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.
How Sexual Assault Changed My Sense of Smell and Taste
His bulging eyes are all I see when I walk in. I know he has on jeans and a shirt, but their details are a blur. I’ve been drinking. Empty cans of sweet herbal beer clink in the gaping pocket of my shift dress. There’s no food in my stomach, only the fried flour from the egg roll I had after church in the heat as I waited for my mother to pick me up. How did I get here? Not here at the potluck party with the dizzy lights that my partner drove me to, but here—with this heightened sensitivity and windy mind. I want to bawl as Florence Welch’s witchlike voice in “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” starts to sing; I remember the dark room in the lopsided house with the tiny kitchen, the damp rug, and the smell of old things. Perhaps I should have left the moment I walked in. Perhaps I should leave now. I chew on my nails, chipping off the red until they crack and fall off.
The next song is “Soapy.” A song about sex and masturbation. When it was first released, I scrunched up my nose at it and rolled my eyes. A video of the dance that accompanied the song went viral: men rubbing imaginary penises in front of their pants and sexually harassing women on the street. Social media outrage followed. I was outraged, too, until I caught myself nodding to it at work. Someone explained it to me: “Soapy” is a song about the conjugal rights that Nigerian prisoners lack. I nod my head, make a video lip-syncing, twisting my lips to the smooth Yoruba lyrics. I ask for a glass of wine and a can of beer and a faceless body hands them to me. I squat on a pillow behind partiers in a circle, spinning a bottle and playing a skewed version of Never Have I Ever. In the corner of my eye, I find his form on a couch at the end of the room; it grows bigger and bigger until he is twice as big as that time in the dark room with the damp rug. “Soapy” disappears and all I hear is never have I ever. Never have I ever been sexually assaulted. I drink.
My partner appears, and I pull him into me; he smells of water. I immerse my face in his neck, nuzzling my nose into the smell. I want to steal it. Late last year, I was on medication to boost my tired immune system. One of the colorful medicines altered my sense of smell, and for months at a time I could only smell medicine or broken fingernails. There’s a way to steal smells, I know, and a way to know that certain smells exist. I tell him about the bulgy eyes. I’m scared, I say. He grips my hands. I’m here, he says. Do you want to leave? I shake my head and take a gulp of my red wine. I’m picky with wine. My partner and I often get lost in the wine section of stores searching for sweet reds that have the perfect balance of alcohol and fruit to add to our collection. My tongue is too heavy in my mouth to evaluate the taste of this one, so I drink.
There’s a table full of things: empty pizza packs, a cake full of weed, empty bottles, bottles full of death. Like whiskey. Whiskey. Before my eyes can steal away, I open the cap with my eyes and my nose twists, repulsed by the smell and taste of the night the second guy assaulted me.
There are two kinds of alcohols: bitter beer, after the first guy who took my body, my home and said, Babe, you’re not a virgin because I didn’t bleed; and whiskey, after the guy who thrust himself into me and tried to make my body his home. I met the first guy in a dimly lit bar during law school and when he kissed me, his lips tasted of beer that was too bitter. That taste clung to my tongue and my lips for days and days. Months later, when I saw UNICEF’s statistic—one in four Nigerian girls are victims of sexual violence by age eighteen—I recalled the taste, felt it press my tongue and shuddered. I was twenty-one when it happened, but I’m still only a statistic.
It was different with the second guy. Months after law school, and only a day after I’d been called to the bar. I’d worn my itchy cotton wig and heavy black gown the day before it happened, feeling confident about taking on the world. It was a brighter room, in a fancy hotel, with plush pillows and a view of a thousand lights in ethereal darkness. Coke and whiskey. Whiskey and Coke. He offered me one too many glasses, and I took them. The sight of the soft amber color in the glass comforted me but left a burning sensation on my tongue. I didn’t stop. Should have stopped. Perhaps the red-flag moment was when he brought up the flowery written account of my experience with the first guy—where I didn’t qualify it as rape—how he’d pressed himself into me without permission and whispered, You’d like this. I didn’t see the red; my mind cascaded into itself, burning.
Then he kissed me, and I kissed him back, and it wasn’t so bad—wasn’t as bad as bitter beer. If only I didn‘t pass out, didn’t later feel my legs dangling in the air, pried open, my vagina being forced into.
The next morning, I woke up in a bed that didn’t belong to me, on a pillow of ugly dreams. Four men at the door asked if I was lost. Oh no, I wanted to say, this is my hotel. I belong here. I came from Lagos to be called to the bar but my parents couldn’t come, so I booked a room here. I’m a lawyer. Instead, I yelled at them, my anger searing my voice into a pitch I didn’t know it could take: This is an intrusion of my privacy, I screamed. My memory was lost, gone, but I continued to scream at the men, staff at the hotel, until they left. I lost my mind, the way they say my grandmother lost her mind in the ‘80s after her husband died. I wandered the hallways searching for my room, trying to recall my room number, wondering how I got back to my hotel, wondering if we’d done anything other than the drinking he invited me for.
