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.
He Could Kill Me
In middle school, buzzed on Smirnoff or Mad Dog somebody’s brother had bought for us, I fooled around with boys, clumsily mimicking what I imagined they did to jerk off. I was a virgin when I met J, and wanted him to be my first. In my fourteen-year-old mind, I couldn’t see what was at stake, and that my wanting wasn’t enough to make it consensual.
Today, twenty-five years later, J is an attorney in Towson. In 2014, I looked into pressing felony statutory rape charges against him only to find out that in 1993 in Maryland it was a misdemeanor for an adult to have sex with a fourteen-year-old and that the window to press charges had closed.
Last spring, the governor signed a new law extending the statute of limitations for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to bring civil charges up to twenty years after their eighteenth birthdays. I would turn thirty-eight in a week. But the new law didn’t apply to old crimes.
This October the rules changed again. Women (and some men) are telling their stories, and private and public institutions are responding. I decide to write a letter to the Maryland Bar and copy The Baltimore Sun.
I draft the letter in my yellow notebook on a four-hour layover in Sydney, on my way home from a two-week New Zealand vacation with my half-sister and her family. At the gate, I crouch on the industrial carpet next to a socket while my iPad charges so I can binge watch The Sinner during my twenty-two-hour flight via LAX to JFK. My shoulders fold inward as I scribble this story that lives in my body.
At fourteen, fifteen years old, in the mid-90s, I was part of a misfit scene of goths, punks, SHARPs (Skin Heads Against Racial Prejudice), and yo-boys—who loitered on the sidewalk near the Burger King in Towson. We’d circulate from the sidewalk to the cemetery back to the mall or the movie theater, where our parents had dropped us off and security was always giving us a hard time for smoking. At thirty-one, J was a decade older than the oldest kids among us.
We met at one of M’s late-night parties. Her mother worked the graveyard shift. As the sun rose M would wipe down tabletops, fluff pillows, vacuum, and spray lavender air freshener—a cover that seemed as conspicuous as the crime, but her mother never noticed. J sat down beside me at the foot of M’s water bed. Cross-legged, facing each other, he shuffled a deck of oversized cards then placed them slowly on the carpet. There were two paths: a white queen who symbolized prudence, and another card, maybe a joker, who signaled adventure that would end in destruction. It felt like an invitation or a dare.
Over the loud speaker, an airline employee invites first class to begin boarding. My back straightens against the airport’s moveable wall. J had another girl who was his “real” girlfriend. She was sixteen, and had a red car and a twelve o’clock curfew. I lift my head from the page, knowing I’ve written these words a hundred times before in the memoir I’m constantly revising—weaving together scenes from my adolescence with landscapes of the American West. Now, looking through the glass wall, I think how strange it is that the giant parked planes are the same toy forms I see cutting across blue and gray skies from my apartment window back in New York. It’s the same kind of dissonance a dollhouse evokes by flipping domestic space from something I occupy to a tiny chest of drawers I can rotate in my hand. I wonder if I remember the story I’ve created around J rather than the lived experience.
In therapy, I recalled how J would scream at me as I curled fetal on the bathroom tile—branding cunt, bitch, whore onto my sense of self. My therapist moved her index finger slowly in front of my eyes. The pupil-movement exercise she called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) was intended to unleash the fight-or-flight energy frozen inside my body in those moments I didn’t run or fight back but got very still, a turtle inside her shell. My therapist said, “It’s not your fault. You were just a kid.”
On the floor of the terminal, I reach for the dark chocolate with sea salt in the front pouch of my backpack, break off two squares, and let the chocolate soften on my tongue.
Six years ago I reconnected with a friend from the Towson days. Walking around the recreational area where Falls Road meets I-83, she told me that she’d crashed her car while high and fucked up her arm. When I pictured the crash, she was in the same gold Volvo she’d seen J yank me out of in a headlock when I was sixteen. We cut between the playing fields, passing the locker rooms and concessions stand. She was taking pills from a pain management doctor and I felt like a gauze separated me from her, like someone had pulled the blinds down behind her green eyes. She told me she’d woken up nervous about seeing me because she was still friends with J. Their children play together.
This friend and I had been part of a foursome in middle school. We called ourselves the Playgroup. On weekends we snuck out and did drugs with older boys. Sometimes J was around. On week nights though, I crept out the mudroom door of my family’s stone house, walked to the end of Green Road, where he picked me up in his Crown Victoria, took me to his parents’ house, lit candles and incense, performed Satanic rituals. His wasn’t the devil with a red face and pointy ears; J practiced Anton Lavey’s Satanism. He worshiped carnal desire, and would often quote Jim Morrison: “Show me the way to the next little girl.”
Another friend from that group was in Brooklyn for the weekend, and we had brunch at an African cafe near Fort Greene Park. She was the first in our foursome to run away and get committed to a psych ward. The other girls soon left home for days and weeks, and as far as I know three of us spent time in mental health facilities. My friend tells me she runs a wellness center in Hamden, the same neighborhood where her acid-dealing boyfriend squatted in a basement that flooded every time it rained. He and his roommate fucked my friends on soaked mattresses while I played Nintendo hoping for J to arrive. When I asked my friend why those years had such an impact on our lives—she said, “We were so young.” Then she added, “Jen, J was a pedophile.”
