Heaven

I remember going to church with Natalya.

But I don’t really remember this. Instead, I remember sitting in a different church a few years later. My mother’s friend had helped to put on a Christmas pageant and so we had gone for a service to see it. And what I remember is sitting there with the intrusion of a different church popping into my head.

Those were the only two times I ever saw the inside of a church, unless you count the old Catholic mission buildings left from the time of Spanish conquest and colonization (or, more often, rebuilt after they had been forgotten about and melted away). I don’t count these. They were historical, and I was allowed to visit them.

Being inside a different church was like blasphemy, and so that is why it stood out to me, and why the memory was strong enough to intrude.

I don’t have any idea why we went to a church or really even what we did there. I have a vague memories of candles and of Natalya wearing a lacy-looking navy-colored skirt.  This happened only once. I don’t know what church it was or even what kind of church, what city we were in, how we got there, or who was with us.

But it reminds me that Natalya believed in God. Before leaving the house, when I am just about to go into the bathroom and take a bath, it occurs to me that according to what Natalya believed, she is in Heaven now. It is not my belief, but that was hers.

For some reason I can’t explain, this thought overwhelms me with sadness. I sit down on the bed instead and begin to weep.

I grew up believing in Christ, in the virgin birth, crucifixion, and the resurrection, but I feel I never was a Christian—that the 2×2 version of Christianity is not really Christianity and there are certain doctrinal points of the whole thing that are so unfamiliar to me as a whole that I can’t properly grasp them.

After I stopped believing in what I had been raised with, it didn’t cross my mind to turn to a different Christian denomination. I thought about whether there might be a God at all, but not whether to go on believing in Jesus. There seemed no particular reason to do that.

But Natalya believed. This is something else that doesn’t entirely make sense to me, given what I think I know. In 1986, a Russian girl ought to be an atheist. She wasn’t. Belief connected her to some kind of past, to her grandmother, and to a memory of having been loved—and I think she was loved. I don’t know what happened to her parents, but I think her grandmother loved her very dearly.

And I suppose it’s something else I need to make sense of. There are pieces jumbled together now that I will have to tease apart.

I’m thinking of it today because she is dead, because I want to mark her death—having a date in mind is like having a grave. But I don’t know how to mark it. I cannot mark it in the way I would mark it. I have to mark in the way she would mark it—that is how you show respect.

But there are too many things I don’t understand.

There is still a suicidal voice in my head. Sometimes the voice speaks out of a void—I am too shut down to feel anything. And sometimes I feel something in my gut that I can’t identity along with it.

So there is still that to deal with. I am not home free, and although it seems so many of the pieces have been shaken loose now, and that now I can see them and start to put them in their proper places again, there is still a piece that is half on the other side of a wall.

I felt intensely suicidal for years after Natalya died. I might have been suicidal when she was alive, because the nature and the sheer quantity of the abuse was simply, utterly too much.

I didn’t have any idea why I felt that way and proceeded to make things up. I attributed it to a kind of hysteria, an over-emotionalism, and a temperament that led me to have exceptionally dramatic reactions to ordinary, unpleasant events. I have to go back and revise that view, but it’s an oddly stubborn one. I can’t seem to shift it. It is stubborn despite the superior logic of something else.

I think this is why I keep remembering the suicidality and why I feel it so intensely sometimes. I am trying to revise that view of myself, and I need to keep seeing the evidence that necessitates changing it. I need to understand very clearly why what I thought about myself—and probably what others thought then also—was never remotely true.

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Today is the day she died

I wake up at 3:30 in the morning with a feeling that I have overslept. Maybe I have. How will I get through the day knowing what happened on it? I have managed for so many years by not knowing, by trying to turn away from it. By trying not to see things. I tried not to see my own memories. I tried not to see the reminders. How will I be able to manage seeing all of it? And I don’t know. I can only wait and see.

