I should have known. Top had never taken “no” for an answer before. I should have known that he would treat the breakup as a challenge rather than a fact.
How? My therapist Sarah demanded, almost ten years later, when I told her this part of the story.
I blinked at her.
How could you have known?
Top had refused to honor my boundaries before, from ass-slaps in parking lots after I’d asked him not to touch my butt in public to boob-grabs during a family photo. And there had been the sexual assault in a public park that started it all.
But you had never broken up with anyone before, correct? And you had learned from the time you were a child that setting boundaries could be dangerous. You hadn’t had boundaries modeled for you, and you hadn’t had much opportunity to practice. So how could you have known?
I was 23. Top was 33. I was young, but young is not synonymous with stupid. Top had established a pattern of dismissive indifference and violation. And I had noticed it. So why had I thought it would stop just because I tried to leave?
I’d like to suggest, Sarah said with great patience, that you were only 23 and had a difficult background. You were doing the best you could.
I began crying. But not only for the reason my therapist thought. Yes, there was relief. But there was also excruciating grief.
If I had tried to leave and failed, then how was I any different from my mother?
* * *
She had married my abusive father when she was 23. The problems were immediately apparent. In the middle of their conversations, he had stormed out of the house and, like his own father, failed to return for hours. He had terrorized neighborhood children to the point of tears, then laughed at them from his yard. He had regularly insulted her. He had never warmed up to her cat, Velvet, who mysteriously turned up dead years later in his private workspace. And still, she had stayed.
How was I any better?
I spent my childhood telling myself that I would never make the same mistakes she had. I would never accept mistreatment from a man I loved, just because I loved him. I would never become complicit in my own abuse. She was weak, and I wasn’t. She had insisted that love was redeeming and healing and that people like my father would change if she loved them enough. That was her job, her divine destiny, as taught to her by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. You didn’t speak ill against your husband. You certainly didn’t leave him.
I knew better. Or at least I’d told myself that I did. I knew love, with a man like that and in a culture like that, wasn’t healing. It was a form of captivity. A captivity that I would never willingly submit to.
The logic of childhood morality is simple and without nuance. I still believe my mother should have left him. I still believe it was wrong for her to stand by and watch as her husband abused me, year after year.
But there is a twin truth that stands alongside this. Something else I have also come to believe. Something that does not mitigate the wrongness of our choices. It only complicates them.
At 23, I had done the best I could.
And so had she.
* * *
One late afternoon at the end of October, I let my coworkers know I was heading to my next job and tugged on my wool coat in the staff cubicle. Then, with one last wave at my friend Jana, I stepped out onto the breezeway. Tossing my scarf over my shoulder, I started down the walkway. But then I looked up. I froze.
Top was standing there at the end of the brick building. He was dressed in his winter coat and staring at me. Waiting for me.
I turned and walked the other direction at a brisk clip.
Top was no longer a student at the college. He had quit almost as soon as we married. He had told me that he’d come to the States to earn his Ph.D., but once he no longer needed his student visa, he dropped out and filled his days with restaurant shifts.
I wondered how long he’d been standing there. How long he had been waiting.
I was cautious the next day when I finished my shift. And the next. But each day I left, he wasn’t there. I told myself his appearance outside my workplace was a fluke. There had been some other reason.
The following week I headed to the bus stop at the college, fumbling through my backpack for a book, when I looked up. And there he was, standing across the street, his feet planted in the gravel shoulder. Top watched me. I looked down and focused on my backpack, my hands shaking. I finally pulled out a novel and pretended to read.
When the bus came, he was still standing there, staring at me. I tucked away my book and hurried aboard. I chose a seat on the opposite side, so he couldn’t watch me. But when I looked out the window, he was there. He had crossed the street and placed himself where he could see me through the window, his face stony. There was something vindictive about it. I had hurt him, and now he wanted me to see it. Every day, if he could help it. I turned away, my chest tightening, and stared straight at the driver, willing the bus to pull away faster.
It never occurred to me that I could have filed a restraining order. It never occurred to me that I could have called security to escort me to the bus. In 2004, I had yet to receive a workplace training on how to navigate stalking and harassment. I didn’t know these were options. I had believed that telling him it was over was all I needed to do.
It was all I had the resources to do.
After I finished my final shift on these days, I climbed the stairs to my fourth-floor apartment, walked past my brother, and shut myself in my bedroom where I wept, trembling with panic and terror and heartache.
* * *
That’s stalking, Sarah told me ten years later.
I made excuses for it. Even then. I told her that I had watched a lot of Thai music videos. It’s what everybody does in Thai media, I explained to her. The men always follow around the woman they want and spy on her.
It doesn’t matter, she said. It’s still stalking.
* * *
Top started coming by my apartment when I was out. When I arrived home at 10:30 after work, I found Styrofoam containers in the fridge, full of Thai food. A card for me that hadn’t been mailed, my name simply jotted on the envelope. A new quilt on my bed. Top dropped by when he knew I was out, and my brother opened the door. I had broken up with Top, but Allan always opened the door for him. And so I never knew what I was coming home to. Would Top have already been there?
It was invasive. It was frightening.
It demonstrated how little power I actually had.
I blamed Top. I blamed my brother. “He’s just being nice,” Allan explained later when I got upset.
* * *
It went on for months like this.
I could have begun divorce proceedings, but I hadn’t yet. I knew it might cost him his green card. It would also require talking to him, which I was not yet prepared to do.
The worst part wasn’t how it kept the pain fresh. It wasn’t the accusation in his stoic face, which I had begun to openly roll my eyes at. Oh grow up, you motherfucker, I wanted to scream at him.
The worst part was how paranoid it made me. How fearful. My brother dropping a screwdriver on the kitchen linoleum could make me jump. I had trouble falling asleep. I was always listening for someone fumbling with the door. I had taken back his key, but what if he had made a copy?
I never knew when I went to work if Top would be waiting for me. I never knew if he would find me later at the bus stop. And I never knew if, by the time I got home, he would have been there already. My stomach roiled. I lost my appetite.
It was like being haunted. The ghost would leave me alone for a few days, even a week, long enough for me to hope this was finally over, then return the next day. I was in a constant state of alert, adrenaline pounding through my veins.
It was exhausting.
I had planned to submit stories to magazines. To apply to masters programs, for which I had bought a guide the size of a telephone book. To write more. To pursue my dreams now that I was out from under my parents’ thumb.
But I had nothing left to offer anyone or anything.
I had believed, when I moved out of my parents’ house, that now I was free. I had taken control of my own life. The power my parents had wielded over me was finally mine. But I felt as vulnerable as ever. The constant surveillance, the restriction of my movements hadn’t ended. The power had shifted. But not to me.
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