Monday, July 28, 2008

Making Connections

We were having dinner at Elio's on Second Avenue in Manhattan. Me, my parents and my sister and my brother-in-law. When out of the blue, Julie turned to my father, not exactly known for his soliloquies, and asked him what he thought made a marriage work.

It was an interesting question, coming from a young woman just three years into her marriage and looking to start a family soon. What was he going to say? What was the big secret?

His answer? Chemistry.

It comes from feeling a connection to your partner and having the desire to make things work to be with them, to struggle through the bad times together, because whatever it is that causes that spark, those butterflies, as they say in Sex in the City, you are all-in. Feelings. Emotions. The Intangible and Uncontrolable.

Its like when my old therapist answered my question on how therapy worked.

"It's magic."

And in a lot of ways, it really is.

There's no good reason why someone you think is perfect on paper or who looks good in a photograph turns out to be just blah when you're actually sitting across a table from them pretending to enjoy dinner. Just as there's no good reason why catching someone else's eye turns your knees to jell-o and makes you do things that Sane-You would consider crazier than bat shit.

We really have little control over how our eyes and hearts wind up figuring things out for themselves. The plainest person could be beautiful to you, or the most attractive simply a bore. I have wonderful, spectacular friends who I think are just perfect, but who I have never wanted to kiss. My mother always thought I'd wind up with someone who I'm obviously not with, and I told her I just never wanted to kiss him, and she said, "Oh. Well that wouldn't work then..." Of course not.

I have been thinking a lot about what connects people and what makes us choose whom we're with and how we make our decisions about friends, lovers and spouses as I've made new friends, forged new relationships and made a few mistakes along the way.

How do we choose the people we keep in our lives? What draws us together? What is it that makes you feel those butterflies when someone smiles at you? Why is that the feeling we're all willing to live and die for?

And then... What keeps us together? When does someone cross that line from stranger to acquaintance to intimate? And when things go wrong, what are we willing to forgive? Why are they worth it to us? And what makes us decide its time to walk away?

I think about these things as my friends and I make transitions - some marry, some are having children, some I have had to leave, and others struggle. Some have ended relationships. Some have begun new ones. We learn when to stand our ground and when to compromise or surrender for each other. We learn who loves us and who we can trust. We learn who we are and we are constantly marveled at how we manage to persevere every time we are challenged, injured or wronged. We have each other's backs. And we are not kidding.

For a long time after my friend Phatiwe's death, I kind of shut myself into a closet and kept close what I knew and refused to engage in anything that could hurt me. I made new friends, but I wasn't open to putting my heart on the line.

Participating in a slow, painful death is a soul-crushing experience, and it takes many years to learn again to be really open to people who weren't part of your life before. My first year in New York, I started a book club to make friends and I tried to date men I met online, but I abandoned the dating when I found it too trying and it took a long time to really connect with new friends.

However, time passes and hearts heal. And its our instinct to make connections again. Its what keeps us alive and what, in the end, makes this crazy game of survival such a glorious, ecstatic, clusterfuck. We're all doomed but God Damn, it's sublime.

This year, I missed the third anniversary of Phatiwe's death. May 12 passed, and I didn't even notice. And I was proud of myself.

I was in the throws of planning and plotting and dating and kissing and laughing and cooking and smiling and watching It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and remembering how awesome those things are... And I forgot to be sad for what I had lost. And I'm pretty sure she forgives me 1000 percent.

Because my sadness was something she tried so hard to shield me from, even though we both knew it was impossible. It was hard to have someone love me that much. And it was hard to love her that much. My dear sweet girl, an only child who learned what it was to have sisters. As it will be hard to love my other friends, my future children, my eventual husband and my wonderful family that much when things inevitably end.

I don't mean this to be dark. But sparks and lust, and shared smiles and that instinct that makes you think someone is on your team, lead to love and commitment, and those things are not always sunshine and roses. But something makes us stay. And keep loving. And keep kissing. And keep sending birthday cards. And forgive weak moments and hurtful barrages and silly mistakes. And love as fierce as a supernova. And as soft and steady as your breath when you're sleeping.

