Zany British Vagabonds and How I Came Under Gang Protection

Things went rapidly downhill after my first breakup with my abuser. With him out of our apartment, it was nearly impossible to afford the bills. It made it even more difficult when the restaurant I served in went out of business after three whole days’ notice to the employees (they had wanted to avoid people quitting early and decided screwing us over was the best way to do so). I found another job just before my car ran out of the last gas I could afford, but it was only for two days a week.

I had once made a friend in that place, but she had moved without any goodbye but a book on my doorstep with a scrap of a quote lodged in the middle of the pages. She had been the one to convince me that my abuser was just that–my abuser. Not my boyfriend. Not my lover. Nothing but a jailer who so enjoyed disciplining his prisoner that he would make up offenses. Her name was Maggie, and I still miss her.

I met Maggie one icy day in the little parking lot in the back of our four-flat house. I had been going to my car to leave for work when I noticed the woman my ex had disdainfully referred to as a “crackwhore” getting into her car right next to it. I decided to wait on her to back out first, as the parking lot on that day would have made a serviceable skating rink. The neighborhood we lived in could have been kindly referred to as “a ghetto”, and our landlord could have been kindly referred to as “a slumlord”. If it gives any indication of how lovely my city is, he was the head of the Landlord’s Association.

The woman started her car and tried to reverse. It slid roughly two inches to the right, then lazily began to swing back left. She laid off the gas, shifted it forward, and spun her tires. No rocking it. I half-slid across the ice toward her driver’s side. She rolled down the window.

“Do you need some help?” I asked, more in the interest of getting us both out of the parking lot quicker.

She asked me if I drove stick shift, and I was struck by her voice. She had a very light, lovely British accent. So much for my dick boyfriend’s “crackwhore” theory, I thought, probably a bit stereotypically. I told her I didn’t, but I could see if my boyfriend would be willing to try. To my surprise, he agreed.

We stood on the sidelines, watching him work the car out of the stall. Suddenly, she pulled her fists theatrically to her chest, jumped up and down a couple times, and shouted, “Come on, Petunia!”

I turned to her, startled. “You named your car too?”

She gave me a sunny smile. “Of course! She’s been with me through so much, she deserves a name.”

We started to chat then, and by the time her car was finally pointed toward the street, we had become fast friends. I agreed to come up to her apartment for tea sometime (yes, tea. My inner Bohemian was flipping shit).

When my abuser was out for the day, I went up to Maggie’s and knocked on the door. She opened it, and I nearly went into fits. It was my dream space. Dimly lit with the roof sloping to the far window, scarves draped about…and books. Every wall was books. There was even another shelf set up in a half-wall in the middle of the living space with a big, fluffy spotted cat giving me a sleepy blink. The decor was like a Victorian parlor, and there was the soul-deep silence of a place of meditation.

I learned that Maggie had a Master’s of Fine Arts, but she’d been homeless off and on countless times. She had lived in London until she was 17, then moved to the US. Her mother was violently abusive, and she’d had a rough time gaining her feet. She’d spent decades bouncing around the states, basically doing long-distance couch hopping and setting up on her own when she could. At the time I met her, she worked at a Dollar Store. She’d been held up at knifepoint there once, and she told me she had thanked the man and told him to have a nice day out of complete habit. According to her, the house across the street was a Satan’s Disciples hangout, and they’d threatened her recently with a pit bull that was nearly my size.

I ate up her stories, wondering why she hadn’t written them all down herself. Maggie had had a sad but fascinating life. She was odd in the best way, and I liked her immediately. I started coming around more often, and sometimes I would have stories for her as well. None of them were good. Her face would darken any time I told her I had to ask permission to visit her, even if my boyfriend wasn’t home. I didn’t tell her he thought she was a weirdo and had ordered me to stop seeing her at all. I had fought against it, and that was one of the times a battle hit a stalemate.

Finally, I started getting more comfortable with her and telling her other things. The time he’d shaken me and thrown me. The time he’d somehow tracked me down at a friend’s house in a confusing neighborhood. The time I’d noticed his car in the parking lot when I was leaving a friend’s apartment, even though I hadn’t told him where I would be. All the times he’d looked through my phone, MySpace, emails. She told me that was control and his constant cheating accusations even when I turned out “clean” after every investigation, were emotional abuse. She told me it was time I considered getting away from him.

