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.
The Body Remembers
I was on the subway I’d ridden my entire life, snaking up the West Side of Manhattan, when I felt something on my leg.
It was evening and I was on my way to a benefit for the school where I worked, and so I was wearing something festive, a dress, though the dress has nothing to do with this story—or shouldn’t—except that my legs were bare to just above my knees.
The man sat down next to me a few stops into my trip. He was middle-aged, white, holding a newspaper that he had immediately opened and began reading intently, paying me no mind, the paper spilling over into my space and onto the lap of the man on his other side, though none of that had set off alarm bells in the moment. It was 6:30 p.m. The train was packed. It was filled with witnesses.
We hadn’t reached the next stop when I felt a brush on my leg, just above my knee, under the pages of this man’s splayed paper, the sensation so light I couldn’t tell if I was imagining things, until I felt it again, and it began moving up toward my thigh. I looked down, whipped my legs to the side, saw just a flash of a hand—palm down, fingers curled around the empty space where my leg had been—ducking back under the newspaper. The man acted as though the hand was a separate entity. He did not look at me but kept reading as the train rattled on and I kept my legs awkwardly drawn to one side.
This wasn’t the first time a stranger had felt like my body was there to be touched. For more than two decades there had been hot words in my ear, hands on my ass, men following me and exposing themselves. There had been insinuating comments, offers of massages, offers of other things from men I didn’t know and men I thought I did. The harassment was consistent, but I considered it mild compared to what many women experienced.
Still, each episode left me shaken, feverish, unmoored. Exposed as though I had been the one doing the exposing, and wanting to hide, disappear, make the situation disappear. And there was almost always a moment in which I thought, Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe it was my mistake. Maybe I’d invited it. Maybe it hadn’t happened at all. I’d misunderstood, misheard, misseen, misfelt. Misheard the man who waited for me outside a deli when I was ten to whisper “Hey, baby” in my ear. Misseen the man with his genitalia out after trailing me for blocks when I was in college. Misfelt the man who grabbed my butt as he biked by without breaking his pace weeks earlier. All the instances in between, too many to count, but I remembered each one. My body remembered.
It wasn’t the first time, but now I was an adult and this man was not biking away at top speed—he wasn’t going anywhere. And I knew what I should do. I had been teaching for years, and I shared with my young advisees what my mother had taught me when I began taking the subway alone—that if anyone ever touched me, I should shout, make a scene, because they are counting on you not making a scene, on being too embarrassed to reveal them, to reveal yourself. They are counting on getting away with it. I taught my students not to let them and I was certain that I would, in such a situation, say something, do something.
But instead I froze, started to sweat, didn’t look at this man, who was reading as though nothing was happening, had happened. His game was so grotesquely obvious and yet I thought: Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe it was my mistake. Maybe I’d felt something that wasn’t there. Maybe I hadn’t really seen his hand.
Because any of those explanations would allow me to go back to being a grown person in my grown body on my way to a professional event, would allow for the fallacy that I was free to just be in my body in the world. Full stop. And any of those explanations would cut short the too-familiar questions: What about me screamed target? Did I look like someone who would let a man grope me and remain silent? And so, I didn’t say anything as the subway pulled into the next station and this man got up. I was relieved that it was almost over, no time for confrontation now.
But instead of getting off the train, he walked to the other end, passed through the doors and into the next car, paper in hand, and I realized that he wasn’t finished. He was looking for another body. How many women were on this train? How long would he remain, traveling up and down the line and touching them?
I stood up then, followed his path. I wasn’t sure what I would do if I caught up to him, but I followed because unlike so many other encounters of the previous decades, I had a second chance. This bastard was contained on a moving train. I scanned the faces in the next car—he wasn’t there, nor in the one after that. I sped up, afraid that if we reached the following stop before I confronted this man that he’d disappear into the city without having been revealed.
I found him in the fourth car, seated next to another young woman, his paper out. I posted myself at a pole near them, but he did not glance up, did not recognize me. It was alarmingly quiet, aside from the rumbling of the subway, and the younger me might have stayed silent, even after arriving at this point, but the older me opened her mouth, her face hot and red, said loudly, to be heard over the breaks, “Be careful, that man—” I pointed at him and he looked up—“is going car to car and groping women.”
