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.
Pleasure, Habit, or Force
Deb Wilson Frank
A quiz circulated among the kids at my school when I was about nine. It seemed like fun, so I tore a page from my notebook, and followed the instructions from my eleven-year-old interrogator.
“Number from one to twenty.”
I made a neat column down the left margin.
“Name? Birthday? Favorite color?”
Then: “What do people eat for? Pleasure, habit, or force?”
Not so easy.
Was my grandma cooking? My dad’s mother made scalloped potatoes, golden-crusted, and oozing with butter. And fresh-baked apple pie, cinnamon-scented and topped with vanilla ice cream. Pleasure!
Or was it my mother? Brownish puddle of burnt canned peas, and her version of meatloaf, a slab of grayish meat paste, sour and pungent like cat pee. Force. Which to choose? My mother cooked most of my meals, and a clean plate was mandatory.
I wrote, “Force.”
“Name a boy.”
I had a mad crush on Roger, who was tow-headed and rebellious, with the windswept look of a surfer dude. But was I going to confess about Roger? No way.
I wrote “Brian.” A safe choice; my younger cousin.
When I’d filled in all twenty blanks, I handed it over. That’s when I realized she was changing the questions—a bait and switch game.
“What do people kiss for?”
My answer? Force.
Who was doing the kissing?
Brian. I’d have been mortified if there were any Brians at my suburban Seattle school. I blushed anyway. But what was this about forced kisses? I didn’t know there was such a thing.
Soon after, my parents divorced, and when I was twelve, my mother’s boyfriend moved in. Clyde nested on our couch, chuckling with the laugh-tracks on our ancient RCA, tossing back beers, his spent doobies and butts collecting on a plate nearby. Besides being a bum without a job, Clyde wasn’t much to look at—scrawny, his hair worn long and shaggy, bulbous nose protruding over a wiry mustache, and skin so pitted I couldn’t guess his age. He turned out to be twenty-six—ten years younger than my mother, and ten years older than my sister Kristy. Exactly in between.
After Clyde moved in, my mother stopped buying groceries. I kept checking the fridge, looking beyond Clyde’s six-packs for anything more than a shriveled stalk of celery, or an aging condiment. I checked the cupboards, too, but they’d gone bare—no more Cheerios, Rice-a-Roni, stewed tomatoes, or Green Giant beans. Several times each day I went to the kitchen and several times each day, I left empty-handed, empty-bellied, hunger needling me. As the weeks passed, I felt dulled, flattened, tired, my body sustained—barely—by school lunch, paid for with the dollar a day I earned babysitting, and Sundays with my father, when Kristy and I gorged ourselves at Denny’s.
During one futile kitchen visit, I found my mother leaning against the counter dipping her Red Rose teabag into a mug of hot water. Despite the lack of food, she still carried an extra twenty pounds, which rounded her middle, thickened her face, and doubled her chin. She’d stopped using Nice ‘n Easy. Her billowy black hair was streaked with gray.
My mother set her tea down, a cloud of steam rising above its murky surface, and glanced in my direction, before turning her attention to the lint balls on her cardigan, which she pulled and smoothed between her fingers.
“Clyde needs sex at least twice every day,” she said in a tone of affectionate exasperation, as if to say, ”Men! Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em!” The way you might talk about a guy who leaves his socks on the floor or the seat up.
At first, I thought, fine, good for him, good for you, knock yourselves out. No wonder Clyde went without clothes—pale, hairy and pimply, his pink dick flopping from its thatch of coppery hair. He was always ready.
Now my mother focused on a button, polishing its ridged surface with the tip of her pinkie. She had a tic, a filler word, “ein,” that she used the way other people say “um” or “like.”
“And he believes, ein, that it’s the duty of the man of the house, ein, to teach the young girls about sex.”
Something fizzed and crackled between us, a downed wire snaking from her to me.
I looked away from her, fixing on our sink, noticing the line of pink glop at its perimeter, the rust stains, the darkened build-up of gunk on the faucet.
“So! Have you done It yet?” my mother asked. I felt the blood drain from my face. I must have gaped at her. She was grinning brightly, winking, giggling.
I stepped backwards into my room, closing the door and standing for a minute, waiting. Would she follow me?
I could hear the tick, tick, ticking of the kitchen clock. And the hum of the empty fridge. I’d latched on to my mother’s words but balked at their meaning. At twelve, it was like being presented the calculus textbook while still on fractions and long division. Minutes ticked by, and still I sat, not so much thinking as unthinking.
“Tell dad!” I might shout from this safe distance, but the path to my father had formidable hurdles. First, I would need to admit I was in danger, and then I would have to risk finding out that my father was as unconcerned for my wellbeing as my mother. He was happy after the divorce and the connection was clear to me—unburdened by kids, he was enjoying the single life. I felt half-orphaned. I wasn’t ready to find out I was all the way there.
Without a solution, my mind refused to confront the problem, finally choosing to set it aside, beneath the mental floorboards.
If my mother had been a little more direct, if she’d said, “Clyde wants to have sex with you and I think that’s just swell,” I’d have been aghast. And yet, that’s pretty much what she’d said.
“What do people have kids for? Pleasure, habit, or force?”
I’d ruled out habit first—my parents stayed married another nine years after my birth but didn’t have more kids. As for pleasure, that was a stretch. I thought of my parents’ dour expressions, the slaps, the spankings—we seemed to make them grumpy, not happy. Again, I’d chosen “force.”
