Crystal is the customary gift. I got dog drool

My husband and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary in prison, along with our 12-year-old daughter.

By Susan Musgrave

Published October 25, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

I slip off my wedding ring, which doesn't fit so snugly anymore, and add it to the plastic tray along with two hand-carved silver bracelets and one of copper, a heavy metal belt, a brass watch with lizards curling around the band and a necklace of flattened nails and vertebrae that a friend brought me back from Africa. I step through the metal detector.

On my wedding day, 15 years ago today, I wore the same body armor, along with French garters, but that time I didn't take it off. I lit up the scanner's alert panel to the highest number: 10.

Stephen and I were married in a maximum security prison. He had written a novel while finishing up a 20-year sentence for bank robbery, and the manuscript had landed on my desk when I was writer-in-residence at a Canadian university. I fell in love -- with his writing on the first page, with him, before first sight. All I had left to do was to meet the man.

I wrote to Stephen, in my official writer capacity. My opinion was that his book should be published. I wrote later the same day offering to work as his editor. I wrote a third letter asking if he needed anything -- books, paper, pens. In the last letter I sent that afternoon I wrote, "P.S. Will you marry me?"

I didn't get an immediate reply so I wrote again the next day apologizing for being so hasty. I got carried away, I wasn't serious. Just because he was a notorious outlaw (the FBI's wanted poster described him as bright, witty, a bon vivant) didn't mean he was going to fall for some woman who threw herself at him lock, stock and Uzi barrel. He might, after all, be old-fashioned.

Stephen replied, finally. All 13 letters had arrived on the same day. No one had asked him to marry her before, he said. He suggested we meet first. (I was right, he was old-school.)

I visited him behind bars for two years, in monitored rooms where we sat at square tables, at right angles according to regulations, working on his book, which grew to more than 400 pages, working on our love affair, which grew into an epic. When his book was published and he still didn't make parole, we set a wedding date.

The ceremony took place in the prison chapel, attended by my mother and sister and four of Stephen's friends from inside. Two guards stood watch over the cake knife as we exchanged vows.

As Stephen was escorted back to his cell to change out of the Armani suit I'd bought for him, into his prison greens, I said goodbye to my mother and sister at the front gate, tossing my bouquet over the 14-foot perimeter fence topped with razor-wire.

Then there was the honeymoon -- a three-day affair in a house inside the prison walls allocated for Private Family Visits. They are conjugal visits, in the vernacular, but that makes it sounds as if it's only about sex. We cooked, read books, played Yahtzee and watched "Late Night With David Letterman." And when the phone rang, four times a day, we got dressed and went outside to be counted.

Not long after that, Stephen came home on full parole. We had a daughter two years later. Living together seemed easy. Unhappily, it was not forever after.

Our married life went into remission on June 9, 1999, the day my husband -- disguised as a transvestite Barbie, and wired on heroin and cocaine -- failed to rob the Royal Bank in peaceful Cook Street Village, in Victoria, British Columbia. Stephen, once the leader of the Stopwatch Gang (famous for making it in and out of a bank in under two minutes), spent four minutes withdrawing $100,000 of other people's money from the bank that day. "I could have taken out a loan in less time," he admitted later.

He remembers little of the car chase through the prim neighborhood park, or the shooting at police officers who pursued him. Both of us remember, only too well, the day six months later, when the judge sentenced him to 18 years.

Stephen had fought a lifelong addiction to heroin, and the habit had won -- this round, anyway. In an essay called "Junkie," just published in "Addicted: Notes From the Belly of the Beast," Stephen wrote: "Prisons are about addictions. Most prisoners are casualties of their own habits. They have all created victims -- some in cruel and callous ways -- but almost to a man they have first practised that cruelty on themselves. Prison provides the loneliness that fuels addiction. It is the slaughterhouse for addicts, and all are eventually delivered to its gates."

My first visit to the medium-security institution where Stephen had been transferred was to coincide with our 15th wedding anniversary. It would be a family affair -- including our daughter, who is 12 -- and take place in the house designated for conjugal visits.

Once we are through the gates and metal detector, my daughter and I face a guard who pulls on a pair of black gloves to go through our personal effects, most of which I have itemized, as I've been told to do. My daughter has brought along her French homework and a suitcase the contents of which I have failed to list. The guard opens the bag, and shuts it again -- immediately. She must have a daughter who wears makeup, too.

