ENOUGH: Leaving Buffalo Behind

By

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.

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Leaving Buffalo Behind
Amanda Oliver

The night before I moved from Buffalo to New York City someone took a permanent marker to the walls of a bar bathroom and wrote AMANDA OLIVER IS A SYPHILLITIC WHORE. The bar was The Pink, a Buffalo staple for steak sandwiches, darts, and fucking up. I’d spent dozens of early mornings on the sidewalk in front of The Pink, passing cigarettes and drinks we’d snuck out between friends. None of us were ready to go home, even at the 4 a.m. closing time. We had nowhere to be until our afternoon restaurant shifts or classes. We usually wandered home around 5 a.m., sometimes with each other, sometimes alone.

It’s hard to explain to people not from Buffalo what it’s like to have a group of close to one hundred friends throughout your twenties. Most people don’t believe me. I’ve thought about writing their names on a list—there are at least three Ryans, a half dozen Michaels, and five Andreas I can name offhand. We all went to the same bars and lived on the same four or five blocks of the Elmwood Village neighborhood. We were all creatives of some kind—writers, musicians, painters—and found each other outside the walls of the city’s colleges and universities. We found each other at shows and art exhibitions and bars and through mutual friends. Almost everyone was beautiful. It feels silly to write that, but it’s true. We were a group of young, creative, and beautiful people sharing a corner of a city that most people thought died along with its industrial factories in the 1970s.

We were very alive.

We were also usually very drunk.

I have a theory about people who grow up in cities known for their cold weather and snowfall: They create incubating communities. Brick and mortar spaces to shelter us in the cold months and a winter-developed connectedness that allowed us to run wild together in the warmer months, putting on shows and parties and picnics in the park. Our lives left us ample time to be at bars until closing time. It didn’t occur to us to be anywhere else.

 

Cold-weather kids have a resistance that I don’t see in friends who grew up in milder climates. There is something to be said for walking across a college campus despite frostbite warnings or navigating black, ice-slicked streets and six-foot snow drifts to attend a friend’s art opening. Balancing coffee in one hand and steering through a blizzard with another. Shoveling. So, so much shoveling.

I decided to leave Buffalo when I was twenty-four. I’d lived there my entire life. I hadn’t expected my biggest going-away present to be graffiti about my sex life and an STD I did not have. The words stretched from the floor to the ceiling of the women’s bathroom, impressively large and neatly written. I knew who’d done it or, at the very least, commissioned its writing. Her real name was Jenessa, but she went by Nessa. Nessa had sent me a message on Facebook a few days earlier telling me she forgave me for sleeping with her ex-boyfriend but “might kick me in the shins” if she saw me any time soon. I informed her that I was moving to New York City in a few days. She replied, “I wonder if you’ll make it more than six months.” Most people from Buffalo didn’t. Many of us made the migration four hundred miles down-state in our early- or mid-twenties and most of us returned home within six months.

I laughed when I saw the graffiti. It was like an art piece inspired by the year I’d spent sleeping around and hating myself. “Whore” I could handle. What I was really running away from hurt infinitely more.

 

A year earlier I’d left an abusive relationship. I wish I’d left when Jacob threw me across a room, sending me backward into his dining room table, cracking my head on its wood. I had been standing in front of the fridge, he wanted orange juice, and throwing me across the room was easier than asking me to move. One of Jacob’s friends was one room over and heard my head make contact. She came out to see what happened. Years later, I’d learn she told people I made the whole thing up. That she’d been standing in the room and nothing happened.

It was his twenty-sixth birthday that finally ended us. He’d brought another woman as his date—we were on one of our many “breaks” taken in the four years we were together—and I’d chugged most of a jug of Carlo Rossi cabernet and told his date, in a voice meant to match her own high-pitched tone, that he’d just like, fucked me yesterday. She stood speechless and then burst into tears. Jacob’s friends asked me to leave as he screamed that I’d ruined his birthday. I yelled, “Yeah, well, you ruined everything else!” over the shoulder of his best friend who was physically moving me toward the door.

It was exactly as dramatic as most of our relationship had been, but it was finally public. The worst parts of our relationship happened behind closed doors or very quietly. On more than one occasion he had whispered things like, “You’re so stupid” in my ear at a bar with a smile on his face, our friends convinced he was saying something sweet. Many of our fights happened in his beat-up silver Toyota Corolla, oftentimes while he was drunk, or standing at the first-floor entrance to his second-floor apartment, away from where his roommates could hear us. I can still see the meanness of his face. But this birthday fight was public. I’d looked like a movie depiction of a jealous, crazy ex-girlfriend. I wasn’t willing to have a room full of people stare at me like that ever again and so, this breakup was final.

A man named Brian started messaging me shortly after Jacob and I broke up. I knew him peripherally—he was a member of the larger social group; we were friends on social media—and he seemed nice enough. When we hung out alone for the first time I quickly realized he was interested in more than friendship, and I told him I was not looking to date. We hung out three, maybe four times, and each time I made it clear that I was not interested in anything more than friendship. He always said okay and then asked to hang out again.

I could list the ways I blame myself here:

1. I should have realized he was trying to change my mind.
2. He clearly did not want to be just friends.
3. I should have stopped hanging out with him.

I’ve made so many lists about how I might have stopped what happened next. I’ve imagined so many scenarios where I save myself. I have imagined his mother got an abortion and he never existed. I have imagined killing him.

 

Broadway Joe’s was a Buffalo bar that the hardcore and punk kids, and occasionally, the hipsters, frequented. The floors of Broadway Joe’s were always sticky with beer and they kept a fish bowl on the bar for people to put dollar bills into if they wanted to smoke cigarettes. When the bar would inevitably get busted for allowing smoking in a public place they’d pay the fine with the fish bowl money.

