ENOUGH: If You Hadn’t Happened
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.
Ask “Are you choking?”
Dressed all in floral, an oversized bow atop my head. A vacant smile on my first picture day. The year before, I rode my bike down the steep porch steps. A broken arm. A pink cast. A gash on my head. Where were you? Napping in your bed. I was only four.
Call 911 if a person can’t speak or breathe.
I cry after I miss my penalty kick. For an hour, on the field, overwhelming sadness, not able to lift my body. It’s all my fault. I am bad. He doesn’t tell me it’s okay.
If person is awake, make a fist.
I couldn’t speak, I could only cry.
“Just say it. What is it? Just say it!” He is mad, or maybe scared.
“Lisa is dead.”
He is relieved. He thought it would be something worse. My friend is dead at seventeen. He leaves the room unnerved.
A mosquito needle, he drains the blood out of me, predictably unpredictable.
Place it above the person’s belly button well below the rib cage.
I am twenty-three. We sit on the porch and he tells me he has Alzheimer’s. According to his googling, he only has a few years left to live. In place of a diagnosis, he has a website. In place of a prescription he has crystals wrapped in a sock. He pees in bottles and leaves them all over the bedroom. I tell him he must go to a doctor. He informs me of my pathetic conditional love. Unlike the loaf, there is never quite enough of him to go around.
Pull sharply, inward and upward.
I am twenty pounds underweight. I got very sick from dirty water. He tells me he prefers me this way. To try to keep the weight off. When I was too young to hear such a story, he told me about when he was a boy, how he opened a refrigerator door and locked himself inside, hoping to die. His sister found him just in time.
Continue until the food comes out or the person can breathe.
A candle wasn’t blown out. The house burned, almost down, and he, in Nepal at the time, didn’t come home. She wrote a disturbing one-line email to the family. “I need help.” She later told me of how she laid in bed, alone in a damaged house, seven HEPA filters breathing rhythmically like respirators. A marriage extinguished. Hair circling the drain.
If person stops responding.
He came home for the divorce. Just by looking at him, an angry rumbling filled my body.
“So, you’re leaving forever?
What if one of your children dies? Will you come home for the funeral?
Will you be at our weddings?
Will you meet your grandchildren?”
There were no answers.
Open the mouth. If food is there, take it out.
A few days after he left, a package was delivered to the front porch. I opened it to find six one-gallon jugs of castor oil. The box sat in the foyer for a day. Then I moved it to the basement. A week passed and the bottles began to seep, emitting a strange unsettling stench. I carried it up the steps and out the door. I dropped the box on the curb. Please take it away.
If food is not visible, tilt the person’s head back.
A blog post about a twelve-year-old girl. Your fantasy. The FBI.
A private investigator calls to ask if my father has ever molested me. A queen-sized bed.
What do daddy issues smell like? Like camping trips where I forgot to bring the tomato sauce. Why did I cry over red paste left on a counter top? Not perishable. I perish.
A thing I know that can’t be unknown. Rotting fruit, maggots, flies, heartbreak written on a face, disgrace, shame, surprised to learn something you’ve always known. The embarrassment of raw emotion. You coward. After all these years I still can’t see a hummingbird without thinking of you.
Pinch the person’s nose.
I wake up screaming, crying, shaking. Horrible dreams, composting organs. Like how sometimes trying to cover up the stench makes it smell worse. No two colors can make blue.
Place your mouth over the person’s mouth and give two breaths.
Are you confused? I am, too.
Push hard repeatedly in chest center for twenty seconds.
How strange to mourn someone who is still alive. How do you explain? The tension in a flexed muscle, a quickening, a surge of pressure in my veins. What is there to do?
Check breathing. Repeat from start.
Letter to You, Abuser
It stays with me, it’s part of my identity, it has forever changed the way I carry myself, the way I live the rest of my life.
– Letter to her attacker from the Stanford rape victim, 2016
When I was eleven, you molested me. Repeatedly, on multiple occasions. You, my best friend’s brother, a man in your early twenties. And you were younger then than I am now, but plenty old enough to know better. And you must have known it was wrong, because you never did it when anyone else was around. No, it was only so very late at night when you pulled, yanked, and forced your way through my cries of resistance.
For too many years, I thought that I brought this on myself. Maybe it was the skirts I wore when I came over after school, or maybe something in the way I moved, or maybe it was something simple, like I just smiled at you too much. We all know how these things can affect a man.
And I know you did this to other girls, too. I know I wasn’t special. I probably just blindly stumbled into all of this like some reverse beginner’s luck.
The thing is that for so long after, I never said—even to myself—that anything bad happened to me. I didn’t realize that I had this permanent mark on me, that you would haunt me in every way possible until I turned around to face you head on. It wasn’t until I really surveyed the complete wreckage of my life, when I looked around and saw that I always choose wrong, when I realized: I always pick the option that doesn’t hear me say, “No.”
At my lowest point, my roommate asked, “Why do you have this aversion to men who treat you well?” She had a penchant for analyzing people, and talking to her often felt like therapy in its own right.
