Five-minute memoir: Barbara J Zitwer recalls her honeymoon behind bars


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The Independent Culture

'What should I wear to my honeymoon in jail?" I asked myself as I wandered through Bergdorf Goodman, my favourite store on Fifth Avenue. I walked in the steps of women like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly who had shopped at Bergdorf's before me. I perused the racks of Chanel, Marni, Gucci and Dior. It was the dead heat of a summer in the city, 1999, and my honeymoon was to take place in the Sullivan County Prison in New York State, home to the Son of Sam serial killer, where my new husband, Gil, was serving 10 years for robbery.

Way before crime, my infatuation with the sexy Latin manager of my health club had turned into a deep friendship, and culminated in true love so strong that it bound us together no matter what... even when heroin made the man I knew with the heart of gold, unrecognisable. He says prison saved his life because he had to hit rock bottom. But like Robert Downey Jr, he did finally stop using and changed his life around. When I finally saw Gil after two years into his sobriety, he looked like Captain America, strong, clear-eyed and definitely reborn. And that's when I proposed to him...

I had been visiting Gil for months when I overheard some women talking about sleeping in the prison. "Can I really sleep in your cell with you?" I asked one day. My handsome, Puerto Rican boyfriend's frowning face burst out laughing. "You mean trailer visits?" he cried. "Honey, you have to be married to be eligible for an overnight visit in the little cabins." "Well, then let's get married..." The words popped out of my mouth immediately, and then I argued for weeks, finally convincing Gil that it was the only sensible thing for us to do. It would make waiting for freedom all the more tolerable and fill the void I always felt after leaving him. When I wasn't with him, half of me was torn apart.

It took six months of paperwork to get the approval needed, but we were finally granted our first overnight visit. However, now I was in a quandary: what would be the perfect outfit to begin my jailhouse honeymoon? In this movie of my life, I needed to look the part I wanted to play. My outfit was like Harry Potter's cloak of invisibility – a shield to make me impenetrable and not allow the ugliness, stress, and fear from those prison walls to affect me and the precious time alone I would have with the man I loved. I was insistent on creating an oasis and on bringing sunshine and freedom into that den of despair. So, I scoured the store for hours until I found what I was looking for, a beautiful pair of pale-lavender, linen overalls; they were perfect. I felt the soft light linen between my fingers. They were casual but also luxurious and utterly impractical, which made them all the more perfect. And they fitted like a glove, making me feel feminine and sexy. As I looked at myself in the mirror I thought, the overalls looked thoroughly appropriate to walk through the corridors of the all-male prison. I envisioned myself almost floating down the halls, confident and happy in my lavender overalls, my own suit of armour. I was determined to bring pretty to that place, no matter what.

Soon, I was next in line to be processed through the prison's security check-point. "Take off your shoes, jewellery and hairclip," a mean-looking female guard barked. Barefoot I walked through the metal detector in my overalls. The alarms went off as if I had been carrying a Magnum 45. I was shocked. "You can't go in if you don't get through the metal detector. You'll have to leave." "But I have nothing to hide!" Tears welled up in frustration and anger at the sheer stupidity and pig-headedness of those who held the keys to my happiness. Then it hit me – the 20 small silver engraved buttons on my overalls. The metal detector didn't differentiate the small buttons from a gun. The guards knew that I was not carrying a gun, but they were cruel and having a good laugh at my expense.

I had a choice: I could change clothes or leave. I stepped into the bathroom, wiped my tears, and pulled a Brazilian sarong from my bag. I had nothing else to wear. I handed the overalls to the guard, then passed through the metal detector easily. She glared at me and returned my garment. It took all my courage but I walked ahead through the prison, barefoot and naked underneath the flimsy wrap. I was led to a backyard with four little cabins enclosed in 20-foot concrete walls, but standing outside one of them was Gil. In one night and two days, I was transformed. Our goodbye was so hard but seeing the same guard again, I smiled. I would play by the rules, but I was unwavering in my way, too.

'The JM Barrie Ladies' Swimming Society' by Barbara J Zitwer is published in April by Short Books