I am so happy this morning, I don’t really know what to do with myself.
I can’t really get through a thought. Intellectually, of course, I can. It’s simple. Emotionally, it’s not so simple. And I have come to understand that they go together. You don’t know something, not really, until you have experienced the emotions of it. If you can’t do that, you keep reworking the same thought, calling up the same emotions again and again, until you’ve done it. If you put your emotions in boxes, which I have had to do, every time the thought arises, you shove the emotions in a box and they remain there, patiently, waiting for you to take them out again. In my case, because it’s all so intense, it gives a sense of the emotions coming out in chunks or in bubbles that burst. The emotions wash over me every time I have that thought at the same intensity as they did the last time. It used to be nothing got better, because nothing useful happened with the emotions when they came out like that. I was overwhelmed, maybe, or I shoved them back again and they remained there until the next time.
Anyway, the thought has to do with my not causing death, and with love also, with other people’s love for me not causing their death. Which is obvious. And yet I don’t know this, because I couldn’t do something with the emotions of it—whatever needed to be done.
Because it wasn’t just Nata who died. There were other people who loved me who died. I saw their deaths. Their deaths had nothing to do with me, and yet I saw them. I saw them when I was very young, and one of the problems with that is that, as a small child, this wasn’t happening to anyone else. Grandparents died. There was the occasional fatal accident or illness in the family. But it wasn’t something that seemed to keep happening every few years, the way it was happening to me.
It seemed to be about me, and yet I am not saying I felt I had done something to cause their deaths. That thought doesn’t seem to have been there. It seemed to have been more that I felt like a disease vector—like I’d gotten chicken pox and then given them to my sister. More that it was just something about me perhaps, as though death were maybe a matter of personality. I just kind of seemed to get people killed. I was very young when many of the most important people died. It was the best I could come up with.
And then Nata died, and it was about me. It was about her love for me. I find as I go through life these days, I don’t want anyone to love me. It’s more evident with my students. I feel very close to them, and I think they feel very close to me. The relationships are, in a way, naked. Everyone’s heart is just on his or her sleeve. It’s partly the nature of children, partly the nature of Country X, to just care without any attempt to hide it. So I don’t want them to care about me. It is okay to care about them, but I don’t want them to care about me. I don’t want them to care, because I think that might be fatal.
So when C notices a bit of dirt on my finger in the morning while I am talking to her about her maths and she tries to brush it away, I don’t want her to do that. I don’t want her to in a way that is very intense and trauma-based and has nothing to do with sitting there working with integers. I don’t want her to do that so much that after a while, later in the session, I start to feel as though I can’t speak. I don’t have to speak at the moment when the feeling comes over me, but I’ve had that feeling before. I know what it means. I know when I need to speak, I might not be able to. It passes though, and when I do have to speak, I can.
I know, later, when I have a chance to think about, why that feeling came over me. I think she is going to die. She cares about me, and she is going to die. So I think I had better be very silent and hide under the bed or in the closet, the way I did when Stecia and Magda did.
That’s not really the thought. The thought is that I didn’t make anyone die. Love didn’t either. I was who I was, doing what I was meant to do. The people who loved me did what they were meant to do. Yuri was the murderer, so he was responsible for their deaths, but there’s one more piece of it I hadn’t fully grasped.
My dad was responsible for the fact that I was there to see them. He was responsible for Nata’s death also.
He was responsible because he kept sending me out to work for a murderer. He is like the nail that led to the fall of the kingdom. He sent me to work for Yuri. Nata came to love me because she was who she was and I was who I was, and because of that love, she died to save me from Yuri. But the love was just there. I was just there. Nata was just there. Yuri wasn’t just there. You don’t need to choose to murder. But my dad is the one who left me in Yuri’s care, who put me at risk every time he sent me there, who created a situation where Yuri might really kill me. And he is the reason Nata died.
