ENOUGH: They Knew How to Take What They Wanted
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.
Victim, Survivor, Immaculate
some nights i can’t even lay down
the shadow coming to blister
on my body
& must curl on my knees
again in the tight orbit
of his want the slam of it
echoing against my backside
his breath ghosting virus
up my spine
i almost call him
bound now as we are
in the happening & the hating
though i do not want
the kind of marriage
hate makes of people
i want to know something else
of the word
what i am calling
the hard ache & soft lung
of my flesh
forgiveness is not divine
simply a corridor in the body
marked by desire
to be fashioned from formlessness
i do not beg but see how open
how wide & immaculate
the asking pool
of my eyes
it is endless
what they are willing to see
Joanna C. Valente
your photo without asking
because bodies can’t be owned
not even yourself
or so you’re told by men
who say they’re smarter than you
and really, you should just
trust them, because they have
your best interests
at heart, as if their hearts
are hands that are your hands
because your hands
are not hands
but glass jars with dead
butterflies and rabbit’s feet
and the fingers of men
better than you because they knew
how to take what they wanted
better than you’ve ever
used your hands
and these men tell you
the only thing you can make
is a wet dream, a child
no one wants and so you bleed
and bleed and bleed
until a man erases you
with his hands inside his jar
full of hearts that hit you
in ways you would never
admit especially now
as your body is searched
that can be used, rewire
dead cars, restructure
holes and the way the holes
feel when you put your hand
inside and feel
for a body like it’s not even
yours because it’s not
and sometimes not even your hands
are hands but just sounds
you used to make.
The oldest son, Matthew, won’t go to sleep. He’s two months away from five years old and his father gave him an entire bottle of Coke at dinner.
“Do you think that’s a good idea, to give him that to drink right now?” I had said, watching as the father made a big show of using his beer bottle opener to release the cap from the old-fashioned glass Coke bottle.
“Why not?” the father said.
The father looks like he can play the part of “brutally handsome” in a music video for “Life in the Fast Lane” by the Eagles. A ready smirk. Dimpled chin. Blue-gray eyes begging to be lost in. Thick blond brows slanted up, to give the illusion of someone with natural, ready empathy.
(They are masters of illusion, all charm and enchantment.)
I’m in bed with the youngest son, Tim. He’s eighteen months old with blond hair and crystal blue eyes which we can’t identify in the family gene pool. He’s asleep, his head on my outstretched arm.
The father has been trying to get Matthew to sleep for two hours. He has read him five books and sung him a Beatles song (“Hard Day’s Night”). But Matthew keeps getting out of bed. He needs to brush his teeth again. He needs to use the bathroom. He needs to wash his hands. He needs a drink of water. His father’s mouth twists in a way I’ve come to recognize as a warning sign—he’s drunk and grouchy and ready to rumble. Although he hasn’t yet, I worry he’ll turn his fists on his child.
I speak to the father in as soft a voice as possible. (They want you to speak softly. They want to know you’re scared of them.) “You look tired. Let me help. Why don’t you come here with the baby and I’ll put Matthew to sleep?”
The first punch hits my heart, the second hits my upper shoulder, narrowly missing Tim’s head on my arm. Third hits my jaw. I scream and scramble out of bed as Matthew tries to get between us.
“No!” he shouts. “No, Daddy! Stop!”
I grab Tim, who has awakened with a cry, and now it becomes a battle to get Matthew to safety. The father stands between me and my son.
“Why’d you do that, Daddy?”
“I didn’t do anything,” the father says. He’s gasping for air. He’s come back to himself. He realizes now that his evil side took over again. I know from experience that I have mere seconds before he rejects the idea that he has done something wrong. He will blame me for his actions, then verbally berate me or, worse, hard-smack my cheek.
With a quick motion, I shift Tim to my hip with one arm and offer the other to Matthew, who grabs it and lets me lift him up and over the bed. We run downstairs. As our feet pound the bare wood steps, I’m terrified the father will push me from behind. “Run,” I tell Matthew. “Outside.” And all the while, I’m clutching Tim and Tim has his arms wrapped tight around my neck like our lives depend on it…
Because they do.
