As soon as Elaine began collecting paychecks, her wardrobe grew. Shopping became one of Elaine’s favorite pastimes, a way to escape the apartment and see how styles had changed while she had been away. A good sale usually improved her mood, like the day she bought five pairs of shoes at Payless for $9.99 each.
Elaine held on to the yuppie leftovers she had picked up for free during her first weeks home, but now she cruised the shops along St. Marks Place and East 14th Street. She bought a pink sequined cowboy hat, a black leather beret, skintight leopard-print capri pants, and something she referred to as her “hoochie mama” outfit, which featured a tie-on top and a skirt that barely reached mid thigh.
No item of clothing could be too attention-grabbing, at least in Elaine’s opinion. Her children disagreed. “She thinks she’s 25,” Tara said.
When Elaine came home one day with a couple of toe rings, her older daughter rolled her eyes. “You’re really getting young now,” Tara said.
“This is the thing,” Elaine explained. “I’ve got to keep up with the times. What do you want me to do? Be stuck in the ’70s?”
As the summer weather grew hotter, and shorts and miniskirts replaced parkas and scarves, the city began to crackle with sexual energy. Getting dressed up and flirting with men became one of Elaine’s favorite activities. And there seemed to be no shortage of suitors. Some hung around for a few days; others stuck around for months.
In Elaine’s mind, dating was a sort of power game in which the underlying question was always “What can you do for me?” She wanted to be wined and dined, to be treated like a queen and spoiled with gifts. She convinced Ace, a man she met at a bodega, to lend her a diamond ring. (He had one on every finger.) When a suitor offered to buy her a thong and bra, she asked for a set of seven. “If you want me to wear ’em, give me a week’s supply,” she said. “I’m not going to be washing and wearing.” And she persuaded the activist she met at her welcome-home party to keep giving her money. By now, she figured, she had collected at least $1000.
Elaine knew that her long imprisonment was part of her allure, that there was something irresistible about the possibility of taking a woman’s second virginity. “All of them are looking at the fact that this woman has been away for 16 years,” Elaine said. “Her husband’s in prison and no man is calling for her. They’re tripping over themselves to see who gets it first.”
Elaine did not get seriously involved with any of her suitors. She liked to say she was holding out for someone who could take her to Jamaica. “The first nigger who gets me is going to have me on the white sand,” she said. “I want to see prints on the sand.”
For now, Elaine made do with going to a nail salon on Delancey Street to get palm trees painted on her fake nails. “That’s as close to Jamaica as I’m going to get,” she said. None of her suitors were able to give her what she really wanted—a Caribbean holiday or a furnished apartment or her own beauty salon to run. The men were always married or broke or both. “You don’t have a job?” Michelle said to one suitor. “You need to own a shoe store to be able to afford my sister.”
Elaine’s children took phone messages for her when the men rang, and they were not shy about giving their opinions. “Ma, that man is married and has a family,” Tara said about the activist. “That’s nasty and trifling.”
“I’m not doing anything with him,” Elaine said. “I’m not taking money from his kids.”
Like a lot of women at Bedford Hills, Elaine swore the first thing she would do when she got out of prison was have sex. But now that she was home, life had suddenly become more complicated. She couldn’t bring anyone back to her apartment. And it would be a parole violation for her to spend the night somewhere else—unless she got permission ahead of time. Anyway, how could she get seriously involved with anyone when Nate was still stuck in prison, doing time for her crime?
In some ways, Nate knew her better than anyone, even though they hadn’t seen each other for years. Both had endured the sort of pain and sadness that is nearly impossible to describe. They both knew what it felt like to lose a family member while you’re stuck behind bars, then arrive at the funeral wearing handcuffs. Elaine wore shackles to three family members’ funerals—for two brothers and her mother—while Nate lost both of his parents, a brother, and a sister while in prison.
Early on a Sunday morning in mid July, Elaine finally traveled to Green Haven prison, which is nestled among the horse farms and $350,000 houses of Dutchess County. It had taken six months to get permission from her parole officer to visit Nate. By the time she walked into the prison’s visiting room—after taking a $15 taxi ride and $35 shuttle van, depositing $50 in Nate’s account, and pre-paying $20 to take 10 Polaroids with him—she had spent $120.