Concerned that he didn’t know he was abusing me, I went to him with what she had said. It’s an obvious mistake looking back, but I really didn’t know any better at the time. He said he loved me. If that was true, he’d at least consider the information.

Obviously, that led to a bad fight. Maggie told me she could hear the yelling and the slamming doors from upstairs. I continued to see her when he wasn’t home, but he had told me that to do so was to prove I didn’t love him. It didn’t make sense to me. She was just concerned. She didn’t really know what went on, so she couldn’t know any better. It wasn’t her fault. She was nice, and I loved talking to her among her books in the lovely, peaceful apartment.

The day I told my abuser we were through, I spotted a moving truck in front of the house when I got back from work. Maggie had told me she was getting kicked out, but I hadn’t realized it would be so soon. I rushed to get my things inside so I could say goodbye and get an address or anything else, but he was waiting for me. He wanted to talk about things some more. I figured I owed it to him, but I told him to keep it short so I could see Maggie before she left. That got him angry, and it was several hours later before I could get away.

I walked out the door and stumbled over something on the doorstep. It was a book, and I’d kicked it over on its face. I picked it up, the cellophane denoting it was once a library copy crinkling under my fingers. It was a copy of Saturday by Ian McEwan. I knew then that she was gone, but I went up to knock on her door anyway. I stayed there for ten or fifteen minutes, but it became obvious she wasn’t in. I watched for days for Petunia to pull up, hoping she had maybe forgotten something and I could catch her, but she never came back.

I had wanted so badly to tell her I’d gotten away. I wasn’t on good terms with my mother at the time. She was getting married soon to a man she’d been seeing for six months, and she was busy often. More, she was endlessly disappointed in me. I wanted approval and validation from someone I respected and trusted, but more than that, I wanted to hug Maggie, the woman who had been so sweet to me, and break down crying and have her tell me I’d made the right decision.

It was hard staying away from him. He was convincing that I had been led astray, and he loved me and wanted only me, but I kept him at arm’s length until he proved he wasn’t interested in changing his behavior. We were out at an air show, and my best friend and her boyfriend met us there by surprise. Her boyfriend, now her husband, is a bold personality. He greeted me by jumping into my lap and giving me a big hug and a wet smack on the cheek. I saw my ex’s face tighten, and I knew there was a fight brewing.

I told him to retrieve his things and not to contact me anymore afterward. He had a “friend” accompany him to help him move–a leggy, pretty blonde I had worked with at my first serving job. At one point, she knocked over a lamp and giggled a sarcastic “sorry” as I stooped to pick up the shards of bulb, and I heard him chuckling as well. They left, and I curled into myself and cried again. It wasn’t the girl so much–I had started seeing someone else anyway–as the condescending attitude from both of them. It was clear I was nothing in their eyes, and it grated at me.

The guy I was seeing was short-lived, but I can thank him for giving me something to take my mind off of everything. I had met him in a weird way that involved experimenting with drugs as well. You’d think I’d have learned.

One of the nights towards the end of things with my ex, we had a nasty fight. He left to see some friends. I took the opportunity alone to hack up my forearms and burn myself with a cigarette. My best friend called me, and I must have said some pretty scary shit because she immediately came to pick me up. She was going with her boyfriend to a party. They were going to do X at the party. I decided, in light of the circumstances, that that sounded pretty damn swell. She helped me bandage my arms and look relatively less like a steaming puddle of misery, and we were on our way.

I knew a couple people from the group, but some were new. One was a guy closer to my height with lovely eyes, shaggy blonde hair, and lots of weed. Later, when I was sufficiently euphoric and quite convinced that one of the girls’ observations that her shirt should read “Drug is the Love” instead of the other way around was the most profound thing I’d ever heard, the pretty guy performed a glowstick dance for me. I couldn’t take my eyes off the display, but I kept going back to his face. He was just so…pretty. We ended up sharing cigarettes and talking with the lifted enthusiasm of the designer drug cycling through our blood. As the party wound down, we threw on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which I tried and failed to focus on. Happy to see my attention on someone other than the boyfriend she hated, my best friend had him take me home. We exchanged numbers and an awkward hug, and then I sat down and chain-smoked a pack of Newport 100s end-to-end and waited for my boyfriend to come home so we could finish our fight.

