Photo by Thomas via Flickr. Licensed under CC.

Tammy drove a black pickup, smaller than her son Jack’s blue one, which sat idly in their driveway for the four and a half months he spent doing time for “some mob action shit.” That’s what he’d called it when I asked him why he had to go to court. He’d assured me, his girlfriend of just a few months, that the whole group-aggravated-battery thing was a simple matter of wrong place, wrong time, as if the cops had only pinned something on him because of his previous record. When we’d met the summer before, he seemed like a regular, appealingly dangerous seventeen-year-old boy.

On a Saturday in the spring of my junior year in high school, I accompanied Tammy on the hour and a half drive up to the prison where Jack was being held. He would be there until a spot opened up in boot camp, a military-style training program—also known as “shock incarceration”—intended to shorten sentences for non-serial offenders. Tammy and I had gone to the mall the weekend before, where she handed me a hundred-dollar bill to buy Jack an all-white pair of Nikes that would pass the boot camp’s regulations. When the sales associate at Finish Line tried to show me other options, and I explained why I needed the all-white ones, his eyes bulged as if they were trying to escape his head, and he turned to get me the size thirteens.

Tammy and I smoked cigarettes the whole way to Joliet Correctional Facility, which has since been shuttered and used as the fictional Fox River prison on television. When I watched the show Prison Break several years later, I couldn’t figure out why I found the medieval-style limestone building, complete with turrets, so triggering. I’d conveniently forgotten the time I was a visitor.

As we approached the barbed-wire fence, I asked Tammy what kinds of criminals were locked up inside. “They got murderers and rapists,” she said, pulling over to dump the joint roaches out of her ashtray. “All kinds of shit.” I noticed that, along with the Nikes, she had brought a brown paper bag full of magazines and peeked through them when we stopped for gas. Some were about cars, but most were pornography: naked blonde women with their legs spread open, sprawled out on top of cars or squatting next to motorcycles.

Once we got inside, past the metal detector, I heard whistles and catcalls. I kept my eyes focused straight ahead. It had been difficult to choose an outfit that morning. I wanted to look sexy for my prison boyfriend, but hadn’t fully considered the murderers and rapists. Suddenly I was hyperaware of my cleavage, showcased by the neckline of my favorite nautical navy-blue spandex camisole. I zipped up my jacket.

When we entered the small, plain visitation room, furnished with a few four-seat tables and vending machines, Jack was already there, waiting. He was wearing what could have been white hospital scrubs, if you ignored the numbers across the back, and looked pale, like he’d just seen his first spleen—his green eyes were vivid against the sallow backdrop of his skin. I hugged his six-foot-three frame as Tammy went to buy us snacks from the vending machine. Except for that initial greeting, we weren’t allowed to touch at all. He seemed shaken by his new surroundings, but not afraid. I knew I didn’t have to worry about him, but something in me shifted when I saw he couldn’t be the protective, affectionate boyfriend I had fallen for in the first place.

Twenty years later, our short visit is a blur. More vivid is the joint Tammy and I shared on the way home. After seeing her 220-pound adult baby in prison, she was uncharacteristically silent. Typically, she would ramble on about her boyfriend or her neighbors, who were always doing something that bugged her. “That’s ate up,” she’d quip, her shaggy bleached-blonde hair pulled half-up and held in place with a scrunchie, her long bangs swaying back and forth as she shook her head.

With Jack temporarily out of the picture, I was spending more time with Tammy. I’d come over and she’d sit in a rocking chair, yakking on about nonsense and every so often getting up to look out the window, as if something important, or threatening, might be happening out there.

“I hear that,” I’d respond after almost everything she said, waiting for her to catch on that I had no clue what she was talking about. She never did. Unlike my own mother, who criticized how I dressed and acted, Tammy couldn’t have cared less about how I presented myself. Her overly tan face was covered in wrinkles, though she couldn’t have been more than forty. She wore crop tops that revealed a leathery stomach—and a belly button that had sunk into her petite frame like the mouth of a rotting pumpkin during an unseasonably warm October.

