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.
My world was spinning, or my head was. I’m still not sure it matters which. I pressed my cell phone to my ear, crouched at the end of a creaky bed in a upstate Vermont cottage. Back in upstate New York, C crouched at the edge of a cornfield, whimpering.
“I punched my dad,” C moaned. “He threw me out so I punched him and ran.” He’d crashed his car in the getaway, he told me. His wrist was broken maybe, and his voice cracked as he cried.
“I don’t know what to do. Tell me what to do.”
“Are you drunk?” I whispered, as my roommate shifted in her sleep. I steadied myself on the edge of my desk as I slid to the floor.
I could hear the whiskey on his breath, the regret edging in like I knew it would. A knot formed in my stomach, twisted and hard. I fed him all the reassurance I could muster, until the sun peaked over our horizons. Until he could find his way to a nearby motel, and I could start to write my way through the traumas I couldn’t unravel without words.
C had been a bad boyfriend’s best friend, before the boyfriend dumped me and left us both for California. In the years since, I’d developed an undiagnosed neurological condition and started an MFA program, both concurrently consuming as many waking hours as my newspaper job could spare. C had developed a drug and alcohol addiction, both of which had landed him in the hospital more than once, and eventually, made him desperate and lonely enough to seek me out.
We hadn’t been friends until we each needed someone damaged enough to look at the other without flinching. He gave me someone to think about aside from myself, and I gave him a shoulder to lean on. It wasn’t the healthiest of relationships, but I wasn’t much good at healthy relationships. We needed each other, in our own unique but similar ways.
The next morning, I relayed the story to my residency cohort, bleary eyed over tofu scramble and too much coffee.
“He needs help,” a friend told me. “The professional kind.”
“That’s not your job,” said another. “You know that, right?”
“It’s hard,” I mumbled. “I care about him. I don’t want him to get hurt.”
Watching someone self-destruct is like observing a car crash in slow motion. And there were plenty of those, too. The time C skipped the curb on the way back to the motel where he was staying, popping two tires. Or the time he nudged—just nudged, he reassured me—the wall of the bar where he’d drank himself blind on a Tuesday before 8 p.m. I couldn’t bear the thought of him speeding down dark, rural highways, one eye closed and the other guessing at his trajectory. I told C he could call me any time, from anywhere, and I’d get him home safe and sound. Wherever home was, that week.
The phone rang one night and I sighed, mentally bracing myself as I answered it. A glass of wine sat at my elbow, my most reliable antidote to the prickling in my fingers and toes, the way the ground sometimes rocked and rippled when I stood too quickly. After a glass of wine, I reasoned, I could pinpoint the problem. As heartbreaking as driving drunk C around was, he distracted me from the storm beneath my own skin, the work I neglected to make sure he didn’t kill any of our friends or neighbors.
“Lizz.” His voice was soft at the edges, and frustration rose into my throat at the sound.
“Where are you?” He didn’t need a ride, he said. Just a friend. Wouldn’t I come meet him, make him feel less alone?
He got into the car more easily than I expected, sliding into the passenger side with an affable smile. He reeked of cheap beer and old sweat so I turned on the air conditioner full blast and opened the windows to the late-summer air. It was crunchy around the edges like the leaves just beginning to turn colors on the trees.
C told me he was house-sitting for a buddy, out in the country about a half hour’s drive away.
He needs me, I told myself, trying not to notice the fading light. It would be dark by the time we got there, and I hated driving country roads at night. The trees seemed to bow before us as we rode, my headlights boring a tunnel through them as the light grew gray, then velvet.
“Did you cheat on S?” C asked me, abruptly. He’d been quiet since the bar, and my stomach twisted at the name, like it always did. I tasted metal on my tongue.
“Why would you think that?” I asked him.
“He saw you, he said,” C mused. “At a concert, I think. Called me and said you were a whore. That he wouldn’t let you betray him like that.”
I laughed—it was that absurd. “I have friends, you know,” I told him. “Male friends. Like you. And I wouldn’t do that. He’s delusional.”
“I would never let a woman do that to me,” he mused. “Betray me like that. I wouldn’t stand for it.” The air rippled his curls and even in the dim light, his profile was sharp. His eyes dark hollows, and deep.
When we arrived, I killed the engine and waited. C didn’t open his door.
“Do you want to come in?” he asked.
