If my decision to remain in the States with Jofka destroyed Werner, he didn’t let me know it. There was a story about how horrible it was to receive the news in the form of a letter that arrived in blue airmail stationery on a very rainy day in London. That was it. But I know how distraught he must’ve been. He wasn’t a person who made himself go numb as I did. Emotion cut him keenly, and the absence of his daughter from his life had to have been a great misfortune. For my part I tried to bury the pain of the situation under the excitement of building a new life – a strategy that didn’t work out very well.
Jofka and I moved into a large house on Fayerweather Street in Cambridge with two other single moms, Patsy and Cornelia. Each had a child and each was in the process of divorce. Patsy had put the house together so she took the whole top floor. Cornelia and I had rooms just off the kitchen. The kids’ rooms were on the second floor, though Jofka slept with me most nights. It was not a happy time for anyone, except maybe Patsy who had a steady boyfriend and was on good terms with her ex.
Cornelia hid her unhappiness behind a big colorful spirit. She was beautiful, from Surinam, in her early 30s with a husky Dutch accent and cafe au lait skin. She always wore a black beret with a diamond stick pin brooch over her dark curls. We shared a bathroom so I got to know her quite well. Despite (or because of?) my years abroad, compared to her I was extremely sheltered and naive, and she took me under her wing those first few months.
Jofka, meanwhile, had been enrolled in a daycare connected with Harvard, a peaceful place where mothers would nurse their babies between classes. I’d deposit her there and drive off in the crappy little yellow Toyota I’d bought on the cheap to whatever prison I was visiting that day. There were three of them, one scarier than the next. Tons of security checks, tons of loud clanging gates that would slide closed behind me, leaving the distinct feeling of being trapped inside.
Honestly, I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into. I’d never taught before, no less felons, murderers and rapists in a high security prison. I had the sense to wear baggy, sexless clothing and to look as drab as possible. I’d be escorted with my many handouts of short stories and poetry to the assigned classroom area, and the inmates would be brought to me in small groups every hour on the hour. Some days I’d have five or six classes back-to-back. I never knew what crimes my students had committed – it was a total no no to discuss that. The goal was to inspire them to write from their hearts, collecting their work for an anthology of inmate fiction, poetry and photography that was to be published a year or so later.
Inspiration was not the problem I thought it might be. My guys positively gushed words – I’d get pages and pages from them every week, mostly drivel, but every so often gifted prose. They’d show up for class because it was a diversion, not because they had high literary goals. I gave them very little personal information, but somehow – from my body language, my voice – they knew stuff: that I was scared, depressed, divorcing, in a bad way. They’d give me unsolicited advice or comment on how I looked that day or how they could help me if only they had the chance. I’d present a bland, businesslike face, always polite, interested, a little detached. Many had a history of violence and yes, there were guards everywhere, but shit went down quickly. In the classroom the pretense was we were all on equal footing. By the end of the day I’d be totally exhausted.
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