*

My hometown is an unremarkable stop off Interstate 55, which cuts a path between Chicago and Saint Louis through soybean and cornfields. Not only was there nothing to do there growing up, but there was no nearby city that felt worth aspiring to—and before the Internet, no real connection to the outside world. I was sheltered, unaware that the privileges I enjoyed as a member of the upper-middle class were not universal. My parents were quite strict, and in response, I became rebellious. Every one of their actions had an equal and opposite reaction. They grounded me for drinking; I snuck out. They threw away my cigarettes; I pulled them back out of the trash. They flushed my weed; I stole twenties from my father’s wallet to replace it.

This went on until I somehow broke them: they gave up and we mostly stopped speaking. But they let me keep driving their Honda as long as I kept my grades up and got a job every summer. At sixteen, I worked as a lifeguard at a public park, collecting cash for paddleboat rentals and ensuring patrons were equipped with life jackets. Because I was a pothead, I skimmed off the paddleboat operation to order myself deliveries, which came in through a chain-link fence behind the shed where I was stationed.

When my weed dealer told me about a party on the college campus in my town, I went. There, I met seventeen-year-old Jack. Almost two years older than me, he was ruggedly handsome in a white V-neck t-shirt and jeans. He didn’t say much, but somehow managed to command the kind of respect normally reserved for star athletes or mob bosses.

I noticed our hair was the same color—light brown with highlights. I later learned he’d put a garbage bag on his head, poked holes in it, and bleached whatever bits of hair he could pull through. The appropriate terminology for the result—popular in 1998—was “frosted tips.” I bleached my hair yellow straight from a bottle since my mother wouldn’t pay for me to have it done professionally.

At the party, the boys drank beer in the flatbed of Jack’s blue pickup. Jack looked at me intently, his green eyes picking up on my insecurity. “You’re pretty,” he said, lighting my cigarette. I noticed a fresh scar on his hand, and he told me had just gotten out of jail. He explained he’d gotten drunk and punched through a front-door window—the cause of both the scar and his arrest.

He was unconcerned with sports, popularity, and high-school society in general: things I also hated, but for different reasons. I was too rebellious for the nerds, too smart for the jocks, and not into drama class. I didn’t fit in anywhere, so I smoked pot constantly to temper my social anxiety. He drank heavily, gambled over card games at his mom’s trailer, and rode shotgun in my car while eating pork rinds—a snack I hadn’t even known existed. (After Jack got locked up, I found a lone pork rind between the passenger seat and the door—and cried.)

By the fall of my junior year, Jack and I had become a couple, and he took me to homecoming. We doubled with my best friend Alex and her boyfriend, the star of the football team. Jack seemed uncomfortable when he showed up at my parents’ house—a white brick four-bedroom with blue shutters—in dress slacks and a button-up shirt. I wore a royal-blue satin dress. My parents took photos of us before we went to the only fancy hotel restaurant in town to get burgers.

After dinner, while traveling to the dance in the football star’s jeep, the air thick with the scent of our rose corsages, another driver motioned angrily at us for cutting him off. Jack rolled down his window, made a deep Marlboro-red infused gurgle, and launched the largest loogie I’d ever seen. It sailed over the lane marker and directly onto the other driver’s side window. The man—in his mid-thirties, likely, and wearing glasses—looked back at us from behind the yellow slime, horrified. We all hesitated before breaking into laughter.

I was making a habit of skipping school to hang out with Tammy, chiming in on her rants just so I had someone amusing to get stoned with. Jack didn’t smoke pot, and his relationship with his mom mostly consisted of good-natured ribbing, although sometimes Tammy would get fed up with his antics and let out her equivalent of a sigh—a long, deep, exaggerated Jeeee-sus. She was the kind of mother who, at the time, seemed novel: less like a parent and more like a cool older sister, which meant she let us have sex at her place.

That November, I got pregnant. I didn’t bother to tell Tammy and hid it from my own parents, along with the abortion I quickly decided to have. Jack drove me almost two hours away to the nearest clinic in Illinois, where protesters carried signs about killing babies and screamed at the car as we entered the parking lot.

“Bunch of assholes,” Jack said.

He walked me inside, and once my name was called, waited in the parking lot. When I came back out dazed, the sunlight burning my eyes, I spotted the smoke from his Marlboros rising up from the sunroof of my teal ’95 Honda Accord. I felt sick but not sad. Just a few weeks later, Jack committed the crime that would send him to Fox River—his “mob action shit”—and the following month, received his five-month sentence.