No one is likely to die for me now: Because there is no murderer, because no one is forcing me to work for a murderer, because, no matter what is going on in my life, it is unlikely to be as risky as the situation my dad created in my life for me. There isn’t going to be all that much to save me from.
It is safe to let people care about me.
That’s the thought. I can’t quite get through it. Almost.
In the morning, I didn’t see C. I might have if I had searched harder. I suppose she came a little before me, and she thought I hadn’t come. Anyway, she didn’t want to study that morning. She had a toothache. But I found her only after 15 minutes of sitting in the staffroom trying to talk to VP Ma’am worrying about her and what she said at first was vague. I didn’t know she had a toothache. She said something about headache. So she wasn’t there and I was terrified, really, in that total trauma-induced way. Then something I couldn’t pin down was wrong with her. It didn’t start the morning off well and, although I had lots of work I might have done, I mostly wandered around and again tried to sit with VP Ma’am and listen to her readers, only the reader had chosen The Road Not Taken, which is for me terribly morbid and evocative and makes me think of the chain of events that led up to Nata’s death.
So when C happened to walk by getting water for the altar in her classroom with her friend, I had been just on the verge of tears. She stopped and asked what had happened to me. I had to tell her something, so I just said I had worried and I hadn’t been able to calm down. Then I found out about the toothache. We went back to her classroom together and she said, “You are going down, Ma’am?”
I said, “No, I am following you. I want to see your tooth.” I waited for her to pour the water into the seven bowls on the altar and I walked back up the path with her. And I had to say again, “I want to see your tooth.” She laughed and let me look in her mouth. I couldn’t see any inflammation—it was a molar. The center of it had gone black. Maybe a cavity. I’m not a dentist, I really have no idea, but you still have to look at these don’t they? I suppose it helped me. I saw the problem. I saw it was something short of life-threatening and later I went and gave her acetaminophen. I touched her and felt she was still warm. She wasn’t cold. She didn’t have hypothermia and she wasn’t dead.
It is all kind of crashing together in my head this morning—not C. That just touched the nerve that was already exposed.
And the nerve this morning is that I failed. The absolutely most important task I felt I had as a child was to keep Nata safe and alive. Then she went and let herself die and I was not allowed to save her or to even really try. I don’t exactly feel guilty about this—don’t get confused about the emotion of it. Guilt isn’t primary. It is more like a vast disappointment. I failed. Utterly. For seven years, I kept her alive and in one piece or tried to, and then suddenly it was all over. She was just dead. Irrevocably, unchangeably dead.
You might think I ought to soften that sense of failure. It was an unattainable goal. But that’s the core of it. I had a goal that simply couldn’t happen, that was completely too big for a little girl. I think I need to feel this. I need to feel the absolutely too-bigness before I can understand how it all happened the way it did, the sense that it crushed me afterward—to get that too.
But today is hard.
So today I woke up at three.
Mornings are really hard right now. I hadn’t mentioned that earlier. They are confusing.
In the mornings, I am still processing what happened the previous day and I am also processing grief. I know mornings trigger the memories of leaving everyone at Yuri’s place behind for the last time—Nata’s death and then the farewells. There is that too, just what happened. Everything that happened.
The most confusing part is perhaps the sense of despair I am remembering from her death—as if everything went sort of grey then. There seemed to be no hope for anything. For a long time, it stayed like that. I was alive and life was in many ways better, but everything was muffled inside a shroud of sorrow. Nothing much good could come through. Now, the sorrow is a little bit lighter and the work of getting through the day is a bit less, and so good things can come through. I get up and I feel excited about the good things that might happen in the day ahead, and I am also remembering this sort of shroud of despair, and it is confusing. The collision of it is confusing.
That is one very big piece.
And then there is yesterday to work through. There are so many pieces of that.
