I dreamed that Nata and I had moved in together. We were young and broke and settling into our first apartment. It was tiny—a studio without even a visible kitchen—and we hardly owned anything.
I used to dream of a composite figure of everyone I had been close to—all the ex-girlfriends, the ex-wife, my sister—all rolled into one person. There were still shades of this: We had one desk, and I said, “I’ll need to get a desk,” because the one desk was not mine.
And that’s the ex-wife entering into things. She was very into “mine.” With Nata, we would have had one desk and we would have tried to share it in whatever way seemed practical until we could afford two.
After I woke up, I went into the kitchen. I was heating water for tea and I was thinking about my dilemma these days, my grief, because it has occurred to me that there’s a wall in my head about it. I’ve been walking back and forth through the gap in it, switching sides, but that’s all. I’m doing nothing to bring the two sides together.
There is one side of the wall where I think if what I feel with Natalya is a partnership still, that is fine. I can feel that way. I can think about my life in those terms. It doesn’t matter one way or the other to anyone else if I do, and it’s my life. I ought to do whatever feels authentic to me.
On the other side of the wall, I feel that living as if there is still a partnership is living somewhat in a dream world. She’s dead, and this is a way of keeping her alive a little.
So I’m in the kitchen and I’m wondering to myself what is keeping the wall up—because, of course, picking a side of the wall always seems easier, but it’s totally pointless, and I keep doing it only because the wall won’t come down. The walls stay up because something hurts too much. They get higher when I am afraid, but that’s temporary. When I am relaxed, they come down again. If they are up all the time—the way this wall is right now—something hurts. There is a pain that needs to be addressed.
I’m thinking about this and I ask a question—I can’t remember the question now—but I’m startled at the immediacy and the directness of the answer.
I’m here as long as you need to me to be.
I am reminded of the desk and the difference between how it played out in the dream and how it would have been with Natalya in life—the pragmatism of it and the lack of the importance of the “I”. She would have said, “You’re a teacher. You have papers to mark. Obviously, you need the desk.”
She could not save both of us, and so she saved me. There were two lives involved. She saved the one she could save. She didn’t get herself killed on purpose. She didn’t choose to save my life rather than hers. She could save mine, but she couldn’t save her own. If things had worked out differently, we might both have been saved, but she had no control over that and I don’t think she held out much hope of it either.
And the wall for me is that this still hurts. Because I don’t feel I was worth saving.
But there is one life left, just as there is was one desk, and it happens to be mine.
I was chatting yesterday with a friend of mine—a former foreign teacher who left Country X just a few weeks ago—and she said she was looking around and asking herself, “Do I have a right to dream I can be a part of this too?”
My friend grew up undocumented, so I asked her, is that where that idea came from, that you don’t have the right to the same dreams as other people?
Yes! That was exactly it.
That’s me too. I don’t feel I have a right to the life that Natalya gave me. I don’t feel I deserve it.
And it makes me think again about the pain of growing up as someone who is being treated differently than other children around me. I was trafficked, but my sister wasn’t. I went to school, and I knew the other children weren’t being trafficked either. It seemed to just be me.
It seemed that way, because when I was trafficked, there were not children like my classmates around me. There were other children, but they were disenfranchised children. They were immigrant children, they were undocumented, they had no apparent parents. They were not native English-speakers, they did not attend school, they were not middle or working class. I was singled out from among other children of privilege for a life I saw only deeply disenfranchised children living.
In reality, I was not the only child who grew up that way, but that wasn’t in front of me. It’s not what I saw in my first grade class. It’s not what I saw when I was working the streets.
Because of that, I saw myself as a privileged member of an underclass rather than as a maltreated member of a privileged class.
That wouldn’t be important, except that it makes it hard for me to grieve. I can’t fully come to grips with Natalya’s death, because I can’t come to grips with my life. She can’t really have died because I can’t really have been worth dying for. None of what happened is possible: it seemed impossible for many reasons before, but now there is only one left. I am not worth saving, but she did save me.
And I could avoid that mental collision by pretending it wasn’t about me—she died for some other reason. But I heard what Yuri is shouting at her. I also knew Natalya well enough to know something of what might have been in her head. I didn’t understand everything that was said—Yuri was not speaking Russian, he was speaking a criminal Russian dialect, but I understood enough to put some things together. I can’t pretend not to know now just to make things not hurt.
I could just not deal with things, but it wouldn’t be honest, and it would also leave the wall up. I would still go on having two sides of the wall.
What will bring the wall down is confronting the pain of having been singled out for maltreatment other children aren’t victims of. I have to go back to my first grade classroom and look again at those faces and not split off the pain of knowing they are not sold to men to use in horrific ways. Only I am.
I look around and see every clever and uplifting way to avoid this possible. We all want to be survivors and not victims. We want to find a shortcut around the pain of having suffered something not everyone has to suffer, especially if our suffering was not accidental and human beings did it: Human beings chose to do it. Which is what happened to me.
We don’t want to have to let it hurt. Or, it hurts, and we can’t figure out how to make it better, so we tell ourselves to stop hurting. We tell ourselves that was all in the past now. Things are different here in the present and we can let go of the feelings of the past.
Yes, we can. When the past stops being the present. The pain of being a victim remains in the present as long we can’t do anything about it—as long as we dress it up in nice words and say it doesn’t hurt anymore when it does. As long as you do that, you are just building a wall around the pain and standing outside the wall—as I have done.
Yesterday was somewhat dreadful. It started off fine. I had tea with my neighbors and Post Office Sir and then came home. Post Office Sir wanted me to come for lunch. So a lovely, social day ahead.
Then I felt dizzy and feverish and achy—almost as soon as I walked in the door. I might have been sick, but it seemed more like an extended flashback.
So I went to bed. I let Hannah hold the edge of the blanket and I took something for the pain—realizing remembered pain is being created in my body in exactly the same way as pain from an injury in the present—and I just made myself feel safe and comfortable. I cancelled the lunch date, and I spent the day letting my little self—my Hannah self—feel nurtured and looked after.
And that’s what has to be done with the pain of having been victimized. You don’t need to put it all in the past. You need to be nice.