My belongings are more problematic. The guard vetoes my pillow, citing enhanced security. I know better than to ask what this means -- I have learned not to ask questions about prison policies. I assume that since Sept. 11, prison administrators, like everyone else, have become even more security conscious. Let one family member bring her pillow in, and the next thing you know, the whole family will be wanting to bring in pillows.

My pillow and I are bonded like Brinks guards; it has represented the very foundation of security for me ever since I was 4 years old and my mother threw my stuffed rabbit into the fire (they didn't have child psychology back then) because I kept crying for it in the night. I never leave home without my pillow. I won't sleep well -- if at all -- without it.

Now I have a choice to make: my security or my marriage. I stuff the pillow into a locker marked Private Family Visits, which smells of sweaty shoes and cigarette smoke. I remind myself that marriage involves sacrifice. Stephen doing 18 years hard time is small beer compared to the three nights looming ahead of me, alone without my pillow, but I vow not to make him feel guilty about it. I start planning instead, for our next family visit. A false-bottomed suitcase would be one solution, I think.

I realize as I relinquish my pillow that the guard is likely to bust a gut when she comes upon the Georgian silver flatware I spent the morning polishing. (I like family mealtimes to be a civilized affair.) Sure enough, she stands back from the "utensils," as she calls them, as if they could be weapons of mass destruction. They have to be locked up.

My insides reach a roiling boil. I never use stainless -- "It leaves a taste," as my father always said -- and just because I am going to prison I don't see why I should be expected to lower my standards. The knives are bone-handled, passed down from William the Conqueror. And our table-napkin rings, with family crest and initials engraved on them ... Oh, what's the use, I think, as I chuck my valuables into the vile-smelling locker. My values and my standards go with them -- all of little consequence, I guess, where security is at stake.

Next she inspects my briefcase. Rules allow only one "reading book," which I will finish the first afternoon. Besides, I say, "I need different books for different moods, and who can predict what mood I'll be in by this evening, given I'll be ..." the words "without my pillow" hang unspoken between us.

Even my daughter is beginning to look impatient. I narrow my choice down to "Getting the Love You Want," then trek back to the locker with an armload of rejects while the guard homes in on my magazines. I've brought a new Martha Stewart Living (I was trying to be a good citizen and supported my daughter's school magazine drive) and two back issues of Colors: one devoted to war, the other to touch. The guard opens the latter, of course, perhaps because the cover features two naked men of different ethnic persuasions vigorously French-kissing.

Colors, I explain, is an art magazine. "Doesn't look therapeutic to me," she says, letting me know she views art, and private family visits, as therapy. She puts the magazine down and opens the Martha Stewart. My daughter looks at Living and says to the guard, "That's the really subversive one."

When we're repacked, we're told to stand side by side on two yellow dots in the middle of the floor. A black dog, trained to sniff out drugs, is led into the room; I pray my daughter has left at home the pot she grew for a school science project to impress her dad. It turns out I have nothing to worry about. The dog doesn't sit (as he's trained to do when he scores) and that evening, when her father and I bring up the subject of smuggling drugs into a prison, she says, with adolescent indignation, "Don't you two know anything? People come here to buy their weed, Dad."

(My husband wants to know what kind of people I have been letting our daughter associate with. This probably isn't the moment to enlighten him. Our Juliet has been sighted at the local hockey rink with the Romeo son of one of the police officers my husband peppered with birdshot.)

A van drives us to our cottage, where Stephen, who has already been transported from his unit, awaits us. His eyes meet mine, and when we climb out of the van he hugs our daughter first, and then hugs me -- as if we are lovers who have been parted from one another for a long time, but not for the first time; lovers whose lives have become a familiar ritual of disruption and reconciliation.

Our daughter curls up with Colors -- the Touch issue -- while my husband and I unpack the supplies he's bought for three days of conjugal bliss. (He fills out a food order from the kitchen a month before our visit, and pays for the food from his account.) As he unpacks I remember that there was a good reason I used to be in charge of the grocery shopping when he was at home: If I asked him to buy flour, he'd come home with five 25-pound bags. He was never one to live life -- from robbing banks to grocery shopping -- on anything but full throttle, and sure enough, we have enough food to feed the prison population until Christmas. In fact, we could probably do 18 years locked up in this house with him, and not go hungry.

I hear our daughter's voice from the living room, where she's been engrossed in her magazine. "Mum, this is like totally sick. No wonder they didn't want you bringing it for Dad."

