By Dan Alex
November 13, 2020
I could see that he wasn’t in the best mood as we locked the apartment door and carried the luggage downstairs. The holidays were over and it was time for my foster dad, John, to return to the mushroom factory in Iceland where he worked for another year of mixing compost and selling expired meat, while I, in his mind, would be partying non-stop and living the life of a king—as a taxi driver.
We got into my car, the dashboard displaying an outside temperature of -23 degrees Celsius. It was 11 p.m. on Feb. 14, 2013. Winters can be bitter in Romania and I got a good taste of one that night.
I started the car and drove to pick up our family friend Constantine, the only person who could stand John’s presence for more than half a day, maybe longer if he had something to gain from it. In my experience, greed brings people together due to a lack of options, not by choice. These “friends” bear each other based on a mutual fear of loneliness and boredom and John understood this dynamic very well, as his marriage to my foster mom was exactly the same: two miserable people, bored of each other but too afraid to move on.
Because my mom was dumb enough to fall for his tricks, John the village idiot thought he could manipulate anyone using the same tactic that worked on her: brute persistence. Since I wasn’t part of their gene pool, however, I was a bit stupid in that I chose to resist John’s manipulations. In response John would persist further, pushing me—verbally, physically—every time we disagreed. Every time, I resisted, pushing back using only my words.
In retrospect, the only thing I learned from my foster parents was how not to live. But at the time, unfortunately for me, they interpreted my low opinion of them as a sign of defiance. You know those people who try to push a square peg into a round hole? They kept pushing me, hoping that I would eventually change my shape and fit through the hole, if they only applied more force.
When you’re sitting next to a person with a short fuse and they’re very quiet, you can be sure their fuse has pretty much burned out and all they need is a nudge to explode.
I had been driving the car that John and I were sitting in that night for 14 hours a day during the preceding year. Normally it was reliable, but on that trip I felt like I was driving a kid’s broken-down wagon: the stereo was frozen dead and so was the fan motor. It was well below freezing in the car yet I couldn’t feel the cold, likely because I had other worries on my mind. Growing up with John I learned that long periods of silence tended to culminate with a bang, and that night I did not know around which corner that bang was going to hit me. The simmering anxiety was enough to keep the blood flowing through my veins; it seemed the longer the silence went on, the hotter the fire burning under my seat—and the car wasn’t fitted with that option.
Despite the tension in the car, I decided to take the long way to Constantine’s house for reasons I still can’t explain. Today, looking back, my spontaneous decision that night to make a turn in the middle of an unknown intersection makes me wonder if there is a higher power, because that small choice led to major consequences for me. At the time, however, the unexpected turn was simply the nudge John needed.
I was startled by a strong slap across the dashboard. Tiny droplets of spit hit my right cheek as John spewed his indignation, telling me how I never do anything right.
I was 27 years old at the time and still terrified of him. As he ranted, I gulped without saying anything and tightened my grip on the steering wheel to hide the shaking in my hands. Suddenly the stereo came to life, blaring I LIKE TO MOVE IT, MOVE IT! at high volume, causing my heart to jump out of my body and quickly return to my chest with the information that, thankfully, I had not soiled my pants.
I moved to turn down the volume and caught a glimpse of John’s twisted face as I did; I braced myself for another outburst. But Constantine’s red jacket suddenly appeared, reflecting in my headlights, and John held it together for the moment.
Constantine opened the door and sat down, joining us in the cold, sombre atmosphere inside the car. The three of us exchanged a few words as I pulled out for the airport, anxious to get back on the road and hoping get some heat flowing in the car.
A few minutes later the heater fan started working again and my little Skoda was cruising along smoothly. We left the urban landscape behind and drove until we reached the only road connecting our Eastern town to the Romanian capital of Bucharest: European road E85, where the government had attempted to convert two lanes into four without adding any tarmac. They had simply drawn new stripes on the road, creating two treacherous half-lanes in each direction. The hundreds of crosses scattered along that 150-mile stretch of E85 stand as a testament to this drunken Eureka moment by the authorities.
I wasn’t worried, however. E85 was part of my weekly taxi run; I could have driven that road in reverse while making Bob Ross paintings and still arrived on time and in one piece.
About an hour into our trip, John was huffing like a kid whose parents just passed by the third McDonald’s without stopping. I could tell he was well beyond the point where he wanted to be pleased; now he needed to blow off steam, and guess who was sitting next to him.
