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.
Instances of His Return
When you spank your daughter (only four) and few awful, you recall your stepdad’s hands on your shoulders, fixing your posture. Like the pairing of a wrinkle and an iron’s face, firing from him to you, the sparking of a nerve. A hot nerve that keeps returning. A nerve that is always partially owned, a co-signed agreement, as in not a territory just yours. Since what is a nerve if not a fated reaction to an action bestowed. His nod or yell. Or simply getting beat. With the belt swimming through belt loops. Torso over his knees and your underwear stretched by the knobs of two legs spread.
Recall being escorted down the basement stairs with all your toys, past the Little Tikes kitchen’s white door, ajar. Recall packing yourself into the faux oven, a marshmallow hollow. Your sister shutting the door, a squished bop. And pressing cook and you both laughing. Recall thinking why is the spanking business conducted in the basement?
When you open the garage and it smells of rust and grass trimmings, you’re brought back to his domain. A roll-top desk, envelopes, graph paper. Red gas containers, riding lawn mower, an entire day of yard work. The driver’s seat. His Oldsmobile marinated in underarm odor on your way to the hardware store on a Saturday in the backseat. Why are you going on this errand? Even if the cold stink of concrete aisles and metal parts will bring relief.
The car’s ceiling sagging into a dome. A brown felt sky calling touch. It is the surface of a man’s shaved face. Fingers recoiling like burned tongues each time. Why must you confront the ceiling each time? Check its descent, measure it. Touch it and cringe. It feels violating, all of it. The ceiling, his sharp smell in your mouth, having to eat it, swallow it down.
And enduring. Popping like a hunter’s shot in the woods. Not knowing from what direction. The same tableau: pop, pop. You can no easier pull that memory out of your head than you could stop poking the ceiling.
It’s not as if he was an odorous man. Just after a hot day of mowing the lawn. But it was thick, his stench, when he soured. It filled a room, transforming air into buttermilk.
When your husband yells at you in the car on your way to the airport, that same charge returns. That same goddamn nerve working like a melon scooper upon orange fruit. So does the man ten years younger than you at the bar, interrupting the conversation with your friend, seize you. His voice, seize you. Your friend says, Hey. You’re interrupting. Instead you put the beer to your mouth, a stand-in for your ebbed words.
So does the principal interviewing you for your first teaching job, smoking a cigarette, not asking you pertinent questions; so does the man on bike path, his body in your lane; so does the boy who taunted you in elementary school: dissolve your rounds of plain address.
Once, one of your students, a seventeen-year-old boy much taller than you, put his arm around your neck at the front of the classroom. Just like a man will do. A fool man at a bar. A boy at your locker. A man at your bathtub. Once a man from the wedding party walked in on you in the powder room, where you were topless and nursing with lips and nipples shining like red gills. The man said nothing. You said nothing. He fumbled in his gym bag, found his deodorant, applied, and you gawked in awe of his boldness.
When to the boy, you did raise a voice: sit down and rather inappropriate, when your nerve sputtered the rest of the school day, recalled the bluefish you used to catch out of your grandfather’s pond, too small to eat, which you tossed to the feral cats.
The resolute swing of your arm, throwing line, throwing flopping fish. The cackle of the fish bones and scales in cat mouths. The will of your muscles to work so idly.
When the new house comes with a master bathroom and tub , you remember the time in the bath. When you were twelve. And he in the bathroom, having no good reason, yet there he stood, six feet of him: jeaned, tucked, tub-side.
You submerged in soapy water, grabbing your knees to your no-breasts. The walls covered in paisley maws. The gold faucet looking like a genie lamp. The remodel of the master bathroom had been recent. He acting as if you and he were just sitting at a breakfast table eating eggs and toast. Some blackberry jam?
Sure. You can’t help but act along. Slipping right along like a vase off a table from an elbow. Despite the agony of not being able to cover yourself with the quilt off your bed, of cut-out squares and little flowers stitched tight, and a trimming of folded cotton triangles, cozy huts for day-dreaming fingers.
You couldn’t muscle up the nerve to hatch your voice, unleash the protests welling inside. That was the first time.
Recall the relief when he turned away and his gaze walked out the door. Though the magnetic draw of your chin to knee would not flip off.
His next visit was in the shower. You wanted to fold your torso in half, neatly. The first crease of a paper airplane. Or a warm dish towel quartered placed on top of a tidy, warm stack.
When you visit your sister in six-month increments, you can see your presence is pressing her nerve. In her perfect house, you’ve become an aide-mèmoire. A flat pebble rising up like paper. When she blasts her husband about the spoiled broccoli in the fridge, you get a glimpse of her nerve. A relentless hair-legged insect that drives you outside. Where there are no mosquitoes. This little perfect yard of square garden boxes, concrete steps, mulch, and black cherry tomatoes. Sitting in this city, cupped in glorious mountains. Unlike you, she’s escaped the Midwest.
She was perfectly happy here without you. In her grey walls, her museum of throw-pillows, mid-century furniture, her husband’s pottery, her quilts looking nothing like Grandma’s. If there is a flaw in her aesthetic, you can’t find one.
Both of you spend six months missing versions of the other that you’ve composed. Then realize after all that you’ve become almost strangers. That it would take more than a week vacation to mold into the same muddy color.