The woman next to him sprung to her feet and nodded at me before moving down the car. The man’s eyes grew dark but he averted his gaze, looked straight ahead, and then at the floor. He said nothing. The rest of the passengers remained silent, too, cocooned in their evenings, as though nothing had happened, was happening.
When we lurched into the next station, the man jumped up and dashed off amidst the shifting bodies. I still had three stops to go and I remained standing, swaying with the train’s motion, trembling with anger—at this man, at my embarrassment, at the silence of the subway car, at the helplessness I felt. Because there were countless other men like him. And there would be another train pulling in after this one. And another one after that.
Know Your Surroundings
It was a lie I told myself: I couldn’t be sexually assaulted if I was with my girlfriend. No man would touch me if I was holding her hand.
I didn’t know that this was a lie until a man reached his hand up my crotch and squeezed at a holiday party in a crowded club, eight days after the inauguration of our forty-fifth president.
I was holding my girlfriend’s hand the whole time.
We all have shields, lies we tell ourselves to go through life as normally as possible. For example, you won’t get hit by a car if you only cross the street when there is a walk sign. Following this practice may significantly reduce your chances of getting hit by a car, but it’s certainly no guarantee. The belief in this practice, however, helps safeguard against paranoia, anxiety, and the kind of crippling mental state that would otherwise render us all voluntary shut-ins.
Clearly, there are some lies I tell myself to preserve normalcy. I lie to get on the subway (no one is going to push you onto the tracks), to go to work (your boss is not going to sexually harass you), to eat street food (you won’t get food poisoning).
You get the idea.
There is a level of assumption, here, that enables me to function: as a writer, as a queer woman; in New York, in life. By function, I mean get up in the morning and leave my house.
I believed that I could not be assaulted if I was with my partner. If I was with her, I was safe.
I was wrong.
Sometimes, your assailant has a name. But sometimes, he doesn’t.
I learned this lesson at a youth group event when I was thirteen years old. The youth group event—a hay ride—took place at night, on a church member’s farm. It was chaperoned by adult youth leaders and parents. There was the “safe” wagon, where the chickenshits could sit if they didn’t want to run around and get tackled.
Who wants to sit on the safe wagon? If you sat on the “fun” wagon, as practically every girl elected to do, you were at risk of getting pushed or yanked off the wagon by a group of boys. The event quickly turned into a gender war, as such church events always did. The boys chased the girls, tackling them and stuffing hay down their shirts. Somehow, this was acceptable to the chaperoning parents who preached sexual abstinence.
But some boys would gang up on girls, would chase unsuspecting girls to the outer limits of the field where the parents—who always stayed nice and warm on the wagons—couldn’t quite see. Divide and conquer. If you’ve ever watched a pack of lions hunt on the Discovery channel, you know how this game ends.
I got caught up in the fun, in the way running warmed my body against the chilly night, in the thrill of being wanted. I didn’t pay attention to my surroundings, didn’t notice that I was being chased to the perimeter until a gang of boys were on top of me, pinning me to the ground, hands everywhere.
I blacked out.
I guess I was fun, then.
When I finally came to, I was lying on my back in a cold field, alone. As I got up, I saw white light, like an aura surrounding my field of vision.
Not white like Jesus or angels. Not white like I was encountering God.
No, definitely not God.
The first time I saw white was that night. I was thirteen, in a Wisconsin field, at a youth group hay ride.
The last time I saw white, I was twenty-nine, at a holiday party in Chelsea, holding my partner’s hand.
Every time I’ve been sexually assaulted, my response after the attack is rage: an adrenaline-fueled bout of rage in which I see white.
Adrenaline feels like lightning. It feels like being Wonder Woman, if traumatic events could turn a person into Wonder Woman. The rush focuses everything, but it needs an outlet, a physical outlet.
Adrenaline wants to punch something. Someone.
As the years have passed, as the incidents have gathered, a flock of dead things inside me, I’ve learned to bury the rage, to swallow it down, bite my tongue until it bleeds, force the energy back into my body until the white goes away.
I can control it, now.
