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.
When to Keep Quiet
“Am I bothering you?”
I had just turned fourteen when I was asked this question by Uncle on a trip with my sisters and mom to celebrate the Fourth of July with Family.
At the time, the question—as much as the act that preceded it—caught me by surprise. The word “bother” implied an everyday occurrence. Other things in life up to that point had bothered me. My younger sister bothered me when she ate all the mac and cheese. My mom bothered me when she told me to finish my chores.
So, was I bothered?
My memories of the trip are a series of blurry snapshots. Eating a mouthwatering German meal cooked by grandparents. A game of Marco Polo, which ended with Uncle grabbing and holding onto me for one second too long. Soaking in the Midwestern summer sun by the lake cabin. A boisterous family BBQ and pouring alcohol for Uncle. Falling asleep soundly on the couch after a full day of laughter and leisure.
Waking up with Uncle’s hand on my crotch.
I tried to roll over but felt the weight of Uncle on top of me. With my body locked in place, I was trapped in a world that now consisted only of Uncle and couch. Because my body couldn’t, my mind became active, searching for insights as to what to do but came up blank. Nothing in life up to that point had prepared me. All I knew was that Uncle was robbing me of what little independence I’d had over my body in my fourteen years. Earlier in the school year, I’d dyed my hair a dark red as a badge of honor to protest the school’s draconian rules, its policy opposed to hair of “unnatural” colors. I lost a friend over my ruby red locks who said I only wanted drama and to attract attention from boys.
I pretended to be asleep to avoid creating a scene. I tried shifting my body from Uncle’s grasp. My slight movement Uncle took as encouragement. He slipped his hand up my shirt and grabbed at my breasts, hard. My eyes fluttered but I wouldn’t open them. His other hand brushed my unnaturally dyed hair as he propped himself up a bit. I held my breath. Maybe he would leave and I wouldn’t have to tell on him. Family—as well as my mom and sister—was asleep in the adjoining two rooms. Uncle removed his hand from my breast and I felt relief as he partially lifted himself off me. But then he began breathing heavily, pleasuring himself. The smell of stale beer suffocated me. If I stayed on that couch, I knew I would remain helpless. I pulled myself up and said the first thing that came to mind, “I need to go to the bathroom.”
Uncle, his eyes focused on mine, asked, “Am I bothering you?”
Unable to say anything else, I shuffled to the bathroom. I sat on the toilet, beginning a years-long battle with doubt. “What Uncle did was wrong, right?” Or “Was I in the wrong for choosing to sleep on the couch next to his?” “Why had I poured Uncle’s wine that night?” I collected myself, pushed all those thoughts aside, and found my older sister in another room on a bottom bunk. I plopped myself on the mattress, hoping it would wake her up and said, “I need to tell you something…”
My sister was calm, my mom was in hysterics, but they only needed me to repeat it once. Crotch. Chest. Alcohol breath. “Am I bothering you?” They both planted their flags firmly on my side. We decided on a strategy. Quick escape to what we thought was neutral territory: our grandparents. We drove for hours at dawn only to step on enemy territory, doubt acting as a double agent.
“Did Uncle rape you?”
“Did Uncle touch you under your clothes?”
“How do you know it was Uncle?”
“Maybe Uncle just touched your leg and you overreacted?”
“Are you sure this wasn’t just a dream?”
It seemed that my grandparents were winning the question battle. I stuck to my guns and maintained the same sequence of events. I knew what I had experienced was not a dream but now my reality. And I wanted to make it their reality too. All shot down with some variation of “It was a one-time thing, he won’t do it again.”
And so, like most wars, it ended in a stalemate with false promises in hope of change. After returning home, my hope came in the form of Effexor pills and reassurance by therapists that peace would be found in forgiveness. All shattered when Family kept my molestation a secret from Uncle’s fiancé, whom he married two years later. The memory of my experience diminished in the eyes of Family as Uncle welcomed his firstborn. There wasn’t enough room in Family for both realities. Like most wars, everyone forgot why it started.