Yesterday, I downloaded a Soviet-era children’s cartoon in Russian. I chose the one that I did because it was subtitled. I know I don’t really understand anything and without a kind of crutch I won’t. I don’t know why exactly I want to watch it. Partly, I want to see if I’m right about some things.

I don’t expect to remember words. I forget words, and I am bad at learning languages because of that. I never know enough words. I learn them and then forget them, and it takes me so much effort to learn them to start with.

What I think I might remember is the structure of the language, because that is what I am learning first in the National Language. I still know only about 20 words. I am not improving in that—mainly because increasing vocabulary takes actual effort and I haven’t been making it. I am too tired or too overwhelmed to do it. I am always too something or other to try. But I understand the structure of it to some extent. I know sometimes that that’s a noun, that’s a verb.  And I expect that, with Russian, the structure will come back to me first.

Does it? I don’t really know. To some extent, my curiosity is an excuse. What I am really trying to do is give a space in my world to the part of me that would remember this.

But it’s still hard for me to believe this part of my life existed at all or that any of it happened.

I am realizing the part of my life that is on the surface, that I have always remembered, is less accurate than parts of my life I have denied. So many pieces were missing from the narrative of my life that I fabricated things—maybe not whole events, but small things, motives, feelings, opinions. I speculated on what must have happened in the gap of what I couldn’t recall, and the speculation became in my mind like fact. So some of what I am shoving aside in discovering this part of my life was never true to begin with.

It means there is no foundation against which to judge the possible truth of anything I am remembering now. Things that seem impossible might have been possible, because what I remember as being the background of things might never have been true.

In the years I knew Natalya, I spent much more time being trafficked than I had ever thought possible. I think I remember spending all night working. I think I remember being trafficked several times a week. But I thought that couldn’t have happened.

It’s like looking for your keys and finding them mysteriously in the freezer, so you logically presume you must have been holding your keys when the thought occurred to you to get something out of the freezer. You set them down getting that thing and forgot about the keys after that. You don’t remember, but it’s logical to think that that happened, so you assume it did. If a ghost had put them there instead, you wouldn’t think that, because that doesn’t seem reasonable

I don’t remember putting my keys in the freezer—I have presumed that. But I remember seeing the ghost do it.

I don’t think the extent of the trafficking is possible because I can’t have stayed out so late on a school night. I can’t imagine my mother allowing that. And then I realize I don’t remember enough to say it’s impossible. I don’t remember bedtime or the routine of the evenings at that age—I remember it when I was smaller. I don’t remember whether I ate dinner with my family or not. I don’t remember what my mother’s reaction to my father’s obvious and overt sexual abuse of my sister and me was. So I don’t really remember any of the things that would say my life could not have happened.

I have presumed my mother wouldn’t allow it because most mothers wouldn’t allow it. Women look the other way when their partners abuse their children, but there is usually some kind of line. I don’t know that my mother had any line. I don’t remember. And so there is no context in which to place the things I remember. There is no way to say they could or could not have happened. There is just the memory of what did happen—because I remember these things that were suppressed more clearly than I remember anything else. And so, in fact, it makes more sense to accept the things I am shocked by than it does to hold onto the life I think might have happened but that I don’t recall.

I feel, in a way, an excitement about this. It seems so much easier to deal with what is. I can stop fabricating things to explain what I can’t understand or to fill the gaps of my amnesia. I can stop trying to imagine what ought to be. I feel again a sense of freedom because of this.

The time, it is a freedom from. It is a freedom from the lies I have told myself in order to keep my life and my personality knitted into a whole when it wasn’t a whole. And I feel lighter, as though the lies have been a weight on me.

Some more pieces

By the time I am done with the cooking and laundry, I am dressed, and I have left the house, I feel a sense of freedom. It’s not a sense of freedom from, but a sense of freedom to.

