Friday 13 February 2015 15.00 GMT
I married Petra Szabo in June 2003. By November, I was arrested for five counts of armed robbery; by our first anniversary, the department of corrections housed me in a maximum-security prison upstate, with nine years to go.
As a mugger, I was hapless – an amateur and unwilling brigand. I expressed my contrition while taking the cash, I returned wallets and was more than once turned away with strong language. Luckily, no one was hurt. The press dubbed me the “apologetic bandit” because of my manners, while detectives derived my modus operandi from them. They eventually accused me of 18 robberies that occurred during one really bad week in August 2003.
Hard drugs entered my life when I was an NYU student, and it took less than two years for narcotics to ruin it. Painfully I cleaned up; the reward for sobriety was marriage. Unfortunately I was not ready, and the relapse soon afterwards was much worse than the first episode. Addiction meant withdrawal-filled days juggling debts to bad people, a daily hundred bucks of heroin, a doomed job teaching and the insanity of hiding it all from my bride.
Petra and I met on the subway in 2002, when I was free of any dependency, charismatic, clever and broke. I picked her up trilingually: being able to pester her in Russian and French, both tongues she knew though not her own, intrigued her enough to take my business card. It read “Lifestyle Artist”, and I had the blue eyes to pull it off. She was worldly, older than I was and a good fit for my intellectual family. I began calling her my girlfriend a month later.
Our courtship was short but her visa was up. Within six months of meeting it was either part ways or take a plunge, and never has a man had so much to thank the INS for. As promising as things briefly were, by the time we were wed I was fully addicted again.
We both lied to each other. I only learned that she was 30 and not 27 when picking up our marriage certificate. She found out she had married a heroin addict in stages, beginning with five dollar bills disappearing and culminating in a bag of dirty needles falling from beneath the sink. Our deceptions had similar motivations, but the consequences were so far from each other in magnitude that I’ve never dared try a guilt-trip. The months we lived together were no idyll, and frustrated Petra. Despite being a cosmopolitan, addiction was beyond her ken.
A year after we met and only five months after our wedding, our honeymoon period imploded. I had 10 years to serve in prison, and Petra had a decision to make.
I left freedom in handcuffs on 13 November 2003, suspecting my marriage was over. I told Petra on a visit that waiting was probably a bad idea. I pretended I would understand if she chose to leave and not make any fuss about our divorce. My family promised they would help Petra if she stayed, while expecting her to go. Petra said she would think about it.
She was slow to make up her mind and didn’t spare my feelings in expressing as much, either. I know now that she was watching, growing aware of my evolution into a man. Prison made me grow up fast, as the alternatives weren’t pretty. She witnessed and appreciated the tests I passed, but congratulations and praise were withheld from me. We pretended that all was well, as if it was a normal thing for anyone to have Riker’s Island fistfights or see their bunkie stabbed in the face three yards away.
When I turned my chubby roundness into a body-builder’s physique over four years of hard work, mostly to impress Petra and give her something to write home about after conjugal visits, the ovation was missing. I was made to feel that nothing less was expected of me. Today I know that my efforts and transition allowed me a place in her life despite my circumstances, and kept the door open through which we eventually came to love each other as thoroughly as people can love. But at the time the damage my selfish, immature ego had caused was enough to warrant a sign: DO NOT FEED THE NARCISSIST.
I have a talented husband who is overly fond of praise; in the absence of fans, he’ll dole it out to himself without shame. I’m familiar with bohemian intellectual swagger, both from the slice of Budapest society I traveled before emigrating, and from the holidays spent with my parents-in-law. Daniel’s father is the mold he’s cast in: each Genis thinks he’s right, can’t be talked out of it, and will never let you forget if it’s so. In Daniel’s case it doesn’t help that he probably was the smartest guy in the room for a decade running.
Anyway, when I made my initial decision to go with the flow, my darling husband was not the only factor on my list of reasons why. He had not made the best impression during our short married life, even if he could sure make it sound good. Soon his high opinion of himself was going to be tested and I wanted to see how he’d do. Daniel would have experiences rare to people like me or him, and I was curious.
My ulterior motive for coming to America was to find the culture I knew from its independent films. This land of contradiction fascinated me. America is a nation of paradoxes: both powerful and vulnerable, sophisticated and primitive. Like Danny, now that I think about it. The American penal system, so different from Europe’s, seemed like a unique window in. He fed my voyeuristic side, writing two pages a day in his fine style and eye for detail. With time I grew tired of the repetitive violence and outrage, but he nevertheless kept me amused for years. Daniel writes for a living today, but he cut his teeth during the years he wrote just for me.
My husband also came with a family that I cherished, and would have to think twice about losing. My own mother passed when I was 16. I was told she had cancer, and then suddenly she was gone. My father failed to fill that void and my sister escaped into her own marriage; I grew up fast. I valued Daniel’s family for their warmth and rituals. They needed me during the difficult beginning, and I gained entry to interesting circles thanks to his prominent father, Alexander Genis. Not many wives of convicts meet the ballet star Baryshnikov or attend embassy parties.
Less prosaically, they also made sure Daniel was not a financial burden to me. He can certainly thank them for his marriage in many ways.
Petra and I embarked on a mission of discovery. Determined to keep things interesting, we made a project of knowing each other in full. We knew that the result might be an end. Most lovers carry idealized images of their partners around, squinting at who is actually in bed with them until they finally fit this imaginary being. With plenty of distractions, the trick can usually work for a lifespan. Children, for example, allow couples to avoid each others’ flaws. Petra and I had nothing to look at but each other. Sartre had a term for this: l’enfer.