It’s not her in the kitchen with her husband who is so quiet, relenting. It is a cracked version. You want to rewind her shouted words until they are thin clouds in an afternoon sky.
Recall on an especially cold weekday morning, waiting with your kids at the bus stop, the winter mornings he drove you and your sisters to the bus stop. All sitting in the car, the heater whirring the cold into the edges till the bus arrived. The stillest moment of a day.
At the Ozarks, learning to waterski, straddled behind you in the water, a bobber. He said, Don’t yank the rope. Just let the boat do the work. And the moment that your legs come out and your body gets the physics of sliding on water.
He clapped from the bleachers when your free throw went in. He practiced often with you in the driveway. His pride, an aura, the heat on a compost pile. He had high expectations for you and your sister.
Dismantling the dinner table, you noticed, he confirmed: your younger sisters always slipped away at cleanup time. Yours and his words were tender. A mutual paternalism. On Friday nights, he said Howdy to the waiter. Howdy to the neighbor at the video store. There is armor in his greetings. From the harms that might come to a girl. His sureness means that you can stand in the space behind his right shoulder. It means you don’t have to speak to a stranger and prefer not to. It means you smile as he says daughter and twelve.
But there is also this fact. In his insurmountable sureness, there will be no besting of his will. And there is the hard part. His line of good credit.
When your husband says something stupid to the waiter, you can’t help but pair him with him. Outside the restaurant, you hold hands crossing through traffic. Inside, the mushroom’s black gills have been laid out when he says to the waiter about you, Look at the sexy mama with her new tattoo. Why does he speak about you at all? You do not want to show this man your new tattoo, but up your sleeve goes. And your husband cracks, The same hand that gives hand-jobs, referring to your hand connected to your wrist, holding the specimen: woman ridiculed.
Is this your husband’s way of including you in inside rooms? Or has he just had too many drinks before your date? Or can he not see the white worms in his humor?
No, he can. He apologizes for his crudeness when he sees the look on your face, signifying wife, when the waiter leaves. Though it’s not the crudeness that rubs you. More so the imposed familiarity. Of being spoken about and adjacent, a loaf on a bar stool, a body in a tub, surrounded in eyes and mouths. It’s about having to carry shrapnel in your head through an unprecedented presidential election. It’s about him not clearly seeing the underneath and its incessant rub.
For this husband who bought you an orchid of white paper faces, placed it on your writing desk, right before this fucked date, what is the fitting response? The right feeling?
It is liquid smoke.
When your half-sister has a miscarriage, your full sister is in the hospital. Day four. On a morphine drip, puking and shitting from tenderized insides. And the tests finally confirming that her cube-steak colon is in fact Crohn’s. You should care as much about your half-sister’s miscarriage. Shouldn’t you? But you can’t find a feeling for her, the unfamiliar half-sibling, ten years younger, whose diapers, yes, you did change.
And this is why. Last Thanksgiving, she says that she didn’t see the point of voting in the unprecedented presidential election. And once when you and your sister are drunk-talking about anal sex, she confesses she doesn’t even give blowjobs. You’ve found her unrelatable on multiple occasions.
But the real issue is her disbelief in what happened, in what her full dad did to your full sister. One summer afternoon she sat on your front porch telling your sister (her half), I think you think it happened. All while sipping Riesling that you had bought especially for her visit.
And how such views she reiterates each occasion. On New Year’s Eve, out to dinner, drinking an Irish coffee with her dessert, she says, in Ireland… he took her, you know, on vacation, her dad with his new wife and new stepdaughter… they tasted better in Ireland.
As if she could ascertain authentic. As if.
How bitter your feelings have grown. Like a grafted branch. Like a purulent wound that has contracted into a plastic piece.
In English 101, just this week, students argue it is their right to drive protestors over. In a rare moment, the nerve wakes so loud, another teachers’ class overhears your futile rant against all that is incomprehensible. Against the locked metal bolts inside people’s heads.
You can’t recall if you were playing the dad, or if she was playing the dad. One of you had to have been playing mom. Or maybe you were playing boyfriend and girlfriend. After the dinner-date, sloppy from faux champagne in plastic flutes leftover from your parents’ New Year’s Eve party, you both flopped onto her bed. Just like they did in Dirty Dancing or Pretty Woman. Movies you weren’t supposed to watch. Arms around each other, hands.
The scene was pre-boys. When you just imagined boys’ lips on yours. On your neck, in your ear. Maybe on your breast? This was before you read Deenie and Rubyfruit Jungle. Before you knew the term masturbation.
The pretend love-making turned real, quick. From ontological to fleshy. A snap and your hands were grabbing unformed breasts and inside thighs. You saw plainly then where it went, the unrelieved pangs. Where your hands could go if you let them. How moonflowers transfer at night. How humans slip into animal skins. How one moment, a slight, perfect chink can extend the entire scope. But as much as you didn’t want to stop, you wanted to stop. The shame as powerful as the craving. And before your hands went inside clothing, you stopped. Before it felt too wrong, stopped.
Once you ran away from home, years earlier. Just three blocks. That’s as far as you went before the fear got too big and you turned around. So relieved, when you made it back to your street, when you were located within the confines of the rules.
You think now what is it, the thing about you, that made you turn back? And so quick. And what is it about him that made him not? And when you entertain the unthought, you can’t help but conflate these scenes, both flopped onto her bed in her pale blue room with the bedside lamp that lit when you touched its brass base.
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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