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From Russia, without love

No dreams are safe from the creep of old traumas



"You want him, don't you?" hissed Aaron — for the sake of this story I'll call him by a pseudonym — as I buried my head under the bedspread. "Go ahead and fuck him. He's right there." Our friend Trevor, visiting from out of town — that wasn't his real name either — pretended to sleep a few feet away on the floor of our tiny studio apartment, as my then-boyfriend unleashed his mad harangue.

It was three in the morning. Nobody was sober. And although I had no designs on Trevor, my tearful, wheedling reassurances would not quiet Aaron's verbal storm. After an hour of it, I grabbed my scrubs and headed to the hospital for my shift — three hours early. Incredibly, I came home that afternoon, and every day after that, until he finally kicked me out of his apartment, two years and two cities later.

Aaron never physically assaulted me. There were only psychological hostilities — manipulations and tirades, condescension and mockery. Friends begged me to end the relationship. More than once, he and I broke up and quickly relapsed, like junkies craving the familiar beguiling poisons.

I've asked myself a thousand times why I — why we — danced that pathological pas de deux for so long. I may never know the real answer. But I remember the ersatz reason I gave myself then: Moscow ties us together forever. Or more specifically, one night in Moscow, during a semester abroad program in our senior year of college. The night some men kicked Aaron unconscious and left him bleeding in the street, and some more men, meanwhile, held me captive in a room until, presumably, they got tired of all the screaming.

After they let me go, I stood at my dorm room window in the gray morning light and stared at the earrings one of them had awarded me as a door prize. Then I threw them as far as I could into the trash-strewn wasteland below.

Hours later, Aaron still had not appeared. I was frantic; my classmates and I were plotting a search strategy when the phone call finally came. "Get me out of here," his voice rasped.

"Here" turned out to be Botkinskaya — at the time, a hospital for the decidedly non-elite. I do not recommend Soviet-era hospitals for your medical needs. When we found him, he'd had no care. His eyes were bloody purple slits. Teeth were broken. His ear was so caked with blood I thought, for a sickening moment, that it had been torn off. Our professor arranged for a Canadian doctor to pay a house call and check for internal damage. Amazingly, there was none, save a gruesome dental situation. The doctor swabbed away the blood and departed.

On the forlornness scale, spending the night in a grim Soviet hospital ward after you've been violently misused ranks fairly high. For chemical solace, we joined a cluster of patients in bloody head bandages who squatted on the squalid bathroom floor and passed around cigarettes. I'm not a smoker, but I made an exception that night. And then I crawled into Aaron's hospital bed and whispered in his ear, filling him in on my big news of the day. We wept until oblivion silenced us, feeling like the only two beings in a malevolent universe.

We graduated from college later that year, sealed together in our bubble of Otherness. The Moscow Night was an understanding between us, something we didn't have to explain to each other. We'd explained enough — to bereft parents and friends, to voyeuristic interrogators who asked cruel questions, even to television cameras. We were sick of fielding ignorant queries. Only we could understand.

Maybe our insanity had cause. But I still wonder why I clung to such an absurd justification for not leaving a man with whom I was so abjectly wretched, until such time as he really had to insist. Why I still knocked on his window at night, even after his new girlfriend moved in. Of course, there had been overlap between the end of our relationship and the beginning of theirs. The night I grasped that, there was a great squealing of tires in the parking lot of his apartment, the final scene in our deranged play.

Two decades later, I still have this dream regularly: I'm back with Aaron. I'm resigned to it; it can't be helped. But my mind is unquiet: There's a dim memory of someone else, someone tall and blue-eyed. He's the one I'm supposed to be with, the irrational dream-brain says. I fight to unscramble the indistinct image of him, but I cannot.

Of course, the man is Hal, my husband. He's the one I'm supposed to be with, the one I am with in waking life. But the dream's a cop-out. A cliché. A princess fantasy. Embarrassing in its crass obviousness. I'm desperate to learn who the blue-eyed man is, so he can rescue me. Seriously? An editor would reject this dream. A psychiatrist would roll her eyes. "Dig deeper," the editor/doctor would say. "Who is the protagonist?"

In my revised dream, I am the protagonist. The indistinct figure is editor-me at age 44, whispering kindly to the younger, crazier, sadder me: "It CAN be helped. Stop using the passive voice. Use active verbs! Go! Walk! Run!"

Or maybe I'm overthinking it. Maybe it's just an anxiety dream, like the missed final exam movie we all replay at night. Except in this case, it's not fear of failing a test. It's fear of relapse, of powerlessness, of relinquishing agency. Again.

I'm still relieved whenever I wake from the dream and find the blue-eyed guy lying next to me. The one I actively chose. I asked him to marry me, after all. That sounds like agency to me.

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