Domestic abuse is like a nazi camp, it’s a world that is upside down, and you are completely alone.
When I was growing up, every day was a holiday. All things dark lived on the other side of the galaxy. Stupid things clearly were happening to stupid people who didn’t know better, to people who were less informed, to people who weren’t me. My life was an official walk to the bright future. I was an invincible sunny kid bringing home straight A’s, studying classical piano and Tibetan language, speaking at international conferences, hanging out with the rebels and playing in a band. I was dreaming big, problems were not problems. I was on the forefront of everything, and the world was mine.
Then I came to America.
On an “El” platform in Chicago, I met a handsome Italian lawyer who immediately started courting me in a curious American way that I had seen in movies: bars, baseball games, television and homemade baked mostaccioli. At first, I didn’t deem him as worthy. He was too square. But gradually he oozed into my life. He won me over with his persistent attentiveness. He planned our dates carefully, his obsession with detail and cute little idiosyncrasies amused me. Little by little, I fell in trust and then, love. Very soon we were living together (“it really doesn’t make sense for you to pay the rent”). Then he insisted that we should marry. I was not planning on marrying anybody at the time but I was flattered: he was tall and cute, his parents were smart, and many American girls wanted to be in my place. Should I add that I wasn’t looking for a Green Card husband?
I have been stigmatized for being an immigrant so many times in so many different ways that the need to apologize has become an instinct. I know it’s absurd but I apologize. “Shit for brains, you Russian shit for brains”. How could you.
We wed in Vegas, in a hilarious drive-through chapel. The day we got married became the last day of my normal life for years lying ahead. Had I only known he was a psychopath, I would have fled. But he seemed so. Kind. Indeed, when we were dating he was sweeter than diabetes. His mom told me lovingly that she had never seen him be so nice to anybody. I smiled, I was sure she was exaggerating. Only once did he do something strange to me, but I suppressed it because deep down I was feeling permanently guilty for all the hearts I had broken; hence, I made a firm decision to be “understanding”. That one time, he took me out to dinner for my birthday and got mysteriously upset with me for not finishing my food. I decided he didn’t mean it. I thought it was some kind of a really twisted joke.
His next really twisted joke was dragging me by the legs down the stairs on a New Year’s Eve. I said something he didn’t like and he turned on me. He grabbed me, dragged me down, then ordered me to pack my things and leave the house. It felt like a distorted action-packed version of Alice in Wonderland. I was grabbing and scratching back, as if in a silent movie about somebody else, but I was not processing the new information – in my mind he was still the sweet man who cared about me. Still on mute, I packed my things, called a downtown hotel, and out of the door I went rolling my suitcase, straight into the New Year’s Eve.
Not even five minutes into my exodus, my husband called me. He apologized frantically, told me he didn’t know what had come upon him and begged me to return. I turned around and came back, numb and wanting to forget the incident. I believed him.
The year that followed was blurry. Insults, violent fights, absurd, red spitting face looking for a remote and banging on the closet door till it broke down in splinters, things flying across the room, insane phone calls, yelling, fear, sleep deprivation, office with white walls, staring at my computer screen trying to keep my eyes open, complete isolation, confusion, fear, fatigue, hope, attachment, begging, apologies, insults, not knowing where to go. Fear, confusion, trying to save my face, wanting to sleep all the time, still believing in logic, desperation and tears stuck somewhere behind my tear glands. His mom’s dogs. His normal friends. Dressing up and pasting a smile for family reunions, new twisted logic, trying to fight back, feeling of guilt, feeling miles behind tired.
Compromise. I had to compromise. I had to learn something, become a better person, not the free-spirited mistake I was born. Everything about me was wrong. I couldn’t shop, I couldn’t cook, I couldn’t save money. My music was in bad taste, my friends were freaks, and my ideas were simply criminal. It was somehow my fault, and he was my only friend.
One time when he had his hands on my throat the neighbors called the police after they heard me scream for life. Predictably, he begged me to save his family from shame and him from losing his legal license. I couldn’t afford letting go of my only friend. I told the cops we didn’t have a problem.
I didn’t have a personality anymore, I wanted to sleep, he tormented me like a cold nazi, and naturally, getting laid was the last thing on my mind. I didn’t feel hatred yet, I just didn’t have a soul. How can you think about vibrant things when you are a ghost, when you don’t feel anything at all, when you don’t remember who you are? All I wanted was to close my eyes and never have to open them again, please – but he wanted entertainment, he had his needs. He was unhappy that I was always tired. He started telling me I was frigid, another fault. On a normal day, this would be the most ridiculous thing to tell me but I did not remember normal days.
