Running Away From Home
Originally published in The Atherton Review vol. 107
I’VE BEEN LOOKING for a bundle of letters but I can’t find them. We have two storage units right now, and it’s a challenge to find anything. Both are packed full, so it’s a game of emotional Tetris trying to sort through my stored life just to find one thing. I set the letters aside long ago with the intent of giving them to my daughter when she left for college. She leaves next week, so there’s no time to lose, but lost time is all I seem able to keep right now. I keep hitting brick walls in a sea of boxes, and thinking about that old proverb: For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost…
You’re imagining my brick walls look like long-lost finger paintings or baby clothes, but my brick wall looks like a woolen witch hat. My friend C. gave it to me and it’s a part of a handmade costume from the 1950’s she dug out of her attic. C.’s attic is a wonderland of nostalgia passed down from generation to generation, and she frequently gifts pieces of her family’s ephemera to friends, usually right when they need it. It's not so much magic as it is her own brand of empathetic alchemy; matching the right piece with the right person at the right time. When we had to leave our home this past spring, the hat was hastily thrown in a cardboard box, refugee-style, along with some old jewelry, a handful of t-shirts, an ancient Lord & Taylor box containing a christening gown, one baby shoe, (no idea where the other one is) and some newspapers from 9/11 that I was saving to show grand kids someday. Unfortunately, we had to store some of our boxes in an old garage for three months until we could move them somewhere safer, along with ourselves. Mice found them and I am only now dealing with the fallout. The newspapers are a total loss. The Lord & Taylor box has a hole in one corner and I can’t bring myself to open it. The peak of the witch’s hat is gone; four inches of it chewed away and reassembled into a mouse nest in the lone baby shoe. I’m starting to lose hope I’ll find the letters in time, if at all. I have to keep walking away from the evidence of how the last ten months have gnawed giant holes in my life and reassembled them into something I never wanted, something I can’t seem to learn how to live with.
I’ve had a lot of people ask me if I’m going to write about what happened to my family. My answers vary from vague and polite, to something on the edge of rage. It’s an innocent question, I guess. I steer the subject away, make it easier on the other person. But I wonder if you’ll ever know what the cost of that simple redirection is. Because in a situation like mine, every minute of the day is a cost/benefit analysis. Am I up for this? Nope. Are you up for this? Oh, definitely not. You are not up for hearing about what happened to my family. But I get it. You want the details. You want to know what he did, how often he did it. You want the play by play. Okay, sure, but then what? People never know what to say to someone who has experienced violence, loss, terror. I’m sure they mean well, but it’s hard -as the one in the shit as it were- to have to be gracious on top of it all.
“You’ll probably get some good writing material out of this. Maybe not now, but once you’ve healed.”
“You’re lucky. You got out. It’s all behind you now.”
“You’ll have to write a horror story about your stalker. Turn all this bad into something good. Bet it would make a great movie.”
Sure. I’ll get right on that. Once I get over this horrible, devastating intrusion, this life altering tragedy, sure thing, pal. I’ll mine for the good.
Why do you think he did this to you? That’s a tough one, not for me to answer, but for you to swallow. You’d like to believe you can avoid what happened to me. My answer to that question is simple: because he could. No one likes that answer. They want reason, they want fault. They do not understand the implication in that question: you must have done something. Why not ask someone why the drunk driver hit them, why the stranger raped them, why the rabid dog bit them? But don’t take my word for it. Take his. He gave six police officers and my whole neighborhood the answer one day in January. This was after one of our regular interludes. I’d come home, he was waiting for me. I ran in the house and called 911, and he sauntered out front to wait for the police, a dance we’d done together for months. This time, an officer got right in his face and screamed at him, “Why can’t you leave her alone?” He laughed. I can still hear that horrible sound in my head and his response. I don’t have to. I can do whatever I want.
