Note: Read the prequel to this story, “My Disappearing Fiancé.”
I was wearing a burning red fur coat I received from a world-famous ballerina. He was wearing a purple, green and yellow-dotted Muppets coat recently salvaged from storage. We had about ten minutes to buy two rings and arrive at our destination. We ducked into various trinket markets with heavy metal merchants, examined rings with snakes and inscriptions in foreign languages before realizing we were late to our own wedding. We ran off to Toronto City Hall, holding hands, ringless. It was the winter of 2011; we had just come back from the Middle East and were on our way to South America. On the second floor of City Hall, in a small room with empty chairs and two dear friends as witnesses, a vampire-like librarian who spoke in deep poetry married us beside a vase of plastic flowers. I was weeping with joy — and I was seven months pregnant.
In the beginning, it all happened so fast I could barely breathe. After a few intense days of being together, one night, at the back of a tiny basement apartment looking out at a linden tree cracking in the wind, I was told: “I waited my whole life to find you. I want to go with you.” There had been a longing in me since longing was a possibility: to run off with my love into the world, untethered, eyes wide open. And here it was, that longing materialized into a living creature. This man who wanted to go with me. Nomadic freedom without the loneliness of a solo traveller was suddenly a possible reality.
“I want to go with you.”
Everything inside me liquefied. It was so easy to swallow these words, to get lost in them, to let all of my being fall apart and surrender to this one true love, yearned for since inception.
I followed my heart without a second thought. The wind crushed caution, and I smoked it under the hazy night skies. Ideals trumped reason. Living purely, freely; bravely going into vast territories of the heart was all that mattered to me. I was drunk on living.
That there was something broken, someone harmed and left behind, was invisible; collateral damage. I wanted to believe in this one true love so badly that I ignored the inexplicable, as well as my own principles of loyalty to fellow women. The details were murky anyway. When they emerged, they were carefully managed. A broken engagement was revealed. Turned out his fiancée wanted to end it anyway. Turned out the wedding had to be canceled, because it was unaffordable. She was controlling and manipulative. He’d been dead done with her for years. Turned out it would be better for all, especially her, if he didn’t go back to the other side of the world, to end things in person and move his belongings out of their once shared apartment. We had to act on our love now or we would forever live in the dark shadows of regret, unable to breathe.
I met an excellent salesman who sold me a beautifully bound Book of Love. When I opened it, all the pages inside were cheap photocopies of my romantic dreams.
He moved into my apartment long enough for us to pack up and take off for New York. Our ride-share driver Rami hit a car two minutes after we got on the road.
The fat warning finger of fate, gloriously ignored. Around midnight, we rolled into Manhattan and accompanied Rami to the top of the Empire State Building. It was his first time in the city. My true love and I found a place together on Second Avenue where the walls were pink and we ate nothing but coconut cream doughnuts for days. I saw him and me, holding hands in the reflection of a 1957 Russian Sputnik at the Library of the History of Human Imagination. From that moment we were never apart. Never further than two meters from each other. He came with me to my work meetings. We lived at night and slept in the days. I began to lose friends. “They could never understand our love,” he said. He told me my friends were using me, never cared about me anyway. I believed it all and yet none of it mattered. I had true love.
By the end of that summer I managed to find us two projects that took us to India. He wanted me to see India because for the last eight years it had been his home. Now he needed to close that part of his life, and I was happy to help.
We arrived at night, into the rain. Every once in a while, the rickshaw driver reached out to wipe the liquid light off the surface of the window. There were sleeping bodies everywhere, like trees and stones. As the sun rose, I saw India. I saw her in a glowing old woman with strings of marigolds around her neck, crouching in the middle of utter chaos, observing a white bull pissing in the middle of the road.
But something was not right. I was slowly unable to breathe. On some days, the man I loved oh so much would become stone cold heartless; the words coming at me twisted me, confused me, hurt my lungs. I never knew sentences could be hammers and blades. In these moments, it seemed as if a bomb exploded inside his brain and the eyes were blown out to look into an empty world with a cruel gaze.