The question on the reverse side of my quizzer’s page was, “Why do people ‘do it’?”
Force was my answer. People were forced to “do it.”
One afternoon, my babysitting job was canceled, so I came home early. That meant Clyde wasn’t waiting for me as he often did, naked at our front door, one leg slung over the arm of our upholstered chair, grinning, as if to say, “Come and get it!”
The house was silent and seemed empty. To use the sewing machine, I had to go in Kristy’s room. I pulled aside the gum-wrapper and pop-top chains hanging in her doorway and was halfway across her room when a husky throat-clearing stopped me. I turned. They were on her bed. Clyde looked like an albino frog perched on my lily-white sister, her legs spread around him. Elmer, Kristy’s stuffed elephant, dating back to her toddler days, with most of his corduroy ribs worn soft and smooth, rested near her pillow.
I hurried out, the minty-scented chains rustling behind me, fleeing the vision as if it could be escaped.
Was Kristy forced? At the time, I thought no. She wasn’t struggling and though I couldn’t fathom it, she liked Clyde. I thought force was a fist in your face—right up front where you could see it, no mistaking it.
But, in some families, forced sex works like DNA, invisibly, a scourge handed from one generation to the next.
My father told me this, a few years later: When my mother was three, her father started leaving his bed and going to hers. He continued throughout her childhood.
Because misery is not protection against more misery, my skin chose that time to erupt in full-blown acne. Clyde said that birth control pills would clear it up. Whatever his motives might have been, I didn’t hesitate, not even when a pelvic exam was necessary. At the clinic, naked except for the flimsy gown, I was told by the doctor, “Lie back, feet in stirrups. Scoot your butt towards me.”
I did as she said.
“Let your legs fall back.”
They didn’t. The doctor used her gloved hands to push them apart. When I felt the cold force of the speculum, I froze. I had never even used tampons before, and this felt like a machete. It stopped. Good. She must be finished.
But, no. She raised her head, frowning, and said, “You’ve got great muscles, honey, but I’m not the one to appreciate them!”
She went back under the gown, and I lay rigid, bracing hard against the table, and then felt split by the jab of the speculum, which pressed hard and harder as I tried to arch away.
Finally, she was done. “Here’s for the blood,” she said, handing me a thin Kotex. She left the room. I wiped my eyes and put my clothes on. It felt like my body had been broken into, and then vandalized—tagged with “Great Muscles”—my fear derided as fodder for someone else’s pleasure.
It took nearly a year of going hungry and dodging Clyde, but eventually my father’s girlfriend of the moment noticed that something was up with Kristy and me. “Is there anything you want to tell me?” my father asked. When I could stop crying, I had a lot to tell him.
Within a few weeks, he’d rented a house and taken Kristy and me in. My mother and Clyde got married and a year or so later moved fourteen hundred miles away to Albuquerque. After that I never saw Clyde again, and my mother, only a few times. In her presence, I felt tenuous, fragile. Away from her, I felt safe.
In the new home, I became the menu planner, shopper, and cook, and I thrilled to the job. Joy of Cooking became my teacher, and its title was apt. I was not going to be hungry anymore, and I was going to see to it that every meal was a celebration.
My first efforts involved frozen vegetables and lots of Campbell’s, but before long I was sautéing turkey for tetrazzini, slicing mushrooms for stroganoff, searing chunks of beef to be roasted with carrots and potatoes. Joy guided me through layering my first lasagna, mixing vinaigrette, and even boiling homemade bagels, though they came out puny with their holes filled in. I tried new flavors, tossing oregano into bubbling tomato sauce, sprinkling cumin on eggplant. I learned the power of garlic, and onions, and leeks. I filled the kitchen with clanging pots, savory smells, and charged appliance heat. The house was redolent with spices, sauces, and baking bread. I’d gone hungry but that was over, extravagantly, deliciously, decisively.
Cooking gave me something pleasurable each day, at a time of intense sadness. My reaction to the abuse and abandonment hit hard those first years with my dad. I worked my way out of it, but I can see now that Kristy must have been struggling. She spent hours on the couch watching All in the Family reruns, or just peeling back split ends, silent, tucked into herself. When she turned eighteen, my father insisted she move out, hoping to force some ambition into her.
Instead, she spiraled downward, moving into her boyfriend’s mother’s home, earning her keep by stealing high-end handbags. By her late twenties, she’d ditched the boyfriend and moved to the Southwest, now with a young son, now on welfare. The last I heard—before she broke completely from our family—she was pursuing an art history degree. Then she changed her name, disconnected her phone, and, as I later found out, became untraceable, leaving an absence that deepens through the years, unlike grief, which eases over time.
I loved cooking for its formulas—its ingredients to corral and steps to follow, yielding something delicious and nourishing. But, when I reached dating age, there was no such parallel when it came to sex. In the bedroom, my body took its orders from imprints left years earlier. Even the long-ago quizzer, a mere schoolgirl, had connected pleasure to sex, but I settled for a burnt canned peas version—force it down and get it over with.
It wasn’t easy to change. When I met the man I later married and sought the help of a therapist, my body began to soften and yield—but my mind held on to its clench. Then, over two decades later, long after my first husband’s early death, I met another man, just as sensitive and kind, and realized that therapy had been quietly doing its work over time. Finally, I discovered the caviar on crème fraîche experience I’d been missing.
That’s when my body forgot force, and found pleasure.
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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