I was drinking. Jacob and I had been broken-up for several months and so people believed us that it was over for good this time. Mutual friends I hadn’t seen in a while started approaching me to share that, since we were broken up now, they just wanted to let me know that Jacob had cheated on me with so-and-so. By 1 a.m., the list had reached nine people and I was on beer eleven. This would be one of thee two times in my life that I blacked out from drinking, but I do remember sobbing on the sticky floor of Broadway Joe’s. The memory feels slightly warped, distorted. A man picked me up and said, “Come on, you’re crying on the floor of a disgusting bar over some guy.” Someone got me home to my bed. Someone woke me up by calling my phone. My phone’s screen was broken, so I couldn’t see who was calling. I assumed it was Jacob, who I’d left at least two angry voicemails before blacking out, but it was Brian. I was slurring my words, still drunk and crying. He was sober. He does not drink.

The next thing I remember is answering the doorbell and finding Brian on my doorstep. The next thing I remember after that is throwing up in the toilet as he held my hair. The next thing I remember after that is waking up, vomiting over the edge of my bed, with my hair looped around his fist and his penis ramming in and out of me. There was so much vomit that I couldn’t speak, couldn’t tell him no. I passed out again as he continued to have sex with my lifeless body. I woke up naked the following morning, vomit on my shoulders and chest and the floor next to my bed. Brian was asleep next to me.

 

I guess I became a whore after that. Tried to reclaim my body through other bodies. Gave consent to everyone because what was the point of saying no. At least if I said yes I had some control. So, I said yes. I said yes, yes, yes.

The women in Buffalo hated me. For sleeping with their ex-boyfriends or their crushes. For sleeping with whoever I wanted to. My friends watched and didn’t understand. I hadn’t told anyone what had happened. I’d woken up that morning, asked Brian to leave, and called a good friend to bring me McDonald’s for my hangover. I got into the shower and thought about every movie scene where the woman tries to wash her rape, her rapist, off of her. My body didn’t hurt and I was angry for that. I thought I’d have bruises or pain between my legs but I felt fine. I didn’t scrub my skin until it was raw. I didn’t think about washing away evidence and the opportunity to get a rape kit done. I just gently washed my hair and my body and thought about french fries.

My mind was completely numb for days.

When my thoughts returned, without the fuzz of a brain trying to protect itself, all I thought about for months was how I’d drank too much, how I’d let him into my home, and how I’d deserved everything that came after.

What I wanted to scream at all the women who hated me was that I hated myself more than they ever could. And so, the graffiti on the bar wall didn’t bother me. It was a culmination of everything I’d already called myself in the year since I had been raped. It was a tangible representation of how I felt, appropriately on display in a filthy bar bathroom. A friend asked the bartender for a permanent marker and got permission to go into the women’s bathroom to try to cover it for me. He came out and said, “I’m so sorry, Amanda” and I told him it was okay. By then, and like so much else, it felt like nothing.

I moved to New York City the next day and I never moved back.

 

I found out recently that the wife of an ex-boyfriend of mine has said that I’m not allowed in the business he owns. Matthew was one of the last kind boyfriends I’ve had. On my twenty-first birthday he set up a scavenger hunt that led to my present, a beautiful typewriter with a letter fed into it that read, “You will write a book someday.” I was not prepared for the kind of love Matthew was willing to give me and I broke up with him a few months later. For several years after, we continued to occasionally sleep together. That ended, amicably, when he met his wife.

They’ve been together for nearly a decade now, but I still pose a threat to her that I can’t understand. I want to ask her why she gives me so much weight. Why the idea of my body with his body all those years ago makes her hate me so much now. Maybe it’s more than that; maybe I’m not aware of something terrible that happened to her that makes her dislike me so much. My friend’s boyfriend is co-owner of the business, and they’ve both told me not to come in, that it would just make things worse. This, twelve years after Matthew and I broke up. This, eight years since I left Buffalo.

This, a way the city still labels me a whore.

When I look back now, I can count that it was five, maybe six, people I slept with that year. Not the list of twenty or thirty it was made to be through gossip and rumors. I wish more people had stood up for me then. Especially my friends. But it was a different time, ten years ago. It was before Brock Turner and Me Too. Now, I see self-righteous Facebook posts about misogyny and sexual harassment and reproductive rights from the very same people who held my name in their mouths like venom. When they wanted to hurt someone, they’d spit it out. Amanda slept with your boyfriend. (I hadn’t.) I slept with Amanda. (They hadn’t.) Most of them wouldn’t do it now. Some have even reached out to say how envious they are of my life outside Buffalo, never acknowledging that they are part of why I left my hometown. Never acknowledging how they treated me.

I don’t go back to Buffalo much. Sometimes for the holidays or because I miss my family. When people ask where I’m from, it is easy to say Buffalo but it’s even easier to name the places I have lived since. It’s easier to talk about being nomadic, living out of a suitcase, traveling across different countries. It is easier to speak to everything I saw and did and earned and became after I left.

Sometimes, before bed, I recite the names of people I love from Buffalo like praying the rosary, one by one, moving in a connected circle of a time I don’t think about much anymore. Knowing I will never go back. Forgetting, most days, the harder reasons why. Because we do assimilate our grief. We do process it over time, even when we compartmentalize, even when we think we haven’t or won’t ever. Our grief meets us where we are. Shows itself, again and again, until we admit its familiarity and find some way to greet it.

I still don’t care about being called a whore, but now I also don’t see my body as a weapon or a waste or a joke. I don’t care about being called a whore because I know the truth. The rest is something else. Gossip, rumors, ancient history. Everything I left behind.

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Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.

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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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