Once he was gone, I’d go over to Tammy’s house on Sunday nights and talk to Jack, who could call collect only once a week. Sometimes I’d get to answer the phone and hear the recording: You have a collect call from—he’d say his full name—at Joliet Correctional Facility. He also sent letters to my home address, which my mother collected and read before eventually handing them over, in a screening process that seemed to me at least as strict as the prison’s.

“I don’t know why I’m letting you have these,” she sighed, raising an eyebrow. “Some interesting illustrations in there.”

She had not expected to find teddy bears, drawn by a convicted felon, on an envelope addressed to her teenage daughter. I thought they expressed his soft interior, hidden from the rest of the world but accessible to me. The lines had been traced over so many times the pen had nearly punctured the paper—the same ink, I later learned, he’d also used to give himself a prison tat, a small blue mark at the base of his thumb. Happy to have proof he’d been thinking about me, I looked past his misspelled declarations of love and toward the promises he made about getting his life straightened out.

He became my first long-distance boyfriend. At seventeen, the relationship that existed within the confines of my own head satisfied teenage social pressures to have a significant other, as well as my penchant for melodrama: I loved someone, and we’d been torn apart by a force greater than my parents. All of this made me believe in starry-eyed things like destiny and romance, while in reality, Jack and I didn’t know each other all that well. We’d only been together for six months and hadn’t even had a real fight yet.

With Jack gone, I was free to hang out every night at the apartment the boys in the graduating class above me had rented for the summer—or “The A-P-T,” as we called it. My friends and I would go there and smoke weed in an outdoor stairwell overlooking the train tracks, talk about The Blair Witch Project and shriek, while the boys sat there squinting, red-eyed from smoking.

I found myself attracted to one of them, and ended up going home with him. We agreed that no one should know, especially not Jack. When I went to his house I would park in a lot down the street, and he would look both ways out the front door before letting me in. But I couldn’t help myself and eventually confessed the affair to a friend, who, predictably, told Jack’s ex-girlfriend. If I had learned anything from hours of watching Jerry Springer after school, it should have been to keep my fool mouth shut.

*

When I Google Jack today, I find, on the first page of the search results, his MySpace page, a 2005 mug shot (from when he was charged with resisting arrest while on parole, shortly after getting out of prison following another sentence, years after I knew him), and a court document referencing an abusive relationship. In a publicly available database, I also find records of at least twenty criminal charges, nine of which include a form of battery. When I see the word “domestic” in front of one, I begin to sweat.

I’d tried to block out how our relationship ended, to move on. But even with years of therapy, it was difficult—partly because I wasn’t sure about exactly what had happened. It took me two decades of living 900 miles away to build up the courage to request copies of the court documents from my case. They arrived at my apartment in New York City, where I worked for a women’s fashion brand. My days were spent reviewing photography layouts featuring stick-thin models in oversized minimalist garb, their eyes vacant.

When I emptied the contents of the manila envelope onto my marble tabletop, some of what I found surprised me: the fact that, the year we broke up, Jack had been charged a $100 domestic violence fine and then been processed through court collections for not paying it. Or that I still recognized the backward slant of his handwriting on one of the forms—and could even imagine the tip of his tongue sticking out through the side of his teeth as he carefully printed each tiny letter of his name. But mostly, I was surprised at the acts described in the charging documents.

*

Jack and I remained a couple for the duration of his sentence. At his boot camp graduation, he looked proud, an expression so unfamiliar it read almost like a mask. He was happy to see me, and standing there looking at him—in uniform and boots, with his conservative haircut, marching in formation—I believed things could be different. But once he returned to a less structured life, his temper flared back up and his fledgling ambitions dimmed. With a criminal record and without a high-school diploma, he couldn’t do much but work for his dad’s appliance company while sorting out his GED.

For the rest of the summer, he drank heavily, and seemed even rowdier than he had before he left. At first, I liked having him back, and relished the familiar scent of his Drakkar Noir cologne. But I began to miss my independence.

While I was at school, Jack started hanging out with two girls who had already graduated. One was tall and standoffish, with a permanent glower. The other was short, squat, and heavily made-up. I suspected he was sleeping with at least one of them. When I asked him about it, he said I was being ridiculous. I didn’t push it. Instead, I avoided the issue all together, and kept seeing the other guy secretly—until Jack called to confront me.