It was not until my mind crept back in like a shy little thing, and I was on my way out of the city, that I sent a DM on Twitter: Did we do the sex thing? Like, have sex? The bus I was in was white, rickety, and cramped, on its way to Ilorin. The driver listened to Fuji and sang along in a croaky voice. There was a frog in his throat. I wondered why he didn’t just cough it out. The whiny tune from the radio, croaky voice, and bumpy road combined to make my hangover unbearable; I rubbed my temples. I opened my phone to check for his response. Yes, we did. How could you forget?
I chewed the insides of my mouth until they were sore but not bleeding. The lining in the mouth, I read somewhere, is the oral mucosa. In that moment, I realized the reason I often chewed on it and wrote characters whose nervous tic was to chew their mouths. It was the first taste I knew: before breast milk or forceful kisses filled with fear and tasting like beer and whiskey that burned the tongue. Did you use a condom? I’m scared of catching diseases, of being pregnant. I imagined his sperm floating inside of me, his child taking form and shape—square head, small squinty slits for eyes. Hawkers carrying trays of wara, bread, plantain chips, placed stubby fingers on the window, calling for me and other passengers to buy something: Aunty, buy bread. There was one, a little boy in a yellow shirt with large holes. The lapa-lapa on his head was well-designed like white round murals. I stared at him and he stared at me; it felt like he knew. My phone buzzed: Of course I did. Didn’t you enjoy it? I type lol and a laughing emoji.
How can you keep making the same mistake? I asked myself.
The brain connects all five senses. When something bad happens to the brain, one of the senses will likely be affected—an alteration in the sense of taste, partial hearing loss, loss of the ability to smell, etc. I don’t know if this is why the smell and taste of whiskey now makes me crumple my face, but my face remains crumpled until my partner places his fingers on my cheeks and rubs the spiky hair beneath my chin.
I jump out of my skin.
Do you want to leave? he asks. I stare, unsure. Our bodies go into a flight or fight mode during stressful events. After the stressful event ends, our bodies are supposed to return to a place of calm, but some bodies never do. They stay in that heightened state for prolonged periods, or vacillate between the two when triggered—like right now.
No. Yes. Soon, I respond.
I text R, who always knows what to say. Jesus Christ, she texts back. But he’s not here. To conjure him, I think of a song, “Àwámárídìí,” a pretty gospel sung by the church choir earlier that day about how undecipherable God is. It slips between the cracks in my mind until it melts. I need music. Someone, an old friend, occupies me with a conversation about his life. I tell my mind to stay: listen, stay. I see his lips moving. My mind takes them and sets off on a course of their own, to the thick and unattractive lips of the third guy, this man sitting barely a few feet away: bulgy eyes, smug look. It started with his lips. He tried to kiss me that hot April evening in that dark room that smelled of spoiled egusi and sweaty armpits. I said to him, tilting backwards, I don’t like to kiss people.
Are you sure?
His voice was slurred. I pushed his face away and tried to arrange his voice in my head, syllable by syllable, word by word, a daunting task. How could I explain to him that I didn’t want to kiss him? That I didn’t come here to be kissed? It was the first time we met. I was scared. What if he became violent? So far, he hadn’t seemed violent. He had gentle hands that massaged my arm. He knelt and pushed up my skirt, kissing me all the way up. No, please no. Then he buried his face and moaned. You’re so wet, he said. I remember his unflattering white shirt, but I don’t remember what I’d worn, how nicely I must have dressed. All the conversations we had on Twitter and WhatsApp were short, hellos and his. This was supposed to be a date where we got to know each other. He’d make me dinner—something light—but there was no food. I did all the talking, about Asa’s Bed of Stone and what work was like until his lips and hands grew tentacles like tree branches and tried to claim a healing body. There was no alcohol. I have to leave; that’s enough. I offer a gentle smile in exchange for his frown. He later texts to say, Can’t wait to see you again with too many dots at the end; the gentle smile manifests as words, Sure. We never do.
The old friend talking to me has to do something and gets up. His lips are gone, and the lips my brain is focused on are just a few feet away. I look up at two girls, dancing; it’s not coordinated but it feels rehearsed, choreographic. I stand and watch. For a second, I want him to recognize me, to see the pain in my eyes, but as I look towards the couch where he sits, I start to panic. I go outside, take deep breaths. He probably doesn’t recognize me. After the second guy, I’d cut off my full 4c hair and turned it brown with a side part. The third guy met that girl—a girl with short hair. My hair has since grown, black and wild on a thin scalp.
There are tiny plants like the ones I bought early in the year on a crate by the entrance to the potluck. Mine sat on my windowsill, getting burned by the heatwave, until they died a few months later. Snake plants, spider plants, peace lilies. I’d wanted a cat, initially, for the comfort. Then I wanted a baby. Then I settled on plants. I tell my partner it’s time to go. Through the open doors, I see the guy standing, his full form even more jarring. He ties his shoelaces and then talks to a girl with beautiful black skin. My heart lurches. I want to tell her to run.
The ride to my partner’s house is quiet. I send a voice note to R once I get in. How it happened. The before, the after, the now. You don’t have to rationalize whys for him. I’m mad that you get the tedious mental work, seeing him in public. I’m sorry men are men.
The human mind always wants to blame someone. I blame my mother, for the smile I smiled at the men who took my body or decided to camp in it. Don’t sit on any man’s leg. Keep yourself till you’re married. You must be prayerful. Nothing about what to do when someone decided for you what to keep and what not to keep. But what if she experienced it, too, and that smile helped her survive? The World Health Organization reports that globally, one in every three women is a victim of sexual assault.
A few days ago, on a Friday night, I walked into my mother’s shop. I had no idea the weekend would end as it did—seeing the last person who sexually assaulted me and reliving every painful experience where I had no agency and thought it was smart to smile and be polite. My mother smiled when I walked into the shop, and I smiled back at her. So soft and tender. Her blue Ankara dress and long Ghana braids made her appear younger. Sometimes I wonder if aliens abducted my real, tough mother who cousins had called Margaret Thatcher, and replaced her with this one, a woman whose face lit up when I returned home after weeks working and living on the mainland. The cream walls of her shop were flaking. The endless rain in a dry season. The lights were dim, the supermarket dull.
I sat with her for a bit, watching as she counted naira notes and wrapped them in rubber bands. Behind the sweets bar was the obituary of a neighbor who had recently died. I opened it and flipped through, running my fingers over photos, black and white, sepia, color. The actual obituary contained a historical summary of his father, mother, and the village he’d come from—nothing of his personal life. My mother complained about this. It’s nonsense, she said, pushing up glasses that had been perched on her nose. But our histories are just as important, I counter. They affect our decisions and the way we think. She folded her lips, contemplating my words.
Church was compulsory on Sunday morning. The family church was a one-story building that had been a restaurant a lifetime ago. The smell of meat pies fresh out of the oven lingered, though God had his own smells: olive oil and crisp handkerchiefs. The first time my body was taken from and then returned to me, I discovered God in it; it became a miracle that I survived. I would protect you, I said, soothing my changing skin, the tender fat under my arm and the stretch marks. The second time, I had to sniff for God in the smells and tastes that overtook the healing process.
The choir sang a hymn, “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” and the pastor in a tight suit preached, reciting Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians on sexual immorality. He focused on women. Control your bodies, he said, your body should not be used as a tool to divide man and God. People nodded and howled and I wondered, What about me, with this body that was forcefully taken?
In the afternoon, just before I was to return to the mainland, I lay on my mother’s bed asking questions about her early life. She never spoke of her childhood, so I said, Tell me about your dad, my grandfather. Now tell me about your mum. Now tell me how your dad used to take you to work in his pickup. She had a hard childhood and punctuated each story with the importance of God and lessons on humanity.
On my way to the mainland, in a tight bus that made my neck hurt and my face sweat, I thought of her stories as I listened to Asa’s “Femi Mo.” She sang: Please don’t say goodbye, think of all the sweet memories, ten years, ọjọ́ kan ṣoṣo out by the curb. Years ago, my mother discovered Asa and would not stop singing her song “Bamidele,” a ballad from a young girl asking her lover to do the right thing by marrying her. My mother’s experiences were bittersweet; I could tell she wanted me to have a better life than she did, so I wondered if her sharp-eyed warnings about how I dressed—properly, like a lady, sisi, with no skin showing not any arms, or shoulders, or thighs—were born from her experiences, painful ones that made her blame herself. Was there a detail in her history that affected how she cautioned me about the evils of men? I dozed off, my head bumping against the passenger in front of me.
Last week, I heard the news that a court struck down a case by a woman, Busola Dakolo, who had been raped by her pastor as a teen. The court used words like “emotional” and “sentimental” and said Dakolo had wasted the court’s time. I didn’t pore over the technical jargon in the judgment circulating online; I read news headlines and sighed. Lying in bed, waiting for my partner to pack our groceries from the car, I searched through Twitter for remarks on the case. I found a very old tweet asking me to report the sexual assault my body took and get it prosecuted since I’m a lawyer. Something inside me laughed. What about Busola, and the many other women who have already tried?
When my partner comes to bed, I give myself to him. In minutes, we curl against each other, spent. Asa’s “Don’t Let Me Go” lulls me to bed afterwards. With my partner, I smell only water. This is yes—my yes.
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.
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