Editor’s Note: The following essay contains adult language that may not be suitable for all audiences.
Many odd couples start off innocently enough — the regular boy meets girl scenario. But what happens when the girl reveals a much darker side? And the boy in question is left wondering just why fate brought them together?
Vic Vogler, a writer in Seattle, brings us this essay:
When my sister Katinka left me in Seattle, her farewell gift was date-stamped: one month with a lovely stranger. We had both moved to Washington to help our older sister, Malvine, who would die of pancreatic cancer seven months later. Then, Katinka, fresh from her own diagnosis (early-stage colon cancer, later beaten), said she was returning to California.
Losing Tink, as we called her, blindsided me. Geography, death – they felt the same. I was closer to her than to anyone else in my family. Looking back, Tink’s farewell gift to me had been a touchstone; now it was an escape, an edgy rom-com I had lived.
The opening credits rolled on a kaleidoscopic day at Pike Place Market. Tink and I were rounding a fruit stand when I saw a violinist in a red dress with short dark curls and Reese Witherspoon’s chin. My sister saw a meet-cute.
“Drop a note and some money in her case!” she said. Tink had inherited our mother’s insistent cheer and weaponized it. “No” was no option.
The pen I had ran dry, but an idea came out of it. “Hello. You play beautifully. Why two colors of ink? Call me to find out.”
She did, and her name was Yera. We met and chatted at an Asian market a few days later, a shy, snaggletooth smile dimming her wattage just enough.
“Should we go back to your ‘pad’?” In Yera’s smoky voice, the word already sounded like an in-joke. Soon after, sitting on my couch as a ferry crossed Elliott Bay, she led me further in.
“Sing me a song,” she said.
There I was back in Mr. van Houten’s eighth-grade guitar class, scraping through chords and lyrics, cataloguing the girls I would never charm. Yera studied me with the same curiosity as when I’d left the note. This mattered. If music were her first language, I needed to conjugate a verb. My a cappella offering was “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” a James Taylor anthem of yearning.
I was 41, and Yera turned out to be 21. I know. But it was no stretch to say we both could’ve passed for 28. It was a fling, but sometimes even a fling wants to pretend it’s more. She wept when I described getting to know my sister Malvine better before her death. Yera described getting to play a Stradivarius and how its sensitivity overwhelmed her. “I butchered it,” she admitted.
Even her red flags, if you squinted, snapped like colorful banners: brushes with the law, men older than me, family fireworks. Yera said her parents, since divorced, had met for the first time at a Unification Church mass wedding. Troubled women had always intrigued me, or they nourished troubling needs. Like the urge to rescue – that lance white knights lug into battles no one asked them to fight.
One day Yera suggested a weekend trip. When I planned one, she got skittish and broke things off. “You want a girlfriend,” she said. “I can’t be that.”
She was right, on both counts. But our month together had NyQuilled the pain of losing my sisters. A few months later, Yera called upset over a problem with her own sister. I invited her over – glad to listen, but also thinking our history would return for a night. It did, and once more in the next year. But things had changed. Intimacy now seemed like the price for a comfort that she couldn’t absorb.
One night a few weeks later I found Yera active on Facebook and suggested meeting again. Her response, even then, didn’t surprise me.
“Yea, OK,” she wrote. “I’m still a f****** loser and I hate men.”
In a rant, she vowed to date only women and accused me of exploiting her lack of self-control. I said it was her responsibility to choose what she wanted.
“If your intention is to lash out at every man you’ve ever known, I’m not interested in being part of it,” I wrote.
“My intention is to cut you guys loose,” She replied.
I knew I had it coming, at least part of it. That night we both needed me to be every guy she wanted to cut loose. Yera called a few weeks later to apologize, but her “intention” had drawn a workable border between our past and a peculiar new acquaintance. Over the next four years, I would get sporadic updates about busking, Kabbalah, a cat she had to give up. In one conversation, Yera calmly praised suicide, shrugging off my pleas to seek help. Later, she embraced sexual fetish “training” and the control it seemed to bring.
When we first met, Yera said she had been a third violinist. I had Googled her periodically ever since, hoping to find her name attached to a new symphony or philharmonic. Instead, one day, I found this: “Woman says she killed former counselor because ‘he was a creep.’ ”
English needs a deeper word for shock. Light-years from my rom-com, the death of Yera’s 58-year-old “roommate” felt like a remake of “Fatal Attraction”: Vodka, unwanted sex, a knife, hours of his wandering around without calling 9-1-1 because how would it all look?, strangulation, her effective surrender at an AA meeting. A history of trauma, DUI and simple assault. Yera in an orange jumpsuit, curls smothering her shoulders. I scoured my memory for signs. Nothing in my time with her ever suggested she would hurt anyone, except maybe herself.
My impulse was to take blame. The white knight could have saved her, but dropped his lance instead. Tink, aghast at her matchmaking role, joined the chorus of “Thank God it wasn’t you.” I insisted Yera wouldn’t have hurt me.
“But how do you know?” Tink said. I saw the knife at my own throat, felt sick imagining the provocation.
John, her ex-counselor, had been fired for “inappropriate contact” with another patient about six months before. He invited Yera to move in; she did so on the day he was killed. No one deserved John’s fate, but I had to cross-examine him: How could you exploit a woman whose trauma you knew professionally, whose life may have been in your hands?
A blog post by Yera’s father kept John on the stand. He backed up her assertion that the social relationship had begun while Yera was under John’s care, and further alleged that it included training her to be a dominatrix for rent. Her father also filled in Yera’s deeper past: a gang rape, suicide attempts, hospitals, lockdown facilities. He wrote that she was on Paxil when John bought her vodka, matching her public defender’s statement that she wasn’t in her “right mind.”
It was tough to sort out the information; rape charges were never filed, for instance. But The Bellingham Herald cited her case in condemning the state’s “mental health gap.” Yera pleaded out and received the maximum of nearly 30 years. I thought of visiting her in prison. But I was afraid of the person I’d find and whether she would welcome me or lash out, as she had before.
Instead, I imagined the trial Yera never got. She was at heart a decent person, I would testify, deprived of the help that could have saved her. The Stradivarius would be exhibit A. Years ago it had revealed the limits of Yera’s ability (at least then), but also her ability to recognize those limits. There was power in that self-assessment: a sensitivity both wistful and strong, overwhelmed and overwhelming. In this way, Yera and the violin were equals.
I would recount her prescription for me: sing for 15 minutes each day. Not to get better, necessarily, but to wake up something better in myself. Even now, when I seek off-key comfort, Yera comes to mind. My testimony would conclude that without trying to be, she was my white knight during one of the worst periods of my life. As for me, I’ll probably always have a lance. But it’s packed far enough away that retrieving it would mean stumbling over other junk. And the junk no longer interests me.
This story originally aired on Dec. 17, 2016