One moment still cuts me:
Majnu-ka-tilla, a Tibetan colony in New Delhi. I’m sitting beside a stall selling plastic tennis sets, flip flops and knock-off Adidas pants in dark blue. There’s mud on my feet and I dangle them above a puddle in the shape of fried liver. I’m drinking sweet butter tea and something inside me is trembling. I’ve just been raped by my true love and I don’t know where to put my thoughts. Face down on the narrow bed in the windowless room, hand over my back, still wet from a shower, towel on the floor, the cold, tiled floor and the hot sun scraping the roof above. My tears are silent, his movements, in and out, in and out, are deafening.
But my heart stayed with him, it was not going anywhere. You see, my true love, he never had a real family. He was abused and discarded by his parents. Alone in this world. I felt so much love and compassion for him, I was overwhelmed. That liquid feeling…I wanted to hold him, to be with him, to show him my own family, my eastern brew of unfiltered and unconditional love.
We kept going together.
We rode north on the back of a Yamaha RX-135. Somewhere in rural Punjab, a tire blew. The motorcycle was wrapped in burlap and loaded onto the train, taking us four hours further away. At the end of that road, by the base of the Himalayas, inside a cheap room overlooking a garden of cucumbers, I begin to think of her. The one before me. My thoughts were like prayers and they went like this:
“I live my guilt for the pain we caused you. But oh, you kind, beautiful woman…What gives me joy is knowing you were spared this awful fate.”
An old Tibetan man passed me. He carried a tray of elaborate butter sculptures surrounded by flakes of color and white silk. I followed him through winding alleyways, curious about where he was going and what he might do with his tray when he got there. In the end, he stopped at the edge of a path, spilled the butter sculptures to the ground and walked away.
November 10, 2010, 7:20 A.M.
From me to him:
“In one way or another, pressure is always part of life….You have me, your life partner, who can handle pressure. You can rely on me. We can find a way. I ask you to change your attitude from complaining and rejecting to working together, building and being positive… Negativity comes from fear. Positivity comes from freedom. You are the free-est man I know, my beautiful love. Don’t betray that.”
We had $650 in the bank and I was running out of ideas to keep us afloat.
It took four and a half hours to reach the top of Triund Mountain. The first things we saw atop it were a rainbow, a Danish man named Kettle and two mating dogs stuck to each other, one of them frothing at the mouth. Then came a herd of goats, some of them transporting biological formations of moss and seeds on their coats, standing calmly on scattered stones. They stared quietly at the setting sun as clouds cavorted below in the valley, like cream invisibly whipped by a wizard. A man named Sunhil made chocolate pancakes and I was never so hungry in my life. I was two weeks pregnant. The joy of carrying a life, a little being from places unknown inside my belly, punched all the gloom out of my spine. I stood up straight for my little family.
Flying from India to the Middle East was like crawling towards the light. I was certain salvation would come from family.
I never imagined my parents would meet my true love for the first time while I was carrying our three-month-old baby in my belly. They moved out of their small apartment and into a shoebox so we could have some privacy and slowly grow as a family. They tried so damn hard. My dad told endless bad jokes and showed us secret nooks inside the earth. My mother quietly loved and observed, breaking the silence with stories of the old world. They were adorable and so kind, their worn hands extended so far towards him they almost fell out of their sockets.
But worry was on the horizon. My true love desired for our baby to come into the world in space, or, in the absence of a spaceship that would take on a pregnant woman, in South America — the closest earthly approximation of the mesosphere. I tried not to imagine how it would be, giving birth in a foreign land, without close friends and family nearby, without a common language spoken. There was no use arguing. I surrendered and trusted. His exuberance had always overjoyed me.
At the end of February 2011 we arrived in South America and saw heavy traces of a million people running around on busses, searching for a lifeline. This period is a blur. I remember sequences. Beautiful people I now feel so close to, they are family. A magenta dress I wore to give birth in, needles in my ears and my feet soaked in flowers. My doula in a stripy shirt and the midwife, her hair like straw, her hand is dry and so steady. I remember the feeling that changed my blood the moment I held my child. The little being, arrived from places unknown like a fearless cosmonaut. I made a promise to him that day: to raise him free to be his own man, to flourish on his own terms without the burden of expectations; light and blithe, trusted and believed in, loving and loved, open to the world. I gave him my word I would always try to understand his heart.
