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.
Abuse Triptych, or How I Learned to Keep Silent
The first time a man ever hit me I was young and pretty and wearing a skimpy top on a hot day. I’d just gotten off the bus and was walking home, the sun warming my bare shoulders. He appeared behind me, breathing heavily as his pace quickened to catch up with me.
“You lot make me so mad,” he said. I kept walking, not even glancing over.
“You lot are all the same,” he persisted. “I feel like punching the lot of you.”
I slowed down slightly, curiosity getting the better of me. “The lot of you?” I asked, looking at him for the first time. He had crazy in his eyes; I could see that.
He grabbed my breast, bruising it and tearing open my top. “Yeah, the lot of you.” Then he hit me in the face.
As I stood smarting, I noticed another man sitting on the steps outside a house opposite. The shock of being hit faded momentarily, replaced by the shock that someone else was watching, doing nothing. Then I realized that the punch was just him getting started. I tried not to panic.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” a woman’s voice demanded. She was pushing a stroller, another kid clinging to the handle, arms loaded with shopping bags. “Get your hands off her,” she ordered, “before I call the police.”
The man ran off. I thanked the woman. She shrugged, like she’d just done what anyone else would have.
The first time a man ever hit me, I reported it to the police.
First I sewed up the top. Then I told my partner.
“Tell me where he lives,” he said. “We’ll sort him out for you.”
That wasn’t what I wanted at all.
I knocked on the door of the bystander. “Why didn’t you do anything?” I asked.
“I wanted to,” he said. “But I know him, and he’s crazy.”
“Why did it take a woman with kids to do something?” I asked. “What would have happened if she hadn’t come along?”
He didn’t answer.
“If I report this,” I said, “and I mention you as a witness, will you back me up?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe.”
The second time a man hit me, I heard the key turning in the lock first. He walked straight through my front door and lunged at me. I ducked to the ground. He picked up a chair, the one I’m sitting on now as I type this, hitting me with the legs; I put my hands up to my face, so the chair broke my finger instead of my nose. He pulled me along the floor by my hair and kicked me in the back, rage and grief pouring out of his body.
“Fire!” I screamed at the top of my lungs, the way they teach you to do in self-defense class. Because people are more likely to respond to a fire than a domestic argument.
I waited a few seconds, then screamed again.
No one came. He laughed. It was different from the warm laugh I recognized.
“I’d deny it all,” he said. “I’d tell them you started all of this. No one will believe you.”
I crawled into the corner of the room and sat balled up for a long time, or maybe just minutes, watching the dust bunnies drift along the floorboards, blown by my warm breath.
I could have run, but I was five flights up and the stairs were narrow, the banister unstable. What if he took it out onto the landing? What if one of us fell?
The second time a man hit me I could easily have picked him out of a lineup. It was the same man who had promised to sort out the first man. He hit me because I told him we were finished, and when he didn’t seem to understand, I told him again.
I sat with him as he broke down, his fists slowly loosening until I could put my hand in his. I promised him I wouldn’t leave. I was so sure he would jump from the window, that I wouldn’t even make it out the building before I heard the thud. I rubbed my broken finger and promised myself I wouldn’t forget.
The second time a man hit me, I told a couple of close girlfriends.
“It must be very romantic,” one of my friends said. “To have a man feel so strongly about you. Like, if I can’t have you, no one can.”
The third time a man hit me, I didn’t tell a soul. I knew he was clever enough not to leave a mark. I was sitting with my back to him when I felt his hands cupped around my neck, as if he was surprising me with a massage. Then he began to squeeze them so tightly that I slowly felt my sight crackling, my consciousness fading.
The third man was the same man who had listened patiently as I’d told him about the second man, who had gently kissed my neck as he talked about abused women having trust issues.
He said later that he would never have killed me. That if he’d wanted to kill me, I would be dead by now.
The third time a man hit me, I kept quiet so I wouldn’t wake the kids.
The third time a man hit me, I knew better than to provoke him, thinking that I should have learned how to avoid this a third time around. I thought maybe I just had one of those faces you felt like punching.
Sixteen Years of Collecting Fish
1. I keep telling them that men are more anxious about pinecones
2. the male mackerel more capable of hiding from the tenderness of tuff
3. once I drove to the top of Torrey Pines just to watch old coffee hit the dirt in between 4. I remember people taking pictures, a couple sharing a sandwich
5. bright colors bruising the sky and the lettuce disappearing
6. every morning the fire
7. the gun
8. every morning you saying how bees will be bees
9. every morning for sixteen years I want to tell you what men have done to me
10. instead I say things like wolves change rivers
11. I say things like there are only real mountains if you can feel them
12. I’m no longer sure what is blue
13. if there is a white mantle found while searching for God
14. instead I say things like how do we talk about the back and forth of light
15. of darkness
16. of collecting fish
There is a word in my language: Chama. It is an imperative and an imploration. It means “be patient” in the utmost sense: hold it in, push it down, repress it. It means take it, bear it. Do not react. A good woman is obedient. Chama, chama—my grandmother’s two hands press down on her solar plexus. Tsk! Chama, when I tell her, the first time, that my stepfather touches me down there.
