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.
A man is next to me. He invited me to dinner. The waiter seated us at a table for four but he is crowding into my corner, eight inches taller than me, a hundred pounds over me, elbows planted like a professor holding court, telling me the ways of the world. He has three decades more than me; he could be my father. He wants me to know how special I am.
Benefactors are hard to come by these days. My best friend wanted a benefactor because her father worked at FedEx and her mother worked for an eye doctor and neither of them had money for the fancy, the impractical, the far-away art school she wanted to attend. Fashion designer wasn’t on the list of qualified occupations for young ladies graduating from Bismarck High. North Dakota girls worked at the Corner Café. Went to the Hair Academy. Nursing assistant? Dental hygienist? Honey, I got your number.
Cookies are part of the job. I have a law degree but I’m still supposed to make cookies. Plan the annual retreat. (Keep them happy.) Arrange the reservations. (Make them like me.) Review documents. Assist. Support. Talk quietly. Wait patiently when interrupted. Drowned out. Drowning out. Pecan rolls. Russian Tea Cakes. Peppermint Patties.
Daddy Warbucks was played by a sixth grader with dimples in our elementary school production of Annie. I was a chorus girl. I watched Daddy Warbucks pull Annie out of poverty, save her and her red ringlets from a life of scrubbing floors. I was an orphan in the first half of the play and a maid in the second half. But I never envied Annie and the big mansion she was moving into. I was nine years old, I had a nice place to live and plenty to eat. I didn’t know yet what money could buy.
Everyone is probably watching us. The restaurant is bustling, wide open, high ceilings, busy Saturday night. They are thinking, that older man has that young woman out and he’s going to buy her dinner. He did buy her dinner. And she’s going to let him. She did. He is talking about the writing workshops he teaches, the literary journals that have published his work. He leans her way and she leans his. Not because she thinks the professor-like older man is her date but because the restaurant is noisy and this is what polite people do when they are having a sincere conversation. It must have looked like she knew what she was doing. She did not know what she was doing.
Fuck envy. A lot of the ladies in my writing classes have husbands. Have trust funds. Have retired. They are hustling—like me—only with more advantages. I can’t be mad. I shouldn’t. But I’m broke, single, raising a small child. I can’t wait for the money to pour in, for a room of my own. It is not easy working forty hours a week, getting the kid to school, cleaning the house, dressing myself, dressing the kid, cookies—check, parties—check, finishing the research project with time to spare, asking how your day is, getting to the doctor, the grocery store, the karate lessons, finding it inside, somewhere deep inside, just enough training—just enough rinse and repeat—to spit out the answer, “I’m good, thanks.” Sometimes I remind myself that I could have married rich.
Guys like that don’t know. They don’t know they are “that guy.” They don’t know they talk over you. They don’t know they are asking you to give up a part of yourself to be with them. They don’t know that when they interrupt you, they are stepping on your throat.
He told me he had a lot of money. He told me he wanted to take care of me. He told me about getting in to an Ivy League school and getting out of the ghetto. He said he knew I needed help. I did need help. He said he would never leave his wife. I wondered how the hell I was going to get out of that restaurant. I wondered at what point a man goes from having no power to having too much.
I laughed at my friend for wanting a benefactor. I thought we could just make it on our own. Take out the student loans? Why not. Get a job? Why not. Be the next big thing? No problem. She knew better than I did; it was going to be a struggle.
Jobs are like relationships. There is a seduction period. You woo them. You entice them. You make them want you. Then you show up every day. Yourself or some better version of yourself, you try to make it work. This is what it is to be a woman at work. Modern women, earn your keep.
Kissing someone you don’t want to kiss is sometimes easier than saying, “I don’t want to kiss you.” I’m thirty-five-years-old and I have not figured out how to say, “I don’t want to kiss you.”
