A Bridge

At the end of our story, he lost his mind.

Really. Truly. He lost it. He lost me…. which I am sure he never thought he would. The pieces slowly fall together a decade later in a fucked-up puzzle of abuse in all its forms. Looking at myself in the mirror, who really can never truly understand the depth of this story and its many moving parts?, I inhale and think of this end point, the end of the story and the bridge into the next chapter of what is my story.

There was a bridge in between the end and the beginning and it was Thailand. Seeing him at the airport after going through Thai customs left my eyes wide open. He followed me there to travel with me for a month during my vacation time from my nannying position with the Saudi Arabian royal family. He looked more haggard than before with more lines than I had ever noticed running along his face, but what shocked me the most was the feeling I had well up inside me. Instead of a feeling of joy, I felt a pure sense of disgust. I did not want to see him. I did not want to be with him. I did not want to touch him. I did not want him to touch me. The vacation began with annoyance at the choice I had made to allow him to accompany me, and it would linger throughout the experience, though I was still not strong enough in myself to tell him to fuck off.

I had money at this point, so I was able to afford a nicer place to stay. A hostel that had a yogi vibe, with fresh fruits and smoothies, rooms with private bathrooms and actual toiletries. As soon as we arrived, he wanted my body and I let him have it. The entire process left me feeling dirty, and I cried afterwards. It’s okay ma Pucca, je suis là. But what he did not understand was that I wanted to get away from him. His grasp on me had to end…it had to have an expiry date. I tried to enjoy his energy, his absolute obsession with being a different type of tourist and to push boundaries. Before it seemed colorful and exhilarating, but now it felt rehearsed. Following him, I examined him. Fake. Unbeknownst to me at the time I felt anger, which translated in a newly experienced (to him) attitude of blasé.

After Bangkok, we took a sleeper train to Hua Hin, a gateway seaside town that led to the Andaman Peninsula where we planned to go scuba diving, something I had never done before. The town bustled with beautiful prostitutes on every corner smiling as if on a stage— they were perfect. The night market, brightly lit, dotted with a mélange of Thais and foreigners smelt of fish sauce and the sizzling oil of frying pans. I walked through, with no real eye-opening feeling, no excitement like I used to have when with this person. I felt suffocated. He tried so hard to maintain this persona of a carefree, educated, existentialist thinker. To me, it was now only irritating and pretentious.

I don’t remember the entire journey down to Phuket, but I do remember slowly starting to assert my desires. No, I do not want to stay in a deserted building in an empty room with a creepily lit sink that you can use to piss in. I can afford to stay somewhere nicer so that is where I will stay. He obliged, probably noting the difference in my demeanor with a tinge of worry.  I want to read on the beach. I don’t care if you think that’s boring and touristy and “American” of me.

In Phuket we took a ferry to Koh Phi Phi. I was genuinely excited to see the island that looked so beautiful from all the Lonely Planet cover photos and Leonardo’s film. We arrived on a concrete marina with our backpacks and walked along a small pathway lined with dive shops, little kiosks where we could buy “real Thai souvenirs” from a smiling, gap-toothed con coaxing everyone for an extra baht, a Seven Eleven, and finally after walking across a tiny sliver of land arrived to the great bay, and the picturesque landscape with limestone rock formations lining the periphery. Bob Marley was playing in the background (Don’t worry….about a thing) and we sat at a table to grab a bite to eat. I want to stay here. He agreed to four days. Long enough for me to get my scuba certification.

After the never-ending saga of finding a decently priced place to stay with some form of air conditioning (I probably insisted on this at this point), I was exhausted and went to bed early while he went to find me a suitable dive instructor. When he came back, he announced that he had found someone and I was to be at Scuba Addicts Phi Phi at 8am to start my classes. I wasn’t initially that excited about having to spend my time on this beautiful island in a classroom learning how to dive. My view was tainted by the fact that he was making me do it, but why not. I have the money and it would be a cool certification to have.

