She loves me. She loves me not. She loves me
TAMPA -- He was a 20-year-old ex-con with bedlam in his bones. She was a 14-year-old girl who felt fevers for him. Their love story began with the snap of handcuffs and a first kiss stolen in the shadow of a squad car.
They were nearing Kirby Street when a cruiser spotted them speeding. With a return to lockup looming, instinct -- and the voice of old habit -- told him to bolt.
But another voice said: It's a bad idea to race cops with a girl on your bike. Slows you down.
Worse, you don't want to get her hurt. Especially when the girl is Patty Cooper, whom you've just begun to think about as something more than the blue-eyed kid sister of your buddies.
So he gave himself up, and as they led him away in handcuffs, an awful sadness possessed her, and she did something that surprised them both. She kissed him. It was the kind of kiss that lingers on the lips a second too long to be merely friendly, the kind that carries promises.
"That kiss goodbye, I guess, meant to him what it meant to me," says Patricia, now 25. "It meant that I love you. I knew then. I could just feel it."
They lived on that promise till he was free again, a year later. It blossomed into a marriage a year after that. But she was still 16 and he was still a thief, and trouble became a mistress she couldn't compete against.
So she divorced him. She found another guy. She tried to put Robert behind her, the hell-for-leather scofflaw who, she feared, "cared about jail more than his life out here."
Three years after the divorce, however, Robert and Patricia Whorley did an odd thing. They married each other again. Of course, what they find odd is that they ever lived apart.
True love, they'll tell you today, doesn't die. It just goes into hiding.
Prison and principle
Some couples use current events to keep straight the important dates of their lives. They remember the baby was born the week Nixon resigned, or mom died the month the Challenger exploded.
For the Whorleys there's another yardstick, the names of a dozen work camps and grim compounds, from Brooksville Road Prison to Hendry Correctional. The first was the backdrop of their courtship, the second of their split.
Now 31, Robert is a calm-voiced man, a muscular 5 foot 4 with shaggy light hair and a manner full of shyness. He takes a large pride in what his hands can do. These days, he uses them to build pools and decks. Once, he says, they could get inside a Corvette or IROC in 30 seconds flat.
Robert has a word for the guy he was, the 10th-grade dropout who racked up more than a dozen arrests from the age of 18 to his mid 20s, many for car theft, burglary and probation violations. The word is crazy.
He was 18 when he shoved a Hillsborough deputy and tore off his badge trying to escape arrest. On his 19th birthday, he tried to steal $1,440 worth of jeans from a Tampa western-wear store. Cops found him hiding behind an air conditioning duct.
Robert was at Brooksville Road, soon after that first shackled kiss, when he and Patricia began exchanging letters and putting "I love you" at the bottom. With her help, he learned to spell her name.
Released in June 1989, he spent his first night of freedom in Patricia's room on Crawford Street. She was 15 and living with her mother, who didn't know there was a guest in the house.
"She woulda killed me if she found out," Patricia says.
Soon she moved into Robert's apartment on Sterling Avenue. Her father disapproved, because of her age. The authorities, had they known, might have too. Patricia didn't care. She loved Robert. In a year she was pregnant.
These were Robert's crazy years, so what happened next wasn't a shock. In June 1990, Hillsborough cops picked him up on a warrant for stealing a Pontiac Fiero.
Plus, Robert thought, a child should have married parents. Not marrying "just wouldn't have been proper, as far as I was concerned." Even on his way to prison, he had his principles.
Fifty or 60 people came to a Baptist church on Casey Road to see them married. She wore a white gown. Her father, she recalls, slammed the door on the way out of the chapel.
The words "I do" meant to the Whorleys what they're supposed to mean to everyone: We forsake all others. For better and for worse. Till death do us part.
But for the teenage bride, it also meant: I am brave enough to wait for you while more of my youth is eaten up alone.
They shared two weeks of married life before he went back to lockup. It was a five-year sentence.
Putting the past in front of her
"I thought we'd be able to make it through it," Robert says.
It was a lot to hope for. At 17, she became the mother of a girl, Shelbi. She was living again with her parents, and she didn't feel so married anymore. The empty days and weeks and months seemed to stretch out before her like a track whose end she couldn't see.
Another guy came into her life. He was older. He treated her well, she says, and encouraged her to put Robert behind her. So did other friends. For a while, she believed she had done it.
"Once he was gone, I just let things go. Outta sight, outta mind, I guess," she says.
Her letters stopped coming to Hendry Correctional, where Robert served on a work camp as part of a cattle squad. When he called her collect, she wouldn't accept. Finally he got something from her: legal papers. The divorce became final in January 1993.
"You mostly keep your emotions locked inside," Robert says of coping with the news behind bars. "You lock yourself up in yourself."
Robert got out in March 1993, having served less than three years. When Patricia found out, she says, she "got all these shaky feelings." Maybe she hadn't moved on, after all.
She loves me: Part 2