I met Angelo on a film set in Berlin. We'd both been booked for a German TV commercial. The producers were worried that the all blonde-haired, blue-eyed cast would send out the wrong message, so they'd done a last minute search of out-of-work non-German actors in the city and found Angelo, a black Canadian, and me, a ginger Paddy.
There was a lot of downtime on the shoot, so Angelo and I got to talking. But our conversations kept getting interrupted by the ongoing text message argument I was having with my girlfriend at the time, who I'll call Sara.
"We need to talk," she wrote to me.
"Let's wait until I'm home."
"Now or never."
"Don't be ridiculous."
"You call me ridiculous one more time and I'll rip your head out."
Sara was German. She sometimes got the phrases wrong.
Angelo sat patiently as I continually broke off mid-sentence to address whatever new attack was coming at me through the cracked screen of my phone.
"That's a live one," Angelo said.
"You don't even know," I said. "The girl shouts at me in her sleep."
That was putting it lightly. Not only did Sara shout at me in the sleep, she stole from me—booze, cigarettes, money, bicycles, clothes, whatever. She stole from my neighbors, too. I was constantly returning plants that she'd taken from their windowsills. She would hit me with little slaps that got harder and harder as we got drunker. One time, I remember she hit me so hard across the ear that for three days everything anyone said to me sounded like it was coming from the bottom of a mine shaft. I once left her in the bar after a fight and went home only for her to follow me back and rain stones at the window. When I still wouldn't get out of bed to let her in, she took off her boots, one by one, and fired them through the panes. When Sara wanted attention, she got it. The very laptop I'm writing this on has a huge fork-lightning shape crack across the screen from when she pushed it off my desk when I said to her, "Just give me one more minute please, baby."
Sara wasn't the first abusive relationship I'd been in. I was attracted to that kind of girl: ones who drank too much, sought out drama, had ex-boyfriends round every corner, tempers that would put a dictator to shame. But Sara was probably the toughest. When we fought, we'd say things that most couples could never walk away from. She called me a faggot, a coward, and one time I won't forget, in the best English her German accent could muster, she called me a worthless sack of sheep.
When we fought, she'd end up slapping and kicking me and I'd just stand there in an awkward brace position, not because I'd always been taught not to hit a girl, but because I was really afraid of this one.
Every time Angelo mentioned Sara, I'd blurt out something like anxiety, pain, or the woman who's ruining my life.
On set that day, our scene was simple: Nine of us—the seven Aryans, me, and Angelo—had to run at the camera with big smiles on our faces. We had to do it for over two hours before the director was happy. When we finally nailed it, there was a round of applause and a check for $550. Cheers!
After the shooting was over, Angelo asked me what I was doing that night.
"Probably fighting with my girlfriend," I said.
"Fuck that," Angelo said, "come do a session with me."
"A session of what?"
"Psychodrama therapy. I took an online course last week and I bet it will help."
Angelo explained that psychodrama therapy was a process by which you acted out experiences you might have, or those you already did have, in order to either rehearse for an argument or rewrite your own history. The technique was invented by a man named Jacob L. Moreno, who argued that by reenacting situations from their own lives, people could come up with creative, spontaneous solutions to their own problems.
I had done a little bit of therapy when my dad was in rehab, but apart from that I'd never touched the stuff. Poor people don't do therapy—instead we drink, we smoke weed, and we don't sleep. But I was feeling desperate about my situation with Sara, so I told Angelo I'd give it a try.
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Angelo lived in a basement apartment in the gay district of Berlin. When we arrived, he brought me into his living room.
"Don't be afraid about making noise," Angelo said.
"Why would I make noise?" I asked.
"You'll see," he said.
We began on our feet walking circles around each other in the room. Angelo asked me to close my eyes and we got into a simple word association game. Angelo would say something and then I would reply with the first thing that came into my head.
Ice cream — vanilla
Summer — lakes
Sara — unmitigated stress
Home — my mother
Beer — good times
Sara — a pain in my gut
We played around with this game for a while and every time Angelo brought it back to Sara, I'd blurt out something like anxiety, pain, or the woman who's ruining my life.
