The Other Side

I’m twenty-four and standing at the front-desk window in the on-campus clinic of my university. It’s a year before the wedding, and the student receptionist slides the request-for-services paperwork across the counter like a ticket to someplace I’ve never been and tells me it’ll be between three and six months before someone can see me. I finish quickly—I’ve only so long before my lunch break ends; I rise from a chair in one corner of the waiting area and return to the window before leaving, vanishing into the sunny June afternoon.

Four months later, I begin meeting with a student therapist, Alana, at the clinic in the evenings after work. I’m frank with her from the get-go: I found my abuser’s phone number months ago, and I want to confront him over the phone. I also tell her I’m not ready to yet, so we build toward it, working on my other trauma-related issues: my experiences with childhood domestic violence, my strained relationship with my mother, my grief stemming from abuse.

The session before winter break, we agree to revisit the call in spring; Alana says it might not be best to do something so heavy this close to the end of the semester, and I agree—it’s better to have enough time to process something so important.

▴ ▴ ▴

I’ll say it now: I love my abuser.

There’s a strangeness behind those words, a question I feel compelled to respond to—an offering of triumph, a dusting off of my hands, a satisfied that’s that, everything’s all in the past now. I suppose it’s the typical binary surrounding trauma: you’re either obliterated by it, or fully restored despite it. Many survivors, I suspect, are like me—caught in the messy middle of both, working toward a better day yet irrevocably changed by what happened. Sometimes, though, I’m nowhere, and what I mean to say is that, mostly, I’m just really, really in love.

▴ ▴ ▴

It’s a fact: nothing remains static. A river softens a boulder’s jagged lines. A tree is felled, a sidewalk is put in its place. A glass is rinsed clean before slipping from hands and shattering over tile. People change too—they meet other people, they build new relationships. They let old ones end, and they go on with their days.

▴ ▴ ▴

What I fell for:

The traditional suspects—he made me laugh. He was charming, handsome, a math major. Good shoulders, great abs, the best hugs. Our first kiss, in the campus art building, when he raced down the hall, scooped me up, and twirled us until we scattered across the floor. His glinting brown eyes, his sexy half-smirk coming down to kiss me. He played guitar, loved Bob Dylan, and, at the time that I’m writing this essay, he assaulted me in a practice room on campus during my sophomore year. I was nineteen.

What I fell for:

The traditional suspects—he said he wouldn’t drink anymore, he’d change, he’d never hit me again, it wouldn’t happen again, he was sorry, sorry sorry sorry. Our last night, ten months after the assault, when he raped me in his apartment. Our last kiss, those final minutes after the rape when I was curled beside him and his heartbeat, the certainty I was where I was supposed to be, this is it.

He was good to me. This is also a fact.

▴ ▴ ▴

Like any relationship, client and clinician recognize and develop patterns over time; they return to ideas, words, phrases—it makes sense, given the joint effort of talk therapy.

One hallmark of surviving abuse is a deficiency in decision-making skills: because I’m used to having decisions stolen from me, I’m unaccustomed to making them. When I’m forced to—do I order in for dinner, do I venture to the kitchen for a glass of water and risk running into my roommate?—I overanalyze all possible outcomes, feelings, and scenarios. The agony isn’t without safety: if I lack the agency to make choices, if I settle for less than I hope for, then I don’t have to take responsibility for anything that happens to me. It’s easier to go thirsty the rest of the night.

Empowerment in the aftermath of trauma is crucial to healing. It’s important to feel proud of one’s decisions, to operate from personal desire. I start small: I begin saying “That’s my answer” in session to cease further contextualization of whatever Alana has asked me. I talk too much; I get too hung up on the particulars of things. She’s patient. Soon, though, she agrees with me. “That’s your decision.” A smile turns her bow-like mouth up.

