It is autumn, and the grasses on our Maine salt marsh are tinged with the muted colors of orange and gold. The Mousam River invites two great blue herons in its tidal pool. They stand tall and motionless, tracking the movements of prey, waiting patiently for the perfect moment to strike. Waiting is what I have learned to do in this pandemic, its force has placed my life on hold, but an unnamed restlessness consumes me.
A call from my son warns me that he is surrounded by fire and smoke. California is on fire, the air quality is dangerous, and the winds shift the fires closer to his home. I envision flames encroaching into the Lake Tahoe Basin; cars trapped on the one exit road. He says, “We are advised to pack essential belongings and shelter in a local refuge center.” But he and his girlfriend have decided to stay in their home. I offer them an evacuation plan to leave in search of a place with blue skies and light. They take my advice, and I wait for the next call, the message that will assure me of their safety.
Two long days pass before a text message confirms their arrival, which my husband reads out loud in our kitchen: “Hey, we are at a campground in Ely, Nevada.”
The wine glass slips from my hands, and its shattering sounds vibrate and pierce the silence within me. Ely, an old mining town with 4,000 people stretched across seven miles of dry land in Southwest Nevada, is the last known address of the man who once was my husband, the man I will not name. The campground that shelters my son is less than three miles from his home. “We must warn him,” I say to my husband. “Richard, this was HIS last address.” The tone of my voice identifies the “his.”
“It’s just a coincidence,” he says. “Don’t alarm our son.” There is no need to turn and face my husband, as I know his next steps. He will take the seat at the right corner of our kitchen counter and reach for his eyeglasses—inexpensive, frameless readers purchased in three packs from local convenience stores. I have complained that these readers make him look old, but he ignores me. His shoulders will sway to Bonnie Raitt’s music that plays in the background, and his eyes will squint as he types a text message to my son. His predictability makes me furious; his constancy tethers me to the earth and to him. Now he reads the message he has just sent without my consent: Great to hear that you have arrived safely. Have lots of fun.
“What if I just text back and tell Garret not to tell anyone in Ely that he is from Maine?” I bargain with my husband, knowing that this is absurd. “I’ll just tell Garret to be careful and not share his name with strangers.”
“You know, that’s even crazier.” Richard reminds me that our son has climbed mountains across the country and has traveled much of the world. This time, my husband fails to calm me. Doubts rise and circle me like squawking gulls. Images of the past return to haunt me. I dissolve to the past, homes no longer mine, acts pleading to be cut from my memory. Have I summoned my ex-husband with demands for truth and reckoning?
The dream that once haunted my days and robbed my nights of sleep for so many years returns: I am a passenger on a bright yellow ferry, the one traveling back and forth from Portland to the Islands of Casco Bay. I wear overalls, the fabric faded blue, with two oversized buckles fastened above my chest. A side pocket holds a tape measure, and a red-handled hammer swings from its loop. I carry two white buckets filled with tools used for plastering walls. The buckets are heavy as I walk up the hill toward the place that was once home. I arrive at the door of a brown, shingled dwelling, nestled and small, between two Victorian homes. He is at the threshold, arms extended to block my entrance, and the gold glint in his green eyes forewarns me of danger. The dream has not changed over thirty years, nor has its force.
I have read that to dream of a house is to see yourself, to bear witness to your soul. My dream of an unfinished home is a mirror for the anxiety and fear dwelling within me. The tools that I carried symbolize protection from harm. I once believed that my house was in order, fastened, and complete, but now I am wrong. What remains unfinished in me? Do I have the tools to resolve this haunting fear? Knowing where my son has landed in Nevada has unhinged me. I cannot write. I cannot work. I can only search for a man who I hope is dead.
On day one of my search, I research social media sites and scan obituaries with his last name. I read his mother’s obituary, a kind woman who paid dearly for her mistakes. She hoped that I had the power to transform her son and alleviate the burden of her pain. I search now for the humanity of the man summoned back into my life: he told a good story. The heat of summer nights glistened on his skin; waves of damp curls framed his face as he imitated the gestures and accents of his characters. Maybe, it was the Irish in him. He mentored young boys, abandoned and abused, believing he could save them. Perhaps, he was trying to save himself.
Now I scour the sites of People Searches and Whitepages and find his name in bold, black font above the line: “RELATED TO…” A cold shiver runs through me to see my beautiful name connected to his, exposed for the world to see. There are multiple addresses: Florida, Idaho, Nevada, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Maine. Like a fugitive, he moves from one small town to another. Like a spy, I check his addresses on satellite maps; modest homes in trailer parks surrounded by dry patches of land, void of the hills and sea. I stare at these images for a clue, but there is nothing to claim.
