After Escaping An Abusive Marriage, My Former Life Feels Like Another Universe

As time passes, I feel more and more like I have someone else’s memories rattling around inside my head

A black and white photo of a woman staring out a window
Photo by Alex Ivashenko via Unsplash

Author’s Note: I have chosen to publish this essay pseudonymously to prevent retribution from my ex-husband – a very real threat faced by survivors who choose to speak out. I don’t want to be anonymous, and it’s hard not to feel like the byline is one more thing he has taken from me.  But my freedom is more important than credit. And with that freedom, not even he can stop me from telling my story.

As usual, the man rolled his shopping cart up to the empty stretch of sidewalk across the street from my apartment around 11pm. I put down my book and watched from the fire escape as he laid out his sleeping pad and lit a cigarette. We exchanged a nod and the small, knowing smile of two sentinels who could see everything because almost no one ever saw us. I watched as people stepped around him, averting their eyes, and he watched as people spilled from the bakery beneath my apartment, never looking up while I peered down at them.

His arrival was my signal to go to bed, to try and squeeze in as much sleep as I could before my husband got home from his bartending job. As usual, I went to sleep filled with dread, waking with a start when the front door of the brownstone banged shut downstairs. Heart pounding, I studied the sound of my husband coming up the stairs: how uneven his footsteps, whether he stumbled against the wall or merely leaned against it as he walked, how much his key scratched around the lock before he managed to find the opening, and the click. 

Perhaps if I willed myself to look asleep enough, tonight he would leave me alone.

But soon enough, there he was in bed beside me, pressing up against my back and reaching around to fumble between my legs. His breath was hot and rank; old beer and whiskey and cigarettes smelled like something had died in his mouth. And when I said no, the space between us thrummed. 

He yanked the blankets off me because I didn’t deserve them. He yelled at me, called me a bitch, reminded me that he worked his fingers to the bone, made more money than I did, and still, the house was a mess, I wouldn’t have sex with him. I was useless, useless, useless.

His breath was hot and rank; old beer and whiskey and cigarettes smelled like something had died in his mouth.

Before I married him, I didn’t know someone could be so drunk that their mind was gone while they were still awake. I couldn’t find the sweet man I’d married, who’d once cried and told me that sharing a bed with me would be the greatest thing he could ever do. Instead, as always, I began to feel that it was my fault he was so tortured, and if I gave him what he wanted, he would be better, everything would be better, and I could finally go to sleep. 

I felt like a piece of furniture when he put himself inside me. Countless nights had taught me that the best way to survive was to wait, because you can survive anything if you know it will be over. But when his dead-animal breath overtook me, when it hurt, really hurt, my resolve broke. I begged him to stop, but he never did, so I studied the wall inches from my face, eyes focused on the frail marks the headboard etched into the paint. 

When he finally fell asleep, dawn prickled under the borders of our blackout curtains. I pulled on the massive, fuzzy robe I bought for him one Christmas and climbed back out onto the fire escape. The city felt shocked by the end of the night, the pink morning light reminding me of a cheek freshly slapped.

My friend across the street was still there, sitting in the same position, smoking another cigarette. We nodded at each other again, and I wondered what he saw when he saw me, naked under an oversized robe at dawn, my eyes puffy from crying. Did he also see a useless woman?

My own continued presence in that apartment, where the same scene played out night after night no matter what I did to try and stop it, made me feel that perhaps I deserved it. That perhaps this was the story I was meant for.

Increasingly, I had come to feel that I was living in two timelines: the life I lived during the day, when I was successful and competent, and the shadowy nighttime world. My memories split into two tidy columns, making it possible for me to function during the day without the dread of him coming home each night eating me alive. But it also made it nearly impossible for me to recognize how bad things really were, because I defined reality by the daytime. I was a young professor who urged my students to interrogate their lives within the context of larger political issues, who taught feminist texts and assigned think pieces on rape culture. I couldn’t possibly be the woman who was so used to falling asleep with a belly full of dread that it had become normal. The woman who told herself it couldn’t be rape if she deserved it.

Whatever the man across the street saw, I wanted him to see it. I wanted my bare legs and my tear-streaked face to say, it happened again, and for him to nod and gather his things. I didn’t know how to begin the work of telling, but I needed to be seen so that it would exist in the world where the rest of my life happened. 

A few hours later, I went to work and willed anyone and everyone to see my tear-swollen face and ask if I was okay, but as usual, no one did. Perhaps, I thought, I was useless at everything but hiding it. Or perhaps I really was living in two realities at once: the one where I was being hurt and the one where it was all a dream. 

It’s been three months since I finally left my husband, but sleeping through the night still feels like a miracle. Every morning, my room in Tangier’s Hotel El Muniria floods with light and the mingling smell of sweet mint and salt I’ve never encountered anywhere else. From my window, the haphazard mosaic of whitewashed city walls ambles down to the Strait of Gibraltar, glinting turquoise. I climb to the tiled rooftop, where lines of brilliant white sheets hanging to dry billow in the sun-warmed breeze. 