Each session, I make it an almost-game to ask how much time we have left. Soon, I’m obsessed—I start asking in moments of distress, and Alana soon takes this to mean I need help processing what I’m feeling, which is true. But I also do this when I need to run from myself, so I know how long I have before I can return to dreaming he’s with me still, that I’ll see him on the other side of the sheets in the morning.

▴ ▴ ▴

I always tried to leave, but I could never stay gone.

I’d miss him too much—a text message, a phone call. The first time I left, in one of the practice rooms in the campus music annex one night, he scoffed when I called him out for hitting me. Daniel, that’s just human collision. The assault was minutes before, and our faces were mottled, pink, the heat in mine (was it the slap or the shame?) blooming in the dark like a rose. The pale column of his throat working, a water bottle full of wine tipped back.

The only light in the practice room came from the rectangular window in the door, curling around the sharp point I found in his eyes. I was in a corner, legs folded to my chin, the notes of a scream twisting in my throat. It was late, we were alone, my thighs were sweaty. Stone-gray soundproofing material lined the walls. I inched toward the door. He cried. Please stay with me. The best I could do, voice wobbling, heart in my ears, was threaten to call the cops if he didn’t let me go.

The tears evaporated. He lifted his face from his hands, fury curling his lips back. I felt so small.

▴ ▴ ▴

The week after I turned twenty-four, while staying at my mother’s house, I came across an article on Amah Rock, a Chinese landmark known for resembling a mother carrying a child on her back. Legend says a wife took her child with her up a hill each day to watch a nearby beach; her husband, a fisherman, had departed on a fishing expedition, and she could better see if his ship returned at a distance, rather than from the shore.

She couldn’t have known he’d drowned at sea. All she knew was what she saw: the tides cradling the shore like a tumbling wall of blue-white arms. She waited for years.

One day, the Sea Goddess noticed the wife atop the hill. Struck by how faithful she was, the Sea Goddess took mercy on her plight: a tsunami’s worth of droplets rose like a cluster of stars falling in reverse, and a thunderstorm surged across the hills, pressing wife and child into stone.

When she came to, the fisherman’s wife must’ve asked, Where am I? How did I get here?

And the Sea Goddess must’ve answered, It is because of hope that you were brought here. The end to it lies beyond this door. And then the fisherman’s wife must’ve peered over, and I cried because I could see it all—that the waiting was surely worth it, that when she reached out to open the door, she must’ve known she and her child were in Heaven because her man was waiting on the other side.

▴ ▴ ▴

Every night I sleep with the same blanket. It’s light blue, velvet-soft, with thin, white, wavy stripes passing through. Dusky pink roses scattered all over. Months into seeing Alana, I find a bottle of acetaminophen in a duffel bag at the back of my bedroom closet. The bottle holds 105,500 milligrams, five hundred per pill, and I know this because on two occasions when I’m sad, I fold the blanket up, pour the pills over the roses, and count each capsule back into the bottle.

When I finish, the sadness passes.

▴ ▴ ▴

Ten months after the assault, I took over someone’s lease for the summer. I’d just turned twenty, and my job at the time allowed students like me to work full time through summer. One morning, when I was on the bus parked outside my apartment complex, the one I’d catch to campus, he stepped on. That he lived there was pure coincidence, and when he saw me in a corner at the back of the bus, he came over, apologetic. I snarled.

One night I called, and he gave me his apartment number. When he answered, naked and sneering, my heart lurched. I saw a brush of light behind him at the back of the apartment, a single point turning in his bedroom through the inky darkness. I didn’t think to leave. I thought it was like the end of a tunnel, a place angels would go.

In his room, we danced below the vacant light socket jutting from the ceiling. Music from his phone, his glimmering eyes, a wish that I could always be close to someone this gentle. A twirl, his chest to my back, lips at my neck. And then he stuffed his fingers through my pajama pants, and all I knew was the flaxen gore unfurling behind my sternum, honey-black bathroom light orbiting my eyes, staining the walls. It was sudden, the rape—how quickly it happened, how quickly it ended, how I’d learned something about the world just then.