The only question I failed to answer is: “Am I bothering you?”
For years, I would look back to that couch and think if I’d been brave, I would have answered the question. I’d have fired off quips to make Uncle see instantly that he was in the wrong. But it took years of internal strife to realize there is power in choosing not to answer. Had I answered the question—either affirmatively or negatively—I would have invited Uncle deeper into the conversation. I would have downplayed my molestation like nearly everyone in Family has. By not answering, I don’t have to validate the meaningless of the question itself.
Little Love Circles
We are predetermined. Our DNA is complete long before we are thrusted out of our mothers’ wombs. Into the world.
Tiny little strands decide your appearance, your complete chemical makeup.
Diseases you have. Or might catch.
My smallness was decided then.
I come from a small family. My mother stands short and fat at five feet even. My middle sister stands two inches taller than her, and my baby sister two inches more.
My father is five foot seven. I think.
I stop growing when I am thirteen. Never make it to five feet. Almost four foot nine. Almost.
The doctor calls me a miniature person.
I learn three things in Honors Biology:
1) Humans instinctively protect any creature that is smaller than them.
2) Survival of the fittest means the smallest is the weakest. The weakest usually dies first.
3) Scientific laws can be broken.
My teacher, Mr. Fox, asks me about the boys who poke at me in the hallways even when I am not doing anything remotely interesting. Mr. Fox is a large man. He looks like a lumberjack; tall and thick, usually sporting a flannel. Deep voice and a beard. He stands on the side of the table closest to the whiteboard.
Takes up a lot of space.
The bad ones always find you.
I lean against the desk. My smallness means the lab table is higher than my hips. I cannot sit on the table, only lean uncomfortably. The table digs into the soft space just above my hips, below my ribs. My backpack rests heavy on my shoulders.
They never leave me alone.
Big brolicky boys.
Fragile small girl.
Women wear violence on their bodies. We are canvases.
Not all abuse colors clearly.
I tell my friends I like when bruises turn my skin bright purple. I only get accidental bruises in cheer practice. My smallness makes me a flyer. Less than one hundred pounds. Easy.
I come down hard out of a stunt and land on my knee. It looks like a little heart. Purple heart. Purple little heart.
I do not lie about where that purple heart comes from. I wear it proudly.
I do lie about the bite marks. Football players outside their locker room after school. A friend’s boyfriend. Xavier. My shoulders. My arms. My collar bones. Light blue. Green. Purple.
Half the fucking rainbow. He tastes it, all right.
I let the football players hit me because I am a Stupid Girl. Standing outside their locker room while they get changed for workouts. It smells like boy sweat and man glory.
They like me. My smallness. They can pick me up and protect me until they want to throw me down and hurt me.
When one of them fights with their mom, or gets caught smoking weed, or gets into a fight, I am the first call. I understand.
Some of them pinch me all over. Arms. Legs. Ass. I tell them to stop and they know I don’t mean it.
They still call me crying when their girlfriends leave them.
Small living creatures are innocent. Coddle-worthy. That is why we react the way we do to babies: cooing at their fresh fat ugly faces and asking to hold them at every family gathering. Why crimes are considered especially heinous when they are committed against children.
We do not hurt small things. We love and protect them.
My smallness saves me sometimes. My meekness.
Quiet small girl.
Like a baby, people pick me up constantly.
Picking me up is a game. Funny. It happens without my asking. It happens from behind. Someone will swoop in and scoop me up in their arms, squeeze me hard. Pressure on my ribs. Feet dangling. I scream and they laugh. My fear is always the punchline.
My smallness teaches me not to fight back.
Everyone is bigger. Stronger.
Thick fingers wrap twice around the circumference of my wrists. Bones protrude where my outer arm meets my hand.
I do not believe in violence. Delicate small girl.
