Everywhere is Just the Same as Everywhere
Here. Let it be known that “X” marks 309 Gramercy Avenue. A weathered clapboard house in the neighborhood of Harrison, Minneapolis. You later find out that Prince lived only a few blocks from here in the early 1970s.
Let it be known to whoever witnesses it that the trail of X’s signifies distance from the epicenter. The more marks, the farther and farther away you got from 309 Gramercy. The distance oscillates throughout the rest of your life after you leave him.
At the epicenter, there are cabinet doors ripped off hinges. Objects lobbed at skulls. Dust in the master bedroom and false eyelashes stuck to the stair banister, even though, as you point out diplomatically, I don’t wear false eyelashes.
There’s a broken earring shaken loose from a bedsheet. A strand of hair a different color from yours (or his) wrapped around a pencil on your desk. Vomit-streaked blood on the front porch. An ambulance called on a birthday. Animals thumping around in the walls.
The epicenter is a house, but it is also this: the many times you look upon the “X” and think I wonder if he would have killed me.
Here, now you’re in Duluth, MN, a small city two hours away from Minneapolis. As you can see, we signify this with two X’s– it’s not that far from the epicenter. Too close, even. When you pull your car over to the side of London Road, he has been screaming at you for at least 20 miles. It’s the type of full-throated screaming where you can feel the flecks of spit hit the side of your face.
The journey from the town where you both go to college is 8 hours, and you are 6 hours in. When you recall this memory, again and again, years later, a stretch of screaming still within the rays of the original X, you cannot for the life of you remember what he had been so upset about. Sometimes while scrubbing a crusty pan counterclockwise in the sink, or stepping over sidewalks cracks, or standing clear of the closing door in the subway, you think: What did I do?
You do, however, have a flickering memory of him being angry over chicken strips and barbeque dip in a Culver’s Parking lot. The car had a problem and you didn’t have enough money to fix it. Whenever you hit the brakes too hard, water sloshed out of the air conditioning vent by the passenger side floor. Maybe some car flood water had spilled onto his food? You have no idea.
He flings open the door and sinks directly into a snowbank up to his knees. Frozen, below-zero air fills the little blue car—a sudden reprieve from the sour screaming. He stumbles once in the snowbank, rights himself, and makes his way to the back of the car where he begins pounding on the top of the trunk.
“Open the fucking trunk! Do it!”
You do not or cannot move. You sit motionless in the driver’s seat with your hands white-knuckled around the steering wheel. The screaming turns more ragged in his throat. But the auto glass curbs some of the odium. You feel like you’re hearing someone yell at you from underwater.
“I said open the fucking trunk! I’m so fucking done with this. Open it.”
You have a vision of him hauling his old, Western-style upholstered suitcase with the busted wheels up the snowy hills of Duluth.
You have the thought again and again after you get many Xs away that you should have recognized this person as “not normal.” A normal person doesn’t get out of a barely stopped vehicle on a busy street and yell. A normal person doesn’t beat their fists so hard onto the hatch of a car that it leaves dents.
You stick your wavering hands out and say his name. Angel, please. A sweet, cherubic calling. You constantly have to correct others who take his name into their mouth. No, no, not Angel like you say in English, I mean Ahn-chel like you say in Spanish. But most in the Midwest can’t do it. They can’t recreate the blended sound in the back of their pharynx in the second syllable of his name.
You say your lines: Please, baby. People are staring. They’re going to call the police. Please, baby, get back in the car.
30 miles up the highway after he gets back into the passenger seat, he asks you to pull over. You slide the car onto a deserted dirt road. He puts his head on your shoulder and weeps. His sobs are so loud in your ear that you can’t hear the cars whizzing by from the highway.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to disrespect you. I know how that feels.”
You have to drive the rest of the way one-handed because you are cradling his head in between your neck and shoulder while he whimpers.
It is midnight and you are hurtling down I-35, trying to bridge the gap between north Minneapolis and south Minneapolis as fast as you possibly can. You are barefoot and bra-less, your big toe curled around the top of the accelerator like a lizard clinging to the smooth bark of a tree.
You were woken at midnight by your vibrating phone, his sickly sweet nickname and photo on the glass display.
“Baby,” he slurs, “come find me.”
You begin to question him—wasn’t he just at a party at Cliff’s place?
He begins to whimper. “I don’t know where I am. I’m scared.”
You get a strange buzzy feeling in your body. You’ve heard him scream, heard him growl, heard him moan, but you’ve never heard him cry like this.
You swing your legs out of bed and kick the clothes on the floor, sifting through the pile to look for a sweatshirt. “Where are you?”