And I remember this, vividly, as if it happened this morning:
I’m in small bathroom, tiled with lifeless beige and coldness. I am on the floor, bleeding heavily. My baby, who came into this world yesterday, after twenty hours of natural birth, is asleep on the other side of the wall. I’m in pain. I’m weeping. I yearn for my true love to come, to get inside the shower with me naked and lift me up and hold me close. He’s nearby. I know he can hear me cry. I remain wet and bloody there, on the beige tiles, for forty minutes, waiting for him. He never comes.
July 2, 2011, 12:48 P.M.
From me to him:
We do things for each other all the time. And we depend on each other – by god we do – we are a family, we are in love, we are a unit….I would do anything for you and our son. If you could just understand that when I’m severely tired and saddened by what I perceive as coldness and disconnect from you the only thing that can help me is love. Less talk, no logic, only love. Please don’t leave me alone when I’m in tired and worried and sad. Don’t go tough love on me and talk sense into me. Love me. Eye contact, a tickle, a wrestle, a “love you,” an “I’m grumpy but know I love you and want to be with you,” or even a fart in my general direction.
But I understand I need to depend on our bond less, and be less needy. I will try.
I love you.
We vagabonded back to the Middle East then, to be close to my parents and partly because we were desperately poor. Although he loved splurging on quality clothes for himself, gadgets and knives, I was yelled at if I ever bought anything for the boy or for me.
On the last day of our five-month stay the bomb exploded inside his brain. The cause was an odd news item that I translated jokingly. I was a clown at the wrong time, at the wrong place.
I remember the dark light of that rainy evening, the red outfit my son was wearing and the tears in his eyes.
I’m running after my true love. His eyes are staring into a cold world. He is a stranger, the ice inside him foreign and frightening. He is holding our little boy. Our little boy, just a year and a half, looks terrified and confused. I’m crying. I’m pleading. I’m silent. It’s cold and getting dark. He wants me to find gas masks, but everything is closing. We keep moving, from buses to trains to foot, searching, paranoid, desperate. I want to scream; it feels so hopeless. I want to tell him there will be no war between now and tomorrow, when we will leave this country. I call my father and ask for help. Hours later he finds us wandering the road by rows of palm trees bending majestically from their yellow fruits. My father shows my true love two gas masks in the trunk of his beat-up car. But it’s not good enough. They’re not new enough. I don’t know. It all ends badly. My father hits him, my father nearly has a heart attack, my son and I are cold and go where he goes, my true love, late into the night, aimless.
A good friend took us into his hut above the valley of minarets. There, my true love forbade my parents to see our son till further notice, possibly never.
New projects came to life and my work brought us to Canada. I was like a fish, flapping on sand. I tried to accommodate him, I tried to protect my son, to help my parents in their desperate need to see the little boy, bewildered by the possibility of it never happening. I failed. The sand flickered in front of the sun and I closed my eyes.
After another storm of violent words cutting the skin, I finally revealed the worst of it to a close friend. She told me to call the police. I hung up and distanced myself from her. How could I call the police on my true love? On the father of my child?
I went into the no-man land of silence. The united states of confusion.
There are many creative ways to be poor. This time, we moved to an island connected to a medium-size city by a ferry that runs every hour, on the hour. There were apple orchards and bicycle trips and my son feeding three yellow chickens, and a large lawn I had to mow on a tractor. We came here for a year to take care of a home at the edge of the island village. This paradise of a house, belonging to a virtuoso family on sabbatical, was often a prison. Winter came slowly and relentlessly. Ice coated every surface of trees and power lines, and in the wind it sounded like a symphony of crystals.
