ENOUGH is a new Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change.
We received over four hundred submissions to our initial call and will not be accepting additional pieces at this time. We may reopen for submissions at a future date. We also must acknowledge that the submissions we received overwhelmingly came from white, heterosexual women. While we are actively assessing how we can do better in our next call for submissions, we also believe this points to systemic inequalities that need to be addressed: who has access to healthcare and to therapy, who has been taught to speak up and who has been taught to be silent.
Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.
ENOUGH will run weekly. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories. We begin with writing from current Rumpus editors.
[Notes, Window (Setting the Scene)]
Marisa Siegel, Editor-in-Chief
Intricate, complicated or the pressure in my chest thinking about everything having to do with window. I have always loved a window. Standing thisclose and watching breath on pane. Looking through a window down to the street, and—
A theoretical window cracks open. Windows both actual and imaginary, both practical and problematic.
The drama of window and its associated ornamentation.
The specific first theoretical window was made up of intersecting lines. A pattern of twos, repeating.
Specific windows, setting:
1) The first window
2) Window out unto quadrangle of green lawn, bench and tree
3) Sleeping basement window
4) Stained-glass library window
5) Bougainvillea bedroom window
We don’t see out or through windows so much as imagine what we might be seeing out or through windows.
Who climbing in window and who climbing out window.
was it daytime or was it
Did you knock or
(Many theoretical windows left unmentioned in window note-taking thus far.)
Window, a word with significance.
Porch window, watching my fist shatter its glass, watching glass fall into and around. A window so actual and theoretical that in effect we are always discussing its implications, whatever the setting, wherever the scene.
There is another window on set. If there are words to open this window I will: A window neither opened nor closed. A logic not exactly of a window but of a crack in a foundation, a tangle of roots. If you’ve gotten this far down, to the bumbling mistake, you’ll see I am distracted at the possibility that this window can never be opened but never be closed.
I am afraid it will be perpetual window.
I have already too many windows to set only one scene.
If My Body Is a Barrier
Lyz Lenz, Managing Editor
My body has always been a barrier—a division between me and the world.
My body was either too much and needed to be covered, or not enough and needed to be enhanced. For so long I wore shorts with three-inch inseams. “Don’t guide men into sin,” my mother said. But in the next moment, she was teaching me to line my eyes and enhance my cheekbones.
“You need to be more feminine,” she said.
There was my body at work, my very voice a barrier—my tone too shrill. Speak softer on the phone, a boss advised me. But talk louder in meetings if you want to be heard.
At another job, after an editor yelled at me about work he deemed “sub-par,” this same man rubbed my shoulders. “You are so tense; you women are always so tense.” I sat still and didn’t breathe until he walked away. “Jesus, you women are so uptight,” he said.
My body is a barrier, an object to be fucked and ignored. The children are my problem and why did I even have them if I was just going to complain about the leaky bladder, the stretched skin, the way my body is no longer my own? Why did I even use my uterus if I also wanted a job?
In graduate school, a man once said he wanted to suck the mole off my lip and all I had done was just exist in a space and be a friend. That mole on my lip a barrier to all the friendships I lost when he told everyone I had turned him down.
A barrier within the literary world where a man once cornered me in a hallway and asked, Why did you wear that dress if you didn’t want to be fucked? Another time, at another conference, a man pulled fliers from my back pocket, his fingers grazing my ass. He didn’t even need to say it. My mind did the work for him: Why had I put the fliers there if I didn’t want someone like him reaching?
My body is a barrier between me and the world. Controlled by Congress and debated in the public square. Am I allowed to want children, or to not want them? Can I get an IUD? Family members have weighed in on this, letting me know my contraceptive choices are a sin. My body is a barrier at Thanksgiving now, too. Asked not to breastfeed around the relatives. But also please bring a dish, made with your body. Pie. They want pie. They want me to feed them, just not my baby. I’m so confused and so tired of climbing this wall.