It’s the healing I take issue with. I’ve suffered loss before. Three little lives that never made it to the other side, the loss of my fertility, the fork in the road that was forever barred for me. It hurt, I healed, I moved on. An amputation with ghost pains for sure, but all in all, I get by. I go weeks without thinking about those three little people I never got to know, so I guess that’s healing. But this, this is different. It’s less about healing and more about parts of yourself and your family that keep getting erased. Much of it won’t come back. Some of it will come back, but mutated, transformed from something familiar and comforting, into something alien and hostile. Which is probably why I can’t stop thinking about annihilation. Oh, I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t that a bit dramatic, Dana? I mean, after all you got out. He didn’t kill you, didn’t kidnap your kids, didn’t assault your husband. You got out, just like Toto, so it must be okay. Must be over. Annihilation, Dana? Really?
I started thinking about annihilation when I was packing up my house. We had to sell our house because honestly, it just didn’t seem fair that he knew where we lived and we had no idea where he did. He went underground after the court proceedings started, reappearing just enough to make sure I didn’t stop looking over my shoulder. He showed up at the court house one day and scared about fifteen years off of my lifespan. I don’t think I have ever been as frightened as I was when he stepped off that elevator. The judge hid us in a witness room until the police arrived, but by then, he’d done what he set out to do. He’d disrupted the proceedings to grant me a civil stalking and sexual assault restraining order, reduced me to a pile of quivering flesh in a windowless, airless concrete cell, only to bolt out of the courthouse and vanish into the ether. The bailiffs searched the Justice Center to no avail, and the judge kept us in the safety of his courtroom until they were certain he was no longer in the building. The sheriff’s office was dispatched, but they couldn’t find him either. Finally, we were told it was “safe to go,” words that suddenly had no meaning or reassurance behind them.
I knew exactly where he was. Just a few streets over from our home, holed up with his ex, waiting for me. He’d drive over, park and wait. Different cars, never his own. Tinted windows that would roll down just enough to take my picture. Nothing I could call the police about, not that I would. After months of inaction that actually facilitated my stalkers relentless agenda, calling the police seemed hilarious. Like UN observers, they would show up too late, pouring out of their cars, milling around, taking notes, taking video, taking statements. And then they would leave, confidently assuring me that I just needed to wait until he went just a little bit further, that the whole thing needed to escalate, to play out to its natural conclusion. That I needed to be patient. Of course, they’d add, you have to catch it all on video. That was a crucial element. Catch him saying he wants to rape you. Catch him saying he wants to slit your throat. Catch him touching you, make sure you have audio. Then we can prosecute. They seemed so… excited. As soon as he hurts you, we’re going to nail this guy.
So, I lived with these little interludes between me and my stalker, each occasion custom designed by him to remind me that he could find me, but if I wanted to find him, it would cost. No really, it actually cost a couple hundred dollars every time we hired “a guy” to serve him with new court papers. Did you know court proceeding can’t continue until you put a piece of paper in the hands of your stalker? And the sheriff’s office was useless. They would wander past his abandoned house every afternoon at four, knock once and leave. We had to pay a guy who would cozy up to him, complain about women who don’t know their place, agree to every disgusting thing he said about me just to get the papers in his hands so the court would be satisfied and proceed. I paid for that.
I paid for that.
We moved into a safe house after one night in February that I can’t look directly at. I tried to watch security footage of that incident, sent to us by a neighbor (by then he’d figured out where our cameras were) and I threw up. I keep that night and several others locked up tight and I have been working on bricking them over, metaphysically speaking. We made plans to sell our home. I mostly packed alone. Oh yes, I constructed my own woodpile, climbed right on top, tied my wrists together, and cheerfully lit my own match because the cost of not doing that was far beyond a price I was willing to pay. I could not bear for my family, newly ensconced in a safe house so uncomfortable we compared it to a waiting room at a dialysis center, to have any part of it. I could not pull them out of the safety of that quiet, uncomfortable limbo, just to put them right in the center of his bullseye. Because one thing he made sure of was that I knew he had nothing to lose. I, on the other hand, had everything to lose. Game set and match, asshole. You win, you win, you win, and I lose again and again in this game I don’t understand and never wanted to play.
