Content Warning: discussion of mental health, emotional health, suicide and sexual abuse
I am in fourth grade. I still believe in prayer. I still believe in magic. I read a magazine that says girls should write a list of the things they wish for in a boyfriend. I make my list. I believe it is magic. I pray.
I graduate fourth grade. I have been at the school for four years. It is the longest I have stayed in one place all my life. For the rest of my life, I will never stay anywhere longer than three years. Not until I move to Taiwan.
I get married. I'm too young. I get married because he wants to get married. If I say no, are we not allowed to be in love anymore? I know I'm not ready, but I love him. I want to give him what he wants. We've been together two years, and we've always said we would get married someday eventually. This is what people in love do, right?
I get divorced.
A man I've never met moves to Korea. His name is Matt. He lands in a work culture that almost forces you to become an alcoholic. He becomes an alcoholic. He is still a good man, and smart. After nine months, he leaves. I know nothing about this at this time.
I finally graduate university with a bachelor's degree. It's been a rocky life, never staying in one place, and I still haven't gotten over that marriage. It feels like I've finally won something. I stayed at that university for three years, and that's the longest I've stayed anywhere. Maybe I'm a grownup now.
I go to Taiwan, to a city in the south called Pingtung. I don't have any experience with East Asian cultures. My only knowledge of them is limited to the white boys in school who never fit in, and talked about Japan and China as the perfect place for them to go, be nerdy, and find girlfriends. I hate that kind of talk, so it made me uninterested in East Asia. But my friend told me about a scholarship program to study in Taiwan, and I applied. I got the scholarship. I have no reason not to go. I've traveled ten countries by now, but they've all been in Europe or North/Central America. Why not? I fall accidentally in love with the country. I want to stay. But I'm now in a long term relationship again. It's rocky but I believe it's worth fighting for. We've been together two years, and I believe we could go the distance if we work on it. I go back to the US, and move into his house in Tucson.
Only one of us is working on the relationship, and it isn't my partner. On mother's day, always a difficult day for me, I am heartbroken after another failed attempt to work on things. I am wandering the streets at dark, deciding which car to throw myself in front of. The fact that I have my dog with me stops me. I go home. Home? To his house with my things inside where I no longer feel safe. I put my poetry books and my dog in the car and drive two days from Tucson to my father's house in Arkansas without calling him in advance. I wouldn't want him to worry. I pull up in his driveway at midnight and ask, "Can I stay here for a while?" For two weeks I eat soup or nothing. I lose twenty pounds in those two weeks. I lose a lot, actually. My partner is still trying to get me to kill myself from afar. It's really hard not to give in.
The man I haven't met, the man called Matt, moves to a town in southern Taiwan. The town is called Pingtung. He starts working. The drinking culture there isn't nearly as bad as Korea, but it's still there. He quickly becomes a darling of the scene. He is still able to hold down his job, and his students and their parents love him. I still know nothing about him.
I go back to Tucson. My partner is not in the house. He is currently on deployment somewhere beautiful, like Portugal or southern Italy. How he must be suffering, I feel, as I sort through the belongings he threw into a giant mess. I try to sell them but he's still harassing me. He wants me out faster than I can possibly manage to pack up my life. I have to abandon most of it. But in the packing, I go through my journals. They go back more than thirteen years. I find a pattern in my relationships. The two four-year relationships as well as other flings of different lengths. Any time I date a man, he is inattentive to my needs, he doesn't value me. I have to hide parts of myself. He thinks my interests are silly. Most notably, not a one of them can hold their liquor. I am grateful for this opportunity to see so clearly, so objectively, cycles in my life. I feel certain that vision this clear is rare. I promise myself not to forget. I swear on my own heart that this will not happen again.
Talk about kicking someone while they're down, or rubbing salt in a wound. While I'm nursing my emotional health, I go on a date with someone I shouldn't have trusted. He rapes me. When I tell my ex-partner, he simply says "I hope you went to the police." It's perfect.
It is my thirty-first birthday. My father drives me to the airport. I have two full suitcases and two big carry-ons. The woman at the ticket counter jokes, "Wow, are you moving?" Yes ma'am, I reply, I'm moving to Taiwan for two years. I'm going back to Pingtung.
It is Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. I have learned that a man on an internet forum I frequent is also an American living in southern Taiwan, in my city of Pingtung. I invite him to Thanksgiving dinner. He declines. I later learn that he didn't want to meet a girl from the internet. She would probably turn out to be weird.