I’m sitting on the stairs. My son is beside me. My true love is speaking to me, speaking at me, raging for hours now. I say: “Please stop.” I say: “Please have mercy.” It only makes things harder and louder. I say nothing. My child is in my lap. Plumes of snow strike the window. My mind is buzzing with practicalities: If I leave now, he won’t let me take the boy and will wrestle him out of my arms. But I cannot walk away without the boy and leave him alone with this angry man. I stay put. I wait for his storm to be over.
My hips are the sturdiest part of my body. But it is my shoulders carrying all this weight, full of tiny fractures by now. I’ve been the sole breadwinner all along. I have all the responsibility for taking care of this family. I look at my true love and search, so desperately, for a partner. For someone to have my back.
He tells me if I leave him he’ll prove I’m crazy and take our son away from my care. Am I crazy? I’m silent. I feel ill from the stress. I live in fear now.
One morning, broken and hopeless, I set out to speak of the hell I’m living to a friendly neighbor. I make it halfway to his house before turning around in regret, for I believe in true love. My true love. Our true love. I have plenty of love left to give. As much as it takes, in the name of true love.
February 12, 2014, 8:40 P.M.
From me to him:
“Do you understand how much I love you? Especially when it’s fucked up, is it not clear that all this happens because the love is vast and neverending?”
Three months after this, work took us back to Europe. We found a home in the countryside, sturdy, made of ancient stones, standing next to undulating hills. The doors were painted blue and the hydrangea bloomed into a blinding purple. This is my last memory of us as a family:
I’m sitting in the garden. In the meadow before me a lone horse grazes. I’m weeping again. At 9:36 this morning, June 11, the worst thing happened. My son was grabbed violently by his little arm. He was held hostage as my true love screamed at me from the top of his lungs and called me ugly names. A door slammed into my face and my foot. My baby boy extends his arms to come to me but he’s held back tight. Thirty minutes of hearing that little child sobbing in a way I’ve never heard before, so deeply frightened, and I’m locked out, unable to come to him, useless, hopeless.
As I sit at the edge of the meadow, crying, the horse comes to me and stands close, his large, wet eyes staring into mine. The horse stays there, looking into me, until I calm down. It occurs to me that this animal just gifted me the only compassion I have experienced in a long time.
Do you want to know how it ends? I got lucky.
While I was working, my true love went away to a weekend wedding in Portugal and came back to tell me he met the new true love of his life. The one he wanted to go with. He was so happy speaking of her, beaming with joy and love. I began to shake. It seemed completely alien to me to be able to throw away a family for a three-day-old acquaintance. “My heart simply took a new direction,” he said proudly, as if singing a beautiful song.
My son ran to me and embraced me tightly. He and I, we have always understood each other’s emotions so truthfully. And here he was, nearly three years old and protective of his mother, when it should have been me being protective of him. I lifted him into my arms, said a quiet goodbye with an “I’ll be in contact shortly,” and walked out. My son in my arms, holding me tight, in the most loving embrace I’ve ever experienced, as we crossed the big river and walked to my friends’ apartment. When I entered their home and understood my new reality, I made a promise to my son to never again be a weak piece of shit.
Strange, erratic emails begin to come. I ignored his whining and demanding to meet and come back to me. His declarations of the light having gone out of his life without me were now transparent for their emptiness.
My true love. I thought he loved me so much, as I loved him. But it was his own reflection he loved in me. When the reflection became unflattering, I was of no use any more.
The man I loved was fiction.
Over the next year, life cross-faded into surreal tragicomedy. My true love moved in with his new true love after days of knowing her and expected to pay for his new life from our limited family budget. My true love spoke to me in cold, heartless legalese; ignored my extended peace branches and acts of forgiveness. My true love went to Canada and as his final act, asked to take things. Take it all, I told him, I don’t care. Just leave the boy, be in peace.
People who truly knew him and spent months and years with him suddenly came forward and exposed the lies about his parents, about his past and his true self. My true love sued me for half of my future earnings and charged me with kidnapping our son from his home, which was variably stated to be a gym, a non-existent address, and finally an apartment he shares with his new partner. My true love sent the police my way to interrogate me for illegally keeping my son. I was ordered to face a judge, then another, and upturn the life of a little boy who had just begun to speak in a brand new language, after being mute for five months. My true love told anyone who would listen that I’m crazy and manipulative. That he had been dead done with me for years.