My body is a barrier, but they want it to be smaller. Hide it. Make it little like dollhouse furniture—smooth, hard, tiny. Be fuckable dollhouse furniture. And every magazine article advises me how to hide my bulges. Lose ten more pounds so there is no softness between me and the world. I am advised how to make my skin smoother. And then lose another ten more pounds. See that? You are strong! Just muscle. But all I am is a barrier that is not allowed to take up space.
I am also told my body is a barrier to faith. My desires are a sin. My talents are a sin. My voice is a sin. I’ve been asked not to pray because of my vulva. Asked not to lead because of my breasts.
I’ve worked so hard to find my way over this wall that contains me. To be seen for more than an assemblage of body parts and holes to be mastered and filled. But I don’t know if it’s possible. I’ve bent this barrier into the form of a bridge for so long that I am broken.
This is my prayer:
If my body is to be a barrier, let it be a battlement.
If my labia are the reason I am despised, let them drip poison.
If my breasts, which have fed children and fucked men, are the reason you stare and glare and grab, let them turn your body to stone.
If who I was created to be is a heresy, put me on trial and let me burn and let that fire consume the world.
If my voice is too shrill, let it scream out your secrets.
If I am too tense, let my rigidity close up every part of me so that you may never enter.
If my body is a sin, let it toss us all from this Eden.
If my body is a barrier, I am a battlement.
What I’m Really Saying
Abigail Bereola, Books Editor
The first time I remember learning about the ways my body could be violated, I was twelve or thirteen. We were on a stage, with hundreds of eyes on us, and yet nobody could see what was happening. I tried to get him to leave me alone, then, recognizing the futility of that, I resigned myself to what he wanted. After, I cried so much that a camp counselor wondered if I had been violated in worse ways before. After, he apologized to my father.
I don’t know what’s more gorgeous, you or the dress.
Once, there was a man in Harlem standing in a group of men and I was walking down the street in a dress. He told me I looked pretty and when I didn’t say anything, he screamed at me to say thank you, then he and all his friends laughed. I still remember the terror I felt at his yell and my mumbled “thank you” through laughter.
The things that bothered me most weren’t always the worst. The things that have bothered me most have always been the moments where I was in plain sight, but hidden.
I like you. That’s a good thing, right?
In college, friends would quietly pass names of men to avoid. “He’s on the baseball team,” said one. “He lives in our dorm,” said another. In college, I joined a group that advocated for and worked with students around issues of sexual respect. I met new friends and we organized against sexual assault. I knew the signs of dating violence, of emotional abuse, of harassment. I knew the definitions and I knew examples. And I would use this knowledge to try and protect friends, even—and especially—when I couldn’t protect myself.
Hello lady. Nice legs you got there. Wow. You need an escort? I’ll be your escort home.
Since late last year, I’ve kept a list of what men I don’t know say when they talk to me on the street. Sometimes I forget or don’t catch what was said, but so far, I’ve collected ninety-eight entries.
I have always been embarrassed by the fact that I know what to watch for and yet I still find myself in questionable situations with questionable men. I have been embarrassed that if a friend were in the same situations, I would ask her what was going on. I have been embarrassed that while I was in a relationship, a friend asked me that same question.
I’d get into that.
My ex would get upset that I would constantly ask him if he was mad at me. He felt like my asking insinuated that there was something pathological about him. I would reassure him that it was me, not him.
It has been difficult for me to trot out my pain under labels that I don’t assign, like “emotional abuse” or “assault,” even though I know what I’ve experienced fits the definitions. I have so many stories and some of them don’t even occur to me as stories because they just feel like life. I constantly recognize that my stories aren’t as bad as those of my friends or those of women who are no longer around to tell their stories.
You taken, right? Hey!
No one really knows what to do about the problem of sexual disrespect. It permeates everything. If you kick a person out—of your life, of your school, of your society—eventually, they will go somewhere else and still be able to hurt people. They might not recognize the way in which they hurt you. They might think they did nothing wrong. Most times, they will be fine. Their career will thrive, they might get married and have children, and they will leave wreckage in their wake. It doesn’t have to be like this.
Beautiful. I’d look at that all day.
