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567: What’s Going On In There?

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Prologue

Ira Glass

Last year, a tunnel was discovered in Toronto, a secret tunnel. Basically, a conservation official was walking through a wooded ravine in the city and stumbled upon this thing. It was described as sophisticated by police. Tall enough to stand in, 33 feet long, with support beams, a plywood ceiling and walls, water-resistant lighting, a generator and sump pump to pump out groundwater. And at the end of the tunnel, two little rooms were still under construction.

Intriguingly, nailed to a wall was a rosary and a plastic red poppy. Canadians use the poppy to commemorate fallen soldiers on Remembrance Day up there. Here in the States, all this got a little bit of coverage, but in Canada it was big news.

Reporter

No one knows who dug the 30-foot-long tunnel near the site of this year's Pan-American Games in Toronto.

Reporter

A bizarre tunnel found near one of the venues for the upcoming Pan-Am Games has sparked fears of an imminent terror attack.

Reporter

Rarely has a dirt tunnel received so much attention.

Reporter

No one knows why it was created. Do you think someone told their kid to dig to China and the kid actually tried?

Reporter

It's not just the sophistication that police say is troubling, but the lack of suspects or a motive.

Ira Glass

When something unexplained like this happens, of course, people go nuts speculating about what it could be. That's actually what our program is about today. In this case, the media pondered whether the tunnel would be used to plant a bomb at the upcoming Pan-Am Games nearby. The Pan-Am Games are like an Olympics for North and South and Central America.

Or maybe somebody was going to build a meth lab in the tunnel, or an operation to grow marijuana. Or they would use the tunnel to hide foreign athletes from the Pan-Am Games who might want to stay in Canada illegally. On Twitter, it was #terrortunnel. But the truth of what was going on in that tunnel and what its purpose was was nothing like any of that.

And the way the Canadian police figured it out-- OK, first of all, can I say, sometimes one is reminded of what a very different country Canada is from the United States. As part of the manhunt for whoever built the tunnel, a policeman tweeted, "If you built a tunnel near the Rexall Centre in Toronto, give us a call, OK?"

The Toronto police pointed out that it is not illegal to dig a hole. Apparently, no law was broken. From the start, they said they saw no evidence of terrorism, and they did not want to jump to conclusions. For instance, here's an exchange between then-Toronto deputy chief Mark Saunders and reporters after he showed them a photo of that rosary and plastic poppy.

Mark Saunders

This was found inside the actual tunnel itself, and it was nailed on the wall.

Reporter

What does that tell you?

Mark Saunders

That tells me that this was nailed inside the tunnel on a wall.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

The police basically went on TV and showed pictures of the stuff that they found in the tunnel-- a ladder, and the generator, and the sump pump. And they asked the public, this jog anybody's memory? Anybody know anything about this stuff? And that turned out to be exactly that move. Because watching that coverage was a guy named Boko Marich. He sees that ladder--

Boko Marich

And I said to myself, that look exactly my step-ladder, and I bet you any money this is mine.

Ira Glass

I bet you any money this is mine.

Boko Marich

And then when I saw sump pump. And I said, oh-ho-ho, my step-ladder and sump pump. But I couldn't believe. I couldn't believe. Like, I couldn't believe myself. I couldn't sleep. I was thinking about that.

Ira Glass

He couldn't sleep, because he knew who he'd given the stuff to. Bob is a contractor, and he lent that stuff to one of his favorite employees, this young guy, just 22, Elton. What was Elton doing? And come to think it, Elton had been asking to borrow a lot of tools lately.

Boko Marich

He was asking me for shovel, for pick, for another shovel, another tool, so many tools. I just would say, OK, if you need, take.

Ira Glass

Boko loves Elton. He loves that Elton's a great worker. He loves that, unlike other young people Bob's worked with in the past, apparently, Elton always wants to learn, asks lots of questions.

Boko Marich

What do you do when you do the roof? How do you connect this? How do you put joist hangers? What is the distance between this and that? Can I do this instead of that? Is this going to carry this support? Unbelievable, you know? And I joke with everybody, if everybody asked me who is that guy? This is my adopted son, Elton. Always, I used to say, this is my adopted son. OK? So I would lend him any tools he wanted.

Ira Glass

So the morning after he sees the police pointing to a photo of his ladder and sump pump on television, he goes to pick up Elton to bring him to work, like always. Elton gets in the truck.

Boko Marich

He brought two coffees for me and him. And I said, Elton, tell me one thing. That sump pump-- I didn't even ask full question. He said, Boko, yes, I did. Oh my god.

Ira Glass

Boko went to the authorities and made sure that Elton would not get arrested or go to prison for this and then turned him in. The police talked to Elton, satisfied themselves that Elton was not a terrorist or an evil criminal mastermind but just some guy, and they let him go. They didn't even give him a fine, though they did suggest that he not dig more tunnels. Canada.

So who is Elton? Why did he do it? Why go to the trouble? Well, Elton has not given many interviews, though he did allow one reporter, named Nick Koehler, to spend a couple days with him and his family to write it this long story about them in Maclean's Magazine, and Nick was able to tell us a lot about Elton. Elton turned down our request for an interview.

Elton was maybe two minutes from the ravine and woods where the tunnel was found, in a kind of rough neighborhood in public housing. Nick says both of his parents are from Jamaica.

