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 runs every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.
Our Daily Bread
Standing in line at the bakery yesterday, I watched the woman ahead of me peer into the pastry cabinet and order a slice from a chocolate loaf. The barista pulled the tray of rich, dark squares from the shelf and asked the woman if she minded taking the heel. After a moment’s hesitation, the woman replied, “It doesn’t matter.” She and I stood together then, quiet, watching the slice folded into a sheet of wax paper, caramel pulling from its edges.
The barista’s question surprised me. I would have thought nothing of it had she simply reached in to grab the nearest slice and had happened upon the heel. But why, if the woman had options, guide her to the smallest, driest piece?
I thought about my mother and how, throughout my childhood, she often ate her sandwiches bookended by two heels. She’d told us—my father, my sister, and me—that she liked them. At least that’s how I remembered it for years. I remembered standing at our family’s kitchen counter, when I was just old enough to hold a knife, cutting thick, uneven slices of homemade bread for each of us. I remembered the question arising of who would settle for the heels and my mother saying, “Leave them for me. I like them.”
I’d never understood, as a kid, how my mother could prefer the dry, bitter ends, but over time, I’d accepted it, and it had become household habit to leave the heels for her—toppled on the cutting board or stuck sideways in the bread bag. I was an adult before it occurred to me that she might not have wanted this. That she might never have said that she liked them, only that she didn’t mind them, and that I might have misremembered out of convenience. Or that she might have lied, might have spent years making small sacrifices, and that I, we, might’ve spent years taking them without a word.
By the time this possibility occurred to me, I was living, for the first time, with a man. I’d gotten in the habit of assembling sandwiches for us. Between my classes, on my lunch breaks. I’d slice bread, tomato, cheese, mushrooms, avocado, would line the options up next to one another, and would assemble the lesser of my work into an offering for myself and the best of my work into an offering for him, which he would consume without a look, without a word.
He wouldn’t have noticed if I’d given him the sandwich with the chipped crust or the slice cut at an accidental incline, but in general, this man was prone to comparison. He had a habit of reminding me that other women were slenderer, fuller, more gifted, more reverent, more alluring, more modest, more assertive, more deferent. In public, he tugged the hems of my skirts down and the necklines of my blouses up, and at home he told me that what was beneath them was undesirable.
I took to examining his sandwiches at all angles and wiping away stray crumbs and smears of mayonnaise before presenting them to him. I know how neurotic this sounds. How outdated a cliché I had become, making sandwiches for an ungrateful man. But there was comfort in having something to offer that I knew could survive comparison, and there was comfort in settling for less so that he could have more. There was comfort in thinking that this was something my mother might have done, and that even if I were hard to love, I had learned how to love.
Eventually, taking less no longer seemed enough. I tried instead to become less. I replaced my own bread with leaves, my salt with pepper, my butter with oil, my oil with lemon. “We need to get you a big turkey dinner,” a doctor said, and when I laughed, added, “No, really. Eat more.”
At home, the man I lived with stabbed a hole in the wall with a drinking glass, and I covered it with a painting of flowers. He said he sometimes worried he’d sleepwalk in the night and stab me with a kitchen knife, and I began sleeping in the walk-in closet. He provided simple instructions on how to make him happy: “Go to the gym, lose some weight, buy some lingerie.” And I did.
“I’m going to buy some yoga pants,” I told him one afternoon.
“I’ll go with you,” he said. He wondered aloud what stores would allow him to be in the dressing room with me, and when I laughed—thinking this was a proposition, thinking I had pleased him—he said, “No, I don’t want you to come out of the dressing room wearing those. I don’t want other men to see you.”
When my ribs showed through, for him, I learned to make cheesecake.
But on a trip home, away from him, I stayed with my mother, and for a week she made me eat. She put sugar in my tea. She cooked our eggs in butter. Not wanting to be ungrateful, I accepted what she offered, and one afternoon, she asked if I wanted a sandwich.
The heels were waiting inside the yellow plastic bag—one pinned perpendicular to the others, the other trapped at the bottom—and she dug them both out, opened the back door, and flung them onto the lawn. To be torn apart. Obliterated. Consumed by geese, or by robins, or by ants, or by rain—by whomever, whatever would settle for them, but not by us.
Standing in line at the bakery, I wondered how I could ever thank her for this. For showing me that, yes, love can mean saving the best for a person, but love also means knowing that sometimes that person should be you.
At the counter, the barista shook open a paper bag and poised her hand to drop the heel inside. The woman ahead of me stopped her. “No,” she said. “Give me the biggest piece you have.”
Will You Be Nice to Me?
“Will be you nice to me?” Ajay asked. I sighed, but not too loudly. There was too much risk.
A minute before, I’d asked my husband to have dinner with my family. He wore black basketball shorts and a green t-shirt. I wore a sea-green chikan salwar kameez, my long black hair pulled back in a ponytail. We sat together on a thin but surprisingly comfortable mattress on the floor in the back room. My mom and brother had left the flat my family owned downstairs from their own, and the windows were wide open. Children’s voices echoed as they played cricket on the rooftops of buildings near the Dreamland Cinema in Mumbai. Neighbors passed our door with arms full of shopping bags, bangles jingling, and Bollywood ringtones chimed from every direction.
It was our first trip to India together, the first time we were meeting each other’s Indian families—the families we rarely saw but were tied to by obligation. I asked, “Ajay, will you please come and eat with my family? You haven’t had one meal with them and they keep asking for you to come up.”
“Nisha, I’m sick and you know that. I don’t want Indian food; it’s all we’ve been eating!” he said. He glared at me, sweat forming on his upper lip.
