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.
I am watching a war movie with my stepfather. On screen a Marilyn Monroe type—fleshy and lush, blonde even through the colorless film screen—acts coy towards an overweight military general. The fat uniformed man chases her through a sand dune at a party off the beach. She runs from him like a pigmy from Dionysus. They are alone now. He’s gasping for air, and she’s breathless. He attempts to take her in his jiggly arms. She allows this for a moment before squirming away. He tightens his grasp on her. She cries out. The man enjoys it. He forces his face onto hers.
“She was asking it for it.” My stepfather’s voice interrupts the frame. He sips on a sweating glass of coke, his arthritic knees propped in front of him. “You can’t give a man those types of signals and not expect that to happen.”
Back on screen the camera pans away, creates space against her voice, rising. The rest is implied.
When I get pregnant with my first child, a daughter I am afraid to raise, my C-cup boobs double to painful DDs. I do not begin to look pregnant until I am almost seven months along. For seven months I walk around in men’s shirts to hide my chest. Even the most modest of shirts, the kind you receive after community walks to defeat Cancer, are tight against my breasts. At a friend’s house one day—she is pregnant with a son and we are constantly making jokes about our children becoming a couple—her boyfriend says, “Well at least my son’s girlfriend will have big tits.”
I’m sitting on the floor at my grandfather’s feet while he watches TV. Xena the Warrior Princess glares at me; she looks uncomfortable beneath the thin layer of her leather dress, the tops of her breasts exposed. Yet, despite her stare, or maybe because of it, I feel a warm sensation begin in my gut. Maybe this is why I’m uncomfortable watching her, knowing that my grandfather is watching her, too.
This is an indictment to those who do not think that this, the cultural sexual norms that deduce women to things and make them, the recipient of attacks, cast as perpetrators, is a common and lifelong occurrence. I begin this list of microaggressions knowing that my testimony isn’t unique; these memories are as common as ugly little weeds that, when spoken, spread, take root, and bloom.
The D.A.R.E. officer is speaking to us about the harmful effects of marijuana, uppers, and downers. He wears a uniform and is strutting about beneath the gaze of twenty pre-pubescent boys. They pepper him with questions. His chest swells with P.R.I.D.E. “Is your wife pretty,” a classmate asks him, noticing his wedding band. “Pretty enough to be pregnant,” the officer laughs. The boys laugh with him. I sit to the side and feel sorry for his wife.
One evening I’m at dinner with my boyfriend and his family. His father hands me a dollar bill and makes some joke about putting on a “show.” I retreat to the basement and cry.
My grandmother and I are sitting on her swing. The air smells clean like wet grass. My grandmother lights a cigarette and I lean my face into the smoke. My aunt joins us. I am wedged between the two of them feeling safe, content.
“Samantha is going to need training bras soon,” my grandmother remarks to my aunt. She calls me by my middle name, which is her preferred name.
“Let me see your chi-chis,” my aunt demands. I look between the two of them and slowly raise my shirt, hot with shame. “Yup,” my aunt agrees, “I’ll take her to Penny’s later.”
I am at a week-long church day camp. It’s early evening and I am unloading a stroller from the back of my car.
“Damn, that’s a nice ass,” a voice ricochets past on its way down the street. I am the only one in the parking lot. I tug at my shorts. My skin burns. Pull my infant daughter from her car-seat, hold her close.
I’m on a school ski trip. My entire fifth grade class is going. I develop a crush on our ski instructor who is kind and treats me like a person. Everyone takes turns helping in the hostel’s kitchen, doing dishes and bringing out meals.
On the last day, we have just crested a hill, when Zack, a boy I have liked for the entire school year, tells me that the other night all the boys were choosing who they would have sex with. A chubby boy I do not like has said he would have sex with me because of my dry skin. I’m offended and bewildered on multiple levels. I do not have dry skin. Why hadn’t Zack been the one who wanted to have sex with me? Why was I only good enough for the chubby boy?
Election Year. A candidate has tapes released from an interview where he brags about grabbing women by the pussy. The same month a male student from Yale, or is it Harvard, Stanford, is released with minimal consequences after raping an unconscious woman in an alley.