I moved my eggs around on my plate considering that word. On the one hand, a late bloomer, I had started menstruating only a few months before I met J. On the other hand, I had begun to explore my sexuality with boys my age. For women I know who were introduced to sex by their adult abusers, the psychic damage is worse. Perhaps I also didn’t like the label because it felt less self-stigmatizing to say I was with this fucked-up older dude than to call J a pedophile.
I tuck my feet up under my butt, turn the page in my yellow notebook, and consider the girl I was at fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old—an A student and star lacrosse and field hockey player until I started drinking and getting high. Even then my grades were good; I excelled at my school’s less competitive sports: tennis, softball, badminton. My style shifted from prep to punk to hand-me-down men’s shirts over baggy cords. I never wore makeup or blow-dried my hair. Sometimes I sat at the cool table, sometimes I sat with the “art fags,” and sometimes I had lunch with boys in my Latin class who wore steel-toe boots and trench coats. Students and teachers elected me school president. At graduation I received a silver plate for outstanding leadership, and my name was engraved on the trophy given to the graduate who most represents the spirit of an Episcopal school for girls.
We shared a cafeteria and performing arts center with the boys’ school on top of the hill. Senior and junior year, I walked up the hill to take advanced-placement classes and would see J’s sister waiting in the carpool line for her sons. She knew about her brother and me. So did J’s father, who was a lawyer, his mother, his brother, his brother’s fiancée, and friends of J’s parents who visited their white house with an in-ground pool on Woodbine Avenue. So did the male, middle-aged youth group leader leader of a Christian organization for East Coast private school kids in whom I confided, and another female leader in her mid-twenties who’d heard rumors from girls in my Bible study.
Through middle and high school, I attended gatherings with the youth group in Baltimore and went on ski trips to Silver Bay and camps on Martha’s Vineyard, where I stood in a renovated barn with other well-off white teens swaying to acoustic guitars and bongos. Some of the kids raised their hands over their heads as if catching God beams like rain drops. The leaders preached that underage drinking, drugs, and premarital sex were sins, and Jesus would save us if we believed. The more I shared about my lifestyle, the more attention I received from the group’s middle-aged leader. And yet he never tried to stop J’s abuse, or even called it that, which reinforced in my adolescent mind that I was getting away with something by having sex with a man more than twice my age.
Last fall, my twin brother sent me a link to a video from a youth group ski trip in 1994. After two minutes and forty seconds, I see myself smoking a cigarette and talking about the weather. My face is smaller and rounder, my voice higher. Watching this mini-me, I cry, knowing J has her and will for four more years. With me in the frame is a seventeen-year-old boy who likes Phish. He taught me that if you drink a bottle of cough syrup, you puke pink then you trip. We made out in his room at the ski lodge. In my mind’s eye, I can see his bare skinny chest and spotty whiskers. He reached for a condom in his duffel. I told him I couldn’t have sex because I had my period. My grown-up self wants to tell mini-me to take her tampon out and use that boy to forget about J. My grown-up self wants to do anything she can to protect that girl.
Waiting for my boarding zone to be called, I tap my turquoise pen against my thigh. A feeling of power and urgency circulates through my body. I am confident my letter to the Maryland Bar and The Baltimore Sun will be read and an investigation into J’s past opened, first because I went to a private school that has been in the local paper for other sex scandals, and second because my uncle once referred to himself and his siblings, saying, “We didn’t grow up with a silver spoon. It was gold.” People like dirty stories about old money, even if the money is gone. The third reason—and perhaps the strongest—is that my father was a senator. It was only for one term, during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, but some folks still remember, or have heard stories about, Dad’s heroic WWII record, his civil rights work, his descent into alcoholism, his indictment over unlawful campaign contributions, and ultimately how he built a new life on his farm with my mother, sister, brother, and me.
My zone is finally called. I close my yellow notebook, wheel my carry-on down the jetway, find my row, and hoist my suitcase into the overhead bin. I’d checked the suitcase on a flight from New Zealand’s North Island to the South, and the retractable handle had been broken. I filled out the damaged-luggage claim, but no one from the airline has gotten back to me despite two follow-up emails. Before boarding this flight, I text my boyfriend to complain. “No Justice. No Peace,” he texts back. I sit down in my aisle seat, dig out both ends of my seat belt, and click the metal lock together. I swap my yellow notebook for the purple hardcover I’d been reading: Cuz by Danielle S. Allen, about the author’s cousin who at fifteen years old admitted to an attempted carjacking and a few robberies. The boy had no prior criminal record. Charged as an adult, he received a double-digit sentence.
