What Love Is

WRITTEN BY Randa Jarrar

Writer of the books A MAP OF HOME and HIM, ME, MUHAMMAD ALI. Professor. Executive Director of @rawinews. Muslim and Arab AF.


On survival and miracles

he first time he hit me, I thought it was by mistake. As if throwing a woman against a wall was the same as accidentally breaking a glass or scratching a bumper against a steep curb. Besides, I’d grown up seeing my mother beaten, so I thought maybe, just maybe, this was what love was.

The first time he hit me, I thought it was by mistake. As if throwing a woman against a wall was the same as accidentally breaking a glass or scratching a bumper against a steep curb. Besides, I’d grown up seeing my mother beaten, so I thought maybe, just maybe, this was what love was.

The second time he hit me, something felt off. It helped that he did it in public. We were at a clothing store in the Village, and a throaty, tough woman, her Queens accent a bright mockingbird, told me I didn’t have to live that way, that I didn’t have to let him talk to me or touch me like that. I wanted to climb into the pockets of her thick coat.

I could have stayed in the store and refused to go home with him. I could have called someone and asked them to help me, but who? My mother didn’t know I was dating anyone — I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend, anyway, at 17 — and I knew everyone else would advise me to break up with him. But I wasn’t ready. Not yet. I hadn’t had enough.

If I didn’t call him every night to tell him where I was — I was usually just in my dorm room — he would show up without notice and rough me up. There were also things that confused me: bouquets of flowers and nice dinners and candles. Plus, the sex. The sex was good.

The third, fourth, fifth time he hit me, I understood. That he would always find something small I’d done or said and punish me for it. That days later, he would always do or say something big to apologize.

He was my 13th lover. Now, looking back, 13 lovers by the age of 17 seems like an exaggeration. But I was in a race against time, against my father. If I could have sex with as many people as possible, I could remove myself as far away as possible from his grip. Somehow, this delivered me right into someone else’s grip, and their grip was crueler than my father’s. It left bruises. At least my father loved me — or was supposed to.

You’re thinking I left this guy soon after. That it was a foolish, rookie, college girl mistake. But no. I stayed with him. I married him. I had his baby.

He wasn’t my first cruel lover. When I was 14, a boy in my high school sexually assaulted me at his house, and I didn’t know who to tell. A year later, when I decided to lose my virginity, I picked him. It made perfect sense to me at the time. He was not a gentle first lover. Although I gave consent, memories from the first time I had sex always come back to me painfully, the way memories of an assault would.

I recently looked that boy up and found out that he is a Connecticut police officer. When I Googled his name and the words “police officer” while I was writing this, to see whether he was still a police officer, articles came up about how he was recently arrested for assaulting his wife and pulling her, by the hair, around their home.

I now have an adult son. Sometimes he is the only reason I refuse to believe that all men are hair-dragging maniacs.

Even when, and especially when, I look at his face and see some of his father’s features.

I was out with friends when I met O. He was wearing a white T-shirt tucked into some booty jeans. His black hair was slicked to the side. He looked like Johnny Depp if Johnny Depp was brown and a meathead.

O walked straight to me. He asked me questions. He put out a small fire I had accidentally started in my hair, where I had ashed the cherry off my cigarette. He hit me against the head a few times until the fire was out. I found a man who hit me within moments of meeting me. I was good.

He didn’t come to my dorm room that night, but he took my phone number. A few days later, he called and showed up at my dorm with flowers; some nights, he threw pebbles at my window and told me to come down and then took me to dinner. He went down on me like he’d found heaven between my legs. He spoiled me with his tongue and his affection.

He lived in a basement apartment in Yonkers. He drove me there, in his red Camaro, all through that autumn. The basement was a few flights down, with a kitchen area to the left and a bedroom on the right. The bathroom was across the wet part of the basement, in which he’d set up his weights. That part of the basement apartment was the most eerie. The living space was warm and sexy; the other space was dark and filled with metal, with heaviness.

He licked between my legs, and then we had sex for hours. I’d stay the night, my cheek against his chest. When I woke up, I’d have a rash all across my face, because he shaved his chest. He took me to breakfast, always took me to breakfast. He was a mechanic of some kind. He worked hard. He was adopted. He wanted to be smart. He was 25.

I was 17.

I’d lied and told him I was 18. Then, one night, after we smoked weed together and went to a diner, I slid my license across the booth to him. He looked at my date of birth.

“Oh, well,” he said. It did not at all faze him.

I lit a cigarette and waited for my disco fries.