I should mention that Romania has a significant problem with stray dogs. They are so many, in fact, that they outnumber the human population by nearly two to one. Knowing this, it was bound to happen that one of the dogs would find its way into my headlights, and it did—right as I was driving on the most dangerous stretch of E85.
I was doing around 60mph when I saw the dog and immediately swerved to avoid hitting it. The car started to slide but I quickly got it back under control. As soon as the car stabilized, however, John started to shout from the top of his lungs, demanding that I stop the car and let him out. At first I thought John’s outburst was just a passing rant because the sudden maneuver scared him. But as the minutes went on, John became increasingly vocal about stopping the car.
It wasn’t the first time I had seen him in that state, so I tried to ignore him and kept driving, mostly for the sake of my foster mom to whom, if I followed John’s wishes, I would have to explain that I left her husband stranded in the middle of nowhere on one of the coldest nights of the year.
It wasn’t long before John’s rage had reached its boiling point. He was shouting and banging his hand against the dashboard. “LET ME OUT!” he shouted. “LET ME OUT! CAN’T YOU HEAR ME?! LET ME OUT!”
I squeezed the steering wheel and tried to focus on the road. He wasn’t angry with me for swerving around the dog; he was furious that I wasn’t doing what he wanted, that he had commanded me to do something and it was not being done, that his authority was being undermined. This was something that John could not tolerate. I looked at the trip miles on my dashboard and realized it would be another three hours until we reached our destination.
Suddenly John’s hand was gripped tight around my neck and I was sprayed with spit and curses from his mouth, now way too close to my face for comfort. He was choking me, demanding I stop the car and threatening to kill me if I didn’t.
I wasn’t going to stop that car if God himself had his teeth clenched around my rear axle and his feet dug into the tarmac. Only one thing was bound to happen if I did: John would storm out shouting like a madman, after which we would probably end up in a brawl by the side of the road. I say brawl because if it were to come to that, I intended to fight back this time. Even so, it would be better to avoid a fight, as I knew that no matter who came out on top we would end up back in the same car, and neither of us is the type to throw punches and then shake hands. John holds a grudge, but the joke is on him because so do I, and I have a better memory.
His nails dug into my neck as he squeezed tighter. He hadn’t hit me yet, but wasn’t far from it. I tilted my head to one side so I could watch the road and grunted for him to let go of me. He thought I hadn’t gotten the message and started to bang my head against the window so I would understand him better. At that point I had enough. If John had a short fuse, then mine was long—twenty years long—and he had just burned up the last piece.
I snarled at him and lined up the speeding car with a ditch on the side of the road. I downshifted from fifth to third and the engine screamed as I aimed the car at a large tree less than a hundred yards away.
“Either let go of me, or I’m gonna kill us both,” I said, nearly choking on my words. He immediately let go and grabbed the handlebar above his head, screaming like a little girl. Just then Constantine also squealed like a child, the first sound he’d made since the start of our journey.
The tree loomed larger and larger as we hurtled towards it, the car bouncing over a few pieces of frozen mud, giving my passengers more reasons to scream. I kept the clutch halfway pressed down until the tree was ten yards away, John now with his knees curled up to his chest and gaping at the white-painted tree in my headlights, screaming at the top of his lungs. At the last second I released the clutch, rode the engine brake and yanked the car back onto the road and, with a little wobble, resumed driving normally. Luckily there were no cars on the road at that time.
I looked at John and saw the funniest expression I’ve ever seen on a human being: a man pretending to be crying with anger in order to hide his fear. His forehead and mouth were screwed up angrily, while his eyes were pleading Help me, Mommy. He was so shaken up he couldn’t even shout properly, his voice choking in gasps of terror, which caused him to become even angrier. Still, he resumed cursing me and I patiently waited until he finished his rant.
Then, I started mine.
I threw everything he had done to me in the past back at him. All the beatings, all the—actually, that was all I brought up, the beatings.
John swore on everything he considered holy that he had never laid a hand on me. At that moment, I realized that, in some ways, beating a child is like playing poker: some poker players say they rarely remember a win but they always remember a loss. In my experience, perpetrators of domestic violence have a similar memory problem. They may not remember their actions, but the person on the receiving end never forgets.
John and I argued for about an hour, during which he opened the door a few times, threatening to jump out of the car (with his seat belt still attached) before he resumed slapping the dashboard again. This went on for another hour, after which he started to quiet down. He was getting tired. Then, after a few minutes of much needed silence, he uttered the words that would be the kick I needed to make major changes in my life.
