Saying Goodbye to My Inmate Husband
We met in detox and went to NA together for years. Then he relapsed and got locked up. Again.
It’s good he’s in jail. See, he thrives in jail. He’s clean in jail. He’s not waving a gun in my face in jail. His vodka-tinged spittle isn’t misting my face in jail. Aside from the pallor and the peculiar set to his mouth and jaw in jail, he looks well. In jail. Hair shaved close with silver at the sideburns. Orange or navy jumpsuit or two-piece ensemble, depending on whether he’s been sentenced or if he has been "bound over." Bound over: Awaiting trial or sentencing. No one wants to bail him out, or the bail’s too high, or there's no bail. Bound over. It feels nice to say that, to write that. The phrase implies that my husband is tied to something large and he can’t go anywhere. He has been held over for a long and (most likely) limited engagement.
I met my husband during our earliest recovery. We were a "we" almost immediately; a matched set at almost every NA meeting. I stayed clean. He didn't. Jail became a regular part of our reality early in our shared life.
At least I know where he is. He’s in jail.
If I’m telling you this over the phone or over coffee, you have glazed over by this point. Unless, of course, your husband is in jail too. Then we’re having this conversation in the parking lot of our local house of correction. We’re standing outside our cars and looking but not looking at the concertina wire, and I don’t know about you but I’m wondering what it would feel like to grab a strand of concertina. The word is pretty, yes? A trickle and then a river of blood down my forearm, into my armpit. We scoff, you’re used to my strangeness, my determination to make a sick joke at all costs. But you turn and get into your car. Quickly. Or your aunt’s car, or your loaner from your neighbor who owes you money. There’s a scented (I assume) plastic dolphin hanging from the rearview and it rocks back and forth autistically when you back up too fast out of the parking lot. Leaving me standing there looking at the jail and thinking about all the husbands and boyfriends stacked up in there like cord wood. There are some wives in there too, in another section of the jail -- another “pod” -- but that’s another story.
When we had been married for 18 months and I visited him in jail for the first time, we wept pathetically, hideously, wetly, in front of the guards, the other visitors and inmates
The house of correction is sand colored and squat. At least that’s how it appears from the parking lot. Aside from the high chain-link fence, the tangle of concertina wire, and the absence of any visible windows, it could be a middle school. It crouches in a rebar graveyard on a hill near the city line. Earlier in the evening, before we were ushered from the waiting room (complete with coin-op lockers and plastic seats with fixed arms that prevent obesity, embracing, or any kind of horizontality) into the visiting room, I watched one of the guards loudly tell a woman holding a baby on one hip and a toddler by the hand that she had to take out her nose piercing and wear something other than her hooded velour sweatsuit or she couldn’t visit.
“But every week you let me in with the nose ring before,” she said. “I don’t have anything else to wear.”
“Then you’re not coming in.” He pointed to his badge. “I’m wearing the gold, I make the rules.”
She deflated and walked back out through the metal detector. I imagined her driving to this visit from far away -- another state, another city.
The remaining 14 adults—all women, with nothing in common except the set to our own mouths and jaws—are herded into a beige cinderblock hallway and the first large forest green door slides shut behind us. Forest green. The color of opulence and diminished appetite. You know the sound the door makes when it closes. The visitors lean against the walls, facing each other, like we’re in a subway car. The guard, Deputy Gold and Rules, stands in the back, facing forward, boots planted far apart, hand on his elaborate belt, just in case he has to mace or club one of us dishrags.
One of the other women grins and tries to make conversation with the guard. “Nice night,” she says hopefully. He doesn’t say anything back but his smile says “for what?” Her skin is the color of cider; the calling card of the city’s tanning booth crowd.
The front door grinds open and we file into the visiting room. Here, the cinderblocks are painted white and the light -- fluorescent? I wouldn’t know because I never look up. No one does. It’s a migraine.
The tables are long and look like stunted, connected versions of the typical veal-fattening pens in any office. There is a plastic, foot-high divider that runs the length of the tables. The visitors sit in rows on one side of the divider, the chairs on the other side are empty. There’s a massive black mirror in the wall at the front of the room.
Small talk fades out. We look at ourselves in the mirror. Then another forest green door, the one next to the mirror, grinds open and the husbands and boyfriends in navy or orange, depending, file in.
There’s always a moment when I see my husband for the first time in the line of men and I don’t recognize him. It’s not because his face has changed. It has changed but something else has happened. It’s like the first time we fucked, took each other’s clothes off and instead of being faces and hands and expressions and individuals we became bodies, tits and cocks and thighs and bellies like any other. He’s back to being just a body in his white sneakers with velcro straps and the smell of laundry bleach. When I met him he had a tangle of waist-length hair, a walnut tan, and a big, pleasantly phony smile; now he has silver sideburns and that thing with the mouth. He has aged several years.
Visitors and inmates are “allowed one closed-mouth kiss and a hug” upon greeting, according to the almost wallet-sized rules card we’re all encouraged to keep and memorize. We kiss and hug dryly over the divider and sit down.
Years ago, when we had been married for 18 months and I visited him in jail for the first time, we wept pathetically, hideously, wetly, in front of the guards, the other visitors and inmates. Although I had tablemates on either side of me, sister visitors a forearm’s length away, we were given space. We were alone in our misery. I looked at my hands. My fingertips were pressed against the thick plastic divider. We couldn’t touch hands. We used to hold hands a lot. Outside of jail, of course. The only jewelry an inmate is allowed is a plain wedding band.
This visit is different. I’m not touching the divider. It’s too noisy to lean back but I would if I could. I haven’t seen my husband since I asked him to leave the house immediately. In response, he burst out of his stupor and got as physically close to me as possible, ululating in some foreign tongue. I assumed a deranged calm. As usual, the scene was happening in the kitchen, and the wooden knife holding thing was inches from my shoulder blade.
Then he stopped yelling and got the imbecilic sober look on his face that signaled a blackout (I was already picturing myself at my NA homegroup, retelling this to uproarious laughter) and he stalked into the other room. Drawers opening and closing. Then he sailed past me again. I squeezed my eyes shut and braced for it. The kitchen door opened and closed. He was gone.
You know how you see some couples in a restaurant sitting silently, looking down at their plates, looking out the window, whatever? That was this last visit. Except you can’t look at other inmates or their visitors. You must keep the focus on your visit. Your inmate, your visitor. Conversation had dried up because he didn’t want to know anymore what I was doing out there. He knew what I was doing out there. Lawyering the fuck up, that’s what. Lawyering up: Was there ever a more bilious sweet phrase for that most special kind of bandolier?
And I didn’t need to ask him, ever, what he was doing in there. In jail.
Jaime Neptune is a pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about NA vs. AA.