In the math session with C, she sat next to me. We sit in a kind of entryway to a building that is rarely used. It is like sitting in a doorway–the space is narrow. But it isn’t that narrow. We can sit there without touching. The day before, we did not touch. And yesterday, we did. I sat next to the column, and C sat very close to me. There was a point in the middle of working through a question she had on the Pythagorean theorem when I realized almost everything that could touch was touching. Her shoulder was against mine, her hips were against mine, she had turned her body towards me so that the whole length of her thigh was against mine. She did everything to be close short of putting her head on my shoulder. We were looking at her maths notebook together and we kept passing it back and forth and we were passing her eraser back and forth—every time she gave it to me, it was with two hands, it was respectfully. But our hands kept touching. They were nearly in each other’s laps.
There is nothing much in the present to decipher about that. Students are not supposed to touch teachers. Teachers can touch a student as much or as little as they want to and they can do it out of love or out of brutality, but students are not supposed to touch teachers. C decided this was not applicable. She can touch me. She didn’t decide this consciously, I am sure. I don’t think she noticed what she was doing or thought about it. She just felt warm and safe and nice. I am guessing.
But the meaning for me is different—not about her, but how it intersects with the past. No one but a lover has touched me like that since I was a child. I would not want anyone to. I don’t know that I would feel comfortable if a different student sat so close to me. Other students do touch me, but not quite so much. But it was okay that C did. It was fine.
And the fact that she did was like hearing a language I hadn’t heard in a long time, or like a door had opened. I felt really human. I felt as though someone had said to me you are no longer a robot. You are no longer made out of plastic and metal. You now have skin and flesh and bones.
It’s immense. It’s an immensely complex experience to make sense of.
It makes me realize how jarring the cultural transition was for me on a regular basis, and how hard it was for me afterwards, because I had no way to process the experience of transition. It wasn’t supposed to exist at all. How could I make sense of it, when I couldn’t think about it? When I wasn’t supposed to believe it was even real?
And yet the people who loved me and nurtured me lived in a very different way than mainstream culture. They were Eastern Europeans for the most part. They were mostly Russian. They used language in a different way—not just spoke a different language, but used that language to communicate tenderness or disdain in ways you cannot in English. They had different body language. They had also developed their own culture around trauma, around our shared emotional needs, and around the necessities of being trafficked. That was home, because I was loved there. There was warmth and comfort and emotional responsiveness and everything a child needs to develop. There was abuse also, but I was being abused at home. Then Nata died, and I lost that home.
It was like immigrating, except all alone.
Since then, I always have this feeling about my “own” culture as being something I can’t really understand. It has these sort of indecipherable rules that I can make out well enough to follow, but never with confidence. It is always like a pair of new shoes. I like being in other cultures because, sooner or later, I generally start to feel like I do know the rules. I can learn them, and I begin to feel confident about having rules about behaviour I can follow. In my own culture, I can’t do this. The rules remain things I can’t learn—because the emotions of learning it can’t be processed. There is this hurdle of thinking that the necessity of internalizing the culture—rather than merely imitating it—shouldn’t be there. There should be nothing to adjust from. There shouldn’t be grief involved in doing that adjusting.
But of course there is. The girls loved me. Your home is where you feel loved. Not the place you sleep at night. The place you are loved.
American culture also feels cold to me. I think that is an impression I have never been able to process, for much the same reasons—it ought to feel normal to me. It would if I had never had this other, secret life of trafficking. I would just have trauma to deal, but not this other stuff.
Since I did, it makes sense it would feel cold. In comparison to what I grew up with, American culture is cold. Everyone is so separate, so independent, and the sense of personal space is so great. If you are looking at Western culture through the lens of almost any Eastern or even Southern culture, one’s first impression is that these people are blocks of ice. If you get inside it and understand it, it isn’t like that, but this impression of people as blocks of ice was one I could never process—the whole context for that impression couldn’t be understood. So I could never get past it. I just felt lonely without being able to process that either.
There is still so much more to this, but I feel like a person again. I feel safe.
It’s connected somehow to a sense that I have a body again, I have skin, I have a body that belongs to me, and I have rights. I don’t know how those things are connected exactly—this idea of having less personal space, but having more rights. But that might be a topic for another day. Just now, it’s time to get ready. I have breakfast to cook and a house to clean, and although C has been late the last two days, I cannot be late.