“I saw your car there,” he said.

“No, you didn’t,” I replied, praying he’d been too drunk to read my plates.

He seemed to accept my explanation, and let it go. But the next time I arrived at his house for a party, I was faced with hostility. The two blondes stood in the kitchen holding beers to their lips, the tall one giving me her signature glare from under a grey beanie. I walked back outside to smoke a cigarette. Jack followed me out. He seemed drunk. The dark night hung heavy over our heads.

“Where have you been?” he asked.

Then came the part I didn’t remember until I read through the court file: he grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me—hard. In the memory that flashed in my head when I looked at the documents, his face is grainy, as if captured on black-and-white film in low light. My insides are the liquid sloshing around in a glass before it spills, at gravity’s mercy as I wait for the teetering to end.

The next part, though, I’ve always remembered, in slow motion.

He stopped shaking me, drew back his arm, and punched me square in the jaw. My reaction felt cartoon-like: I saw stars and then everything went white. The impact knocked me backwards, but I didn’t have time to be stunned, because the pain set in so fast that I just clutched my head and wobbled toward the door to the house, yelling inside for my friend Alex. When she got outside, Jack was gone.

I handed her my keys, but she didn’t know how to drive stick. The guy she was with did, but he was fifteen and only had a learner’s permit. I told him to get in and drive anyway. As he adjusted the driver’s seat, I sat in the back holding my throbbing forehead. I could barely think. But instinct told me to get out of there as quickly as possible.

This is where my memory goes blank again.

After reading the charges, which included criminal trespass to a vehicle, I remembered Jack banging on the driver-side window. In the driver’s seat, Alex’s date, who didn’t know what had just taken place, rolled it part-way down. “You better let me in,” Jack said, reaching his large forearm through the crack, fumbling around for the lock to let himself in—so he can drag me back out, I now remember thinking.

As the driver rolled up the window and shifted us into reverse, Jack disappeared again. And then suddenly he was back: he ran at the car and punched the windshield, his fist resounding with a loud thump as it cracked but didn’t shatter. We’d finally backed out and shifted into drive, but Jack was chasing us. As the car picked up speed, he threw his half-full can of Budweiser; it bounced off the bumper and made a thunk before landing in the street. Had he been holding his beer the entire time—or just taking sips between blows?

*

The next morning, I woke up with a throbbing headache and a split lip. I washed the dried blood off and examined my face in the mirror. I didn’t feel like the victim of an assault; I felt like the victim of a particularly brutal dumping. My eyes were puffy from crying and my cheek was slightly bruised. I looked ugly, pathetic—disposable, even. I hoped my parents wouldn’t notice my face, but I would have to tell them about their car.

When I came downstairs, my mother was sitting at the kitchen table.

 “I need to show you something,” I said, my voice wavering.

I started to cry as I led her out to the garage, my father following. No one said anything about my injuries, but I had the distinct feeling that I was in trouble—or, at the very least, had somehow brought this upon myself.

I drove the car to the police station, peering through the largest shards in my cracked windshield, as my mother trailed me in her Toyota Avalon. The detective who took my statement was wearing a blue suit and looked like half of a police duo from a television show, though she also reminded me of Hillary Clinton, who at the time had short, feathered strawberry blonde hair. I asked if I could choose whether to press charges, and she told me I could not. The story I wanted to tell myself—that maybe Jack didn’t deserve to go back to jail over his cheating girlfriend—slipped away in her presence. Once the state had been presented with evidence of domestic violence, they proceeded with charges themselves. All I had to do was show up for court, and Jack would be forced to plead guilty.

A couple weeks later, I heard through a friend that Jack wanted to talk—he wanted to apologize, but was afraid of the restraining order. I agreed to meet him, looking for some explanation that would absolve me of any responsibility for his fate. I knew Jack’s father had been violent when he was growing up, and even heard he’d put Tammy in the hospital once. She’d told me about it herself. But I never wondered what she could have done to deserve it.

Jack appeared sober and serious when we sat in his blue truck, parked in an alley on a sunny day. He looked at the floor and cried, his face red with shame. He sounded genuine when he apologized, and for a moment, I pitied him. There was something tender about this, the two of us intimately connected through violence. But the conversation quickly turned to practical matters.

“I could get seven years,” he said, and mentioned that charges would be dropped if I didn’t show up for court.