June 29, 2014, 12:48 P.M.
From me to her:
Forgive me for writing to you. I’ve been meaning to for many years. The first time I wanted to write to you was in the winter of 2010, when I realized I was with a monster and all my sense of guilt over what happened between the two of you turned into a kind of relief that at least you were saved from a life of hell with him and are now free of him. But I was pregnant with his child and intent on raising this baby with a father. How wrong I was.
He lied to me when we met and he convinced me that our love was a once-in-a-lifetime love that must be heeded to at all costs. I was naive and misguided. All along, for the four years I’ve been with him, I questioned why he didn’t end things with you properly and why he treated you so callously, so cowardly. I forced him to write to you, I gave him money to pay you back. I do not understand how I was able to stay with him and love him, seeing how he treated you. I was duped. But I take my part in the responsibility and I have now gotten my karmic retribution I so well deserved.
Two weeks ago he informed me that he cheated on me and is now in love with another woman. She is his true love now, just like it was with me when we met.
I am so devastated I can barely breathe. I haven’t eaten in days. But at the same time I’m relieved the nightmare is over. I have a hard battle before me. I fear he will manipulate me and use our son to avenge me. I am terrified of him. I pray for a swift divorce and hope that this new woman holds onto him. At the same time, I wonder if she is being duped as I was, and if the fate awaiting her is as grim.
Forgive me for contacting you – I have no right. But I wanted to tell you how much I thought of you over the years, how bad I felt for what he did to you. From the little bit I understood about you I feel that you are an amazing person and all I can say is I am grateful that you were spared a marriage with this man. Perhaps one day we can meet and have a cry face to face and confront everything we have been through.
I wish you nothing but love and peace and once again, accept my sincere sorrow for everything.
June 29, 2014, 1:01 P.M.
From her to me:
I didn’t even have to read all of your letter. I am so, so sorry. I really hoped [he] had changed—for you, and (my goodness) for his son. I know exactly how you feel, it’s utterly devastating. But, believe me when I tell you it won’t be long before you see it is a blessing.
Please call me if you want to talk. I should have trusted my instinct long ago and warned you about this. I questioned whether it was the right thing to do and gave myself the wrong answer.
Following this exchange, Annalisa and I spoke often. Sometimes I would sit under a dying pine tree, desperate to get a phone signal, drowning in fear and sorrow, finding a lifeline in her words. She gave me comfort and hope and made me laugh when I was terrified and destroyed by his actions, unable to recognize the man I once loved.
I did experience true love. Not in the way I thought I would, not as written in that simulacrum of a Book of Love I bought, overpriced. But in a way that came to be much deeper and truer.
True love is in the letter M when my son calls, oh so sweetly, for his maman.
True love is there in the palms of his hands, holding onto mine, as we walk through fields, and forests, and parking lots, and vast spaces together.
True love is there in the heartbeats of my parents, who dropped all to come and stand beside their daughter and never let her dissolve into the pain of betrayal, pushing away the relentless tank plowing into my soul.
True love is in the laughter and joy of my beautiful family, who kept me going with their very being.
True love is in the acts of dear friends, former strangers, neighbors and proprietors who showed me what love and loyalty is, what someone having my back feels like.
True love is in the kindness of the former fiancée, the invisible collateral damage, a sister I betrayed, who chose to join in and hold up the skies from falling down on me. More than ever, I believe in true love.
* * *
Author’s Note: My estranged husband has vehemently denied any acts of neglect, abuse or violence towards me and towards our son. As of last Friday, his various charges against me were dismissed and I’ve been granted full custody of our son. The name used here is a pseudonym. I would have liked to tell you my story in my real name. I hate secrecy and I’m forever done with all that is opaque and cowering. But there’s an innocent little guy I need to protect.
* * *
Liked this story? Our editors did too, voting it one of our 20 best untold tales!