I took Eric home to meet my family and we went out to a steakhouse. I wasn’t sure how my mom and dad would react – he was a far cry from the pretty boys I’d dated before. Then again, I hadn’t exactly had many boyfriends. He drove an old blue Ford pickup, lifted with huge tires. It was a redneck truck – scrappy and wild, like him. At dinner, he took out his own knife to cut his steak. I knew he was going to do that. He always complained that the knives at restaurants were dull. Across the table, I watched my mom give everything she had to keep from laughing.
He was who he was… and I liked that. Dinner went well and my family seemed to like him.
I was crazy about Eric. I mean head-over-heels, love-with-all-my-might, crazy. He was nothing like the man I imagined I’d end up with – but at the young age of 21, I was just beginning to realize that my ideas of the perfect life with the perfect man were pretty far off from what I actually needed and wanted.
Eric had a bit of a jealous streak – which was surprising, given how accepting he was of my dancing (then again, I hadn’t exactly given him a choice in the matter). I always said I didn’t want a jealous man… but when I saw flashes of jealousy from Eric, it drove me wild. I remember sitting with him at a bar one night. He got up to use the bathroom and another man approached me while he was gone. I told him my boyfriend was in the bathroom and he said, “Well you aren’t married, so in my mind, you’re single.” Eric was walking back up to the table as I was politely trying to get the guy to leave; he pulled out a stool, sat down, and stared at the man. Eric didn’t say a word, but if looks could kill…
The guy nodded and took a couple steps backward before turning around and scurrying off. It was hot.
I always sensed some sadness under Eric’s tough guy exterior. I tried to figure out the cause, but he didn’t like talking about his past. From what he did share, I knew he had a troubling childhood and a mother who was addicted to drugs. He no longer had anything to do with her… didn’t even know where she lived. That seemed so sad to me.
The scars of his past — scars that were still unclear to me — caused him to have a bit of hardness… a shell to protect him, I suppose. But he was never hard toward me. I had become his Achilles heel. I think the weakness he felt with me was both troubling and welcomed. I was a soft place to land, creating a space where he didn’t have to be so tough – a place where he could take off that imaginary armor, even if it made him feel a little vulnerable. And in return, he created a safe, protected space for me. I loved that I got a part of him that the rest of the world didn’t get to see… a part that nobody else even knew existed.
Eric would do anything to make me smile. I remember coming home from class one day and seeing a life-size, animated Santa Claus in my living room. You could push a button and he’d sing a medley of Christmas carols. The holidays were approaching and I told Eric I didn’t really get into Christmas and had no plans of putting up a tree. He found this unthinkable.
“Everyone needs a Christmas tree, Jess!” he said.
So he put up a tree in my apartment and threw in a singing Santa because he knew it would crack me up.
It made me feel special to be someone’s fiance…to know there was a man crazy enough to want to spend his life with me. I had previously placed so much emphasis on the details of my dream partner. I had lists of attributes I insisted on, as well as those I wouldn’t tolerate. I wanted someone who was educated, successful, good looking, powerful. Someone with finesse, who would make me look really impressive to the world.
But I realized that in all those lists of “must-haves,” I had left out the most fundamental piece…
Eric was handsome, but not in a suit-and-tie wearing kind of way. He was more of a dusty-pair-of-jeans kind of handsome. There was nothing about him that was polished. But I found that I liked his rough edges.
And he loved me fiercely.
As much as I cherished my relationship with Eric, things weren’t perfect. There were some red flags that I ignored.
First, Eric’s life was pretty secretive. I didn’t know much about what he did or who he hung out with. He didn’t seem to have many friends, except for this older guy who he worked for. Eric was a construction foreman who was paid off the books. He had cash on him all the time – usually large sums. More cash than a foreman would make.
My gut told me that something was up, but I was too in love. I didn’t want to know.
I found out anyway.
It was New Years Eve. I was going to a party with one of my girlfriends and went home to visit with my parents beforehand. My dad, who owned an in-ground pool company, was telling me about an issue he was having with his business. Workers were stealing equipment from his job sites. I jokingly told him to stop hiring criminals and asked if he performed criminal background checks.
He told me he did not. I explained that he didn’t have to conduct full background checks – that he could just search the inmate population online and at least see if a prospective worker had convicted any crimes in Florida. Remember, this was 2003. The internet was still in its infancy and my dad had no idea this could be done.
I offered to show him how to do an inmate population search and we walked into my old bedroom, which had been converted to an office. I sat down at the computer and he pulled up a chair next to me. I went to the Florida Department of Corrections website and showed my dad how to search current and released inmates.
Joking around, I said “so as an example, let’s search for Eric.” I typed his name into the search box. His first and last names were relatively common, so a bunch of search results returned.
But there was one result that jumped out at me… one that matched his birthday.
“Hmm..” I said, “That’s odd.” I clicked on record with my Eric’s matching birthday and waited as the dial up connection crunched out loud to retrieve the data.
A photo began to load. A mug shot. Starting with the top of the head and slowly adding rows of pixels as the picture downloaded. It felt like an eternity as I waited.
When it got to the eyes, I knew this was a mugshot of Eric. My Eric. A very recent mugshot.
My heart sank.