Anyway, we were talking about annihilation, right? I packed up the kitchen first. I threw a lot of things out without a thought. I gave a lot away with a great deal of thought. And it was when I came to a completely useless set of vintage porcelain jars that I started thinking about the concept of annihilation. A tiny set of kitchen canisters sized for the Great Depression, or if you were living on war rations. Really lovely, jade green, hand-painted in Poland, the biggest one about the size of a box of Jiffy cornbread mix. Completely useless. I kept them on a high shelf because it made me happy to look at them.
Talk about a brick wall. I spent hours just sitting there on the kitchen floor, trying to decide if I should get rid of them. On one hand, I didn’t actually need them. And I didn’t know how long it might be until we landed somewhere permanent, and even then, I might not have a spot for them as perfect as the one they were currently in. On the other hand, it was a good memory, finding those absurd little canisters. They made me smile, a classic example of my own absurdity. You see, it’s very me to surround myself with pretty, useless, old things. Keep them? Give them away? Decisions I never wanted or needed to make, pieces of myself and my family that I had no choice but to let go.
I used to sit on the back step and watch the goings-on in our giant oak tree, usually while waiting for water to boil or dough to rise. The back step was important for other reasons, too. It sounds trite, but I really did put on lipstick and run out to greet my husband when he got home from work. I did it once as a joke and it made him so happy that I kept it up. I mean, why wouldn’t I? A whole day of people wanting things from him and all I wanted was a smooch. We would laugh and walk back into the house, to dinner and homework and chores, all the little things that pile up at the end of the day, but the whole way I know we were thinking the same thing: how lucky we were.
I wonder now if he was watching us even then.
W. used to grill. And I don’t mean throw a couple hot dogs on, I mean he would spend the whole week planning a giant meal for Sunday afternoon. Fried chicken, burgers, pineapple, kebabs, smoked meats, you name it. He’d be out there for hours, staring up into our oak tree, winning arguments after the fact, listening to music, drinking a few beers, asking us to come out and see, come out and taste. It was how he relaxed, how he gave one more gift to his family on top of all the others. W. doesn’t grill anymore, for reasons you probably wouldn’t understand. But I do, and of all the sacrifices we have made, I hate this one in particular.
When I was packing up, a neighbor told me he used to see my stalker in my backyard, by the back step where I used to cloud watch, right where I used to wait for my husband, right next to W’s grill and his daydreams, waiting by our kitchen door in the dead of night. Just studying the entrance to my house while we slept on the other side. Another neighbor came over to say goodbye and Oh how horrible, so sorry to see you go. Did you know he used to sneak into your backyard and make his dogs shit and piss by your back porch in the middle of the night. How terrible! I know I should have told you but, I was too afraid he’d come after me to say anything to you. I heard a lot of stories like that, when it was too late. Neighbors ringing the door of my poor abandoned house like it was their personal confessional. So many people who saw so many things and did nothing. And the reason no one did anything was always the same: because they didn’t want what was happening to us to happen to them.
I used to like nothing better than walking alone at night. That world was mine, an alien world, softer, more savage. I used my nighttime walks to build new worlds, sort out plot issues, and the most important thing a writer can do: daydream. It was my office, my room of one’s own, my sanctuary. Walking alone at night with a sexual assault restraining order against someone like my stalker is just stupid. I don’t do that anymore.
I stopped cooking when we were living in the safe house. The kitchen there wasn’t great and I was so overwhelmed, it was just easier to order out for the kids. It also made things more like a vacation and less like a prison sentence. What should we have tonight? Japanese? Indian? Burgers and fries? Whatever you want! Whatever helps us all pretend this is not happening. As for me, I ate cabbage sandwiches. For almost seventy-four days straight. Cabbage sandwiches are the easiest thing in the world to make. Cabbage, carrot, bit of hard-boiled egg, mayonnaise. Pile it on some bread and you’re done. Cooking and eating, once such a joy for me, was not anymore.