I remember playing a game. I was wearing a fur coat on a naked body for him and he was so excited. He pretended he was taking pictures. His face was red. I was not even there. I was never there anymore.
Luckily for me, about a year into my marriage I met Maria, a driven, gutsy Ukrainian girl. We started talking, and she offered me a couch at her house. The next time my husband ordered me to leave, I had a place to go. I packed and left. When he called back demanding my return, she didn’t let me.
But it wasn’t the end. As I was slowly recovering, he became frantic. In a sick way, he needed me. His phone calls became more frequent and his tone more urgent. He begged me, he threatened me, he promised to turn my life into living hell if I didn’t listen. I was physically away from him but emotionally, I was still under his spell. I was living in a steady state of a nervous breakdown, always waiting to be attacked. I was in a war zone. I woke up deadly anxious and I went to bed deadly anxious. I was afraid of everything. I was afraid to do wrong. I was afraid to go grocery shopping because I couldn’t make independent choices. I hated my phone for ringing and one time I broke it just so that he couldn’t get through. It didn’t occur to me to go to the police. I was ashamed, I didn’t want to disappoint his parents. I was afraid of all the stink he was going to raise.
One time he tricked me into meeting with him and he raped me. Over the phone, he yelled and yelled at me to come to his house and sign a paper that would allow him to cash an insurance check. I didn’t care if he took the money. I just wanted my freedom. He promised to leave me alone if I signed that thing, and I agreed to visit.
He made king crab legs. He wanted it to be a nice date. He said “See, I am nice, that’s because I care about you! Now sit down and let’s enjoy the crab legs together”. I didn’t want the crab legs, I wanted out. But he wouldn’t let me. And then he locked the door and said he wanted sex, that he needed sex, that he hadn’t had sex for a while and it was my marital duty to provide it. The door was locked, it was locked, and he was standing in the doorway blocking it and screaming and demanding something, threatening, arguing, pontificating. He said that if I let him have sex with me he would leave me alone, for sure this time. For sure. I felt dead. I softened. I was not there.
As he fucked me I was crying. I still remember the room and his face. After he was done he said solemnly: “You ruined it for me by crying, all bets are off now”. And I put on my clothes, and walked out, and got into my car, and on my way back I screamed. I screamed all the way. At the top of my lungs.
He left a nice message on my answering machine. It said: “Honey, I want to make sure you got home alright, you seemed kind of upset when you were leaving”. I deleted the message. I don’t even remember if I told anybody about what happened. I wasn’t there.
He continued calling me. His messages were getting more and more weird. He was accusing me of being anti-American and demanding that I should pledge allegiance to his country. He was hinting that something horrible was going to happen to me if I didn’t come back. For once, he kept his word. He went to Homeland Security and told them I was a spy. Shortly after his “confession”, four armed agents knocked on my door, cuffed my hands and took me to jail. It was after 911.
Yes, I spent a month in jail. Yes, I spent several nights sleeping on a metal bed in my shorts and a t-shirt. Yes, I was questioned by FBI. Yes, it took three years in court and a lot of money in legal fees to drop the charges. Yes, it was scary, funny, absurd. But I survived.
The only things that remind me of my “criminal” past are occasional spasms of default anxiety and pure terror that I feel when somebody knocks on my door without a warning. I laugh at it but till this day, when somebody knocks on my door bypassing the buzzer, I freeze and listen to my heart flying out of my chest at 3000 beats a minute. I don’t like unexpected visitors.
But I have recovered. My grandparents have been through the war, they had it tougher.
Since then, I have fallen in and out of love, made new friends, recorded songs, toured, moved, felt good, bad, happy, angry, loved. I have regained my life and my facial expression. I have moved on.
To this day, I look back and wonder why I didn’t give him the boot on first act of horror.
He was crazy and dangerous. It was obvious. I didn’t do anything about it. Why?
Question of the fucking century. I don’t know. I think I was used to kindness and I didn’t know how to process this much absurdity. I was a child, I was alone in a foreign country, I didn’t want want people to think I was not succeeding, that kind of thing.
My love is braver now, because I have figured out that cowardice costs too much. Love is the best inspiration on the planet.