Elaine didn’t tell Nate when she was coming because she did not want to raise his hopes, in case she was too broke to make the trip. She had invited me along, but then changed her mind at the last minute. Nate would want to see her alone, she thought. Later, both Elaine and Nate described their reunion.
It was the first time they had seen each other since 1984. The last time they visited together, they were both inmates at the Albany County jail. Nate and Elaine met in the mid 1970s, when she lived with her first husband—Apache and Mel’s father—in the Wagner Houses in East Harlem. It was not a happy marriage. One day, her husband took the handle off the apartment door and locked her inside for hours. Another time, she hurled all the contents of the refrigerator at him. “If this is love,” she recalled thinking, “I don’t want any more of it.”
Nate’s mother lived next to Elaine on the fifth floor, and Elaine often saw him when he came to visit. She didn’t know him well, but she knew he was handsome, so one night she invited him and his friend into her apartment. While they all sat around a table, she slipped her shoe off and began rubbing her toes against him. Nate did not take the bait. He did not want a girlfriend who already had two children. At the time, he was only a teenager, two years younger than Elaine.
But Nate could not erase from his mind the memory of that encounter, of the tall, older girl who looked like a model. And so several weeks later, he knocked on Elaine’s apartment door at 1 a.m., ostensibly looking for a friend. The woman who appeared in the doorway looked sleepy, with tousled hair and a silky red nightgown. Once again, Elaine invited Nate in.
When Nate and Elaine told me the story of their courtship, each described the other as the pursuer. Nate said he was surprised by Elaine’s forwardness. Her response: “What was he doing knocking on my door at 1 a.m.?”
Both agree that this night was the beginning of their romance, which soon included walks in the park and trips to the movies. Nate had no intention of getting tied down. But it seemed that every time he slipped his key in the lock on his mother’s door, Elaine appeared in her doorway. Nate wrestled with Apache and Mel and took them shopping for new clothes for Easter. And he fell in love with their mother. Eventually, the teenager became a family man.
Soon, Elaine was again traveling to Rikers Island—not to see her brothers this time, but to visit her boyfriend. In 1980, Nate pleaded guilty to selling cocaine and spent eight months in jail. Elaine boarded the bus with Apache, Mel, and Tara. When Nate did another eight months for a cocaine bust in 1982, Elaine again commuted to jail. By now, Danae had been born, so Elaine brought the four children to Rikers for family reunions. After his second stint on Rikers, Nate pledged to stop selling drugs and to turn his life around. By now he was 24. He got a job as a late-night custodian shampooing rugs in midtown offices.
Like most people she knew, Elaine had snorted cocaine at parties. But she had never sold drugs or worked as a courier. Then she met George Deets, who hung out at the beauty salon where she worked. Deets badgered Elaine to carry a package of cocaine to Albany. He promised $2500 for the job. To Elaine, $2500 was a lot of money; it would have paid her rent for more than a year and a half. Nate tried to discourage his girlfriend. “It doesn’t sound right,” he said. Elaine barely knew Deets. Plus, he was a white guy, which aroused Nate’s suspicions. Elaine did not listen.
On a November morning in 1983, she stuck a package of cocaine wrapped in brown paper down the front of her jeans and walked out of the apartment. Nate watched her leave, but he knew he could not relax if he let her go to Albany alone. What if something happened to her? What would he tell Elaine’s mother? Nate ran down the street, and together they climbed into a cab to go to the train station. That split-second decision changed his life forever.
Several hours later, Nate and Elaine were facedown on the floor of a room at the Monte Mario Motel in Albany with shotguns pointed at their backs. As it turned out, Deets was a police informant, and the buyers for the sale he had arranged were actually undercover state police officers.
Prosecutors made the couple an offer: Plead guilty, work as informants, and your prison sentence will be five years. Elaine could not imagine wearing a wire and returning to her neighborhood to set up her friends. She decided to go to trial, and she persuaded Nate to take the same risk. “Everything is going to be all right,” she recalled saying. “They don’t have anything on us.” An all-white jury deliberated for 40 minutes before convicting them both.