One afternoon, it snowed. He came to pick me up from my dorm. On the way to his basement apartment, the car hit a patch of ice and we circled around once. He righted the car and kept driving. I was terrified and told him so. He was calm, said he’d been driving in snow for years.

When he called my dorm room and I didn’t answer, he was upset. He wanted to know where I was. I’d tell him. Then, when he called and I hadn’t told him where I was, he’d show up to the college. He’d find me wherever I was, kiss me, tell me he was worried. I’d kiss him back.

I went down to the Village with my friends one afternoon and got my nose pierced somewhere off MacDougal Street. The stud I chose was tiny, with a flat turquoise at the tip. I had always loved turquoise. My mother and other mothers used it to ward off the evil eye. Because there was always the possibility of envy, of destruction through another’s jealousy. The needle going through my nostril felt like fire, but the pain was so quick that I admired it.

I remember my ears being pierced, in a marketplace in Kuwait, a kind of bazaar. My mother took me when I was around two. She hadn’t been able to pierce them when I was a newborn, which was customary in her family and her city because we were in Chicago at the time. I remember liking the place. I sat on a chair, and a man I didn’t know punctured me. He held a gun to my earlobe and hurt me. I remember the sound of the piercing, the pain inside and outside my ear. The earrings were gold hearts. I wore them for years.

O liked my nose ring. He had tattoos and enjoyed pain too.During this time, my parents would pick me up every Friday and take me to their house for the weekend. That was the only way they would agree to let me live on campus. They thought college students had nothing but sex from Friday through Sunday. I didn’t understand why they wanted to spend so much time with me. Most people my age had parents who couldn’t wait to get rid of them. My parents seemed to be obsessed with me.My parents were obsessed with me.When I showed up with the nose piercing, my mother said my father would not like it. I ignored her. I was afraid of my father seeing it, but I felt that my nose was mine. At dinner that night, my father said nothing. In the morning, he said nothing. In the afternoon, I asked him if he liked my nose ring. Not for his approval, but because I was so crazy about it. He was shocked. He asked me if the stud was actually pierced through my nose. He said I was disgusting, and that if I didn’t take the stud out, he would take me out of college.I went down to the basement and started my laundry, tried to ignore him. I watched television with my sister. I heard my parents rustling around upstairs, their footsteps going from my bedroom to theirs. They called me up to them.When I went up, my father was lying in bed, holding a picture of O I had photocopied. I had tucked the image into the front pocket of my backpack. He asked me who the man in the picture was. I said it was a picture I’d copied from a magazine. Then he took a bag of weed from his pocket. My bag of weed. I had forgotten it in a flannel shirt I’d taken off in my room. He asked me when I started smoking. I said the weed was my roommate’s and that I’d taken it from her because she was a pothead. Then he took out my birth control pills. He asked me how long I’d been taking them. I said I’d started taking them two months ago to regulate my period. The entire time I spoke, I remained calm. I did not want to be taken out of college. The aid I was receiving wasn’t enough for me to go without my father’s financial support, and he knew that and lorded it over me.

He smirked. He didn’t give back any of my things. I asked for the birth control pills. He gave them to me and then asked me to go to the bathroom and take out my nose stud.I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and, crying, twisted the stud until it came out of my nostril completely. I washed my nose. I washed my face. I kept the stud in a jewelry case for years afterward.A few weeks later, I went back to the same place off MacDougal and got my navel pierced. This was the most painful thing I had ever experienced. A woman in a tank top and a bandanna clamped the skin above my belly button. She brought out a silver needle that resembled a rod. She sterilized my skin, asked if I was ready, then plunged the silver needle through. I had picked out a gunmetal-colored ring with a crescent moon holding the ends together. She threaded that through the top of my navel and locked it into place.The following weekend, my mother saw the navel ring as I was coming up the stairs from the basement. She shouted at me, asked if I was trying to damage my body. It was strange for her to ask this since she had stood by while my father had beaten my body so many times. I said to her, as calmly as I could, “It’s my body.”“No,” she said, screeching. “It’s my body.”A few months earlier, my mother found, in my closet, a pack of weight-loss pills. She’d confronted me about this, calling me a whore for being on birth control. I assured her that I was not having sex (I was) and that the pills were essentially ephedrine. She checked the labeling and asked her pharmacist, and then came back to me, relieved. “You’re right,” she must have said, “these are just weight-loss pills.” And she gave them back to me.I try to imagine that scenario now. If I found weight-loss pills and not birth control pills in my hypothetical daughter’s closet, I would completely lose my shit. I would hug her and ask why she thought her strong body needed to be made smaller. I would be thrilled if I found birth control pills because they would mean she was taking care of her body. This is all assuming I would rifle through a daughter’s closet to begin with.

