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.
she remembered it suddenly…
This is a work of fiction.
Any resemblance to
real persons living or dead
and purely coincidental.
This is a work.
there was a girl who was quiet and got good grades and was editor of the school newspaper. she tried to kill herself when she was about thirteen. the reason is fairly irrelevant, but that’s where the story begins.
the girl’s mother, worried and unsure of what to do after her daughter’s attempted suicide, talked to her best friend chuck, a social worker, who in turn mentioned it to his lover mitchell, another social worker. mitchell, being a bit nosy and thinking he was doing someone a favor (though years later, the girl’s still not clear who), gave his buddy at the school district a call but didn’t tell the girl’s mother.
the girl was sitting in the auditorium in her one-hundred-person history class when emma smith, the “trust” counselor, walked in. everyone knew that the trust counselor came for the kids who had problems, and the girl was humiliated as mr. brown, her teacher, pointed and the trust counselor marched her out while everyone looked on.
it was ironic that ms. gold was called a trust counselor, since it was mitchell’s meddling that had led to this meeting. but, alas, the irony did not end there.
back in ms. gold’s office, the grilling/therapy session began. time seemed to be slowing down.
“so, i hear you tried to kill yourself.”
“and i understand that your mother is a lesbian?”
embarrassed, frightened, and bewildered by the questions, and unsure whether she should say anything at all (but it’s an authority figure—she thought—i have to tell her what she wants to know), the girl turned herself off and submitted to the examination.
a few days after the trust counselor took her out of her history class, the girl was sitting in french class, taught by ms. muster, who also taught journalism and was the sponsor of the school paper. the door opened, and in walked mr. mark cohen, everyone’s favorite science teacher.
mr. cohen was a favorite because he cursed a lot and made crass jokes in class and had a partially dressed and bewigged skeleton at the back of the room named “anna rexia.” and, like ms. muster, mr. cohen was involved in various extracurricular activities at the school. he ran the science bowl and sponsored the junior national honor society.
“this is my free period,” mr. cohen informed ms. muster. he asked if the girl could come by his classroom now to get a list of names for the article she was writing about the honor society nominees.
“sure, no problem,” ms. muster said.
“can julia come?” the girl asked. her best friend julia didn’t write for the paper but was in the same french class.
“no, i think you can go by yourself,” ms. muster replied.
the girl smiled apologetically at her friend and followed mr. cohen to the science wing, excited to get out of class for a few minutes.
the only time she can remember her mother going to parents’ night was early on in eighth grade. she remembers her mother talking to mr. cohen, everyone’s favorite science teacher. she remembers being excited that her mother was going to meet him.
“you know,” he boomed, “some people say you can’t teach minorities. but i can. she’s proof.”
“yes, well,” her mother said and then paused, eyeing him suspiciously. “i know my daughter’s very smart. and she always has been.”
“of course,” he offered with a smile. “and she’s a delight to have in class.”
real persons living or dead.
when mr. cohen and the girl got to his classroom for the list of names, he went over to his desk and shuffled through stacks of paper.
“okay, where did i put all the honor society stuff?” he asked aloud. “ah, here. i think this is what you need.” he pushed a manila folder towards her.
while she flipped through the papers, he moved around the desk and stood beside her.
“you know,” mr. cohen said, “i was talking to ms. smith.”
the girl didn’t look at him, her face burning as the words dripped through her like molasses. time was slowing down again.
“you know, when i was a kid, my mother had a lot of lady friends over a lot.” his hand was on her shoulder, and then her back, and then her other shoulder.
“i always thought they were just friends,” he said. “if you’d like to talk to me about anything, you know you can trust me.” his hand moved down past her collar bone.
she turned herself off and submitted to the examination.
Do as I Say, Not as I Do
“Do as I say, not as I do,” says my mother whenever I point out the things she does but tells us we’re forbidden to do. This includes: swearing, smoking cigarettes, playing with the truth. The rules for my parents are different, that is clear—but her instruction, “not as I do,” is also a warning.
She tells me to never let a man put his hands on me—no other person, for that matter, but especially a man. She never says “boy” when she tells me this. Even though I’m only eight, she uses the word “man” as if she sees all the little boys around me in their future bodies. My little brother and my uncle, who is only two years older than me, are told not to hit girls over and over but my uncle is hardheaded and can’t control his violent impulses. He’s like my father, whom my brother and I often watch beat my mother. He bursts through the door on weekend nights, drunk, with the notion that she’s wronged him in some way. He swings his fists, becoming an angry windmill in the dark. My mother’s screams wake us and we run toward her hoping the presence of our small bodies will bring my father to his senses. It never does.
My ten-year-old uncle beats his older sister, my aunt, with long orange racetrack strips that come with his Hot Wheels cars. It gets so bad, she is sent to our house to live for weeks at a time.
My mother tells us that she worries about the nasty things people say about us: “If you don’t watch out, Andrea will end up pregnant and married to a man that beats her ass,” and “If you don’t keep an eye on him, your son will end up in jail just like his father.” It’s the just like his father that scares her most. She’ll do anything to prevent her children from living her life.
