the author in NYC, c. 2010
cw: abuse, sexual assault, violence, cruelty
i wasn't looking/but somehow you found me
"Wow, you look so exotic."
I was in a corner of a rooftop party the night we met, drinking a warm beer, when you said this to me. I cringed but I wasn't good at telling people to fuck off at that point in my life. I was suspicious of you, knowing I looked barely the Cuban American I was, but I also felt struck by someone seeing parts of me that didn't feel obvious to the larger world. In hindsight, I wasn't just physically cornered by you at that moment. You stepped closer to me.
"Your eyes," you said. "They turn me."
I caught the reference to the new Radiohead album and smiled. Nothing happened that night or for a while but everything happened; I didn't know then that it was too late.
i do everything you want me to
The first time you finally kissed me, you were running towards me in the airport, a full sprint towards my mouth. Out of breath, you wrapped your arms around me and pressed your lips against mine in public, lifting me as close to you as possible. You pulled back to look at me and couldn’t seem to decide whether to look at me or kiss me. I had on a little black dress and red ballet flats; I lost a shoe when you grabbed me to your body. For the first time in my life up to that point, I let myself feel more than think and I fell hard.
Before you, I dated at arm’s length. I did not let people get close to me and I left the majority of people I dated before I had to get vulnerable. When I was 14, the dysfunctional stability I was used to with my family ended when my parents divorced and I became hypervigilant of every fluctuation in my relationships. With relationships, romantic or not, I generally got out before I could be left; you were the first person I didn’t do this with. My mom commented on it after I finally left you.
“He was your big love,” she said.
“He’s not my big love at all.”
“No but he was your first big love.”
In the first days after I left, I didn’t want to give you that privilege, that place in the narrative of my life reserved for the first big love; she was right though. You were the first person I let myself really love, the first one who I gave of myself to entirely and completely. I couldn't see it then but it was less a conscious choice and more that I was trapped. You knew I was insecure about leaving past relationships and you constantly reminded me of my tendency to run; it made me feel vulnerable, scared. You were my first big love but you also were and still are the shadow around every corner. I used to think you knew me better than anyone but really you only knew just enough to make me think you were the only one who would ever see me.
i'll drown my beliefs to have your babies
There’s a point in life when you realize that what your parents told you about right and wrong, black and white, is complete bullshit; few things are one or the other and people never are. People can do terrible things and yet no one’s entirely terrible. Even now, I really believe this, no matter how hard it is to believe in the consistently inconsistent. A friend asked me how we lasted so long, what with our problems, the distance, so many factors and I can only think that our good moments were that good, they were good enough then.
I fell in love with you again and again and I fell in love with New York again and again, watching the leaves change on the trees along the Hudson near your apartment, waiting for movies to start on summer afternoons, drunk and holding hands, you pulling me under your arm as we ran to catch our train to get home at the end of the night. The city was as bright, as full of potential as you were, as exhausting as you were. It breathed the way you did, restlessly in your sleep, in my ear keeping me up. It was our favorite movies and inside jokes about Argento films and baseball and your lips between my shoulder blades in the morning and good pizza when we were sober and better pizza when we were drunk. This is how we loved and it was enormous then.
We fought that way, too. The same city that lit us up, that had us running all over town, that made our hearts thump, witnessed our ugly. We got into a screaming match near Central Park one summer night and you left me crying in the street. I ran away from you after we had an argument in the dead of winter, both of us drunk but your violence rippling under the surface of your skin, my tongue still cruel as ever. There were many subway rides that felt longer than they should have as we refused to speak to each other. We were usually ok by the time we went to sleep; however, the city never slept and our problems never did for long.
The love I had for you was big, huge even, and distance was never the problem. It never is the problem, really, whether geographical or emotional. Distance is only a problem when you can’t meet someone halfway, when one person carries both of you, when it turns out you can’t possibly carry the two of you forever. Eventually, every little problem that shouldn’t be big is too much to carry and you crack. What you couldn’t imagine living without becomes the thing that’s slowly breaking you.