Nick Koehler

He lives with two sisters, an older sister and a younger sister. And they all live with their mother.

Ira Glass

Elton's the quiet kid in the family. Nick says everybody else is a big talker.

Nick Koehler

And I think in particular his older sister, Anora, she has a lot of ideas about how Elton should be living his life. And she's not shy about sharing that with him. She's a big fan of self-help books. And so I think Elton is often in the position of listening to life talks, as they put it.

Ira Glass

Advice.

Nick Koehler

Advice. And Elton found refuge, ever since he was a kid, in the ravine.

Ira Glass

In the ravine there were no life talks. And from the time he was little, Elton was this introspective kid who loved to build, to take machines apart and put them back together. He fixed up old lawnmowers. He built clubhouses. And like he said in a short interview that Nick recorded for a video that Maclean's Magazine made, He'd go to the ravine.

Elton

OK, what I used to do in the ravine when I was a kid is, run around, play hide and go seek. We'd play, like, apple war. We'll go fishing. But I started my first tunnel probably when I was in elementary school. I would go in the creek, walk around. And this was something on my mind. I wanted to build a clubhouse.

I had five or six attempts, and I think the sixth one was the huge tunnel that the guys found.

Nick Koehler

I've heard him call it sort of the future of clubhouses.

Ira Glass

Again, here's Nick.

Nick Koehler

The tree house of the future. That it's underground because one of the fundamental things he wanted from this was that it be secret. It was his secret place that he could go and just relax and be alone.

Ira Glass

And not always alone. A friend helped Elton dig the tunnel and build it, excavating, he thinks, two dump trucks of dirt by hand. And once it was done, they would go there together-- watch movies, listen to music, barbecue.

Elton

OK, I did this because it was something I always wanted to be doing, but I know I should have grown out of it. And I knew that, OK, if I build a tunnel, it came from childhood reasons, but at the same time, if I build it, who knows? I could probably hang out there, turn that childhood dream into a man cave, a bunker, whatever you call it, just a place to go hang out. And if there's something that happened, like a natural disaster or something that would happen, I could go there if there's a blackout, turn on the generator, charge my phone, even make a small meal down there just to bring back up to my house.

Ira Glass

Back when Elton would go to the tunnel, his sisters did not know exactly what he was doing, but they knew something was up. For months while he was digging the thing, he would come home just covered in dirt, tracking dirt everywhere. Anora though he was building some kind of underground house and grilled him about it, but he wouldn't say.

His other sister, Tracyann, found the rosary, actually sitting at a bus stop, and gave it to Elton to protect him.

Elton

As soon as she gave it to me, like an our later I was already down there, I nailed it up. Every day after that day, I would go there, I would sometimes make a prayer. Not every day. Some days, I would forget. But sometimes I would remember to have a little prayer, just so I'm safe and it's some peace of mind. Yeah.

Ira Glass

The reality of Elton's tunnel, it was so different from what people thought it was when it was first discovered by police. And I think what that's about is, I think, when we encounter something inexplicable or mysterious, our imaginations, we are such hacks. You know? We go to the most standard, stock, seen it in 100 TV shows version of what something probably is. Like, oh, it's a terrorist attack. Oh, it's drug dealers. You know?

When the reality of what this tunnel really was, it was this dreamy guy who just wanted a place to get away from his sisters and be alone for a little while. It's so much smaller, but so much less predictable and way more interesting. Well, today on our program, what's going on in there? We have stories where people think that they know exactly what is going on in situations of various kinds, and we get inside and find out just how much more interesting the reality of all of it is.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: I Can Explain

Ira Glass

Act 1, I Can Explain. This story is about a teenager in a situation where everybody in her life thought they knew exactly what was going on with her and what she should do. It seemed so clear to everybody else, and she would not do it. This teenager met a producer from a public radio station, WNYC, a producer named Courtney Stein, two years ago. Courtney works on this project called Radio Rookies. And the teenager, her name is Rainy. She was 17 years old at the time. She applied to be in the Radio Rookies program. She wanted to make a radio story. And she wanted to talk about how she had been in an abusive relationship for a long time and was trying to figure out why she stayed in it for so long.

And Courtney, the radio producer, was not sure that Rainy was ready to tell that story. It just seemed so soon. But Rainy wanted to, and the school principal thought it would be a good idea, because it would give Rainy a reason to come to school, which, at the time, she needed. So Courtney said, OK. Here's Rainy back then.

Man

Are you recording?

Girl

Yes, she's recording.

Rainy

I'm recording. This is live recording coming from West Brooklyn's Community AC office.

I started reporting this story in the fall of 2013.

Rainy

This is Radio Rookie Lorraine reporting live.

I hadn't really been going to school for over 2 and 1/2 years. So I transferred to an alternative high school for kids who dropped out but are trying to come back and graduate. We all have assigned counselors. We call them ACs.

Rainy

OK, so I'm here with my own AC, Elizabeth.

They check in with us every day.

Rainy

So how have I been as a student?

Elizabeth

Lorraine, when I first started, Lorraine was only a name on my roster, because she would never come to school. And now she's here every day. She's doing what she needs to do, and she's a potential June graduate.

Rainy

Definite June graduate. Clear that up. You know, got to clear that one up.

Since I never came to school when I first transferred here, Elizabeth only knew me by my school ID picture.