I’m not sure why. Maybe because every time I went to the grocery store, he was waiting for me outside by my car. If he wasn’t there when I left, he’d be there when I got back. I’d turn the corner to our street, pull in the driveway, and there he was, following me back and forth as I unloaded my groceries. And I knew if I planned a meal, it was unlikely I’d be preparing it, let alone eating it. Instead, I’d be telling another patronizing, dead inside cop my version of events, backed up by security footage and witnesses, and listen as they patiently explained that they were going to do exactly nothing. Seventy-four days is a lot of cabbage sandwiches but oddly, I’m not sick of them. I still eat them two or three times a week and I find them weirdly comforting now. They are also the only food that tastes good to me anymore. That horrible safe house, too, has taken on a sepia-tinged nostalgia that I like to revisit as life continues to crumble around us in the aftermath of him. It was our first refuge, the first place we could sleep, and rest, and step outside without fear. It was a horrible little house and I love it fiercely. Sometimes I drive by and park out front, stalking the ghost of me that sat inside hiding and eating cabbage sandwiches, worrying and planning and praying.
I’ve started throwing random things out again, a bad habit I can’t break. Here’s an example: there’s a basket of laundry in the basement from February, so three houses ago now. You know that pile of odds and ends in your laundry room? Shirts with stains, pants with holes in the pockets, dresses missing a button, all the things you never get around to? Now when I am doing laundry, I pull something out of that basket and throw it away. Stealth is key. I wad it up, sneak out the back door, open the smelliest trash bag and shove it in. Why am I doing this? I don’t know. But it feels good in the moment. Actually, it feels great. But I worry sometimes, what all that “feels good in the moment” is leading to. Yes, it’s usually something I was wearing when something happened. But sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s just a shirt or a sweater. I look at it and I think, “I am not her anymore, and this belongs in a landfill.”
I’m throwing out a lot of dresses. I’ve always been a dress girl. I like the ceremony of sliding into a dress, fussing with buttons and sashes, slips and tights. Before, if you ran into me, I’d be dressed for a Victorian tea party or Edwardian tennis match. I would make no apology for playing dress up every day. My husband used to promise me one day I’d have a whole room for my dresses, D.’s Dress Room, so that I could get really weird with it. I couldn’t take much with me when we left that night in February. I lived in my depression sweatpants for months. Which was fine, I didn’t leave the house much anyway. On one of our lightning strike reconnaissance missions back to our abandoned house, I grabbed an armful of my old dresses. Not to wear, but because I missed them. I missed, if I am honest, me. I never wore them. They hung in the basement of the safe house for months, beautiful butterflies hanging in a cinder-block cell.
I started wearing menswear when we started having court dates. You wouldn’t have recognized me. Not a ruffle to be seen. On my best day, people struggle to take me seriously. There’s something silly -or rather there was- about me. My hair is genetically messy, my eyes are a bit too wide and naïve. I always looked ready to laugh. Add a lace collar and a crinoline and you’d be hard pressed to take me seriously when I testified about the night he found me alone in my backyard. Or the way he’d wait for me in the dark on trash night and whisper horrible things until I called the police. The police would play the recordings over and over and I would be expected to sit there and relive each syllable. This would last a few hours. Is that him? How close was he? Can you show us? That’s a public sidewalk, ma’am. He has every right to stand there. He can say what he wants, ma’am, this is America. Free speech. And what did you do? And what did he do? Why do you think he did this? Did you do something? Why do you think he’s doing this to you? What did you do to make him do this? Then they would leave without even talking to him. He never had to answer those questions. He’d still be right outside my house, watching and waiting. I’d wrap myself in a blanket and sweat until my tights were drenched. Then I would throw them away. I would imagine how powerful the sight of the police leaving made him feel. I can do whatever I want to her whenever I want. I would imagine him turning his devoted attention to my daughter, my son, my husband, until my cold sweat would soak my tights, my wool skirt, my satin slip and then I’d strip them off, carefully fold them up, and hide them in the trash. Stalking is about attention in the same way rape is about sex. It isn’t. It’s about power and control.
