Wednesday, April 27, 2011
The Love of Unsettled Hearts
Promise what they can't deliver"
Tracy Chapman "Speak the Word"
About a year and a half ago, I fell in love with a woman who had long been a good friend. There were many things standing in our way, and certainly when viewed from the outside, the whole relationship might be considered on unsettled ground. However, when I look back at it now, what I see are a pair of unsettled hearts that came together, but couldn't do what was needed to build a life together.
That was her phrase "Build a life together." She was born in Burma, had come to the United States in 2007, briefly landed in my ESL classroom before being hired as an advocate and translator for the school I used to work for. When I met her, she was unhappily married to an abusive man who hated the fact that he was forced into marrying her by family, leaving behind another woman. In fact, he decided upon getting married that he would make her feel that hatred for the rest of their days together.
While they lived in a refugee camp in Thailand, she gave birth to a daughter. A few years later, he disappeared for what ended up being over two years, only to come back and refuse he offer to let him divorce her. Given the patriarchal cultural conditions she lived under, she didn't feel like she had the option to divorce him herself, and so they ended up back together, having another child, and then, finally moving to the United States.
Almost from the moment we saw each other, there was something intense present between us. As if we knew each other from another time and place, and were simply coming together again.
I was recently single - out of a three year relationship - when we first met. Keenly aware of how messy my internal life at the time, and knowing that she was both married and a student, I was very leery of the extra attention she gave me in class.
Soon, though, she was my co-worker, and we started to talk more about our lives, and I began to learn her history and details of her marriage. Physical and mental abuse. Little support from her mother and sister, who also lived with the couple and their children. Lots of conflicted feelings and views around the role of women in relationships and the new found freedom she felt here in the U.S.
We became friends, but I felt conflicted myself about the connection - knowing I was attracted to her, knowing she was attracted to me, and knowing that such attraction could cause a lot of trouble.
If I look back and consider any significant turning point, it would have to be when she started to serious look for a new job. Some of the same problems I was having at the school she was also having. Both of us were deeply frustrated with the sloppy and confused leadership, and she felt micromanaged by her supervisor.
We began meeting to talk about her options, and these talks would slip into other subjects, including relationships. She would ask me about my dating life, wondering why I was still single. I would talk with her about her relationship, and listen to stories about her struggles.
We had a lot of common interests. Gardening, medicine plants, a love of the outdoors, a heavy focus on service to others, social justice, making the world a better place.
All of this we would talk about, all the while getting closer and closer.
Years ago, during my college days, I dated a woman who worked at a domestic abuse shelter. It was then that I first learned about the cycle of abuse, the myriad of ways that those abused get trapped by their abusers, and how difficult it is to summon the courage to leave - even when you have a safe place to go, and access to legal protections.
So, when she started talking about getting a divorce, I thought perhaps she'd finally gained that courage, and I was fully ready to support her in any way I could.
As she talked about getting ready to kick him out of the house, which she eventually did, I started wondering about "us" - where we might be going.
This was about two years after we had first met.
One day, in early October, she was over at my apartment, finally deciding to interview for a job she would end up taking. She was scared, but excited. She was ready to move on.
We hugged each other, and didn't let go. I was still conflicted, wondering how people would view us, wondering if she actually could take the steps needed to be with me, wondering if the love I felt for her was real or not.
I had no doubt that she loved me. Even before she told me so, it was obvious from the way she talked and acted around me. The meals she would cook and bring me at work. The way her face would brighten the moment I walked into the same room. How her beautiful eyes would settle on mine, her beautiful smile opening, like a morning glory.
We didn't let go. The hug turned into a kiss that kept going almost all the way. Even though I continued to fight back the love I felt with all kinds of stories and concerns for a good two months after that day, there was never any doubt that when our bodies came together, they fit almost perfectly. As if we had learned each others intimate places in another lifetime, and had simply reunited to take up where we left off.