But the first time I saw white, when I was thirteen, I did not yet have that skill. When I finally rose from the spot where I had been attacked, alone, in the middle of a dark Wisconsin field, I stumbled, then strode, then ran, the energy spiraling out of me, colors flying in all directions. When I saw a boy, it was as if the colors honed in on him. I ran at him, full speed.
He was nameless, faceless. He could have been one of them. It was equally plausible that he wasn’t. I didn’t know. I didn’t care. I took a swing at him. He punched back. His punch landed squarely on my nose, which promptly started bleeding.
The white went away.
This is the power nameless, faceless assailants hold: the power to blow a hole in a woman’s psychic shield, the shield that allows her to function, to go through a day.
But people only have power over you if you give it to them; this is my mother’s go-to advice. This is where the “pussy grabs back” signs that populated the Women’s March come from, the desire to take their power back, to take their bodies back, to take their lives back, to take their memories back. Take back the night, as the name of the college marches say. Take back what was taken, non-consensually, violently or coercively, silently or loudly, drunkenly or soberly, abruptly, persuasively, from faceless assailants and husbands alike, from men you knew and men you didn’t, from men who had power over you and men who wanted power over you: from men who took it against your will.
It could have been anyone, the man at the holiday party.
A man shoved his hand up my crotch while I was holding my partner’s hand and, for all I know, I could end up interviewing him for a job at my company.
It has taken years for that night to come back together, years for the details to fill in, and the story still isn’t complete. I don’t think I’ll ever know precisely what happened when I was under the pile of boys. It’s probably for the best.
The mind buries certain trauma for a reason, and I am grateful that my young mind, my thirteen-year-old mind, put up shields so strong that my almost-thirty-year-old mind still can’t get in.
In the weeks after the inauguration (and the Women’s March, and that night at the club), I started crying at my work desk, for no apparent reason. Except, the reason was obvious.
Trauma needs to be dealt with, or the body will deal with it on its own, publicly, at work, in front of coworkers. Trauma is shameless that way.
The incident itself, or the fact that it had happened while holding my partner’s hand: I wasn’t sure which was worse. Safety had meant her, and suddenly, she was not safe; her body did not protect me in the way I had assumed it would.
What other lies am I telling myself to feel safe right now? Safe is something I haven’t quite felt since I came out years ago, since I left my fundamentalist church and upbringing and husband; safety is a relative term, especially now, especially with a man in the Oval Office who has no problem grabbing women by the pussy, setting an example for others to do the same.
But I had stitched some kind of net, some kind of shield, around my mind, to be functional. That night in January left the net in tatters. Standing next to men on the train was like sandpaper against skin. Short conversations with friends (who I didn’t tell about the assault) ended in tears. I dropped all activism I had taken on in the wake of the election. I didn’t feel strong enough to “grab back.”
Be patient; be gentle.
I don’t want to give power to an anonymous man. Now, I want to take it back. I don’t knit, and I wouldn’t knit a pussy hat even if I did (not my style), but I want to do something.
“Know your surroundings,” my dad tells me at the end of every phone call, no matter if I’m walking around in my Brooklyn neighborhood or if I’m sitting next to my girlfriend on the couch, the door to our apartment locked and dead-bolted. “Know your surroundings,” he would say to my sister and I as we left the house to get on the bus for school; “know your surroundings,” dropping me off for college; “know your surroundings,” at the end of every phone call, even when I was married to a man and living in Boston, when my father had theoretically been relegated to the backseat.
“Know your surroundings,” is my father’s way of saying, the world is not safe for you and I am not there to protect you, so I need you to remember to know your surroundings, so you can protect yourself.
I am almost thirty, and the words I have heard most from my father—aside from “I love you”—are an exhortation to not get raped.
Of course, my father also voted for Donald Trump, a man who makes the world less safe for me, a queer woman.
“Know your surroundings,” my father says, his words a shield of their own, absolving him of responsibility for the ways in which his actions make the world a less safe place for me, his queer daughter.
Today, a male coworker stood right behind me while talking to another male coworker who sits next to me. It was a perfectly normal occurrence for a perfectly normal reason that has happened dozens of times before, but today, the physical proximity made me want to leap out of my skin. It has only been a few months since the inauguration, since a faceless man grabbed my crotch in a crowded room. The conversation went on for so long that I got up with my computer and moved elsewhere in the office.
