ENOUGH: Towards Survival

By

ENOUGH is a 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.

The series will run every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.

***

Collision
(Name withheld due to ongoing court proceedings)

You can tell when it’s 3:30 p.m. on a Wednesday on our street. You’ll hear the flat smack of a car’s front bumper meeting the hollow plastic of a city-issued recycling bin, followed by a low rumble as that bin is forcibly pushed into the bushes until it’s wedged against an old, cracked and moss-covered cement retaining wall.

Once the bin is pinned, there’s nowhere for it to go. The sport is over for the day. The car backs up, making a three-point turn, and honks its horn like a sick duck.

It’s my estranged husband, asserting his right to violence outside the door, in full view of our child.

A few years ago, my publisher and I announced that I’d have a third book coming out. A collection of linked stories! I’m proud of the book and glad to have it published. But from the day of that announcement until now, I have been run into deep debt with legal fees. My husband, now my ex-husband, fell into what I can only imagine is a narcissistic rage. A kind of irrational anger took over. He was always moody, but this round his violent anger hasn’t quieted down, no matter how much time goes by.

On the day of the book announcement, I’d achieved a measure of my literary ambition, and our friends were happy for me.  It was a nice day. What I didn’t expect, though, was that my success was apparently an affront to my husband’s ego. I’d stepped out of line, achieved too much, undercut his male entitlement. He let a toxic degree of masculine acceptance of violence as self-expression take hold. Apparently, I wasn’t supposed to get my work, my voice, out in the world.

He viewed creative support and success as his right, not mine. I’d gotten out in front of him, somehow, and for that I would “pay.”

He’s a man who values money, and he turned to financial abuse, to try to gain his satisfaction, gratification, and to assuage his ego.

The court system has empowered him; I’ve had to spend over one-hundred thousand dollars, to stay safe and disentangle myself legally from this man. Court for irrational anger, is an extension of financial abuse. Ultimately, I continue to prevail, in court, because I’m honest and right and have done nothing wrong. But now I am broke. He is still a ball of rage with no signs of abating until I am destroyed, at this point.

He loves his boxy, mid-1980s BMW. He has always babied the precious thing, washing it with a particular sea sponge and shammy cloth, coaxing it to shine. I’m surprised that he’d used the car as a weapon to enact domestic-violence-by-proxy, but apparently he’s into it. For a while, he started showing up earlier, as though he was excited for the “game.”

While he’s threatening me, every Wednesday, the real damage he’s doing is to our child’s psyche. She’s a witness. The first time she saw him intentionally run his car into the bins, she was shocked. By the fifth week, the violence had been normalized. When I realized she was coming to view this as routine, I went to the courthouse. I filled out the forms. I took a day away from work, love, creativity, and all good things. The courthouse suggested I follow up with a police report, so I did that, too. It all takes time and concentration.

I try to laugh it off. After a while, it gets tiresome though, laughing off the stupidity of violence and entitlement. It’s tiresome to laugh away an enactment of the assault that led to the removal from my former husband from our house, pretending it’s not a big deal.

It is a big deal. It’s my life.

*

Shattered—
Jacquelyn Grant Brown

like silence each time he
comes home again—
slams a fist into my face
again, sends my whole
body crashing
again—again. I say
nothing. Weak,
I turn and look
toward twilight,
Andromeda
wasting tears
over the half-moon—
black jewelry on my cheek.

*

Definitions: Towards Survival
Shabnam Nadiya

Acceptance
Is not necessarily synonymous with forgiveness.

Bedsheets
The final night he broke into my apartment, that night when he hit my mother and my child while trying to get to me, that night he called me “darling wife” with his hands wrapped around my throat while explaining he could extinguish me right then and there, he also yanked the bedsheet that lay rucked up on the bed.

“This is mine,” he screamed. “I bought this with my money, you bitch.”

It was rather plain: white, checkered with black squares, little shapes embroidered in red and green. I noticed that he was using English again. I noticed the green lamp base by the bed, which was really a glass vase weighted with sand. I remember its curve and heft; I remember the glass shards on the dining room floor from the broken painting; I remember being frightened that if he smashed the lamp, there would be glass shards here, too. I cannot remember the color of his shirt, but I remember my screaming child wore white and blue.

It was the wrong bedsheet. This one was from Comilla, where a long-distance bus had stopped once. I had bought it, not him, with my money, not his. He was thinking of a different one we bought together at Cox’s Bazar. He always got them confused. I had stopped telling him which was which a long time ago.

Home
The loss of which, when it rips you apart, you should remind yourself: how can you lose something you never had?

