ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women, trans, and nonbinary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.
The series runs weekly, most often on Tuesday afternoons. Each week, we will highlight different voices and stories.
Encumber (A Brief History)
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers
My wife and I put shoes on our baby for the first time. He stands bow-legged in the alley, confused by what to do with his weight. He lifts one foot and touches it down. Lifts the other and falls, smacking the brick and wailing. Like any good primate, he has relied on his toes for balance. But the shoes make him a cartoon, his feet stuck in tar.
Even the sound of encumber is bumbling, tripping over its syllables. Encumber is transitive, meaning:
1) to weigh down, burden
2) to impede or hamper function or activity
On our walks in the neighborhood, we pass pairs of teenaged girls on bikes, their limbs in effortless tandem. They whisk past us and away. I remember that sort of lightness, though it feels far away.
I meet my first girlfriend in guitar class when we are both sixteen. Our relationship is secret. On chilly spring nights, I borrow her clothes. My favorite is a yellow sweatshirt with a mountain printed across the chest. Now she has a husband and four children, says she doesn’t believe in evolution.
I want to tell her about the orangutans I saw in Indonesia, when I was twenty-two and living abroad. Their expressions are too human, foreheads wrinkled in thought. I want to tell her about the female, the one with the perfect auburn baby slung across her hip.
I’m pushing the stroller when a stranger calls me a mother. A word that has never felt right, maybe because I’m not the one who carried him. Or because he has no father. Or because part of me doesn’t feel female to begin this. Recently, anything feminine feels too ethereal.
“Elizabeth is a flowery name,” the guitar teacher tells me. This makes me blush. The guitar teacher’s name is something too feminine for her. I’m too serious for a teenager, she says. I need to lighten up.
The guitar teacher rides a motorcycle on weekends, all black leather and gloves. I ride on the back after a lesson once, clinging to her while the spring blurs green around us. My helmet is too large, leaves my head bobbling. Space helmet. It’s meant to be worn by someone else.
The guitar teacher lives with the dance teacher, who spends her days teaching us how to fall using our own momentum, without hurting ourselves. It works beautifully for a while.
They have a dog and a pool and a basketball hoop, but no kids. The guitar teacher says, “I’m not sure a woman can parent and still be committed to art. In the end, someone always loses.” I decide I’ll never have children.
Now I lug the stroller from the street up the steps of our narrow rowhouse. I ache from the labor of lifting my son all day, carrying him from room to room, moving him away from dangers. I’m his main caregiver while my wife exhausts herself at the office. My body is heavier than before, my clothes getting tight. My thinking: fragmented. This is a sleepless year.
His white noise machine mimics the sound of waves and whales. The blue whale, we learn from one of his books, is the largest animal on earth. Female whales are the heaviest, the extra blubber giving them energy to nurse.
“I’m beached,” my wife jokes, lying on her back when she is pregnant. But her arms and legs stay lanky. Before pregnancy, with her short hair and black-rimmed glasses, strangers sometimes called her “sir.”
The week before our son arrives, we lumber down the hill, towards the national monuments. I take her picture at the Tidal Basin, the cherry blooms unfolding around her. “Congratulations, Mama,” people tell her. “It won’t be long now.”
Mothers have a special appreciation for the guitar teacher. Maybe it’s the androgyny. Maybe it’s because she calls someone’s mother from the school phone every morning: “We’ve got something for you to hear.” She lays down the receiver on the desk so that we can play a song for the mother. For this, she becomes a sort of local celebrity.
Once, on the way to a concert, the guitar teacher reaches down and traces the underside of my foot. I feel my arch traversed by muscles and tendons, that part of me designed to bear my weight upright. My body grows warm. I hold my breath.
I wear peasant blouses and sheer cottons as a teenager, trying to appear unhindered. Hippie, water nymph, etc. But the all things I move with are marked by their mass: my books, my velvet-lined guitar case, my old Volvo sedan. Remember that weight isn’t always bad, the dancer teacher tells us. It moves your body forward.
“You can never tell anyone about what we have,” the guitar teacher warns. “No one will understand. I mean, do you get the gravity of this? I could lose my job. Are you listening?
Encumber, somewhat formal: to make someone carry something heavy. A blue whale’s heart weighs as much as an automobile.
North Carolina summer, the air is like the inside of someone’s mouth. In the front of the guitar teacher’s Dodge, she edges her hands across my breasts, then down. Her fingers are rough between my legs. She’s thirty-seven; I’ve just turned seventeen. I brace my body for bravery.
When I reach for her, I find that her shorts are damp down the center seam. I draw my hand away instinctually.
She tugs my hand back. “Don’t stop,” she says.
If not for salt water’s buoyancy, the whale would be crushed by its own weight. Because nothing on land can sustain that kind of mass.
I never tell anyone what happens with the guitar teacher. Instead I discipline myself for her approval. I practice fast scales and arpeggios, memorize Paganini’s Romanza. Once, I try for her attention by giving her the silent treatment.
“Hormones,” she calls it.
In Old French, the noun combre meant “a defensive obstacle formed by felled trees, with sharpened branches facing the enemy.” But what does the enemy carry, exactly?
Away at a summer guitar workshop, I feel an arrow, pain in my back. At some bleached-out Florida hospital, it takes a week of mysterious sickness to pass the kidney stone. In my palm, I hold the pebble with one crystalline spike. Its color is like a window clouded by years of grime.