I write a letter to my daughters about these events, and then share it online. Women are the first to criticize me. “Jesus, you act like this is a war zone” and “Any time a guy calls you honey or sweetie you get offended” and “I would be proud to raise a daughter in our culture today. You don’t even know how good you have it.”
The candidate becomes president.
My mother’s cousin’s wife is serving me meatballs on paper coffee filters. She is scatterbrained and messy and artistic and kind and I love her. We are sitting, just the two of us, on her back porch. She is telling me stories of her own teenage years, stories she maybe shouldn’t be telling me.
“You know,” she starts, “if a guy takes you out to a nice dinner and you don’t want to have sex with him, sometimes you can just give him a hand-job and that’s enough. You kind of owe it to him.”
My daughter, who is now seven, is struggling to learn boundaries. She thrives off male attention, begs to be chased and tickled and wrestled with, and then screams for it to stop. When it does, she begs for it to start again. Later she will come to us and cry that she hadn’t been listened to.
“You asked for it,” my husband and I say to her.
We talk to her about this. You can’t ask someone to do something, tell them to stop, and then ask them to start again, we counsel her. People have to respect your boundaries, and if you tell them to stop they have to. Her behavior continues.
My husband and I have many discussions about this.
“She’s literally asking for it,” his voice is pained, like he hates himself for saying this.
This is where it starts, I remember. This is when it starts.
Down in the Valley
My family moved to Wayzata, Minnesota for Dad’s job when I was in eighth grade and already knew myself to be a kid who didn’t fit in. At my new private school, nobody liked me because I had a conspicuous, despicable disinterest in football and boating—not to mention puberty was hitting and I inexplicably loathed myself for being a girl. It was around this time that I saw a televised Jack White at the MTV Movie Awards throwing himself around with his red guitar, and discovered rock n’ roll. This would be the first of three things to save my life.
Shortly thereafter, I noticed a small music store in the upscale strip mall near our house. It was called Down in the Valley, right next to mom’s preferred grocery store. I didn’t understand what it was doing there. Down in the Valley’s signage—retro yellow text, with the subtitle New Used Compact Discs—implied that the place was gritty and indie.
Mom didn’t often take me places so I seldom got to leave the house. Imagine cabin fever all day, every day, alongside the tender turmoil of being thirteen. Grocery shopping with her was a big outing. On one such trip, as we drifted through the gourmet aisles, I suddenly spat, “Be right back,” and ran off, certain that any disciplinary consequence would be worth it.
As soon as I opened Down in the Valley’s door, black metal blasted at me. The walls of the store were painted black. A smoky, sweet odor overwhelmed me—how I’d imagined drugs smelled. (It turned out to be incense.) The guy manning the counter was round and bald and seemingly held together by piercings. I stood, frozen, wearing a pink polka-dot mini skirt and a Jimi Hendrix band tee.
The man grinned, and his eyes crinkled. “Nice shirt. I’m Mike.”
Mike was kind to me, and when mom came in to get me, he won her over, too. I started visiting Down in the Valley every week while she shopped. I did this for three years, leaning against the counter to debate Folk Bob Dylan versus Electric Dylan with my unlikely pal. Unlike at school, I was accepted at the store.
When I was sixteen and looking for a job, I asked Mike if I could work with him. He said I would have to ask P, the manager. In all my years of hanging around, I had never met a manager. The next day I met P, a stout twenty-something who wore a man bun and an awkwardly positioned lip ring. He looked me up and down and said, “You’re hired.”
I became a veritable Record Store Girl, wearing flannel tees and Converse sneakers. Closing shop was my favorite, arranging the glistening CDs and vacuuming the black carpet. I got free demos, I’d found a favorite incense to burn, and I employed an authoritative voice while advising wide-eyed moms on which new releases they should buy their stoner sons for Christmas.
Mike and I would spend quiet shifts gazing at the hot summer sun from our dark haven. He’d show me flip-phone photos of his Slipknot shrine and tell me about his wife, who he adored. Mike had made a life that was perfect for him. I hoped the same was happening for me.