Later, as I stumbled to the front door, I reached out through the darkness. A twist, a pull, a fling, and then I left it all behind, vanishing into the humid July night. I didn’t sob.

▴ ▴ ▴

Five months after I start seeing Alana, campus shuts down, and the clinic with it. It’s March 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic is in full swing. Between quarantine and the nationwide protests, everything is a saturation of fear, uncertainty, and loss. The week I’m supposed to lose to spring break becomes the entire month, and it’s April when telehealth services become available. Because Alana’s finishing her PhD in May, I won’t be able to see her after she graduates; she has to be taking on-campus classes to hold sessions. I still haven’t processed the rape in a therapeutic setting, and I’m tired of paperwork, tears, grief, and old wounds.

I’m running out of time. I need to do something.

In the weeks I spend lying in bed, I feel something rising, spinning like a celestial body pressing into orbit: I want to let him go.

▴ ▴ ▴

A few weeks after I turn twenty-five, a friend invites me to her wedding. It’s nearly mid-June, a month after I’ve stopped seeing Alana. I’ve just been laid off from my job because of the pandemic, and I take a Greyhound to Abilene from Dallas. The ceremony is in a museum the following afternoon, and the groom asks me to play their song during the walk down the aisle. There’s a subwoofer and a laptop at the back of the room, behind a large, heart-shaped, wooden trellis decorated with white roses. My heart wobbles when they exchange vows, plummets when they kiss.

Later, it’s beautiful seeing them glide across the floor. Alicia Keys’s “If I Ain’t Got You.” The way she’s smiling—did I look like that once? I remember his beard scrunching into my hair, the way we danced just before the rape, how I lay beside him after and bound my leg with his so I couldn’t leave. How love was all I had to lift me out from what happened, how I nuzzled into his side and wordlessly wished nothing would ever kill my dream.

I’m singing from a corner of the room. I’m weeping.

▴ ▴ ▴

The day after I found the article on Amah Rock, a large thunderstorm swept across my mother’s house. I saw it as a sign and ran out the back door. Immediately, I was drenched. I shut my eyes against the mirror-gray flurries, the whipping slabs I couldn’t push through. If not heaven, then wherever you are, I thought.

When they opened, the scream I’d felt brewing dragged across the pavement of my throat, then withered. The water rose to my ankles.

▴ ▴ ▴

The week before I turn twenty-five, I decide to make the phone call. It’s my penultimate session with Alana, and I give myself boundaries: I get one call to say what I need to. I decide against texting—tone and intonation and context get lost without a voice, and I want as organic a conversation as possible. After, I’ll delete his number. Process if I need to.

I also decide to be honest. There’s no way I’ll ever be fully ready to do this, and I say as much.

Alana is skeptical. “Do you feel like making this call is essential?”

“I believe so.”

“I am worried,” she says slowly, “that it is more about who does and who does not answer on the other side that will make the choice for you, thereby robbing you of the choice.”

The choice, of course, is moving on. I know what she’s trying to tell me: anything less than direct participation is just a simulacrum of agency, passivity dressed in the clothes of autonomy. That is, it’s one thing to call and another entirely to do so from a place of rekindling things. I would not be acting in my best therapeutic interests if I called with the intent of bringing him into my future, rather than addressing the past in an effort to separate from it. She wants me to choose the proverbial glass of water because I want to, and she’s concerned the phone call might be a means of hurting myself emotionally, inadvertently or otherwise. She is, in that roundabout way of hers, asking: Are you sure this is what you want?

What she doesn’t know is that I wrestled with making the call for months before I started seeing her. The way I figure, if I have to give up the ghost and move on, then I want to know I did everything I could to let him know how I feel. In other words, speak now or forever hold your peace.