Natalya is dead, but I am not. I can still be the person I was with her. When I couldn’t remember, when being the person I had been with her hurt too much to ever be again, then I was also in some way dead along with her. And that is a part of the feeling of constriction I have felt—and not liked—for much of my life. Maybe it is also why I felt life without her would, in itself, kill me. In some important way, it did kill me. But I don’t have to go on being dead. The parts of myself I was when I was with her can come to life again.

What is always strange about integration is that I am never really the part of myself that was at some pointed shunted aside. I am always a third person. The new part mixes with the old parts and creates something that is more than just the two together. And so, although I am saying that part of me can live again, I don’t know what this is going to look like.

I know that it acknowledges a nature that is both passionate and tender. For Natalya, this meant speaking in a language infused with diminutives and affectionate terms. It meant shouting at men three times her size when something was simply too cruel to be done. It meant shaking after violation. And it meant pressing me hard against a wall or a door to kiss me, although she was never rough and she never hurt me. For her, it meant a kind of fierceness in living, and that is something I could share with her when we were together.

For me, maybe it means that nearly all of the boys in the class 6A line show me the “I love you” sign before assembly this morning. They don’t always do that, but today they decide to. I suppose I am looking at them, and they decide this is how to use my attention.

Some of the girls do, but it is nearly all of the boys. The want to tell me they love me, because then I will show that to them. I will tell them I love them, and this is what they want. They want so much to be loved. Boys are like that.

And I do love them. It’s different here, because Counter Xers wear their hearts on their sleeves. They take things personally and get hurt easily and I am forever having to calm children down—especially little boys. And they cry. Twelve-year-old boys cry. Fifteen-year-old boys cry. They cry in class. So it’s not difficult to show that I love them, or that I am—in a different way than I felt for Natalya—passionate in how I love them.

I am passionate about improving their chances in life. I am passionate about their futures and making sure their futures better than they could be. I am passionate about their educations as well as helping them learn how to be good people that respect others and are kind.

I know this, but when it hurt too much to see that I was that way, I just didn’t see it, or I saw it in a way that was incomplete, that didn’t quite make it all align into sense.

And maybe there’s also something in there about how I can be female, and what it means to be a woman for me. Natalya gave this sense to me. It is, to some extent, a view from her culture and not from my own: I was outside mainstream culture and told never to anything the way they did. Meanwhile, I lived in a culture where ideas about how to be female were untenable, were clearly going to kill me one day, given the world as it is.

I don’t have that sorted out, and it’s not going to be clear what is from her and what came later, after I lived in different places with different views of things. These things are all going to blend together.

At its simplest, I have a sense of myself as someone whose gender doesn’t only mean that I contain within myself a place that can be hurt. But it’s more than that also, and has to do with a kind of strength.

The ladies here in Country X are strong—physically, any one of them could out-laundry me, out-carry-heavy-things, out-scrub the floors, even the smallest of them. And they can shout. They can beat the tar out of their children. Natalya was not like them, but there is something of that same strength about her. She was warm. She was romantic in the extreme. But she was not compliant.

She had to comply, but compliance was not part of her identity. It wasn’t part of the role she felt she ought to occupy as a woman in society. It was a temporary necessity for her—a role thrust upon her she could not comfortably sit with. There’s something of that which she has left me with.

There are more pieces, but the bell will ring soon, and then it will be time to think about something else.

Tragedy

As the day goes on, I get sadder and sadder, and I am physically in more pain. My face hurts, my legs hurt. Mostly, I just want to cry. I thought I would be okay today, but I am not. I am just sad.

It occurs to me that there are some situations that are just sad. What do I mean by that? That they have no solution, no frame you can look through to make them acceptable, no way to make them better.

I think I keep trying to put a happy face on my life. I don’t but the impulse is there. I have said, it was unbearable. There is no way to take something worthwhile out of it

But in the back of my mind, I keep trying.

I think about Natalya now, and holding her after we had both been hurt. I suppose it helped when we could do that for each other, but we could not take the pain away. We could not even take the edge off the pain.

There are girls that come to me during tea time. They want help with prepositions. So I help them. Does that take the edge off?

