happens to me.

My father’s sandpaper claws, a result of his work as a landscaper, clutch the steering wheel. His skin is so peppered in sunspots, the dry cracks of his hands so deeply veined with dirt, a baseball cap always covering his messy hair, that you can barely make out the details of him—his orange hair, his many freckles, his blue eyes. My mother is dressed in her nice clothes—a muumuu style African dress from the store for larger ladies where Dad shops for her and stockings. Her gaze is one of surrender, as if she would enter the San Francisco Bay below us if she could. We inhale and exhale her saccharine perfume. No one speaks.




The San Quentin sun is unexpected. The parking lot of the prison is a dry and flat desert. Mom and Dad exit the Nissan quickly. They look at their feet. Still, no one speaks. Junior did not graduate from high school this year; he is instead being tried before a court for kidnapping and assault and will probably be shipped to some other, more remote prison. California is full of prisons.

As soon as we enter, I am cold. The sun does not follow us. The room where we must check in and show ID and empty our pockets is barren and icy. Guards look us over; some of them leer at me. I cross my arms to cover myself from their gaze. Where is Junior? I try and picture the cells and imagine him hunched over on a cement floor writing me a letter, begging me to do better. I am his sister. I want to scream this to the guards who screen us through detectors, pat us down. That’s my brother in there. I glare at the men as if they are the reason I find myself at a prison today. All men. He doesn’t belong here. He is only a boy.

I imagine my parents want to shout similar things about their son. But the weight of their grief and mine locks our mouths closed. What do you say? Our only armor against what swells inside are our labels; we walk in wearing them, as strong as we can: sister, parent. And we wait to see our loved one. A line of men in orange suits comes marching out. There are others waiting as well. Women are dressed as if for a night out, full faces of make-up, some wrangling children. I look for people like us: my pale, eagle-nosed father, crouching as if in apology, for his height. Mom, short, round, and deep bronze at his side, a look of concern carved permanently between her course black brows, the only hard feature on her otherwise soft, unwrinkled skin. Me, fifteen, protecting the outline of the woman’s figure I now occupy under my crossed arms. Uncertain of how to be inside the body of both a girl and a woman, I compensate by throwing my hip to one side. In this performance of ease I can pretend I’m not terrified and humiliated, for us and for Junior.

When he enters, the first thing I notice is his long ponytail of curls has been chopped off into a buzz cut. His smile is the same. He grins when he sees us. “Valentine,” the guard calls, directing him to a flimsy wooden table allowing us to visit across from him, one at a time. I let them go first. They visit every Saturday and come home in a haze. Then they go to Quaker meeting on Sunday and pray for him. They wear strong and dedicated parent uniforms, but I can see right through them, how they’ve shrunk, gotten older, don’t sleep. Mom goes first. I can see her tearing up before him. It makes Junior cry, too. We used to scoff at Junior’s rare tears. “Wow,” we’d say, “he feels.” The memory is distant. I know now he must have lots of reasons to cry. I remember the letter on my bedroom floor, his drawing of the boy who wanted to come home.

Finally it’s my turn and he starts. “Did you get my letter?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I’m waiting for my Lexus.”

“So you’re fucking up?” he asks, getting serious. He sits upright and his smile turns straight.

I roll my eyes playfully; our old dynamic is not lost. “You realize you’re in prison, right? And you’re not exactly a great role model?”

“That’s not the point,” he says, “the point is you’re younger. There’s still hope for you.”

“What do you tell Mom and Dad? Do you lecture everyone who comes in here? You’re ridiculous.” I shake my head and watch his body loosen up. He’s happy to see me. “What are you doing in here? Hurry up and come home.” I say this as if he is an exception, because he is my brother and their son.

“I’m going to be out soon,” he says with a confidence borrowed from some unknown place.

I look around suspiciously at the guards. I wish there weren’t ears and eyes on us. I wish he could tell me why he’d done it.

