The dream goes like this: I am in a mall, or the post office, or the supermarket, or the bank, with my two children. People mill around us, each face like every other face. I am running late, or too early, to meet a friend for lunch, or I am trying to retrieve the cell phone ringing in my diaper bag. At first, I see him approaching only out of the corner of my eye—intent, purposeful, his jaw crookedly set, his upper lip snarling—and my stomach transforms from a regular stomach into a black-hole stomach and begins to swallow me and all of dream-time, which moves more slowly anyway. Sometimes I cry out in a wet, drawn-out way—a baby deer bleeding to death in my throat. In other dreams, I beg for help from the stranger nearest to me. I try to ask the bank teller to call the police, but my mouth is full of feathers. Sometimes I call the police myself. They never come in time. In one dream, I ask a kind-looking woman to pretend my children are her own. Keep them safe, I croak. I don’t know her in real life. The kind-looking woman, my daughter, my infant son—he will kill them all and make me watch. In other dreams, terror seizes me, and even dream-time stops.
On July 5, 2000, I leave the offices of The Missouri Review, where I hold an editorial internship. I stand in the parking lot next to my car, a sandstone-colored ’91 Ford Taurus, unlocking the door with an actual metal key, when I hear my name and turn around. I see him crossing the lawn, climbing the hill, walking toward me through the grass. He wears a twill bucket hat, which is strange because I have never known him to wear hats. He perspires. He looks pale, his pupils like two pinpricks. He might be high. He clears his throat before announcing he no longer wants me back. He has decided to move back to Arizona, to be close to his aging mother, to finish his master’s degree at Arizona State. The implications flood me: no more looking over my shoulder to see him following me down the sidewalk as I leave the coffee shop or trailing several cars behind me on an unlit street; no more notes on my car; no more phone calls to my parents. A breath leaves my body, taking with it all reason and care. But I still have some of your things, he says neutrally. Give me a ride to the moving truck—it’s just up the block—and then you can follow me home. I should know better, should ask him to mail them to me instead. But then he would make excuses. And then there would be the pleading: Can’t you just do me this one favor? I should know better but agree.
In the parking lot where there should be a moving truck, there is only a stun gun. A struggle, a near escape and him grabbing me by the hair. There is a blindfold and a circuitous trip to a basement apartment he’s rented for the sole purpose of raping and killing me. On the floor of the apartment’s only bedroom are my promised “things”: the down duvet he brought back from Denmark last summer for my 21st birthday in September and a chair he’s constructed out of two-by-fours and four-by-fours. A hole in the seat opens to a bucket underneath. Two U-bolts are attached to the thick wooden arms with galvanized fencing staples. A choke collar hangs from the headrest. Thick blue Styrofoam covers every surface but the floor.
I’m going to rape you now, he says while I undress. Or I’m sure that’s what you’ll call it anyway. In the corner of the room, there are several sheets of paper folded into a neat square: a script he’ll read to me after he’s bolted me back into the chair, after he’s fed me a turkey sandwich, his hands hot and sticky with his own semen. While I’m chewing, he explains that I will call my friend A. to tell her I’ve decided to take him back. Instead, I tell her I’ll come by in a few days to pick up my clothes. She wants to know what clothes. Sorry, I can’t come by tonight. I’ll come by in a few days. Is everything ok, she wants to know: Where are you? What is happening? I can’t speak with him sitting right beside me, demanding I hang up the phone. I want to say, Send help. Instead I say, I don’t know.
Or maybe the phone call happens first.
At one point, he tells me to put his penis in my mouth—he’s angry he can’t get it hard—and at another, he tightens the dog collar around my neck, gesturing toward the places he’s planted explosives in the walls, a camera in the corner, a detonator in the kitchen. All the while, scenes from a movie play in my head: a low-budget flick with B-list actors past their prime. I play myself. The director cues the explosion, and pieces of my body fly in every direction.
At another point, he puts his face close to mine and says, No one can hear you. Go ahead and scream.
It’s no secret that people—some more than others—are predisposed to aggression. From an evolutionary standpoint, aggression is a necessary part of getting and keeping important resources such as mates, territory and food. Aggression is so ubiquitous in our culture that it barely merits mention: Turn on the television, make a left turn during rush hour, bump into a stranger in the grocery store, and there it is, already boiling. Conventional wisdom would lead us to believe aggression is a negative emotion, and yet, what’s surprising is that the brain processes aggression in the same way it processes any reward. Aggression, rage, violence—they all activate the same set of neurotransmitters responsible for our feelings of excitement and anticipation before Thanksgiving dinner, or during intercourse, or while tapping out a couple of lines of cocaine on the marble countertop. From a chemical standpoint, there is no difference in a craving for food or for amphetamines or for violence. For some people, the craving itself becomes a reward.