The father chases us.
“Where are you going?” he says. “What are you doing?”
(They will gaslight you and act like nothing out of the ordinary has happened.)
“Hurry, hurry, hurry,” I chant to Matthew. He’s scared. His little legs move fast. His nighttime diaper sags.
As we run to the back door, I grab my car keys off the hook. Down the back steps we go, into the SUV.
The father grabs my upper arm—the one not holding Tim—and spins me toward him.
“Get into your car seat,” I say to Matthew, even as the father grits his teeth at me, issues threats. Matthew snaps himself in. I move around to the other side of the vehicle to put Tim in his seat.
The father blocks my way. I keep hoping for the light to switch on in our neighbor’s window, mere feet away. The air is crisp. Still. Surely our neighbors are out of their beds, peeking out the window, wondering what’s going on. At least turn on an outside light. But the only lights are the stars, a zillion miles away, glittering down, watching.
“You’re not going anywhere,” the father says.
“Yes, I am,” I say. I am not thinking in that moment. Only reacting. There’s no time to think. Adrenaline is zipping through the veins. Some sort of survival instinct is kicking in. The thinking part of the brain shuts off. Later, I will think that perhaps, next time (because there will be a next time), I should not respond, not talk, not open my mouth. I will still not understand that I am not in any way the one at fault, that I am not in any way able to control a situation where a man wants to be violent. This is a mistake of self-defense classes and an upbringing in which I was encouraged to believe I was powerful, that I could control any situation if I wanted to.
This is the second time his fists have pounded my skin, but not the second incident of violence. Not the second time my heart pounded with such ferocity that my mouth went dry and my ears rang—my body’s alarm bells at Code Red, shouting emergency.
The violence started after we married and he became fond of medicating himself with alcohol. He had taken over the day-to-day operations of his father’s business, dealing with customers who shouted at him, and employees who depended on him for their livelihood. Sometimes he had to fire people who had families to support. Sometimes he had to figure out how to meet payroll because clients hadn’t paid the company for its services. Sometimes he had to act the role of bill collector, and call to remind clients to pay their bills. He did all this expertly at work, but at heart, he was an anxiety-ridden introvert who couldn’t handle the demands of the job.
It was after an especially tough day at work that he sank a fist through a wall I’d painted after spending an entire Saturday removing wallpaper from it. Our first home. Not exactly a fixer-upper but it needed some updating. Layers of wallpaper from other people’s lives. Lost keys for old locks. Old knob-and-tube wiring. He insisted on handling the bills and the checking account. I received a notice from the credit card company that they were charging me a twenty-five-dollar late fee. I asked him to be more attentive to paying the bills in a timely manner. He advised me to close the credit card. Said we only needed the one in his name in case of emergency. I counter-offered to handle the bills instead.
“I don’t want to talk about this now. I’ve had an awful day at work,” he said after he punched through the wall. “You have no idea what I go through.” I felt bad for caring about a twenty-five-dollar late fee. I didn’t need the credit card in my name. I was only working part-time from home. There was no reason to have separate accounts of any sort. Any money I earned belonged in our joint fund.
Another time, he slammed his fist into the car dashboard because… I can’t even remember the reason. Another time he angrily accelerated to eighty miles an hour on a curvy road while I was six months pregnant because… who knows. Maybe I said something wrong. Maybe I sneezed or looked at him in a way he didn’t like. Another time it was an armoire door torn from its hinges, and then it was a glass figurine of a young couple dancing—a wedding gift—smashed to pieces.
The more these incidents happened, the less he apologized and the more he blamed me for inciting him.
(They always blame you. Always. You made me do it.)
The first time he punched me, I was eight months pregnant and holding Matthew in my arms. The father had a bad day again and wasn’t pleased that I hadn’t cleaned up his son’s toys from the living room by the time he came home. He punched me twice, in the upper arm.