Then P started to schedule me on the days when he worked.
P loved being a manager. He’d run his tongue over his lip ring. On the days I wore skirts he’d have me climb the ladder to organize our top-shelf DVDs, standing below with his arms crossed to make sure I did it right. I felt as though something was being taken from me, but I couldn’t name what. It took weeks to muster the courage to question P. One night, as we returned hoodies to their hangers, I braved the sound of my own voice.
“I totally like working with you, but I also kind of miss Mike. Could I maybe do some shifts with him, too?”
P’s face fell.
“That won’t work,” he said flatly. “Do you want to continue working here?”
And that was that.
We were sifting through a poster delivery when P asked if I was a virgin. I remember pausing, looking at the floor, and nodding my head. Why are women raised to believe we owe men these pieces of ourselves? A nod didn’t satisfy him.
“Do you want to? Like, in general?”
I felt queasy. “I don’t know,” I mumbled.
His questions filled me with indignation and self-disgust, but no, stop, weren’t conceivable responses. I experienced what so many women say of these encounters: it happened so fast. The words I don’t like this didn’t even occur to me.
That’s what I think about today: the expectation of women to bear male entitlement is carved into our core at a young age. Even if we’re lucky enough to have been raised with, or to develop, the consciousness to slow time to our own speed and to resist, we still must fear physical, professional, or social consequences of doing so.
All I knew at the time was that the bliss I’d discovered at Down in the Valley began to die. I came dressed in baggy clothes, already drained by the anxiety I’d accumulated on the drive over. I kept my chest covered with crossed arms.
When I felt P’s stare while I was helping a confused mom, my smile faded and I heard my voice drop. After she’d left, he motioned with two fingers for me to come to him.
“Listen, you need to smile more. The customers aren’t feeling you lately. You’re a babe, so why is that so hard?”
He was right. I wasn’t performing well. Days later, nauseated by a comment about my “cute little ass,” I went to the bathroom and puked.
I quit, blaming college applications, and missed Down in the Valley every day until I graduated. But because of P every day until I graduated was spent reading Andrea Dworkin and bell hooks and Simone de Beauvoir. Thanks to their words, what I’d experienced with P began to make sense. I discovered Bikini Kill, Hole, and the iconic women of soul and jazz.
In short: I discovered feminism, the second thing to save my life.
I suspected New York was the next step for me after graduation, in part because it was the city always referenced whenever I read up on my rock idols and feminist heroes. The moment I stepped out of Grand Central Station and onto Vanderbilt Avenue, I was overcome by the same yearning that had inspired me to bolt to Down in the Valley years prior. New York, I realized, was the place to be if I didn’t want to feel bored or trapped again. New York was the third thing that saved me.
These kinds of journeys rarely come to a neat end. During my first year in New York, if someone asked where I was from, I’d perform embarrassment and sigh, “Minnesota.” I planned to confront painful landmarks of my youth—the record store, my high school—after I’d “made it” and felt far away from the vulnerability I’d known back then.
My little sister, still finishing high school in our hometown, called with news one day: iTunes had won. The indie record store was shuttering.
“Down in the Valley is in trouble. The Golden Valley location is staying, but Wayzata’s is becoming a pet shop.”
I was on my cell, pushing past people in Union Square to get to a writing class. Suddenly I wished I could have visited my misfit strip mall location and bought some records so that my last memory of the place wasn’t throwing up in its dank toilet. I wish I’d had the chance to reclaim what I’d loved about it.
“I guess I should’ve gone back sooner.”
“The only things you loved here are gone now,” my sister said, sounding sad.
“That’s not true. You’re still there.”
I realized then the learning never stops; there will be always be new discoveries that save my life. Soon, I would give my little sister tips for how to find cool music. I’d mail her the feminist bibles. I’d urge her to pursue the city of her dreams. I would make sure she knew there was wonder still to come, no matter how hard it is to be a woman in this world.
But for now, I had to go. We hung up, and I pushed on through the crowd to get to my class.
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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