As I write this, I worry that my words will be used against me—that “your fault” will be wrangled from what I think I am really saying, which is “help.”
Karissa Chen, Fiction Editor
A month ago, a woman close to me was raped. I learned about this in real-time; my friend had been texting me all evening with updates about her date. Earlier in the evening, the tone of these messages had been giddy, girlish, and I had read along, pleased for her that it was going so well. Then abruptly, her tone shifted. “I think I was just raped,” she wrote. I asked for clarification. What did she mean think? At the time, I was confused about her uncertainty; now it upsets me. She was uncertain because the rape hadn’t happened in a physically violent fashion—no one pinned her down, she hadn’t screamed or clawed her way out of the man’s clutches. She’d said no, several times, audibly, and when the man kept trying, she gave up and lay still beneath him, too tired to try and resist a fifth time. There are many men who would not characterize this as rape, who insist that to be “forcibly raped” one must put up a sincere fight. This is a message even women internalize, so even though my friend was sure she hadn’t wanted to sleep with her date and she was sure she had made that clear, even though she felt sick and dirty and horrible afterwards, what she wasn’t sure was if she was allowed to say she had been raped.
There was a time—when I was younger and before women in my life began confiding in me the stories of their sexual assault—when I was perplexed by the high statistic of women who had been sexually assaulted. It seemed almost unbelievable to me that one in six women have been victims of rape or attempted rape, that many more have been sexually assaulted in other ways. And yet now I would be surprised if the number of women assaulted wasn’t near 100%, because almost every single woman I know has a story of some sort of unwanted sexual encounter. The stories are rarely of violent rape (though those occur, too), but of other, more insidious encounters: a grope on the backside while waitressing, an attempt to force a blowjob on a first date, a leering sexual remark made by a stranger. If you widen the net to include the sexual acts many women engage in not because they want to, but because society makes them feel they should, I doubt there is a single woman who emerges untouched.
Perhaps it’s because these acts are so commonplace, that we’re sometimes inclined to brush some of the more minor offenses off. We’re told often that some of these things are harmless, that these are the terms of the world we live in, and even if we feel uncomfortable, it can be easier to pretend these things are no big deal than to confront the violence enacted upon us. It is, after all, exhausting to constantly think of oneself as a victim. My reluctance to label my own experiences as assault meant that sexual assault was something I longed to believe happened to other people, that it only happened when terrible men jumped out of bushes. I wanted to believe this kind of violence was inflicted only by the sick and deranged, by amoral men who existed on the fringes of society. It made the shame and fear easier to bear.
To accept the truth is to accept what is far more terrifying: it is our society that is sick. This is a society that encourages the objectification of women, that shrugs off catcalling or sexist jokes or inappropriate conduct as “harmless,” that looks the other way when those with power abuse those who have little recourse, that refuses to believe women who come forward with their stories of assault. I mean, for fuck’s sake, we live in a society in which a powerful man with a lot of money and a huge platform can admit to sexually assaulting a woman and still go on to become president.
To be honest, it took me days before I read the New York Times article about Harvey Weinstein, and even then, I only skimmed it. I didn’t have to read the article to know or understand what he had probably done. The reason that this was in the news was because of his high-profile position, but the stories that were trickling out were neither surprising nor new. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad he was publicly exposed and I feel terrible for his many victims. But, in the wake of my friend’s rape, I feel fatigued that as a society, we care about assault and harassment only when it hits the news cycle in some big way, despite the fact that it happens every day to people around us. Weinstein is symptomatic of this society we live in; he isn’t an exception.
One time a total stranger walked up to me in Times Square and whispered in my ear, “I’m going to lick your cunt.” One time a drunk man sitting next to me on a bus kept creeping his hand up my thigh, even after I repeatedly asked him to stop. One time a man pressed his hard penis into me on a subway car for two stops. One time a man sitting on a bench shouted for a massage as I walked by. One time an older male client I was working with asked me to pick something up from the floor when I was in a skirt, and when I turned around, his gaze lingered on the lower half of my body before he smiled knowingly at me. One time a man I was dating kept me up all night while I was trying to sleep because he would not stop putting his fingers up my vagina, even after I pushed him away. One time, when I was twelve, a much older man stroked my face and told me I was beautiful. One time a man hit on me by telling me all of his favorite porn stars were Asian. One time, after I told a man I was casually dating that I didn’t appreciate how he would not stop groping me through the night, I was told he expected more play on the next date.