Elizabeth

So my first impression of you, I saw your picture, I saw a little girl in size with a black eye. So I thought to myself, what's going on? I said, did you get into a fight? And you said, no. But you were like, it's a long story. You'll get to know me.

Rainy

I had a black eye for the whole first week. I thought people were thinking that I got beat up by a girl or something, that I'm soft. Nicole's my best friend, but I call her my stepsister, because my mom and her dad used to date. We all lived together, kind of like a family. I'm the only one who calls her Nicole. Everyone else calls her by her nickname.

Nicole

My name's Nicky Boombox, but no.

Rainy

She was with me when I first met-- I don't want to one his actual name.

Rainy

What should his name be in my story?

Nicole

Doodoo-face.

Rainy

I'm going to call him "Tony," the guy who became my first serious boyfriend. I met him the summer after eighth grade. By the time we started dating, I was 14, and he was 21-- six years, six months, and six days older than me-- 666. It's creepy, right? Nicole remembers when we met him.

Nicole

But In the beginning-- don't get me wrong-- he fooled me too. He fooled all of us. I really thought he was actually, really good. I was like, oh my god. He's really nice. I would never expect him to actually ever lay a hand on you.

Rainy

So what do you think drew me to him in the first place? What made me start liking him?

Nicole

His looks. Can't deny it. The fact that he's older.

Rainy

He's short, with tan skin, big, pretty eyes, and an Italian schnoz. He has tattoos and a clean-cut beard. When you think of that arrogant guy that all the girls want, that's Tony. He walks with confidence, dresses flashy, and wears big chains.

Nicole

But he also made you feel like you were special, like you were wanted. He was actually putting some effort into it. He would text you back. He would pick you up from the school. He didn't even try to kiss you the first time you hung out. The poems, the song, the rap he made on Facebook.

Rainy

He made a video of it. The lyrics went something like "don't worry, baby. It doesn't matter about the age." Back then, Nicole took a video of me watching it. I really couldn't stop smiling.

Nicole

Oh my god.

Rainy

Or as Nicole would say, "cheesing OD."

Nicole

Oh, you're cheesing OD. I've never seen you cheese like that.

Rainy

When we first got together, he liked that I was smart, and young, and pretty. He wanted to shape me into his perfect wifey. Before I got to the age where he says girls become whores. I was getting 90s when I started the ninth grade. I would show him my report card, but he didn't pay it any mind. He just saw high school as a place for guys to bag girls. He didn't tell me to skip school. He just punished me when I went. He'd ignore me after I came back or show up at school and flirt with girls in front of me.

So I just hung out with him in his room all day instead of going to class. I didn't want him to think I was cheating. I wasn't even talking to Nicole.

Nicole

Everything you thought was just about him. You just completely stopped caring about everything, and he really had that control over you.

Rainy

How did I look back then?

Nicole

Look? You looked like a ghost. Completely dead, skinny as hell. You still looked good. Don't get me wrong, but you still had that dead look on your face, like you weren't happy at all.

Rainy

He was verbally abusive way before he became physically abusive. He talked to me so nasty that I could feel it. The bruises clear up, but the words stick with you, and they change how you act. He would tell me you're boring, you're awkward, you're the weirdest of the weird, you'll never fit in anywhere.

And I believed him. I didn't feel like I belonged anywhere. I didn't talk to anyone anymore, including my mom. I lied to her about how old he was and started coming home late or not at all.

Rainy's Mother

I was livid. I wanted you home.

Rainy

This is my mom. She used to be a drug addict, but she's been clean for 10 years now. She's pretty ditzy and forgetful, but she is definitely there for me.

Rainy

What were you doing then?

Rainy's Mother

Worrying, cursing, yelling.

Rainy

At me.

Rainy's Mother

At you. At him.

Rainy

You tried punishing me, tried to take my things away.

Rainy's Mother

Punishment, taking your things away-- it didn't matter.

Rainy

Nothing she did worked, because I wouldn't let it. She knew I was the only one that could stop myself from seeing him. The first time he hit me was because I was looking through his Facebook. I caught him messaging his ex, so he slapped me across the face. He was yelling at me, telling me to get out. It escalated from there. Then, one night, two years into our relationship, we went to his friend's birthday, and he got really drunk.

I went to sleep at his place and woke up to him pouring water on my face and dragging me out of bed by my hair. He was yelling and calling me names, like, a dirty whore, and a slut, and a piece of trash. He slapped me and grabbed things from around the room, like lighters and medicine bottles, and through them at me.

He was screaming that he hopes my mom dies. I had choke marks on my neck. But he wasn't really choking me to cut off oxygen. It was more like choking me to grab me and throw me around. After he did that, I went over to Nicole's. My mom showed up there and started freaking out and crying when she saw me. So I walked down the block to my friend Steven's house.

Steven

You came, and then I saw you. And once I saw you I just felt bad. And then you started crying, and you told me you didn't see it yet. So I brought you in my bathroom, and I made you look. And you didn't want to look at it. So I told you you weren't leaving until you looked at it.

Rainy

When I looked in the mirror I saw a face covered in tears, red and swollen with blue marks on my cheeks, under my eyes, on my neck, and on my arms. I just couldn't believe I was looking at my own reflection.

Rainy's Mother

When he hit you I wanted to have him arrested, but you wouldn't let me.

Rainy

My mom promised me she wouldn't call the police, but it was a trick, because she knew my brother would.