“I don’t know.” His voice breaks on the last syllable and all you can hear is sobs.
“It’s ok, I’m coming, okay? I’m coming. Send me a pin.”
He obliges and you hang up. As soon as you hang up and check the location the blinking blue dot peters out. You refresh. “Phone is out of battery or out of service” the screen reads.
After driving around the residential grid of the Morris Park neighborhood, you find him. He’s lying in an alley two blocks away from the party he’s supposed to be at. He is snoozing peacefully next to a city-issued compost bucket with tear tracts still drying on his face.
Bam! Someone throws a firecracker on the asphalt in the adjacent boulevard. His eyes flutter open and you fall to your knees and rest your head on his chest.
“What the fuck are you doing here?”
This is not the worst thing he says to you all night. After you finally corral him into the car. After he passes out again stretched out in the back seat of your Hyundai, after he stumbles out onto the sidewalk in front of your house and drops his pants to his ankles and you try to pull them up again, he looks down on you, eyes suddenly full with the clarity that comes with vitriol, and says, “I hate you.”
You’re at the tail end of things with him, but still clinging desperately. At a BYOB sushi restaurant in Boystown, a bamboo basket of steaming edamame beans is placed between the two halves of a double date. You and Angel occupy one booth cushion, his best friend Calvin and girlfriend Rebecca on the other.
You like Rebecca. You feel bad that her nose job was obviously botched but you appreciate how she has no hesitation about calling the people you went to college with fucking cunts.
You think she looks put together in her long black parka and heeled booties. Calvin asks her a question that you can no longer remember no matter how hard you try today. It’s something along the lines of how many dudes did you fuck before me?
She quietly says, fuck off, and places the entire edamame in her mouth, and pushes the lobes of its innards onto her tongue with the chopsticks.
You take a sip of wine and feel a zing when Calvin snorts at her response and says crazy slut.
Here’s something else that feels a bit unwieldy, it doesn’t snap neatly into the hole left for “survivor.”
On many nights in the subsequent after period, when new friends play drinking games to ease social tension and it’s your turn in “Never Have I Ever” you’ll sometimes say “never have I ever cheated.”
You know this is a lie. Maybe you didn’t fuck anyone, but you wanted to, and you did something about it.
You spend a year abroad at the University of Glasgow and go out almost every Wednesday to a club called Garage with your track and field social group. You let one of the top runners, a girl with a Newcastle accent who’s in medical school, push you up against the wall when “Holidae In” plays. She brushes her lips against your neck and her hand hovers by your waist. “I wish you didn’t have a boyfriend,” she said. You hear the words “me too” come out of your mouth.
You spend weeks scouring the club’s photo albums because you know the venue’s photographer came around and snapped a pic of you at one point. You find it and immediately download it to your computer. In the photo, you’re smiling so big that your skin looks painfully stretched over the apples of your cheeks. The Newcastle girl is undoubtedly beautiful— honey hair to her shoulders with smooth skin and an arm around your waist. There is a distance in her eyes though, like she knows somehow who you truly are.
You and Hayley, the other American student in your international students' building, make out and grope on the lumpy blue couches of the common room. You ask to go back to her room, to lie on the twin bed covered by a Primark duvet cover. “I can’t do that to Becca,” she says. Becca is her girlfriend, whom you would probably have made out with and groped too given the opportunity.
You did this too, with your old boyfriend back in the Midwest. When you’re drunk you just can’t seem to stay away from the girls that give you the most attention. The girls that don’t lean away when you tilt your head like you’re going in for a kiss. The girls that lean in.
Your old boyfriend saw you slip around the corner with the dancer in your history class with the short hair, your glamorous roommate with the perfect hair, and the blonde girl on the cross country team, also from Minnesota.
But Charlie was nice about it. Or at least in denial. Sometimes he jokingly called you a college lesbian. “I know you’re not actually gay,” he says when you apologize for kissing a girl in front of him for what seems like the tenth time.
Angel isn’t like that. Gender doesn’t seem to differentiate his awesome jealousy. You hear “Are you fucking her?” almost as much as “Are you fucking him?”
And so you keep all this to yourself. Hayley, and the medical student from the club. You pretend you don’t remember. Remembering it would mean that you admit to doing something wrong.
Although breaking up on a tiny college campus is never easy, you think you’re doing pretty well. You walk the back way along Bushnell Street to avoid walking by the Tau Kappa Epsilon house he still lives in. Sometimes he shows up to your work, but for the most part, you pretend what happened to you never happened at all. That you didn’t almost let someone ruin your life.