“You’re done. I don’t need you anymore. I have enough money to take care of myself when I’m old. I don’t need you anymore. Pack your stuff and get out of my house,” John said.
Thanks John, I thought. It’s been a good twenty years.
Hearing those words felt like the opening of the door of a jail cell, albeit one that led straight into a dark abyss. But I didn’t care where I was going; all that mattered was that I was out.
I was free, and in that moment, I knew I had the upper hand on John. I remember feeling so calm that I wanted to test him, to find out if he actually meant what he said about our relationship being finished. So for the first time in my life, I said something to John from a higher standpoint.
“Mind your words, John,” I muttered.
My words landed like a direct command to release his inner demon, because it was as if he became possessed as soon as I said them. He started shouting and banging again, calling me the same names he’d been calling me all night. He moved to grab my neck but stopped himself, likely held back by the fear that I might see another tree and accelerate towards it.
I looked at him out of the corner of my eye and raised my eyebrow condescendingly. I probably overdid it with this gesture, but I wasn’t going to get another chance to look at him that way. Still too afraid to hit me, he instead satisfied himself by spitting at me a few times. Maybe I shouldn’t have raised that eyebrow after all.
Then came the silence, ten blissful minutes of it. We arrived at the drop off point. John and Constantine—who had been silent the entire time, other than his scream of terror—got out of the car without saying a word, after which I drove off, trying to keep myself together, chain-smoking and crying.
That was the last time I saw John; I never heard from him again. John, the man who raised me, or more accurately, paid the bills to raise me. To him it was all the same.
As far back as I could remember, I had tried my best to please him, but it was never enough: I was never smart enough or brave enough. I had wonky eyes, I was stupid, I would never amount to anything, I never made enough money.
Now, he was out of my life.
As soon as I got out of Bucharest my car died on a desolate stretch of road surrounded by farm fields. Apparently, all the banging John had done on the dashboard messed up some circuits and overloaded my alternator, subsequently killing my car. One last gift from John to make sure I remember him.
There was no help in sight, nothing for miles around. I was better off chewing my own arm than flagging down a passing vehicle; asking for help is a good way to get robbed in Romania.
I was stranded in the middle of nowhere, hungry, cold and now an orphan. It must have been around 5 a.m. because dawn was breaking. The last temperature reading I saw on the dashboard before my car died read -19 degrees Celsius.
Within minutes, my face was frozen as stiff as a board in the dim rays of the morning light. Tears were frosted around my eyes and every breath caused a sharp pain in my chest. The window had been rolled down when the car died, allowing freezing wind to pour into the car. I had no blankets or extra clothes. I huddled in the drivers seat, trying to keep warm.
Less than an hour later I was out of cigarettes and could barely feel my hands and feet. I got out of the car and opened the trunk to see what I could use, but there was nothing there but luggage straps, duct tape and a few tools. Desperate, I used a knife to cut all the padding from the seats in the car and duct-taped the ragged foam around my feet and chest. By this time I felt like my skin was burning, and my mood wasn’t helping much either. Everything I felt inside was reflected across the frozen, desolate land around me.
Unlike John, however, I have friends. Reliable friends. The kind of friends who would drive hundreds of miles to help a friend in need.
The night before my trip with John, my friend Andrei Pastor asked to borrow the other taxi I own so he could earn a few bucks overnight, to which I agreed. John was furious when he found out, saying that Andrei would wreck the car and that I should have charged him for borrowing it, but I stuffed his words somewhere the sun doesn’t shine and handed Andrei the key. It turned out to be the best good deed I’ve ever done.
Freezing on the side of the road next to my dead car, I texted Andrei and he quickly replied that he would come pick me up. Still, he was at least four hours away. I settled myself into the car and waited. Eventually Andrei arrived and when he did, he found me half-conscious and shivering, my nose buried deep in the padding where a thousand behinds have rested.
Andrei helped me into the car I had loaned him and cranked up the heat. I absorbed the warm air in relief as he hitched my dead little Skoda to the back of his taxi. Andrei got back in the car and, as we drove off, he handed me a large cup of coffee and pointed at a pack of cigarettes sitting above the stereo.
