ENOUGH: The Choice

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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The Choice
Wandeka Gayle

I had come home from a long reporting day at the Gleaner in downtown Kingston, Jamaica, to my shoebox studio apartment in Washington Gardens. I clicked on my fourteen-inch but was asleep within moments.

I woke to a mass weighing me down. Through the fog of my tired mind, I realized a person was on top of me and a hand was pressed over my mouth and nose. I struggled, and when the hand finally moved, I sucked in a deep breath and screamed as loudly as I could.

“Why you making so much noise?”

The voice was masculine and angry.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, shaking as he got off me. 

This is how you die. Here. In this tiny apartment in the back of someone’s house. Alone, I thought.

It was dark save for the soft outside light streaming in between the blinds in the kitchenette.

He went up to the window and looked out. His silhouette had a wide girth and he was strong, judging by how my neck smarted from the earlier struggle.

“You choose,” he said, coming back to me. Now he was calm. “I can kill you or you can let me have sex with you.”

He had posed it the way a friend may ask you if you wanted to go out for dinner or stay in.

“Sex,” I whispered grimly to this stranger.

I felt cold and sick all over when he removed my clothes and put his mouth on me. I must have uttered a sound.

“You like it,” he said in response. It was not a question. I turned my head away.

At some point, he stopped and went to the light switch.

“Turn on your stomach and don’t look at me, else me have to kill you,” he ordered, even-toned, methodical, frightening.

I complied. He flipped the switch and I instinctively lifted my head to look.

“Me say not to look!” he said, raising his voice.

I buried my face in the mattress, feeling my body convulsing in time with my quickly pumping heart. If he did not kill me, I was sure my heart would.

Then, he turned me over and I saw he had wrapped his face with one of my floral chiffon blouses.

Perhaps, then, I prayed as this strange man raped me.

“Another man outside. You going to do the same thing for him, too,” he said.

I tensed. I had not thought how this could get worse.

I wondered if this was happening to me because I had become a heathen, because I felt nothing at church services and had stopped attending.

At some point, I quit praying.

No help was coming.

He finished.

My body recoiled.

“See. You don’t have to worry about no baby nor no disease,” he said and actually smiled, dripping his fluids on me.

“Get up and go in the shower,” he instructed. He turned off the light again and removed the head wrap.

We were in close quarters. He seemed to fill up the tiny studio with his bulk. In five or so steps, I was in the bathroom. He watched me step into the shower. He watched me turn on the tap. He watched me let the water run down the length of my body.

“Where your towel-dem?” he asked when I just stood there, letting the first cold, then tepid, then warm water wash away all the traces of his DNA.

“Sorry. They are all dirty,” I said. Another apology.

“Use this,” he instructed. It was a rag he had wiped himself with. I stepped out of the shower and rubbed myself as dry as I could, feeling gross and exposed.

I pulled on something long and loose and sat on the bed with my hands in my lap.

He reached over to my dresser and took my purse and searched through it. He held up my Gleaner ID card to the little light coming in and then asked me where my money was.

“I don’t get paid until the end of the month,” I said. “I may have a five hundred dollars (eight US dollars, then) in there.”

I don’t know why I was offering him this information.

He actually laughed. “You can keep that,” he said.

“You a Christian?” he asked, out of the blue.

“Yes,” I found myself saying.

“How comes you wear pants, then?” he asked, looking at the jeans hanging on the back of one the chairs.

“I am not that kind of Christian,” I said.

He went over to the fridge and took out the gallon bottle of water. He put it to his head, wiped his mouth and stepped back close to me on the bed.

“I am a soldier, and I have police friends,” he whispered coldly. “If you tell, I will find out. I will come back, and I will kill you. You understand?”

I nodded, icy dread spreading through my whole being.

“Give me the key,” he said. “Make sure to lock the gate after I leave. You know your gate was open?”

For years and years after, I wondered if this was really true. I had always been a conscientious person. I reported on crime for my job. Could I have been that careless?

I followed him to the door and looked around in the yard as he reached up to undo the padlock. I did not see any accomplice. The street was calm. No dogs barking. No crickets chirping. Just me and this stranger in the stillness.

When he left, I quickly relocked the gate and slipped back inside. I locked my door behind me and stood there in the tiny studio looking at the disarray of the bed. I looked at the clock. It was 1:38 a.m. I went to the corner beside the bed and sat down on the cold tile. I did not cry. I just sat for hours staring at the bed where the stranger had given me a choice between defilement and death.

I must have thought about telling my family. I must have thought about the women I had reported on in court cases, women who testified against their attackers, some girls far younger than me, pointing fingers at fathers and uncles and church elders and shopkeepers and teachers.

At daybreak, I put on a dress without looking at myself in the mirror. I stuffed two pieces of clothing into a small straw bag. I left the dirty laundry and the dirty dishes behind. I did not run down the street but every molecule of my being wished to. I walked in measured steps to the bus stop.

I got on the JUTC bus and sat beside an elderly woman. As soon as the bus jostled into movement again, it seemed to shake me out of a trance, and I bowed my head and wept without making a sound.

 

In Spanish Town, I called my closest girlfriend. She came with her fiancé, both dressed for church. When she learned what had happened, she kept looking over at me in the backseat and I kept assuring her that I was fine. She didn’t press me for details. She waited for me in the police station and at the hospital. I slept in her bed and she assured me I would be okay. I woke up in pain, a sign it had not all been a terrible nightmare.