Knives
That night before I finally filed for divorce, my mother locked my kitchen door. It took me three days to find the key. This is not a metaphor for anything. Later, she told me, she was frightened that he would go after the knives resting on my kitchen counter. How was she to know I didn’t have the key?

My silly mother! Worrying about knives when all around us glinted shards of glass from the frame he broke.

Funnier still, that in the end, what split my skin that evening was merely the rough corner of his fingernail.

Betrayal
There were many;x there will be many. There will be a hierarchy to them. This hierarchy will depend on many things: how much you had expected or anticipated, how much you had loved, how much you had been loved. It will be a steep set of steps. The higher you climb, the more you lose breath.

Gratitude
What he asked of me: if he hadn’t hit me in front of them, would I ever have received my parents’ sympathy and support?

I
The self. What you lose gradually, inevitably, the longer you stay.

Control
Some nights the only control I had was to make sure the sex didn’t happen in the same bed where my daughter slept.

Shame
The burden I bore that shouldn’t have been mine.

Mother
Sometimes my mother is a rock. One afternoon, after weeks of disbelieving me, she touched my knee and said she knew I wasn’t lying, and she would stick by me no matter what. Sometimes my mother is a rock that stands in the wrong spot. Like when she got sucker-punched for trying to shield me and my daughter with her body.

Jail
The place where my soon-to-be ex-husband spent a night for attempting to break into my apartment to assault me (again), and for which friends and family held me responsible. Because why wouldn’t I just let him into my house, so he could hit me again?

Voice
Why didn’t you speak up? They demand. Why didn’t you say anything before? Why should we believe you now?

Yes, I admit. I probably should have. But look, now, right now, I am. Speaking up. Saying something. Listen. Believe.

You’re just doing it for revenge, they accuse. You’re fame-seeking. You’re trying to gain some advantage.

Advantage? What kind? I ask.

They look away.

Poison
“You’ll poison her against her father,” she said, “because that’s what women do. I’ve seen it many times.”

“My daughter?” I asked. “The same daughter who witnessed her father throw me against the wall, who was hit herself when he was trying to get at me, the daughter who saw her father hit both my parents as they tried to protect me? You think I am responsible for how she feels about him?”

I think at the time she didn’t realize that my daughter had eyes. And a brain.

Love
The thing that is not enough, is never enough, to make it work.

*

This Is That
Rachel Attias

When I was young my father was our stalker and he went to prison for it. There wasn’t ever a doubt that what had happened to us was violence. We palmed the words on lawyers’ business cards, the courtroom and all that happened inside it huddled under the demarcation Domestic Violence. And so, I learned that violence, sometimes, does not have to be physical.

It can be words, quiet or loud. It can be saying “no” or “bitch” or “cunt” when you’re supposed to say “yes,” when you’re supposed to say “I’m sorry,” when you’re supposed to say “I’m leaving you alone now.” It can be showing up outside karate class, standing in the parking lot with a lonely, pitiable face that made me almost want to run and hug, almost forget to run and hide.

My father was our stalker and they called it domestic violence, but what about the other men, the ones who came after? My mother’s boyfriend who practiced kung fu and didn’t know how strong he was. Who choked my older brother until he woke up on the floor (but it was a joke, just a big funny joke!). Whose voice, after they broke up, came floating up our driveway uninvited, singing to our dog. Who did not know that I was home alone, and conditioned to fear him, and so hid in my closet like a rat while he came inside and walked around and left a note saying he’d “been in the neighborhood.”

And the next one, who showed his ugliness only when my mother broke up with him. Who got wasted and called our house thirty-seven times in a row, screaming into the phone when anyone picked up. We were trying to watch a movie. We couldn’t hear the words. He drove over, drunk, and thank God took himself away when my mother threatened to get the cops involved. I’d thought he was a cool one; I’d liked him because he bought my brothers and me a miniature Heineken keg once.

Was this domestic violence, too? No lawyers came, no trial pursued, no justice sought. We just kept on living, tensing and flinching and ready for the next time. These men, as I’d tried to make abundantly clear to them, were not my father. They weren’t shit. So why could they scare me just the same as he did?

My blood turns to battery acid when I remember how I’d thought it was all my mother’s fault. That she had terrible taste; that she really didn’t know how to pick ‘em. Until it happened to me, too.

Until that boy in college who I’d thought was so cute and sweet, and maybe a little bit dumb, didn’t like that I’d thought about dumping him. Didn’t even hear it from me, but didn’t like that he’d heard it from my gossiping friend, with whom I’d tried to work my feelings out, come to a kind and fair decision. Didn’t like me anymore, but boy did he love me, when he showed up at my dorm room that night reeking of liquor. That and the cocktail of drugs he liked made his voice both slurred and razor-sharp.