This is just a list of the easiest memories of assault and harassment for me to reach for, and I haven’t even included a rape I have very recently come to acknowledge. I know I’m not alone in having a list like this—I guarantee every woman has cataloged in her memory a list of the times she felt unsafe, disrespected, physically threatened, terrified, vulnerable, and objectified. And yet. I’ve told these stories in hushed tones, sometimes flippantly, sometimes furiously, but often not allowing myself to feel their collective weight. I’ve realized that I have simply come to expect that this is part of the state of being a woman, particularly a woman of color, and to a degree, I have accepted it.
But we shouldn’t have to accept it. This shouldn’t be the state of our lives. We shouldn’t have to assume it will happen to all of us and that we simply have to gird ourselves against the onslaught of men who refuse to control themselves, who view this sort of harassment as a way to feel powerful. We shouldn’t have to remain silent, nor should we have to trot out our pain in order to be believed.
Before filing this essay, I gave the friend who was raped an early copy of it to sign off on. After she read it, she confided two heartbreaking things she hadn’t told me earlier. “I thought about going to get a rape kit done,” she said, “but my instinct was that I wasn’t ‘raped hard enough’ for anyone to believe me.” She then followed that statement up with a second, a fear that is so awful and unfair that I burst into tears when I read it. “With you and my other friends, I know that this was real and that it happened,” she said. “My fear is that someone is going to tell me that I’m exaggerating and diminish my reality. What that would do is not only make me feel like I don’t have a right to feel sorrow and pain, but also make me feel like I need to reevaluate my boundaries of what I believe rape to be.”
Why do we place the burden of proof upon the victim? Why do we ask them to gaslight themselves, to insist that they ignore the truths their bodies tell them? I’m heartsick, tired, angry, that this still has to be a conversation we have, with the expectation that the victims will be the ones to fix this. This is not our problem. It is the sickness of the perpetrators. It is the affliction of the entitled, the powerful, the man on a date who thinks he can ignore a woman’s pleas. Guardians of the patriarchy: This is on you. Fix yourselves. Cure this disease that you have wrought.
The Lucky Ones
Arielle Greenberg, Series Editor
Here’s the nuanced, complicated truth: I consider myself one of the very lucky ones—one of a tiny minority of feminine-identified people to escape to adulthood without having been subjected to sexual trauma, rape, assault, molestation, or abuse. The fact that I escaped is a happenstance; I didn’t make it so, and it could have easily gone otherwise. Just as no choice one makes one leads one to be raped or sexually assaulted or abused, my choices did not lead to my escape. Nonetheless, I did escape, and that escape has given me a privilege and agency I am aware of and think about every damn day. The way I can be in my body, sexually and otherwise, is a huge part of who I am, and in large part is possible because of this fortunate and random escape.
I think it’s important to say this truth. However, there are other truths, too. I have been scared for my safety while walking down the street—in broad daylight, in busy cities, in small towns, in foreign countries, in front of my own home. I have been on guard, nervously anticipating potential rape or assault, in workplaces and social settings and public transportation, with friends and partners and strangers and supervisors. I have been disregarded and dismissed based on my gender presentation, physical appearance and assumptions and associations made about me as a cis woman. I have been slut-shamed—by men, by colleagues and peers of both genders—based on what I wear or how I look. In almost every job I have had, I have felt aware, and often uncomfortable, of how I’m perceived through the lens of gender; I have often been treated with disrespect, suspicion, and hostility. My status in my fields of employment have been hugely informed, often to my disadvantage, by my gender.