I call and plead with detectives in Nevada, all of them men, not knowing what to ask or how much to tell. My story is broken and vague: pleas to protect our son from a man who may no longer exist. I ask if they can locate criminal records, was he arrested for more violent crimes, or can they simply just find him? My mind flashes to black and white posters of grim-looking men in old western towns, “Wanted: Dead or Alive.”
The detectives don’t ask many questions; maybe they are bored with my story. One man refers me to a female investigator who “does this sort of thing,” and the words sting, reducing my fears to a nebulous “thing.” I feel diminished again, but she could be my last resort. I leave three messages on an answering machine; its recording stresses top-notch investigations in Nevada. A woman with an urgent tone of voice returns my call.
“I need to know the location of a man who once committed dangerous crimes.” I plead with this stranger and tell myself that this is crazy, but the unhinged self doesn’t seem to listen.
She says in a tone already impatient with me, “We need much more information to search county databases for crimes.”
“I only have his name and birthdate.” I now regret having destroyed evidence of him. “Can you simply tell me where he lives today?”
“We can’t divulge exact addresses,” the detective’s voice is officious with a trace of self-righteousness.
“We are required by law to protect his privacy and safety.”
“Oh, right,” I say with a sarcastic laugh, “so you think I might hurt him.”
She doesn’t respond to my outrage. “These types of searches could take several days, with no guarantees. And, my fee is $200 an hour.”
“I don’t have several days,” I tell her and disconnect our call.
Memories of him were hidden in an old, wooden steamer chest stored in the darkest corner of our basement. Last month, in a fit of cleaning and purging, I’d opened the trunk releasing the pungent smell of mold and mildew into the air. My eyes had stung, and a cold chill ran through me. Mold spores had grown and festered in this dark and damp space, their black stains marring the white wedding album, scarring documents, and ruining the keepsakes of our marriage. I’d flipped the pages of the album and searched the eyes of the handsome groom and felt nothing; the bride was a stranger to me. With nothing to hold or preserve, I threw the contents of our life into a dumpster.
But now, I need proof of this man who still holds power over me. I rummage through drawers of the mahogany dresser in what was once my son’s room. There is a secret drawer that has a jewelry box. Its white leather is worn and cracked; the golden scrolls on its borders faded with age. The box is a depository for broken chains and earrings that have lost their match, but there are two white envelopes marked with his name. One contains our divorce papers; the other holds three pages filled with fragmented sentences: faded words written in haste, without punctuation or pause.
My journal, knowing no other word to describe this record, is a reverse chronology of events. I started in October 1988 and told my story in flashbacks, moving through the seasons of hot and cold, closing before the next chapter:
3 days of crazy-making – will not see him or return calls – push/pull – 1 x week –
broke TV – got a migraine and banged his head on radiator – stranded – he left with my
car – arrived at house – smashed telephone, ceiling lights and doors – quit his job –
used switchblade and slashed my clothes – he brought a pit bull home – typing my thesis
he entered kitchen – pulled cord off telephone – smashed kitchen door – broke dishes –
tossed food from refrigerator – smashed glasses – punched side wall of dining room –
temper on rise – punched twelve ceiling tiles in bedroom while I sat on bed – pushed –
threatened – punched and thrown across the room – brought gun with bullets home – I
hid the bullets.
Back then, I had been too frightened to call for help and too ashamed to tell the truth. The words “1 x week” are repeated in June and July, but I no longer remember what it means. Were these the times he stalked me? Did it mean more violence? Could it have been a day of peace? What else have I forgotten to ask of myself?
The faded yellow pages reveal what no restraining order, therapist, police, or pleading from me could stop. I don’t recall writing any of these words. I don’t remember how I repaired the damage to my homes or the damage within myself.
On day two of my search, I pray for strength and clarity of mind but receive neither one of these gifts. I call a friend who is an expert in domestic violence— a national trainer for first responders. We were once neighbors; our sons were best friends. Fragments of my story unfold. I tell her about the man that was my husband, a counselor for abandoned youth, and a convicted felon for aggravated assault.
“I was with him for seven years; he simply wouldn’t let me go.” I pause, reluctant to tell her more. “This is crazy, but I’m obsessed to know if he is still a dangerous man.” Scenes of him breaking into apartments, unfurling rages on restraining orders and threatening all that I loved exploded inside me. My hands tremble, and I wait for her to speak.