Yesterday was really hectic. I’m meeting C at 7:30 in the morning to help her with her math. She was late yesterday—she had a project to finish—and I thought she wouldn’t come at all. But she did. In the evening, there is another boy from Class 6—not my student, but I know him—who asked for my help as well. I told him he could come to my house on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays. Yesterday was Tuesday, but I thought he wouldn’t come. I thought he wasn’t actually that interested, that he was only worried during exam period, then the worry was going to wear off. But he came. So I taught more or less from 7:45 in the morning until 6 at night, when I made him leave. I had two periods free, but other people kept coming and talking to me and interrupting. I couldn’t do anything properly, and my work got done mostly at recess and lunch, which isn’t enough time. So it was stressful, not really being prepared for class, not having time to process helping C in the morning.
Normal life involves taking a lot in, it seems, and everything get filtered via the lens of trauma. I can’t just say it’s different now, and filter it through a new lens. Trauma is the only lens I have. I have to use the one I have and refine it. It takes time. Which is why I woke up today at 2 am.
I had these vague notions the rest of the day that something was wrong about C—the session went well, but somehow parts of me got the idea that something was wrong. It kept me on edge the rest of the day, this feeling that something was wrong, but I couldn’t place it.
I did something to C when I saw her that I hadn’t meant to. It had to do with a touch. I touch the students here more than I would in the United States. I am not sure why. It seems to build the relationship between us. So I touch C sometimes when I see her, mostly her arm. And I thought she wouldn’t come—I was happy she had. I saw her and I put my hand on her arm—she was carrying a basket with her lunch inside it—and it was like my hand then didn’t know what to do with itself and after a second I realized it had landed almost at her hand. My thought was that I had gotten mixed up. Some part of me thought I was with the puppy pile again, and that I ought to hold her hand. I took my hand gently away at that point, but inside I was completely alarmed. It wasn’t anything much, I think. She did not react in any way and it is not as wildly inappropriate here as it would be back home. But it crossed a line with me.
So I was upset about that. I didn’t really realize how upset I was until later. There was just the idea that I had crossed a line for myself, and it was a line in my head that is there to keep her safe and I felt afraid I had hurt her.
But it did something else to me—the whole session with her upset me in a different way—because it seems to me, after much deliberation about what it is I am taking in, that she trusts me almost entirely. More than other students do, more than American students ever trust their teachers. I don’t think she has any idea I could ever do anything wrong. If I hurt her, she would assume the hurt was her own fault. Some Country Xers are just like that. They are trusting. They have no concept of deception or that someone else might not be acting from entirely benign motives. And maybe C is just like that.
The sense of power it gives me is enormous and terrifying. I don’t want that much power. I don’t feel that trustworthy or that perfect. I think also I have never seen power used in positive ways. I have seen it used only to hurt and control people, not to nurture or to guide anyone, not to try to help.
In addition, I think it comes out in her manner in a way that reminds me of fear and the obedience we had to display to Yuri. I think I feel I must be Yuri at times, and that I have done something terrifying to her that I don’t remember so that she behaves that way. I forget that some of it is merely culture. She was brought up to be polite: this is what politeness looks like here. I know what polite looks like, but not every kid here has beautiful manners.
That’s the second thing that feels “wrong” to me.
Then also she did very well in the session. I mean, she got something down she hadn’t before, but she wasn’t happy. Not unhappy, just she didn’t get that rush of pride you instinctively feel when you understand something and can do it. I don’t know why. She showed me her work with these worried little eyes: “Did I get it right?” But she had worried eyes when a different student would have known it was right. It would have felt “right.” I said it was right and she still didn’t get that happy look of pride.
That is something else that felt “wrong” to me. Why doesn’t she know? I don’t have an answer to that.
And now it’s time to get ready.
