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A telephone receiver and handcuffs lay on top of a collection of love letters
Illustration by Katrina Rodriguez

This story was published in collaboration with Scalawag, a journalism and storytelling organization that works in solidarity with oppressed communities in the South to disrupt and shift the narratives that keep power and wealth in the hands of the few.

Tears were running down my girl’s porcelain cheeks as she walked away. My heart was pounding so hard I feared it would betray my panic — and that I would do anything to keep her. I was losing my edge.

I looked up from a rusty nail in the picnic table just in time to meet her hazel eyes. “You’re an ass,” she said quietly.

Just a few weeks earlier, in the North Carolina prison where we both resided, I had told her I loved her. She was about to be released, but I had four years remaining on my sentence. She had said she would wait for me, and that she loved me too. I had ached for true love, and she had promised to give me a shot at it.

But there was too much time, too much life, between us. With no visitation or video chat permitted for one year, we’d have to rely on phone calls and texts. I would have to compete with the world for her love and attention from inside a cage. I could not handle more loss and disappointment. I told her we needed to end it.

Love at first sight

My fate was sealed when I first saw her, six months earlier. She was kind, independent and always smiling, a perfect antidote to my less-than-charming moodiness. She could laugh it all off without laughing at me. I couldn’t stop watching her, hunting for a flaw.

One evening, in the canteen line, I ran my hand down her dark ponytail. She turned to see who it was and ran off blushing. My heart exploded. I was hesitant to start something because I was busy with college courses and work, but mostly I didn’t want to be obligated to anyone.

Eventually, we did connect and discovered we had some chemistry. We agreed on nothing serious since she would be going home in seven months from a two-year bid — and she was in a long-term but rocky relationship with a man. It would be low-key.

In prison, a week is roughly equal to a month of dating on the outside. Living in the same dorm, we could see each other at our leisure. After a couple of weeks of cell-hopping, there was no denying our feelings. Our lives melded easily. 

But I had reasons to hold back. I’ve seen too many women get swept away with the idea of it all: their first female relationship, their pining for a lover in prison. Then they end up alone. I’d had my share of heartbreak, and swore off relationships because of it.

But I was drawn to her. She was the one I went to when something good happened. I adjusted my schedule of work, study and exercise to spend more time with her. Unlike so many others, she refused to cede control. There was no confusion; she was her own woman.

Our talks began to casually include the future: “One day, I’m going to take you to your first concert.” Then came concrete plans. Despite my cynicism, I was seduced by her excitement. Her wide eyes pulled me in. I looked into them and saw she needed me to tell her we’d make it work. 

So I resisted the urge to flee, to barricade my heart. She aroused feeling I had worked to suppress: the longing to share my inner self. I looked at her and wanted things I couldn’t have, to take away her pain and show her devotion and intensity.

Left behind

About two months into the honeymoon, I got a new position working on outside maintenance and was moved to another dorm. No more morning wakeups, card playing or TV dinners. Our time together was now relegated to the yard. 

I worried we wouldn’t last without more physical connection, and that my feelings would change if I had to put forth new effort. My fears were misplaced. We got stronger. Our talks became deeper. In the mornings, she would listen for my call to work, and watch me out the window. We would dip into a corner with no cameras outside her building for a quick hug and kiss. These would carry me through a long day of mowing

When I came home, she would be waiting for me on the sidewalk. On the weekends I would cook for her, playing the music on our tablets out loud, trying to recreate a romantic dinner. I was desperate to show her what life could be like with me. I even had her going to yoga and strength training.

But there was volatility. I pushed her away when she got too close, then pulled her back when I craved her patience and ability to ease my anxiety and paranoia. I fluctuated,  imagining her with someone giving her what I couldn’t. 

She accused me of holding back. I became frustrated trying to express what I thought was obvious: She wouldn’t be the one left behind.

Why do any of us open our hearts in a place that discourages and even punishes affection? In a world of oppressive unpredictability we yearn to share ourselves, to give meaning to our existence. When we meet someone who cracks our guarded and cynical facade, feelings grow intense and urgent, even if we know relationships born in captivity are often doomed.

Some incarcerated women I know who’ve become involved may crave excitement or sex, but the most common motivation is connection. I rarely hear the terms “gay” or “lesbian,” and many will return to the world straight. For some, their relationship inside is the first that isn’t abusive or fueled by drugs. It can be an awakening.

My cellmate, Lennox, a 46-year-old lifer just granted a parole date after 28 years, told me that at first she was embarrassed, but went into a relationship for companionship. She added that it was “something different, no pressure.”

Tink, who is 33 and was locked up at 17, says that being with someone “makes me feel alive, like I’m not just existing.” Even if she doesn’t “see a future” for a relationship, she added, “there is the physical.”

Of course, prison officials don’t recognize relationships and are quick to separate a couple. Two people can be ripped apart indefinitely with no warning. You can spend months or even years with someone, and the next day their bed is empty. Love is at the mercy of the prison.

And, sometimes, your lover goes home.

Worth the wait

With only a month remaining on her sentence, things were getting tense. My self-preservation was kicking in. I was suspicious, thinking she was lying about what she wanted. And I was emotional, wanting her to hurry up and leave so I could be over it.

In prison, without life’s normal distractions, emotions are upfront and raw. Canteen dinners and walks on the yard replace restaurant dates and downtown strolls. 

Mae, a 40-year-old with a 10-year bid, has been in two serious relationships in prison, though she’s married with children.

When she thinks about a companion leaving, “part of your mind fights it, part is in fairy-tale land,” she said. 

We like fairy tales. We give craft bracelets as though they’re from Tiffany’s. I have seen couples so loyal that when one goes to segregation the other follows. True love reaches beyond concertina wire.

But then comes separation. Some people who walk out the gate stop returning calls and letters. 

When Mae’s girlfriend left recently, she said it “felt like a funeral, like they’re dead.” She hopes they “remember what it was like.”

Making a decision to stay together is often more difficult than a clean break. It requires commitment and vulnerability. 

Lennox, who is in a long-term relationship with a woman who will leave soon, says this one is different: “reality versus fantasy.” 

They are making plans, but “being realistic about the obstacles” and “taking care of self first.”

I had also dreamed of a happy future and tried to talk things out with the woman I loved.

I tried to explain my fears. She had said I was the first to truly believe in her, to hold her accountable for more. 

Our love, forged behind bars, met a common fate. Things fell apart, our communication ended. But I never stopped remembering that woman I loved, the insecurities that held her back and the dreams that drove her forward. I never stopped cherishing that part of her that she could only give to me in here.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

K.C. Johnson is a writer incarcerated in North Carolina.