Rainy's Mother

They came. They tried to talk to you, but you wouldn't give him up.

Rainy

I saw the cop car outside, so I hid in the bathroom. The cops stood outside the door and kept asking me if I got hit. He was like, just say, yeah. That's all you have to say. I said, no. So they didn't press charges.

Rainy

What did you guys-- you guys filed a report or something? What did you guys do?

Rainy's Mother

No, they wouldn't let us file a report. We tried to, any which way, get him for something, and we couldn't because you were over 16. There was no proof that he was having sex with you before that age, so I couldn't have him arrested. They told me I needed to go to the DA.

So I called the DA, and they didn't want to be bothered with it, because it was consensual, which isn't the law. The law is that he's an adult, and he shouldn't have been having sex with you. That's the law, and he should have went to jail.

Rainy

After that happened, he and I didn't talk for a week. Then he showed up in my school. He had this really sad face on. He brought me a burger. He doesn't know how to say sorry, so I guess the whole act was kind of like an apology. We walked around the neighborhood for a couple of hours. He played one of those toy vending machine games with the arm, and he got me a baby blanket with a dog head and tail.

It wasn't much, but the look on his face was just so sad that-- I don't know-- it convinced me to go back. He was overly nice at first-- extra big smiles, longer kisses-- but then he started talking about how you got to put your girl in her place. He kept accusing me of cheating on him, and I just had enough. So after two months, we finally broke up, and I moved back in with my mom.

Rainy

How do you feel since I came back?

Rainy's Mother

Oh, so relieved that I have my baby back.

Rainy

I'm so done with it. I'm just like, free like a bird and wings on a cage. I feel great. You know, it feels good not to feel bad.

Rainy's Mother

Thank God, thank God.

Nicole

I hate him.

Rainy

This is Nicole again.

Nicole

I still hate him.

Rainy's Mother

I'll always hate him.

Nicole

He would be the one that I would kill. I would keep his boxers on, but cut him up into little pieces, put cement in the body bag, dump him down in the ocean, and just smile, smile with happiness.

Rainy

And just smile, ladies and gentlemen.

Nicole

The monster is gone. We gotta get rid of these monsters. I'm just telling you. I'm gonna be the one. I'm gonna be Dexter.

Rainy

She's confessing murder.

Nicole

Actually, just because this is recorded, I'm kidding. Anyway--

Rainy

So I'm looking through my old diary. I mean, I had diary entries from the very, very beginning. A star means we got into an argument. A heart means it was a good day. The circle means he ignored me the whole day.

Good things about breaking up with Tony? I get to hang out with Nicole and I get to go back to school. Bad things about breaking up with Tony? I'm alone.

I feel like I just need someone to shock me, to take my mind off things. And I don't have anyone now, even on Christmas. My mom was at her boyfriend's house, so I was on my own. I was just in my bed, looking at Facebook. Tony posted a status, saying how Christmas will never be the same. He obviously meant that for me, since it was our anniversary.

My heart stopped for a second. When he's in my life-- I don't know-- it's like it's the one thing that just gets me going, like, really gets me going. I just want him to understand that he was wrong about everything he accused me of, so I decided to write it all on a letter. I included a playlist with an even number of FU songs and I miss you songs, and a weird little purple rock I got from the Museum of Natural History.

We started talking, but only over Facebook. I wanted to keep my distance. For a couple of weeks, we went back and forth. He wasn't being pushy. He was actually being really sweet, so I agreed to see him. And I ended up staying the night.

Courtney Stein

This is Courtney, Rainy's Radio Rookies producer. Rainy was working on her story with me for about a month before she disappeared. She stopped returning my texts at Christmas time. When school started again in January, Rainy wasn't there. Then, a few weeks into the semester, her English teacher, Erin, emailed me. Rainy was back. I met her after school and set her up to record a diary.

Courtney Stein

I'm just going to put it on hold. You don't have to do anything. You can even just put it in your pocket.

Rainy

OK, I just press play when I want to record? Or is it recording already?

Courtney Stein

It's already recording. You don't even have to worry about it.

Rainy

I will be back. All classrooms have teachers. Leave, leave, leave. You know, I don't think I'm supposed to be in this room. Oh, but I'm going to be in here anyway. So I've obviously got back with my ex. I've been on the lookout for abusive behavior, to see if he's going to revert back to his old ways.

I mean, at first, he was, you know, how you'd expecd-- sweet, gentle, nice, caring, all those things. But I've noticed some behavior that I don't like. About a week, two or three weeks ago, he told me to shut up in a nasty way. I mean, it's not that big of a deal, but I felt like it was a sign that the pattern might re-emerge. I mean, he is rough just by nature. I don't think that's abusive, though. I think that's just how he is. But at times, I don't really like it.

I know that in a lot of ways he's a really bad person. But I know that he could be a good person. No one's all bad. We slip back into our old routine of me never going home or going to school almost immediately. He became slowly more disrespectful and then violent, again. I was surprised, because I really hoped it was going to be different this time.

Rainy

I remember being 13, and just being like, I just want to be 17. When I'm 17, that's going to be the perfect age. And I get to 17, and it's like, wow. This is what 17 looks like? This is what my 17 looks like?