And hold someone's hand, and tell them that you didn't keep secrets from them, so given your last words, you have nothing to say except, "I love you."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Trouble in Paradise... or why women need protection.

This is a long story, but it is a story that needs telling. For me, mostly. Maybe I will feel better.

I haven't been sleeping well since I got back from Spain last week, and I think its because of what happened in Pamplona. Some of my friends know, but seeing as I don't consider such things to be shameful (because being a victim of violence is neither shameful nor a crime), I was attacked in Pamplona by a strange man who pretended he was helping me find the bus back to my hostel.

I had somehow gotten separated from Vanessa in the heat of a long night of bar-hopping and talking to strangers in a melange of English, French and Spanish, and wound up on my own on the street sometime around 2 a.m. We had been leaving the bar together but got separated in a crowd, and I couldn't find her.

I don't know how long I wandered the labyrinthine cobbled streets of the old city, but I know at one point I slipped and cut my arm, and I grew more afraid as time passed because I was alone in a city I didn't know and...

I found an intersection that had several bus stops, and began searching for the No. 11 bus, the only one that stopped at our hostel (a university dorm on the edge of downtown), and a man approached me. He asked if I needed help as I was asking each bus driver if the 11 stopped nearby and if the bus they drove stopped anywhere near the university... By then I was no longer drunk, just tired and on edge.

He offered to show me - a few blocks down - where the 11 stopped, and because the entire town was a festival, and everyone I'd met so far was good natured and celebrating, I went with him. We walked past the buses, past where the street was well lit... And then he grabbed my arm, strong and hard, and pulled me with him across the street to the other side, where there was a park.

He held onto my arm and dragged me with him into the park, grabbing my right arm with his right, and taking his left and pinning it around my waist so that I couldn't move.

I walked with him for I don't know how long, in a dead panic, terrified. And finally I started writing and fighting. There was a bench. I pushed him off and sat down. I refused to go further and told him to leave me alone. He sat, pinned my arms, and started kissing me, even though I did everything I could to move my face.

At this point, I don't know how I did it, but I know I got out of his grip and I hit him, and I started running. Running away from the bench. I know he stood up and started calling something after me, but I just kept going. Through trees, over pine needles, down a steep, steep dirt hill... deeper into the park because I didn't know where I was.

I found a parking lot, and in that lot were teenage boys in a maroon Renault minivan, and I got in their car and locked all the doors. One joked that the one trying to sleep in the middle should try to get laid... I just smiled and tried to ask them to use their cell phones to call the police for me. One poked my stomach instead and said something vulgar, and the two girls with them looked at me... One was ashamed, the other taunting. The ashamed one wanted to help me but didn't want to lose face with her friends... I had put my sweater on inside out in my frenzy, over my t-shirt. My hair was a mess and I was dirty from tripping and falling on the hill.

I left them and walked along the cars towards a building in the random parking lot I'd found, but the building was closed and the pay phone didn't work. I saw a road leading into the lot, up the hill I'd run down, and I started towards it.

Walking down the hill was a couple, probably mid-30s... maybe a little older... and I approached them and said in English that I needed the police, I needed help... I can't remember what was said after, except that the woman held me to her as we walked up the hill and back into town and kept assuring me that I was going to be okay.

This makes me cry a little to write, but I find myself telling this story at inappropriate times because I think I'm more damaged by it than I realize yet. I'm still only a week home, and it was less than two weeks ago... and this is just the beginning of this story.

I don't know the name of this woman. Nor her husband. But they both are in my mind incredibly generous, wonderful people who really did shepherd me to safety. They took me to an ambulance - the town had them stationed everywhere as the 200,000 person city became a 800,000 person festival town - where an EMT who spoke good English was able to listen to me and tell the others what had happened, and they just all hugged me as I cried.