Here’s one story, which is itself complicated, because the employers most responsible for treating me unfairly based on my gender were other women. A few years ago, I taught in a maximum-security men’s prison. I loved teaching there, and even though some of my students had done truly terrible things on the outside (sometimes to women), I was never scared of them. They were respectful and thoughtful and grateful to be with me in that educational space. They were great students. I was, however, deeply unsettled by how I was treated by the guards and staff, some of whom inspected every outfit I wore for signs that I was “asking” to be attacked, or inciting the men to misbehave. The worst offenders were, in fact, women who were my colleagues and supervisors and reported me for perceived policy violations around attire. At their request, I was taken away down a long hall by guards who wouldn’t tell me where we were going, and questioned. Even though the warden I was brought in front of (like a criminal!) confirmed that I was not violating any rules at all, and said he could see no problem with what I was wearing, my (female) supervisor reprimanded me afterward for “causing trouble,” and even though I got excellent evaluations from my students, I was never invited back to teach another class.
Those kinds of things have happened on an ongoing and regular basis for as long as I can remember. They define, in part, what it has felt like for me to be a girl, a woman, in this world.
So yeah: even for those of us who have never been raped, never been assaulted, never been molested, never been sexually abused, this is what it means to live in a patriarchy. In a rape culture. In a sexist society that breeds self-loathing and internalized misogyny and in-fighting among those of us who are feminine-identified.
And I aim to be ever more intersectional in my thinking about these issues.
This topic is nothing new to me, as I’m sure it’s not to most people posting here. I have been thinking about this for decades now, and this is one of the main subjects about which I write and teach, have always written and taught about, will continue to write and teach.
This in Your Mouth
Christine Hyung-Oak Lee, Features Editor
I worked in tech from 1995 until 2011, before tech bros entered the industry, back when it was the haven of geeks and nerds and outcasts, before Facebook and iPhones. I miss that older, marginalized nerd culture sometimes, but it has always been a male-dominated culture, one filled with sexualized lingo, much of which exists to this day. The UNIX command prompts—“finger,” “mount,” “strip,” “touch,” “unzip,” “top,” “man,” “uptime,” “fsck,” “root,” “gawk,” “head,” “tail,” “split”—make it so sex is unavoidable.
I’ve wanted to write about my years in tech for some time. I started off as a UNIX sysadmin out of college, my English degree doing me no service in a recession. As a sysadmin I had to type those UNIX command prompts each day as a matter of course: finger, strip, mount, top, touch, unzip, man. The men giggled. The (few) women rolled their eyes. It’s hard to type those words without imagining a female body. A naked one.
And then I moved into recruiting and HR, speaking with man after man, knowing that my female voice would further attract the male gaze—it’s no wonder that most of the tech recruiters I knew then were women. At one point, my then-husband was told by a female recruiter, “I’ll do anything to make you say yes to our offer.” Emphasis on “anything.” My eyes widened. He laughed. The anecdote was part of lively conversation for months.
In HR, I was the moderator for complaints. Women never complained. I don’t remember a single anecdote. But men did, throughout the companies at which I worked. One man was getting divorced and wanted to know if there was a way to take him off payroll so he didn’t have to pay spousal support. Another was on a “get well” plan for using the company computers to surf porn. More than one manager told me he felt women engineers couldn’t keep up—could I please only refer male engineers? The list goes on. It was part of the course of business. The divorced man was told no, but was not chastised by upper management for asking. I continued to forward the hiring manager female candidates, but he rejected every single one.
When I helped to start my then-husband’s company, I worked in HR and was, I thought, immune to harassment. I was told to smile more often and to be more cordial, but that was it. We hired women and we made sure they were equally compensated.
We ultimately put our company up for sale and held a party with key representatives of the acquiring company. I was wearing a cocktail dress, because—dammit, it was a cocktail party. I have worn it since with no ramifications.
The lead representative from the acquiring company, who I’ll call Sam, was a middle-aged white man. He apparently liked to smoke cigars. We were outside of the restaurant, a bunch of us, catching fresh air, wanting a change of scenery.
He lit a cigar and offered it to me. “I’d like to see this in your mouth,” he said.