After the breakup, I got a hold of the pretty guy again and set up a date. We saw each other until he got sick of me being broke and left me for his best friend’s girlfriend.

Somewhere in between, I came home to a small group of children on my porch. I stopped, my way inside blocked. They looked at me. I looked at them.

“…hi?” I ventured.

“Do you live here?” One of them, a thicker girl with spiralled braids sprouting every which way asked.

“Yeah.”

“Oh good,” she said, and another girl, this one smaller with lighter skin, chimed in, “We were afraid to come over here.”

“Why?”

The third, a boy who looked to be about six and the youngest of the group, said solemnly, “The last man who lived there shot himself.”

My mind trailed to the strange orange stains on the wall that I’d remarked to my ex looked like painted-over bloodstains. He’d said I was being ridiculous. Maybe not so ridiculous, apparently. “Oh. Cool. That’s terrifying. Excuse me, I need to get inside.”

“Can we come in too?” The smaller girl asked as they got up to let me through.

“Uh…sure?” I wondered if their parents would like that very much, then remembered I lived in a neighborhood where a good half of the houses were boarded up and figured they wouldn’t be too concerned about a skinny little white girl.

The kids rushed inside, ‘ooo’ing over my gecko and ‘ahh’ing over the Honduran milksnake I’d bought off of a friend a year before. They asked if he bit. I told them that the snake, Vonnegut, had only ever bitten me once: he was hungry, my hair was in a bun, I was letting him roam around me while on the phone, and he decided my hair looked enough like a mouse to take a nibble. He had gotten his jaw completely over it before I’d realized what the tugging sensation was and pulled him off. The kids laughed and asked to hold him.

From that day until the day I moved out, I would hear frantic little knocks at my door and three excited, overlapping voices asking to see the snake. It happened so often that my best friend began emulating the greeting. One day, I responded to the knocking to find a cat carrier with a kitten on my doorstep and no one else. The lighter skinned girl came over later and shyly asked how Precious was doing. She said she was afraid her pit bull would eat the cat and asked if I could keep her but still let her see her. There was a no pet policy in my apartment, but I figured I could stash a cat. I agreed, and the kitten stayed. I was happy for the company, though I renamed her Cricket for her penchant for chasing down my lizard’s food when they escaped.

I later realized that Cricket’s owner was from the house across the street with the massive pit bull that had been used to threaten Maggie. The Satan’s Disciples house. The woman found out I occasionally watched her kids and repaid me by scaring off a carjacker with the pit bull. “We’ve gotta look out for each other out here,” she told me.

That was the story of how I came under gang protection. It was a strange experience in a long line of strange experiences, and though it’s a running joke now, it probably saved my ass more than once. I had one night in which I drank myself into oblivion and decided to take a walk around the neighborhood and seek my fate, which I was hoping would be a bullet but more likely would’ve ended up far worse. I still wonder if I made it back home in one piece two hours later because I looked completely crazy or I had someone watching my back.

I finally went under financially and had to leave. My refrigerator hadn’t worked for two weeks anyway, and calls to my landlord went unanswered. He had stopped by when I was late a day on rent threatening eviction, and the words “fucking slumlord” left my mouth more than once, so you could say we weren’t happy with each other. Still, leaving me indefinitely with a broken refrigerator seemed excessive.

I moved in with a girl I’d met through my best friend one night after coming home to cops turning the street into an epileptic’s nightmare. The neighbors informed me there was a shooting directly out front, and my friend informed me she was on her way with her van and I would not be staying there another night. I hoped my problems were over, but I wasn’t optimistic. I’d lost yet another job thanks to an impressive run of sleep-disabling alarms, and I was tired to the core of fucked up things happening in my life.

I wouldn’t go back now and tell myself I had barely scratched the surface of “fucked up”, because that would just be heartless. Besides, I was about to display some “fucked up” of my own for awhile.

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