The next morning, I throw on a slouchy t-shirt with two birds on each side that I snagged from an Urban Outfitters in London and some cut off shorts and flip flops. My hair was a bit of a mess, not much you can do with bangs in Thai humidity after all. When I arrived at the shop, Stefan was there waiting for me. I wonder if he could gauge my reaction. I was taken aback that this young, shaggy blond-haired, Australian man would be my instructor for the next few days. And not only that, but that the shadow man had actually chosen him specifically. I felt an instant attraction, which honestly hadn’t happened to me in a long, long time…if ever really. He pushed his hair out of his face and greeted me with a smile in his lazily, musical accent. Hm. Maybe I will enjoy this after all.

Class was interesting, but actually getting into the water was what sparked my love for diving. I remember my first experience with all of the gear and going up and down in shallow water. Practicing skills and techniques, I surfaced each time with, what I perceived to be, a massive smile plastered across my face. Stefan told me I was a natural. He’s probably just saying this, but I’ll take it. After completing the theory portion of the Open Water course, we are required to do four open water dives. The shadow man planned to take part on these with me. After the Open Water I was determined to stay longer and complete the Advanced certification—I was hooked.

This course allowed us to plan open water dives at Hin Daeng and Hin Muang, coveted sites for divers that take about a two-hour journey on the boat to access. He got seasick on the journey back, and this was an opportunity for me to interact with other people. Stef and I sat next to each other quietly, our hands barely grazing, but I could feel a little buzz between us.  

The shadow man  loved to play games. Like a child, but also to prove to himself and others that he was intellectually superior than the rest of us. The restaurants in Thailand are mostly, if not all, at least partially open to the exterior given that central AC is not a thing. Sitting near the sidewalk, he pulled out Stratego, and I rolled my eyes. I don’t want to play. He became irritated. Who is this new person who refuses me and doesn’t do anything I ask? Stefan and a group of the other local dive instructors walked by. When they saw us, they invited us to come join them at Slinky’s, a beach bar where the tourists get sloppy with their buckets of alcohol and neon body paint…and where the locals went to dance and scan the crowd for their next one night stand (a nightly tradition that I would find out about later).

After an argument, I decided I was going out and I did not want him to go with me. I was 24 at the time, with beautiful bronzed skin, enhanced by my slouchy, white James Perse t-shirt that I allowed to fall off one of my shoulders, and a triangle bikini top underneath. When I got to Slinky’s I went and grabbed a Chang beer and waited up on the pool table platform by myself. I was always shy and awkward in social situations and had a hard time letting myself go.  I saw Stefan and a group of boys file through the crowd to come over and meet me. He bought me another beer and we all danced until the bar closed down. We then walked around Phi Phi at night, after everything shut down and it was finally quiet, and talked for a couple hours into the morning. I spoke about my time nannying in Saudi Arabia. We eventually said goodnight, and he kissed me. Feeling giddy, I bounced back to the room where I was staying. The shadow man asked if I had enjoyed myself and I said…yes.

Don’t forget that at this point I was still tethered to him, on a long leash. Every day when I was in Saudi Arabia behind grand palace walls, the shadow man would still write to me every day telling me how much he loved me. He kept me safe in his back pocket to reassure himself I was not going anywhere. In case he did not find something better. Every day I felt trapped in that palace with a two-year-old prince. Gasping for air, I would run to my computer every chance I got to see if he wrote me those three little words. I would sleep maybe three hours a night, waking up sobbing after dreaming of broken glass and call whoever would listen to me talk at all hours of the night. Meeting in Thailand was a chance to see him again, which was a blessing in disguise because the rose-colored glasses were, at this moment, removed. Later, I would find out that he had actually followed me that night on Phi Phi. Watching me from dark corners while I shed all of my cares for him and lived gracefully in that moment. It wasn’t until later that I would comprehend his manipulations and obsessions.

My last night on the island was spent, again, immersed in the whimsy bubble of the beach, dancing, fire dancers and desire. Upon returning to the room at 2am with a tinge of regret, the shadow man said he knew that I had slept with him. I lied and said I hadn’t, wrapped my arms around his back and fell asleep. The next morning, I knew he could not wait to get out of there. We grabbed breakfast across from the dive shop and Stefan walked up…we both gave him an awkward hug goodbye and headed for the marina. I sat in a daze on the ferry to Koh Lanta, a quieter island that was much bigger, with less twenty-something divers walking around. I was bored. All I could think about was going back and dancing on the beach and being in the water. Nothing on this particular island stayed with me. In the same blur we moved along to the gulf side of the country making our way to Koh Tao, another island known for its diving culture. Here, I completed my Rescue diving course and got sick in the meantime with a bad head cold. I only had a week left of my vacation before I was supposed to head back to Saudi Arabia. The dread lingered.