Then Angelo asked me to close my eyes, and keep them closed, while he stepped out of the room. I heard something awkward and metallic dragged across the floor and then a couple of joints snapping into place, and finally Angelo said, "OK, you can open your eyes now."
The first thing I saw was Angelo, who had taken his shirt off. He had thick rolls of fat around his belly and his nipples were pierced with tiny metal bolts. In both his hands were plastic baseball bats; there was an ironing board with a floral print cover and pink legs in front of him.
"Don't be upset that I took my top off," Angelo said. "It's better this way. More honest."
He passed me a baseball bat. For a minute I thought we were going to fight, but then he told me to channel all the anger I had toward my girlfriend toward beating the shit out of the ironing board. It felt silly, but I gave the board a tap with the tip of the bat anyway. "Harder," Angelo shouted, and I went a little harder. "Harder like this," he said, as he leapt into the air and brought the full force of the bat down on the ironing board.
I watched him go, the loose cargo pants, the rolls of fat, the nipple bolts glinting in the light, and then because it felt dumb to just watch the guy, I got into it too.
For the next ten minutes that ironing board took it. We pounded it from one end of the living room to the next. We showed it no mercy, and when our arms were too sore to hit anymore, we both collapsed on the couch and stared at the twisted shape we'd made. I couldn't understand any of it, but I had to admit I felt good.
Angelo said that from what he'd seen, all I'd need is a few sessions to be cured.
"Cured of what?" I said.
"Your inability to get angry," he said. "Somehow, somewhere along the line, you were told that getting angry was bad and now whenever you should get mad, something prevents you. You're still angry, it's just instead of coming out, that anger just worms its way into your stomach."
"And what's that got to do with Sara?"
"You chose her deliberately so you could resolve this problem in your character," he said.
I'm not sure if that's really why people end up in abusive relationships, but even still, I had to admit that I felt a lot better when we ended our session.
I went home and I didn't see Sara that night. I called her around midnight to see where she was but she didn't answer. That was her way—a barrage of relentless communication or complete radio silence.
The next session at Angelo's house, he didn't even bother to wear trousers. He answered the door in a pair of Y-front briefs.
"That honest?" I said to him.
Angelo nodded his head. He sat me down and asked me why I thought Sara and I fought as much as we did.
"We both want to be artists," I said.
"So there's competition?"
"Whenever one does well, the other feels like there's less chance of them doing well. Like we're drawing from a finite source."
"That's hard," Angelo said.
"It doesn't help that we're both drinkers," I said. We'd been seeing each other for over a month before we had our first sober conversation.
Angelo asked me to close my eyes and then imagine that I was an animal. I pictured a fox. He asked me to describe my life as a fox. I told him about my little burrow, which I'd dug myself, and my wife fox and the baby foxes and how we enjoyed lying out in the meadow in summer or playing in the stream. As I talked, I got deeper and deeper into the life of the fox—so deep that I could imagine the hair on my back, the long teeth in my mouth, my tiny little fox dick brushing between my bushy legs. I loved being a fox. Foxes have the life. Nothing but frolicking all day long. I'd come back to the burrow and get licked all over by tiny fox tongues.
"But are you worried about anything, Mr. Fox?" Angelo asked me.
I thought a while, and then realized that on top of all that frolicking there were some underlying stress. "Yes, I am," I said. "I'm worried that if I don't bring enough chickens home every evening, my wife is going to leave me and take the cubs too."
"Why would she leave you when she loves you?" Angelo asked.
"Because that's what they do," I said. "A fox wife always leaves you in the end."
I felt a wave of sadness roll over me and I was no longer the fox—just me, in my early 20s, underweight, and sorely lacking in essential vitamins and iron. I started to cry.
Angelo came over and touched my arm. "If Mrs. Fox loves you, she won't leave you," he said.
Angelo left the room and when he came back, I heard the ironing board being flipped into place. I got onto my feet, took the plastic bat from his pudgy hand and we beat that floral ironing board until it was nothing more than a sad heap.
I looked down at my body. I'd removed my T-shirt. I looked at Angelo, who was out of breath.
"You're becoming honest," he said.
