Every single day, my heart is broken.
It’s an empty-bed sort of brokenness, not unlike waking in a prison bunk after dreaming of home, where one is surrounded by hundreds of convicts and yet can still be inescapably isolated. A brokenness caused by a lack of touch — a dog who, after growing out of puppy-love cuteness, is tied out in the backyard for a decade or so.
It breaks hardest when I wake in the morning and realize that she’s still not beside me. That she likely won’t be beside me for years to come, and this because walls have been thrown up between us. Knowing nothing of ardor, walls are rather erected with hatred and divisiveness. No one has ever built a wall out of a sense of inclusiveness, constructed a barricade in order to mend fences or crowned either/or in wires barbed with harmony.
My heart is healed somewhat on Sundays and Wednesdays, when we Skype. Even more so during my occasional visits — the dog allowed in for biannual reprieves.
I will call her Nataly because she lives in Cali, a city in southwestern Colombia, in its turn a country with a bevy of security issues. We began corresponding in the fall of 2006, just four years after my fifth and final release from prison and a year away from beginning my MFA at a different class of Columbia.
The broke-ness is also financial — that after 14-plus years and two college degrees I still cannot afford to bring her here and marry her; can’t buy her a home or a car or even lousy American health insurance. This sort of broke-ness eats at a man. Robs him of dignity and self-esteem and even good health. Failure is four walls unto themselves. A solitary confinement echoing with the susurrations of doubt augmented with slamming doors. One cannot be a failure alone. Failure requires the full cooperation of others.
Fracaso in Spanish. Don’t ever use the “F” word in front of Nataly, in either language. I found that out the hard way. “Oh, so your book won’t sell?” she chides in Spanish, followed by, “Pobrecita. Then you write another, and another, until you succeed.”
“Éxito” is the Spanish word for success, and in Nataly’s eyes I’m the living embodiment of éxito. Nor is it just my success kicking heroin and prison along with it, but so too my writing.
Despite her confidence, I still dream of being locked up again. Although such dreams can be disturbing and even nightmarish, there’s no feeling on the planet like waking up and realizing I’m home, in bed, deliverance the warm cocoon of sheets and comforter. Indeed, the only thing missing is her.
In these dreams I’m always facing two years. I can feel this gap of time as something physical, my mind shackled in fevered fuzziness. But what’s especially lurid is that I have no way to contact Nataly and let her know, and her belief that I abandoned her makes the above avalanche of time feel like the soft patter of snowflakes.
This is where the dream crosses into real life. Nothing oppresses me more than a vision of Nataly waiting for me to call, her text messages frantic, pulsing rapidly like an EKG before slowing, the beats coming further and further apart before stopping altogether, heralding an irreparable tear. It’s unbearable to me, and I’d gladly do another decade in prison to spare her a single moment of such discernible sorrow.
Nor is the dream totally irrational. We’ve both had health scares. While teaching and cabbing on weekends in 2014 my blood sugar was so high they shot me up with insulin on the spot. Type-2 diabetes was scary enough, although as it turned out short-lived. A quick diet adjustment along with working full-time construction has my blood sugar at prediabetic levels.
But life is full of dangers. It was in October of 2006 that I sent my first email to Nataly. Soon after I was in a pretty bad motorcycle accident. Totaled my Harley when a woman pulled in front of me. Lacerated liver, bruised kidney, fractured hip and skull.
Then there was the frantic email I received from Nataly in January of 2008 telling me how her boss had accidentally shot her in the head. He’d been cleaning his gun in the office when it went off, the bullet shattering into a wall and a piece of shrapnel from it striking her forehead. I called her that night — I was using a prepaid phone card back then — and did my best to talk her down. The incident scared her badly, mostly because of the blood. Scalp wounds bleed like crazy. I remained calm for her sake, but in truth I’d been horrified. We all want to protect the ones we love, a task made overwhelming when that person is beyond physical touch.
It was in 2018 when I found a lump in her breast. This was the worst for me because, although Colombia made health care a constitutional right in 1993, it only applies to the very poor. Even with my financial help it still took five months to learn the lump was benign, and in that time period, seeming longer than any of my five prison sentences, I couldn’t comfort her with even a simple hug. Sound familiar?
Segue to COVID-19, seeming lightyears beyond an ex-con trying to get his Latina fiancée into Trump’s America; beyond anything we could’ve anticipated. Nor is it just the threat of illness, the financial constraints have become acuter. Colombia is currently in a nationwide quarantine, in which neither Nataly nor her sister can work. Bills are coming due and they’ve no safety net; no sick days; no unemployment insurance; no two-trillion-dollar cavalry just over the hill. Nor can I bring her up here anytime soon. I still must answer for all my crimes to the Department of Homeland Security. A fiancée visa is a privilege, they told me. Hoop jumping is obligatory.
Nor can I live there — not and make a decent living. I mean, I can’t make a decent living here, but I really can’t make one down there. Colombia is a hard place, with walls of its own. Harder still for a gringo ex-con with a bevy of drug convictions.
So if you’re feeling down because Corona got you locked up, relax and count what blessings you can. I’d like to say that I’ve survived worse, but I can’t make that claim right now. What I can say is that we are happy, Nataly and I, and have been for well over a decade, and that’s something worth hanging on any wall.