How Not Trusting My Gut Cost Me My Citizenship and Nearly My Life
My fiancé had a spending problem. “You need a new car—if you could have any model you wanted, which would it be?” Brandon announced.
Maybe most women would be excited. I thought: I need a car? We work from home! The two of us had a phone chat-line business, before the Internet took off. All day, I took calls from lonely people while Brandon crunched the numbers.
After three years together, we were one of those couples, finishing each other’s sentences. He was older, 37 to my 29, and he was my late brother Boba’s best childhood friend, from back home in Belgrade. Boba had died of leukemia at age eight, a few months before I was born. But I didn’t meet Brandon until 30 years later, when he came to pay his respects after my father died. The two of us quickly became smitten with each other. With Yugoslavia on the brink of war, it felt natural for us to emigrate to make a new life. His connection to my late brother made Brandon feel like family—the only family I had in America.
So it was easy to ignore the knot in my stomach when he started acting a little strange, a little spendy. First, he convinced me to stop going to graduate school, to give up my student visa and put all my energy into our business. “If something bad happens, we can always get married.” Friends begged me not to do it, but I agreed, against my better judgment. Then came the car stuff.
“There’s a Jag, a two-seater convertible, on hold for you to test drive,” he said, eyes sparkling. “It’s a collector’s item. It will retain its value.”
But why the most expensive model?
Brandon had no doubts. He was supercharged, which was better than his bouts of depression; he blamed those on worries about not making it fast enough in America. And so, I rationalized: Some men drink. Brandon had a passion for cars. My mother liked to say that a good marriage required compromise.
Then, a few months later, Brandon said: “My SUV is outdated. I’m thinking of buying a Range Rover.”
Another freakin’ car?
As always, Brandon had numbers ready: He was meticulous like my father, a man who had never let me down. Brandon had never let me down, either. Still, it felt like too much, too soon. Then again, maybe a new car will do him good….
He was ecstatic when I agreed, and he took care of the finances, as my father had. I didn’t question him.
But it wasn’t enough for Brandon. It was never enough. “Wouldn’t it be great to have a small speedboat?” he asked one afternoon. Seeing my expression, he began to sulk: “Why are you being a party pooper?”
“We should appreciate what we have.”
“But we do!” he cried. “Aren’t we having the best time of our life?
“We should see if the business stays steady.”
“It’s been steady for so long!” he burst out. “Look at the numbers.” As usual, he had them at hand.
We got the speedboat. Soon, we were skimming down the Hudson, sipping champagne. This is really love, I’d think, my doubts put to rest.
Brandon’s next obsession was the stock market. Often, he’d hole up in his office for several days, without shaving or showering. One morning, I found him with his head in his hands. “Come see this, ”he said.
“Okay…I see rows of numbers.”
“And…one box with numbers in red and the rest gray or black….”
“That one, the only one in red, is ours!” He slammed his fists against the table, making me flinch.
“So, it’s in red today, tomorrow it will be back in the black, going up,” I said.
“We don’t have time to wait,” he said, with a little sob.
A chill swept through me. “Why not?”
He looked up, dark circles beneath his eyes.
“I’ve lost everything we have.”
Brandon had been on such a roll, our earnings going up like his manic moods, that he’d borrowed against the stocks we owned—and lost. Badly.
I needed to take control, something I wasn’t used to doing. “Don’t worry,” I said. “We made the money once—we can make it again.” What choice did I have than to reassure him?
But Brandon’s behavior wasn’t reassuring, especially when, a few weeks later, he strolled out of the shower and his once-dark hair was canary yellow!
“What do you think?” he asked, with a wide smile. I didn’t know what to think. Maybe he just needs to shake things up a little.
Another night, he placed a shiny wood box on the coffee table and looked at me meaningfully. Is he going to propose? I thought, watching his elegant fingers open the lid. And there it was: a gun.
“It’s a Walther,” he said.
Oh my God, he named it??
“A gun—in the house? Why, Brandon?”
“It’s not just any gun,” he said. “It’s the James Bond model. A Walther PPK .32 caliber. I want to go shooting.”
“Why?” I asked. “You love tennis. You’re so good at it.”
“Tennis is boring,” he said. “This is fun.”
If Google had existed, I might have figured out the reason for Brandon’s odd behavior: bipolar disorder, a mental illness marked by periods of manic behavior (including crazy spending), then crushing depression. Instead, I went with him to the shooting range to try to understand what was happening to the man I loved. I kept ignoring my instinct until the day I found a hot pink Post-It note in his office, scrawled with the following words: 5’7”, 125 pounds, 36C, brunette
I grabbed it and stormed into the living room. “Brandon, are these a woman’s measurements?”
“I don’t feel good around you anymore,” he said, and with that, our engagement was over. I moved out, part of me hoping we could still repair things. Then, one afternoon I returned to my temporary apartment to find Brandon pacing outside, mumbling to himself. “What are you doing here?” I asked quietly.
He kept pacing.
“Brandon. What’s wrong with you?”
He turned as if seeing me for the first time, and he shouted, “What’s wrong with me?” Then he went for my throat.
“Brandon!” I screamed. “Stop it!” But he only squeezed harder, until the adrenaline surged through me and I broke free and ran out into the street.
I’d gone along with Brandon’s highs and rationalized his lows, because who doesn’t want to live life to the max? But the rollercoaster ride was over. I had no legal visa, no family, no identity. Brandon wouldn’t be taking care of things any more. It was time for me to meet myself for the first time.
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