Creative Nonfiction: Ten of Swords

Hi. This, on the surface, is a story about the uncomfortable process of falling in love. Dig a little deeper and it’s a story about how trauma complicates love. Be warned: this is a rough draft with minimal edits. Also, I glossed over certain traumatic details because I don’t feel like dealing with them right now.

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Ten of Swords

He cries over the phone, sometimes out of fear, sometimes confusion, sometimes because the feelings overwhelm him. It’s always followed by an apology: “God, I’m such a bitch. This is embarrassing.” I tell him I find it endearing — that I’m drawn to his embrace of femininity.

He says I’m more masculine than he is. In truth, I’ve just refined the art of acting. I’ve kept my defenses in place, despite the urge for full disclosure. My adopted persona is blunt and brazen, detached and dominant. I reveal the taboo with ease. subconsciously hoping it pushes people away from me. I told him about getting fucked in the streets of Barcelona, about selling my body over Craigslist, and about how I once threw a four-day house party and passed out on the toilet two nights in a row.

What I haven’t told him is that the man who fucked me in the street effectively ended my engagement, that prostitution almost killed me, and that on the first night of the four-day house party, a man crawled into my bed and raped me.

I haven’t told him how much I’m hurting.

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Last week over the phone, he said, “I didn’t ask for this, you know? I was just chilling. I’ve spent the last six months alone.”

I didn’t ask for this either. I didn’t ask for my contentedness to be plucked from the dirt like premature carrots, to see his imaginary form in the cereal aisle at Jewel-Osco, or to wake up at two-hour intervals with a compulsion to check my phone. I didn’t ask for this stomach pain, for this churning, sometimes burning sensation that has now been with me for 19 days. I didn’t ask for him to show his face in my dreams. I didn’t ask for my bed to suddenly feel empty.

I didn’t ask for the word “love” to enter my head and resist repeated attempts to extract it from my consciousness. I told him I wanted to remove the part of my brain that thinks of him and place it on a petri dish. I’m not sure he found that romantic.

I didn’t ask for this burst of obsessive-compulsiveness — to be thrown into the process of “send the text, check the phone, check again and again and again.” I didn’t ask to be paralyzed by dread or to feel my face turn fireball red after three responseless hours have passed.

I didn’t ask for constant unease. The numbness of late night cartoon-watching and sugar cookie face-stuffing was comforting in its predictability. Tomorrow, so long as I don’t drop my laptop in the bathtub or stop my car on the Highway 14 train tracks, my cartoons will still be waiting for me. But will he? Or will his naked feet reach ice and flee?  

I didn’t ask to be pulled from the blissful haze of dissociation — to feel a restlessness in my feet that demands reemergence into a world that traumatized me. 

I didn’t ask for my hands to shake so violently that I’d be forced to set up my old altar with the giraffe blanket, Ganesh statue, and fox teeth and sit on my knees, begging for any and all gods to talk to me. I didn’t ask to have to light two candles, say my old prayers, and pull three tarot cards, the last of which signified some sort of death. Did the Ten of Swords suggest the death of the concrete walls around my heart or the inevitable death of “us”? And would the latter become a self-fulfilling prophesy if I told him that waiting for my phone to ring was so unnerving that I fell to my knees and resorted to occultism?

The guided imagery isn’t working. No matter how many thoughts I place on imaginary leaves floating down a stupid imaginary river, I can’t get him out of my head. He said it’s the same for him. He said it’s surreal. He said this doesn’t happen to him. He said, “what is this?”

“You don’t know? Dude, I don’t want to say it. It’s embarrassing.”

“No, I don’t know. Tell me.”

“Shit, Niko. This is the potential onset of falling in love,” I said, adding “potential” and “onset” to minimize the implications of the sentence in its barest form.

There was a long pause and a sigh and a groan and he said, “I want to say I love you, but I’m afraid of what that means.”

Last Sunday, “I love you” was an acknowledgment of our shared history, but the recent stomach pains and trembling hands have given the words new weight. I thought about creating a code language in which “I love you, dude” signifies friend love, whereas, “I love you more than my digestive system can handle and I will happily buy buttloads of Claritin so that me and my dog can join you in Los Angeles” means we’re both fucked.

I am afraid to immortalize my feelings for him in this essay. I am afraid that reading this in two weeks will prove that I am delusional. That I fantasize. That I feel too much too quickly. That my little brother is right about me: I am impulsive, irrational, and too intense. That I always will be.

But intensity is a part of me. It’s the part that fuels my creativity — that gives me essays and chords and poetry. It generates empathy. It’s what gave me love for the patient cashier at the Dollar Store, the convict from the halfway house across the street, and the homeless woman who cried to me on a Minneapolis sidewalk last spring.

