I met Mario out dancing at a nightclub in Pleasure Island, Downtown Disney, on the last night of a vacation with my cousin, Cathy. He told me his name, but it got lost in the reggaeton, and I didn’t hear it again until a couple of hours later when we exchanged phone numbers. Since then, I’ve only ever said it out loud seven times.
Cathy and I had met some Brazilian boys the night before, and we wanted to find them again. We didn’t, but I found Mario out with two of his friends.
At some point, Cathy ditched me, and I sat with Mario by the fire in the lobby of my hotel. Maybe I sat on his lap, and maybe we kissed, not because of attraction, but because of the expectation to kiss a boy whose lap you were maybe sitting on by a fire late one night after dancing together.
In my mind, a whisper slowed down long enough to be heard, and I said it out loud. “We’ll be friends,” the words were immediately received and believed. “We’ll see each other again.”
That was all I knew.
I wonder now which angel shouted it down from the other side to tap an anchor root deep down like a truth to cling to during storms.
That was October of 2005.
In January, he came to upstate New York to meet my family.
My ex-boyfriend's 25th birthday was in March.
I turned 24 in April and moved to Florida to live with Mario in his new move-in ready house in central Florida. At the time, I was working at a zoo in New York. My boss was friends with the director of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The two of them negotiated an interview for me, and I got the job. I packed my blue Saturn Ion full of clothes, knickknacks, and my guinea pig, G. Standing in the kitchen at my parent’s house, I clocked in for goodbye hugs and a picture of the three of us that's still on my keychain.
“I’ll only ask you once,” my dad said. “Please don’t go. Your mom will really miss you.” But I went, and she did. She equipped me with a Feng Shui book to balance the life forces inside my new house. “Fly away, birdy,” she said. “Time to build your own nest.”
A thousand miles later, we arrived and went straight to Domino’s Pizza so Mario could finish some managerial tasks. I ate four slices of sausage and mushroom pizza, threw them up in the restroom, and didn’t say anything about it. Not to him, not to anyone. The serpentine demand to purge or be purged came without warning. It had never happened before, the throwing up in a restroom. I didn’t know what to say about it. I didn’t know what was happening.
We got engaged in May. When we called them, my parents cried. Mario didn’t ask my dad’s anything, and my mom was still googling his name to connect him to imaginary South American crimes.
It wasn’t the snowball everyone thought it was, rolling blindly, squishing up red flags.
It was the chance to be someone else, and I took it.
When he proposed, I heard the whispers tapped down by the angels again. “He loves you, and he’ll be a great dad.” It felt true. It felt like the only two things I wanted. And for something to feel, at all, was like magic.
It felt like life. Real life. Or like I had at least been dropped at the doorstep of life or where life had recently been spotted and now, I could go look for it myself.
After knowing each other for 230 days, we were married by a judge in Florida on a June day that I forgot. His parents witnessed. I didn’t tell mine. I only told Cathy.
The next year, we had a proper wedding and were married by a priest in New York on a July day in front of everyone we knew and loved. My ex-boyfriend, Kyle was there, too. In spirit. In spritz. When I was 14, Kyle gave me my favorite perfume, the same one I spritzed onto my skin for my wedding day. I walked the shadow of him right down the aisle and into my marriage.
I didn’t mean to.
I didn’t know, yet.
Mario worked long hours at the pizza shop while I acclimated my feet to the lay of the land of freedom. I let G run wild in the backyard while I sat in the sun and read. While I did laundry. While I cleaned and cooked. While I forgot he was there.
G went missing for two days.
On hands and knees in the yard looking for evidence, the neighbor saw and called to me, “Hey! Are you looking for Wiggy?”
“I’m looking for my guinea pig,” I said.
He scooted inside the sliding glass door and scooped up G from a cozy spot.
“I’ve been calling him Wiggy,” he said. “I’m Blake. This guy wandered over the other day, and I was waiting for the owner to come around.”
“I’m Nicky,” I said, “and this is G.”
Blake had a girlfriend and an invite to their barbeque later that night. We went. The girlfriend was nice. Chatty. A graduate student in her first semester, fresh from a Take Back the Night event. Her mouth was ablaze with words I had heard before but never strung together. Words that I knew.
Consent, sex without.
She wouldn’t shut up about it.
The words just kept coming out of her, kindling an inchoate flame, undamming my tear ducts. My face poured, and she would not stop.
Kyle did that to me.
Dots connected. Dots with a lot of space between them. Big dots.
Time stopped between Blake’s girlfriend’s words. I could see that the past had happened and that it was done but that there was more. Like a track had wound beneath me, unnoticed, like the rubber band in your toy car that you wind back and let loose. Loosed, but frozen. Still, but moving forward. Paused on the top of a Ferris wheel, looking down at the newcomers getting on, too far to shout down and warn them what things looked like from up here.