 

he most vivid diet my mother put me on is one where I ate nothing but pineapple and watermelon and strawberries all day, because of their supposedly enzymatic, scrubbing qualities. At night, I would sometimes get a hamburger patty. I vomited bile, pregnant with nothing but the possibility of my fatness. Over one summer, I had gone from 168 pounds to 140. Men paid attention to me. White men wanted to date me.

But I am still 17, and my mother is telling me that my body is hers. Because ownership of the child’s body belongs to the parent. I’m sure this is how it was with her mother, her father. I cannot find any other way to explain or understand why she said this to me.

nother incident, in Egypt: I announced that I respected my body. My mother fake-agreed, an earthquake of irony in her tone: “Oh, yes,” she said. “You respect your body so much.” Again, this was confusing; a mind fuck. How could a woman who allowed her husband to beat her children, whose husband beat her regularly, who contorted her body through diets, make any judgement on my own feelings about my body? And why wasn’t she proud of me for respecting my body?

got to keep the navel ring. My father never saw it. One night, while having sex with O, it fell out. I waited a few weeks and then had it re-pierced. I called O from a pay phone afterward to tell him where I was. He was angry at me and told me to get on the next train back to Yonkers. As I stood on the sidewalk, the receiver against my ear, I felt as though I were talking to my father.

When O picked me up from the train station, he was apologetic and kind. I didn’t want to have sex that night, so I asked him to take me to my dorm. He wouldn’t. I slept in his basement apartment, and in the very early morning, almost at dawn, he drove me on his motorcycle, my arms tight against his waist. I saw a classmate, D, walking through the college gates, back to her room. She was a stripper in the city; I’d always admired her for that. It was how she supplemented her income and paid for part of college. I never felt that I could be a stripper; could never own my body so fully that I could make a living from it, charge people to look at it, have no shame over doing any of it. I desperately wanted to be a college student again. The weeks leading up to that morning felt like a marriage to O, a marriage to my parents.

I climbed into my own bed and wept.

Things got worse. O demanded that I call him and let him know where I was if I was ever out of my dorm room after nightfall. If he called and I didn’t answer, and if he hadn’t been told where I was, he would show up on campus to find me. One evening, I went out to dinner with my friends and called him from a pay phone at the restaurant to let him know where I was. He screamed at me. A few minutes later, while my friends and I were still waiting for a booth, he showed up, screamed at me in front of the waitresses, diners, and my friends, pulled me by the hair, and took me to his car.

I wanted out. At his basement apartment, I told him I didn’t want to see him anymore. He said he would contact my father and tell him all about what a whore I was. That he had proof—photos of me, items of my clothing. When I cried and begged him not to do that, he pinned me against the wall and told me not to ever go out without asking him again.

It was worse than with my father. O was capable of anything.

He bought me flowers. He took me to dinners. He cried and held me and told me he was sick and that he loved me. He said that he always felt abandoned by his birth mother, whom he’d never met and whose name he didn’t know. He invented histories for her. She was a First Nations woman in Canada. She was a waitress in New Jersey. She was a housewife in Connecticut. He said he would never hurt me again.

At a movie rental store a few days later, he held up a video and asked what I thought, and I nonchalantly said that I’d read how the actor had to bulk up for the role. O squeezed my hand so hard that it later bruised; he walked me out of the store, into his car, and slapped me twice, hard, for talking about another man’s body. If I appeared to be staring at a man on the street, he slapped me. If he saw that my blinds were open at my dorm, he would slam me against the wall and ask me why I wanted other men to see me change.

hen I was 11, 12, 15, I would lock the door to my bedroom and dance, lip-synching, pretending. I didn’t know yet what a drag queen was, but my dream was to lip-synch and perform on small stages. Stadiums seemed too daunting. I dreamed small. I wanted wigs and makeup. I wanted short tutus and hose and to color my hair. I wanted my own body to be my own body. Whenever my brother or mother knocked on the door and told me to open up, I would lie and yell, “I’m changing!”

ut I was changing.

And being with O, I changed again. I became less talkative. At school, I often drifted off during seminars. My friends disliked him, wanted to know why I was still with him. I was afraid of him, and I was afraid of my father. I knew my father would take me out of college if he found out I had a boyfriend, someone I was involved with sexually, and I didn’t know how I would finish college without his financial support. I was essentially trapped between an abusive man and a very abusive man, but I had no concrete way to verbalize this or to even recognize it.