I picked this place for my month in Tangier mostly because it was once the flophouse where William S. Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch amidst an opium bender for the ages. Though it’s extraordinarily pleasant now, family-run and smelling of bleach and fresh drywall, its windows trimmed in blue paint and pink-flowered vines, it seems fitting for a trip where I feel like I’m running from something.

I didn’t know how to begin the work of telling, but I needed to be seen.

I spend my days doing whatever I want, which usually involves writing at a small table outside Cinema Rif, eating tiny marzipan pastries from my favorite bakery and raspberries from the old women who come by selling fruit from wicker pallets. In the evenings, I drink hot mint tea at cafes overlooking the Strait, listening to Arabic rap thumping from the boom boxes of young boys at nearby tables. I stroll home with chicken kebab that I share with the one-eyed kitten who stalks the alley beside the hotel, having learned quickly that I am a sucker.

Everything good feels uncanny. Like I’ve somehow stumbled into an alternate universe where I feel so much like myself, even if she is a person I can’t yet describe. 

When I climb the stairs to my room, portraits of William S. Burroughs follow me with their eyes. He fled to Tangier in a cloud of scandal in 1954, after accidentally killing his wife in a botched game of William Tell. Tangier was still the Tangier International Zone then, a political and economic no-man’s-land under the joint administration of France, Spain, and the UK where outcasts and refugees mingled with merchants, kif-peddlers, and counter culturists. A place that was no place, or perhaps a little bit every place all at once. 

I wonder if, after doing something as horrific as killing his own wife—even by accident—Burroughs had the feeling that he was carrying around memories that couldn’t possibly all fit into one story. Perhaps Tangier in 1954—a place where all things could be true, where Jews and Muslims and Christians traded in the medina and Beat poets boozed while the evening call to prayer echoed through the city, where it was just as easy to buy a gram of kif as a prayer rug or a copy of the Financial Times—was the only place where the chaos of his outer world seemed to align with his inner one. Did it seem impossible to him that he could contain memories of loving his wife and of killing her? Of being happy and of being destitute, hooked on opium and writing madly in a shabby room overlooking the Port of Tangier?

To me, Tangier is the opposite of a place you go to be miserable. Here, I feel free for the first time in a very long time. But on nights when I lean out my window, watching the port twinkle and listening to card-playing men shouting amiably in Arabic in the alleys below, I feel what I imagine Burroughs might have: that my new reality is completely unreal.

And perhaps the most unreal thing is me. When a friend texts to ask how I am, I reply without thinking, “I feel light.” 

I can feel it in my body, a nimbleness as I weave through the crowds in the medina, as I scale cliffsides overlooking the Strait, even as I sleep at night. It’s like a different world has opened up inside of me.

In the years that follow, I search hungrily for freedom. I build a life where I am anything but useless, anything but trapped: I learn to surf in Santa Cruz, swim in Oregon’s frigid Cascade Lakes, and camp in the rainforest in Washington State. I change careers so I can become a digital nomad. I climb a volcano in Bali and cook breakfast in a hole seeping steam from the side of the mountain. I trek through the jungle in Borneo to see wild orangutans and learn how to yank leeches off the backs of my knees. I ride a motorcycle through the mountains on the Thailand-Myanmar border. I watch the sun rise at Angkor Wat. 

And I feel my memory splitting again. Where I had once divided my story between the things I could bear and those I could not, now my memories feel split between being a prisoner in my life and living expansively. But it doesn’t feel as simple as a life divided into two eras, because there is no way these extremes could exist in one lifetime, in one set of memories.

Here, I feel free for the first time in a very long time.

In Malibu, a friend brings me to a canyon just off the Pacific Coast Highway. We hike deep into its crevices, rock scrambling barefoot beside a waterfall long past the trail’s end. We emerge dusty and sweaty and triumphant onto the beach just in time for a vermillion sunset, and I sit on the sand and cry. I can’t believe, I tell him, that days like this were an option the whole time. That I wasted so much time being miserable. But what I don’t say – what I am too afraid to say – is that it feels like maybe this new, beautiful present couldn’t possibly be real. 

No matter how many cups of mint tea I drink or mountains I climb, I still define myself as the girl trapped in a body that a man mistook as his to play with. How is it possible for that girl to be making memories of haggling over black olives in a Moroccan market or sitting on the beach in Malibu with canyon dust and sand mingling between her toes? 

But then I start to get used to being free. 

Somewhere along the way, without even realizing it, I begin to accept that I deserve the life I’m making for myself. And the more I accept this, the less my past makes sense. It doesn’t seem possible that I once shoehorned myself into an existence smaller and more painful than I deserved. I feel more and more like I have someone else’s memories rattling around inside my head—a haunting I can’t exorcize. 

In my new career as an editor, I make a niche working with memoirists who survived domestic and sexual violence. So many of them see their stories as “healing journeys” and want to illustrate how they transformed pain into enlightenment. It’s a noble goal, and I’m all in. Finding the structure in other people’s chaos calms me. Perhaps if I can’t make sense of my own experiences, I can at least help other people make meaning out of theirs. We graft their healing onto the plot arc that most readers intuitively know, finding the places where their pain resembles a call to action, rising action, falling action, climax, resolution. But more and more, I feel like something is missing.