The next day I had an obstetrician appointment. The short-sleeve cotton robe the nurse made me change into did not hide the fist-size black and purple and blue swirl on my upper arm. I stared at the colors, mesmerized at the little dots of white within the pattern, the redness of the purple. It didn’t hurt anymore, but the mark glared at the world, desperate for attention.
The nurse’s eyes widened as she went to put the blood pressure cuff on that same arm, and then switched to the other instead. “That looks like it hurts,” she said.
“Not anymore,” I answered honestly. How easy it was for me to compartmentalize the violent domestic incidents. I lived in a four-bedroom home. We had two cars. Took beach vacations. My husband and I laughed at each other’s sarcastic comments. Our children were well-fed and happy. I had no right to complain. I made myself feel better by foolishly assuming superiority in the hierarchy of the abused—I wasn’t like those other women, the ones who lived in poverty, cowering under their husbands’ heavy hands. These incidents could be explained away. A stressful evening. Exhausted parents. The father didn’t always behave badly. At eleven o’clock in the morning, on a sunny day, before he started drinking, he was the nicest man in the world. He massaged my feet. Brought me flowers for no reason.
I could hear the forced casualness in the nurse’s voice when she kept pressing for answers. Pointing at the arm that she didn’t put the cuff on, she asked, “What happened there?”
I didn’t have an answer prepared. I panicked. I didn’t want a report sent to… wherever they sent such a report. I didn’t want my son Matthew or my unborn child taken from me. I didn’t want anyone to know my business. I could handle it—my husband, the incidents, my life. He wasn’t going to punch me again. He’d said so. I loved him too much to turn this incident into a thing.
I also felt embarrassment. The nurse’s question, and her tone, made me feel again as if I was like one of those women—the women in my mind who I imagined allowed themselves to be abused. Such women were uneducated or plain stupid. Such women were capable of getting out of abusive situations but chose not to. Such women were fools and deserved what they got because they weren’t doing anything to help themselves.
I had graduated from college. I had lived on my own. I did not shy away from expressing my opinions on things. I wasn’t a fool. I could take care of myself and my children.
“A two-by-four,” I said, stumbling over my words as I searched for a story to tell the nurse. “I was in Home Depot, walking through the wood section, and a piece of wood fell right on me.”
The nurse didn’t respond verbally. With the stethoscope in her ears, she looked at me as if she was listening more to my heartbeat than my spoken words. I looked away. She unwrapped the blood pressure cuff.
“The doctor will be in, in a minute,” she said. The standard thing to say, before she opened the door, walked out, and shut it. I felt like I’d disappointed her, but more than that, I felt ashamed.
The doctor came in. A fiftyish man with wireless spectacles and a consistently serious expression. My blood pressure was up, he said. After he checked on the baby’s position, he pointed to my arm and asked what happened. This time, I didn’t stumble over my words. I repeated the two-by-four story, then followed up with a question for him. “Are there any particular vitamins I should be taking?” A throwaway question. A diversionary tactic. It worked.
I told the father about the doctor’s appointment. About the questions. About my fears for our children. About my fear of him.
He cried. Apologized. Segued into telling me that I could do more to ease his anxiety. When I made the mistake of submitting, of saying that I would try harder to help him, he moved into more direct accusations. I needed to keep the house cleaner. I needed to pick up more freelance writing work. I needed to have dinner ready for him when he came home. I needed to iron his shirts. I needed to initiate sex more often. I needed to appreciate him more.
I had read enough stories about domestic abuse to know the father’s reactions were typical of abusers, and I told him so. But to push it any further meant causing another fight, thereby causing him more stress. I wanted the fighting over. I wanted peace. I wanted more of the good moments we had and I believed, with all my heart, that we could overcome the bad moments. There was always hope on my part. Maybe if he took more vacations from work. Maybe if he really tried not to drink.
I conflated the alcoholism with the abuse, which I shouldn’t have.