You do what has been referred to as “moving on '' and go on a date with a woman studying relationship counseling. You are in the same music literature course, and after waiting for a few respectable months, she asks you out. You invite her over to your apartment, and over Krispy Kreme donuts and little bottles of UV Blue, you recount everything. The worst of the worst.
You can hear yourself speaking and you want to clap your hand over your mouth to stop the stream of details coming from your lips. The drinks thrown, threats made, the property ruined.
Maybe you are desperate for some tangible handhold in your new life. You want someone to tell you what, exactly, happened to you. You stare at her with tears running down your face. She doesn’t look at you with pity or annoyance. Just exhaustion.
She leans back in her chair and folds her arms. “There’s a word for that, you know. Intimate Partner Violence.”
You really escape him by fleeing to a new continent. You think it’s the best way to forget. And at first, you think you’ve won. You think you’ve come out on top, unscathed. You board a bullet train from Seoul and feel safely encased as it hurtles diagonally across the peninsula.
While staring out the window at the glimmering gray water in the rice paddies you realize it’s his birthday. You pause, waiting for nausea, but smile when you feel nothing.
The cherry blossoms burst unapologetically in your seaside town in late March and early April. When you look at the fluffy pink blossoms on your way to work, you think dumb shit like: It’s my first spring, I’m reborn.
Your home there is made of poured pink concrete with a flat roof. It sits directly across from a public library that looks like a gigantic UFO. The orb-like building is covered in a huge metal grid. After dusk, spotlights bounce slowly shifting colors onto the reflective surface. At night, you fall asleep with gentle pulses of violet, yellow, and green falling over your face.
The roof is painted a dark forest green. You love it up there. The grandmother who lives downstairs can’t make it up the steps, so it’s your own personal fortress.
Almost every day after teaching English at an elementary school, you spread out a rubber picnic mat and read a book while the sun sets. Sometimes, when you’re too distracted to read, you slump over the edge like a drunk and listen to the sounds of the neighborhood. Pairs of metal chopsticks clink against metal bowls from open windows. The engines of motorbikes strain under the weight of pizza delivery. The outline of a temple sits next to the outline of a church against the setting sun.
You cannot see your neighbors’ roof but you can hear them. The building next door is sleek and modern,a far cry from the old hanok that was bulldozed to make space for it. The bottom floor is a paint shop, and the family who owns it lives upstairs. Sometimes, as you climb the stairs to your own home, you can see directly into their bathroom—a small white-tiled room with a shower head attached to the sink, and four towels hanging from hooks on the wall. Two adult-sized, two child-sized.
Often, from the innards of the house, you can hear a woman crying, and children screaming. Your Korean isn’t good enough to eavesdrop, but you hear shibal, “fuck” and nyeon, “bitch” in almost every sentence. Or sometimes, just, “fucking bitch.”
Sometimes there is a police car parked outside the paint shop. The officers write tickets to a drunken man outside and look bored.
One late July evening, you are reading on your mat when the door to the roof next to yours flies open. The frantic pattering of little steps. The distinct high sobs of children, so young that they are sexless. The voice of a man erupts and the door moans shut. Two pairs of tiny fists begin to beat on it.
You wonder if they are still wearing their backpacks. They would have just gotten home from school. You imagine that one is pink with a cartoonish face and the other is fire engine red. Maybe they are filled with carefully copied sheets of hangul characters and pencil cases shaped like vegetables (a big hit with your own students). You wonder if the bags swing back and forth furiously on the tiny shoulders of their owners.
The sun, flickering out like a dying ember, sinks behind the mountain and the screams grow louder. From deep within the house, you hear a crash—the sound bright and crisp like cymbals. The man’s voice fills the air again and you can finally understand the first thing that he says.
I’m going to fucking kill you.
In Phuket, you lock yourself in a hotel resort bathroom and don’t come out for the rest of the night because your carefully constructed facade of “survivor” has been knocked over.
In February, you go to Thailand. It’s almost Lunar New Year and your school in Korea has finished until March. You are staying with two friends, Heejae and Justin, and you’re giving them an earful about the new man you’re dating, Taeyoung.
As you all sit in a solemn circle on the deck around a bottle of rosé and some Singha beer, you tell them about how a few weeks earlier while seated on his couch in Daejeon, you recount everything that happened to you at 309 Gramercy Avenue. Much like when you told the girl studying relationship counseling everything, you want to plug your mouth with your own hair. Stop talking. Shut up.