And despite my brother’s judgements, I can say with confidence that I am changing. I’m not becoming a different person. I’m simply shedding the people who I became. I’m welcoming the return of the girl Niko knew in high school, minus the utter aversion to intimacy.

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The first time I groaned to him over the phone was after I told him I was scared and he asked if I was trying to be in a relationship. I wanted to scream “YES,” but yes felt so naked, so vulnerable, and so susceptible to a “no” on his end that I groaned instead. Meanwhile, he talked in circles, apologizing for asking the question and muttering something about the problem of distance. I turned my bedroom lights off, pulled my comforter over my head, and made animal noises.

“Are you okay?”

No, I was on the brink of sobbing. No, I couldn’t feel my arms. No, I wanted to cut “us” off right there and go back to my nightly cartoon marathons.

“Yeah, I’m good. I just need to think. I’m gonna go.”

I hung up and sat in heavy silence, my face burning, my limbs immobile, and my mind incapable of moving on until my internal “NICOTINE” sign lit up. One tear fell as I lit my cigarette, but the first inhale stuffed the rest of them down. I called my friend. She said, “He’s flying halfway across the country to see you. Don’t worry about it.” I called Niko again. We had a video chat but didn’t speak, he just watched me put on purple lipstick, dance around my room, and play open chords on my guitar in an attempt to feign okayness. I looked crazy.

The moans started again last night when he asked what I was feeling and I used it as a segue into the same conversation that brought me to my knees two days prior. But the question he asked then was now a statement: “It sounds like you want to be in a relationship. I don’t know what I want. The distance, the distance, the distance.”

Glitch.

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Niko and I met in 2007. I was a 16-year-old animal rights activist with a protest-related criminal record. I played cutesy songs on my sticker-smothered acoustic guitar with lyrics about wanting to die. I was straight-edge, anorexic, and repulsed by requited love.

Niko was 17. He was a hyper Northwest Indiana kid with a California accent. He played complicated guitar parts in a scene dominated by punk rockers spewing sloppy power chords. I was Niko’s first crush. He had a thing for blondes.

A handful of our early encounters stuck with me. I remember watching his screamo band play in my parents’ basement, sharing a winter car ride to a high school dance performance, and running around a park behind his dad’s house.

He remembers saying “bitch” in my basement and listening to me lecture him about political correctness. He remembers talking to me on the phone and feeling like there was something between us until we met up at shows and I ignored him. He remembers the car ride, too, but while my memory only holds a vision of the dashboard and of him in the passenger’s seat, he remembers me telling him about my anorexia, my sexual abuse history, and about how the last two boys whose hearts I broke attempted to kill themselves shortly after being rejected by me. He remembers the show in my basement. He remembers laughing with my mom while I performed with my vegan cheerleading squad. He remembers writing two songs about me. He told my friend Victor about one of them and made him promise not to tell me — a promise that Victor broke immediately. He remembers me walking up to him afterwards and squealing, “Hey Niko, I heard you wrote a song about me.” He remembers me laughing.

He remembers coming to my house after a hardcore show, still convinced that we were meant to be. I sat on the couch. He looked at me, I glared, he moved closer and sat down. He said, “Is it okay if I sit here?” I said “no” and stood up. He came to my room later that night, determined to ask what was wrong with me. He lost his words and blacked out, only conscious enough to comprehend me saying, “I think we should just be friends.”

I don’t remember being such an asshole.

I do remember rejecting anyone who cared about me. I remember breaking up with gentle boyfriends. I remember resisting the softest kisses. I remember refusing dates, choosing instead to stay in my room, crying to Curb Your Enthusiasm. I remember exclusively falling in love with people who could never love me back: a gay folk punker, my best friend, a serial womanizer, an evangelical, and a man 10 years my senior who made fun of my veganism.

I remember my disgust around the idea of sex, feeling shameful when I touched myself, but too afraid to let anyone else in. I remember seeing tentacles rise up from underneath my bed and wrap around my throat when I got close to being sexually intimate.

I remember finding Niko overwhelming.

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The girl Niko knew in high school vanished in 2009, when I was robbed and kidnapped by a group of men while on a volunteer trip in East Africa. I was blamed instead of comforted, and trauma mixed with invalidation is the precise recipe for PTSD. Within a week, my straight edge vegan lifestyle was a blip on the screen. I smoked my first joint on a massage bed in Zanzibar with the rasta boy I made out with on the dance floor. I smoked my second joint in the back of a booth where a man sold generic African paintings to tourists. I smoked my third joint on the second story of a barn, my feet dangling over the edge and the rasta boy’s arm around me.