At the time of their arrest, Elaine and Nate had known each other for eight years. They had had no wedding plans, but that was before the arrest, before their lives were turned upside down. If they got married, at least they would be able to visit each other while they were stuck in the Albany County jail. On January 26, 1984, a judge held a wedding for them in his chambers. The bride and groom both wore blue jeans—the same ones they’d been wearing when they got arrested. There was no diamond ring, no five-layer cake, no hidden garter belt, no Electric Slide.
A few minutes later, the same judge sentenced the newlyweds. On this day, the judge, “Maximum” John Clyne, lived up to his nickname. The Rockefeller drug laws required him to give each defendant a prison sentence of at least 15-years-to-life. For reasons the judge never explained, he added five years to Elaine’s sentence and 10 to Nate’s. The couple’s honeymoon consisted of a trip to the jail’s visiting room, where they talked on a phone for an hour, separated by a thick pane of glass.
For the next 16 years, they were allowed to trade letters and to speak on the phone for 15 or 20 minutes every six months. In the beginning, they wrote each other every day. Once Nate enclosed a few Polaroids of himself in the visiting room with another woman—a gift Elaine was none too thrilled to receive. Eventually, Elaine grew tired of writing and stopped. The last time Nate received a letter from Elaine was 1995 or 1996—he can’t remember—but he saved all the letters she sent. He kept them under his prison cot in a shoebox. Nate continued to write Elaine, sometimes filling 10 or 20 sheets of yellow legal paper with his tight, slanted script. “Nate doesn’t know how to write letters,” Elaine said. “He writes books.” Over the years, Elaine amassed hundreds of pages of letters from Nate. Before she left prison, she threw them out.
Now Elaine sat by a window in the prison visiting room and glanced around—at the vending machines, the children chatting with their fathers, the guards in gray uniforms. When was Nate going to appear? He had not been expecting anyone today, so he was not ready when the guard called him. He assumed the visitor was a childhood friend who came almost every week, and so he took his time showering and ironing his shirt. She had decided to dress conservatively—a long, loose-fitting dress and sling-back sandals. Nothing too risqué. An hour passed before Nate walked in.
“Where’s my brother?” Nate asked the officer behind the front desk.
“Do you have a wife?” the officer asked.
The officer pointed toward the wall of windows. “She’s over there.”
Nate’s lips stretched into a giant grin, and he hurried over. When he reached Elaine, she did not stand up. She did not smile. Instead, she scowled.
“What took you so long?” she asked.
This was not the way things were supposed to go. Nate had been choreographing this moment for years, and in every scenario he imagined that Elaine jumped up, ran over to him, and wrapped her arms around him. Now he stood next to Elaine, waiting for her to get up and hug him.
“Can I get some love after all these years?” he said.
“No,” she said. “I’m mad. You took too long to come down. I’m not coming anymore if you’re going to take so long.”
Nate bent down to hug her around the shoulders. Then he sat.
The couple studied each other. Nate could see that Elaine was bigger than she had been, that she had puffy circles under her eyes, that she hadn’t changed her hairstyle. She looked older, of course, but still beautiful, he thought. Elaine saw the fatigue in Nate’s eyes, too. His Afro had disappeared, replaced by a shiny bald pate. But he was in good shape, muscular and trim. Even in his prison greens, even at age 41, he still looked good, she thought, better than any of her recent suitors.
Before she could talk about anything else, Elaine had to resolve one matter. A month before she left prison, Nate had sent her a letter revealing that six years earlier he had married somebody else. Elaine was stunned. Nate had never mentioned another wife in all the years of phone conversations they’d had. She figured he had women coming to visit, but she had never heard about another wedding. All these years, even after he sent her divorce papers, she still thought of Nate as her husband.
After she received the letter, Elaine chose not to interrogate Nate over the phone. Some conversations, she decided, have to happen face-to-face.
“Look me in the eyes and tell me what happened,” she said. “Don’t make no excuses. Just stick to the facts. Don’t tell me no fairy tale stories.”
“She had cancer and was getting ready to die, so I asked her, did she want to get married,” Nate said.
“C’mon, there’s more to it than that,” Elaine said. “Be a man about it—just come out and tell me you had feelings for her.”
