The Widow of Wall Street
Phoebe never hated her husband more than when she visited him in prison. The preceding nightmare of ordeals—eleven hours hauling a suitcase by bus, train, and cab, her muscles screaming from the weight—were the coming attractions of the misery she faced the next day.
She arrived at the grimy hotel close to midnight. Without sleep, exhaustion would lengthen every minute tomorrow. After wrestling her luggage to the bed, Phoebe thumbed through a small stack of folded sweaters, hoping they would withstand the raw weather. So many never-envisioned experiences: riding a dingy Greyhound bus; drowning ramen noodles in a hotel coffee maker; choosing clothes to wear to Ray Brook Federal Correctional Institution—and then envisioning her choice through her husband’s eyes.
Each month, Jake became more of an albatross, and yet, even now, through tooth-grinding anger, Phoebe found herself still seeking his approving smile and the satisfaction of soothing his melancholy.
Phoebe worried how long she could, would, continue making the long trip to this prison in upstate New York. One hour farther and she’d be in Canada. To stop visiting required strength she hadn’t yet found—loving and worrying about Jake had been her default for too long—so she agonized about everything from prison conversation to the choice between wearing a cardigan or crewneck sweater.
“Why won’t you stay longer?” She dreaded hearing those words Jake repeated every visit. “Other wives come Saturday and Sunday, not for a measly few hours.”
She’d stare just as she had before. Silent, hoping her eyes might express the command she couldn’t speak: Screw yourself, Jake. Her husband, once a titan—a god—now whined like a child.
What she said: “A few hours is plenty.”
What she didn’t say: Two days would kill me.
What he said: “Getting out after three hours must be nice.”
What he probably meant: I hate you for being free.
What she said: “Staying here must be hard.”
What she didn’t say: Leaving is deliverance from you.
Then she’d change the topic—a difficult task with a world of off-limit issues: The kids. Jake’s guilt. Her lack of money. Her not knowing this man; this fraud of a husband who steamrolled over her desperation to unravel the tangled skein of their past.
She held up first a soft white turtleneck, and then a subdued blue cardigan, and finally a camel-colored blazer. Jake liked her to dress sharp. Even in prison he demanded that she reflect well on him. How ironic. Yet, after building her life on pleasing Jake—even after him swindling her and everyone else in his life—she couldn’t shake the habit of following his orders.
Phoebe also needed to please her other husband, the new authority in her life—the Federal Bureau of Prisons—and adhering to the prison’s rules for visitors meant dressing to its standards.
“Visitors are held to a dress code before being admitted into the institution.”
Stark divisions outlined her life. Before, she would wander through the highest-end stores clutching fabric from an old Caribbean-blue dress, a shade that brightened her eyes, to match that color in a sweater. After . . .
“Visitors wearing transparent clothing, dresses, blouses or other apparel of a suggestive or revealing nature, halter tops, short shorts, miniskirts, culottes, or excessively tight fitting clothing will not be admitted into the institution.”
Too tired to concentrate, she placed her wardrobe choices on the extra twin bed. In the morning, when she knew the temperature, she could make her decision. And November temperatures in the Adirondack Mountains often fell below freezing.
After brushing her teeth and covering her face with motel lotion, she carried her laptop to bed. Her closest relationships were with her sister and her Mac; lately she had started Googling “average life of Apple laptops.” Imagining life without her electronic connection petrified Phoebe. Thoughts of spending almost two thousand dollars for a replacement provided equal amounts of panic.
Messages from frightening strangers stuffed her Gmail in-box. The distraught and inflamed found her no matter how many times she changed her email provider. Her encrypted email account—Hushmail—the sole communication method she managed to keep private besides her cell phone, contained only one new message, from her sister. Deb wrote daily, always cheerful. Today a long-ago picture of the two of them climbing on iron monkey bars in a Brooklyn playground accompanied her note.
No word from the kids. Occasionally, Kate sent updates about Amelia, Phoebe’s granddaughter. Noah wrote monthly emails filled with agony and anger.
After dashing off a quick note to Deb—“Everything is fine! Weather holding up—more tmw”—she opened Etsy, her online Xanax. Phoebe daydreamed of having an anonymous work life there, building friendships with a community of crafters who appreciated one another only for their dedication to the perfect quilt or ceramic mug. She could sell handmade recipe books devoted to cupcakes. At night, as she struggled toward sleep and fought against memories—and giving in to sleeping pills—she invented pen names: Mimi Appleby. Yoshiko Whisby. Gianna Gardner.