“It’s too late,” I told him. Other witnesses had already given statements, and my parents weren’t going to let the vandalism of their car slide. Part of me was glad the case didn’t hinge on my testimony.

The court date wasn’t for another several months, and in January I moved into a single dorm room and started college early at the university in my town. I felt out of place there and didn’t go to class or mingle with the other students. Like a frightened squirrel escaping a predator, I flung myself at the nearest branch without thinking about whether it was a suitable place to land. My new boyfriend worked at a car wash and shared my affinity for MDMA.

He and I lay in my bed one late night after a rave, covered in cold sweat, when I heard the sharp click of the metal lock on my door. The door opened a crack and then quickly closed. Had we left it unlocked, and had some drunk person stumbled into the wrong dorm room? My boyfriend jumped up and looked out into the hall before quickly slamming the door and hitting the deadbolt. His eyes were wide.

Jack was pacing the halls. He’d gotten past the sign-in desk and picked the lock with a credit card before realizing I wasn’t alone. After beating his fists on the door, he eventually left through an emergency exit, which locked behind him. He yelled at us from outside until campus police came and he fled the scene.

*

When I showed up to the courthouse as a witness in the state’s case, I wasn’t expecting to find Jack’s girlfriend standing in the hallway next to Tammy. But there she was: a striking brunette with a deep tan and long hair. Her eyes trailed me as I walked by, her expression cold. It’s pretty outrageous to bring your new squeeze to the court date where you’ll need to cop to battering your old squeeze, but that didn’t even cross my mind. Somehow I still loved him. We make sense of violent events by choosing to deny that they happened—or by blaming the victim. This is true even if the victim is yourself.

After Jack entered his guilty plea, my mother, my friend Alex, and I left the courthouse and walked toward the car. That’s when we heard Tammy yell.

“I’m gonna kill you, bitch.”

From across the parking lot, I could see the lines in her face deepening into a scowl. Too stunned to process her threat, I watched as the brunette climbed into her black truck to occupy what had once been my seat.

*

What happened when I was seventeen never really left me. It surfaced from my unconscious periodically, sometimes unexpectedly, only to recede again once I recognized it. In the years that followed, I had a recurring nightmare in which Jack chased me around with a gun. In my twenties, every night I spent alone, I’d hear the imaginary click of a lock being picked. In my thirties, I’d catch glimpses of his figure in the outlines of any men who happened to be walking toward me at dusk.

Forgetting turned out to be impossible, so, eventually, I chose to remember instead. When I emailed the state’s attorney for more information twenty years after the fact, I asked for any and all available documents—whatever I was entitled to as the victim in the case. I realized I didn’t even know how much time Jack had served.

I feel unresolved, I wrote.

The attorney responded that the judge had recommended a misdemeanor domestic battery charge, which carried a maximum of one year in jail. But because he was already on probation for a felony, he received a two-and-a-half-year sentence and likely served only half.

It was a far cry from seven years.

Encouraged, I dug deeper. From newspaper clippings, I was able to find out the real reason Jack had been in jail the summer before we started dating: he served seventy-eight days for a violent home invasion. He had punched through a window in order to break, enter, and attack the man who lived there.

In the county court’s database, I discovered further details about his nine recorded battery charges. Five specified “physical contact,” which is what differentiates battery from assault, and three took it a step further, noting either “bodily harm” or “injury.” The one that sent him to Fox River was described as “aggravated,” which implies more severe injuries.

None of his victims were named. But I saw myself hiding in the letters that made up the phrase “bodily harm,” like a scared animal in sparse grass.

On and off for years, I had thought about the homecoming photo my parents took of Jack and me, the only picture I had of us together. I’d avoided looking at it. After I read the court documents, I rifled through boxes until I found it.

In the photo, I look so happy next to Jack, in my royal-blue satin gown with sequins across the bust. My hair is pulled up into a fancy bun, and a few blonde tendrils frame my face. Jack’s frosted tips have grown out. He looks like the guy I fell for. He looks like trouble. He looks like a seventeen-year-old boy.

 

Sarah Kasbeer

Sarah Kasbeer lives in New York City. Her essays appear in Creative Nonfiction, Fanzine, The Normal School, Vice, and elsewhere. Her work has received notable mention from The Best American Essays.

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