When I went to court, never knowing if he would be sitting just opposite of me, I wore thick cotton oxfords, heavy wool cardigans, ankle length wool skirts, heavy shoes. Layer after layer of old garments that had stood the test of time. I fashioned my own armor left behind from generations of women trying to protect every inch of themselves from the male gaze. I did what any victim does instinctively. I went into hiding. I made myself smaller, in the hopes he couldn’t see me. Well-meaning friends would offer to go with me places, offer to go to places for me. When I decided to do my first author appearance after I won my restraining order, those offers shifted to concern and outrage. Is it safe for you to be in public? What if he shows up? What if he sends someone else and you’re trapped there at your table? What if he follows you home? And I realized that by simply trying to live my life again, I was now seen as reckless, a new set of bars on my cage made by the well- intentioned. All I wanted was to take some small measure of my life back, one tiny thing that was mine against the mountain of things he’d stolen. But the silent -and in some cases not so silent- judgement I encountered made it clear that if in doing so, I somehow antagonized him… well then, the fault was mine.
I have struggled throughout this to understand by what code of conduct could I have lived that would have completely accommodated the rules and whims of my stalker. Because one thing I learned early on is that the only sympathetic victim is the perfect one. And even after shedding so much of myself over the last ten months, I’m still not sure what that looks like.
I’ve learned that it’s important for victims to be gracious, to be transcendent and inspirational. To rise above the horrible things that have happened to them so they -others, bystanders, friends, family- can feel better about things. And I get it. It’s uncomfortable dealing with victims. We are expected to make it easier on others to deal with our unsettling presence. So, it’s here I’ll have to disappoint you. I remember every friend who took the time to check in on me. Brought me food when I said I didn’t need it. Offered to listen. Offered to help me pack when things got that bad, offered to help me clean our beautiful home so someone else could buy it. Took care of my plants, drove me safely to and from work events when our new reality got so far beyond us, I couldn’t manage anymore. Kept checking in on me whether I replied or not, hung on tight and did not let me go. Kept pulling my head above the waves that were drowning me for months. Told me in a million different ways that I could get through this and that they would be there for me. Basically, the ones who stayed.
I also remember those who found it uncomfortable to deal with me; the ones who offered to give me time, to give me space. The ones I needed, but chose instead to stand in the wings waiting until “it was all over.” You gave me space, starved me of the oxygen I desperately needed to survive, and so now all I can do is give it back to you in return. I’ve had to rework the fabric of my existence and some threads have to go snip snip. Do you remember how you insisted I get a new car, a new license plate, cut my hair, stop working as an author (just temporarily mind you, just until he stopped) have my groceries delivered, pull my kids out of school, goad my husband into fighting him? Or how you told me to get a gun, tried to educate me on the limited responsibilities of the police, tried to shame me because I just couldn’t get onboard with the idea of waking up ready to kill someone in cold blood every day, used my family’s crisis to advance your political agenda instead of simply saying, “I love you. How can I help?” Because as he was destroying my life, you handed me a book of matches and suggested I help him. This will be hard to read. This will make you uncomfortable. Sit with what I am saying for a while. It’s the last thing I will ever ask of you and a hard lesson to learn, but one day in the future you will remember this brief moment of my cruelty and be for another person the friend you could not be for me. And that will have to be enough for us both. I have enough wounds to heal; and accommodating you would mean losing yet another piece of me.
But I’ve brought us to another corner again, haven’t I? I was going to tell you my theory of annihilation. Such a dramatic word, isn’t it? What is annihilation? Annihilation is the state of being destroyed or made invisible. One way to understand the concept is the Ship of Theseus thought experiment. If you replace every single bit of a ship, at what point does it cease to be the original ship? At what point do eliminations and repairs tip over into annihilation?
I love how the movie Annihilation portrayed this concept. If little, insignificant pieces of you are slowly, methodically removed and replaced with something foreign, something not part of the original whole, at what point do you stop being yourself? If your particles and antiparticles are destroyed and then replaced, at what point are you no longer you? When I first saw the movie, I laughed till I wept at the scene where Natalie Portman alternates dancing and running both from and to herself, a creature that has supplanted her. The scene is deeply uncomfortable because she doesn’t realize that this new creature is now her. That she no longer exists because this creature has already consumed her. The slow realization that she’s been supplanted and that there is no way back to herself is chilling. Show me the way to go home, but guess what? There is no way home. And there’s no home anymore. And there’s no you anymore, either, no matter how far you run.