“Yeah, I had feelings for her, because she was there at a time when I was real vulnerable. I don’t know why you wouldn’t be happy for me; I’d be happy for you in a situation like that.”
Soon after he left Albany County jail, Nate met Sharon, the sister of another prisoner’s girlfriend. For eight years, she visited every weekend from the Bronx. Sharon was a social worker and had two kids of her own. In 1994, they married and applied for a conjugal visit. Sharon passed away before they could spend a night together.
Elaine felt better once she heard the truth about Nate’s emotions, without any excuses or evasions. She couldn’t stay too angry. After all, she had had a few prison boyfriends of her own. Plus, she had given him permission to see other women. “You ain’t got nothing, so get one of your friends to hook you up with a girl to come see you,” she told him after they got shipped to separate prisons. “Everybody needs somebody.”
Now she and Nate sauntered over to the row of vending machines. Elaine slid in a fistful of coins and bought lunch: one bag of popcorn, one bottle of water, three packs of pancakes, one fish sandwich, one chicken sandwich. On a table by the window, they laid down paper napkins and spread out the picnic. After heating the popcorn in a nearby microwave, Nate fed it to Elaine, piece by piece.
Nate was hungry for any news of his daughters, whom he had not seen since he came to prison. Elaine’s mother brought them to see Elaine, but she never took them to visit Nate. Yvonne blamed Nate for her daughter’s imprisonment. Over the years, Nate had written letters to Tara and Danae, encouraging them to read and asking them about their report cards. In 16 years, he had received one letter from Tara and none from Danae.
Elaine told Nate about all she had endured since she came home. She told him how run-down the apartment was, how she was embarrassed to invite friends in, how no one understood her, how creepy it was to play the role of a guard at her job, how her daughters seemed to have forgotten her family’s lessons, how they treated her better in jail than they did now that she was home, how sometimes Danae infuriated her so much she wanted to punch her in the face.
“Don’t hit her,” Nate said. “You’re going to make her resent you more. Why don’t you sit down and talk to her?”
Elaine and Nate discussed how to deal with Danae.
“She is never going to forgive us,” Elaine said.
“She said we abandoned her when she was small.”
“As time goes on, she’ll heal from that. They have every right to feel angry because we weren’t in their life when they were small—taking them to the school, waiting for the school bus, picking them up, being at their school plays. We were supposed to be raising them, and we weren’t there.”
Inevitably, the conversation turned to the crime that sent them both to prison.
“Why weren’t you man enough to stop me?” Elaine asked.
“Why didn’t you listen to me?” Nate asked.
It was the same exchange they had been having for years, and it always went around and around without any resolution. But now Nate wanted to make sure that Elaine enjoyed her freedom, that she didn’t feel consumed by guilt because she got out of prison first.
“I forgive you,” he said. “I take a lot of the blame. I should have stayed in the house.”
She wished she could build a statewide “Free Nate!” campaign and bring him home. Since leaving Bedford Hills, she had carried a poster with his picture at two anti-Rockefeller- drug-law rallies, on the steps of City Hall and the State Capitol in Albany. When reporters interviewed her at these events, she told them about Nate.
Back when she was in Bedford Hills, however, Elaine had purposely avoided mentioning her codefendant to reporters. She and Nate had decided to push her case in the media and leave him in the background. It was a calculated strategy to focus on her, since they knew her clemency campaign had a better chance. Elaine may have been more culpable in the crime, but Nate was the one with a rap sheet. And Elaine was a woman, which made her far more sympathetic.
“I’m really proud of you,” Nate said. “You were stronger than some of the dudes in here. A lot of them got less time and they’re crying and complaining.”
Elaine leaned her head on Nate’s shoulder and he stroked her hair. The way her body responded to his—he could tell that she needed to be held. He kissed her face, pressing his lips against her eyelids, her forehead, her cheeks, her lips. They wrapped their arms around each other, never forgetting to keep their butts firmly glued to their plastic chairs. It was an awkward embrace, but they knew the rules. The sign on the officers’ desk at the front of the room proclaimed: “No Lap Sitting/One Chair Per-Person.”