Four months later, she forced her husband out and started talking with a lawyer about divorce proceedings. A month after that, I started telling friends and family, introducing her to a few of them. I began to spend more time with her kids, who loved me as well, especially her son. She appeared one day with a little box in her hand and said "I want to give this to you." It was a ring. A promise ring of sorts. I had never before this really seriously considered marriage, but as I tried the ring on, I thought "this is really possible."
What's funny now is how the ring was a little too big, and how we had to get it refit, and then later, when I bent it while fixing my bike and then made it worse by trying to fix it myself, we had to get it refit again.
In the spring, we gardened together, visited state parks, played with the kids, looked at houses in various neighborhoods, talked endlessly about our future.
Meanwhile, I started to wonder if the husband had forced his way back in, and why she wasn't moving quicker on getting the divorce proceedings going.
One day in July, her and I went to the beach. It was a warm, sunny day and the beach was full of people. I remember picking her up while we were in the warm and spinning her around and around - and then suddenly, as if out of nowhere, the joy I felt turned to sadness and fear.
She felt the shift. Asked me if I was ok. I lied, not knowing what was going on.
After she dropped me off, I went into my apartment and found a message on the phone. From her estranged husband, asking if she was there.
And then she called me, saying they had just had a fight. I started to feel sick. I worried her might hurt her. I wondered what he was doing there in the first place.
Then he called again. I picked up the phone with a mixture of fear and anger, and we spoke.
"I want you to stop talking with my wife."
"She doesn't want to be with you. She's going to divorce you."
"I'm the husband."
"This is America. You can't control her like this anymore."
This went on for a few more minutes and then we hung up. Two hours later, he called back and said "We have discussed it, and agreed that she can go to you."
I thought to myself "It can't be this easy, can it?"
"Do you want to talk with her?"
She got on the phone. I asked her if she was ok, and if the kids were ok. She sounded calm and even a little bit happy. We agreed to see each other the next day, and then she hung up.
It was one of the strangest experiences I had had in my life.
The next day, though, she didn't come. Didn't call. Until later in the evening, crying, panicked because he had taken the kids for the day, but hadn't returned.
I tried to think of possibilities, and help her calm down, but she was entirely lost in fear and vision of never seeing her children again.
And then, as we were on the phone, they arrived home, and she said "I have to go." And hung up without hearing my goodbye.
I didn't hear from her for two days. None of my messages or e-mails were answered. I started to imagine the worst, all the while going to work, and facing her aunt and the husband's brother, both of whom had recently joined my English class.
To say it was a nightmare would be an understatement.
Finally, I broke though and found out that the husband had threatened to kill us all if she continued to see me. That he had forbid her to go anywhere after work. That he had taken her phone, and was driving her to and from work.
In a co-worker's class, her mother broke down crying, and my co-worker asked me in the hallway if I knew anything about it. She had no idea about the relationship we had - only that we were friends.
Everywhere I turned, I felt trapped, not sure what to do, questioning every last option I came up with.
For the next few months, we e-mailed each other somewhat frequently, trying to figure out what to do next.
She finally agreed to come visit me, early in the morning on the last day of August.
We made a few plans, and I reassured her that we could figure this all out.
Then she left, and my phone rang. He was looking for her.
I stopped by her workplace about a month later (last September) to drop off a few things she had left, and we continued to e-mail each other sporadically, but for all intensive purposes, it was over.
When I consider it all, I can say that I am still not completely "over her." Mostly, I have made my peace, but a small part of me hangs on to a distant hope that someday, things will be different. Which is true. Someday things WILL be different. Things already are different because our lives are always changing in small, and sometimes very large ways. But whether she will ever step beyond the life she currently is trapped in or not is anyone's guess.
When you look at it, the coming together of two unsettled hearts, and her later failure to fully settle on a course of action, made for an unsettled relationship that ultimately came to an end. A messy, dangerous ending at that. One that I couldn't find myself able to write about until now, eight months after the last time I saw her.
May sharing this be a step towards freedom, for myself, for her, and for anyone else who has been in a similar situation.