There are a lots of bits and pieces in my head at the moment. They form a whole, but it’s hard to string them all together once.
One of them is understanding that my adolescence was defined by a stalled attempt to mourn. I don’t know what everyone else was doing. I guess they were trying to figure who they were, what pack they belonged to, they were trying to learn to think for themselves in some way and only halfway succeeding. I don’t honestly know.
But I was like Orpheus who had been in the underworld and resurfaced. It wasn’t just that I came back without my love, but the world I came back into wasn’t really one I recognized.
It was a cold world. I wasn’t being actively abused to nearly the same extent. I wasn’t being trafficked. The assaults from my dad tapered off. My sister moved on. The really weird, ritualistic shit had already ended. But no one loved me. I was better off, but I was entirely alone.
It’s not just that when Natalya died, there was no longer anyone who understood me or the world I lived in, but that no one particularly cared about me. There were people who cared, but not that much. My life was populated by individuals with impaired abilities to relate to others and others who were just distant—whose role in my life wasn’t to be that close.
When I was small, Natalya used to tickle me. She used to kiss me everywhere. Not literally everywhere, but the places maybe you kiss small kids in where you wouldn’t kiss an adult: on the neck, on the tummy, I don’t know where else. When I remember this experience, it is like tasting chocolate ice cream for the first time. It is the most wonderful feeling I have probably ever had, and it is not unlike the feeling I remember from sitting in my foster dad’s lap and having him tickle me with his beard. It is a sensation of being alive all over, of being loved and wanted and entirely, completely safe. It is incredibly vivid and it is in my skin.
As a trafficked child—and this is probably true about sexually abused children in general—your skin begins to feel like something contagious. It feels disgusting, like it is dirty and you need to wash it off. In fact, one of the images I kept getting from Lana yesterday was just an image of trying to remove my skin piece by piece.
This happens because the sensations the skin keeps sending to the brain are disgusting. The sensations are things you want to wash off, and they happen so intensely and so regularly that it feels like what your skin is.
But the way Natalya touched me was delicious.
It is not unlike what Annoushka remembers about sex, not just how it felt in and of itself, but how it felt afterwards, to be kissed, to be held, to be whispered to until she fell asleep.
One part of this is that Natalya and I had to connect differently and more intensely in order to live within our world than I think most people do. It is also how it feels when someone loves you very deeply. But it is also we had to care for each other if we were going to care at all.
There were so many times when we could not speak, but we urgently needed to communicate. As a result, very subtle forms of body language became immensely important. You cannot, for example, say, “I’m scared,” or “That hurts,” or even, “It is just too much,” when someone is shooting pornography of you. You cannot pull away either. You cannot do anything that’s going to be obvious to someone else in order to get across the idea that what is being done to you is really something you cannot stand.
Because you are supposed to like everything anyone does to you. You are supposed to love it all.
But if your partner is trying to make it less painful and less frightening and less just too fucking much, then they need to know what you are feeling. Natalya needed to know so that she could make small changes that no one else was going to see but that would make it more tolerable for me. She needed to be able to respond to me, but I could not speak or make any dramatic gestures.
As well, when I first came, we had no common language to communicate in. It was hard to say anything much at all. So there was that.
Consequently, we were attentive. Natalya was attentive. We relied on subtle changes in pressure, on very small gestures, on micro-expressions someone else might not notice to get across what we needed to know.
This is why, in my memory of a pornography shoot in the shower, the macro-gestures are things I am ignoring. Those are for the camera and not for me. My attention is on the micro-gesture of her hand gently pulling my hair. That is what we had been doing for years. It is how we had been communicating since I was perhaps six years old.
It is also why the tickling is so delicious and why I felt so safe. I did not ever need to say, “That is too much. Stop. You are tickling too long or too hard or in the wrong places.”
Natalya knew. Not because she was a mindreader, but because she had the habit of watching me very closely to see how I felt.
In a normal world, this kind of attentiveness to subtle forms of body language would be exhausting. In a normal world, it is much easier and more efficient just to use words or to use more obvious gestures that you don’t, in a sense, have to squint your eyes to see.
But we did not always have that option.
In psychology, this is called attunement: you notice the needs or the mood of the other person and you respond appropriately. The degree of attunement we had with each other is usually restricted to mothers interacting with their infants, but infants have less complex needs. They need to be changed or burped or changed or rocked. We had complex needs.
The level of attunement and the way we needed to communicate would not be considered healthy in the normal world, but our world required it of us. We could do this or we could end up harming each other to an intolerable degree.
We did not really need to do this all the time, but I think it became a habit. We acted in pornography with each other more than we played jacks, more than we listened to punk rock and jumped on the beds, more than we did any other single thing. What we had to do in order to care for each other in front the camera bled into the rest of our relationship
I think it created for me a life of extremes. I was loved like that by Natalya and not at all by anyone else. That is one thing.
When Natalya died, and when I left Yuri’s brothel, I lost everything. I lost warmth. I lost safety. I lost understanding. I lost an important person, but I also lost my only ongoing experience of being cared about. I lost the only thing that made life seem meaningful or even bearable. And I lost an intense version of being cared about that was never going to happen again for me outside of that world. I could look for it, but I wasn’t going to find it. The things that appeared to be it were not.
And what was there or might be there in my future for me if I could recognize it as love, I often did not see. It made ordinary love something I might not even recognize, because I had not experienced it before. I knew callousness, I knew sadism, I knew a distant kind of care from people who are decent and kind but not close to me, and I knew this.
When she died, I mourned her and I mourned having been loved.
My adolescence was a very private experience. No one else was doing this. They were trying to do other things that I was also trying to do: trying to sort out what happens after you die, what kind of God you believe in, what your politics are. I was trying to do those things too.
But mainly, I was trying to mourn. And I tried to mourn in different ways. I was Verka, trying to explain to herself what it is like to look death in the eyes, the emptiness and nothingness of it, and the terror that nothingness seems to make you feel even if nothingness often seems like a good idea.
I was Charlie, still trying to think how to save my love, and replaying and replaying the melancholy of not knowing how.
I was Annoushka, trying to return to a state where she was still alive and I was happy with her and there was nothing yet to mourn.
I was Lana, just desperately trying to be someone else, trying to figure out how to call up some other state, so that I don’t have to feel my own pain because my pain is beyond me to handle.
And I was Sam, for whom this is new every single day. He wakes up, sometimes in the night but also in the mornings, and he says, “I miss Nata. Where did she go? Why doesn’t she come?” Every single day.
I was also me. I mourned like a surgeon conducting an amputation, like I could make the pain less by removing everything about it I might miss.