Nothing hellish happened when I told Petra about the holes in my armor; the physical imperfections, moments of cowardice, opportunities not taken and books I pretended to have read but had not. Petra survived revealing which facets of herself she doesn’t like, and let me explore and analyze, without skipping the hard parts. I could confide in her that I enjoyed intoxication (which is exactly why I should avoid it), and this gave me the space needed to admit it to myself.
As a result, we know each other as well as two people can, and it’s shaped our relationship into a different beast than those of our friends, family and relatives. Training wild things is dangerous, but they are worth more if tamed.
The project of knowing took years, cost thousands in postage, and consumed acres of trees and oceans of ink – there are surely postmen with slipped discs named after us, and prison censors who have followed the story closer than they’d read any bodice-ripper.
Our marriage was not the only one to survive prison, but plenty of convicts burn their bridges: trailer visits, phone calls and even mail is not something to be taken for granted. However, a preponderance of women who remain married to incarcerated men are half an exercise in co-dependency. Children keep marriages together, but so do drugs. The inmates who are career criminals start their sentences by reeling in a victim. They use lures, and fish for the lonely.
The business of churning out gifts for the prisoner-Romeos is bustling. I’ve done a few Cyrano cameos myself, thinking I was helping the illiterate by writing letters to their beloveds, only to see them re-used, copied by other men or sent to several women. I ceased assisting predators, but sometimes bought carved soap mementoes and portraits to send Petra, usually with tongue firmly in cheek. The card addressed “To my baby girl” was a favorite, though I also had a leather bracelet made for her, and participated in a prison tradition of mysterious origins: I cut off my ponytail and mailed it to her. Prisoners do it to point out the years that the hair took to grow.
The gifts he sent, never missing a holiday with a card, were a poor substitute for his person. He had the sense to send ironic items we could share a laugh over.
I gave Daniel a chance to win my love after destroying my trust. He succeeded; Daniel became a man in prison. A process of communication began that culminated in a love I have not known before. With time I felt the change he’s writing about, the change in how we related. Daniel was much quicker than I to proclaim our partnership, having little to lose, unlike me. Not only was it hard to trust him, but I needed to resist the advice from everyone who cared for me to move on. Even Daniel’s friends were liable to recommend not wasting any more time on a mistake.
Nevertheless, I was willing to give things a chance, even if I wasn’t making any promises. Our state is one of three, out of America’s 50, that offers prisoners conjugal visits. The 44-hour periods together, in privacy, helped when I needed a reminder that there was more to this than a daily deposit in my mailbox and overpriced collect call. It was another element to weigh in my decision.
Daniel thinks that he played a larger role in my choice to stay than he did. He tried to win me, but had little opportunity and lots of competition. The whole free world versus him? A hard one for even Daniel to win. The choice was mine. Being himself (not the addicted version) was the most that he could do. Good thing it was enough.
The con-men married manipulatively; gentlemen prefer blondes but prisoners like mules. Smuggling contraband was the common bond for the least romantic. Profits are enormous, prices inside being 10 times what they are on the street – but the cost of getting caught is a felony record and a year in county jail. The women were kept ignorant of this, and the men manipulating them had an underdeveloped sense of empathy. Petra saw a baby lifted by a prison guard working a tip; the cocaine below the little fellow was a fortune. What the child’s future was worth, on the other hand …
I am certain that my marriage would have failed had I not been arrested when I was, but that is not the same thing as saying that the method by which it was preserved is the secret to love. The advent of HD television made the work of Hollywood’s make-up artists a challenge like never before; look too closely at whom you love and you might find someone else altogether. I’m grateful for the forge our marriage passed through because of the depth and rarity of the result, but that’s because I already know the outcome. Had I known the level of exposure our relationship’s creation required, I might have demurred.
The boy I was when I married Petra would never have dared. It took the man I became by passing prison’s testing to submit myself to hers.
I was never tested with a knife, but looking at 10 years without my love takes just as much courage. Our relationship’s limitations proved to be its foundation and its strength. We made the best of things by using the conditions to forge and pound our love. Meeting on a train was lucky, but what followed was hardly promising. Would love conducted in the abstract world of words satisfy?
Years of undressing each other until we truly knew who we were, that was the key. It unlocked love and partnership, though it wasn’t guaranteed to. I would have feared such a test going in too, and still fidget lest he use the things he knows against me … but he never has. He knows better.
Knowing. Bible readers recognize the verb as the euphemism of choice for sexual congress. When I returned to share a bed with Petra every night, I knew her better in one way than I did in another. Things were awkward, compromises necessary and it took time to get right. Now we know how to do it. Knowing each others’ curves completed the project and unlocked happiness.
Is it half the battle? It was the hardest class I’ve ever taken. Knowing Petra, however, is the greatest reward of my life.
In Poverty and in Wealth, ( A $100 a day Heroin Addiction is definitely poverty)
In SICKNESS and in Health,
to HAVE and to HOLD. Watch how this couple get to know one another.
The Big Object Lesson here is how we all really need to get down and dirty to really get to know one another in the most full and frankest way. Enough to scare us from even approaching one another for fear of rejection.
b I am appalled that Geoffrey MB a powerfully respected loved Campaign Figure HAD to post that the brilliant experienced qualified Lawyers of all sorts LOST their houses, SPOUSES, jobs ( the Career bit is understandable) but SPOUSES!!!!! WTF!!!!
Lawyers who do brilliant jobs for clients are fucked up themselves and need to engage in a process of healing with those who truly accept them for who they are warts and all, all the bad bits, all the difficult bits all the bits that put off people.
I must say as someone who has made a Career out of defending a very select few (John Cooper QC, ex friend, newbie Barbara Hewson!!!!) there is NO greater joy than the ability, determination of seeing your loved lawyer/s AT THEIR WORST but thinking feeling and willing the BEST for them. THEY ONLY HAVE TO LOVE YOU TO SAFETY,
I rest my Case.