Her dad and I grab the magazine to see what we have been missing. If a 12-year-old thinks it's sick, it has to be majorly disgusting.

We open to a man wearing black socks -- you can't see his face because his head is in a pillory -- and black underpants pulled naughtily down. A busty leather-clad dominatrix is lashing his red bottom with a whip. "When it starts to get intense," she says, "they wriggle and squirm, they use swear words occasionally but they stay in place." I want to rush back to the front gate and explain to the guard, this is art not pornography, and besides, I didn't know this photograph was there.

"What are they going to think of me?" I cry. "They'll think I'm some kind of pervert."

"They'll just think I perverted you," my husband sighs. "They think all inmates are criminals."

For the next three days and nights we live like a normal family, though nothing seems normal to me without my pillow. (I am definitely going through separation anxiety.) At the risk of being called a martyr, I decide it's important to make my husband aware of how much I have sacrificed to spend this quality time with him. When he stops laughing he reminds me that I have crossed international borders with everything from an inflatable alligator (when I was 9) to emeralds (much later) concealed on my body. Now I am considering having a special suitcase made for my pillow?

I'm sorry I mentioned it, I say. Conjugal bliss is beginning to feel an awful lot like marriage.

In most respects, though, I adapt to family prison life quite easily. We have a panoramic view of the majestic razor wire surrounding our abode, and the phone only rings four times a day. It's never for me, it's for all of us. When we hear the phone ring we have to get up, go outside and be counted. Sometimes they call back right away and we have to go out again for a recount. "How hard can it be," my daughter asks her dad, "to count to three?"

We cook, we read (I finish "Getting the Love You Want" the first afternoon), we play Scrabble on the floor. We watch movies about drug trafficking and prison escapes, which the public must find therapeutic -- there seems to be one on every channel. In a drawer beside our bed I discover a Tupperware container full of condoms, lubricants, latex gloves and dams, like the ones the dentist puts in your mouth (for safe oral sex I suppose) and a miniature bottle of bleach -- for those who somehow manage to smuggle in hypodermic needles. (It's a weird system: They'll bust your ass if they catch you bringing in drugs, but if you succeed, they help you use clean needles.) We conjugate, too. French verbs. For my daughter's French test on Monday.

On Oct. 12, the day of our wedding anniversary (I remembered it as being the 10th, Stephen the 15th; I checked when I got home and we were both wrong), we pack again and prepare to say our goodbyes. But first we clean the house. We wash the floors, vacuum the rugs and then rake them so that our footprints don't show. My husband has learned many new domestic skills since coming back to jail. These days, he says, he exchanges muffin recipes instead of tunnel plans out in the big yard.

My daughter and I will be picked up and driven to the front gate; my husband will accompany us that far. We have our bags waiting on the road outside our house when one van pulls up, followed by another. But now we're ordered back inside and told to line up in the living room, side by side, on the very spot where I made the word "innocent" in Scrabble last night and scored 15 points.

The same dog we met on the way in is led into the middle of my husband's newly raked carpet. He sniffs around us -- not once, but four times. He noses our crotches and our behinds, leaving his drool. It's humiliating. Surely it's unnecessary. Definitely it is intimidating.

Then I think, Maybe my daughter is right. Maybe people do come here to buy drugs. It's evident that we're suspected of trying to smuggle something out of this place, and it clearly isn't my husband, who is staring at his shoes.

If I had tears left, I probably would weep, but instead I stand, shaken, angry and, I admit, tired of it. (For a target search such as this, they have to be 99 percent certain they'll find drugs.) My daughter tells me later, when the dog doesn't sit and we're free to go, that she thinks the warden saw the bumper sticker on my car saying "Bad Cop, No Doughnut," and it was payback time.

The usual anniversary present for couples celebrating 15 years of marriage is crystal, but trust Stephen to come up with something more romantic. At least I think it's romantic to get drooled on by a drug dog for your 15th wedding anniversary. (Which, I'm sure, is one reason our marriage has endured.)

Leaving is hard. At the front gate, 600 pounds of steel slams shut between his last heartbeat and my next one. I unlock the Private Family Visit locker and hug my pillow while my daughter applies another layer of makeup to face the world outside. And I think: If I can't have the love I want right now, right now I'm getting the love I'm meant to have.

Susan Musgrave

Susan Musgrave is a writer and editor based in Sydney, B.C.

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