“If there is a decision here,” I say carefully, “it’s because I think that it might be the one that might be most fruitful.” I am, in that roundabout way of mine, saying: This is what I want. This seems to convince her, and she nods. We talk logistics—what could happen if there’s no answer, if his number’s disconnected, if there’s a voicemail confirming it’s his number still.

“Let’s pause right there. There’s a voicemail,” she speculates. “Do you leave one?”

“Maybe. Yeah.”

By the third ring I know he’s not going to answer. Since our sessions are virtual, I put my phone on speaker so Alana can hear through my iPad, and sure enough, the familiar Your call has been forwarded to an automated voice messaging system comes over the line, then a pause. I’m expecting the beep of an open inbox, and I brace myself to leave a voicemail.

My lips part, I’m about to speak.

▴ ▴ ▴

A short list of things that bring me hope:
       1. the final chorus in “I Don’t Feel like Dancin’” by Scissor Sisters
       2. the roses blooming beside my mother’s house, no matter the season
       3. love stories that don’t end in rape

▴ ▴ ▴

Standing inside my mother’s living room, I peered through a window, then went out the front door.

Gazing around the side of the house, I found the rose bushes she kept were dead. But even though it was almost summer, they weren’t dried out. If anything, they looked like they’d briefly come alive under the rain, but then wilted from the weight of it.

The reason for the dead scream: it wasn’t that I realized the fisherman’s wife had to die to reunite with him, or that it was just a story, or that hope—the promise of some possible reality where he was waiting for me and I just needed to find the door leading to it—could be an act of devotion as desperate as the grief that birthed it.

It was that my clothes were just wet, and I was cold. There was only rain.

▴ ▴ ▴

The week before I turn twenty-five, I begin sleeping on the other side of the bed. I do this for weeks after. Occasionally I’ll sleep on the side I used to before. Sometimes I’ll sprawl in the middle of the bed, my leg hiked up as if curled around someone else’s. The way I figure, who better than me to try filling that open space, if not him?

The same week, during our penultimate session, I ask to be led in with a question. Beside me is a fuzzy sweater I’d taken to bed when I was cold the night before, black with silver strands sewn all over. I’m in bed trying to tell Alana about the second time I left, the night of the rape, and I’m unsure where to begin.

She puts it in my hands: “What do you want me to know about this?” she asks. “What are you hoping to tell me and release yourself from today?”

It’s enough of an opening. I start with the day he found me on the bus, and, just before the rape, I crack. “Alana, I love him.”

It isn’t a lie. But it sounds hollow, like I’m trying to swallow a dense cluster of wet stones. It hits me then: there will be no trellis, no opening door, no I do. The waiting I did, my dream—us, together—that I fought so hard to believe in: it wasn’t worth it. I can’t pretend anymore. It was just abuse.

When I say I have to let him go, that I don’t want to be smaller anymore, Alana gently points out that “have to” decentralizes autonomy; it prioritizes obligation over choice. She asks if a reframing is possible: “I wonder if we can introduce a little agency by saying, I want to let him go.”

I’m weeping again. “I want to let him go because I don’t want to be small anymore.”

▴ ▴ ▴

That’s just human collision. That’s just human collision. That’s just human collision. That’s just human collision. That’s just human collision. That’s just human collision. That’s just human collision.

▴ ▴ ▴

Earlier I said things change. Sometimes, things that are true stay true, and sometimes they expand to include new truths, and what I mean to say is that, sometimes, I look at the other side of my bed, the gray sheet orbiting the perimeter, and I can see the rest of my life looming like a sunlit highway, waiting for me to merge—alone, without him. The other side: I can’t put into words its vastness.

▴ ▴ ▴

I’ll say it now: I like being alive.

Often, I’m awed by the abundance of love and good things in my life—friends, family, my work as a writer, my achievements. They offer a myriad of reasons to go on with my days; they make life worth living. Sometimes this isn’t enough. Grief is cerebral this way; it convinces me all other loves are smaller than they really are. Some days, the only abundance is in how little it all matters; that, whichever side I sleep on, a bed is only half-full with only me in it; there’s only so much space I take up.