I think of the photos of the woman. The angles captured by the police camera made her bruised and bloodied body parts large and detached: a leg, an arm, the side of a face, a few strands of blonde hair covering an ear. Those photos live in a manila envelope on the dining room table where no one dares bring them out. Just a sliver of a photo to confront what this is. I look at her white skin made whiter against the purple and red. I do not want to see her name at the top.

The more I think the less I understand: I’m too close. I try to reenact the scenario that has been told to me in my mind, place Junior in it. A van, nameless boys, Junior, a prostitute, a pimp, a drug dealer. The van is tan in my mind, like the one Dad used to drive in the old pictures of a time before I was born. When the men get out of the van, my mind goes blank. I cannot make them beat this woman. Though I make myself look at slivers of the evidence of her bruised body, just an inch out of the manila envelope. I cannot make them do it. Every time my mind tries to beat the woman up, I skip forward. I gently pick her up and place her on the cement of the street in back of the open van where the men look at what they’ve done. I lay her down in the street and place her limbs in a position to be photographed. The men look at the body and are full of remorse. They turn away from her, close themselves up inside the van and drive away because they don’t know what else to do. They have low cut hair, wear white tee shirts and jeans with pistols warmed by their skin.

Junior’s eyes are fixed on the woman before he makes the choice to get back into the van with the other men. His eyes are sorry before he makes the choice to get back in the van. He doesn’t know what he’s done. The van takes off down the street. On this street is nothing and no one; it is dark and silent except for their breath, and the rhythm of their hearts. I like to imagine them with hearts. It is a two-lane highway in the wilderness where I imagine they stand. Only in the wild can my mind even picture her body. The woman is alive and her crawling body is discovered by the next passing car. The police take photos of her limbs. They end up on our dining room table where no one dares pull them out all the way. Only a sliver of flesh. Please no name.

But this cannot be what happened.

I cannot make Junior do it. I cannot look at the whole picture.

Junior fits the description. He is the only one with a long ponytail of ringlets. He is finally old enough for prison. In Junior’s face I see a boy who is ten. Here is a ten year old in prison. Then I see him as he is—just barely eighteen. His thin dry lips move, the gap between his front teeth has narrowed, his usually polished brown complexion is sallow under the harsh light above us, against the orange costume he wears. Small talk circles us. He talks about how much paper they can have and how it’s fucked up I haven’t written, how the other inmates think he’s a pretty boy.

I listen while thinking a thousand other thoughts. This is it, I think, looking over my shoulder at Mom and Dad sitting in the waiting area. They are nothing more than warm bodies surrounded by darkness, going through the motions of the living. It hits me: Now they have almost completely given up.

This is what it feels like to be truly alone.

I look at Junior’s moving mouth, the colorless air between us. I want to say something. I want to do something. I want to go to my parents and shake them, put my hands on them, make them really see me, the living. I want Junior to say something different than what he’s saying. I want the barrier of air between us to vanish so I can say the thing that no one will say, do anything besides slouch and watch, motionless and numb as my brother speaks. I want to do something that will make them all feel something. I have never wanted Junior to say something else more than I do now. I want to slap his face and tell him he better get his shit together right now. Don’t you dare leave me.

I do nothing. I say nothing.

When our time is up I float back to where the bodies of my parents sit and we walk out as we came in: separate and shrunken. Once we’re out, the sun coats my body with its warmth. Junior won’t feel this sun. As I watch Mom and Dad ahead of me, hunched over with their heads down, practicing tomorrow’s prayers, I am overwhelmed with the desire to be big. I want to be so big, big enough to fill every silence and lift up even the heaviest of bodies.


[1] Previously a felony, the Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia in 1967, legalized interracial marriage, specifically between white people and anyone with one drop of African blood. Though unenforceable, Alabama was the last state to throw out its ban on interracial marriage in the year 2000.




MELISSA VALENTINE is a writer and acquisitions editor from Oakland, California.  Her work has appeared in Niche, Sassafras, Blackberry, among others. She is a fellow at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto where she is completing her memoir. Visit Melissa at or follow her @iammelissav 

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