One thing that the shadow man was good at was encouraging me to make impulsive decisions. At that moment I had a flush bank account and a perceived accountability to no one. The Saudi family ended up calling me to request that I leave to go to meet them early in New York. I couldn’t stand the thought of going back so I ignored their calls and was relieved when I received the email that I was let go. In that moment I decided to stay. A weight had shifted off of my shoulders in many respects. I was free. I vividly remember that feeling of freedom. Freedom from a job that I hated, where I felt so alone. Freedom from a life path that had been chosen for me instead of by me.

I left for Koh Phi Phi on my own. It took about two days to get back there, but as soon as I had stepped back onto the island, I felt a wave of happiness. I had nowhere to live, just my backpack and a plan to go through my divemaster course. Stefan met me at the marina and helped me find a place to stay and introduced me around. I finally landed on a room with straw walls and a fan overhead. A small Thai lady with a broom told me the place was available for 300 baht per month. I laid down on the bed and tried to digest my decision and the fact that I now lived in Thailand. Stefan took me around and introduced me to the other local dive instructors, which later, must have been hilarious to them. His one-night stand was now a temporary fixture. Our relationship went from a one-night stand to that of an instructor and their student, and eventually developed into a friendship. He was very professional and cared very much that I was trained well. My initial plan was to stay there for three months and then go back to Paris and make a go at living there. A few days in, I realized very quickly the culture of party and seduction on the island. Locals would meet the hordes of beautiful backpackers that would file onto the island for a few days, fuck them and then they’d leave. I could now put myself on that roster, but I promised myself that I would not be a part of that any longer. Friends were made easily with the other male instructors, but the females seemed to stay away. I really focused on my diving. Not a big drinker, I did not tend to go out at night knowing I would need to be up early to get ready to dive the following morning. If I did go out, it would be to dance and maybe grab a slice of pizza.

The shadow man would still write me daily, and I would promptly respond telling him of my daily activities, and he would, in turn, update me on his life. Everything at this point seemed lighter. Maybe we could be friends?  A couple weeks after my arrival, Stefan and I were walking to the corner shop to grab a few beers at the end of the day while we sat at the front of the dive shop and tried to sell courses to the tourists walking by. My crazy German friend is going to be in town tomorrow for a week, you have to meet him. I nodded, not really caring about this friend or why he would think I wanted to meet him. That evening I was sitting in the dive shop behind the desk looking at Facebook on the shop computer. Hillarey, this is David. I will never forget this moment. I looked up and if I could describe the “love at first sight” feeling, which was really just lust at first sight, that everyone speaks of, that would be it. Hi. I said shyly. He looked me straight in the eye and said the same.

From that moment we were inseparable. We were magnetic. Falling head first we were together from the first night until he had to leave a week later. He moved in, he stayed with me. We would be in bed together for hours and days with no other desire than to lie there and stare at each other. In hindsight I realize this was extremely unhealthy behavior, but it felt so good at the time. We said I love you, we stared into each other’s eyes. People around us thought we were insane. Because we were. And that is another story in itself.

My responses to the shadow man became fewer and far between. He noticed; he knew that I had met someone. I was afraid to tell him at first. Afraid to officially cut that chord knowing it would be something I let go of forever. Dropped, forever, into the abyss of my experiences. His messages grew desperate and angry as he tried to manipulate me as he once had. I finally had to be straightforward and tell him that I had fallen for someone else. I did not realize the chain reaction that this would set off in his mind. He wrote me incessantly trying to get me to respond to his claims that no one will ever love you like me or you don’t even know this person, you are mine. He was clawing at the edge, about to fall, and I did not grab him to lift him back out of that abyss. I could not understand his behavior. He broke my heart. He wanted this. I eventually had to block him from sending me emails. After he realized this, I would find emails from him sent from other accounts in my inbox. I had never had the upper hand in this relationship before now. It honestly felt good being able to push him aside in order to make way for something new. And this was the moment where I crossed the bridge and where the next phase of my life started.

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