He was crucial to the sale. I didn’t say anything, because I’d been trained for years in tech—well over a decade at this point—to evade and sidestep, as opposed to confronting harassment head on. In this moment, I thought of all the employees’ livelihoods and their mortgages and the business objective. Could I endanger that? Dare I? I took the cigar.
“That’s sexy,” he said.
I handed the cigar back. And stepped away, excusing myself with a chuckle. I was not amused. I laugh when I’m uncomfortable. (This is a problem, because I laugh at funerals. I am not amused at funerals.)
“Can you believe she’s the co-founder’s wife? I couldn’t work with that every day.”
He said this to no one. He was behind me in the shadows, away from the marquee of the restaurant. My coworkers were steps away.
I didn’t know what he wanted. How this would end. He had crossed a line. I wanted it to end, right then.
I didn’t say thank you—I credit myself for that. But I didn’t tell him to back off. “Hey,” I said, changing the subject, “let’s get back to the party.”
He put his hand on my arm. It was large and hairy. And warm.
I pulled away and walked back into the light. I spent the rest of the party avoiding him. I spent the rest of the acquisition avoiding him.
I told no one about the interaction, not until afterward. Afterward, I told my then-husband. I told the CEO. They both shook their heads in disgust. And then they said thank you.
What Slips the Quicksand beneath Our Feet
Amy Letter, Features Editor
I have been raped more than once and sexually harassed more times than it’s possible to count. But the thing that sticks with me is this:
When I was a kid, on payday nights, my family would travel to the other side of the county to have pizza at the place my mom and dad went to when they were first married. The place used a small amount of deep red, slightly sweet tomato sauce spread in a trippy red spiral, over, not under, the cheese, and those slices were a real treat. On the way there, we always drove past a building that said “Girls, Girls, Girls!” I would gaze longingly at those glowing orange words dripping down the frame of a blue Barbie kicking her leg. I tried to imagine what was inside: ball pits and dolls and slides, brightly colored my-sized delights. Thrilled by the prospect of a place for kids like me, I begged to go there. Dad deflected tactfully, but one day my five-years-older sister dropped the bomb: “Girls, Girls, Girls!” was not a call to their patrons, but an announcement of what was for sale.
People do and say terrible, hurtful things to each other. Rare is the insult, or injury, that undoes a life. What undermines us is far less clear and far more pervasive than an attack or grope or slur. What slips the quicksand beneath our feet is when half the world conspires to not-quite-say, “You only think you are a person; in fact, you are a commodity, your worth defined only by our demand and your supply limited only by our desire. Shut up, thing, and be used.”—and the other half of the world shrugs as if to not-quite-say, “That’s just how it is, and, hey, maybe they’re right.”
Rejecting rape culture means refusing all the ideological excuses that encourage us to “put aside” our fellow humans’ humanity for expediency or gain. It means rejecting consumerism, resisting authority, unhooding white supremacy, subjecting religion to science, subjecting science to math, and reviling the mass murder we call “war” with the righteous and intolerant fury of our most high and mighty ideals. It is a call for “the end of the world,” a shattering, as in Alan Moore’s Promethea: the goddess brings unholy change, which means we lose our self-congratulatory bullshit and have deal with the truth of who we are.
In one of my favorite poems, James Merrill wrote: “The eloquence to come / Will be precisely what we cannot say / Until it parts the lips.” Words make the world, and those as-yet-unsayable things will someday form a fertile plain warmed by the heat of the sun. The eloquence my young self needed beneath her feet as yet still goes unsaid, but it’s trying: a mass of phonemes scarred by stars—forgiveness and ferocity striking through lines aborted in ellipses and em-dashes… I’m trying, because if those of us who hunger refuse to “shut up,” between our bites and shouts we may hear from our own mouths the birth-cry of our own becoming.