Courtney Stein

Rainy barely showed up to school for the rest of the year. She was supposed to graduate but didn't. From the beginning, Rainy told me she wanted to tell this story so she could try to understand herself and figure out why she was ever with him. She said that if she understood, that might help her leave. So over the course of the next year, Rainy would reemerge for a day or two, go to school, record a bit, and then be gone again.

I insisted that, if we were going to keep producing this story together, that she meet with someone from an organization called Day One. They work with young survivors of intimate partner violence. I brought her to meet with their community educator, Sarah Gonzales.

Rainy

OK, so my first question is, what are the signs of teen dating abuse?

Sarah Gonzales

So what's extremely common in teen relationships is the forced absence from school. Right? So if I'm forcing you to be absent from school, I'm affecting your grades, which will then affect how you graduate, if you graduate, when you graduate.

Rainy

That's actually exactly what happened to me. It's funny you brought that up. I should be a senior now, and I'm still not graduating. So I am usually looked at as someone who could be considered a strong female. I don't let guys mess with me. I don't put up with stuff like that. But then somehow I'm in this relationship that I allow myself to get stepped over.

Sarah Gonzales

The only thing that I would change in that is the "allowed" part. People, even with good intentions, unintentionally blame victims or survivors. So we say things like, if that person just had self-esteem, it would be OK. What that tells someone is that it's your fault because you don't have the esteem to leave, when that's not really the case.

On average, it takes seven to nine times for someone to leave. So just because someone went back doesn't mean that they're never going to leave.

Rainy

I mean, every time we get into a fight and things start getting really bad, I'm just sitting there, like, you should be leaving right now, you need to get your stuff, you need to get out the door, you need to go home. And I never do it every single time. And every single time, I blame myself. Because I have feet. I could walk if I want to, but I don't.

Sarah Gonzales

Have you ever asked yourself the other question? What makes me stay? What keeps me here?

Rainy

I mean, I do, and I don't understand the answer. Because it doesn't make sense why being happy 5% of the time makes you stay. I don't know.

Sarah Gonzales

You know, you do love your partner, right? And so a lot of times, what you really want is just for the abuse to stop, but you still want to be with your partner.

Rainy

I mean, we have happy times. We'll cuddle and laugh. Sometimes he even cooks or makes us tea.

Sarah Gonzales

Well, you can say, OK, I should be leaving. And if you don't, it's just like, today wasn't the day that I was leaving. As opposed to blaming yourself, because then that might keep you there a little longer. It's like, OK, it didn't happen today, but it can happen tomorrow.

Elizabeth

Lorraine, what are you doing with your life? I know you're at that boy's house--

Rainy

My assigned counselor has been leaving me voicemails. I never even listened to them.

Elizabeth

So don't shut down because you're with this boy. We already spoke about this. The weather was bad. You don't do snow-- I know all your excuses in the book. But right now, the weather's better, so you should have been here today. So, obviously, if I don't see later, that means it's not good. OK? So call me or show up. Bye.

Rainy

When the new cycle started, I told him I had to go back to school. And not even five minutes later, he held me down and started sucking on my neck. I was like, get off, babe. You're hurting me. He didn't do it for very long, but he did it hard enough to leave a huge, dark, purple mark. I guess he was trying to mark his territory.

Man

What are you doing here?

Rainy

When you haven't gone to school in a really long time, and you come in with a hickey, that looks bad. I tried to cover it up. I felt like my teachers are going to look at me so disappointed.

Rainy

Testing, Courtney, Courtney, hello. School just ended about 15 minutes ago, and today is the first day I've been in school for at least the past month. Not something I'm very proud of.

I'm sure you're thinking, who the hell stays with someone like him for this long? Believe me, I get it. I think I'm an idiot. I don't know what makes me stay.

I mean, one time I was trying to leave, and he took my sweater into the bathroom and peed on it. He spit in my face in front of company more than once. There are some things he's done to me that are just so embarrassing I've never told anyone. I don't want people to look at me and say, you allowed him to do that to you, and you're still with him? So I just shut down and don't talk to anybody, including Nicole. This is what she thinks of the situation.

Nicole

I feel like, basically, you don't leave, because when you come home, there's really no one here.

Rainy

She means that my mom works a lot and spends weekends at her boyfriend's. So she's not always home.

Nicole

Personally, you really have nobody. I feel like that's the real reason, because you're used to that environment, always being with him every day. I know it's hard. You always say it's hard for you to make new friend. Meanwhile, it's really not that hard.

Rainy

I mean, I didn't have that much of a hard time making friends when I was younger. I wasn't like that. I don't know when it changed, or how it changed.

Nicole

Because he shut down your whole confidence. It's hard to come back when you don't talk to anyone like you haven't talked to or interacted with a person in how long? And you expect to interact--

[RING TONE]

Rainy

Hold on. Yo. Hello? Hi, [BLEEP].

What are you doing? No, are you drunk? You promise?

Nicole

Naw, man.

Rainy

Because you're talking like you're twisted. Why are you laughing? Are you laughing at me because I'm an idiot?

I'll think about all the stuff he'd done to me and just be like, I hate him, I hate him, I hate him.

Rainy

What are you talking about? You're not putting me on nothing. I'm going to stab you in the face. No, chill. Oh. All right, bye.

Nicole

What happened? I feel like he doesn't take you serious.

Rainy

He doesn't.

Nicole

You don't scare him.