When I think of it now, the trauma is like an echo that’s been thrown out into a deep chasm, bouncing off of its own nothingness, sounding and resounding a little softer each time. There is no more attachment to it, now, no more substance, just an empty memory that I can watch fade away as if it belongs to someone else.
When I think of it now, the language has changed. Coercive control. Emotional blackmail. Gaslighting, manipulation, generational trauma. But back then, in the absence of words, it just looked like I had been living inside of a black trash bag. The thick kind you can fill with glass and nails and not worry about it. The kind you can live smothered and blind inside and still survive for a time.
Now, I see that the safety of Mario and our marriage poked a small hole through that black trash bag and let a ray of light sneak in. That tiny hole, just big enough for a fingertip to dig, rip, and thrash through. Nothing had ever been brighter, and I ran full speed out of that trash bag toward the minute light, barely noticing I was inside another trash bag, a transparent one this time. At least I could see through and know there was light outside. At least I could see.
Blake’s girlfriend cried, too.
“I’m sorry,” she said, holding onto my shoulders with hands like clamps. “I just felt like you needed to hear that.”
Thank you, Blake’s girlfriend, wherever you are.
For the rest of that year, I walked in the Florida sun while my mind unraveled history and tried to forgive everyone on the periphery for what happened. Forgiveness. I knew I needed it like I knew I had married a good man who loved me a lot and would be a good dad. And it happened there, inside my thoughts, like a slow awakening. A long thaw of forgiveness.
I felt foreign, uncovering a language in me that came out garbled when I tried to speak it, a heavy tongue that was hard to retrain.
Kyle did that to me.
I let him.
Everyone let him.
The dads were first. They were easy to forgive because they weren’t there.
The moms were harder. I knew that they didn’t know anything, but I felt that they should’ve known better. When I left New York, I never spoke to Kyle’s mom again until she died a few years later and came to me in a dream.
I didn’t know how to talk to my mom about it. Not then, not now. There wasn’t a channel to fall into, no current to bring me to her even though I felt pulled.
It replayed in my mind. His driveway. The gravel. Being dropped at the wolf’s doorstep. Armed with trust and double-crossed by the inability to speak of it for fear it would remove him from my life. It had gone on for so long that he was all I had. That is how it happens. It shouldn’t have, but it did. The definition of a crime.
My parents flew down to spend that first Christmas with Mario and me during the coldest winter on record in Florida. If you ask her now, my mom will tell you that was her favorite Christmas because of how pretty the house was and that she didn’t have to decorate or cook.
I cried to my parents about getting married, even though I was already.
“I don’t want to get married,” I said.
“Then don’t,” said my dad. “We’ll drive straight home right now if you want.”
I was already married. I couldn’t see Mario as a stepping stone into another life. This was the better life.
We kept going.
The actual wedding was fun. I planned none of it and walked into the party wearing a $500 wedding dress that arrived in a large envelope. Dressed as the Bride, there I went. Danced the Pulp Fiction twist with my father and took our best photo. We had planned no honeymoon other than to rent a Mustang and drive to the Keys, so my family gifted us with a hotel suite.
We had it made, and we made it look good.
He worked a lot.
I walked a lot. Stopped and sat a lot. Thought and processed a lot. Rehashed, cried, and purged.
I let him.
Everyone let him.
No one knew.
Nothing looked the same. All the lines I had drawn around that decade with Kyle blew away like chalk dust, a divine gust erasing a life unlived.
I kept it all to myself, all for me. The leaps and bounds of understanding were so great, so wide sweeping, that I could barely keep up let alone catch Mario or anyone else up to speed. I tried. I did. I opened my mouth when words wanted to come out, and I gave them my breath.
One night, he came home early. He was happy to see me. I was in tears.
“How was your day?” he asked, picking me up off the floor.
“I was abused by my boyfriend until I met you,” I said it, out loud.
He knelt and hugged me.
“I don’t know what to do about it,” I said that, too.
We squeezed each other tightly.
“I feel trapped,” I said, the words dripping, slow and sure.
“I feel like you’re keeping me safe inside a glass jar,” I said things like that when they came to be said, things I didn’t know I could say.
We wiped our eyes.
Not knowing what to do, we didn’t.
We just kept going.
He worked harder for a life rooted in the sand while I woke quietly inside a decaying bark.
It happened deciduously.
Whether the leaves changed colors from the outside in, as they appeared, or from the inside out, as the roots might tell it, pieces of the tree fell off at a certain stage of existence. Everyone saw it happen. No one knew what to say. I stayed there, a silent character, watching. I threw my own anchor up into the light that I knew was there, and it held me, suspended above reality, and filled me through that transparent trash bag until an unknown quota was met.