And although we all had email at this time, there were no handy links on domestic violence for my friends to share. No social media to reach out on. No top-10 lists of red flags to watch out for. It was the ’90s, and Snoop Dogg was saying that bitches weren’t shit but hoes and tricks, and I was locked up in my room, dancing along. And hadn’t my mother martyred herself and survived? My father beat her when he liked. She never complained, and, in fact, she always spoke about how much she loved him.

That was what love was.

In February 1996, O and I had unprotected sex, and I became pregnant. I remember cooking him a meal the night this happened. It was either his birthday or Valentine’s Day — they are two days apart — and he came home, saw me at the stove, then peeked his head out the front door to check the address. “Am I at the right place?” he joked.

He held me from behind and covered me in kisses. He was affectionate and kind, and he hadn’t hurt me in weeks. After we ate the pasta I cooked, we got in bed, stayed there for hours. He was tender toward me and came inside me. I never came with O, except once, the first two weeks we were fucking, because I was tied to the foot of his bed and he was eating me out.

I was still working at the diner. O drove me there in the morning, and a few hours later, the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced. I clapped, and my boss, the Greek owner of the diner, made a face. He was filled with sadness. I was siding with Simpson because he was a person of color. Because the Rodney King beatings happened right after I moved to the United States. Because my family told me not to be involved in politics, to squeak by on my light-skinned privilege. And my boss was second generation. He believed that Simpson had murdered his wife. He believed that Simpson had battered her for years. He believed that Simpson should have faced proper justice.

I walked to campus after my shift. The road to the college was green and leafy and windy, and I listened to a cassette on my Walkman. At my dorm room, I changed out of my diner clothes and read my art history assignments, started writing a paper. I know that this day didn’t happen the day right after O got me pregnant, but in my memory it does. I felt nauseated. I stood up from my desk and went to the bathroom, which I shared with M, my suite-mate. I vomited, but all that came out of me was bile. I knew I was pregnant.

Fear: That’s all I felt for a while. On the weekend, out in Connecticut, I stole a pack of pregnancy tests from CVS and peed on all the sticks, and they all came up positive. I called my best friend from high school and asked her to drive me to the hospital because they administered free blood pregnancy tests. A few days later, a nurse called my dorm room and told me I was pregnant.

 

O picked me up that night and noticed the bandage on the inside of my left arm, in the crook of it. He knew right away and became furious. He slapped me and told me I was a liar for getting a test without him. He dragged me out of his apartment by my hair and threw me down on the front lawn. I got up, terrified, and thought of walking back to my dorm room, but he grabbed me by my clothes and brought me back inside.

The next time I went to work, I looked through the Yellow Pages for an abortion clinic and called, made an appointment. But in bed every night — and O insisted that we spend every night together — he told me to keep the baby. He said that every woman he’d gotten pregnant had gotten an abortion behind his back. This didn’t click for me at the time, that he wasn’t supporting their decisions to terminate the pregnancy. It didn’t occur to me, at all, that he had forbidden them from getting abortions. And it didn’t occur to me, then, that he had gotten them, gotten us all, pregnant on purpose.

 
 

eproductive coercion is what people call it. What happened to me has a name. A label. For years, I have felt only shame about my cowardice; about the fact that I didn’t really want my baby, not until he was born.

I gave birth via C-section at Greenwich Hospital. The anesthesiologist gave me an epidural, not a spinal tap, and I ended up feeling a lot more pain than I should have. I have written my experience of childbirth as fiction over and over. Last year, I read Toi Derricotte’s memoir-poem of childbirth in the West Texas desert. At the end of it, her son reads the book and says he didn’t know she suffered so much. My spine warms and radiates at the point where that needle went in, almost 20 years ago, every time I experience a sense of assault, or deep fear, or physical vulnerability.

son nursed quickly in the small room off to the side of the OR, where my body convulsed with pain. I felt comforted by his nursing, but I was still weeping and terrified of the pain I was experiencing. He was covered in goo when he was born, and dark—as dark as my grandfather. He had black hair and a beautiful nose. His feet were crunched, and I was worried about his toes. I wept and shook from fear and nursed my new baby. I asked that he be kept near me in the room I would eventually stay in. O either did or didn’t spend the night. He went out to celebrate, and I didn’t see him again until morning. On the third day, I wheeled to the shower and washed myself. My hair was long and knotted and felt impossible to unknot. I stopped trying. My body was still heavy and puffed as if it were still carrying my baby. Every few hours, a nurse came in to wipe down my bleeding vagina and give me a new thick pad to lie in. I had a catheter and could slightly feel it on my urethra. I nursed my son and did not want to leave the hospital, ever.