“It’s always about risk assessment,” she says. “Women have to assess whether it is safer to stay or to leave.”
Validation seeps into my being and melds with regret that I once hid my story from her. I now share my fears, improbable and crazed, of what would occur should my son meet him.
She asks if my son knows about this man, my past, and the dangers that haunted my life. “No, I protected him.” I pause on the word “protected” and my tenacity, still, to shield those I love from harm. I also learned to shield myself from the judgment of others until my life was a web of truth and lies.
“Do not contact police officers or sheriffs,” she says. “They often misjudge the dangers with domestic abusers.” She cites grim facts about the profile of abusers who don’t mellow out with age. “You’re not crazy. Your emotions are real; this is post-traumatic stress.”
The word “post-traumatic stress” conjures images of wounded warriors returning from war, reliving events they want to forget. This label does not belong to me. Labels that I have disowned now flashback in front of me. We met in our twenties, a summer night blanketed in fog, a dinner arranged by a friend. There was a magnetic force that pulled us together; we seemed to need each other then. I lived in a brownstone in Boston’s Back Bay, a career in healthcare was forming, and my nights were immersed with new studies. Hope surrounded me. He entered my life, seized my promise, and held it in his fist.
My life dissolved into packing bags in an endless series of hide and seek. He always found me. A therapist in Boston terminated our sessions when I needed her most. “I can’t help you,” were the last words she said. I lacked the language to convince her that I believed he would kill me if I didn’t return.
I had girlfriends who helped me pack, but he returned before I could escape. “We can’t be friends if you are with him,” were their parting words. I never had the chance to explain his power over me; I didn’t understand it myself. A psychology journal notes that other women may blame the woman who is a victim of violence to gain perceived control over the possibility of their own potential victimization. I don’t know if this is true, but my own shame and self-blame overpowered me, and it became easier to lie to my friends.
It is day three of my search now, and I investigate resources recommended by my advocate friend. I call a counselor in Nevada, but her response is vague. A second counselor is unable to help; two hotline messages are not returned. Several offices have recorded messages: “Due to the COVID-19 and the safety of our staff, our offices are currently closed. If this is an emergency, please call 911.” Thirty years later, I am not sure if anything has changed for women today.
I break from my obsessive search to find him and read scholarly articles on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in victims of domestic violence. I learn about the correlation between the severity of abuse and the intensity of PTSD, the inadequacy of current treatment options, and the need for more research: “Battered women are likely to be treated just for depression or some psychological disorder. The mismatch of treatment with the disorder might not only be ineffective, it may make matters worse.” Effective treatment remains inconclusive.
A friend calls and says that her daughter will be on a poster for “Finding Our Voices,” a Maine organization with a mission to break the silence of domestic abuse. Her daughter will join other brave women who will use their faces and voices to “shine a light on the problem.” I read their stories and poems and become lost in their prose. I stare at faces that look like mine. I can’t find my voice or my light; instead, I give a donation.
Day four and the month is October: “Domestic Violence Awareness Month,” and Maine advocacy groups cite a 50% increase in helpline calls, text messages, and emails since the outbreak of COVID-19. Advocates expect another record number of requests: regions of the country have reported increases as high as 62% after the first month of stay-at-home orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The UN Chief has described the current situation as a “horrifying global surge in domestic violence.” The Maine Director of The Coalition to End Domestic Violence cites her gratitude to the hospitality industry for offering hotel rooms to shelter those in danger. I am skeptical about this solution. This is a pandemic, hotels are empty, and this solution is self-serving, offering financial relief to the industry. Hotels have numerous public entrances, long hallways, and back stairways that lead to rooms. Hotels once failed me.
I flash to the night when blackness closed in on me, and the emergency room doctor said, “You’re lucky to not need a body cast.” I didn’t feel lucky as he plastered my arm. I pleaded with him to not let me go: “This isn’t a hotel,” he said and signed my discharge orders from Massachusetts General Hospital.
I returned to the apartment that shared my brokenness and called the police, pleading protection, a warrant, or a restraint. “You made your bed, so now lie in it,” was all the policeman said.
It is day five. I divert from my search for him toward a search to understand myself. I research more grim statistics and the long-term impact of abuse. I read an article in The Atlantic by author Rachel Louise Snyder: “The Term ‘Domestic Violence Is a Failure” opines on our language’s failure for words to define domestic violence. “It doesn’t convey the psychological terror of knowing that a snake could be slipped into bed while you’re sleeping or the emotional betrayal of having a loaded gun toyed with as a threat from someone who has complete control over your life. At its worst, domestic violence suggests complicity in one’s victimhood. One chooses one’s partner, after all.”