Rainy

I think this wouldn't have happened with someone my own age. I mean, Tony was the first guy I was ever seriously with. I didn't know anything, really, about being in a relationship. So I trusted him on how he thought things should be. In the beginning, I was always worried that he would break up with me. I remember the first time he did. I was just shivering, literally shaking. I didn't know how to be without him.

I can't believe that I've been with him for five years now. That's over a quarter of my life. The first 50% of my life, I was probably pissing my pants and my mom was on drugs. So I blocked a lot of it out. Then I was fat for the next five years. Then I have this [BLEEP]. I'm wasting my life.

Rainy

Oy vey. Yup, so another diary.

It's just coming to a point where I'm pretty much unhappy all the time. I can't do this much longer. I get told all day, every day, that I'm an evil monster. And men? Men are the ones that made the Verrazano Bridge. That's what he says to me. Women are evil, and if you're born with a vagina, you deserve to suffer. He yells at me and tells me that I'm not learning. Because I don't agree. Why would I agree that I need to be punished just because I was born.

The longer I live with him, the more angry I get. He won't let me express my emotions. He won't let me cry. He won't let me yell. Some girl kept coming around. She would not leave him alone. I wanted to beat her up, but then she started telling me what was actually going on, that she'd been seeing him on and off for the past two years. This isn't the first time he's cheated on me, but she's the youngest. She just turned 15. And Tony's 25 now. He's doing the same thing to her that he did with me.

I always felt like I needed this huge epiphany or something crazy big to happen to end the cycle. But something just broke inside me. A switch turned off. And that was it. I'm done with him.

Rainy

All right, mom, I want you to be as truthful as possible. And don't think I'm going to get mad at you for anything you say.

I haven't really been home since I got together with Tony. I haven't had a chance for my mom to baby me. I feel like I missed out on that, for a lot of my life, actually.

Rainy

What did you say when I said me and him were breaking up this time?

Rainy's Mother

I said, thank God.

Rainy

Did you believe me?

Rainy's Mother

I prayed so. Yeah, I wanted to believe you. Yes, absolutely.

Rainy

Are you watering your truth down maybe just a little bit because I got mad at you last time you said that?

Rainy's Mother

Yeah, you did get mad at me the last time I said that.

Rainy

The last time you said-- what the hell did you say? Oh, I said that we were broken up, and you said, for how long this time? Two weeks, you're going to be back together. Something like that. Is that how you really felt?

Rainy's Mother

Well, that's how it's been, basically. I mean, the longest you've broken up so far is six months.

Rainy

Do you think my relationship with him is like a drug, like an addiction?

Rainy's Mother

Absolutely. Yes, I do. I think it's a drug that you can't seem to stop. You want it. You know it's no good for you. And you want it. You want to caress it. You want to hold it. You want it to be in your body, to be next to your body. You want to suck in every minute, thinking it's life. And then, when it's over, you feel that it's not.

Rainy

Does my behavior remind you, in any way, of your own?

Rainy's Mother

Absolutely, just like me, only mine was with the drugs, and I couldn't stay away.

Rainy

Do you think I was in any way more susceptible to being in an abusive relationship because of how life was growing up?

Rainy's Mother

I actually didn't see that coming, but I do see you as a caretaker. You want to take care of a man, and I'm kind of the same way.

Rainy

You also kind of take care of Pop Pop like he's your child more than you take care of me like I'm your child.

Pop Pop is my grandpa.

Rainy's Mother

You're not a child anymore.

Rainy

If this-- if this could record my face. Yeah, so I don't know if there's anything else I'm supposed to ask you.

Rainy's Mother

I'm glad you're not with him now.

Rainy

So am I.

Rainy's Mother

And I love you with all my heart, all of my heart, all my being, and all my body. And I don't want to see you with him. I really don't. I hope you can find somebody better, somebody that you deserve, someone that deserves you.

Rainy

So before I end this recording, do you believe this is the last time?

Rainy's Mother

From your lips to God's ears, yes, I'm going to believe. Definitely power in prayer

Rainy

All right. I guess we'll end on that note.

Ira Glass

Since Rainy completed this story, she's graduated high school. She hopes to attend college. She's moved out of state and has no plans to reconcile with her ex-boyfriend. We did get a hold of the ex-boyfriend, of Tony. And we asked him for an interview, which he didn't want to do. We told him what was in the story. He sent back a short response, saying that many of her claims were inaccurate, but he did not specify which ones. He also said that in a couple cases she left things out.

Rainy's story was produced in partnership with Radio Rookies at WNYC and their staff, Courtney Stein, Andrew Mambo, and Kaari Pitkin. They have a podcast where you can check out more of their stories. Find out more at wync.org/shows/rookies.

Coming up, getting a chance for the first time to really, truly find out what somebody has been thinking of you all these years. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: RSV-Pa

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, What's Going On In There? Stories where we going situations where people think they know what's going on and we find out what's really happening. We have arrived at Act 2 of our program. Act 2, RSV-Pa.

So Larry's 20 years old. He's a student. And he's wondered what's going on in there his whole life about his own father. Larry's dad emigrated from Fujian province to America before Larry was born. He came here with nothing, worked 15 hours a day at a Chinese takeout restaurant that he owned. So Larry never saw him much, let alone talked to him.