I didn’t like moving. I don’t like bending to my anxiety; it feels weak, even as the mantra rings in my ear: be patient, be gentle. I moved across the office to a conference table. I sat with my back to the wall and took deep breaths and for a moment, I felt safe.
Safety is an illusion, especially now. But it’s a nice one, and in some ways, a necessary one.
I can’t spend every day wondering if a car will speed through a light while I’m crossing the street. I’m not sure if there is an in-between, a way of living in the liminal space between what psychologists call the “just world fallacy”—the belief that there are logical consequences for actions—and the cruel reality that, yes, in fact, bad things happen to good people all the time, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. As a queer woman, I know that there is no such thing—has never been such a thing—as a just world.
I cross the street anyway.
For my daughter’s twelfth birthday, I took her and five friends to a giant warehouse full of acres of trampolines, where they could jump their hearts out. The trampolines are laid out in a vast blue and yellow grid across the floor and up the walls, and there’s a giant foam pit with a rope swing where you can swoop through the air and crash in softness, and there are “lifeguards” in yellow jerseys to make sure the kids jump safely. Pop music blares, kids bounce madly in their special jumping socks—it’s a sensory-overload paradise.
I was a Brownie troop leader, so I’m used to shepherding flocks of girls around. I love taking girls out to spread their wings and try new things. So that day it was just me and the girls, no other adults.
Twenty feet from the main jumping area is a row of big black pay-to-play massage chairs, where I set up camp to watch the girls jump. Ten minutes into my mechanical massage, an overweight old white guy sat down in the chair next to mine. He couldn’t get his massage chair going, so I gave him advice. Then, I went back to reading my book.
Shortly after that, my daughter, radiantly sweaty in black leggings and a tank top, ran over and sat on my lap, hugging me with joy over her fabulous birthday party.
The old man muttered, “You’re too big to sit on mama’s lap.”
I squeezed my daughter tight and said, “You’re never too big to sit on mama’s lap.”
She whispered, “Why is he getting up in our business?” and left to jump some more.
I ignored him after that, but as I got up to walk away, he asked, “How many of those girls are yours?”
Ever polite, I answered, “Just that one. It’s her birthday.”
“How old is she?”
“Twelve,” I answered, and went to sit on the floor beside the trampolines.
I was recording the girls with my cellphone, in slo-mo as they bounced, when the old guy leaned down and handed me the pen I’d forgotten in the massage chair. I thanked him and went back to recording.
But he didn’t leave.
I could feel him lurking behind me, and suddenly I was seeing my flock of girls through his leering eyes and I had no idea how to protect them, how to get them to shield themselves from his gaze without shaming or blaming them, so I sat there and ignored him as much as I could. But now I wasn’t enjoying their flying hair, their bursting smiles, their joy; my vision of them was tainted by knowing someone could look at them with lust. Why wouldn’t he go away? I didn’t even want to turn around and check if he was still there.
At last I got up to go to the bathroom, and my daughter sat down where I had been so she could record her friends. When I came back, the man was gone.
When I returned, one of my daughter’s friends rushed over to us and said, “That guy was totally hitting on you. He was standing there behind you looking down your shirt, and then he was looking down E’s shirt when she sat down.”
My mind spun. I couldn’t bear that she had seen those things, had noticed them, had named them. I wanted frantically to find a way to pretend that she hadn’t seen what she’d seen.
But she had more. “When I jumped in the foam pit, a big piece of foam got stuck between my legs, and when I looked up he was staring at me and he gave me this weird little smile.
My daughter looked at me, horrified, and said, “That’s child pornography, isn’t it?”
I said, “Well, he didn’t seem to have a camera. But yes, that’s a word for it.”
The rest of the girls ran over, saying, “Yeah, I noticed him!” “He was creepy!” “He made me feel weird! I could tell that he was watching me and I didn’t like it.”
I wanted to ask the observant girl why she didn’t point it out while it was going on, but I also didn’t want to blame her. After all, these girls are brand new to this experience that I swim in every day like a fish in filthy water. Good enough that they could name it, that they were sensitive to it and knew that they didn’t like it. That’s a start.