That night Sara called me at around 11 PM. She was wasted and wanted me to come out and meet her. I pictured my little fox world—the warm meadow, the tiny cubs bundled up in the burrow, the smell of their breath mixing with the earth, my good wife with her pretty claws. I said no. And then Sara started to shout at me and I did something I didn't know I was capable of: I hung up on her.
But that kind of thing never worked on Sara. She called me back at least ten times before I turned the phone off. Around half an hour later, I heard the buzzer on the door. I didn't answer. And then I heard every other buzzer in the building going off. The sound was like a Nokia 3210 ringtone. Eventually she was at my door, beating on it with both her fists. If I could have climbed inside my wardrobe and bundled up beneath the coats and ride out the storm undetected, I would have—but I knew that if I didn't answer the door, she would just stand there beating at the timber all night.
Sara had a way of talking (shouting) that brought me back to locker rooms and toilet booths and a childhood getting chased by older boys who, when they caught you, would give you the option of either getting a kick in the nuts or eating dog shit. I always chose dog shit. To this day, I can travel in India, Thailand, and Morocco, and eat all kinds of street food without getting sick.
I opened the door. Sara took one swing at me then fell on the floor, drunkenly. I carried her to bed. In the morning, I crept out from under her arm and went to see Angelo. It was supposed to be our last session.
By this stage, I'd got very used to Angelo not wearing any clothes apart from his underwear. He sat me down and placed two chairs in the middle of the room facing each other.
"Which one is you?" he said.
"I don't know."
"Pick one and sit in it."
I got up and sat in the better of the two chairs. Angelo threw a red cushion on the empty chair.
"That's Sara," he said.
"I beg your pardon?"
"The cushion on the chair is Sara, he said, and you're going to have an argument with her."
"What type of argument?" I said.
"You're going to split up with her," he said.
"I'm not," I said.
"But she'll go mad."
"She's a fucking cushion," Angelo said. He was right.
'I'm sorry but I can't do this anymore,' I told the cushion. The cushion sat there in silence.
I looked at the cushion. It didn't look like much. It didn't look like it could bang down a door in the middle of the night or scream until all the neighbors and their neighbors were awake. Even if you'd driven razor blades through its seams and set the thing on fire it still wouldn't have looked close to as scary as I imagined Sara to be. So I started to talk to it.
"Sara, I'm sorry but I can't do this anymore," I told the cushion. "You're great but you're just too much for me."
The cushion sat there in silence. I felt Angelo's hand on my shoulder. I looked up at him. He nodded.
"Do we get to beat the ironing board now?"
"No," he said. "Now it's all about talking."
I didn't split up with Sara that evening, but I did the following afternoon. I set it up so that she'd have an idea and wouldn't be blindsided. I told her that I wanted to talk and I picked a park between our houses, a neutral space. It was a busy park: kids playing in sandpits, junkies throwing frisbees, a couple of bums going around asking for change. I came straight out with it.
"I think we should split up," I said.
"We are not splitting up," Sara said.
"I am," I said.
"You're not," Sara said.
"Goodbye," I said, and stood up and walked away. The last thing I heard was the sound of a bottle skimming my ear and then smashing into the ground on front of me.
I don't know why I got into a relationship with someone who treated me like shit. I don't think it was to solve some flaw in my character, but I do think that I became a tougher person for surviving it. There was something familiar in Sara's bullying that I could relate to from my childhood as a punching bag, and as fucked-up as it sounds, I got off on it.
Sara didn't quite disappear. I ran into her one night, and she chased after me with one of those Kryptonite courier bike locks. Another time she tried to smash my window with a rock, but she was so drunk that she hit the wrong window on the wrong street. The last time I saw her was in a bar. She was drunk and her English had gotten worse.
"I want to tell you something," she said. "You're fucking prophetic."
I looked at her. She seemed smaller now.
"Thanks," I said and turned away.
I don't know what happened to her or Angelo for that matter. He got booked as a featured extra in an Italian colonial drama and never came back. But I do know that learning to stand up to an ironing board taught me to stand up to people, and that's something I'll never unlearn. Just as the picture in my head of Angelo, in the harsh light of his basement apartment with sweat dribbling down his rolls and through the seams of his Y-fronts, is something I'll never unsee.
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Abusive relationships are very serious and can get progressively more dangerous. If you need help leaving an abusive relationship, contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline.