ENOUGH: The Art of the Cover Up

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.

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The Art of the Cover Up
Delia Harrington

I take out the concealer, first one and then the other, and rotate each tube up like a lipstick. I start covering the purple, black, blue, and yellow of my flesh. If it hurts, I don’t feel it, a sign of the emotional numbness I will have for years to come. I swipe some color on the deepest part of each bruise, and try to blend it outward, as though my body is an art project instead of a crime scene. I repeat the process using both colors until I think the dark skin doesn’t show through. I hope my amateurish application doesn’t give me away. It doesn’t even occur to me at the time to think of the bruises as his responsibility instead of mine.

I’m back home from college for Columbus Day weekend. It’s a small suburb just outside of Boston, the kind of place where everyone knows my car when they see it. And if they don’t see it, they hear it—the whole thing rumbles, like it’s about to take off. That’s why we call it the Rocket Ship. I explain to my new college friends that my town is just like Stars Hollow, the fictional New England town on the show Gilmore Girls—corny in a charming way, perpetually autumn, and always celebrating a festival. It’s the kind of place where parents don’t worry about their kids.

Earlier this morning, I wandered up and down the aisles in a daze, still in my pajamas and an oversized hoodie. Why does CVS need such a big makeup section? I found the concealer; the number of shades that looked sort of like me was overwhelming. I was paralyzed by the choice, and the fact that I had zero margin for error. I couldn’t afford to pick the wrong one and have someone notice. Noticing leads to questions and I still don’t have any answers. I turned the tubes over and over in my hands, reading the names, the numbers, hoping something would give me a clue. Lying to everyone will be the easiest part. If anyone notices something is amiss, they keep it to themselves.

My parents seeing me covered in bruises is not an option. I can’t even contemplate what their reaction would be, how fast my dreams of studying abroad in Cuba or working in a refugee camp in sub-Saharan Africa would go out the window—all in the name of my “protection.” I imagine it would be at about the speed of their hearts breaking. I would lose my voice and gain another burden—having to pretend not to be bothered about missing out on my twenties, while making the people I love feel better about The Thing That Happened. So, I just need to get control of the situation until I can have a minute to myself to decide how I feel about this—until I can move on and protect my well-meaning parents by falling on this emotional grenade. That means hiding. Lying. And right now, the makeup will help me do that.

 

This is the kind of town where people assume you can trust one of your closest friends—a guy you’ve known for over a decade—to keep his hands (and everything else) to himself. My town is not like the city where I go to college, where women go everywhere in packs. At college, I don’t accept drinks from anyone and I don’t hook up. That city feels a million miles away from the quiet safety of my town, a place I’ve always thought of as too boring to be dangerous. Most of all, my town is not the kind of place where accusing a guy of pulling something would end well, or quietly, for the girl.

Pacing nervously around the same twenty feet in the store, my mind won’t let me do anything but think about the night before. My memories are hazy and disjointed. As I will one day learn in the calm office where I go for group therapy, this is because my own mind is trying to protect me from feeling the full force of what happened. It turns out that under threat, our brain chemistry permanently changes in self-defense. I will spend the rest of my life dealing with the fallout. But I don’t know that yet. Right now I don’t know my ass from my elbow.

I got back to my parents’ house late the night before, my mind still racing as I sat in my Volvo, a car that’s older than me—old enough to vote, or to fight and die for its country, as my brother and I always say. A car that symbolized my independence. A car that I used to love, until it played host to the events of the night before. Can I still love my Rocket Ship now? I looked at my phone and saw concerned texts from my friends, who thought—based on the words of the guy who did this—that I had picked a fight with him and drove away. The jealous, drunken rage of a scorned woman. I didn’t have room in my brain to deal with them, or my irritation at being someone’s idea of jealous woman, so I replied to my friends with the bare minimum to make them leave me alone. All I want is to be left alone.

The decision of what makeup to buy is small, but it feels oppressively immense, like any false step could be my undoing. I was incapacitated by the world’s smallest decision: light ivory or light beige? Porcelain or peach? Whatever I chose, it would be better than the cartoonish Halloween makeup I had used the night before. It was the only thing I could find stalking around my dark house late at night, trying not to wake up my parents, while I spun my mental wheels to formulate a plan.

I don’t wear makeup, and my mother is strictly a lipstick-and-mascara-on-special-occasions kind of woman. But there in the kitchen was the Halloween makeup, ghoulish white. Like a crayon, the tip was worn down from use, and at first the stiff, gold wrapping scratched at my fresh bruises. I had to peel it back to get to a usable part. I locked myself in the bathroom of my parents’ house and did my best to smudge the bright white onto the bluish centers of the bruises that were blooming up around my fingers as I worked. I kept going till I ran out of the cheap makeup. It looked ridiculous. But I slept in it, thinking it was better than nothing, and hoping it was enough to hold me over until I could buy some real makeup.