After the session, I put my face in the sweater. When I’ve finished screaming, a glance at my phone brings a stab of regret—I’m supposed to meet with a professor in twenty minutes. I make another decision: I no longer wish to continue a life without him, so I refuse to.

It’s not that I can’t go on without him. I just don’t know another way to put myself first.

I fold the blanket up, smoothing my fingers over the roses. I pour the pills out, their muted clicks the last sound I’ll hear in this life. The sweater’s silver strands glitter like stars over the ocean, and then I snatch a handful, about half the bottle. I don’t leave a note. There is only rain.

▴ ▴ ▴

Please stay with me. Please stay with me. Please stay with me. Please stay with me. Please stay with me. Please stay with me. Please stay with me.

▴ ▴ ▴

What there wasn’t:

A sudden bout of regret over what I’d done. A frantic 9-1-1 call, sirens, a ride to the hospital while fuzzy white stars flicker above my eyes. Emergency gastric suction, a coma. My love coming to kiss me at the end of visiting hours with hunched shoulders, whispering, I’m here now, don’t let me be without you. A pair of lips on mine, my eyelids stirring. A love that doesn’t hurt.

What there was:

A choice to stay in safety. A blanketing storm, sweat, a hot shard sinking through my thundering heart. The echoes of my screaming, a mirror in the grayest corner of the room that I’ll never see us in. A swollen throat gagging, bent over, pouring back the white, drenched gravel over the roses. Myself at the place where it ends, what I’ve known for years: it’s just me, alone in bed. Keening.

▴ ▴ ▴

The mailbox is full and cannot accept any messages at this time. Good-bye.

▴ ▴ ▴

Earlier, I also mentioned the typical binary of trauma, of being caught somewhere between obliteration and restoration. What I didn’t say is that an inability to fit neatly within either locus places you beyond the structure; it puts you in a sort of both-and-neither-ness, a third point from where the two intersect. The binary is erased altogether.

But another binary surrounding trauma is one of confrontation. Righteous vindication, or further retraumatization, usually through some systemic structure or by other people or the abuser directly. It’s not as if I had another way to contact him, either—he wasn’t active on social media, and for what reason would I ever need his email when texting was more convenient?

The last time I tried to go back, I met his father, who was cleaning out his apartment because he’d ended up in rehab. I never got an address. His phone number was my last hope for anything, and since I was committed to only a single call, there wasn’t anything further I could do. Nothing could prepare me for the possibility of, well, nothing. No voicemail, no answer, no one on the other side. If not heaven, then wherever you are.

It’s more than just the trellis, the life I wanted to spend with him. There’s no vindication, no confrontation, no acknowledgement of harm. I don’t get to call him an asshole for denying the abuse. I don’t get to say he apologized, or blamed me, or any range of scenarios. He abused me, and that is all, which is neither unique nor remarkable beyond that it happened to me. He neither vindicated me nor victimized me any further. All he did was not pick up the phone. I don’t even know if it was his number still.

And yet, still: the rift in my heart, that strange feeling of being walled-off, of being caught between one place and another and nowhere at all—I can’t get past it.

Even if I could spend my life with him, nothing can return to me the years I wept alone. He is the love of my life and a man who raped me. It doesn’t matter how good he was to me. I will always know the sting brought by a man’s hand. I will always know how to fold a scream from the smallest point in a room. This is what I learned of the world, and no amount of hope can change that.

These are also facts.

▴ ▴ ▴

What I know:

I could stay dreaming. I could keep waiting: for him to come back, to say he loves me, he’s changed, he’ll never put hands on me again. I could hope for mornings where I’ll see a dip in the other side of the mattress, that I’ll rise from the sheets and follow the honeyed light from the bathroom and put my arms around him from behind while he brushes his teeth, and I’ll see his foamy smile in the mirror. As I write this, it’s been six years since the rape, and what I mean to say is that I want things to be easier—that I hope, on the days I miss him, it won’t feel like the air in my house has run out.