Do as I say, not as I do.
I watch my mother and father and the adults who occasionally gather at our kitchen table to drink and play cards at night. I am a quiet observer, studying and learning. They talk freely, because they know I can keep a secret. I’m an obedient child. Keeping family business in the house is another rule I have to follow that my mother doesn’t.
When they play cards they tell “remember the time” stories.
“Arlene, remember the time you and your mother-in-law kicked in the front door of the apartment where Soupy was shacked up with that young girl?”
“Binky, remember the time you put lye in you hair cuz yo’ slick ass thought you were James Brown? You left it in too long and burnt the shit out of ya’ scalp! Remember?”
They can laugh at their own craziness because it’s funny when all is said and done. They can laugh because they’re alive. These are their tales to tell.
Each visitor will say goodbye to me before leaving, lean down and breathe sweet-liquored breath in my face and plant a seed of their experience in me.
“Don’t let anyone ever tell you you’re not beautiful.”
“You can be anyone you want, don’t forget that.”
In these words I hear my mother: Do as I say…
When my mother’s girlfriends visit for an afternoon to catch up on gossip, I get different lessons. My mother tells me not to listen to grown folks’ conversations even though she listens to mine. I pay attention to their stories anyhow, to the meter and tone of their words, to assess the seriousness or the bullshit nature of the conversation. Bullshit is one of the words I’m not allowed to say.
Once, I heard how someone’s husband got caught having sex with his wife’s sister after he spread peanut butter on her girl parts and tried to lick it off. I don’t exactly know how peanut butter got him caught, but my mother and her friend roared in laughter at his attempt to wash off the thick peanut paste with his tongue. My mother never tells me this explicitly, but I now know that if a man suggests putting peanut butter anywhere on my body when I grow up, it can only end badly.
“Peanut butter,” they holler, and slap their legs with their hands.
Another time, they talk about a friend who died in police custody.
“They found him dead in the jail cell down at the police station,” says my mother’s friend. “He was fighting or something outside after the bar closed and they threw him in the cruiser. When his mama went to bail him out on Monday, they told her the news. He had hung himself with his belt.”
“Not for nothing,” says my mother between cigarette puffs, “but there’s no way he killed himself. They killed him.” She sips her tea and slams her hand on the table. “The first thing they do when you get locked up, is take your shoelaces and your belt. They killed him, you mark my words, they fuckin’ killed him.”
I’m a little more afraid of the police after hearing this, afraid that they’ll kill my father after arresting him for beating my mother. The women in my family feel this way, too. They think my father is a target because he’s black and many white officers don’t like that he’s married to a white woman. I’m sure they also don’t like that he beats his wife.
Sometimes when my mother calls the cops, she also calls my paternal grandmother. My grandmother will drive to our house in her silver Pontiac, park behind the police cruiser, and wait for my father to be bundled up and tossed in the back seat. My mother looks like she’s been in a boxing match, but since this is such a normal occurrence, my grandmother is more concerned about what could happen to my father. She follows behind the cruiser to make sure they go straight to the station because once, when my father was released from jail, he walked hunched over like a ninety-year-old man, his ribs fractured, his torso bruised from where the baton had landed.
Like my uncle, who beats his sister, my father doesn’t learn. He’s still violent despite all the times he’s been arrested, despite the older men in the family, uncles and cousins, roughing him up, telling him repeatedly to stop hitting my mother. After a while, they leave my mother to save herself.
…not as I do. The words are a prescription that might save me from my family’s sickness if I can only remember to follow its instruction.
And I do.
Every time my mother drinks too much and cries at the kitchen table.
When she takes overdoses of valium or
draws a dull razor across her wrist to escape being abused,
…not as I do.
When she refuses to sneak small amounts of money, at my grandmother’s insistence, from my father’s wallet for emergencies and we end up hungry, I learn to always have my own money. I learn to never choose a moral stance over means to escape a bad situation.
Years later, when my uncle and brother and I grow up, my uncle will kill his girlfriend. He’ll go to jail for life. I’ll be heartbroken that he couldn’t escape our family’s violent patterns. When I visit him in jail, I’ll be dating the man I’ll marry, a man who is not like my uncle or my father. I’ll have a good job and money in the bank, money that I’ll keep separate from the shared account I’ll have with my husband. When the marriage sours, I’ll say, “I’m not happy,” and I’ll leave, without worry.
My mother will divorce my father when I turn fifteen. She’ll begin to do as she says.
My brother will also marry someone who is not like our parents.
The people of my childhood, those drunk, silly, beautiful, violent people who spent their days spinning salacious stories and their nights dulling their pain with booze, music, and cards, did not want the same for me. They couldn’t escape the lives their parents had lived, afraid of what alternatives existed. They saw up into the world from the underneath and offered me wisdom, wisdom that was hard-earned and hazy. In return, I listened.
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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