And yet. My first instinct had been to deny that he’d been “hitting on me.” After all, he didn’t say, “Do you come here often?” or offer to buy me a drink. He was just pervy and offensive.
But then I understood exactly what she meant, and that the name she’d used for that nasty, objectifying gaze was correct. He was “hitting” on us, getting a hit of a high from looking at us without our consent.
Right there, in the middle of all those trampolines, I had all the girls show me their death stare—the laser beam gaze that says, “I see you, and you are dead to me.” They all had one, I was glad to see. But where had mine been when we needed it?? Through my automatic response to over forty years of ongoing low-grade sexual harassment—ignore him, he’s not doing any harm (yet)—I failed both to protect my girls and to model for them a way to say, “I have a right to have fun without becoming entertainment for you.” And that made me so sad.
Back at home, the floor strewn with birthday wrapping paper and all the glowing sweaty faces around me, I said to them, “I feel bad about what happened today. Why should one guy have the right to steal the fun from seven of us, and make us all feel icky? That’s wrong. I wish I had handled the situation differently. Can you think of anything I could have done?”
Blink, blink. Silent owl eyes watching me.
I took a breath. “I can think of a couple of things I could have done. I could have stood up and told him to move away. I could have given him the death stare. I could have grabbed you all and said, ‘Come on, girls, let’s get out of here,’ and we could have walked away. Any of us could have done that. You can even do that for someone you don’t know, if you see someone making them uncomfortable. Just invite them to leave.”
The girls nodded at me, watchful, taking in the possibility that we can all look out for each other. But that’s a hard task when you’re only twelve, when you’re trying desperately to fit in, when you have been taught never to be rude. It’s hard when you’re a grownup, for god’s sake. I was the grownup, charged with protecting them, and it was too hard and confusing for me.
And then I said, “Wait a second, I don’t have to handle creeps all by myself, either. What if I had gone to one of the lifeguards and asked them to deal with him?”
“That might work,” they all agreed.
“Is there anything else you can think of?”
The girl who had said he was hitting on me jumped to her feet and perfectly modeled what we’d been taught in a recent girls’ self-defense workshop. She held her palms facing outwards in the “stop” position, and said loudly and firmly, “Stop! I don’t like that! Go away!”
There’s a passage in Abigail Thomas’s memoir Safekeeping that I think about often: “She was sure she knew what was safe and what wasn’t. And luckily for her, she was right most of the time. The rest of the time she was lucky.”
I, too, have been mostly right or lucky, but then I’ve also laid my body in the path of harm.
Sometimes by gamble, e.g. swimming out into choppy waves and getting caught in a riptide; e.g. the stranger I brought to bed, who at first would not touch my body at all, then abruptly wrapped his hands tight around my throat.
I cried out—not in fear but surprise.
Or, if I am being honest, also in fear.
He mistook it for pleasure.
Sometimes by intention, e.g. I saw the squall coming before I stepped into the ocean; sometimes by resignation, e.g. I did not kick the stranger out of my bed. I let him fuck me though I didn’t want to and my body recoiled. Sometimes it is easier to give in, to ride an event to its logical conclusion. I’m not saying it’s honorable or correct. Just easier. I let the riptide carry me a quarter mile down the shore to where I could swim out of it. In bed with the stranger, I gripped the headboard and gritted my teeth.
In the morning, we went for brunch.
And sometimes harm has arrived to find me where I least expected it, e.g. a subway car in Boston, the old man who pressed against me in the rush hour crowd, thrust his hand up my skirt, and clawed inside my underwear. Can you suck it?, he hissed in my ear. It’s seventeen inches long. The ludicrous specificity! I will never forget it.
The train came out from the tunnel and rattled over the river flocked with sailboats. Sunlight spangled the water. I didn’t move or speak. The doors slid open and when they closed again he was gone.
I was sixteen then. I spent the next few years cataloging blood-drawing scenarios or at least a brutal comeback line, anything better than the nothing I had done. I would not do nothing, now. And now I have a better, though not infallible, understanding of how much open air to leave between myself and certain men. But sometimes I’m still there, mute and frozen in that body, taking note of the way light falls over the landscape while the wild dogs in me strain at their leashes.
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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