Boy-men hurt me. I let them.
I fall in love with my beaten body.
Each day I count my bruises, keep tabs on their healing. They are small. Finger bruises. Tooth bruises. Discreet.
No one makes me stand outside the locker room every day after school. Only three football players make a habit of hurting me. They touch me soft when they want to.
It is a joke in high school. No one can touch me because I startle too easily. Always the fucking punchline.
Instead, they poke me. Hard. Fuck one finger between the ribs. Shove all four between the third and fourth intercostals and laugh when I scream.
I try to learn how to fight. Ask my boys to show me what they mean when they say, “it’s all in your hips.”
Swing hard. Don’t hesitate.
I have no hips.
I am not yet an angry woman. Docile. Small.
We stand in the small parking lot behind my house and they circle up.
Put your left leg behind you. Keep your weight there. Cock your arm back. Pull the fucking trigger.
I know my fists are not hot enough to hurt them but I refuse to swing hard at their open hands anyway. My knuckles barely connect with their eager palms. They laugh.
Fragile small fire girl.
Don’t be a pussy.
When I fuck my best friend he squeezes my neck just a little too tight. I laugh. He loosens his grip. I learn to love a man’s hands around my throat, suppressing me.
We sit naked in his car afterward and he pokes my legs until they bruise.
Finger bruises. Little love circles. Someone has been here.
I put my feet on his dashboard and he pulls out his pocket knife. He thinks this is a threat.
Xavier hurts me the hardest.
He pinches me until I scream, in the hallway between the staircase where people sometimes have sex and the locker room that smells like almost-manhood.
When I tell him most of my bruises come from him he tells me to man up.
You wouldn’t hurt your girlfriend that way.
You’re not my fucking girlfriend. Pussy.
He made me feel safe when we met.
The first time he hurts me he grabs the back of my shirt in the middle of French class and writes on my shoulder.
“I <3 Xavier.”
I try to pull away but he twists my orange shirt around his dried knuckles and pins my arm between his and the desk. It is cold.
I wait for him to finish branding me.
The boys play this game in middle school. They like to see who can slap the girls’ asses the most. Who can slap the girls’ asses the hardest. They mostly play it at the park after school. Unsupervised. We sit on dry dead grass on the sides of the basketball court. The nets on the hoops are old and mostly gone.
It is the first warm day of the new year. I wear light pink soffe shorts and a white tank top. I am standing next to the only middle school girl who admits she likes it when the boys make her ass sting.
Jackson winds up hard. Warms the back of his right hand with the palm of his left hand.
I tell him to go fuck himself and limp away. He chases after me. Looks sad. I apologize. Considerate small girl.
His handprint lingers even after the stinging subsides.
I never need to hide my bruises. The football players don’t care who knows that they plant purple all over me.
I don’t think much of it. None of them mean to hurt me. Just mark me. Love has to hurt or it isn’t really a feeling.
What constitutes a victim?
Who raises hands against a girl-woman?
Who knows if they mean it.
I do not feel like a victim.
When my coworker locks me in his car and shoves his fingers deep inside me, twisting them around until I go limp and let him happen to me, I am not a victim.
It isn’t rape because I don’t get out of the car even though I can. We are in my neighbor’s driveway. Safe zone.
My town is small. Runnable. Eight miles wide, if you run through the town that sits in the middle. Separates north from south. The roads were recently repaved, but the sidewalks are old. Rustic.
My town does not mend brokenness.
My town has history.
All the cool kids cut class to get high. There is a small plot of evergreens right behind the high school. Boys smoke there in the mornings before the first bell rings. Sometimes, they hide out there all day. Everyone knows this is where the boys go.
The evergreens are exclusive. Invitation only.
A perpetual team huddle.
They roll dreams into paper and pass them around. Establish community.
Future college graduates. Aspiring rappers. Athletes.
I meet these men in the evergreens, when they are boy-children.
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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