“Oh no…” I muttered.
After the mugshot loaded, his rap sheet began to load.
“No,” I whispered. “What is this?”
“Nancy get in here!” I heard my dad yell to my mom.
I wanted to throw up. My mom came into the room and asked what was going on. My dad pointed to the computer screen.
“Is that Eric?” she asked in disbelief. I couldn’t answer. My heart was in my throat.
Between 1991 and 2003, Eric had spent most of his life in prison. He was first sentenced in 1990, but because he was a minor, he didn’t do any real time until ’91. Looking at his record, I could see he’d get in trouble, serve a sentence, get out for a little while, and then get in trouble and go back to prison. His offenses were mostly theft related – grand theft auto, burglary, credit card fraud, traffic in stolen property. I later found out that he started running a chop shop when he was 17. He was 30 now.
He had just finished serving his last sentence a couple months before we met.
Eric was a career criminal.
I remember staring at the computer in disbelief.
What else did I not know about Eric? Was there stuff he had done and not gotten caught for? Was he dangerous? Was I in danger?
My memories for the hours after I found out are pretty blurred. I remember just feeling… stunned. I left my parents’ house to meet up with my friend for the New Years party. I didn’t want to talk to or see Eric that night, I didn’t care if it was New Years. I told myself he probably had some more crimes to commit anyways.
It ended up being a horrible night. I got drunk. My girlfriend got slipped drugs, and we spent the next morning at a hospital getting a rape kit done on her. Eric had tried to call me all night. At one point during the night I answered his call and asked him if there was anything he wanted to tell me. I pulled a trick my mom used on me when I was in high school, which always made me sing like a canary:
“I know everything, so you better tell me the truth.”
He wasn’t biting.
“Your past, Eric. You didn’t think I should know you’re a goddamn career criminal!” I hissed.
I was drunk. Like, super drunk. I knew this conversation was a terrible idea in that moment. But… booze.
“Who told you?” he demanded.
“It doesn’t matter how I found out, Eric. What matters is that I found out.” I started crying. The sloppy drunk girl type of tears. The worst kind.
I was devastated. I knew I’d never be able to trust him again.
I didn’t want to hear him out. I didn’t care what his explanation was. It’s not like we were just casually dating – I understood not wanting to tell me about his past when we were first getting to know each other. But now.. planning a life together, wasn’t this something I should have known?
The next couple weeks were tough. I didn’t let him see me. I didn’t want to talk to him. I put his things in a box and set them on my doorstep. Eric begged me to give him a chance to explain. But I refused.
One night he came to my door and knocked for over an hour, pleading for me to let him in. “I know you’re in there, Jessica, I just want to talk… please answer the door.” I pictured him outside, leaning his head on the door, talking into the door jamb. I shut off all the lights in the apartment and went into the bathroom. I don’t know why I did this. It wasn’t Halloween and he wasn’t a trick-or-treater.
I sat on my bathroom floor in the darkness, tears streaming down my face as I listened to him knock and beg me to let him in.
“I love you Jessica,” he said, finally giving up. I heard him walk down the stairs, his footsteps fading away.
“I love you too,” I whispered into the darkness.
After a few weeks, I was finally ready to talk. I picked up the phone and called him.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked. “Why did you hide that from me.”
“Baby…” he said. I closed my eyes as I held the phone to my face. I missed hearing him call me baby. “I couldn’t tell you.”
“What do you mean you couldn’t tell me?”
“Jessica, you would have left me. You know that. You wouldn’t have been able to see through my past.”
I knew he was right.
“I’ve fucked up. I have a fucked up past. I’ve made fucked up decisions. I’m a convicted felon. I can’t vote or leave the country. I know that’s not who you want to be with, Jess.” He paused. I listened anxiously, hoping for some redemptive explanation that would somehow make this okay… but instead he simply added, “You deserve so much better than me.”
I sighed. “You were just going to keep it hidden for as long as you could? You had to know I’d find out eventually.”
“Yes. I knew you would. That thought kept me up many nights. You were the first good, real thing I’ve ever had in my life. I knew you would eventually find out…but I couldn’t let myself believe I would ever lose you…. I couldn’t go there in my mind.” His voice cracked. “I still can’t.”
I wanted to tell him to come over. I wanted to tell him I loved him and his past was his past. And maybe the 37-year-old version of me would have granted him grace. But 21-year-old Jessica was not yet capable of that kind of love.
And so, we broke up.
About two years later, I was driving down the interstate when he called. I had been dating someone else for a year and a half, but when I saw Eric’s number pop up on my phone, it was like being struck by a bolt of lightning. A thousand emotions immediately washed over me.
I didn’t answer.
A minute later, my phone beeped to notify me of a voicemail. I took a deep breath and held up the phone to listen.
Eric’s voice was like honey to my soul. I had missed him… man had I missed him. In the message, he said he just wanted me to know that he still thought about me… that he still loved me.
I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to call him back, but I instinctively knew it was a bad idea. I was in love with someone else now. Someone sturdy and safe. A guy who paid taxes and had health insurance. Someone who was the opposite of Eric in almost every way. A good guy. A guy who loved me back. Someone who was probably a better fit for my life anyways.
And so, taking all things into consideration…
I called Eric back…