That was the day I learned what I was. She asked me to start from the beginning with my sexual history, and I did, which means I started with you. And I watched her eyes widen and her brows raise and she turned to me in horror and said, “Oh, my God.”
And I knew then, but I still didn’t want to know. I kind of shrug-laughed and said, “What? Crazy, right?”
Then I sat at my next real therapy session and had an incredibly hard time admitting what you had done to me, saying it out loud to a stranger and giving it real weight. It was like letting a baby I’d never wanted but had learned to love tumble out of my arms onto a cold, concrete floor. The words were so clumsy on my tongue, I felt just like a child learning to speak, although no child should ever have to learn to say, “I’m realizing I was molested.”
That very first time I spoke those words out loud, I felt my insides folding in on themselves, and I had to take a deep breath and fight the urge to take the words back, to deny that this was, in fact, a big deal. I had, and still have, a hard time calling myself a victim. It can feel dramatic, like I am calling too much attention to myself. I am aware that people endure much more suffering than I have. I never wanted to feel defined by this.
The problem is that I’ve been living out my victimhood in the last twenty years since you happened to me, whether I wanted to or not. I always felt inherently less than, always just wanted to be the cool girl, you know the one—she always rolls with the punches, even the literal ones, and she never makes waves. She’s always down—mostly because you held her there, but down nevertheless.
When I think of all my ex-lovers and how I sat with them and struggled to open up against an inner wall of resistance I ultimately couldn’t overcome, I just want to give up and I know it’s because of you. You’ve confused me as to what sex and intimacy really are. You’ve made it impossible to see or feel the lines between vulnerability, pain, love, violence, and permission.
At the age of thirteen, I slept with someone much older than me because he told me I could never do better. I let my parents blame me for that when they found out; I figured I had asked for it just like everything else. I swallowed the Plan B pill they pressed in my palm even though I felt like a baby might be my only chance at real love. I underwent the trauma and probing of a rape examination at the hospital in case we needed to press charges. I attended the mandatory therapy session afterward and then heard the confusion in my mom’s voice as she said, “You must have told the counselor some real messed up stuff, because they’re recommending more therapy.”
Years later, that same man would send me a message out of the blue that said, “Do you remember me? Wasn’t I your first?” and I would delete it as I thought to myself, No, not really.
I’ve let so much emotional and physical violence happen in my life because it felt comfortable. It was like surviving each individual act of trauma was a badge of honor: Hey, look at me, look how much bullshit I can take. I’m so fucking strong. Maybe actually being a victim just felt natural to me, even though I wasn’t yet willing to call myself one. Maybe I didn’t have to think about what was under the surface if I was too distracted by the chaos all around me.
For so long, I chased things and people I couldn’t have so that I wouldn’t have to get up close and personal with any of my real issues. Or maybe there’s always been just the one real issue: you.
In the end, I think I’ll come out alright, but it hasn’t been easy. There have been nights when I couldn’t stop shaking because I was so scared I would drive to the nearest bridge and just jump off. I have felt so out of control, so unwilling to trust, so worthless. There have been times when the only thing that kept me alive was knowing how much it would hurt other people if I was gone.
I have been so unable to be alone that I’ve slept on a friend’s couch to avoid taking an entire bottle of pills and yet so unable to be close that I don’t even talk to that person anymore, even though he spent countless hours on the phone with me assuring me of my goodness, of my worth, even though he might be the only reason I’m alive today.
In a way, it was like waking up to the truth of what you did to me was good because it finally gave me a reason for the way I felt, something to direct my anger toward. But in another way, I felt helpless to break the cycle that was set upon me at such a young age, an age at which I could never have been prepared enough to beat you at your own game. It made me feel like I could never be salvaged, like I would just keep being set up to fail.
And now, this is who I am. What has happened is part of me—you are part of me—and I can’t and don’t try to fight that because doing so never got me anywhere good. I just live with it, and with you, and I try to feel my feelings even when they scare the shit out of me. I try to take each moment as it comes and move through the heaviness that confronts me with a sense of acceptance. I continue to struggle with intimacy, both physical and emotional, but I am lucky enough to have real love all around me.
And I recognize how far I’ve come and it feels like some sort of miracle, like I’ve been washed clean, but it also doesn’t mean I’ll ever be as good as I could have been if you hadn’t happened, if you hadn’t taken away my head start.
This is the first time that I’ve ever put this to paper, that I’ve ever addressed you and the things you did. Before, I worried that it would make you too real, something bigger or worth more than you ever were. But I look around now and see the exhaustion and fear and resignation on the faces of the women around me and I’m so tired myself, tired of knowing this is a woman’s “normal,” and that’s when I know these are words that need to be said and heard, that I can’t heal without doing this.
My fingers are numb, writing this, thinking about you. You are dead now. I had this idea about confronting you and how maybe that would help me get closure but when I took the steps to find you, I found out that you passed away a few years ago. I was too late. You were slipping through my fingers right when I was learning to say out loud the things you did to me, right when I was beginning to put a name to my suffering.
Karma came for you before I could, but then I guess you’ve always been good at getting away with things.
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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