He called me all the bad names. He said he was sorry. He said he loved me hated me fuck you you high school cunt. He punched my walls, then he slammed his head against them. I am willing to wager that the dents are still there, all these years later. He cried. He curled up on the floor. He got up and swore and punched some more.

Was this real? I wondered at the time. Was this happening to me? This wasn’t supposed to happen to me. This had already happened to me. I had told him about my history, my distrust, my nightmares. Had my mother, too, told those other men? Had we been seeking safety? Or had we, instead, just given them a good idea? Who made this happen, them or us?

I remembered that violence doesn’t have to be physical. I remembered as he ranted. I let memories of my mother take over my body. I was surprised to feel that she was just as scared as I was, every single time. But I felt her arms on mine when I pushed him out the door, and I heard her voice hurl itself from my throat as I spat my own words at him. “How fucking dare you.” And I felt her hand on my spine as I locked the door.

As I waited for campus security to come knocking, to take my statement and put it “on file,” my hands did not shake. My breath was even. Violence doesn’t have to be physical. Violence doesn’t have to be court-recognized. This was violence. Those other times, they were violence, too. It doesn’t make it hurt less, but I can name it now. This is what I’ve known my whole life. This is that.

*

Deliverance
Tyler Erlendson

The smell of wet Hemlock delivers me
to the front porch where a woman who
used me like a dirty flannel shirt
smoked her cigarettes in winter.
In my mind I still hear her cackle like an
old shrew at the daily comics. I couldn’t
name greed then, did not know knuckles
would bury so deep into kidneys
the sacks could only stay
the shape pounded
or shrivel.
I loved her the night she made fish tacos
filled with bean sprouts and lime juice.
She danced in the kitchen, curving her
frame around the tangerine Formica table,
curling her index finger toward her chest
beckoning me, chanting my name.
I came, dipped her body against the stove
where her hair caught fire from the burner
left lit.  We put it out with half-filled cans of
beer she had lined on the window sill next to
the orchids.
I hated her the night I caught her
holding a knife to my throat while I slept,
had to disbelieve her when she admitted
it wasn’t the first time.

*

Forward Is the Flame We Must Tend
Ellen Urbani

My divorce attorney—the one who advised me not to get a restraining order, for women are just as likely to be harmed with one in place, he said; better to proceed with greater stealth—once asked what compelled me to marry my former husband.

He made me feel safe, I replied.

When I was twenty-four, my stalking began with a knife lifted from my kitchen counter and impaled at eye-level in my bedroom door, inside my locked house. My stalker came back at will over the course of months, courier of terror, to pick the locks and slip away; to pen an anonymous message, in blood, on my wall; to re-sort my possessions so that when I reached for a toothbrush, for instance, I might find, instead, a bullet or a bone. Ours was an age-old conversational dance. You have no sanctum that is not mine to violate, his actions said.

He came for me one night, my stalker did, hacking his way through the door while I slept. The attack seemed to endure for days but lasted, in all likelihood, only a few minutes. But those minutes became the hours and the weeks and the years that composed the very long story of the next decade of my life, for the man who became my first husband moved in with me immediately afterward.

To keep me safe.

 

I took a carload of children and a passel of other family members camping this weekend, twenty-four years to the day since my stalker broke in. I wanted to bask in the warmth of autumn’s last waltz with the sun and skip in the tide pools before winter’s storms charge in from the sea to blacken the Oregon skies and make our ocean cliffs inhospitable. We rode horses on the beach and raced buggies across the sand dunes and built a fire around which to tell ghost stories. My current mother-in-law kicked off the storytelling with, “When I was married to my first husband …”

I interrupted. “You were married more than once?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “I got married for the first time when I was nineteen. It only lasted a year.”

“Why?”

“He was violent,” she said, so casually. The way you might explain the tossing away of a half-eaten apple—it was bitter—or the decision not to wear an otherwise pretty pair of shoes—they pinch. An unfortunate state of affairs, clearly, but not an altogether unexpected outcome.

My current husband, her son, is fifty-some years old. For more than half a century, their lives have been intertwined. I asked him, later, if he knew his mother had been married to someone else before marrying his father; if he knew what had happened to her. He did not.

The curious thing to me is that the missing story roused in him no particular curiosity, and his mother proceeded past my interruption of her tale without skipping a beat. History not so much erased, but dissipated, like smoke into the night air. “He was violent.”