Does anything?

God help her

I woke up at three in the morning again. This time, there is no rat. It is just me. I lay there, warm, sleepy, with nothing much in my brain yet, and I began to cry.

I am thinking about Natalya, and how it felt to hold her while she shook from the horror of what had just happened. And I remember calling on God then.

Please God help her. She’s going to break.

God did not hear me.

This is on the other side of the wall too.

When I was 22, a friend of mine committed suicide. She had a drug addiction and her brother sexually abused her over a long period of time and she overdosed on the most enormous bottle of aspirin possible which can, it turns out, actually kill you. Before she died, she called her parents up. In her incoherent state, she didn’t want to die anymore. She wanted their help. But she couldn’t tell them where she was. She had driven somewhere and was too confused in that moment to say. And so she died.

The funeral was in Riverside, which is a few hours’ drive from where I was living. My girlfriend then was driving, and I looked out the window. There were boxcars all along the highway, covered in blowups and tagging. I looked out the window and I didn’t feel anything at all. It felt to me that my friend was just dead. There was no afterlife and no God. It wasn’t thought out. It was just a feeling. But for a long time after that, I didn’t believe in God at all.

When I began to believe in God again, it was out of a sense that this is what human beings do—not all of them, but most of them. And I have a right to that also.

Now, I still do, but don’t believe in a God who is really Santa Claus minus the dorky outfit. When Natalya was alive, I did. I was a good 2×2 in those days. I believed everything they told me. And I tried to be as willing and obedient as possible, so that one day I could go to my reward.

Because of this, I prayed to God to help her. He didn’t hear me. He did not save Natalya. He did not help her, and she broke. She broke, and she died.

Here, they are taught not to kill animals, but they eat meat. I have heard some people will tie the animal up near a cliff, so that eventually the animal falls off. Some of the meat is imported from outside the country, and it is apparently someone else’s karma being tarnished. I don’t know if this is really true.

When I complain about my mice, they tell me to get a cat.

We don’t have the same beliefs about this. If I bring a cat inside, I am the one killing the mice. I am the one with a brain and the ability to make choices. The cat is just doing what cats do, and what they do best is kill. Cats are small killing machines. If the cat kills a mouse because I brought it inside, I am the one responsible for the death of the mouse, because I brought the cat, knowing what it would do. The cat is not responsible. The cat is only the weapon.

If someone kills an animal so that I can eat it, I am responsible for the death of that animal. The butcher is also, but the butcher is just trying to make a living. The butcher is doing something to get through the day, to eat, to feed his children and send them to school. I am doing something I don’t need to do in order to satisfy my own desires. It is more my fault than the butcher’s fault.

One day, National Language Ma’am accidentally crushed a beetle. She didn’t crush it entirely, but she had broken two of its legs in her carelessness. She was solicitous about it, and regretful, and she helped the beetle to right itself and left it on her desk before going off to class.

I told her the beetle is not going to survive, you ought to kill it. It can’t survive with broken legs like that, and I was thinking, in the meantime, the beetle is in pain. It is frightened, because it understands it can’t move properly.

Suffering is worse than death. That moment before death, you are frightened, but you aren’t frightened endlessly. The fear is temporary. The suffering of being alive can last the whole of your life.

I am glad Natalya is dead. Her death was brutal, painful, utterly dehumanizing, but she suffered briefly. She didn’t suffer forever. It wasn’t the four years she spent in captivity before that. It wasn’t the remainder of her life—which it would have been. For her, there was no other way out. She would have suffered. It is better that she is dead.

I didn’t want her to die, but I wanted her suffering to end, and I am glad that it did.

It’s difficult when you want someone alive and with you so badly that you find it unbearable to live without them, but at the same time, you are grateful they are dead.

Does it mean your wishes killed them? Does it mean, selfishly, you would have preferred your beloved goes on suffering?

But wishes are just wishes. My prayer to God that day, Please help her, was just a prayer. God did whatever he did. Or didn’t do.