 

hen we left, it was snowing, and I was terrified of caring for my son under O’s abuse. I hoped he would not continue to hurt me now that I had given birth to his child. I hoped that he would help me, as the doctor and nurses reminded us both that I was not supposed to walk long distances or carry anything heavy for 30 days. I hoped that things would be different, and they were. The sky was filthy dishwater, and we had to stop at CVS because O hadn’t prepared the house at all; we had no diapers, no baby wipes, no Desitin, nothing a baby would need. When we got to the apartment, O behaved as though the baby seat, as well as the baby, was a constant obstruction. I didn’t own any maternity bras. I nursed, and afterward, I wadded up some tissue to absorb the leaks from my nipples. I changed the baby and burped the baby and held the baby and loved the baby. O picked up the baby once and said he stank. I wanted to ask him to give the baby a bath but was afraid. We bathed him together. I felt as though I were hallucinating the baby and the bath and O. I was on Percocet, and it was the only thing keeping me alive. O would go out every night, and a week after I gave birth, I went to the grocery store. I took the baby with me. I carried him and the groceries back into the apartment with me, as though there was no possibility of my abdomen coming open like a broken zipper on a skirt. I cooked dinners and ate what I could. I was always hungry and nursing. A month later, O took me out. We went to the Met in Manhattan with another couple. I looked at the ancient Egyptian statuettes and longed to feel mighty.

 

few weeks later, that couple found out they were pregnant, and the woman, only a year older than me, had an abortion. I was struck with the sense of envy I felt. That it was so easy for her. That no one had threatened to kill her if she had an abortion. My son was six weeks old, and his father was almost never home. I went back to school, filling my bra with toilet paper between classes while O’s mother and father watched the baby. Sometimes I took my son with me to class. O’s father drove me to and from campus, a distance I could have walked, but it was winter, and O’s father was kind.

Four months. I raised my son with O in the apartment for four months. O would shout when my son woke up to nurse, saying to keep him quiet. I did everything. O would go out and drink and come home and sleep for four hours and then go to work. This became the routine, every day. I didn’t have access to a car. It was winter, and Yonkers was cold and dreary and wet.

My friend J would drive over from college and help me with the baby. She was there one day when O was home. O started a fight with me. I don’t remember what it was about, only that he wanted to antagonize me. I was holding the baby. J asked if she could hold the baby. I handed him to her—he was warm and small—and O slapped me, then pushed me against a wall and into a closed door. I tried to fight back, but he kept hitting me. J took care of my baby and didn’t get involved. I managed to get to the phone in the kitchen and called 911. O grabbed the phone from my hand and told the operator that I was stupid and hung up. Police showed up a few minutes later. They asked O to give me his keys and leave, but they didn’t arrest him. He left with them, his key on the kitchen table. I lay next to my son and slept the deepest sleep I’d slept in a year. At dawn, O came back in with a second key he’d kept and mocked me for thinking I could keep him out of his own apartment.

In early spring, I went for a walk and noticed, a few blocks away, O’s car in a random driveway. A few days later, he told me he had found someone else and was leaving me.

 

moved into my parents’ basement. He would try to harm me, to harm us, over the next few years, but we moved farther and farther away from him after that first move underground. It was over. I was free. I was safe. It was over.

Now, years later, my son is 21, my body much larger than it was when I gave birth to him, and I sometimes receive ineffable messages from my spine, from the part where the needle went in. My body remembers the needle. It remembers the months I spent carrying my child. It remembers my son’s father kicking it. It remembers my own father’s eyes on it, watching it move farther and farther away. It does not remember my mother’s hand caressing it. At this time, I am unsure whether or not she caressed it. Perhaps I am mothering myself as I write by imagining my mother caressing this part of my spine.

This is the part of my spine that was meant to go numb. This small section of my spine that was sunk with a syringe and meant to fall asleep. Instead, it woke up and is an insomniac. Its eye is wide and glassy, cracked, and aches in a broken and burning exposure. My son was pulled from my uterus after the doctor cut a slit at the bottom of my abdomen, stretched my skin, took out some of my organs, arranged them on a metal tray nearby, cut open the sac where my son was growing, and pulled him out of me. I felt the pressure of the pull, my body not wanting to let go. I do not feel that pull now, or the pain at the bottom of my abdomen. The scar, from the cut and the stitching, is still numb. This is why my body believes I gave birth to my son through my spine. And it is also why I now believe that my body is all mine.

Illustration: Michelle Mildenberg.
Creative art direction: Anagraph.

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