Larry's parents never tried to teach him Chinese, so Larry only speaks English. His dad only speaks Chinese, which Larry says is something that happens in the Fujianese community. Some of his friends can't talk to their parents either. And in Larry's case, he has always wondered what was going on in his dad's head. Bianca Giaever has the story.

Bianca Giaever

Larry's dad spoke two dialects of Chinese-- Fujianese and Mandarin. Larry could barely tell the difference between the two. Larry's mom spoke to him in English. She felt that since he lived in America, learning English was his first priority, and she assumed that he'd just pick up Chinese. He didn't.

So without anybody meaning for it to happen, Larry wound up completely unable to speak to his dad. They've never had a single conversation.

Larry

I can't even hold eye contact with him. It's just so hard. It's just awkward. It's just so awkward. It's like when you're on the subway, and you think you saw someone that you know. You take a quick glance. You meet eyes, and you look away as quick as-- you look away, because it's awkward.

Bianca Giaever

Larry's dad worked so late, sometimes Larry would go days without seeing him. And even when they did have a rare chunk of time together, it wasn't exactly quality father-son time. It was actually the opposite.

Larry

Especially if we're having dinner together or something, and my mom's not home, he'll call me down. And I'll set the table, and we'll just both be picking at the food and not saying a word.

Bianca Giaever

And then it would be complete silence the entire time you guys are eating?

Larry

Yeah, definitely.

Bianca Giaever

Can you list off the things that he would say to you that you could understand?

Larry

It really just came down to whether I was one, healthy, or, two, hungry. And if I was not hungry, and if I was healthy, then I was good. It was definitely upsetting, especially growing up. But I think it got to a point where I just didn't really register that feeling anymore. I just started feeling nothing for him when I would see him. He would just be basically a wall to me, just like a third wall, and I'd walk right past him.

Bianca Giaever

When Larry was eight, his little brother was born, and his parents sent his brother to Chinese school. And as he grew up, his brother could talk to his dad. The two of them got along great. Larry would watch the two of them making jokes with each other, laughing, smiling. Before that, he said he didn't even know his dad could laugh.

And Larry's feelings shifted. He remembers thinking, oh, I was the testing ground. I was a mistake. He figured that his dad realized his blunder, not teaching Larry Chinese, and made up for it with his little brother. Which was great for them, except he didn't make much of an effort to fix his relationship with Larry.

Larry

I just really felt angriest towards him. I just felt strong resentment. Because, in my head, I thought that he definitely does not love me. And so I'm not going to care about who this person is.

Bianca Giaever

When Larry was 14, the construction business that Larry's family owned in China took off. It was making more money than the takeout restaurant, so Larry's dad moved back to China in order to send more money home. He wrote Larry a letter to say goodbye.

Larry

So it's about six pages long. On the left side, it's the Chinese. And on the right side, it's the English that my aunt translated.

Bianca Giaever

Larry got the letter after his dad had already gone. Here are some excerpts read by Larry.

Larry

"Son, I remember the days after you were born. I was thankful because your arrival brought me a brilliant outlook in life. When I wrote this letter, I struggled tremendously. However, it is a father's duty to mentor his son. I cannot communicate with you. Time flies. In the blink of an eye, I will turn 40 years old. In another two or three years, you will leave mom and I to attend college, learn the necessary skills, be independent.

Sorting and organizing your books to keeping your desk clean will leave a good and lasting impression on others. Before you go to school every morning, remember to eat something. Do not pressure yourself. As long as you are unafraid of working hard, there will be a path for you. I cannot speak English, and I've been able to support my family all these years, so relax and do your best.

Thank God for giving me the courage to write this letter to my oldest son. I believe deeply that to gain anything, you must surrender something. Conversely, Anything that you surrender you must gain something back. Pardon for my sharing. Pa."

I read it through the first time, and by the end of it, I'm really crying. It just really hit me hard, because that was the first time he ever said, I love you. Every line just made me start crying over again.

Bianca Giaever

This is like one moment where you realize everything you thought was totally wrong?

Larry

Yeah, I felt so guilty, because it was basically my fault for not understanding that this is actually how he feels.

Bianca Giaever

Was some part of you, like, why didn't you tell me this earlier?

Larry

No, because my dad's main focus was making sure we have a place to live and we have food. In my head, I envision my dad working, like, 14 hours a day, standing by hot oil, cooking, lugging around boxes and stuff like that. So when I put it into perspective, I realized, you know, he bears a lot more burden than I will ever bear.

Bianca Giaever

What Larry saw in the letter was, his dad had been thinking about him all this time. He had been noticing him and worrying about him. So Larry gets this amazing letter that totally changes how he sees his father, and he never writes him back. Remember, he was 14, in middle school. He wasn't mature enough to know how to respond, but he decided he'd study Chinese someday, so he could finally talk to his dad. He started taking classes in college, but he's still not fluent.

Six years later, he's still never had a real conversation with his dad. If he couldn't do it in Chinese, he figured it'd be the same as it always was. But a few months ago, he started writing a letter to finally respond to the letter his dad sent years ago. We hired a translator to turn the letter into Chinese. And our translator coached Larry on how to read it. We recorded Larry reading the letter and edited the sound so it would all be perfect.

The plan was to get Larry's dad on the phone from China, play him the recording of the letter, and then they'd talk with the translator's help. Larry was excited to finally get a sense of who his father was, where he came from, what he thought about. And that's what we did.