It was over the day my aunt died and you texted me instead of calling to say, “I’m sorry about your aunt. Comic Con is great!” It was over when you had the money to fly down for the funeral and didn’t. It was over when you rolled your eyes and told me, “it’s been a month” when I was still grieving my aunt. It was over when I discovered that the metadata for a song that was ours had a note in the file for some other girl. It was over every time we had sex and you didn’t stop when I asked you to—when you raped me. It was over when you lied to me when we were on a break and told me you in fact did want to have kids only to tell me a year later that you had only said that so I would consider getting back together with you. It was over when you told me over and over again that no one could love me like you did. It was over for a long time, before any of that even happened, before it even started.
all those days spent together, i wished for better/and i didn't want the train to come
This week, it’s been eleven years since I left. Our last night together before I left was one of our best. We made dinner, we watched movies, we found ourselves in the usual position of me in the crook of your arm. As I closed my eyes that night, despite the disintegration of things, I thought that perhaps somehow it would be ok; it wouldn’t be. We fought the next day about the things we had been fighting about for as long as we’d been together: the fact that I carried us almost completely in every possible way, your inability to communicate honestly, your complete inability to deal with anything, everything. You were angry and I was weary. You had to go to a film screening and I refused to go. You slammed the door on me, my arms crossed, nude, on the couch. I knew it was about to end.
I called my best friend, I called my dad. I cried in such a state that my dad thought you had beat me.
“Book a hotel room and leave,” he said. “Pack your things right now.”
I got dressed and picked up my things, knowing I wouldn’t be back. You had bedbugs at the time that had eaten me alive and I rubbed my ankles together when they itched. My bags were packed and by the front door. I waited. They were still there when you walked inside, took off your coat, and kissed me. You apologized and said how much you missed me, how much you hated seeing movies without my hand in yours. I started to cry and you still had no idea. I couldn’t bring myself to say it at first, I all but said it but the actual words couldn’t come. When you realized what I was about to do, your eyes turned dark.
“You already know.”
“You need to say it,” you said. “I need to hear you say it.”
“I can’t,” I whimpered. You slammed your fist on the counter so loud that I started to cry.
“You need to fucking say it, Anaïs,” you growled.
“I want to break up. I’m leaving you.”
You started to cry and I tried to comfort you because that’s what I had done for the better part of a few years. You pulled away from me as I started to cry again. I could feel my phone vibrating in my pocket, everyone I knew checking to see that I had left, that I was safe. I walked to the door and began to put on my coat.
“What are you doing?” You looked at me like I was crazy.
“Well, I’m leaving,” I said as I put my arms in the sleeves.
“No, you can sleep in the bed, I’ll sleep on the couch.”
“No, I’m leaving right now.”
“Where will you go?” You asked and your voice cracked along with what was left of my heart. “It’s the middle of the night.”
“A hotel, I have a room.”
You couldn’t accept this, that there was a room already. You wrapped your hands around my wrists as I tried to get the rest of my things together, you begged me to stay. Your fingers gripped me so tightly that I could see them there, purply green, a few days later. We cried together and I begged you to let me go. I pleaded until you finally did. I gathered the rest of my things and you walked me to the door where you gingerly put my grey scarf around my neck and buttoned the littlest button on my coat up to my neck for me.
“It’s cold out there.” You had tears in your eyes.
You made me promise to let you know when I got to my hotel. I didn’t crack until I closed the door behind me. I wept in the elevator ride eleven stories down, I sobbed to your doorman when I asked him to call me a cab, I kept crying as I waited for it in the lobby. I cried as I checked into my hotel, as I put down my bags, as I texted you to tell you I was ok, and as I ordered room service. I cried even more as I ate my food, as I watched The Nanny, as I fell asleep in what felt like the biggest king size bed in New York City.
The clocks changed that night and I woke up with an extra hour and not much else. I spent the next day drunk as you are supposed to after a breakup and fielding calls from my family and friends. You wanted me to come home to talk about things calmly. I couldn’t help but notice the sad irony in that you wouldn’t meet me halfway in New York City when that inability in general was a reason I left you. We agreed to meet the next day before I flew out. In the meantime, I drank tequila and wandered around the city. I no longer felt excited and energized by the streets as I walked 20, 30, 40, 50 blocks without a destination. I was exhausted by the previous few years, by the emptiness that I didn’t think was possible after loving someone so long. I was spent.
We met at a Starbucks the next day. I had my bags with me and I sat next to you as some girl directly behind me muttered to herself as she studied. You handed me an ankle sock smaller than your hand.
“I didn’t want you to go back home and find it didn’t have its partner,” you said.