I had chosen him to fill an emptiness inside me. His stories made me laugh until those stories were exhausted, and then his words were used against me. His family embraced me as one of their own and believed in my power to heal him. I believed in the ability to change another human being. This is a common narrative. We often tell women that they hold emotional power, have an infinite capacity to love, and can be the change agents in their relationships. I believed in my ability to love until he carved it out of me. He chiseled away until I was gone. In the process of abuse, one becomes slowly erased.
Snyder explains how the word domestic conveys “a softer, less brutal violence” and that it relegates “the problem to a women’s issue.” Ironically, she uses the term domestic violence in her subtitle and admits to her resistance in publishing with this name, “Because it is still the best option available. For now, anyway.” I don’t think her explanation is good enough. She missed the opportunity to erase the softer label of domestic, the implication of a partnership in the home. Perhaps, she could have claimed the word terrorism. With terror, there is no time to react; one is paralyzed and powerless by the event. Terrorism is the vocabulary to describe the level of violence that aims to destroy one’s emotional, spiritual and physical being.
I read about gaslighting, a term to define when your emotions, words, and experiences are twisted and used against you. Repeated accusations break you down, causing you to question your own feelings, instincts, and reality. When we were married, we lived on an island, dependent on boats to bring us home. I spent countless nights waiting for him to return, checking ferry schedules against the time. I alternated between the rage that he might be with someone else and fear that an accident had taken his life. Mostly, I ached for this relationship to end.
He returned home many mornings hurling comments of blame, “Who the fuck wants to come home to you!” His lyrics played in my head until it became my truth. I was a young woman who doubted her strengths and walked the tightrope with no safety net beneath her. It all comes back to me. He blamed me for his rages and eroded the strengths inside me. A blanket of regret weighs on me for not understanding this form of psychological abuse.
It is day six now. The free sources on my computer search only offer a partial reveal of his location; one receives a full report for a fee. I pay Whitepages.com and read a document confirming he purchased a home in Idaho; he now lives on a street named like mine. Our streets are named for a tree that some farmers are reluctant to cut down. They believe that these trees are under the protection of fairies and, if the ‘fairy tree’ was killed, the fairy might seek revenge. I resume in search of municipal deeds and find a photo of his property, a modest dwelling in what resembles a trailer park, surrounded by barren land. The rooms are small with windows that offer little light. There is a telephone number under his name. I think about calling from an anonymous phone or distant phone booth, believing that the sound of his voice would offer a clue to the heart. Perhaps, he would sound feeble and sad, a danger to no one. I don’t want to talk with him, I don’t want to see him, I only want to know if he is still a dangerous man.
A new wave of fear washes over me. Could I be traced to my search? Is my name connected to the dangerous one? My reasoning is flawed, but it doesn’t stop me. I contact security officials at Whitepages.com, and we negotiate an “opt-out” clause and erase my name from search engines, removing all traces of me. My actions are irrational, obsessive, and hidden even from those I love now. This hiding crushes my spirit and gives rise to the other-self—the young woman who concealed truths, covered bruises, and repaired damages to her homes. I can’t reconcile the power the past holds over me. Perhaps, there is no resolution to this trauma. It enters without invitation and leaves me to wrestle a reconciliation or an interim period of peace.
My son finally calls to say that he has arrived back home in California. Relief washes over me, and I test, with uncertainty, my next steps. “Hey, I didn’t tell you earlier, but Ely was the last known address of my ex-husband. He’s not a man I would want you to meet.” My voice was casual and cheerful.
“Wow, that’s a wild coincidence.” He says with a laugh.
“But he lives in Idaho now,” I say, reassuring myself as he has no reason to fear the man I kept hidden from his life.
My son has no questions about this man or the life that I once held. He tells me that Ely was cool and how I would like its open spaces. I don’t think this is true.
I return these faded pages to the jewelry box that holds no gems and store my past in a secret compartment locked with a key. He is alive, and I don’t know what anger lies inside him, but the risk is too great. Instead, I write this story by a woman who will not reveal her beautiful name. I erase myself and create a new woman rooted in the Italian language of my youth: Ella Senzanome—she, without a name, to take my place.
The author has written this piece under the pseudonym, Ella Senzanome, to protect her identify. She earned her MFA in Creative Non-Fiction from the Stonecoast Program, University of Southern Maine and an MA in Public Policy and Management, University of Southern Maine. She authored a book on elder advocacy, and has published articles on health care and technology for industry journals. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles the lives of immigrants in a working-class community.