What I see:

A forever that only lives in my heart. That open space, his glinting eyes, the night I tried to climb the back wall of his apartment building to his balcony to see if he was home. My fingers slipping, legs caving, the fall. My hands, red and swollen as a bouquet while I flung them at his door nights after the rape, praying each time he’d answer, knowing he never would again. The sleepless years after. That I did everything I could to stay with him. The hope I carried on my back each day, glimmering like a single point turning in a dark room: dimming, and then—soon—going out.

▴ ▴ ▴

I leave you; I stay gone.

▴ ▴ ▴

It’s my last session with Alana, and I’m waiting to be let into the Zoom room.

She wishes me a happy birthday. We talk about the high and low points in the work we’ve done together. Soon we’re laughing, we’re discussing future endeavors, how she’s proud of me for sharing the times she upset or inadvertently hurt me. She makes me feel proud—that even if I lost my dream, I did what I set out to. She changed my life. She says she’ll remember me the rest of hers.

I don’t disclose the suicide attempt. Another choice I make, mostly because I don’t want to worry Alana, and I genuinely don’t want to discuss it. Some things, I figure, don’t need to be shared. I want these final minutes to be good ones. Alana’s smiling again; she’s sad. I tell her the future looks like a field of flowers.

“Tell me the place your tears are coming from right now.”

“’Cause it’s over.” She knows, I think, that I’m not just talking about our sessions.

At the end, she puts it in my hands again: “I want to give the last minute to you. To say whatever it is you want to say. It can be one word, it could be a minute’s worth of words, but it’s for you.”

I can see the clinic, the waiting area, the automatic glass doors opening to the lobby, and then the second set leading to the hallway we’d walk down, down to the room we used to meet in, the digital clock facing away from me so I’d never know how much time we had left.

I think for a moment, then start small.

“I wish that we could walk through the double doors one last time but—” My voice catches, then breaks. “Seeing as how we can’t—” It’s a moment before I can speak again.

I say, “The future looks so bright.”

I say, “It looks so bright on the other side.”

I say, “Thank you.”

There’s an email waiting for me after we say good-bye. Normally, Alana explains, she gives her clients a card at the end of their last session with her. Instead, given the circumstances of the pandemic, she’s included pictures, two. The first is the card, closed. A moon on the front, a valence ring surrounding it, a smaller body pressed into orbit.

The second is the card opened, a letter written inside. “I am so grateful for and humbled by your strength and your honesty.” I can see her smile.

She writes, “You have transformed so much, and I have been transformed by you.”

She writes, “You have all the time in the world to continue to change and to grow.”

She writes, “Now go and spend some time in the flowers.”

▴ ▴ ▴

The ride back to Dallas isn’t long, just three hours. The window looks like a thin wall, a mirror painted with blue summer sky and cradling white clouds. The bus makes a blur of the road. I adjust my headphones and turn up the music. It’s strange—despite the pandemic and uncertainty of where I’ll end up next, the world is colorful beside everything swallowed by the sunny June afternoon.

In the space between me and the window, my masked, ghostly reflection stares back. My throat tightens. My heart, still swelling from the day before, wobbles. Easy, beloved. All boulders weather. We’ve got all the time in the world to let go. Except this time I’m smiling, and soon—sooner than I’d have expected—I’m singing.

I leave you; I stay gone.

That’s my decision.

Daniel Garcia’s essays appear in Quarterly West, Guernica, Passages North, the Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. Poems appear in Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Electric Literature, swamp pink (formerly Crazyhorse), and others. Daniel is the InteR/e/views editor for Split Lip Magazine, a two-time Lambda Literary fellow, and a former Emerging Writer fellow with SmokeLong Quarterly. Daniel’s essays also appear as notables in The Best American Essays. Find Daniel on Twitter/X @_iloveyoudaniel.