I am like Superman, he tells me in an email that September. A reverse search of his IP address confirms that this email, like all the others before it, has come from Venezuela, where he fled after he discovered I’d escaped and where he holds dual citizenship with the United States. The detective stands behind me, careful not to touch, looking over my shoulder into the computer monitor. He isn’t hopeful that the Venezuelan government will allow extradition but speaks encouraging words into my ear while I type: That’s it. That will really get him. That’s the trick. In my emails back to Venezuela, I play the victim, insisting the detective has bullied me into pressing charges against the man I love. It’s the detective’s idea, I write. He thinks this could be a big case. It might mean a promotion. In my emails, I say I wish we could still be together. I beg him to come back to rescue me. In reality, we’re trying to lure him back into the country so he can be arrested and brought to trial. The police have charged him with kidnapping, felonious restraint, sodomy and rape, as well as a few lesser crimes. They have frozen his credit cards and his bank accounts. They have flagged his passport and notified the FBI and Interpol. Together, we are setting a trap; I play the bait.
Later, back in my new apartment, I hack into his email account. He’s been corresponding with a South American publisher about a potential memoir deal. One chapter in the proposal is titled “Leather and Lacy”—it’s the only chapter in which I appear. Other chapters cover the long circus of his life: a childhood split between the U.S. and Venezuela, an adolescence as a stuntman in a traveling motorcycle show, his early adulthood spent hitchhiking through Europe and Asia. All of the children he’s fathered, all of the women he’s married and divorced. In our years together, I learned the names of only a few. The first time I came to his apartment, he pulled pictures from a plain white shoebox; touching them made him sob like a child. It all started like this: with him asking me to return something I didn’t know how to give.
In my new apartment, sitting at the dining table I salvaged from the curb, on a chair I pulled from the dumpster, I change the password of his email. The next day, the emails start coming in quick succession: each more frantic, more threatening, in turns more bartering, more berating, more abusive. I don’t respond, and eventually, he stops sending them. I don’t tell the detective what I’ve done. The end of our relationship was like this, too. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t fight back, or if I did, I was already lying down—bruised, bleeding, slinking out the door on my belly like a worm.
In abusive relationships, violence tends to follow the same three-phase pattern: A conflict gradually escalates, until an explosive battering incident occurs, followed by a calm, loving period of submission and reconciliation. This pattern becomes so predictable that even before the battering begins, the victim begins to dissociate emotionally and physically, muting her awareness of both fear and pain. Due to the extreme contrast between the victim’s feelings of terror and helplessness during the first two phases, and the dramatic scenes of remorse, forgiveness and loving physical contact in the third phase, the victim becomes caught in two powerful cycles of reinforcement: the “arousal-jag” of escalating tension and the pleasure triggered by the extinction of violence and the onset of peace. Both reinforce the traumatic bond between victimizer and victim. They become addicted to one another and to the violence. The pattern, the interaction, the relation takes hold: The individuals become as powerless as junkies.
The story appears in the city papers a few times. It is on the local news once or twice. I never come forward to identify myself as the victim, and without a face to attach to the story, without a culprit to arrest, the public loses interest. I don’t lose interest. I send a copy of a news article to his ex-wife in Denmark with only a short message attached: This happened to me. I thought you should know. She responds by asking for my number and wants to know if I’d be willing to talk on the phone. Her voice relates without emotion all the events of her own kidnapping, the abduction of her children, the trial and her ex-husband’s deportation from Denmark. If he comes back, he’ll be arrested. Like me, she had finally left him. You are lucky, she says, that he didn’t get you pregnant.
In the weeks that follow, rumors begin to surface. An anonymous email arrives in my inbox from a woman confessing he had come to her door one night asking for sex. I hear from a friend that someone once saw him shooting up in the back room of a bar downtown. One sunny afternoon, the detective escorts me to our old apartment before its contents are emptied and either given away or destroyed. He stands outside the front door while I wander from room to room, touching only the very tops of things. I’m supposed to be looking for my belongings: a photo album, some pottery, a textbook or two. After a half-hour, he opens the door: Everything ok? If he comes into the bedroom, he will find me sobbing in the closet, my face buried among the hanging clothes.
Despite treatment, some victims of violence continue to re-experience trauma, finding ways to repeat it in present-day life. Nightmares are a means of doing this at a somewhat unconscious level. Individuals get to watch their traumatic events again and again—in effect, starring in their own shows night after night. Will it end differently? the unconscious mind of the victim wants to know. This constant and obsessive search for a different outcome, a resolution, night after night, is a normal function of the brain gone awry. Dreams always involve intensive activation of the “seeking system,” an all-purpose anticipatory drive that sends all animals out into the world to satisfy their needs. The seeking system is appetite, is arousal. It’s the neurobiological lovechild of Freud’s libido and Lacan’s lack.