From the way that man had looked as he pulled me into the park, the way he persisted after I fought... I knew I had just managed to fight my way out of something that was really fucking awful. The next day when the SVU police showed me the map of where I'd been, my attacker had been leading me in the exact opposite direction of both the town and my hostel. He was taking me down to the river. And he was taking me there to do something bad.

That much I knew as I sat with the EMT in the ambulance, thanking her and thanking the couple who brought me there between bouts of hysteria. I didn't learn her name either, but I will always remember her face and her kindness. At no point in my story did anyone in Pamplona ever for a moment question what I told them happened, nor did they ignore or try to quiet my sadness, fear or feelings.

From there the ambulance, with the English-speaking EMT and another woman who didn't speak English in the back seat with me, took me to the police station. There I was given to some officers wearing the traditional San Fermin festival outfit of white pants and white shirt with red scarf... One had a red sweatshirt since it was probably near 4:30 in the morning and while the days were hot in Northern Spain, the nights dipped into the low 50s. There was one whose name I forget who took charge of me, who brought me where I needed to be, who drove the car so that I would feel safe, who spoke in Spanish to me once he knew I understood "more than a little but not a lot"...

For my own part, while this was all going on I held my own and was able to communicate both what had happened and who I was in Spanish to the police... I kind of feel good about that.

In the traumatic haze and the fog of moving around at 4:30 at 5 at 6 a.m. between cops and offices, doing your best to speak a language you once knew much, much better than you do now... I survived. And then, in the car, with the sweatshirted officer behind the wheel, we turned back to the station. He had been driving me home, and he got a call saying they'd found the man who matched my description near where I had said I had been... I had to go identify him.

Law and Order Style.

I had to go into the building, walk into the room with the 1-way glass, and say that yes, that man with the square/checked pink and blue on white shirt was the one who held me and dragged me and kissed me and had probably intended to rape me in that park. Yup. That was what I thought. That's what they thought. I was sobbing as they asked me if it was him. In the typical American Girl way, I said "I think so...." and that of course is not good enought at 6 a.m. with a team of officers who have just apprehended the man who hurt you mere hours before. "Yes," I said. "Yes, that is him. Please take me home. Please."

I remember arriving at the hostel and the officer talking with the manager. I remember her alarm and her concern and her compassion. I said yes, I would call the police when I woke up. I needed to sleep. I went to Vanessa's room, pounded on her door.

She opened. I remember only falling to the ground while telling her what had happened, and I remember laying in her twin bed with her and her saying things that soothed me to sleep. She has been afraid, but I HAD been injured. It was not okay.

We woke when the phone rang at 1-something. The SVU police needed my statement. I went in the clothes I had been wearing the whole time. (Ironically, I'm wearing that shirt again for the first time as I write this....)

Vanessa acted as my official translator, and I told the story. Less lucidly but with the same details as I do here. The morning after is still laced with an adrenaline haze that will give you the gist, but memory settles in once the fear fades. Once you are no longer vulnerable to the things you endured. It took coming home to remember to be afraid. (Although I did tell a man who professed his adoration of me in Bilbao that I was flattered but not going anywhere. I would not have left Vanessa's side with a Bishop.)

I told them my story and Sergio, my attorney, provided by the lovely nation of Spain, arrived to represent me in the hearing. The next morning. He had a scruffy beard and a kind face, and I liked him from the start. He took Vanessa and I to lunch near our hostel afterwards to tell me how things could and would probably go...

I was not physically injured. I had no serious bruises, no cuts, and I had not been raped. But he had used force and had kissed me after incapacitating me. The case could be a misdemeanor assault case or a felony attempted sexual assault case. Since I didn't have any injuries as evidence, and I had no witnesses - the teens and the couple remained nameless, unfortunately... - the judge went misdemeanor. And when Sergio sent us home at 5 to sleep and then maybe enjoy our night before my 11 a.m. hearing the next day, we walked away, but walked exhausted. (Vanessa, if you can't infer, is the best friend ever, by the way.)

