He used to write to me every day while he was in prison. Prison the first time, not prison this time. This time he is writing letters from his cell to someone else. Or maybe he writes letters in the rec room. Most likely he writes them from solitary confinement. He locks himself away in there by choice to save himself from the unspeakable horrors he endures because of the crimes he committed. He doesn’t have to tell me this. I already know it’s true.
In another lifetime he used to write me poems and draw me beautiful pictures with colored pencils. I saved every piece he sent me. I tucked the art away carefully inside sheet protectors inside a large, black, three-ring binder. I never read back over the letters, although sometimes I would sit and flip through his artwork and tell myself it was such a shame that he was wasting his life away in prison when he could be making a profit from his art, not to mention a name for himself. He never did like what was good for him.
He used to call me collect two, three, four, five times a day. When he was in county the calls were cheap, only sixty cents but once he got to prison the calls were $5.60 for fifteen minutes. Twice my phone was turned off because I owed over a thousand dollars from collect calls alone. I went out of town twice to visit him. It was depressing to have to take my shoes off at the check point and to be patted down. I brought along a ziplock bag full of twenty dollars worth of quarters so we could eat food from the little vending machines. He used to complain that he was always so hungry, that not only did they not feed the inmates enough in prison but the food they served wasn’t fit for stray dogs. These visits were different than in county. In county we were separated by plexiglass and spoke to each other on phones that made the other’s voice sound a million lightyears away when in reality we were maybe five feet away. Maybe less. At the prison, we were allowed one hug when we first saw each other and one before we parted ways.
Some days I would sit on my bed and stare anxiously at my answering machine and listen as he left ten, fifteen, sometimes twenty messages in a row. Most times all I heard was the recording that always preceeded his calls- “You have a collect call from, Q, an inmate at <insert correctional facility name here.> (Because it changed a few times, he moved around a bit.) To accept the call, press one. To decline, press two or simply hang up.”
Sometimes I would sit with my hands over my ears because even the sound of his voice sent me into a state of terror. Sometimes I would lie down and press my pillow tightly over my head. I never simply left the room. This was before anything violent had happened in our relationship, yet his voice sent fear vibrating straight through every last one of my nerve endings.
Sometimes weeks would go by before I received a letter from him. When I finally did receive one, it would be angry and full of insults, truly hurtful words about what he assumed I was doing when I wasn’t answering his calls. I used to write to him five days a week and I sent three letters on Thursdays so he would have one to read on Saturdays and Sundays. I told myself my letters helped him. It was so hard to write those letters. I struggled with what to say. I knew he expected me to tell him how much I loved him and missed him, how excited I was for plans for the future.
I never wrote anything during those three years other than letters to him. In a way, it was still practice at writing fiction. I told him what he wanted to hear because I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t. He used to tell me that he had people watching me, keeping tabs on me and his retellings of my whereabouts and activities were usually pretty accurate. It frightened me. He frightened me.
When I moved on, two years into his prison sentence, I threw out every last one of his letters. Over a hundred and twenty total. I’m guessing. I don’t really remember. When I moved to Texas to be with him, I saw that he had kept all of mine. He had them neatly banded together and tucked safely away in a shoebox. Throughout all of the horrifying years I spent with him, all of the times he broke my heart, he never threw out those letters and now that he’s found himself in the same predicament as he was in when we started those letters all those years ago, I wonder if he misses my handwriting, my words. I wonder if he wishes he had never taken them for granted. I wish I would’ve kept them and had them printed into a book so I could remind myself more often that I was a good person, even back then.