So commonplace. So unremarkable. So perfectly passé.

 

Seven years ago, the judge who handled my custody case sat me down after his first meeting with my former spouse. “I hate to scare you,” he said, “but do you have the means to hire a bodyguard? I think you need one.”

Five years before that, while my then-husband was at work, his best friend came by our house to empty his shotgun before replacing the weapon, carefully, at his bedside, where it might appear undisturbed. “Hide these,” the friend said, tipping the shells into my cupped palms, “somewhere where he can’t find them, but where you can get to them quickly if you need them.”

Two years later, my former mother-in-law said, “I will always love my son, but I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t tell you: I’ve seen how mean he is to you when people are around and I think you’re in danger when you’re alone.”

Six years earlier, as I hid in his house, my male neighbor informed me, “You’ve got to find someplace safe to go, but it can’t be here. I’m afraid he’ll come after me, too, and there’s no way I can defend myself against him.”

 

Before we packed the car and returned home from our camping trip, I lit one last campfire at dawn. To chase off the chill; to warm us while our bodies woke to the task of warming themselves. The children—my two, and their friends, and their cousins—danced with flaming pine boughs around the campsite. They ate marshmallows for breakfast. They followed a chipmunk into the woods and came back with a heart-shaped stone and begged me for a game. “If you could live in any time period other than this one, what time period would you choose?” I prompted. The boys spoke of medieval knights and sword battles and the youngest girls swooned at the thought of ball gowns and jeweled tiaras. But the oldest girl child, at fourteen, locked eyes with me and said, “Our only option is the future.” You and me, she meant. Us women. “We could never go back in time.”

The boy-child beside her asked, “Why?” because he does not understand the past is the place where women were possessions, devoid of votes, devoid of voices, and the present he has been born into—the present where he will thrive—is a place where Hollywood directors make more money after sleeping with their stepdaughters and producers consider rapes auditions, where running your dick around the rim of an underling’s soda can earns you a seat on the Supreme Court because pussy-grabbing is presidential.

My husband took on the task of explaining the girl’s comment to the boy, because he thought he understood what the girl-child was getting at. “The past was really difficult. For everyone,” he emphasized. “There was disease, and starvation, and…”

He does not get it.

He is a brilliant man, my husband—a renowned scientist and inventor, a man possessed of an IQ that defies conventional measurement—and beyond that he is a good man, one who stood beside me as I fought my former spouse, legally and otherwise. But his comprehension has limits. He can, and does, endeavor to empathize, but in the end, he cannot truly understand the lived experience of a woman, of so very many women, any more than I, a white woman, can claim to comprehend the experience of a black man, for instance. Our imaginations have limits; they cannot be our everything.

The fourteen-year-old girl-child knows this. She already understands something the grown man cannot. “I’m not talking about everyone,” she said. “I’m talking about women. There is no woman alive today, no informed woman, who would ever willingly choose to go back to the way things were.”

I held her gaze, and nodded at her from my place on the opposite side of the flames. “Yes,” I said. “You are right.”

 

There came the day when he chased me down the street. I was a perfect cliché: barefooted, a toddler in one arm, a newborn in the other. He chased me past our manicured flowerbed and a Toyota minivan and a yard sign that admonished “Slow Down/Children at Play.”

“If you ever try to leave me,” he screamed as he tore after me, “it will be the last thing you ever do!”

I cannot say with any certainty why I did what I did. I can only say that the running and the hiding and the disarming hadn’t worked, and sometimes, when everything you can think to do fails, you do something unexpected. I turned on him. Instead of running from, I turned and stormed toward. I said “NO.” I held my ground. And it stopped him. Not forever, but for that moment. And that moment powered the next moment, which powered the one after that, and the aggregate of those small, persistent steps forward became, thank god, the beginning of our end.

 

I doused the final campfire before buckling the children into their seatbelts for the long drive home. It is my job to keep the forest and the children safe so I crushed the life from the embers beneath my feet, to keep rogue sparks from erupting into renewed flame in my absence. Without such protection, the saplings forcing their way skyward through the old, dead wood would burn before ever achieving their full stature.

I am called to fuel a different fire. I will tell the girl-child my ghost stories under a blanket on a sofa when the rains come. I will wrap my arms around her and feed her the tales of my truest hauntings, that they might ignite in her a courage and a knowing that I did not have when I was fourteen. I will tell her she is right that forward is the only way. I will say, “Do you see? It is only when I stepped forward that he stepped back.”

Forward is the flame we must tend. Forward, indeed.

***

Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.

***

ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women and non-binary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it 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.

Visit the archives here.