The year was 1993. Carlito’s Way was our favorite movie. We saw it at least 10 times. We knew the lines of our favorite scenes by heart; Claudia would play Gail, and I Carlito. She was fond of the scene where Gail confronts Carlito as to why he dumped her. Claudia was a romantic – She didn’t think that 30 years in prison could really come between true love. She thought Carlito was selfish and only protecting himself. I admired her! She was Peruvian with dark hair and eyes indicative of her Inca roots; she was a Scorpio that could only love hard. Claudia was my first love. It was a loved cultivated by years of trials and tribulations, and most importantly, it was a love founded on friendship.
Claudia and I became friends sometime in 1987 – we were in junior high school. She had a crush on my best friend Rodney; Thankfully, Claudia wasn’t Rodney’s type; but to my chagrin, they dated for a few weeks nonetheless. They broke up one day while we were cutting school with friends. She was devastated. I was silently relived. We hung out more after the breakup. I secretly fell in love with her. I got up enough courage to tell her one-day. There was a long pause. “I like you a lot as a friend” broke the silence. I cried for days, but it didn’t change our friendship – it got stronger.
It took years before we started dating. It wasn’t a storybook romance by any means; Infidelity, racism, pregnancies, you name it. We broke each other’s heart many times, but our love and friendship always prevailed. “Nothing can stop true love” was the motto. We had been through the fire numerous times; we believed our love and friendship was strong enough to overcome any obstacle, but we didn’t count on our lives mirroring the fictional narrative we had come to love.
We were at that magical age of 18 and high on love. We had been living together in Rosedale Queens for the last 4 months. On the Afternoon of April 13, 1994, I left home with the promise that we would meet later for dinner and a movie. I never made it back.
I got arrested by the “Feds” for conspiracy to sell drugs and guns. They offered me 40 years to life as a first time offender; Truth be told, I was more afraid for my best friend than I was for myself.
We cried non-stop that first visit on Rikers Island. Claudia didn’t miss a court date. When I got depressed, she reminded me of the motto – “true love will survive anything”. I believed her! When the judge sentenced me to 7 years to life in prison, she joked that I had 23 less years than Carlito. She wrote everyday when they sent me “upstate”. She knew me better than I knew myself.
We planned on getting married. I excitedly completed the necessary paper work when I got to Coxsackie. She bought rings.It was us against all odds.
By 8am, I was ready and pacing my small cell in anticipation of her visit at 9. I had been incarcerated now over 7 months; Claudia never missed a visit.
I spoke with her the night before to confirm; so when visits ended at 3pm and I hadn’t been called, my mind ran rampant to find a plausible explanation.
The isolation of prison played with my mind. I was sure she got into an accident; something bad had happened. I had to sit with my fears till 6pm that night. She answered the phone and said hello before the automated machine cut her off and announced it was a collect call from a correctional facility. I breathe a sigh of relief at hearing her voice, then something unexpected happened – the call got denied. I furiously call back, but the same thing kept happening. My heart hurt. Nothing would come between true love – Wasn’t that the motto?
I would never see or hear from Claudia again. I would get a letter 7 years later from my cousin telling me that she got married to Will – my other best friend. I am not mad at Claudia; on the contrary, I hope everyday that she has forgiven me for subjecting our love and friendship to the inhumanity that exists within mass incarceration.
Dr. Kirk A. James is an activist, educator, clinician, author, father… He is many things, But most of them he is not. Evolving!