Some people find comfort in thinking God has a plan for their lives. He planned this shit? I can’t believe in that kind of God. Natalya helped me. She has helped me the whole rest of my life. But I can’t believe God sent her into my life to do that. I can’t believe in a God that cruel.

But I can believe that human beings are good or can be, and sometimes in your worst moments, you meet someone who is good. And that person helps you. They help you because of who they are.

I realize how many layers of guilt I feel. Guilt that I was glad to have her in my life, when her life with me meant only suffering. Guilt that I wanted her suffering to end, when that could only mean death. Guilt that I wanted her still alive when that could only mean suffering.

I was 13 years old. I wasn’t responsible for anything. Anything at all.

Necessity

Sometimes, as I work through things, I start to look at the feelings I had then, and I start to see them as necessary. A logic emerges.

I can’t remember being with Natalya without also wanting to die. They are inseparable experiences, because that is how I felt all the time in those days. But I am beginning to see why I did. Given how things were, I could not have felt any other way. This seems to lead to a sense of relaxation and acceptance, and when this starts to emerge as a sense about things, I start to feel okay.

I am in the staff room now, and everyone is talking at full volume. I have a “life skills” class to teach today—the theme is substance abuse. And then substitution during 1st period. So although I would have two periods free this morning before class begins, I really only have one and it is only 40 minutes long. I cannot get my head together in 40 minutes, let alone do my work. Too much fell out this morning, and I have too much to sort through.

I have this tremendous, overwhelming urge to plead with them all to shut up. I need the five minutes I have now. I need every second. I can’t even have that much. They are too busy living the lives they lead to allow me to lead the one that I need to, that is a different kind of life, that they have no idea about and can’t understand the necessity of.

Please let me put my life back together in my mind so that I can go on with the next step. But they don’t stop.

Later, during interval, I have another free five minutes. But Self-Absorbed Sir has to whistle—as he has on and off for the last 40 minutes. I had gone outside to do my work at last, which means I can’t type, because it’s then too bright to see.

I am better, in fact, than I was. My substitution was fine, and my head got sorted a little. Not perfectly, but enough that I think I can cope with some of the rest of the day. Let’s see.

In the evening, I can’t really think about anything anymore. I try to, because I know I need the safety valve of exploring these issues when I can be alone. And I also know the hour and a half I can set aside for it in the morning before it is time to start everything else is not enough.

After two hours at home, doing not much of anything, I start to have feelings again. But it’s just a kind of pressure in my gut, and thoughts of suicide. The things I thought earlier in the day don’t seem real anymore. Usually, that means it became too painful for me, and maybe it is too painful for me now— It’s easier to make it unreal.

But I can’t completely unremember the things I remembered. I still remember holding Natalya and her thin body shaking. I remember being very small and climbing under things, away from the preparation for being abused. Those things are connected in my mind because it is the same type of abuse. It’s with different people, but the context is the same. With Natalya, the torture was excruciating because she was with me and I did not want her to see. When I was younger it was excruciating because I was alone, and there was no to see.

I realize the part that doesn’t believe these things has been shielded from it all. This part didn’t know and hasn’t known. It’s all coming at it rather suddenly. And that part is shocked and shocked and shocked. The shock and the knowing are what need to be brought together now. I need to feel the shock as much as the shame, so that those two experiences can be brought together into what really happened

What really happened is all these things went on while I split apart so that I didn’t have to know them all the time and so that, in most ways, I could carry on with life. This part is as shocked as you might be, if you hadn’t been reading my blog for two years (as some of you have), and knew all about these things. This part is as shocked as you might be if you didn’t know these things even happened to people.

And that’s what really happened.

It occurs to me that this part needs compassion also. So many horrors to come to grips with so quickly! So many alterations in its life story, in who it believes I am!

Sometimes I am tempted to bludgeon it with facts, with the details of what I remember, or with logic. But that’s not fair.

This part didn’t know. It takes time.