Several years ago on Valentine’s Day, I was sitting in my cell when I remembered it was my cousin’s birthday. When I gave him a ring, he was getting his hair braided at the salon. As we talked I heard a woman’s voice in the background. Her voice made me feel strange, but in a good way.
“Who is that?” I asked.
“My hair stylist,” he answered, handing her the phone.
When she said hello, I knew she was the woman I would marry.
We talked for a few, and she said she had heard a lot about me from my cousin. I asked her if she had room for a new friend in her life and also if she was single. She said yes, she had room. And yes, she was single. When I got off the phone, I was ecstatic.
Throughout my life people have claimed to love me, but just like the seasons, they came and went. My mother loved drugs more than she loved her own kids, and my father was absent. My grandmother loved me with all she had, but she couldn't give me the attention I needed. So I turned to the streets to escape my home life. But all I found was other kids, just like me, searching for a place to belong. We created a false reality of what love and family was, which led us down a road of self-destruction. When I was just 14, I took part in a drug-related robbery that left two people dead and led to me serving a life sentence.
Eventually, I stopped searching for love. I was tired of getting my heart broken. Love seemed like something that happened for other people—not for me.
But when I heard this woman’s voice, I wanted to try again.
We started communicating through letters and over the phone. At the time I was at Stateville prison, where I could talk on the phone in my room. If my cellie was in the room and watching TV, I just put a pillow over my head for privacy when we talked. But the phone calls were expensive. The phone bills would add up fast.
Sustaining a relationship from prison is hard. The worst times are during lockdowns because there are no phone calls, no visits, and the mail is backed up. You never know when a lockdown is going to end—sometimes they last for weeks.
Not being able to have that contact with the people you love is hard to deal with. When we couldn’t connect I feared I was going to lose her. But two months later, she was still there. With each phone call and letter, we grew together and learned about each other. She didn't smoke or do drugs. She was a good mother, daughter, sister and friend.
Although I was in love with her when she first said hello, I didn't tell her because I didn't want to scare her away. My circumstance is not easy to deal with. But one day I just told myself I needed to go for it.
“I love you,” I said, waiting to hear something bad.
“I love you, too,” she said.
She said that she had been in love with me and was afraid to tell me because she didn't want to get hurt. She said she had not come visit me yet because she wanted to know if this was real. I told her it was, but it still took me about a month to convince her to visit. She was afraid I wouldn’t like the way she looked.
When she finally came to visit, I could tell she was still worried because she brought two of her children with her. When I walked down the stairs in the visiting room and saw her I was taken aback. She was so beautiful. I walked up to her table and gave her daughter and son a hug. Then I took her into my arms and gave her a kiss and just held her for a minute.
“You’re so beautiful,” I whispered in her ear.
We had a great time together that day. It was the first of many visits. She came into my life when I needed her the most. She helped me believe in people again. She helped me believe in love again.
Still, we had our ups and downs. Her sisters and friends told her that I was just using her. The courts didn't make things any better. I was getting my appeals denied left and right, but that didn't matter to her. She still loved me. I didn't have anything to offer her except a lot of lonely nights.
At times, I felt as if I wasn’t worthy of love and happiness. I would pick fights with her to get her to break up with me, and to keep from getting my heart broken. Even through all of the craziness, she stayed.
I decided to propose. In prison, there aren’t many ways to propose to the woman you love. Some guys do it through cards, or over the phone, or on a visit, or they have their kids propose for them. Some guys have money to get a ring. I didn’t have the money, so I had to find my own way to make it special.
I decided to get her name tattooed on my ring finger. A friend had made a tattoo gun out of spare parts, powering it with a walkman motor. He sharpened a cable cord wire into a needle, and made ink by burning styrofoam trays and plastic together. The black residue that burns off and floats in the air is caught and mixed with toothpaste.
I paid him a visit and stuck my hand through the bars of his cell. When he wrote her name on my finger, he spelled it correctly, but when he was wiping off the blood, he accidentally wiped off the last letter, an “A,” and then tattooed an “I” instead. I had him cover it up and make a black wedding band. Then I asked him to tattoo her name on my arm, and I made sure he spelled it right. I got her name on my right upper shoulder, so it wasn’t too visible. I didn’t want to get in trouble. Getting tattooed isn’t allowed in prison, but even if I got written up, it would be worth it.
I had to wait for the tattoo to heal completely before asking her to come visit. We get strip-searched when we have a visitor, and if the guards saw my fresh tattoo I could lose some privileges: no TV, radio, gym, or phone. So I waited and waited for the day to come.
The day she came, the visiting room was crowded. There were over 50 people, and it was loud. Being in prison for so long and going on those visits, you are able to block out everybody else. To me, it’s just me and her. But to her, it’s different. She hears the noise and pays attention to everything around her: all of the kids hollering, screaming and crying and the visitors talking and laughing. But once we started talking, she focused on me, and that made it more special.
“Do you see us having a future together,” I asked, 10 minutes into our visit. “Are you here to stay?”
She said yes.
“Will you marry me,” I asked, without getting down on one knee so I wouldn’t get written up.
“Are you sure?” she asked. “Are you sure? Are you sure?” Then she smiled, and said, “Yes!”
I gave her a big kiss and a hug. I told her I didn’t have a ring right now, but I could show her I was serious. I showed her the black wedding band on my finger and the tattoo of her name on my arm.
Prison officials said I couldn’t get married, saying it was a security threat. I kept asking, but they kept saying no. But she said she would wait. I told her on our wedding day we would play our song, “For You,” by Kenny Lattimore.
For years, Valentine’s Day hadn’t meant anything to me. But this Valentine’s Day will mark our seven-year anniversary. She is the beat of my heartbeat.
Adolfo Davis, 42, is currently incarcerated at the Jacksonville Correctional Center in Jacksonville, Illinois. At age 14, he was convicted of murder, attempted murder and home invasion, and was originally sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In 2017, he was re-sentenced to life, and will be eligible for release in 2020.
In an emailed statement, the Illinois Department of Corrections did not confirm that it had denied Davis permission to marry but said that generally, prisoners who wish to do so must meet specific security, behavioral and other criteria.