About a year later, I finally get this man to hang out with me. His name is Matt. He is funny. He is a truly caring friend. He remembers things I forget that I've even told him. He pays attention. I hang out with him more and more. He's positively dreamy, but it's so rare to have a friend here. It's easy to have acquaintances, but rare to find someone with whom you share a first language and cultural experience. Then once you find that, do you even get along? We get along. He's perfectly sweet. I hope he finds a good girlfriend. He deserves one.
I've always had community in the US. No, communities. Many different groups of friends, some overlapping, that I can interact with as often as I like. Most of my friends are cuddlers. We have slumber parties. I miss human contact. I convince Matt to become a cuddling friend. But it turns out, we've both always been interested in trying something more than just friendship with one another. Physical closeness leads to more physical closeness. Before I know it, we're being physically close pretty often. But my heart is still broken. I'm not looking for love. I know he is, and I don't want to get in the way of that for him. I don't want to change him, either, but he spontaneously stops smoking cigarettes. I tell him I love him, but I'm not in love with him. He tells me in all things, I'm the boss. He'll never push me. I believe him. I trust him.
I want to share my favorite magical place with this special friend of mine. I convince him to spend a weekend on a nearby mountain with me. It's an aboriginal area, and the woman who I call doesn't have any vacancies in her room. But she hears my accent on the phone and asks if I'm foreign. When I tell her I am, she offers her ancestral home for me and my "boyfriend" (her word not mine) to stay in. When we go there, it's amazing. Slate house, porch on the roof, all windows open and we sleep next to one on a slab, listening to running water and chirping frogs. The name of the mountain is WuTai, meaning fog platform. We sit on the roof porch and watch the sun set and the fog platform roll in beneath us. We sleep above the clouds. We make love on our slab next to the open window while the frogs and falling water sing to us. Damn, I think. I'm in love with this bastard. I'm done for. There's no going back.
Matt and a friend go out drinking. Matt, as he often does, has far too much. He gets blackout drunk. How did he end up on a naval base? Was their perimeter not secure and he just found a back way in? Did he actually go through the front gate and no one cared to stop him? We may never know. But he is arrested for drunk driving on the military base. He is taken to court, where he is counseled to plead guilty. The judge asks if he wants to remain in Taiwan, and he says yes, more than anything, he loves Taiwan. It's true, we both do at this point. We don't want to go back to the USA. The judge accepts his guilty plea and charges him a fine for drunk driving and espionage. The fee is equivalent to about $3,000USD. He pays.
He never pushes me. He never asks for more than I have to give at any time. He never does anything without my consent. He listens, pays attention, and remembers. I don't have to hide any parts of myself. He loves my ugliness, my brokenness, my scars. He accepts me and celebrates me as I am. I allow myself to be vulnerable with him, and I've never felt more safe.
When I am depressed, he instinctively knows exactly what to do. I've always had to hide my clinical depression from my past partners. They either didn't care or actively said they didn't like it. But this man knows what to do. He knows if I need to be left alone, he knows if I need cuddles, he knows if I need pillows and blankets and children's movies. One night, before we move in together, I send him a message. I feel silly. I've been too depressed to take a shower and I'm starting to smell bad. He comes over. He takes off his clothes but keeps his underwear on. He tells me he doesn't want this to feel sexual. He carries me to the bathroom and puts me on a stool in the shower. He washes my hair for me and scrubs my skin. Another night my anxiety is so bad I'm trapped on the couch. I cannot get to bed to go to sleep. It's getting late. Again I send him a message. Again he comes over and saves the day.
At some point, I have a talk with Matt about his drinking. I've never been so cared for, so respected in any relationship. Truly everything is perfect except this. I tell him about the journals and what I promised myself. He promises, too. He promises to cut back. He drinks only at home. No more driving anymore. He buys a certain amount, and doesn't drink more than that. But the amounts he brings home get bigger. But he keeps his word.
We go out with some friends. We ride together on his ride to get there, so he can't get too drunk to get us home. The first drink he orders is a bathtub of a margarita with two beers turned upside down in it. He says this way, he only needs to buy one drink for the night. Then he buys a second drink. I ask him to stop. He starts drinking water. But when we go to the next bar, I can see his eyes getting glassy. He orders a rum and coke. Then a second. He talks with the bartender about how much rum goes in, and it's fully three quarters of the glass. I can see the Matt I know has gone away from behind those glassy eyes. It is another man who picks up that drink and puts it to his lips. As I see him do it, I know that I am less important than a glass of rum and coke. I know he is already blackout drunk. I call a cab and take him home. On the drive he becomes less and less lucid. By the time we arrive I'm barely able to get him into our home. I get him undressed and in the shower with the water running. I bring him water. He starts to throw up. I'm dying from the heart out. I'm trying to tend to him without shattering into a million pieces. I go to the kitchen to get more water and when I come back, he's climbed out of the bathroom and into the hallway where he's thrown up a lake. I start hysterically sobbing and wailing. I lock myself in the bedroom. I sleep until it's time to go to work.