As we stand outside the house, little Tim in my arms, Matthew in the car, I grow more alarmed. The father purposely keeps his voice down, not wanting to let the neighbors hear him, but I will not have any of it. The night sky seems to close in on us. I cannot see the stars any more. Moonless. Without light.
“I’m done with you,” I say. “I’m not going to let you hurt me anymore. I’m scared for our kids.”
He grabs my neck and tries to twist it off my body. I almost drop Tim. I kick the father hard in the shins and then knee him in the groin and run to the SUV, where Matthew has the door open.
The father advances toward us.
“You come any closer, I’ll scream,” I shout.
I think I see a curtain move in the neighbor’s bedroom, but no light turns on. There will be no cavalry, no rescue.
In a low voice, the father says, “I’m getting the gun and I am going to kill you.”
He runs inside the house and I buckle my youngest into his car seat, get in to start the car and…
I realize I grabbed the wrong keys.
I scramble to grab Tim out of his seat. Shout at Matthew to get himself out of his car seat. We run to the street, to the father’s parked car. I have his keys.
His car has no children’s seats. Matthew sits in the back and pulls the seatbelt over him. I put Tim in the front passenger spot and pull the seatbelt over him.
I drive away just as the father emerges from the house.
About a mile down the road I pull into an empty parking lot. The car’s fuel gauge sits dangerously close to empty. I have no phone. I have no money. No shoes. My sons have nothing on but diapers. My jaw, shoulder and chest ache from the punches. My neck aches from the twisting. My heart seems to be in an irregular beat.
I have no family and no close friends within a sixty-mile range.
I have three options: Go to the hospital. Go to the police. Go to my in-laws’ home, ten miles away.
The hospital and the police pose risks. They escalate the situation. We live in a small town. The father of my children knows the local police officers. He has grown up in this area. I have not. I don’t believe the police will help me because the one time that I did call the police station directly, the officer was rude. I told him the father had been drinking and violent. The officer said I was slurring my words, and sounded like I had been drinking. This response was so shocking that it took the breath right out of me. “I don’t drink,” I said truthfully. “I have not had alcohol in years. I don’t understand why you are being so rude to me.” I could hear the officer start chewing on something. Had I interrupted his snack time? I dared not ask. He said I should just let the father sleep the alcohol off. “Uh, thanks,” I said, and hung up, my hands trembling with rage and shock and despair.
It is eleven o’clock at night when I pull into the in-laws’ driveway. They have a home deep in the woods. The interior lights are on. As soon as I park, Matthew unbuckles himself and runs to the front door.
My mother-in-law answers with a glass of wine in her hand. As I unbuckle Tim from the car, I hear Matthew shout, “My Daddy hit my Mommy!” He repeats this a couple of more times.
His grandmother’s response is: “Shhhhh. Stop all that yelling. Why aren’t you wearing any clothes? Why didn’t your mother put clothes on you?”
My only hope is to get him to leave, because if I leave he could kill us in a fit of drunken rage.
I read stories in the newspaper about women who were killed after they filed Protection from Abuse orders against their spouses/boyfriends/stalkers.
What does a PFA do? I ask a lawyer. Does it mean the police protect me?
He looks me square in the eye: It’s a piece of paper. A warning.
But does it really protect me?
The lawyer shrugs.
Three months later, the father returns from a business trip and we get into an argument during the day, when he is not drinking. His bag has not been unpacked. I urge him to go, now, to his parents’ home. And he does.
There are two years of separation. Finally, a divorce—much to the relief of everyone.
I understand why you don’t leave. Why you won’t admit you are being abused.
It seems simple. If your domestic partner hits you, leave. Call the police. File a report.
It’s not simple.
People want to help, and they don’t want to help. They want to see, but they want to keep the shades drawn. They look down on us, just as I looked down on the “other” women who I imagined were not enough—not smart enough or emotionally strong enough to escape abuse. We feel the judgment, from beyond us and within us, and it only worsens the shame. We’re ashamed already. We hate ourselves already.
They will try to turn you against yourself. Defy them.
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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