I met Amanda in an AOL chat room in the year 2000. I was 25, about to turn 26. She was 19. She was the most fun person to chat with in the whole world. I didn’t know her name. I didn’t know where she lived. But I knew her screenname on AOL, and I knew that when that screenname showed up on my buddylist (along with the doorbell sound) my brain would release oxytocin, or whatever that feel-good chemical is called. Each time Amanda logged on, I’d stop whatever I was doing just to be able to say, “Hi!”
A year later, I told her about my plans to marry Jennifer, my now ex-wife. Amanda was heartbroken. She felt a connection to me. She felt that I should’ve married her, instead. At the time, this seemed odd to me. I knew nothing about her. I wasn’t even sure she was female.
It wasn’t until 4 years later that she finally relinquished a bit of her need for privacy. I remember in 2004, as I was about to leave work, Amanda invited me to call her on my drive home.
I’ll never forget that first call. Yes, she was a woman! And during the course of the conversation, she also told me her real name — even her 13-letter last name. I practiced saying it together with her, until I perfected the pronunciation.
I met her in person shortly thereafter. She lived in New York City, and I had flown there for a work-related training. We spent two nights together. She took me to a fancy Italian restaurant on our first night, where we drank more than our fair share of wine. On night number two, she took me to her favorite local diner, extra greasy, where the New Yorkers looked at me like an alien because I asked for mustard with my hamburger.
Amanda’s dad was gravely ill — and each time her phone rang, she worried it was “the call” to let her know he had passed away. As such, she wasn’t in the best of spirits, but my visit to her proved timely. I was able to distract her, if only for a couple of days, to ease her pain, to give her a chance to smile, to laugh, to drink, to eat cheesecake, to watch American Idol together.
When I got sentenced to prison, two years later, our relationship became much closer. My wife divorced me, which allowed Amanda (not her real name) and I to take things to the next level. The first few years, we remained “just friends”, but I kept hearing about her dates with other men — the vegan, the guy who held her pinky finger in the theater because he was too shy to hold her hand, the guy that kissed her up against her building, then wanted to go home to play his video games (instead of taking her to bed), and let’s not forget the guy who brought her a honeydew melon in his dirty gym bag, and gave it to her as a gift during their tour of the Botanical Gardens…”because you deserve it, you’ve been a good girl…and they were out of strawberries,” he said.
I couldn’t let this girl get away from me — especially if she was going to end up with one of these characters (losers). So by 2012, I made things official. Amanda, already my best friend, my biggest fan, and my biggest supporter in life, now added the title of “girlfriend” to that impressive resume.
I loved her more than anything in the world. We talked on the phone nightly. We wrote letters several times a week. We shared stories about her Judaism, my agnosticism, our future wedding, and our mutual love of black-and-white cookies. We kept things fresh and fun, and sometimes sexy, a difficult task for anyone in a long-distance relationship, made even more difficult by the barriers of the prison walls.
In 2014, she flew to Idaho to visit me. I hadn’t seen her in almost a decade. She had to tell her friends and family that she was going to visit her friend, “Kim,” as nobody in her life knew that I existed. After all, I was a prison inmate. And even before that, I was a married guy she met online. It was nothing to be proud of. After all, she was a good Jewish girl.
I was proud of her, though, and had no problem introducing her to my parents. I arranged for my mom and dad to visit the same weekend, so that all of us could be together. My parents met Amanda and loved her instantly. We spent 4 days together in the visiting room (my parents let us be alone on the last day, so that she and I could have a little prison-visiting-room-romance, which basically means a little flirting and a better goodbye kiss). I felt so empty when Amanda left, but I felt relieved knowing that we had strengthened our bond, cemented our relationship, and that she’d be visiting again the following summer.
Three months later, though, I simply couldn’t get past the fact that nobody in her life knew about me. Her mother was protective and controlling, so I could understand, “ok, don’t tell your mom.” But couldn’t there be SOMEONE she could tell about me? A best girlfriend? Her brother? Her roommate? Her co-workers?
She was ashamed of me, I was convinced. There was no other explanation. Ashamed, embarassed, humiliated that her “boyfriend” is a sex-offender. So ashamed, in fact, that she suggested that once we married, that I lie to her family about my past, and lie about how we met, and pretend that I don’t have a criminal record.
Lies, though…lies are what brought me here in the first place. And while I doubt that a correctional facility really tries to ‘correct’ anyone, I would feel like a complete failure if I left prison, after ten years, and continued a double-life of lies and deceit. I vowed to never be that person again. Amanda tried to tell me it didn’t matter, that she loved me, she wanted me, and who cares if she couldn’t tell anyone else the truth. She and I knew the truth, and that’s all that mattered, right? Right?!?!
We’d been arguing this point for a couple years, but for some reason, in January of 2015, I knew I had to break up with Amanda. I did it over the phone. I’ve never cried so much in my entire life.