It’s a bad trip and a brutal cycle that’s difficult to escape. A friend of mine, who is also the victim of stalking, has a theory that is the truest thing I have heard in this whole mess. They believe that once a person has been victimized, they emit a pheromone that abusers can sense. Which is why victims find themselves victimized over and over, again and again; a downward spiral with no bottom. The pheromone has base notes of fear and memory, and top notes of helplessness and resignation. They find themselves living outside the normal reality others take for granted, a Silent Hill non-existence that there is no escape from. I can smell it on myself and nothing seems to wash it off. And the me that people see now isn’t me at all.
I’ve noticed we spend a lot of time outside of our new temporary house. We can’t seem to settle. The new place doesn’t feel like home and I don’t know why. I spent the first month painting every single room, trying to recreate as much as I could the layout and mood of our old home. But everything is off, nothing works, and now the closest feeling to home I get is driving away from it, refugees from this unwanted reality. I spend a lot of time driving around aimlessly now, mostly listening to podcasts and avoiding going home. My favorites are about lost civilizations, like Songhai and Rome, the Mayans and the Assyrians. I’ve become a bit obsessed with what history teaches about what it was like to try to live a normal existence, even as your entire world is falling down all around you.
Can I tell you about the Assyrians? I know I’m jumping all over the place but this new me can’t look at anything head on. I have to look at everything out of the corner of my eye now. Too many trenches, too many doors, too many corners. Focus would be a miracle. I keep thinking about what the Assyrians did to conquered people to really seal the deal. Assyria set the standard for psychological warfare, and you can draw a straight line from their form of cultural genocide to Stalin. There’s a very simple way to destroy a human being and you don’t need swords or guns or bombs. You just forcibly relocate them. The Assyrians were champs at this. They would fight a battle and before the dust was settled, they would march the citizens of whatever city back to the capital of Assyria. You live here now. The newly relocated people would be so overwhelmed by navigating their new surroundings, trying to keep their children safe, simply surviving, that they didn’t have time to fight back, let alone hang on to their culture and traditions. And their children would eventually consider themselves Assyrians, not Egyptian or Babylonian, and in one generation you have completely unmade the history of a family, a people, a society. Stalin relocated six million people between 1924 and 1953. Israel has taken the “hold my beer” stance with regards to Palestinian relocation. Through the residential school system, the Catholic Church managed to not only relocate the children of the First Nations, but then murder them, creating a lost generation of the First Nation. The United States used The Indian Removal Act of 1830 to relocate hundreds of thousands of Native Americans and I don’t need to tell you what that did to their culture and mental health. It’s an efficient wartime tactic that humans have employed since the beginning of recorded history. You can destroy an entire culture, an entire people, just by forcibly relocating them and stripping them of their identity.
It’s no use. I’ll never find the bundle of letters in time. They could be anywhere. And we’ll be moving again soon, so who knows when or if I’ll ever find them. I just wanted to tuck the letters into my daughter’s bags, somewhere she wouldn’t find it right away. A surprise from me to her that only she would understand, something that might be close in shape to the home we ran away from. But they are lost in the churn of the last ten months along with so many other things. It’s hard to get too upset about it.
C. texted me yesterday. She found an old Christmas tree skirt in her attic covered in little embroidered poodles. Most of the skirt was ruined, but she carefully clipped the poodles out of the pattern and wondered if I could use them. I can, I told her. I can stitch them onto the ruined witch hat and make something new. Not what it was, not the thing I wanted it to be, but something new out of what survived. Maybe one day I’ll set that little hat on my grandchild’s head, and she won’t know that it was ruined when we ran away from home. She’ll never know that the hat is a relic of the grandmother she’ll never meet, the me that was erased by a stranger. She’ll never know what she lost.
Originally published in The Atherton Review vol. 107