Sergio called as soon as we arrived back at the hostel. The judge wanted us there at 7 p.m. That night. We would not wait until morning.

So, instead of rest, which I craved more than anything - a stop to the surreal string of events that had suddenly become my reality - there was no nap. There was a quick shower, a quick selection of clean clothes that seemed "appropriate for appearing in court" from my vacation wardrobe of cotton things from Old Navy. A black tank top and black skirt made up my court outfit. Everyone else in the city, remember, was wearing white. I felt visible. And fragile.

At the courthouse, we were told we had to wait at least an hour. Go. Have a drink. I had a coffee while Vanessa and Sergio had beers. I was afraid to drink. Afraid having had a drink would make me less credible. We talked.

Sergio got a call and we went back to the courthouse. Vanessa was not allowed to translate for me. I needed an official translator so an Irish man named Collum served. I don't know his last name, but he was entirely professional, compassionate and on my team. I appreciated him entirely.

What was most f-ed up though: we met in the judge's chambers, and I had to sit in the same room with the man who that morning had tried to... (I am eternally grateful for my instincts.)

For the record, even the judge and his transcriptionist wore white pants, a white shirt and red scarves. San Fermin transcends all.

I was shaking and I had to tell my story, translated by Collum.

Hamid Rashid, 37, Moroccan immigrant, stood and said I had been looking for the bus, and he found me and decided to help me into a cab. He had found me a cab and I just "ran away". Away from a taxi that would have taken me home, from this innocent man. WHO DIDN'T BOTHER TO LIE ABOUT HAVING MET ME.

The judge found him guilty of assault - a misdemeanor, rather than attempted sexual assault - but doubled the fine. He was fined 200 Euros. Convicted of assault, and now has a criminal record in Spain.

My lawyer and the translator said that for what we had, we did very well. Women aren't passive toys to be abused. And they were happy that I had come forward and took a stand against this man. Even though I was on vacation, I did the right thing.

What's funny is that it never occurred to me to not go through with it. When the cops wanted to talk to me, I went. When it was time to Cowboy Up and say what had happened and defend myself, I didn't flinch. It never occurred to me to back down.

After the hearing, after the sentencing, Sergio drove Vanessa and me back to the San Fermin festival grounds. We had Spanish sausage sandwiches, Spanish beers, we watched fireworks. Then we took the long walk back to the hostel, across a kind of desolate part of the university campus that made me very, very fearful, but we made it. And in the morning Sergio took us to his office's balcony to watch the running of the bulls. He wanted me to have good memories of Pamplona.

And so I do.

Because of his infinite kindness, his generosity, and his commitment to making sure women are safe and well taken care of in his community, I want to make sure the U.S. knows how wonderful he was to me.

If you read to the end, I am okay. I write this as kind of therapy. Otherwise, apparently, I might drop it on you at a very inappropriate time. Trauma works that way. In my experience, its easier to justify if you're bleeding, or were bleeding.

But one of the things that has always been important to me has been protecting women against violence and sexual violence. And the most I can do at this point, being so fresh and so still intimidating to me (because being afraid is also not shameful), is tell you what happened.

This is why when Dartmouth gave me 3 months to do whatever I wanted (thank you Dartmouth), I applied for a community service fellowship to fund me working at the Greater New Haven Rape Crisis Center for free. Because Dartmouth wanted me to be able to stand up for what I believed in and try to make a difference. And because I had that strong foundation of self-security and feeling that I had rights that could not be infringed upon, and had worked to defend them, when it came to defending my own, even in a foreign country, I kicked ass.

I entirely take credit for making it through the story you've just read. It was one of the hardest things I've dealt with. I thought, at one point, I might be killed. But I wasn't. And I won. Before the legal system of Spain.

Never underestimate yourself. Trust me.