Believe me, when you cry in a prison dayroom, filled with a bunch of tough guys, it feels a bit humiliating. I told her on the phone to find a boyfriend she could feel proud of, one she could feel comfortable bragging about to her friends and parents. If I couldn’t be that guy, I knew she wasn’t the woman for me.
She cried even more than I did. This was one emotional phone call (actually it was 4 phone calls, as we’re limited to 30 minutes per call). At the end, we vowed to stay best friends forever, and we promised that no matter what, no matter who we married, we would ALWAYS stay best friends, and we’d never lose touch.
Shortly thereafter, Amanda lost her job — it was more than a job, it was her entire life. As this was ripped away from her, she lost herself. She lost her identity, lost her ability to smile, lost her passion for life. Gradually, she sunk into a deeper and deeper depression.
I called a couple times a week, for months, and she never answered. She stopped replying to my JPay emails and my letters. Every few months, I’d catch her on a good day, and she would answer the phone, or write me a few sentences. She’d tell me about her new job at the coffee shop, or how sad she is about being forced out of the career that she loved with all her heart. But her voice, it was never the same. The Amanda I knew was no longer present. This new version was a shell of the person she once was.
For two years, I did everything in my power to help her. I strongly encouraged her to go to a mental health therapist. I encouraged her to get on medication. I encouraged her to keep searching for a new job she could love. I even encouraged her to have a one night stand. But she continued to get worse.
Then one day, at a friend’s wedding, she had an epiphany. She called it her “Yoda Moment.” She decided from that day on, she was going to be happy. Her voice sounded better. Her entire attitude had changed. How was this sudden change possible, I wondered? Nevertheless, I told her how happy I was that she was feeling so much better. She told me when she started to feel sad, she’d channel her inner Yoda, and he would give her strength!
The success was short lived. The wedding, in Florida, had been a temporary vacation for her mind, but once she got back to New York, all of her problems returned with a vengeance. Shortly thereafter, I received notice that she had checked herself into a mental hospital and was seriously contemplating suicide. She heard an airplane flying over her apartment building, and she hoped it would crash into her window and kill her.
For Hanukkah that year, I bought her a surprise gift — an authentic Yoda doll. It was about a foot tall, very detailed. I would never think to send someone a Yoda doll as a gift, but for Amanda, it was perfect. When it arrived, she couldn’t tell who the sender was. So she started emailing everyone she knew, asking, “Did you send me Yoda??”
When I told her I had, she didn’t understand why. She was creeped out by it. “Why??!” she asked. A yoda doll, showing up in her mailbox? I explained to her about her “yoda” moment and how I hoped he would watch over her and bring her strength. It was bizarre. Amanda had no memory of ever telling me anything about Yoda.
Our friendship continued to fade. I still emailed her regularly, but she almost never responded. One day, she wrote back. “I just found out my friend hung himself last night.”
She felt my response wasn’t apologetic enough. I was frustrated by some other things in my life that day, I was going through another breakup with another woman I loved, who had recently cheated on me. I had been in prison now for 9 years. I was stressed, unhappy. Maybe I wasn’t thinking clearly. Sure, I said I was sorry, and asked if there was anything I could do, but she expected more from me. She deserved more, and I failed her.
She wrote me a scathing reply, including the words “fuck you!” That was around April of 2017. I haven’t heard from her since. I’m not even sure she’s still alive. Her birthday is this month — I sent her a happy birthday letter, though I have no idea if she even lives at the same address. I’ve called her multiple times, I’ve sent her close to 50 emails, “Hey, I miss you. If you don’t want me around it’s fine, but please just let me know you’re ok.” No response. I had my friend text her, no response. I’ve sent her a few apology letters, but she hasn’t contacted me in any way, shape, or form. And I really miss her.
If I wasn’t in prison, things could have been different. I could have apologized on her voicemail, and maybe she’d hear the sincerity in my voice. I could have hand-delivered gerbera daisies, her favorite flower, to her. I could have rushed to her apartment, the night of her friend’s suicide, and held her. Let her cry on my shoulder. Let her yell at me. I could have been a FRIEND to her when she needed it. But prison prevents me from doing so. It prevents me from being able to give all of myself. It prevents me from giving the love that people deserve. When someone is really struggling with mental health issues, all I can do is send a JPay email, or call and hope they answer the phone. But depressed people — guess what? They don’t really like to answer the phone and chit-chat. They rarely will even get out of bed.
I’d send some cheesy dollar-store greeting card, or some “sorry for your loss” e-card with a picture of a kitten. (Gee, thanks.) And even when I made a serious effort to be heartfelt, Yoda ends up ruining my plans. Prison ruined my life. I accepted that long ago. But what’s so painfully hard to accept is sitting helplessly, in my bunkbed, watching my friends’ lives get ruined, on the outside, and being completely unable, from inside, to do the things a true friend should do.
Amanda, I miss you. I hope you’re ok.
Categories: Stephen Newman