The plot arc acknowledges that a journey is anything but a straight line. There is always room for diversions: a protagonist thinks they have it all figured out when they actually have no idea what they’re doing, or a nemesis rises again. But the goal of the arc is to drive a story to resolution, to move from chaos to reason. And though I love the feeling when things click into place in a client’s plot, it only makes my story feel more estranged from reality.

I feel more and more like I have someone else’s memories rattling around inside my head.

My trauma and healing haven’t felt like one cohesive story at all. It’s more like a choose-your-own-adventure novel read cover-to-cover. This makes me doubt everything: whether my memories of the past are true, whether my experience of the present is true. I feel like I must be crazy.

I start inhaling multiverse stories because they are the only ones that even remotely approximate how scattered mine feels. But from Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library to the Marvel Multiverse, each story shoehorns itself into cohesion. Time after time, the chaos of infinite timelines makes way for a tidy plot arc, making the multiverse little more than a fun trick to awe the audience or a handy metaphor for one tired message: that we should appreciate the life we have. As someone who is infinitely grateful for having jumped from one life to another, that just isn’t enough for me. 

I don’t know much about Everything Everywhere All At Once, except that it has something to do with the multiverse and Michelle Yeoh looks like a badass on the posters—reason enough for me to hustle to a late-night showing. For the first hour or so, I resist its chaos, trying to grasp any details that could help me create a structured, reasonable view of what’s going on. But then I settle into the onslaught. 

“Yes,” I think, “Yes—this is how it feels to be alive.”

I’ve always known, of course, that I did not actually jump from one timeline to another.

I’ve always known, of course, that I did not actually jump from one timeline to another. I’m not even sure that I believe the multiverse is real. But to me, it’s not a narrative trick. Saying that I carry memories from wildly disparate alternate universes is the closest I can come to describing what it’s like to be in my mind. 

And I love that, in Everything Everywhere All At Once, I am finally encountering a story that doesn’t resist how wild that is—and how devastating. I find myself identifying with Jobu Tupaki, who is so overwhelmed after encountering literally everything that she concludes that if everything exists, nothing matters. I had become so overwhelmed by the extremities of my experiences, I had started to worry that nothing was real, not even the things I knew to be true about my life.

Perhaps, I realize, that’s why I love travel: everywhere new feels like an alternate universe, where the chaos outside matches what I feel inside. And I can finally feel like I am part of the real world.

The movie ends after midnight. I walk through Union Square with my new partner, a man who jumps worlds with me as easily as some people cross the street. Who loves my hauntings as much as my dreams. Who will be on a plane to Bali with me in a few short weeks.

I cut the relative peace of the late-night city air, holding forth about why this movie is so different. When I get to the part about how other multiverse stories are a vehicle for the cliched adage to “love the life you’ve got,” he stops me. 

“Isn’t that what Everything Everywhere All At Once tells us to do?” He says. “Doesn’t Evelyn return to her original timeline with a greater acceptance of what she has?”

I’ve gone back and stood where the man used to sleep across the street from my apartment, looking up at my old window.

I consider this. He’s right—she does finish the movie accepting, even loving, what she has made in her original timeline. But the movie resists the tone of everything coming together neatly. The last scenes embody the instability of outcomes in a world where everything isn’t just possible, it’s real. More than that, Evelyn is changed not just by what she’s seen in other lives she could have lived. As she brings Jobu Tupaki back from the brink, she must grapple with the fact of everything, and in doing so, let go of the rigidity that bound her in her original timeline. It’s the chaos itself that changes her.

The apartment where I was raped is less than a ten minute walk in the other direction. As always when I’m in New York, I feel its proximity like a black hole with an uncannily strong gravitational pull. A few times over the years, I’ve gone back and stood where the man used to sleep across the street from my apartment, looking up at my old window. More than anywhere else in the world, that little square of asphalt seems to hold the possibility of infinite universes for me. Because when I’ve stood there, being a visitor from an alternate universe is the only way I can explain the pleasant curtains some stranger has hung in the window of the room where I was raped. 

Or the fact that I can just walk away. 

But now we’re headed uptown. As always, the Village is eerily quiet this late on a Tuesday. As always, the rain-slick street reflects the scattershot lights in windows up above. When I take off my glasses to wipe them clean, it’s almost impossible to know where in the fuzzy, twinkling world the buildings end and the street begins. 

It could be five years ago. Except that it isn’t. 

It occurs to me that I am now a woman who knows the many universes inside of her. I am free now, but not terribly long ago, I wasn’t. And I wouldn’t be what I am if it weren’t for that other universe I had to escape—because I shaped the life I’ve made with the knowledge of how I never again want to live. Knowing that all things are true—the realities you have made and the realities you have escaped from—works its way into your identity, as you carry the memories of other worlds and the other people you have been, in all their pain and triumph.

Perhaps that is the best resolution of all: accepting that the chaos of everything we have experienced, every person we have been, is true.

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