Bianca Giaever

OK, Larry, you want to just--

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

We got Larry's dad on the phone and played the recording for him. For the first time, his dad heard his son speak in a language he could understand. Here's what his dad heard.

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

And here's the English translation read by Larry.

Larry

Dear Ba, when I think about our house when I was a kid, I think about mom cooking greens in soy sauce chicken. I think about the whole family yelling at each other over the dinner table, typical Fujianese. It's so loud. And then I think about you reading a book on the couch, totally silent. Sometimes, Mom would come up to me and say, go spend some time with Dad. I remember saying, there's no point. We can't even speak to each other. She'd say, just try it. But I just shrugged and went back to my room. Then I got your letter.

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

I've read it countless times since high school. I treasure it and read it sometimes when I feel down about myself. It makes me feel better about myself, about family. But the most important thing about the letter was that, for the first time, I felt like you were speaking directly to me. And I was so surprised by how emotional you were. And when I read that letter, I thought, here's someone I care about, I appreciate, and I want to get to know better.

I had so many questions for you at first-- what your childhood was like? What would you do for fun? Who were your friends? Did you know you were going to be working in a Chinese takeout restaurant for two decades? Did you enjoy it? Did it mean anything to you? But then I realized that everything I thought about you my whole life was completely wrong, and I felt guilty that I never tried to get to know you. I'm so sorry.

But it's not too late. Now that I know a little more about who you are, I want you to know who I am, where I live, where I like to go, who my friends are, what I like to do, what instruments I play. I'm learning Chinese now in school. Hopefully, one day we can actually talk about all these things for real, face to face. Till then, I'm happy to simply know how much we care about each other. I love you, Pa.

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

[CHUCKLING]

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

Thank you.

Larry

So what's your reaction?

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

I'm quite touched.

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

I haven't quite caught up to my own emotions at this moment. I felt this is the most-- the most you've ever talked to me.

Larry

Yeah, so is there anything that you've wanted to ask me about my life?

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

In terms of planning for your life, I care about whether you have a girlfriend or not. You start to get worried when you're getting to your 20s. I know you might have your own plans, but I worry about those things. You're on.

Larry

I don't have a girlfriend right now. But besides that, I just wanted to know was there anything in the letter that surprised you?

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

Once I listened to your letter, I felt a sense of contentment. I feel I will, from this moment on, always look at you differently. You're no longer a child, no longer a boy. And I just feel very relieved that you can express these things with me through the letter.

Larry

When did you realize that you couldn't talk to me, where you realized that you couldn't communicate with your son?

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

There were moments when your mom wasn't around, and all I could figure out with you is whether you're hungry or not. And if you are, I would give you food, but anything beyond that was impossible. And those are very painful moments. And I also hope that you don't have to make choices like this between your family and your work. I hope you have a happy family, that you will have a different life than what I did.

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Larry

Yeah. I mean, I understand everything that you did. And for what you did, I don't think you're any less of a father.

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

Well, thank you, my little boy, for saying this.

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

But I do feel regretful and guilty as a father, as a husband, for not being able to take care of the family.

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Larry

No, it's OK now. I love you, and we're here. I just waited a really long time to say that.

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

Well, you're just like me. I'm not very good at expressing. I like to hold my feelings, my thoughts to myself, and maybe that's something we can work on together. We would tell each other more. We would tell each other sooner how we feel, what we think.

Larry

Yeah. Yeah, I definitely, definitely look forward to building our relationship and just learning more.

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

I am thousands of miles away from my son, but I feel like I'm sitting next to him for the first time.

Bianca Giaever

At this point, everyone in the room is crying-- Larry, me, my producer, even the translator. Larry and his dad text regularly now. Larry's Chinese is now good enough where he can understand most of what his dad says, and he can put the rest into a translation app. I read their texts, and it's not deep. It's just normal.

Before all this, Larry thought he'd feel closer to his dad if they talked about who his dad's friends were when he was young, what his dreams were. But his texts are the dumb small things you text with anyone you love. Larry's dad reminds him to buy his mom a present for Mother's Day and complains that his little brother is ignoring his texts. He tells Larry to be careful walking home late at night.

Larry texts, "School's good. Weather's starting to cool down." His dad asks him how his new job is, and finally, "Make sure to take care of yourself and eat more food." Larry sends him a thumbs up emoji.

Ira Glass

Bianca Giaever-- she's a filmmaker. She's actually made a few videos with our show, a series called Videos 4 U, where Bianca would help somebody say something they were having trouble saying to a friend or family member by making a video to help them do it. They're great. They're at our website, thisamericanlife.org.

[MUSIC - "WHAT'S ON YOUR MIND" BY GREYHOUNDS]

Credits

Ira Glass

Today's program was produced by Chana Joffe-Walt with Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Stephanie Foo, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our editor for today's program, Joel Lovell. Julie Snyder is our editorial consultant. Production help from Emmanuel Dzotsi. Our technical director is Matt Tierney. Staff includes Elise Bergerson, Emily Condon, Kimberley Henderson, and Seth Lind.

Research help today from Julie Beer, Michelle Harris, and Christopher Swetala. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, at his job running Rhode Island Public Radio these days, he is always asking the tough questions. No detail is too small for him.

Boko Marich

What do you do when you do when you do the roof? How you connect this? How you put joist hangers? What is distance between this and that? Can I do this instead of that?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Serial Season Three is here. Listen Now