In the village of my childhood in Transylvania, Romania, we had sezatori, gatherings of young women who would work together on their trousseaux during white snow winters. Girls gathered in candle-lit rooms and worked together, crocheting fine lace, spinning wool. They would embroider white blouses with white silk thread. Can you imagine? White on white in candlelight.
It was a world of women. In my remembrance it was a warm, safe, cocoon of caring, as if we were within an iridescent soap bubble, fragile and of another world, a gossamer life it seems now. It was life before men somehow, but with longing, the expectation of trusting and solid love.
The Past Came Along
How does this translate to now? Now I live in a shelter for domestic violence victims in New York City. The violence I grew up with in Transylvania followed me here. The real horror in Transylvania is not vampires but alcoholism and its violence. My father suffers from it, my younger brother died of it. I often saw women being beaten, shouted at, called names.
I came to America with my son to start a new life and forget about the past. But the past came along in our luggage. Our landlady and many of our neighbors, fellow Romanians, were alcoholics. All too familiar. Then I met a boyfriend, a musician familiar with European culture who lived on what I thought was the edge. The real America. Soon he moved in with my son and me.
‘He’ll Change for Sure’
It seemed weird that every now and then he’d shout at me, filch a bit of money, hurl things about in his jealous bouts. I thought, “It’s a period of adjustment. I’ll figure out how to interact with him, avoid his anger fits.” Since he never hit me and he’d always cool down and apologize to the skies, we went on. I don’t know what made me think it, but I told myself, “He’ll change for sure.”
In the quiet periods he was my co-adventurer. He knew the city. Like a walking encyclopedia, he told me outrageous stories about every building, every block. We lived on nothing without the shame that I usually felt for being dirt poor in America.
Then one fine day I went with him to a place where he got “social services,” he said. I looked around, and everything there was about HIV. His caseworker asked me if I was HIV positive. “What?!” And then it dawned on me. I was dizzy. She looked compassionately at me. She asked my boyfriend to come in. I looked at him. I asked him if he was positive. He nodded. Yes, for more than a decade.
The Abuse Escalated
It was horrible until I found out I was negative. I felt I could not forgive him that he not only risked my life, but had no qualms about making my son an orphan.
Then I found excuses for him. Plenty. That he had a sad childhood, his mom, a drug addict, abandoned him. What could be more horrible than to sleep in phone booths, curled on cardboard, wind howling, poor child shivering? I told myself, “He doesn’t know anymore how to be kind to people.” And we went on for 10 more months, even as his abuse escalated.
We went from bitter arguments in the privacy of our home to him cursing and jostling me about in public, from sarcastic remarks about my artwork to attempts to tear it down. He showed up at my workplace trying to make me lose my job, then menaced my co-workers.
Stopping the Nightmare
Finally in the spring I realized that his behavior had gotten worse and worse and it really, really had nothing to do with me. He wouldn’t change. I had to stop the nightmare. One day after he attacked me, breaking the eye glasses I’d been proud to afford, I went straight from the emergency room to a domestic violence shelter with my son.
My boyfriend left me all kinds of messages, first whining about how horrible I was, then offering to pay for my eyeglasses, then philosophizing about life and how much this hurt. I didn’t take his calls. He stalked me at work. I called the police.
I didn’t stand still. In the shelter, I read books about domestic violence, about shame and about rapists, about why people are hateful. Then, suddenly, I felt a need for other women’s companionship. In the shelter, I don’t feel close to anyone. In the elevator, the other women don’t say hello. Most of them are still upset with life. But the babies look at me with glittery eyes, and wave their little stick hands as they go by.
One woman always has fun. She lets her fluffy hair bounce, dresses up with hip jackets and always has a necktie for a belt on her tight jeans. She sings to her daughter and tells her between noisy kisses how she loves her, and the daughter laughs and laughs. I am so happy to see that woman sauntering down the street, me behind her. Her buoyancy encourages me to be myself too, to dress up, be vibrant again.
Putting Our Lives Back Together
Seeking the company of women, I went to domestic violence support groups and to art therapy. We do something beautiful together. Working with our hands while bemoaning our dismal situation, we put our lives back together out of strands of silk and ribbons, scraps of paper and loose buttons. We make something out of nothing.
These women don’t just sit and cry. They talk, and so do I. I tell my story, and I give my opinions. Terezina, with a mean girlfriend who taunts her because she put on some weight, is ashamed of her body. She doesn’t want to be seen naked, is even afraid to go outside. Terezina would like to take a job she was offered as a bartender, but her girlfriend laughed at her, “No one would hire you, you blimp!”
“What a bore is your girlfriend, Terezina!” I intervene. “Go get the job. My crook wanted to isolate me, wanted me to be a nothing. That’s how they are. Go meet people, see how it is to have money and a job. What do the pub clients care if you are fat?”
Struggling for Dear Life!
When I hear the women talk about their lives, I feel weepy-proud. They suffered. Some didn’t come out of it all sane. But they struggle for dear life! Dolores works at Wendy’s now. She coifs her hair, polishes her nails, takes ballroom dancing classes. Dolores is glad she doesn’t need to cook and slave for her slob who would dirty the house on purpose: “What? You have nothing else to do at home!” Dolores got rid of him. She ushers at church. She’s happy serving people.
Their stories make me realize how terrible it is that we were all raised to think that we are not complete without a man. Our childhood misfortunes made us ready prey. We felt special to be loved in such a dramatic way by our messed-up abusers.
My mom had a hard life and didn’t know it was crucial to tell me that I was special when I was small. But I’ve sorted that out. I tell myself all day long how I’m special, and I listen to myself without giggling.
I make time for myself now. I’ve had blissful times going to the beach, reading, people watching. I started to paint, not knowing how badly I wanted to. (I stopped painting when I was 14. Parents didn’t approve.)
I put my experiences into plays and poems that I perform around town. Many women come to talk to me, saying, “I am in the same situation as you.” To be ready when they come to me, I put together some brochures in English and my native languages and created a huge yellow bag to put the fliers in that has “MY HIV BAG” written on it. It has shock value. Hopefully it will attract attention, give me a chance to tell other women to protect themselves from HIV and domestic violence.
More Healing to Do
Still, I have more healing to do. In art therapy, things come out. I was working on a collage, making a quilt of images, and enjoying it, but then I watched myself. “Why do I so neatly cut the pictures out? Why can’t I tear them out? Why do I cut it boringly? I have no more spontaneity!”
Every morning I wake up and feel with my feet for my pink flip-flops. I don’t like touching my soles to dirty floors! My son sweeps and mops, but he is not thorough, so I am always looking for my flip-flops!
I love walking barefoot, I remind myself. “But I haven’t had any clean floors lately,” I think. It’s been a long “lately”—years, decades. Really, what kind of life is that? Fearing the floor, fearing men, needing men, hiding from the world. Why don’t I just dash out of the bed and go dancing to the bathroom? I should dance, not shuffle my way through life!
Sometimes in the groups I don’t want to listen. One girl was talking about a maniac she met who seemed like a pillar of society, and all I could think was, “My God, why do I come here to be reminded about my past? How my boyfriend cursed me and hurt me. Or my ex-husband, a maniac with the eyes of werewolves.”
This Is Recovery
But by the end of the sessions, I am elated. Each time I learn new things and I think that means the old bad things will have to go away, to make space in my brain for the new thoughts. In comes my white-on-white, my quilt, my collage, my memory of bare feet, and off goes the memory of my broken glasses, maniac eyes, arguments in the street.
One day my mind will banish the old and be filled with the new, and I will put my feet down on the floor and go dancing from my bed. This is recovery.