Chama—because you are a woman.
Chama—because women bear the whole wet world.
Chama—why are you surprised?
This is why we exist: as vessel, as repository—
I grew up in a violent, abusive household—like classic, like textbook.
My stepfather was (is) an alcoholic narcissist (calls himself Zen Buddhist, Poet, Philosopher).
He once held a knife to—
He came into my room many nights and—
This went on for over a decade. I grew up in constant fear of—
And I tried to break rule. I did not stay silent. I did not chama.
I was not prepared for the repercussions:
My mother told me, Watch your mouth! Sent me away for three months.
My aunt said she’d pray for me.
My grandmother murmured chama, chama, chama when I appeared at her door—scraped, bruised, hysterical with disbelief.
What else did they know to do?
It has taken me a long time to come to this answer: Nothing.
They were raised to abide by the same rules.
I’ve spent years on concrete floors, in motel bathrooms, trying to smash, snort, slice through my body and cut out my heart—to purge myself of chama. This singular phrase kept my mother in bed for days, practically comatose—eyes wide, unblinking fish belly-up. Or she would disappear for weeks away at a time; pulling lever after slot machine lever—hoping for a miracle.
Chama landed me in psychiatric care: no shoes and a flimsy gown. Shattered glass girl; weakling, so ashamed. I named my broken vessel Chama. I named my stuffed animal, my ugly feelings, Chama. What facilities are we given to cope with so much abuse, such violence, other than a mouth trained to keep shut? A heart disciplined to take it, because—
This is why I write.
This is why I mine old wounds and leave fresh scars. This is why I speak up about abuse, why I participate. This is why I tell my story over and over again even though it leaves me emptied, each time. I tell my story in order to live.
When kept quiet, unaddressed, domestic abuse perpetuates like brushfire; manifests in new faces, new generations. We entangle ourselves in partners who will do what our stepfathers did.
After all, this is how we learned to touch and be touched—
I know too many survivors who have had to chama, still do. After all, the further embedded a stake, a coping mechanism, a broken mantra, the more excruciating it is to find and remove, unlearn.
But here you are, elbow deep in your own wounds; careful not to break further your tender self.
And here you are—fighting to heal. How brave you are.
Keep Going. You are not alone. You are not invisible.
I see ya—
As far as I am concerned, there is no chama. There is no need to hide a chasm behind a smile, no need to turn rage inward, anymore. What happened to me is not my fault. That it kept happening is not my fault. That I loved men who repeated these patterns is not my fault. It has taken me nearly two decades of chama to learn these lessons, to break away from toxic unions, to unbreak my heart. But I did it.
I broke the cycle.
Should I have a little girl, she will never have to chama in the face of violence. She will never sleep in a closet. She will never remember her mother as a fish, belly-up, look in her eyes far away gone.
And if anyone tries to hurt her, silence her, they will have her mother—I am a Destroyer of Worlds—to get through, first.
And believe me, I will have questions—
And whoever messes with my Baby Girl
__________________—they’d better have answers.
I, Too, Have Lain in the Grass
Beneath you, hair
changing to foliage.
Lain in the grass for no reason other
than a man told me to, like a dog for
its master. I have endured or even welcomed
the unwelcome touch, the violation. I
have felt my skin crawl while my mouth
Have sung breathy songs to keep
my children fed, my life
to stay alive. I
power for love and sex
for money. I
have grown numb, my
feet clinging to sluggish
roots though I lay quiet,
thin bark about me.
When you’re famous,
I let you.
The Men I Mean Are Not Refined
In fifth grade, Mr. W tells us a story about the first cloned sheep, named Dolly. He asks us if we know why she was named Dolly. He asks us if we know who Dolly Parton is. He asks us if we know what Dolly Parton is famous for.
“BOOBS!” he shouts. He looks proud.
My friend Ally tells me that Mr. K asked her to give him a shoulder rub.
At the sushi restaurant, my manager tells me I have to start wearing a uniform, a tiny black tube-top dress.
I argue back. He gives me the tables by the bathroom, where no one wants to sit. My tips suffer. I eat bread and cheese for a month.
At the sushi restaurant, a sushi chef named Chef P makes kissing sounds at me and calls me baby. He asks me if I want to be his girlfriend, even though he knows my answer. I grow colder and colder towards him.