J never went to prison. He went to court for fights and drugs and DUIs. His father helped him beat the charges. By the time we met, J had stopped using and had more or less stopped beating people up, though he threatened violence with me, his friends, acquaintances, and strangers. I never saw anyone challenge him. J was two-hundred-sixty pounds, a mix of old body-building muscle and new fat. Even more intimidating than his size was the rage coursing through him. In his twenties, J was in love with a woman named R. He told me one time they were driving in his truck, he wanted to fuck, and R said no because she had another man’s “wad” inside of her. J’s right hand flew off the wheel and into her face. Blood splattered across the windshield. A decade later, we were lying on his parents’ couch watching The Godfather when R rang the doorbell. The three of us sat in the sun room talking about the weather or something equally banal. I remember thinking this older blonde woman could be a future me, and she had come to make peace with her devil.
The plane jostles and the fasten-seatbelt icon illuminates. A crumpled People magazine peeks out of the seat pouch to my left. Harvey Weinstein is on the cover, and I imagine a smoky dive where banished executives and movie stars play cards and drink scotch. I remember hearing that Weinstein’s at a spa in Scottsdale, Arizona.
The cabin lights dim. My seat eases back. I burrito wrap my legs and chest with the thin red blanket, pull down my eye mask, and drift to sleep with the aid of Tylenol PM. In my final waking moments, my mind replays the steps I’ve taken over the last few years to come to some kind of closure around J. An essay I wrote about finding out I couldn’t press criminal charges against him appeared online in February 2017. My sister called me in tears, wanting to know his last name. My lungs tightened as the syllables pushed their way out of my lips. She looked J up on Facebook, and told me that in his profile picture he’s holding a gun in front of a Confederate flag. J’s grandparents came over from Greece. The image of him with that flag dispelled any thoughts I had that maybe he’d changed. When the possibility of pressing civil charges came up I didn’t hesitate to look into it. In both cases though, I never got far enough along in the process to know if I would’ve done it. Now with the opportunity of making a gesture that could immediately upend J’s life, this knowledge rises in my body—he could kill me.
On New Zealand’s South Island, I had hiked to the foot of a mountain glacier. The plaque at the viewing deck, at the bottom of the valley, showed a photographic timeline depicting how much the ice had shrunk in the last fifty years, so when I looked up it felt like I was seeing a relic soon to disappear. I’ve thrown away my teenage journals, letters, photos, and am not in touch with anyone from the Towson scene. Without totems, or friends to co-construct memories, I recall less and less. I remember on Fridays after softball, I would drive to J’s apartment that his father paid the rent on to get his thirty-three-year-old son out of his house. I would hop the brick wall onto the patio, and let myself in through the sliding glass door. A McDonald’s paper bag sat on the glass coffee table, and a twelve-pack of Pete’s Wicked waited in the fridge. I’d sprawl out on J’s stained green comforter, eat the cheeseburger and fries, drink bottles of beer, and watch The Rosie O’Donnell Show until J got home from the dojo. He was a black belt in Kenpo. I once saw him break a stack of cinder-block slabs with the side of his hand. He showed me how to crush a man’s nuts with an open fist, then lift my elbow up, ramming my invisible attacker’s septum into his brain. In the midst of J’s tirades, I sometimes wished he would break my body so I’d have proof of the pain he caused.
I wake up in my cramped airplane seat, still hours from New York, knowing I won’t send my letter to the Maryland Bar and The Baltimore Sun. As I gaze out the curved window at pillowy clouds, I feel snug and safe with my choice not to name the man who assaulted me.
At home in my apartment on Roosevelt Island, sitting on the couch sipping green tea, I gaze out the window at barges being carried down the East River, and listen to traffic’s hum on the East River Drive. These days I rarely think about J. But, now and then, I’m reminded of how those years still flow through my body. Standing in my kitchen, knocking zucchini ends off the cutting board into the trash, I cringe when suddenly my boyfriend is next to me, wanting an embrace. I snap, Don’t stand so close to me. He is several inches taller and sixty pounds heavier than me. In our galley kitchen, I feel trapped by his bigger body.
Sometimes, after J yelled, I’d cut myself with his razor. For that one moment, I was in control of my body. At camp on Martha’s Vineyard, the youth group leader in whom I confided gave a talk to a room full of middle-schoolers. He told us he knew a woman who had fooled around with men before she married her husband and now couldn’t have an orgasm. In that same sex-ed talk, he said, “Homosexuality is outside of God’s plan.” I hadn’t understood then how this leader used his power to instill shame in me and other teens, or how he failed to use his power to tell my parents about J and me.
At fourteen, and so on, I was powerless in J’s hands. At thirty-nine, I have the potential power to ruin his life. On the one hand, I’m choosing silence to protect my body; on the other hand, silence has chosen me. How many women feel the same, especially women without resources and connections to leverage against their attackers? I feel powerful largely because I could afford therapy to help me heal, and I have time for a creative practice that turns black holes of experience into objects of contemplation. Without these advantages what would my life look like today?
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
ENOUGH is a Rumpus original 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. You can submit to ENOUGH here.
Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.
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