Taeyoung, much like Heejae and Justin, sits frozen, intently studying the beer bottle label clasped between his hands. After a few beats of silence, he rolls the bottle in between his palms and says carefully, “I think a man like that will end up in jail.”
You, as you explain to Heejae and Justin, are not happy about this. You want eye contact when you tell this story. You want someone to stroke your hair or gently place a hand on your shoulder.
“I think,” Heejae says, “you just need to stop talking about your ex.”
Two years after you sit on the roof in Korea, you sit on a W train in New York headed downtown. It’s a chamber of bright orange plastic seats, punctuated every so often by a passenger. You’re almost lulled to sleep. There’s just something about the quiet clacking womb of the subway. One bank of seats to your left, a couple is arguing. You keep your headphones in but pause your music. You can’t quite make out what he’s saying. The woman has long dark hair that shields her face from the rest of the passengers. You can’t make out a single word she’s saying, only that she’s trying to assuage him in silvery whispers.
He slams his hands on his corduroy-clad knees like he’s about to push himself up. Tears well in your eyes. You don’t quite understand why you’re crying, but you’re not surprised. You crane your head when they get off the train—maybe one fleeting glimpse can change your perspective.
People tell you all the time to mind your own business. You don’t want to.
“You can’t change the past,” is often what people tell you when you bring up your relationship with Angel. Hearing the words “intimate partner violence” or “abusive relationship” still makes most wriggle around if they don’t immediately have something to say.
You agree. You cannot change the past. That discomforts you. Is the past version of yourself still at Gramercy Avenue? A 21-year-old girl frozen in amber? Over the two years, there must be thousands upon thousands of grains of amber, each sifted through by the function of memory.
Here’s one: She’s sitting on the porch steps in her underwear, gin and tonic in hand at 10:30 am, watching the neighbor boys wheel in circles on their bikes.
Here’s another: In her old car. She’s in the passenger seat, crying, while Angel is half turned towards her, mouth open, mid-spew of chosen expletives. It was her 21st birthday. She hadn’t thanked his mother enough for the cake she made.
One more: He is standing in the doorway of her bedroom and she is bent at the waist, exiting the doorway underneath his outstretched arms. Moments before he had said, “If you walk out of this fucking room, we’re done.”
One day, after a few years of pulsating close and far from the epicenter at 309 Gramercy in Minneapolis, you go home to visit your family in Duluth, MN. You find a photo of him. It was in between the folds of a book, accidentally un-shook from its pages despite many cycles of packing and repacking.
Most would find the picture adorable. In it, a baby boy clad only in a light blue pair of Pampers, is grinning at a woman whose face doesn’t appear in the picture. Only her arms and long elegant fingers with a red lacquered tip gripping the tiny torso are visible. She wears more gold on her wrists than anyone you’d ever seen.
He told you it could be his mother, but he’s not sure. Secretly, you don’t think so. He knew that his mother gave birth to him under a bridge in Asuncion, Paraguay, and dropped him off at the orphanage the same day. Why would a homeless teenager be wearing so much gold?
But what do you know?
There’s only one copy of the photo. In a brief respite from the abuse, he gave it to you, saying, “This is my most prized possession. I want you to have it because I know we’ll always be together.” Upon reflection, you realize he was just trying to keep his two most prized possessions together. It’s easier to keep track of them that way.
You remember that after you ended things with him for good, you tore apart your dorm room looking for the photo. Clothes were flung out of the hamper like scarves out of a magician’s sleeve. A bookcase tipped over with a thud briefly startled the downstairs neighbors in the middle of their afternoon delight. You got carpet burn on your hands and knees from triple-checking underneath every piece of furniture in the house.
You rationalized that if you lost the picture it meant that you were just as culpable in the abuse. Just as vile. A person who is okay with taking something away from another person simply because you can. You tearfully begged your roommates to show you where it was, convinced that they were hiding it to punish you for not listening to their advice that you get out, that you just leave.
After studying the photo quietly, knowing that it would most likely be the last time you saw his face, you open up Facebook Messenger and type his name in carefully. You decide you will be an adult about this. You’ll ask politely for an address and shed the last remaining scale of his love.
You input his full name twice and then realize he has unfriended you. A slight pinch of anger below the belly button, nothing more. You type a message anyway, knowing it might not reach him.
As you formulate and re-formulate sentences (should you start with Hi! Or just Hi.) your mother walks into the kitchen. She picks up the photo. “Is that Angel?”
She sets it down and starts pulling out vegetables from the crisper drawer of the fridge to prepare a salad for dinner. “You never told me what happened between you two. He was such a nice boy.”