Accommodating Asymmetrical Logic
Liz Wood, Assistant Features Editor
My stepfather liked to trap me in cars. Speeding along Best Buy-lined highways, running stop signs in unincorporated neighborhoods, he would yell. He was strategic, choosing routes that snaked through neighborhoods where I wouldn’t jump out, where getting home alone would seem impossible to an eleven-year-old unleashed into an unfamiliar night. His arguments were circular, massive vortexes that would pull me into their claustrophobic depths. Sitting on the passenger-side leather seat of his Oldsmobile, I would sink.
His name was Raymond and he liked to go to stamp conventions. Later I learned this was one of the many schemes he was running; intelligent, with a mind for loopholes, he was always trading something. Import-export as lifestyle. Watching Goodfellas, years later, as the hustlers dealt mink coats out the back of a restaurant, I felt a sense of pervasive, creeping familiarity. Raymond’s Mafioso dreams were simply cloaked in investments, in cotillion lessons I was forced to attend, tips in invitation writing and how to receive a glass of punch from an escort. The refinement of my fox trot.
In those car rides, I was an angel who misbehaved. I was the one who understood his greatness, although I needed to be taught how to show more respect. Teaching was key—the circling drives, spit lashing the windshield as he named the crimes leveled against him, all this was for my sake. One must learn to treat great men as they deserve to be treated. And in that car, away from my mother, away from the concern of strangers—save those moments when, stopped at a rare light, the eyes of a fatigued driver would catch mine and wonder, for a moment, at their responsibility to reach out to the swelled face, the shaking, crossed arms, the jaw clenched against any temptation to talk back—alone, he could teach me all he wanted.
At eleven, I couldn’t imagine a more mind-numbing activity than stamp collecting. But I knew its reward. Each time I accompanied Raymond to one of the event centers reverberating with hushed deals exchanged between men who regularly wore magnifying lenses in one eye, I added to the construct of our rapport. Grinning on cue I said, “thank you, oh wow thank you,” to the gift of a limited-run Susan B. Anthony five-cent stamp out of Indiana. I knew the respite it would bring, the relief from driving round and round in that car. It may seem paradoxical, electing to spend hours with a man, traveling to these conventions, in the hopes of spending less time alone with him in a vehicle. It is, at first glance. When you are trapped within the power of another, you accommodate yourself to asymmetrical logic. You learn to live within its folds. You modulate yourself to stand for the right thing, to attract the right kind of attention—occupying approximately the same space as a pleasingly statuesque and obliging cat. The kind who never damages the couch arms for fear of being declawed.
When he was gone, flying to export or import something, or simply installed in his beautiful office located in the heart of a quaint and absurdly expensive town, I would peel myself. Methodically, I would shed each layer of smiles. Sitting in my room, music playing and door closed, I would breathe in and bleed. My journals were quixotic things, transcriptions of all first thoughts that entered my mind. Trying to locate my own perspective, those free of a mask, I recorded my least-developed plans.
In these free hours, I slipped into the rooms of my mother’s mind. She had it much worse than me. One day, I brought home a handout on the abuse cycle, one of those documents thrust upon a somnambulant student body following a mandatory health assembly. I had plans of action, diagrams of my own. We would get out. We would plot, squirrel away allowance money, pawn jewelry, call in favors that no one had offered or extended, from people we would typically feel shame in owing.
Most stories of domestic abuse stop there—with the plotting forestalled, its logistics insurmountable for people who have been systematically isolated from friends and family, locked out of financial control, frozen in a posture of dependence. To the undying credit of my mother, that would not be us. After years of crushing words, she rose up. When I think back on the days we became free, all I can see are flames. An image of my mom, burning. And everything in her way being swept clear.
After we’d moved our things, after we’d called in those favors, installed ourselves in a one-bedroom cottage where my mom would sleep in the living room, sacrificing to give me our greatest treasure—privacy, a safe space—he came by, asking to take me on one last drive. Wistful, he lectured in a soft voice; coasting through the lanes of our new neighborhood, he doled out advice on making investments, on saving at a young age and reaping dividends throughout life. I listened quietly, as always; he gave me a bar of silver printed with Santa Claus’s face. Idling out front of our new home, he asked me to write. And, in that moment, I allowed myself to peel down to my core. “No,” I told him, and I got out.
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.