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.
Whose Shame Is It, Anyway?
In my mind’s eye, all I can see are pustules, deep yellow and ringed with angry red. What is visible of his back is covered with them, these aggressive, sickly cysts that have nothing to do with lack of cleanliness and everything to do with hormones, specifically testosterone.
“You know you wanted it,” he is saying, easily at first, then with annoyance. “Why don’t you just admit you wanted it?”
The “it” to which he refers is, of course, sex. “You know you wanted it” is heteronormative male shorthand for female desire.
We are driving in a four-door sedan, driving me back to the lot where I had parked my car earlier that evening. Right now, “earlier” seems like years and years ago, even though it’s only been a couple of hours. I am sitting in the back seat, the rear passenger side, evidently so that he can turn his thick pustule-covered neck while he drives and berate me.
I try not to look at the side of his face. I stare at the cysts, and as I stare I don’t think about how unappealing they are. I think they must be what covers my soul.
Here is a scene that will never leave me: Years go by. As a young couple with a young child my husband and I host friends for dinner. Wine is poured, dessert is served, the little one is put to bed, and with coffee and liqueurs talk turns more particular and personal.
The visiting wife mentions how happy she is to have lost touch with her ex-husband.
“I didn’t know you had been married before,” I say.
“Oh yes,” she answers. “His name was Liam H.; he was a class or two before your husband.”
I must have turned white as a sheet. The next thing I knew I was sitting on our queen-sized bed, our friend’s arm around me.
“What did he do to you?” she asked. “You don’t have to explain. I know he did something to you.” She put her other arm out and embraced me tightly. “It’s all right. He can’t hurt you again.”
Our husbands were in the living room sipping port. They understood something devastating had occurred, and that it had to do with a man, with a fellow Army officer, but they were not going to intrude or interfere or find out more than they felt comfortable learning.
Summer in the Hudson Valley may not be as hot, temperature-wise, as more southern regions, but the humidity rivals the funkiest swamp. All the green, trees and shrubs and vines, comes at a sweaty price. When I was growing up in the Valley, my mother referred to sticky July days as “sultry,” a word that always made my brain itch, since it also connoted glamorous, sexy film stars: “The sultry Miss Gardner.” What did red lipstick and brick-house curves have in common with wet, steamy afternoons?
I wouldn’t become old enough to understand the connection until a sultry July day when I was nineteen, in a dangerous situation made worse by my own naïveté and a set of cultural assumptions about female desire.
During my sophomore year in college, I met and began dating the young man who would become my husband. John was a cadet at the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point, fifteen minutes from my childhood home.
His parents had once lived on post and were still closely connected to West Point, and they took a liking to me. My boyfriend’s mother learned that I was interested in writing and journalism, and helped me secure a summer internship at the USMA Office of Public Affairs. Since John would be away all summer on cadet leadership training, taking this job seemed perfect—I’d get to be part of his world, get to learn some skills for what I hoped would one day be my world, and I could live at home and not spend all of my money on renting a room in a shared house.
The job turned out to be hugely interesting. The weirdest part of the gig was that West Point is a wasteland in the summer. Incoming students, or “plebes,” are learning the ropes at one lake, rising sophomores (“yearlings”) are in training at another, juniors (“cows”) like my boyfriend scattered around the country, and seniors (“firsties”) are finishing up internships and research projects before the year in which they’ll graduate and take commissioning oaths as officers.
The decision to spend the summer near home wasn’t doing much for my social life. My college friends were far away, my high school friends were mostly the same—those who were still at home couldn’t really be called friends; they were merely classmates. I spent a lot of my free time pestering older married friends with young children—again, not much of a social life. I longed for something fun to do with people my own age.
So I was delighted, that sultry July, to find that a passel of cadets had moved in to the barracks across the street from my office. It turned out that they were back to organize and run a week for high school students considering application to the Academy. They were a gregarious and close-knit bunch, quite a few of them stars on Army athletic teams. I saw them in the morning, at coffee breaks, during lunch, and more. We cracked jokes, exchanged anecdotes about cadets we knew in common, and talked about movies and music.
Towards the end of their second week, a couple of the guys told me they were planning to go drink some beers “down by Flirty,” meaning Flirtation Walk, a somewhat concealed trail where cadets were famously allowed Public Displays of Affection (PDA) with their dates.
“Come with us,” they urged. “It’ll be fun, we’ll blow off some steam.”
It was great to feel like one of the guys.
Was it a Friday? I think it was a Friday. I was so excited at the prospect of having something to do and somewhere to go instead of watching my parents tilt their recliners back in front of a new nature documentary. Although I’ve forgotten so many other details of the evening, I remember exactly what I chose to wear: white capri pants, a pink-and-white checkered camp shirt, and white sneakers. Not exactly “sultry.”
I parked by my office and met up with the cadets, several of whom were toting coolers for beer. It was all legal; this was long ago, when the New York State drinking age was still eighteen. We strolled down to Flirty in a group and set up in a gorgeous spot overlooking the river. Pull tabs hissed and metal caps clicked. Aaaaaah. Nothing like a cold brew on a hot night.