I started to openly cry in Starbucks as we said the things you’re supposed to say when you break up with someone you still love despite it all. Nothing was resolved; you wanted to work on things but I knew better. You wanted to take me to lunch before I left and you picked up my bag as we made our way outside. I shivered and felt myself already gone, not belonging to anything and ready to lift right out of my shoes. You took my hand like old times and I accepted it. For the next two hours, we were us and it felt like my city, the ones I fell in love with. You pushed through crowds to lead us down the street, we ate together and shared food, moving things we knew the other liked to their plate, laughing.
You asked me if I wanted you to take me to the airport and I told you it was ok, that it would be easier if I went alone. We walked hand in hand to the subway and we wrapped our arms around each other. It was cold out and with my cheek against your chest, I felt like we could go back or that things might actually work out despite everything. I looked up at you and we kissed. We kissed desperately, like the first time we ever kissed except we knew how to kiss each other this time. Your hand was in my hair as we kissed outside Madison Square Garden and I heard a man whistle at us. I knew this was it. You pulled back to look at me.
“See you soon,” you said and I know you believed it.
“Ok.” I didn’t.
“I love you.” You meant it.
“I love you so much.” I did, too.
I kissed you again with wet eyes as I willed myself not to cry. I got on the elevator for the subway since I had so many bags with me and I looked at you as you watched it go down. You and New York and the whole thing went out of sight; I hadn’t left yet but it was done.
tonight your ghost will ask my ghost 'where is the love?'
I don’t like to think of any of it now but of course I do. I don’t like to think of the first man I really loved, the man I loved more than I loved myself, not knowing any better that you weren't supposed to love someone else more than you loved yourself. I don’t like to think of how I learned how much I could give and how easy it is to lose yourself. I don’t like to think of the way for a long time I wanted nothing more than your hand alone on the small of my back to guide me through a crowd. I don’t like to think of the hope I had for a long time, the insecurity that kept me ensnared in something dark. I don’t like to think of dancing and laughing and the time you put cinnamon in a milkshake. I don’t like to think of the ugliness, the fights, the abuse, even though it helps me remember what I deserve, what I want from here on out. I don’t like to think about it all, I don’t like to remember how easy it is to fall. Just because a love wasn’t good doesn’t mean it wasn’t real, that it didn’t change you.
When I wrote this a decade ago, I lied. Nothing was false, I just didn't tell the whole truth. Now I can see that this has been a pattern I was born into, one where you don't let people know what really happened so they wouldn't talk about you or think that anything was ever wrong. It's a bad impulse and one that leads to feeling isolated from everyone, even yourself.
I thought I was lying to just protect myself but I was actually lying to protect you because that's how shame seems to work. You take on stuff that's not really yours to take on and the weight compounds with interest as time goes on. I don't carry that stuff anymore, it's not really mine to carry, and I've told the truth about what happened between us in our relationship. But that's really just one part of it. Insight is not the same thing as healing, it's just a part of healing.
It's been almost two years since I was honest and I've spent a lot of that time trying to do the rest of healing which honestly just seems to involve living and taking care of yourself as you move through the world, stretching a little bit at a time to try to process. I hate that I couldn't rush it more. You've been in prison for six years now. You'll be released in a little less than two years for what you did to a child, a little girl. I've asked myself over those years if it's my fault, if I should have reported you for what you did to me; would it have kept her safe? It's heavy, it wears. No one has a clear answer for me—I don't either.
I hate that it's been so long since I met you and so long since I even last spoke to you and I still wake up in a cold sweat from a nightmare about you. I've spent a decade trying to figure out what I'm supposed to do with the good memories I have with you, the good things you introduced me to, the things that have become my favorites, that have shaped who I am now. It's a work in progress and I'm not sure it ever ends but I'm trying to hold all of it, everything, as a part of my story. It's still new to me to be able to hold things in all of their complexity, to not deny the good that existed, however little, amidst everything else. It's reparative for me and for everyone in my life; it's not easy but then again, nothing worth having has been in my experience.
Over eleven years later, it seems like it happened to someone else and it did, a younger version of myself, a completely different girl. It did, in fact, happen to a girl while I'm now a woman. I can’t remember who I was over a decade ago but I can feel who I was, I can feel her fear and her will to survive. I can see her clearly and I love her so fucking much. I left New York more than a decade ago and I wasn't sure if I was ever going back. I was right; that girl was never going back. You can’t go back and you won’t stay the same but I promise that one day, you won’t even want to.
the author in Toronto c. 2021