When I leave the bedroom to go to work, I find a puddle of vomit-infused water in the floor. I have to put plastic bags over my feet so I can walk through it to get to the door. I realize my relationship is over. I made a promise to myself that I intend to keep. We spend the week separated. We live in the same apartment but sleep in different rooms. I'm trying to fight for us to stay friends. He has quit drinking for good. He has started exercising. But he says it will hurt him too much to stay friends. The worst is happening and I can't stop it.
Matt brings home a cigar - one of our favorite pastimes is to sit on our 5th-floor balcony together with no electronics and share a cigar and conversation in the breeze. Over the course of this conversation, we realize we both want to continue fighting for this relationship, the best either of us have ever had. We've always been good at communication and working together. He asks me if I remember him giving up cigarettes shortly after we started dating. I do, he quit cold turkey. He tells me, the most difficult part of change for him is to commit to the decision. Once he's done that, he says, it's finished. I believe him, but I'm scared to trust him. We decide to work together to save it. He lets me set the pace. He never tries to rush things. We slowly move forward, then back into the same bedroom. We continue to have weekend adventures all over Taiwan. We spoil one another on each other's birthdays. He writes me poetry and loves everything I cook. When we talk about the future, our plans always include one another. There is no future without him. My home is where his heart is.
A Taiwanese author named Lin YiHan kills herself. She had recently published a story about a girl who is raped and abused by her teacher. People speculated that it was auto-biographical although she denied it.
A new law is passed in Taiwan requiring background checks for teachers. People hope it will keep children safe from predators, and so do Matt and I. When our bosses ask for our information to do background checks, we happily provide it. No one should have to fear abuse from their superiors, and no children should go through what the protagonist in Lin's novel did.
Matt and I board a plane together. We've taken many short trips but this will be our first long journey. We're going first to visit his family so I can meet everyone, then to mine so they can meet him. I will be able to stay longer in the USA than Matt can, and I look forward to spending time with my father.
Matt flies home. His journey is just awful. One flight is fourteen hours and the woman behind him is digging her feet into his chair, hitting an area where he has a surgical wound we've been tending for ages. Upon his exhausted arrival, he learns from his boss that his work permit has been revoked. His background check turned up the DUI. It doesn't matter that he paid his fine. It doesn't matter that he's been sober for a year and a half. The permit has been revoked. I am in denial. He believes he will have to leave Taiwan, but I beg him to fight it. He never hurt any children. His students and their parents love him. His bosses make every call possible.
I am on a road-trip around my part of the USA. It is about 9PM and I still have about 5 hours drive left before I get to my destination. I get a message from Matt that he is being deported. There is never a moment where I consider staying in Taiwan. My home is where his heart is. They aren't deporting one man, they're deporting us both, because I cannot stay without him. I pull into a roadside strip motel because I don't trust myself to keep driving. When I explain my situation at the front desk, they give me rum. I drink it and go to my room to shower and cry.
Matt checks the mail and finds a letter from the government. The letter says he must leave Taiwan. The deportation date is June 5th. Yes, you read that right. The official letter arrived on the 6th and said he had to leave the country on the 5th. He calls the office. He tells them his girlfriend will return to Taiwan on the 18th. Could he please stay until the 20th? Could he please see her for one day before he has to leave? They make him promise that he will leave the country on the 20th. When he hangs up, he sees on the bottom where he can call to appeal the decision. But everyone has been called, and at this point, we're through. We're exhausted. They win. We'll leave.
I will go back to work in Taiwan. I will probably work until late August, early September. Early September is when I first moved to Taiwan in 2013. That means I've lived there for five years, after my original plan was for just two years. I fell in love with the land, the mountains, the beaches, the plains. I fell in love with the people, the families, the friends, the shopkeepers. I fell in love with the food, the god parades, the night markets. It's the longest I've ever stayed in one place my entire life. I wanted to keep staying.
I don't know where we go next. But we will go there together. This is the man I wrote about in my notebook in fourth grade, the last time I ever stayed somewhere more than three years. He is my spell, he is my prayer, he is where my heart is. I will follow him to any country. I will follow him to the moon.