Phoebe tried holding back, but finally, pressing her lips hard together, unable to resist, she opened PrisonMessages.com. Within moments, she found herself captured by Karlgirl’s question: “Would you be angry if your man showed off your sexy pics?”
Phoebe couldn’t conceive of any man wanting photos of her, sexy
or otherwise, but still, she slipped into the world and wondered about Jake in that situation.
The man she thought she’d married would have gouged out the eyes of any man trying to see her naked. Today’s Jake would likely sell pictures of her to the highest bidder.
Like a man vowing to stay off porn sites, she slammed her laptop closed.
Ten minutes later, Phoebe reopened it, and then unwrapped a packet of peanut butter crackers as she waited for the machine to come fully alive. She munched as she scrolled through the topics: “Prison Weddings.” “Legal Help.” “Loving a Lifer.” On and on. She never visited “Execution Watch” or “In Memoriam”—the latter full of tributes to those who died in prison—but she lurked in chat rooms, reading, trying to learn something about Jake’s world.
The women she followed were Mrs.25Years, Nick’sOne, and JimmysGirl, all experienced guides to prison protocol. From them, she discovered that underwire bras set off alarms and precipitated a guard’s too-familiar hands feeling you up. Phoebe dreaded seeing someone mention Jake. “Guess who my man saw in the yard!” PrisonMessages.com shackled you to your husband by name and deed.
She clicked “Loving a Lifer,” despite knowing that her love for Jake died more each day. After his confession, Jake had morphed into that awful relative attached to your flesh like a parasite; one you were forced to care for because he lived on your family tree.
She scrolled down the forum, reading titles.
Thread: “What bonds you to your lifer?”
If her daughter could see her, she’d fold her arms and ask, “Exactly, Mom. How can you continue choosing him over us?” Phoebe would again beg Kate to understand why leaving Jake alone, pummeled by a world’s anger, seemed like kicking him as he lay on the ground.
At the time, Phoebe hadn’t thought that she’d chosen Jake or rejected her children, not while the mash of shame, confusion, and loyalty roiled. She hadn’t known how to abandon him. Her son and daughter had their spouses, their children, and each other. Jake could lean only on her. She became his security blanket. He became her prison.
Thread: “I am exhausted.”
Yes. They were all tired, facing their angry men on visiting days. Tired of their men’s locked-up desperation boiled with resentment, these overly sensitive men offended by their need for women living on the outside. They exhausted their women, these men.
Thread: “Need topics for talking with my man on the phone.”
Conversation with Jake required only audible nodding from her.
Thread: “What are the best traits of your lifer?”
Inexhaustible stores of love dust sprinkled the screen. Despite having committed crimes so awful they had received life sentences, these men still inspired their women to enumerate their good qualities. Had they forgiven them their murders, their rapes, their thieving?
Jake swore that no singular moment had marked the beginning of his thievery, but he was lying. Everything began somewhere. He hadn’t slipped into his Byzantine plot. His had been no banana peel of a crime.
And now he talked about the guys. People imagined prisons as all fear and knives, but the truth didn’t unfold so tough. They cooked. They shared books. They were his goddamned buddies.
Phoebe longed for her children. Deep, visceral want threatened to topple her each morning. Antidepressants, antacids, and shame sustained her.
• • •
The cab driver didn’t acknowledge Phoebe, except for nodding when she asked for Ray Brook Federal Correctional. Maybe he was being polite, accustomed to allowing psychic space to sad women visiting locked up men, but more likely, she disgusted him. She recognized the expression: the shock of detection and the scowl.
The face of Jake’s crime. Wife of the demon. Even if she dyed her hair, wore sunglasses, dressed plainer than an Amish woman, someone shook his or her head as she passed.
The prison loomed. The cab stopped.
Tipping the driver worried her. Too little, and he’d despise her. Too much, and he’d hate her for giving him tainted money.
She paid the thirty-five-dollar fare, adding six dollars. Wind hit as she stepped out and faced the cold colorless brick of Ray Brook. Already she’d curled her hands into fists so tight that they ached.
Her entire marriage had been a battle against being known only as Jake’s wife—now she feared the battle could be over for good.
Phoebe had become two almost-spectral things: a widow to a living man, and a childless mother.