I’ve had a lot of coffee in my life; there have been times where I felt like I had more coffee than blood in my system. But that morning, in that car, I took a sip of that coffee and I swear I could taste the soil underneath the fingernails of the person who picked those beans in Ethiopia. My god was it good. I felt the heat spreading through my capillaries all over my body, tingling and giving me an almost amniotic feeling. Pure ecstasy, for only 50p from a gas station vending machine.
As he drove, I told Andrei what had happened with John. We didn’t say much after that for the rest of the trip. I guess he knew as much as I did that not much can be said about such things.
When I got home I went straight to bed—and then the phone rang. It was my mom. At least I had cigarettes and would be warm for the conversation.
As soon as I answered, her voice in the phone speaker started to buzz like a drunken mosquito, telling me what happened after I had dropped John off at the airport. Apparently, he had immediately called my mom to give her his version of the story before I had a chance to say mine. In his version, I had been driving like a maniac trying to show off and told him that I would kill him if he didn’t make me heir to his precious two-bedroom apartment.
As soon as I told her my version, my mom quickly realized which one of us was telling the truth and calmed down. I remember her saying, “He’s mad,” every time I finished a sentence. But then, just like she had done so many times, she tried to defend him, tried to find excuses for him. I knew the conversation was a lost cause, so I cut it short and went to sleep.
Later that day, my girlfriend Andrea came over all dressed up for a belated Valentine’s Day, only to find me in the mood for a funeral. She knew something was wrong and expected the worst. Compared to what she was expecting though, my news came as a bit of a relief for her—until I told her we have to break up.
The truth was that I had to go, and I had no idea where. I knew I had to leave the country, to start over from scratch, and I couldn’t take Andrea with me; that wasn’t an option.
“The hell you are!” she said with tears in her eyes. “I’m coming with you.”
That’s when I realized something: in a woman’s eyes, the man she loves cannot be hit with a tragedy serious enough to push her away, as long as he is not cheating on her.
Lost a job? Not a problem. Kicked out of the house? Tough luck, but it’s OK. Are you cheating on me? No? Then we’ll get through this. Although I had been faithful, I still couldn’t give her the answer she wanted. I was sure I had to leave, on my own.
It took me a while to sell my two cars. Apparently I had overestimated the value of a broken-down taxi that had circled the globe a few times and was held together by the cheapest parts from the flea market. But I needed the money from those cars to start a new life. Two months later, I still hadn’t sold them and was down to asking close to half my original price.
During these months I didn’t receive a single call from John. My mom, however, was calling way more often that her usual once a week, up to twice a day in fact. Just to check on me, she said, and maybe make me forget about all the terrible things John had done—you know, it’s not nice to hold a grudge.
I was losing my hope of ever leaving these people. I felt like I was going to be stuck with them forever. But eventually help came in the form of a nice big plus sign on a pregnancy test.
I was sitting at my computer when Andrei and his wife knocked on my door. They came into the bedroom and Andrei slammed a stack of money on the desk—a deposit for my cars. I couldn’t believe my eyes!
Andrei told me that his wife was pregnant and that he wanted to buy the cars so he would be able to work as a taxi driver to provide for his family. I was so happy in that moment I wanted to drop his pants and kiss those hanging fruits of his myself!
A few days later, I had my plane ticket bought and I was on my way to the shopping mall with Andrea and her mother when my mom called again. I told her I had bought the ticket and that I was leaving Romania forever. My mom paused for a few moments and then said what any caring mother would say in that situation: “What are you going to do with your computer and PlayStation?” If I had any doubts before, I knew then that I was making the right decision.
I closed the phone. Then, I blocked her number. That was the last conversation I ever had with my foster mom, more than seven years ago.
Since then, Andrea—who in the end wouldn’t let me leave without her, thank God—and I have started over from scratch in the Midlands, United Kingdom, and overcome pretty much everything life has thrown at us. We are happily married and our three-year-old daughter runs to me every time I come home from work. It is the absolute best feeling ever!
Today, I have everything I’ve ever wanted except for millions of dollars and a supercar, but I’m not complaining. Looking back, I feel like none of this would have been possible if John and I hadn’t had our little fight: if he hadn’t pushed me to my limit with his abuse, I wouldn’t have reacted the way I did and ended up so happy in life.
I guess life really is all about timing. Someone up there knew that I was ready to face life on my own and to become more responsible. Maybe it was God, or the universe—or maybe it was that lonely stray dog in the middle of the road on that freezing night.
I sure hope he’s OK. I owe him a great deal, that stupid dog.
Read more of Dan’s writing here.