I waited another day before telling my parents.

I don’t remember the words we spoke, but my father sprang into action. He got someone driving a truck to go immediately to my apartment and bring everything back.

He was thinking as a father and not as a rape victim, so when he said I should drive with the men in the truck, I didn’t know how to tell him no, that I’d have to sit in perpetual fear that one of the men would attack me even in broad daylight. I must have appeared odd, sitting rigid in the front of the truck, looking straight ahead as I directed them to my family’s home.

When I told my mother, she’d cradled me like I was that five-year-old who always needed a hug before bed.

My dad used to tease me when I would peer around their door at bedtime as a child.

“You still want tu-tups?” he would say.

“No,” I would say, giggling. I was too old for breast milk but I didn’t mind this silliness.

I would climb on her and she would hug me and say a little prayer with me. Then, I would feel safe to go to bed.

That day, I felt like that child who needed a soothing touch but simultaneously could not stand prolonged touching.

I didn’t have to say exactly what the man had done. “Oh my Lord,” my mother said in half-prayer, half-exclamation as I wept and wept. I have never been able to talk to her about it since.

My sisters were just as concerned and equally as flabbergasted. How could this have happened to me? I was the youngest sister and they had not been able to protect me. I saw it in their faces when they learned what the man had done.

“You seem to be taking it very well,” one of them said.

But I wasn’t. I was weepy sometimes even in the middle of a rare happy thought.

I didn’t tell my brother, still a teenager at the time. I remembered his puzzled face, though, when I collapsed in my childhood bedroom, bawling and bawling, my sisters comforting me.

 

Every man in the street was him. Once in a pharmacy, a stocky man kept staring at me with that goofy smile. In minutes, I put down my shopping basket with the Tampax and the juice carton and ran from the pharmacy. I raced all the way to the bus stop and took the first bus home.

In time, I found myself wandering around art galleries in Liguanea. I looked at works by Messam, Huie, Manley, Escoffery, Watson. I saw portraits of Rastafarians, Pocomanian women, market vendors. I took in still life of Jamaican foods, flora, landscapes, seascapes, abstract pieces, and was struck by a need to paint.

With what little money I still had, I bought acrylics, watercolors, oils, and artbooks. I painted at the dining table and outside in my father’s haphazard garden, or alone in my room at the crack of dawn. I did little else for weeks, finding that while I painted, no one asked me if I was okay. They looked over my shoulder and asked questions about the painting or praised my efforts but didn’t ask me how I was feeling. I preferred this even as I wanted to shout that I was not okay. I was trying to be, though, with oils on canvas and watercolors on paper.

Then, after the three weeks my editor allowed, I returned to work.

I remember that it was when the downtown Kingston don had been taken into police custody. Matthews Lane was under curfew. Soldiers drove up in jeeps with guns drawn. One kept looking at me. He wore his fatigues and clutched a long gun. He seemed to recognize me. It would not have been unusual considering my line of work, but I became certain this may have been the man who raped me. Why was he smiling at me like that? Did he know something? I’m sure the Gleaner photographer on assignment with me wondered what I was doing just standing there, the steno pad forgotten in my hand.

How am I going to do this job? I thought.

I honestly don’t know how I got through that assignment, but I did.

It was impossible to hide in an editorial room where everyone is visible from every corner of an open floor and cubicles only come up to your shoulders when seated. Did everyone know what had happened? Why were people looking at me like that? Was that pity?

The assault happened toward the end of April 2005.

I returned to work in mid-May.

In June, I told my editor I would be resigning.

I left the Gleaner that July.

 

Away from Kingston, I painted and tried to figure out what I needed to do next. I felt good when I painted. The memories of my violation fell away. I marveled at the thick and pliable and vibrant acrylic spreading across gessoed surfaces. I loved the playful way watercolor paint spread across cold compressed paper. I came to like the pungent smell of oil paint, if not its long drying time. I painted copies from textbooks. I painted wine bottles and cheese. I painted my sister’s portrait. I painted market women. I painted flowers. So many flowers.

When I did leave for America in December 2009 to enter graduate school, I focused on my dream of becoming a writer and a teacher of writing, but I also had solo art shows each year I lived in Michigan.

This year, while teaching in Cedar City, Utah, I came in from an arduous day at the university and flipped on Netflix. I came across the docuseries Brave Miss World, about Linor Abargi, Miss Israel, who won the title in 1998. Six weeks before her victory, she’d been brutally raped by a man attached to a modeling agency in Milan, Uri Shlomo Nur.

She was just eighteen years old.

I sat there and watched her talk about her trauma—and what she’d done in its aftermath. She’d started a campaign, founding a website in 2008 to help other rape victims find their voices.

It had been fourteen years since my assault but within five minutes of watching Abargi’s story, I was inconsolable.

I thought about how the police officer had asked me, “Did he have a weapon?” and I’d said that I didn’t know.

I thought about how unlike Abargi, my rapist was never caught, that he may have hurt other women in the years since my attack.

“We cannot stay silent,” Abargi says later in the documentary while interviewing a twelve-year-old girl in South Africa who said a man raped her to cure himself from HIV.

I realized then that my rape will always be with me.

I would have to give myself a choice: Would I continue to pretend that I had somehow overcome the worst thing that has ever happened to me or would I face it, adding my voice to the cacophony of survivors who every day must remind themselves aloud, and to the world—I did everything in my power to stay alive. I am still here. He did not destroy me.

I choose the latter.

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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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