You? the nurses ask. Meaning I am too young to be carrying this.
Before the stone passes, there are images, a barium contrast, drinking charcoal. Lie-on-this-table-and-don’t-move-for-an-hour while we scan you. The gown is not enough armor. One doctor inserts her big hand, asks for my sexual history. What should I tell her?
The guitar and dancer teachers send me flowers.
Combre also gives us the adjectives cumbersome and cumbrous, both meaning “awkward or difficult to handle.” Now I see that’s an understatement: the guitar teacher, me, the dance teacher. My body as it leaves the ugly hospital in Florida.
I injure my back from arching in pain, lying in bed for a week. There’s a ghost where the stone once was. Someone writes me a Flexoril prescription. The pills make me disassociate, as if my brain floating too far below my surface. It’s like wearing the space helmet.
At music conservatory, on the cold lip of Lake Erie, the snow piles and piles. I meet all new people, but I’m haunted by the weight of the years before. Once, I try to end my life.
In deep dives, blue whales can hold their breath for up to ninety minutes.
Is this body even the same body as then? If cells regenerate, making a new self every seven years, by now, at least according to poetry, I should have shifted twice.
But in truth, some cells we carry with us our entire lives. The parts of the eye, for example, or the neurons that control our balance. Whatever is making the baby toddle upright will still be with him when he is my age. Will he remember this?
A whale’s plug of earwax can be read like tree rings. Scientists study it to decode the animal’s history. They learn that stress hormones peak during sexual maturity, but also during periods of migration. Females can transmit bad substances to their young, like pesticides and flame retardants.
Perhaps I resist the term mother because it admits that I’m burdened by responsibility.
In the end, I tell my wife I am fine having a child so long as I don’t have to be the one to carry it. I’m panicked by the thought of being so encumbered. Instead, we take something from me to make him, the largest cell in my body. For this superovulation, I pierce my stomach fat with needles. “At risk for overstimulation,” the nurse calls me. “You have so many follicles.”
Encumber comes from the old French encombrer, which means to block up a current, a river dammed.
My body bloats until I look like something washed up, something in water too long. They say the swelling is temporary. But the truth is that I never go back to the way I was before.
The guitar teacher appears on Facebook after years and years of distance. There’s no word for this feeling, seeing her fifty-something-year-old face. She doesn’t understand privacy settings.
Don’t look, I try to warn myself. I look deeply, but only once.
At work, she’s been promoted. Gets a teaching award. She also has a new wife. I see that they got married the same weekend as us. They are growing old hiking in canyons, going on safari, climbing up to Macchu Picchu. Macchu Picchu has always been a dream of mine, so seeing her there makes me angry. You can’t go to Macchu Picchu with a baby.
“Fuck her,” my wife says. “She doesn’t deserve anything good.”
When our son turns one, I’m nearly thirty-five. Almost as old as the guitar teacher when we met. When I pass a teenager in my neighborhood, I think to myself: That is a child.
I’m watching Christine Blasey Ford testify, pained by how her voice wavers. Her long list of credentials and yet I can feel her rendered back to her teenaged self, see her pool-messed hair and bathing suit as she’s pushed into the room where everything changes.
For a while after that, I think to report the guitar teacher. In North Carolina, no statute of limitations means you must shoulder responsibility for your past, no matter how distant. There’s no such thing as off the hook.
But what would it take from me to tell this story. To enter that fucked-up current again, my body a new kind of obstacle.
“That notion of holding back,” a dictionary muses, “is what informs our verb encumber.”
The last time I see the guitar teacher in real life, I’m nineteen years old. She tells me, “I’m sorry. I just never had a student who needed so much from me.” Meaning I was the burden.
When my wife’s water breaks around midnight, I carry our things down the steps to the car. The air swells into thunder and downpour on the way to the hospital, too heavy to be contained.
She feels trapped by the hospital gown, insists on laboring naked. Don’t touch me, she begs, even though she’s alone in her pain. We have practiced what to do. But in the end, her body can’t bear more sensation.
I listen to Christine Blasey Ford’s hearing in segments because her story keeps taking me underwater. Her voice wavering and distorted, sometimes tinny like a guitar string. The summer evening she was assaulted, she tells the committee, she had spent the day practicing diving. She wears a navy blue suit now. There are too many people in the room.
It’s September when she testifies. We’re at the height of infant sleeplessness. I drift like a ghost: downstairs, upstairs. When the baby finally falls asleep to the whale noises, I try to sleep, too.
Another source tells me: A blue whale’s mouth is so enormous, a hundred people could fit inside. Why would a hundred people go inside the mouth? I wonder. The image is ridiculous.
Dr. Ford wades through the crowd and out of the hearing room, one dark blue shoulder turning towards the camera. I imagine her descending a flight of stairs, taking a back exit. Warm air hitting her face as she steps out onto the sidewalk.
Up the hill, just ten blocks away, is the house where I live with my family. The upstairs curtains closed. The stroller by the front door.
The baby has my auburn hair, my face inside his face. Even though my wife gave birth, strangers will always assume I was the one to carry him. My body is thicker now, builds on itself over time. I want to evolve into someone that uses my gravity, knows how to bear any weight.
In the tree outside my son’s window, I watch a crow rearrange her feathers in the rain, that bodice with so many dark layers. Glamour and burden and elegance. When I look up again, she’s gone.
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women, trans, and nonbinary 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.
Visit the archives here.