by Louis Otero
Before I attended SUNY Purchase, I studied film at a small liberal arts school in Vermont. Burlington College isn’t even a school anymore. That was probably one of the worst years of my life. I was more depressed than I had ever been, but a party I went to on my second night changed my life
I didn’t even really want to go but my roommate had talked me into it and it was literally right next door to where I was staying, so I had little to lose. The party attracted more than incoming freshman but also some of the people that lived in these residences before us. Everyone was nice and friendly enough but I had a hard time connecting with people. Needing to get away, I went outside to smoke. That’s when I met Sarah. She was strolling through with her roommate, who commented on my Wolverine shirt. Talking with her felt like a chemical reaction. I hadn’t felt a spark like that before. We chatted for a few minutes, and then she was gone.
A few weeks later we reconnected on Facebook and we started hanging out together on the weekends, albeit with our roommates present. That was really it for a long while. For the first three months I was still dating someone else and she was still getting over her recent breakup. What I learned over the course of that year was that, while Sarah seemed to have adjusted well, just one year prior to us meeting she had left an ultra orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn.
At the time I didn’t really know what it meant and I wasn’t involved enough in Sarah’s life to probe for answers. Once we started dating three days before the end of my freshman year, I began to learn exactly the kind of toll that experience took on her.
Something to know going forward is that I was not a very nice person before I started dating her. I’m not exactly sunshine and rainbows now, but I’ve come a long way since then. I just used to being kind of a bastard. I was pissy, insensitive, borderline narcissistic, and I didn’t treat my ex-girlfriends with very much respect. I learned pretty quickly that none of that would fly in this relationship. Sarah demanded respect, which I had never been confronted with before. She had spent her whole life being treated like a second-class citizen in the ultra-Orthodox community; as a woman her worth in the community was as a future wife and mother. Women are not allowed to occupy positions of respect in that community. Once she had broken free from that place, she wasn’t going to tolerate it anymore. So, I had to change and do it quickly. Sadly it didn’t happen quickly enough, but after a year and a ton of fights later, I caught on. And that wasn’t the only obstacle we faced.
The community Sarah grew up in was strict to say the least. The men are kept completely separated from the women. There are modesty rules for women that require them to cover up any piece of skin below the neck. Despite the stringent attitude toward sexuality, there’s rampant sexual abuse that occurs, and the communities work very hard to keep everything quiet. Sarah is what’s known as “off the derech” (OTD), a term used for people who have left these communities. She always seemed very well adjusted back in Vermont, but when we moved in together, I started to realize the lasting effects that community had on her.
If you’ve read any of my columns before you probably know just how obsessed I am with pop-culture. Well, Sarah was just introduced to pop-culture a few years ago. She values science, knowledge and logic. She could care less about Justice League’s Rotten Tomatoes score, and I’m honestly not too concerned about the validity and reliability in data. She doesn’t know who Quentin Tarantino is or really most other celebrities. Pretty much the only thing we have in common is that we love each other.
There’s also a lot of emotional issues that come with leaving such a tight-knit community. The process often comes at the expense of family and friends who stay behind. Sarah wears her traumas on her sleeve, but wears her intelligence and logic like a suit of armor. It took a long time to get past the surface with Sarah. In my other relationships I was always the one with most baggage and I wasn’t sure how to act as I learned more about her past. I wanted to help her. I was naive enough to believe that I could love her enough to make her better, that if I was a good boyfriend I could make her forget her pain. Even if I were a great boyfriend, that’s a really stupid idea that took me a long time to abandon.
Eventually I learned that Sarah’s experience didn’t leave her empty. She didn’t need fixing, and even if she did I sure as hell wasn’t equipped to do it. I don’t want to be misleading, things are still very difficult. It’s not as if this relationship is some sort of fairytale. There have been dozens of instances where we both wanted to just call it quits. We stuck it out though and I’m really glad we did. We bring a balance to each other’s lives, and that’s not something we are ready to give up on.