“It’s late,” I demurred. “I have to work tomorrow.”
“Help me with the keys?” His hands were quaking, fumbling with the key and he seemed unsteady on his feet.
It was quiet when we stepped out into the night, only crickets to echo our footsteps. The ground was carpeted with pine needles. My car’s headlights made our shadows ghoulish.
The scene feels like a B movie in retrospect. I inserted the key into the lock and C slid his hands over mine. His body hot on my back; my back arching in surprise. Me throwing him off and staggering toward the car. He didn’t have to push me hard to cause us both to fall against its hood. It must have looked like the tableau teenagers imagine when they think about making out in the woods. But C didn’t taste like a movie, and this didn’t feel like the beginning of a love story.
I knew two things in that moment: first, that C would chase me down if I ran, and second, that he was faster and stronger than me. So instead, I fought him with the wiles mothers have taught daughters since cavemen invented clubs and ways to use them. I told him what he needed to hear to feel as if he’d made a choice. I shook all the way home and for days after. I remember pouring out my wine in the sink, cursing the dark, the night, myself for thinking I could ever be safe with anyone.
The next time C called, his voice was different. A steel ran through it and it rang like the edge of a knife on a flint. He ranted about betrayal, accused me of lying about our friendship, my intentions. It was the raving of a man whose mind has splintered into pieces that don’t fit back together again because he’s sharpened some of them into realities that only fit themselves.
My friend became a specter who stalked my nightmares, my streets. He’d call from outside his car, parked in front of my house with his silhouette in the driver’s seat. “I have a gun,” he’d tell me, as he detailed his deep and abiding hatred. “And if you come outside, I’ll shoot you and then myself.”
“You do not,” I’d tell him.
“Yeah? Come find out.”
He always drove away eventually, but never before my legs became liquid, before fear filled my head with the flies that buzz on decomposing things. I awoke from sleep screaming to imagined gunshots, the taste of blood in my mouth and adrenaline blazing through my limbs. Still, I never stopped picking up the phone. My house had too many windows, and I didn’t know what he’d do if I left him hanging. If I didn’t keep giving him an outlet for his anger, I feared my body would become it. As fierce a battle as we’d already waged against each other, I didn’t want to lose any more of myself to him.
“Wouldn’t it be awful if your car ran off the road?” he said once, his voice barely rising above a gravelly whisper. “If someone knew where you worked and drove up beside you. If that person didn’t care if they lived or died, and took you down with them? I know how deep that ravine you drive beside goes. Do you?”
I saved his last voicemail. The one where he tells me the cops don’t scare him after I’d asked the local precinct to call in a warning. Funny thing about restraining orders—they couldn’t issue one without three “credible threats,” they told me. No one ever saw him but me, and I hadn’t recorded his calls. And my word against his, they told me, wasn’t worth what I thought. Or my life wasn’t. I’m still not sure it matters which.
“I’m not stupid,” he hisses in the message, the speaker crackling with his hot breath. “I know how the law works just as well as you do. So I’m not going to threaten you. You won’t know where I am. But I’m not going away. And someday…” he trails off. An ending that isn’t, that never will be.
He stopped showing up after that. I moved away, and eventually stopped looking over my shoulder. I stopped peering through the curtains, stopped triple-checking locked doors. I stopped feeling like I’d swallowed a stone with his face on it. The same weight, I imagine, as the gun he probably never had.
I lay in an MRI machine some time later, waiting for the technician to finish his customary warnings. Terror manifests itself physically in some bodies. Bodies like mine, bodies that hold fear like a violin string wrapped around nerve endings that vibrate with a particular song you’ll never stop hearing no matter how hard your mind tries to forget it. Therapy doesn’t fix this. Only time does.
“It’s loud,” he said, tightening the frame around my head. “If you start to get claustrophobic, if you feel like the walls are closing in on you, just push the panic button. I’ll come and get you, and you’ll be safe.” I smiled and told him I wasn’t afraid of tight spaces.
It’s not tight spaces that scare me, I could have said. It’s lonely ones. When I’m driving down a rural road and a car comes up behind me, rides my bumper just a little too close, for a moment too long. And before it passes me, I imagine C is in the driver’s seat, and we’re back in the dark again. We’re plummeting down a ravine together, both of us broken beyond repair, and neither of us knows how deep it goes.
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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