Leaving behind a dream is something North Dakota girls don’t have to do. Because they know well enough not to dream those big dreams. They know no one is giving them anything. They know work hard, play hard. They know the liquor store marks everything down on Tuesdays. They know Daddy Warbucks is a character on TV.
Ms. means something. It means you are not Mrs. which is to say you are not partnered, tamed, traditional. It means you are not Miss because Miss is outdated, too youthful. Miss Anyone is flaky, frivolous, inexperienced. Ms. means you are ambiguous. Lonely. Unclaimed. All of the options are negative. All of the options carry a stigma.
Nobody says, “When I grow up, I want to be a single mother.” Nobody.
Opportunity doesn’t actually knock. Knock, knock, like it’s going to come and find you? Hard knock. Hard-knock life. Do you remember the part where Daddy Warbucks says he wished the orphanage had sent a boy instead of a girl?
People are probably watching us. He has a ring on his finger. He is sweating. The food is hot. Spicy. He likes things spicy. He grew up with spicy food. He is not the first man to try to impress me this way. None of them have actually impressed me this way.
Quiet. If you are quiet in the meeting, you can’t say anything wrong. No one will correct you. No one will feel threatened. Quiet is easy. If I get loud will they listen? If I get loud will they try harder to drown me out?
Right behind me is my debt. My mortgage. My law school loans. My credit cards. My car payment. The emergency credit line for the furnace that went out in November. The debt is taller than the house. I live in its shadow. The debt speaks to me. It wears a blue pinstripe suit. It wears a silk tie. It has a deep voice. It has fucked me more than any man I will ever know.
Solomon has a nice name, a sweet disposition, a caring and earnest demeanor. Solomon wants me to go back to his hotel and have sex with him. He wants me to take my dress off over my head. He wants me underneath him. I wonder if he is already hard, sitting next to me at the table. The server is clearing our dishes. Solomon is handing her his credit card.
Trusting men is difficult when you have been the other woman, because you know what they say to the other woman.
Ugly was the best way to get by when I needed people to forget I was a woman. I would wear large slacks and loose suit coats. Ugly brown tweed. You wouldn’t know if I weighed two hundred pounds or one hundred twenty. You wouldn’t know if I was fifty or fifteen. No makeup, no hair spray. Big messy bun. Clunky shoes from the thrift store. I went to court dressed like a matron, or a man. No breasts, no booty. No saunter. No spark. I needed to be unseen. To be unsexed. Because no one takes a young women seriously. I was sure of that.
Violence sounds loud, but it can be subtle, quiet, easily mistaken for something else. North Dakota girls know to expect it. Why? Because we are women, and I don’t know a woman who hasn’t been pinned—against a wall, to the dirt in a field, in between bodies on the dance floor, on a stranger’s bed, on her own bed, in the backseat of a car.
Why on earth did he think I was having dinner with him? I thought we were friends, hardworking student, benevolent teacher. I thought he was going to be my mentor. I thought we had a deep and abiding connection, over literature and humanity. No. No. No. Don’t be silly. Silly girl. Silly girl. Silly girl. Sometimes you think there is an exception to the rule. No. It all comes with a price.
Xenos. A stranger. Next to me at the table. Signing the check. Telling me about his Vanguard accounts. How he has too much money. How lonely he is, as if that’s going to help.
You ever wonder what that older man is doing out with that younger woman? You do.
Zero times is how many time I felt comfortable saying, “Don’t kiss me,” “Don’t touch me,” “I disagree.” He tried to help me with the door on the way out, hustled up to beat me to it. But I left Solomon standing outside the restaurant. I can sit under the shadows of all my debt. I can mentor myself to greatness. I can tell you about my successes the way Solomon told me, told us all, about his. I care less if I got the cookies right, care less if I sound boastful, care less if I hurt your feelings, because I won’t get naked, because I won’t dance on stage in rags, dressed up like a maid, care less if you wish I would. I can hold the door open, thank you, I can get it myself.
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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