The seeking system provides us with eagerness and purpose. It’s what drives us out of bed in the morning in search of food, to the closet in search of a sweater when it’s cold, to the fridge in search of a drink when we’re thirsty. It drives us toward our mates for sex. It also generates and sustains curiosity. It’s what makes us excited when we are about to get what we desire, an anticipatory state that feels so good we often seek out substances or activities that keep it engaged—cocaine and amphetamines, as well as Facebook, Google and Twitter. And in order to keep us distracted while the body repairs itself, dreaming keeps the seeking system activated even while we sleep.
According to his online resume, in the years between 2000 and 2007, he works at a variety of editing, translating and interpreting jobs, sometimes for large, international corporations. He spends time as an interpreter for the Venezuelan lower courts. He translates a Motorola cell phone product description and instruction manual from English into Spanish. He edits several titles on conflict management for The University for Peace. Meanwhile, I marry. I divorce. I marry again. I change addresses at least once every year. I give birth to a child. Less and less frequently, I email the detective to ask about the case. On Oct. 31, 2007, an email appears in my inbox. It’s him. He has just been released from jail in Venezuela after a failed extradition attempt and wants me finally and officially to drop the charges in the U.S. I hope you’ll consider my plea, he writes. And I would like to hear back from you even if it’s just to say that you’re sorry. Even if you decide not to respond to this message, I wish you all the best.
I close my laptop screen and draw the blinds. I lock all the doors and turn off the television. I pull my daughter out of bed and call my husband in a cold sweat. We’re hiding on the floor in the kitchen when he finally bursts through the front door, dressed as Clark Kent for Halloween, his tie loosened and pulled to the side, his shirt half-buttoned, the blue fabric of his Superman T-shirt visible underneath. I call the detective, who now works as a lead investigator for the county’s prosecuting attorney. He wants me to respond to the email, to try one last time to lure him back to the U.S., but I can’t bring myself to do it. I have too much to lose.
Now, I’ve lost track of him. He has disappeared or changed his name. I know that two of his sons still live in Denmark. One has a pretty girlfriend the whole family seems to like. I imagine that everyone hopes they will get married. His ex-wife and half-brothers are “friends” on Facebook, a fact that gives me inexplicable hope. Maybe one of them knows where he is, whether he is still living, but I can’t bring myself to write to them and risk exposure. Instead, I look in the back seat of the car before I pull out of my driveway each morning. I search the rearview mirror while driving my children to school. I scan the parking lot before unbuckling them from their seats. Back home, I sit at my desk, and instead of writing, I watch for him out my window. When I pick up my children, we do not go to the park but instead go back to our house and close the blinds. I do not leave the house after dark. I turn off the lights at bedtime and lay awake in fear that he will come into my house and kill me while I am sleeping. If I sleep, it’s the same dream every time.
I tried to quit smoking about a dozen times before I actually quit smoking. Every time, I’d tell myself the same bullshit stories: I’ll just wean myself off. I’ll only smoke when I’m out drinking. I’ll only smoke X cigarettes a day. I’ll only smoke on Tuesdays and Fridays. The problem with this approach was that the enormous anticipation of each next cigarette made the smoking of it that much more addictive. When I finally did quit, I told myself that I would never smoke, ever again. Not one cigarette. Not one butt. Not one drag.
For two whole years, I was addicted to diet pills. It was partly the manifestation of an eating disorder and partly my love of the constant and perpetual neural and metabolic hum. Like time travel: The world slowed; I sped.
And then there’s coffee. And alcohol. And pot. I’m also addicted to sex, though not as much as I would like. I’m addicted to picking the fleas off my dog and dandruff off the base of my scalp. It’s disgusting. I lie about things that don’t matter. I can’t help myself.
At some point, I also have to admit I’m addicted to the dream. I’m addicted to the memory. I’m still addicted to him.
* * *
It’s in the process of working on this essay, when I read about the seeking system, that I have a revelation: All this time spent seeking him has only sustained my addiction. The implication is not lost on me: I can quit.
What if, for example, instead of thinking of taking my children to the park, I actually take them to the park? They will play and laugh, and because their happiness is infectious, I will also laugh. If, instead of sitting at my desk, waiting for someone to arrive at my doorstep, I draw the blinds wide open and begin typing, stopping only to enjoy the taste of my morning coffee (I’m not quitting that), I will delight in watching the words accumulate.
If I quit the bimonthly internet searches, the annual emails to the detective; if I quit cyber-spying on his half-brothers and looking in my rearview mirror; if I quit lying awake in fear—maybe I can also quit the dream. Which means I have to quit seeking resolution and, instead, let the present be the outcome I’ve been looking for. Which means I have to quit letting that past experience define me. Which means, at some point, I must decide never to write about this ever again. Not one paragraph. Not one sentence. Not one word.
I quit. A solution so beautiful in its simplicity. The simplicity rippling outward toward something akin to euphoria.
Tonight, for the first time in a long time, I will go to sleep thinking only of the present. And tomorrow night. And the next night. And the next. Until that becomes a craving. Until that craving itself becomes a reward.