That mug shot from DVI, the penitentiary the gladiator school for hardened young cons—just one eerie frame your hard-as-steel face eyes glaring no flinch no emotion just those angry eyes staring back at me like dull black stones—that mug shot from the place where you or someone just like you got stabbed or beaten or raped every single day of the 10 years you spent inside, I can’t stop seeing that mugshot you sent me after we’d written a bit, on the back Love ya, Bobby B-104, I stare at your face slick black hair staring eyes mustache curling round the corners of your thick lips so full of rage and hate, I wonder at the details of that seething inside you and with no notice my body fights itself whether to weep hysterical or throw up its arms & cross them at the wrists in front of my forehead to save my face. I do both.
In the shower in a trance, hot water hits my naked body like the hard rain of words in that dagger-filled Dylan song we played over & over in the trailer that first summer on the hill. I cannot I do not I don’t want to know what made me love you so, what made me want to be with someone whose eyes looked like sparks off the chains of a Fifties’ gang, heavy steel swinging & hitting the midnight street. The hot water’s gone, I shake from the cold, Masters of War, that was the song.
I’m married again have children left you decades ago why does it feel like my heart’s being tortured with those same Chesterfield no-filters you smoked at our first visit that ugly Vacaville prison the same smokes I later watched you use to burn that tattoo off your left biceps—those dragons fucking—not even wincing from the pain?
I was 17 when that mugshot came, with your neat folded paper your careful perfect blue ballpoint script, your second letter, after my brother’s old cellmate told you about me—the day that mugshot slipped from the tiny white envelope and landed face up on the table, I looked down for a second gulped air like a person trying not to drown. It clenched my stomach in a thousand seizures, I had to sit.
I craved it. You looked so wired and unreachable no light in your eyes but the ceiling glare the fluorescents reflecting the room where the pigs made you stand while they snapped that photo of your hard black eyes, your harsh mean face, I rushed to slit open your letter with a dull kitchen knife so craving your words so craving the rush they brought all the way from your prison cell to me only to me your words that changed my day into something bright & black & thrilling, I snatched it up already crossing my heart, I swore I would keep it forever, I glanced around to see if anyone noticed. No one was there.
I loved you already that first day before we ever met in the flesh held hands touched lips before you ever lit my Kool with a gentleman’s flourish as we sat at those filthy visiting room tables for hours oblivious to the scum around us occupying the same singular universe breathing the same putrid air, I could hardly look you in the eye I was so scared of the guards of the clanging steel gates of your intense convict confidence of my own aching need for your approval. I wanted to save you, I thought you needed me, in the end it was me who required you as I needed air to breathe and food to eat to survive to fill up the empty space in me yawning huge & black & awesome like the bottomless Pacific Ocean.
I hate how afraid of you afraid I was of all that violence hidden just below the surface of your skin like tiny versions of prison shivs waiting to pop out and stab me in the eyes in the mouth in the breast in the heart if I made a wrong move said one wrong word touched you in the wrong way in the middle of the night while we thrashed around in our separate tormented sleep, you dreaming of huge goons with wire wrapped in their hair who outweighed you by eighty pounds and had lead pipes in their hand, me dreaming of ice cream sundaes composed of the mashed-up flesh of my childhood. Without even knowing I survived for years on the hope I would never anger you enough that you quit gritting your strong white teeth like steel clamps I prayed you would never let go of the rage that lived in every cell of your immense body as if it was your DNA your birthright.
I craved it.
Staring at that flick the first day in a split second I knew the blue and purple bruises, the ugly red lumps on my shoulders my face, I could already predict the direction of your fist the whole brute strength of your huge thrusting biceps the swing of your arm your strong right arm with the blue ZigZag man on it.
I’d been waiting my whole life.
I already imagined the damage that would come when your clenched hand pounded me for something stupid something that wasn’t my fault something that had absolutely nothing to do with me, I had already seen it, I had already tracked the rage in those black eyes, my whole being waited it was only a matter of time my body braced like a fortress my teeth clenched just like yours. Ready. Waiting.
I wanted it I deserved it I craved it I pushed you toward it many times.
I hate myself for that.
It’s forty years gone and I can’t stop thinking of you how I convinced myself it was behind me in the past dead space, how I thought I had left you on that hill never to go back and I would never ever ever think of you again except maybe in passing—”Oh yeah, I was married to an ex-con for a while, a cop killer, isn’t that wild?” a small laugh escaping through the half-grin of my lips my eyes darting left and right even behind me seeking your furious face the huge hand I still sensed there waiting to slam me for my lack of loyalty. If you’d been Charles Manson, I would have killed for you, yes, even that.
The other day, I rode downtown to work and a stranger started talking on the bus asked directions stepped in rhythm by my side when we got off. He didn’t resemble you at all but was familiar as the Old Spice you wore as close as that tattoo just above your pubic hair that said “Little Bobby,” the green-blue arrow pointing down to your dick, he walked like you, I felt you fall into stride right beside me down the hot gray sidewalk and into Bob’s Big Boy just off the expressway in San Jose, that time we ran into your P.O. with his old lady waiting to get a table. Remember? You glared straight at that man you despised so much and spit in his face: “Oh, there’s the California State Leech,” the very same words you used for me to our neighbors in the projects when I worked for the State and though you laughed when you said it your face was exactly that mugshot your stone eyes the almost dead sparks flying out trying to burn the world, I could feel your clenched teeth inside my own mouth and after we were seated your pupils small as needle pricks you snarled at the waitress “What took you so long, bitch?” right to her face when she didn’t bring the ashtray quick enough. The burger I ate that night was a load of cement in my stomach especially later when you fucked me like it was your last chance.
I couldn’t figure why the guy asking directions reminded me of you until he confessed from the side of his mouth not too loud: “Yeah, I’m new in town just got out of the joint.” He asked for my number but somehow I escaped to safety in the high-rise bank tower of my employer rode the elevator alone to the top eyes closed, holding my breath, both hands on my thudding heart, I walked straight into the conference room with the ten-thousand-dollar marble table, locked the door with shaking hands pulled the shiny chain to shut the designer gray vertical blinds, fell down on my knees, hung my head and cried.
Liza Porter’s manuscript Bruce Springsteen Sang to Me was finalist for 2019 Cleveland State University Essay Collection competition, the 2018 Faulkner Society Faulkner-Wisdom Narrative Nonfiction Book Award, and the Santa Fe Writers Workshop nonfiction book award. Several of Porter’s essays have been listed as Notable Essays in Best American Essays. www.lizaporter.com.