The next thing I remember is shaking out black garbage bags. I bagged up the clothes from my closet, taking armfuls of sweaters and blouses and skirts with the hangers still attached. I wadded up my sheets and pillows. I stuffed everything into the bags and knotted them closed. I don’t know if this was days later, or weeks. I had already packed Grandpa’s typewriter. I boxed up my books. My brother and I loaded up his Honda with my wicker chair and my wooden trunk, garbage bags squished against the windows, my computer monitor buckled into the backseat, my CPU tucked into a footwell. I don’t remember how we transported my twin bed. Probably Top came with his uncle’s pickup.
I stopped attending my classes. I never contacted my university nor any of my professors. I simply disappeared, mid-quarter. My literature professor somehow wrangled a C from my absence. My statistics professor outright flunked me. I had always earned excellent grades. So I was surprised, when I logged into the school website months afterward to view the damage, how little I cared.
My father had been telling me for years that I owed him. I had offered to take out loans. To split tuition. To do extra housework for him. But here, I drew the line. If sexual assault was the price of a college education, I didn’t want it.
* * *
I understand now, of course. I understand that what my father had meant with his constant refrain you owe me was that he had a right to compensation. And he wanted that compensation in the form of punishment—not for anything I had done, but for his own feelings.
All my life, my father did nothing but work, attend to his church duties, and dominate his family. He never managed his emotions through therapy or physical activity or art or anything but abuse. Abuse had become his only means of self-expression and release.
Confronted with his own inappropriate feelings for his daughter, he did what men across the centuries have done to women: he penalized me rather than manage himself. Rather than seek out help or support, he transferred all of his self-loathing and frustration onto me.
And then he had watched as Mormon authorities shunned me, running me out of my own church in order to protect another middle-aged white man from his frustrated sexual desire. It must have felt like a message straight from God. Yes, see, I knew it. She’s the one to blame. She does this to everyone.
It must have been a relief.
So I understand now that it was bound to happen. I do not believe it had to. I refuse to believe that men are inherently childish and impotent, incapable of managing the difficult, complicated feelings of adult sexuality. Men can and should be responsible for themselves. But my father is the product of a society that tells men dangerous lies about their own masculinity and sexuality, lies about their presumed lack of control over how they enact desire, lies about what they deserve, lies about women’s accountability for men’s behavior. He swallowed these lies whole, and they fell as seeds into his gut, sprouting a venomous plant within him that has never stopped growing.
I only feel lucky that it did not happen to me when I was still a child. So many are not so lucky. I am grateful that if it had to happen, it was when I was capable of taking matters into my own hands. I had poor problem-solving skills and few resources, and the choices I made in the aftermath were disastrous.
But staying would have been worse.
Staying would have ended in my suicide.
* * *
After my father’s assault, I felt the familiar rising tide of depression. And I couldn’t risk it. I just couldn’t. I had barely survived my first bout with depression. I didn’t dare test my strength on a second round.
So I got out. As an ex-Mormon who knew only one woman with a career and no single women over 25, I got out the only way I could think of.
I bartered my body for an ounce of safety.
Look, I said to Top. Your student visa is going to expire soon. I can help you. But I have to live with you.
He, too, had sexually and physically assaulted me. He, too, was my abuser. But he was not my father. It was an inch better than where I had been. Emerging from abuse is not the explosive triumph that religion and the media tell us it is. A clear victory. Ta-da. And then you’re safe. It’s a slow ascent, a long climb, one handhold at a time. Each situation slightly safer than the last. In a sexist society, it isn’t pretty. It can’t be. And it doesn’t look anything like redemption.
Top accepted my proposal.
He arranged for a storage room to be cleared on the second floor of the Thai restaurant. He bolted a padlock to the door and its frame, so the room could be locked from the outside. The next time I visited, Top swung it open and showed me the room that would be mine. The stained industrial carpet still held indentations from the freezer and refrigerator that had stood there. The popcorn ceiling hung with cobwebs, and the air smelled of dust and pad thai sauce and raw, refrigerated beef.
His uncle, who was the primary owner, had generously agreed to let me live there rent-free. I was far from the first refugee to be granted asylum on the restaurant’s second floor, and I would not be the last. But I was the first to be American. The first to be white. By accepting this room and telling no one why, I permanently damaged my relationship with one of Top’s aunts. I felt such shame and guilt, and it kept me locked in that room for days at a time.
I was surrounded by people who had given up everything to accept minimum wage and 75-hour workweeks just to live here in the United States. Some of them had spent a decade in refugee camps. Some of them had lost children to war and starvation.
And me? It seemed to me that my story was not so bad. That I should have been able to tough it out, to last the final months to graduation. I told myself I was all the worst things Top’s aunt thought I was—weak and broken and so entitled as to be helpless. I told myself this because I could not face the truth: I was afraid my father would sexually assault me again. I had fled tremendous privilege and opportunity just to avoid the possibility that my father might do worse than feel me up. And now I shared the same bathroom with refugees from war and terrorism and unthinkable poverty. Each night, we ate the same food at the same dinner table.
When I had to run, it was not my own country that housed and fed me. It was the immigrant community.
I have never forgotten that.
* * *
For a long time, I didn’t tell anyone but my mother what had happened. I had been begging her to leave my father for years. Ever since I was 12 and he beat me, I had appealed to her pride and her self-preservation. “But you deserve better,” I’d insist. “There’s no reason for you to let him talk to you like that. You could drive us all to Grandma and Grandpa’s, and we could stay there until you get a job.” She had, in fact, returned to full-time software programming while I was in high school only to quit after two years.
Still, I hoped. Before I brokered my deal with Top, I had gone to her first. After all, wasn’t this yet another insult to her? But she had the reaction I expected. She laughed. Unlike my father’s laugh, hers was hysterical and hard-edged like broken glass. No, she said. I’m sure he didn’t mean it.
I don’t know what this expression means: I’m sure he didn’t mean it. Isn’t action the one true thing that cuts through the subterfuge we all surround ourselves with? The comforting lies we tell each other and ourselves about the nebulous thoughts and wishes we call intentions. We all wish to be better people than we are. Most of us live our entire lives refusing to face the damage we have done, the hurt we have caused—and the fact that on some level, we liked it. We wanted someone else to hurt. We wanted to make a child cry.
Of course he had meant it.
He had done it.
* * *
That September, I dressed in a brown wraparound skirt and matching blouse. Top buttoned up a white shirt and knotted a tie under his collar. We drove to the Seattle courthouse where we were married before a judge. We exchanged rings that did not fit and that had in fact been passed around the Thai expat community, worn by half a dozen women before me who had married uncles, cousins, brothers—the rings boxed up afterwards and saved for the next wedding.
I cried through our vows.
I didn’t know why I was crying. I told myself it must be because I was so happy.
I was 21 years old.