Nate and Elaine examined each other carefully for clues to secrets not yet shared. He thought she kissed better now than she used to, though he didn’t ask her if she had been practicing. She inspected his body and quizzed him on all his scars. The most visible one, the corn on the side of his right pinkie, testified to all the letters he’d written. When they posed for a Polaroid, he pulled up her dress to check out her legs.
Nate took Elaine’s hand as they walked outside, into the prison yard next to the visiting room. Under the bright sun, the couple strolled along the yard’s perimeter, around the picnic tables and next to the protective-custody wing. Trees loomed above the 30-foot concrete wall, beckoning the prisoners to come join them in the free world. It was almost like taking a walk in the park—if they shut their eyes and the protective-custody inmates stopped screaming for a moment. Outside, the rules about physical contact are more relaxed. After a while, Nate lay on a picnic bench, resting his head in Elaine’s lap.
She pulled a Newport from her pack.
“You’re still smoking?” Nate asked. “Why are you smoking? You don’t got to smoke.”
“You’re making me feel bad.”
“You can do whatever you want.”
Elaine smoked half a cigarette, then stubbed it out. Nate was pleased. If not for his influence, he figured, she would have smoked three or four. He liked to give Elaine advice. He told her not to eat meat and to drink less coffee. When she was at Bedford Hills, he clipped articles about parenting and mailed them to her. Soon he would peruse women’s magazines in the prison library, hunting for a new hairstyle for her.
Back inside the visiting room, the conversation swerved from topic to topic, from the Rockefeller drug laws to Green Haven’s gangs to the future. “If I get out, we’re going to do all the things we never did,” Nate said. “I want to go on a cruise, see the world.” Nate always preceded any talk about the future with “if.” He was eligible for parole in 2008, but he had been in prison too long to assume that he would leave alive. He had already watched two prisoners die, including one who was stabbed in the yard a few days before his release.
“Do you want to get married again?” Nate asked.
The question did not surprise Elaine. “All right,” she said.
“Do you want me to get on my knees?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “Get on your knees.”
Nate bent down on one knee and proposed again. Then he said, “Write the letter.”
“I will,” she said.
To remarry Nate, Elaine would have to send a letter to the prison superintendent requesting a wedding. Sixteen years ago, she had asked Nate to write a similar letter so they could marry inside the Albany County jail.
“If the shoe was on the other foot, if I was in jail for you, I would probably want to kill you,” she said. “You sure you don’t want to get me in the trailer and kill me? It’s one thing to go to jail for something you did. It’s another thing to go because you’re in love. That’s a hell of a love.”
Elaine and Nate talked so much they forgot to eat, and soon the guards announced the end of visiting hours. There was still plenty of food on their table—an untouched sandwich, a half-eaten bag of popcorn. It was 2:30 p.m—less than five hours after their reunion began.
“I want to go home with you,” Nate said.
When he uttered these seven words, Elaine could feel them in every part of her body, like a pain shooting through her, fueled not by pity so much as by memory. She knew exactly how powerless and frustrated and defeated he felt. Nate was running out of reasons to hope. He had exhausted all his legal appeals and had been rejected once for clemency. Elaine understood what it was like for him to watch violent criminals—rapists and murderers and child molesters—get less prison time and go home first.
The couple stood and hugged each other tightly. Nate did not ask Elaine when she would come back, and she made no promises. Perhaps the future would hold a prison wedding and trailer visits, too. If she renewed her marriage vows with Nate, Elaine worried later, she would confine herself to a future of weekly prison trips and too short trailer visits. She did not want to spend any more time in prison, but she also did not want to leave Nate. Whether or not they had another wedding, she knew, she could not erase him from her heart. Being with him in the visiting room—feeling his beard scratching against her cheek, his fingers stroking her hair—she was the happiest she had been since she was set free.
After a few more minutes, Nate and Elaine pulled themselves apart and headed in opposite directions. He joined the line of prisoners along the ramp leading toward the cell blocks. Elaine stood with the other inmates’ relatives, next to the officers’ desk. The couple watched each other across the room and tried to communicate without words. He blew kisses. She waved. After a few minutes, Elaine turned and faced the exit. She did not want Nate to see her tears. She did not want to leave. Tomorrow, Elaine vowed, she would come back to see Nate.