“You’re Indian! Growing up, didn’t you eat Indian food every day?” I asked. I was baffled by his refusal. Did he just want control, again? Or was I being insensitive? He had been feeling sick. He was also just over a year sober. I didn’t want to push him, particularly around my family. I feared his outbursts and I was tired of concocting excuses for his explosive behavior.
Then I remembered that my dad died two days ago. He was also vacationing in India, but caught a cold that turned into pneumonia that was compounded by more infections and finally, his heart stopped. For a week, I’d sat with him in the ICU while he was in a coma, squeezing his hand and promising him grandchildren if he would only come back to us. I’d forgotten all of this because Ajay refused to come to dinner.
He always found a way to center his needs. His response to my dinner invitation—“Will you be nice to me?”—was our code and his blackmail.
So, I was nice. I forced a smile and said, “Okay,” with the hope that giving in and going down on him would transform him into a husband who supports his wife after her father dies. I swallowed my disgust, didn’t think about how he could make this request or why I agreed to it. Instead, I lowered my head onto him as he lay down on the mattress. He relaxed as I began. First slow, then fast, faster, then slow again for good measure. My eyes flashed covertly towards the open windows in the front room every five seconds to see if anyone was coming, all the while hoping he would. I moaned as he moaned, doubling the act of pleasure. I secretly rubbed my neck as it grew tired, hoping he wouldn’t notice my fatigue and scold me for it. I convinced myself to like it, to stay in character for my performance.
After ten minutes he finally finished, jumped up, and smiled. I knelt on the mattress, my eyes following him, watching him move about with ease.
“I’m healed!” he said. He laughed as he put his shorts back on and got ready for dinner.
Gratitude is what I felt. Gratitude for him not coming in my mouth. Gratitude for the end of the act. Gratitude that he’d join my family for dinner.
Ajay’s needs took front row while I sat in my back seat. This wasn’t the first time—I’d stood down and adapted to others’ needs since I was a young girl.
I had a habit of appeasing others and trying to fix situations, especially with my mother. She was a gifted artist but quit her art for a clerical job so she could spend more time with my brother and me. When I wanted to enter a button contest in fourth grade, Mom took over and designed the button herself as I stood to the side. I won the contest, though I wouldn’t have if I were the true designer. I wanted my mom to feel happy and give her back what she lost. I thought I owed her this for her sacrifices.
It didn’t stop there. There was the time I cut the onions the wrong way, the many times I ate too fast. When I was six, I had a brilliant idea to crumple up a bunch of papers, stuff them between two sheets of paper, and staple around the edges to make a paper pillow. I kept giving these pillows to my mother as gifts until one day she yelled at me that I was wasteful. She’d frequently say, “You never listen” and “Your biggest problem is that you don’t listen” and “Why can’t you just listen?” So, I tried to listen, to obey, to please, to fix myself so in turn, I could fix our family. I bent myself so much I couldn’t remember my original form.
After years of you don’t listen lectures, I saw that my mom’s perfectionism was a facade to hide her sadness. After a long day’s work at a thankless job, she had to come home to prepare dinner, clean up, figure out groceries for the next week, and make sure we did our homework, amongst other household drudgery. If I forgot to cook the rice or turn on the pressure cooker for the moong dal, the whole rhythm of our home routine was broken. It was made to be my fault but somewhere inside, I knew it wasn’t. On the outside, I fought to fix while on the inside, I yearned to escape.
My mother trained me to respond out of fear instead of love until doing so became my natural response.
Long before my marriage to my husband, I was wedded to power. It was a simple equation: the angrier the person in control, the more I shrunk. The angrier the person in control, the more my power diminished, the more I obeyed, the more I adapted.
We walked out and down the narrow hallway, waited for the lift, and walked down another hallway to my family’s flat. He entered first as I trailed behind. They applauded him for obliging them with a meal and joked about his obstinance. I followed with my head slightly lowered, as if it was in the same position from moments before. Would they ever know who was truly deserving of their accolades?
We ate rotli, dal, bat, shak, a typical Gujarati dinner. I had a side of chundo, my favorite mango pickle. I hoped it would be a sweet way to balance the bitter tase left in my mouth, but it didn’t work.
Ajay ate joyfully, complimented the cook, and thanked my family for the delicious meal. Afterward, we went back downstairs to our flat, to the mattress lying empty on the floor. We didn’t speak of what had happened earlier.
I worked so hard to make us look normal from the outside. I pleased him and shrunk myself. I deified him and gave him control. Suddenly, it all felt so wrong. My dad’s death, the fellatio, the chundo—it was a hurricane of shit. Shit I had to stuff inside for appearances.
But did I?
Since before I could remember, a muted but present version of myself lived within me, a polite rumbling voice that knew to stay within the lines. But she started to see how she gave and gave and it was never enough. She grew louder.
I told Ajay to leave our condo less than a year after my dad died. I told him I wanted a divorce with complete confidence and a face full of tears a few months later. I still felt bad that I’d let him down as a wife, but I also celebrated the death of my submission.
This submission didn’t start with Ajay. Our forced compatibility was a symptom of my childhood experiences. I kept trying to make the puzzle pieces fit without knowing my own curves or sounds or colors. I endured control from people with their own pains and puzzles because I didn’t know I had a choice. In trying to have compassion for everyone else’s pain, in massaging their needs, I ignored my own knots.
Now, I couldn’t live in that world. I was scared to leave Ajay because I didn’t want to be left with myself. But when, finally, I was too scared to stay, I didn’t feel like running to anyone.
Instead, I stood in my rawness and started to see my shape. I asked myself, “Will you be nice to me?”
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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