Life is complicated though. Every single day. Sometimes it seems like I’m caught up in minutiae—in details that don’t matter—but this is how stuff gets processed. This is how I know where I was and where I am now, what my life once was and what it has become.
We have a holiday today. For me, that means extra processing time. So that’s good.
Last week was really hard. The marking was more triggering than I thought it would be, then it took longer, then I hardly got any sleep. I came back to the first day of school on maybe four hours of sleep, which I don’t do well with anyway. It was easy in terms of teaching—there wasn’t much of it. The first day back, no one really expected to have classes and they didn’t bring books or notebooks or even pencils in some cases. The second day, I talked to them about behaviour—trying to set a tone for the second half of the year, because they had gotten restless and undisciplined in the class at the end. We did some other stuff too. That was easier than it might have been. Saturday, there was no teaching at all—I didn’t have much work—but the mark sheets were triggering and I had forgotten it might be. I had forgotten, too, that the start of the second half of the school year would trigger memories of the start of the school year when I was a child, or that July in Country X might feel like September in the United States, and that Nata cared a lot about my schooling. The memories are vague. I can’t really access them, although I don’t know why it’s so hard, except that there is a lot to deal with on top of that. Maybe it is just too much.
They seem to be surfacing as an urge to wrap new school supplies up in shiny paper and give them to C along with a note that says some encouraging things. And maybe that’s exactly what Nata did for me. It might have been. She could have easily done that. No one would have noticed I had an extra pencil or two.
I am aware that I repeat with C the things that the girls I especially loved did for me. I have given her pancakes twice, and although I had these other, more specific reasons for doing it, I know it’s really because for me those memories of pancakes are memories of being loved. Before midterm break I gave her a medal to wear, a little plastic thing from my favourite temple in Delhi that I have kept for 22 years. I know Msishchka—whom I think I haven’t mentioned yet, but she loved me when I was very small—gave me a Mary medal before she disappeared. I know when I do these things for someone else, I feel that the girls I loved are a little less dead because they are living inside me. The things they did become traditions and, in that way, keep living. At least for a while.
But I also know it’s not really fair to do this to C. It’s not fair to live out my trauma with her.
So I don’t know about the school supplies in shiny paper. Inside, I can’t seem to agree with myself about it.
C is supposed to come to school tomorrow at 7:30 to meet with me and get help with her math. That is the plan we have made. I think she might forget, because it’s the day after a holiday, and we made the plan on Friday. I didn’t remind her yesterday. Probably I ought to have.
That’s not really the main thing. The main thing seems to be grief. I am engaging more with life, I know. Not maybe on the outside, but on the inside, I am more connected to it. And that means accepting the way that I got here. It means accepting that Nata died. It’s hard. I think it’s hard because it’s hard to grasp certain pieces of it. I can grasp that Yuri was evil and that he took her life from her when he had no right to do that. I can grasp that everything which brought us together was wrong. It was wrong that she was essentially abducted from her home country and brought to a new one, not against her will, but under false pretenses and without the permission of parents who might have understood the risks involved. It was wrong she was kept in virtual slavery. It was wrong she was sexually abused in horrifying ways through all of her childhood. It was wrong she was sexually abused for commercial purposes. Everything about our circumstances was wrong. I can grasp that.
I can grasp that neither Yuri nor my father had any right to do what they did to me.
It is hard for me to grasp the strength of her love, or the faith she had in me to create a future for myself. It is hard for me to grasp her courage.
Without an understanding of Natashka, I can’t really understand everything else. It is like I have made a building, but a floor is missing somewhere in the middle. How is the roof—the last thing that happened, her death—how is that going to stay on? It collapses. I think this means every day I wake up again, not really understanding that she is dead. A piece is missing in the middle. The final piece keeps crashing down, and I have to begin again.
I know I am here because of things that I did. I have made a life out of the chance Natashka carved out for me. But it’s the same thing: a piece is missing in the middle. I can’t grasp her death, and so where I am now is hard to understand. I am trying to do that today. It’s hard.