 

The Thing That Happened was Not Rape. I will not go to the police. I will never tell my parents.

I know what rape looks like (a stranger in an alley, a weapon, penetration…) which is how I know the Thing That Happened wasn’t it. Why would I go to the police with Not Rape? What would I even say? I know that only innocent (good, chaste, sober) girls have a shot at being believed, even in the best of circumstances. People seeing him paw at me earlier in the night and him telling everyone I was hammered and jealous are not the best of circumstances. Finally, I know in my gut that if I tell my parents, none of this matters because they will take over. They will go to the police anyway (or worse, maybe they won’t) and I can’t even think about everything else they’ll decide for me. Forget about going back to college. Forget about traveling the world. Forget about being my own woman.

I knew all of that without even thinking about it the night before in the back seat of my Volvo, moments after kicking him out, in the time it took me to think these sentences: The Thing That Happened was Not Rape. I will not go to the police. I will never tell my parents.

Someday I will learn that focusing on those three thing sentences is a coping mechanism called a grounding technique. It works, helping me navigate the overly bright and complicated convenience store. But nothing about this feels convenient.

Last night I slept in the bulky hoodie that I’m still wearing, even though I run hot. It was the only reasonable way to hide my neck, since the costume makeup wasn’t exactly cutting it. This morning, I pretended to be asleep while my parents half-heartedly tried to rouse me for church. Thank god for the laissez-faire attitude toward religion that they adopted around the time I graduated high school last spring. Still, my parents going to mass only bought me an hour and I am wasting it by getting lost in thought. I didn’t have much time to buy some real makeup, learn how to use it, and figure out what to do about… everything. I try to focus, to keep my mind in the present tense instead of careening around my patchy memories of the night before. I am not successful.

I narrow it down to two nearly identical concealers and furtively opened them, swiping a little on the inside of one wrist, something I am pretty sure I’ve seen in a magazine. I look at my watch. I only have twenty minutes to hurry home and learn how to use this foreign tool before my parents get out of church. I try for the millionth time not to feel quite so guilty—about missing church, lying, and everything else. I buy both.

 

Back in the bathroom at my parents’ house, I take off my oversized hoodie and appraise his handiwork for the first time since late last night. I remember seeing how my neck, chest, shoulders, and back turned technicolor the night before. I can still feel the pain of his teeth digging into my flesh, over and over again. I don’t know it yet, but my body will never forget that memory.

I take a deep breath and wash off whatever remains of the Halloween makeup from the previous night. I count the bruises and think about taking a picture. I know deep in my soul that I will want this photo later. I try not to think the word “evidence.” There is something else insidefear? denial? self-preservation?that keeps me from bringing myself to take the picture. I don’t even get a camera. I know that this is the best time, and that if I don’t take the picture now I probably never will.

Like a million women before me and a million women after me, I resign myself to this truth and move on. I don’t have much time to think. My parents will be home soon and I have a lot of work ahead of me. Covering this up now means keeping them in the dark, which means options for my future. More importantly, it means time for me to breathe and decide how I feel about those options, without someone else seeing my neck and making those choices for me. I count the bruises again. Seventeen. Or is it thirteen? Where does one bruise end and another begin?

I get properly dressed and after the makeup seems to have dried, I put on a scarf, just to be sure. I put the caps on both tubes of cover-up and put the closer match in my pocket and the other in my backpack. They’re the only makeup I’ve ever really bought myself, and for sure the only makeup I have ever or will ever wear daily.

 

The concealer does its job. The bruises fade. No one notices, or if they do, they don’t say anything. I go back to school and pretend that this never happened—and even if it did, that it certainly didn’t matter. It wasn’t big enough or bad enough to matter. After all, I’m probably exaggerating, right? It was just a Thing That Happened. A Not Rape.

I choose the kind of woman I want to be, and he doesn’t get to take that away from me. I get to go to Cuba and Sub-Saharan Africa and many more places, though the memory of that night follows me as I crisscross the globe. I’m never quite fast enough to outrun it, of course, and jagged pieces of all the nothing I ignore come dislodged and overwhelm me, seemingly without warning, whenever I let my guard down. Somehow it always seems to be when I’m at my most vulnerable. Eventually, pretending The Thing That Happened doesn’t matter stops working entirely, and it turns out that it matters so very, very much. I hold out as long as I can until my deteriorating mental health leaves me no other choice but to face it, some five years later. But I do that arduous work alone, just like I do everything else. It’s been ten years since that night, and I still have the concealer. I guess you could say I’m lucky; I haven’t had to use it since.

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Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.

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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.

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