I remember sitting cross-legged on a lichen-covered rock, laughing, and then realizing all seven or eight men—boys—were staring at me.
“How do you want to start?” said their de facto leader, a quarterback on the football team with enormous shoulders named something Irish, like Ronan or Cathal.
“Start? Start what?” Were we playing a game? I hadn’t had more than one beer; I’ve never been much of a beer drinker, and since these were cadets, we didn’t have any illegal substances with us. I was sober, and too quickly realized that I was the game being played—or the pawn, if you will. These boys, the cream of America’s crop, expected me to have sex with each of them, maybe more than once.
Years later I would learn the phrase “pulling a train,” but that night I didn’t know it, didn’t know it was something anyone participated in, male or female. I wasn’t completely inexperienced, but I also was relatively sheltered.
Although my conversation with our friend’s wife didn’t take place until almost fifteen years after that hot summer night, I’d had plenty of occasions to recall it.
The Army is a small community. Its subset of United States Military Academy graduate officers is even smaller. Whether we lived overseas, were in graduate school, or were stationed on an enormous post in the middle of nowhere, I might run into one of the young men who had once looked at me as nothing but a body. One of them seemed to show up again and again. All I remember about him is that his nickname was “Shorty,” but I’ve never forgotten his face, never forgotten the angle of his chin or the shape of his skull or the slope of his brow.
Any woman who has ever been abused (and I must quickly add that on the spectrum of abuse, my experience is much less traumatic than most—but it’s still abuse, still traumatic) knows that the slightest peripheral glimpse of her abuser can cause anxiety and even panic. Once I was dressed to the nines for a formal dinner, feeling beautiful and happy while sipping a glass of champagne, and there was Shorty, at a round banquet table across the room.
The wine turned to vinegar in my mouth. I felt exposed, the same kind of exposed you feel when you have one of those dreams about not being able to keep your clothes on in a crowd of people. It wasn’t because I worried he would talk about me in public. That might have been a relief. The panic and shame I felt went much, much deeper than my elegant gown.
“Just admit you wanted it,” said Liam H., the Liam H. who would graduate, become an Army officer, marry his sweetheart, then abuse and divorce her.
I refused to answer him, refused to take the bait. The truth was I hadn’t wanted it. I hadn’t even expected “it.” I had been looking for simple camaraderie with a group of peers. As it happened, I had a boyfriend and I was already in love with him, even though I wasn’t aware of that yet—but even if I’d been completely single, I wouldn’t have been “looking for it.”
Sometimes a girl just wants a cold beer and a couple of laughs.
Liam H. was an asshole, but on that July night he was not a criminal. When it became clear to all present that I was not going to consent to any sort of sexual activity, one of the cadets (his face I’ll never forget; his name is lost to the panic I felt) said “We need to take her back to her car.”
I like to think he was being kind. He might have been worried that I’d start to scream, or that if things progressed I might report them all.
But I like to think he was being kind.
“My” car belonged to my parents. It was a pale-blue, four-door Pontiac Le Mans and extremely uncool. When Liam H. pulled up next to it and let me out, when I unlocked it and got behind the wheel and then locked it again, it felt like the safest place I’d ever been.
I left “post” (the name for any Army base) as quickly as possible without violating the twenty-five mph speed limit. The last thing I wanted was to be pulled over by the military police and have to explain where I’d been, and with whom. I drove home as the summer sky changed from lavender to mauve to deep purple.
I didn’t cry until I was safe inside our house, and the noise awoke my mother. She came upstairs to see what was wrong. As I told her, her face changed from worried and sympathetic to angry and disapproving.
“What were you thinking?” she said. She was frightened for her child. Her arms gripped my shoulders. “It’s like you were asking for it.”
Nearly three decades later the shame I felt at her words still tightens and curdles my stomach. What was I thinking? Asking for it. Asking for “it.”
Asking for what?
The cadets thought I wanted “it.”
My mother thought I was asking for “it.”
What is “it,” anyway? To those young men and to my mother, “it” meant sexual congress.
The only “it” I had wanted was to be part of the gang. Yes, I was ignorant and naïve and in violation of cultural norms.
But does that mean I have to bear the shame of what occurred? Why am I the one who has lived for so long with the sticky, icky feeling of having done something wrong?
Isn’t it wrong for a group of men to believe they have the right to a woman’s body simply because she agrees to hang out with them? Not one of these men ever said “By the way, we plan to drink a lot of beer and then pass you around for sex.” I assumed that we would be laughing, talking, and drinking. They assumed we would be laughing, drinking, and copulating. Who should be ashamed?
My mother believed that nice girls don’t take chances. I believed that women could do anything. Which one of us is wrong?
My husband retired from active duty a decade ago, although he still works for the Department of the Army at the Pentagon. I probably will never see any of the young men involved in this long-ago incident again.
Then again, maybe I will. Maybe at a party, or a reunion, or a funeral, a face will loom through a crowd and I’ll involuntarily feel my stomach clench and my knees shake from fear and shame.
This time, I will square my shoulders and steel my spine and send that ball of fear and shame back at that man’s face. His shame, not mine.
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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