I took my first drink in a hotel attached to Heathrow Airport. My fellow travelers recommended Smirnoff Ice. I drank two and the shame went away. The shaking stopped. I couldn’t stand up. The girls brought me to the hotel room and I fell asleep yelling about Jerry Springer.

I drank through that summer, gaining a reputation as the novice with the vodka cran. Drunkenness gave way to compulsive promiscuity and I began tallying the men and women I had sex with. I wanted all of them to love me. Most of them thought I was crazy.

I smoked weed under my bed every night during my first semester at Hampshire College, where I wore hippie dresses and fell in love with a self-proclaimed fascist who told me I smoked cigarettes like the Smoking Man from the X-Files. I got drunk and had my friend send him a confessional text message and when he responded with, “I just like you as a friend,” I collapsed on the floor of the dormitory bathroom, bleeding boxed wine from my teeth.

At the end of my first semester, my brother disappeared from the boarding school he was sent to against his will. Cops searched my dorm room. A private detective named Mike Dragon called me on a daily basis, begging for answers. Both my family and the authorities thought that I was responsible for his disappearance.

I dropped out of college and moved back in with my parents on the North Side of Chicago. In late December of 2009, my computer went missing from my bedroom. I blamed my mother. I wrote a goodbye letter on my walls with black chalkboard paint, packed my bags, and ran from parents’ house, consciously deciding to be homeless.

I lived in a squat for the first two months, feeding myself by thieving and walking two dogs for $20 a day. I had never had a real job and wasn’t stable enough to start one, so I began selling underwear via Craigslist, then giving blow jobs, then having sex with men who were sometimes three times my age.

The next time I saw Niko, I was 19 years old and living in Rochester, New York with an emotionally abusive boyfriend. Only a year had passed since I last saw him. Within that time, I had transformed from a prudish introvert to an alcoholic, a prostitute, and a rape victim.

Niko changed, too. He said he did so consciously, shortly after I rejected him. He said he decided to be more confident, more outgoing, maybe better at hiding himself from people. He was a socialite. Everyone loved him. He recorded 157 albums for various musicians, formed a popular hardcore band with his friends, and toured the United States and Europe.

And then his friend and former band mate intentionally overdosed on opioids after finding his fiance dead. Niko cracked. He got close to another heroin addict, determined to help him, but started down the junkie path himself instead. Eight months ago, he decided to rebuild his life in a move from Chicago to Los Angeles.

Four months ago, I moved from Minneapolis to Chicago to do the same. Now Niko lives 2,000 miles away.

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In early January, Niko talked for the first time in five years after I sent him a Snapchat asking if he remembered the time in our teens when he leaned in to kiss me and I got so scared that I tapped him on the shoulder, shouted “LET’S PLAY TAG,” and ran to my basement.

He responded six hours later. “Yeah, I remember. You’re basically burned into my subconscious.”

He asked if he could call me. We talked as I walked my dog in the park across the street from my parent’s house, a leash in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and the phone pressed between my ear and shoulder. We laughed through internal sobs while detailing the events dotting the expanse of time that had passed since we took bong rips in Rochester.

I danced beside my bookcase while I talked to him. I sat on the floor and folded the laundry that I had been too depressed to deal with. I moved to my bed and kicked my legs around until the sheets were at my feet. I felt like a child again. I felt like smiling again. I felt my heart breaking and warming and beating for him. I felt the terror creeping in, but this time, I refused to run from it.

There’s a reason we talked when we did. My old sponsor would say that the universe knew we were ready for it. My therapist would say that we were drawn to each other via psychic awareness. My atheistic self doesn’t see anything supernatural behind it. The part of me that suddenly wants to love him fiercely believes them.  

Maybe passions had been building behind the scenes since our teens. Maybe Sunday was the first instance of unraveling destiny. Maybe we’ve both been through enough loveless relationships, traumatic life experiences, and general bullshit to allow for the embrace of being loved authentically. Maybe it’s a lesson in refusing to sabotage beautiful things. I don’t know.

What I do know is that we’ve talked for two hours every night for three weeks. I know that he’s visiting me at the end of January. I know that I need to wash my sheets and clean my car and practice some sort of daily mindfulness so that my hands don’t shake when I pick him up from the airport.

I know that for right now, I don’t need to know anything. I don’t need to make a five-year plan or take his hand in marriage or move to Los Angeles in two weeks. For once, I feel compelled to be present and motionless with my feelings.

I have fallen face first into a pit of cliches. Niko is squirrels in my stomach, earthworms in my fingers, and fireflies in my feet. He is every word in every song that he would call sappy. He is an eight-year-old hologram, suddenly flesh-covered and crying.

Niko, I feel like crying, too.

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