“You’d better be nice to me,” he says. “I make all your sushi.”
“You know, what you’re doing is sexual harassment,” I say back.
My food comes out slow, and often wrong. My customers are not happy. My tips suffer. I eat bread and cheese for a month.
At the sushi restaurant, I work the lunch shift. It’s slow, so it’s just me and Chef P.
I squeeze past him as he is bent over, using the tips of my fingers to guide his back away and let him know I’m passing by. He leaps up at the touch.
“You’re grabbing my ass! That’s sexual harassment!”
“Are you kidding me?”
“You are sexually harassing me,” he wails. “I’m going to sue you!”
“I wasn’t sexually harassing you!”
He waves his sushi knife in my face. “I’ll carve your face!”
“I’ll rip your balls out,” I scream.
The owner runs over. “Are you crazy? There are customers!”
At the sushi restaurant, I tell my manager that he needs to fire Chef P. “Okay,” he says. “We’ll take care of it.” But he doesn’t. Chef P used to work at the most famous sushi restaurant in Austin, so he is the ticket to success.
He stays. I quit.
My boss Y.Y. tells me that he will consider making me a paid intern after a three-week trial period. In the third week, he invites me to lunch. I accept, thinking he will have good news for me. We go to an Italian restaurant and sit in the backyard, just the two of us.
Halfway through lunch, as I am quietly eating my arugula salad, he asks me if I will be his companion. Someone to hold his hand. We will attend events together, and we can play music and cook together. It can be completely confidential, he says. And he will pay me for my services.
I think about the first week, when he called me into his office to tell me about the parking lot from his window, how he put his palm against my lower back and held it there until he was done.
“Will this be beyond the employer-employee relationship?” I ask.
He says yes.
I ask him if he is married. He says he and his wife don’t really spend time together anymore.
“I’ll think about it,” I say. I don’t know what else to say. My heart threatens to escape from my mouth.
Back at the office, I text my boyfriend what happened. He tells me to get out of there. I am too scared to do anything. “Jenny,” he says, “get the fuck out of there.”
I go into Y.Y.’s office and tell him that he made me uncomfortable, and that I am leaving.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he says softly. He pulls a $100 bill out of his pocket and gives it to me.
The university calls me in to close out the investigation on Y.Y. Since there were no witnesses, they can’t do anything.
The agent asks me if I ever worked for a man named Dr. JGR. I say yes, bewildered.
“We’re currently investigating him for sexual misconduct with interns—apparently, he was pretending to be quadriplegic and getting Chinese interns to perform sexual favors for him, like watching porn or bathing him.”
“Oh,” I say. “Oh.”
When I tried to quit the first time, Dr. JGR said that he had a lot of influence and would write me a really good recommendation letter for grad school.
A father-son duo I am working with on a movie gives me a scene they wrote. They want to shoot it that evening so they can show investors and start getting money.
In the scene, my lover slinks down the stairs. She saunters up to me on the couch in just a T-shirt and underwear. I am engrossed in my piano sheet music, because I am a piano teacher and she is an art teacher, and isn’t that just the perfect little lesbian life?
She playfully grabs the sheet music out of my hands, because she is oh-so-horny, and straddles me, her ass deliciously visible to the camera. I sigh exasperatedly, as if this happens all the time in our perfect lesbian life. She nudges me with the tip of her nose, and she smells like cookies and vanilla and candles. Her soft almond hair falls on my shoulders and clavicles, tiny whispers. We kiss, and her lips are soft and sweet like mine. I grab her like I love her, and she moves her body against me like she really, really wants it.
We kiss and moan and gasp and gyrate until the son says, “Cut,” his voice hoarse. Shayla gets off me and fixes her shirt. She checks her phone and texts her boyfriend. I look up and see the father, bulbous nose and face full of boils, sitting behind the camera, his legs wide open, his hands on his crotch, his eyes wet and hungry.
“Let’s get a few more takes of that,” the son says.
A tall, handsome boy in a bar. The music is loud but I can tell by the vibrations of his voice against my skin that he is nice, maybe even boyfriend material. When I turn to face the band, he slaps my ass. I whip around in disbelief. He is grinning. Not boyfriend material after all.
My group text tells me that our vice principal from high school has been arrested for trying to solicit thirteen-year-old girls online.
In Jiu-Jitsu, my body meets other men and we intertwine on the floor, rolling around in something intimate, deathly, something embroiled and calm. In Jiu-Jitsu, you don’t defeat your opponent through strength, but by outlasting them, by quietly maneuvering their body into positions until they weep. Sometimes it’s a small adjustment of the wrist or a pivot of the hips. Sometimes it’s on your back with your legs wrapped around their body, squeezing, thrusting to the sky and twisting, until they say, “that’s enough.”
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 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.
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