ENOUGH: Once Upon a Time


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.


Once Upon a Time
Whitney Vale

I could be a recluse. I am not a recluse. Once, in my mid-twenties, I lived in a studio apartment in an un-chic area of Beverly Hills. The slang phrase was “BH adjacent.”

South of Wilshire, an implied degradation of value.

I didn’t have a driver’s license. I would walk, take a bus, maybe hitch a ride with friends. On rare occasions I would take a taxi. Today, the thought of taking an Uber or Lyft or a cab brings an immediate resistance that I can feel in my blood. My blood says no. My acupuncturist says my blood is a little stagnant.

Once, while living in this first-floor apartment, I needed to be somewhere, and couldn’t open the door. I approached the door and its old brass knob and backed away. I walked around my studio apartment. Anxiety mounted each time I approached the closed door. I knew if I didn’t open the door I would be a prisoner of fear forever. Chest tight, breath shallow, I stood at the far side of this room, graced with built-in bookcases, a walk-in closet/bathroom, and kitchenette, and wept. For a few minutes I just stared at the handle and considered. Nothing. For a brief moment I disassociated. Emptiness, a fog-numbing indifference, rolled through my body. Once, I touched the cold round knob. Multiple attempts later, fueled by will power, I opened the door, and crossed the threshold, opening up some space inside.


“Once” is a fairy tale beginning, but this isn’t a fairy tale.

How I loved fairy tales! Once upon a time always sent a little shiver of anticipation up my spine. The rest of the sentence is equally important. Once upon a time, there lived. There lived a poor girl, or a love-struck mermaid, or a beauty locked away by circumstance or sleep. Heroines, if they could survive the dark forests, towers, evil fairies, ravenous trolls. If I were a tightrope walker, a lovely willowy delight in tights and tulle, I would say I sway on the line between fantasy and fact. It may be true that I retreat to the imagination when facts pick me up at the curb and take me where I do not want to go.

This isn’t a fairy tale. There is a lover who fails the heroine; there is a heroine who fails herself. There is a troll. There is an assault. There are multiple allusions that act like a bridge for the narrator as she attempts to open the door again.


Once, many years ago, many hopes and aspirations ago, I took a plane ride for the very first time. I flew to a regional audition conference for graduate schools in theater arts. Where it was held stays dim in my mind, but I think it was Atlanta. I felt my insides dancing as I sat in my seat, looking at clouds, going over my monologues. My lower belly beamed with butterflies. When we landed, I stood for moment on the high stair, like a princess on a balcony, slight breeze picking up my long chestnut hair, warm breeze lifting my dress. Oh, that dress! A black boat-necked empire waist mini, sprinkled with rosy flowers and long kimono sleeves. I wore pantyhose and low-heeled taupe sandals. With a brisk and happy walk, I entered the airport, all clamor and hustle, and found the way out. Found my way to the exit where there were taxis lined up and eager, almost quivering on the pavement. My mom had told me to be careful. She hated the thought of me entering a cab even more than the thought of me thirty-thousand feet in the air.

A youngish man behind the wheel, clean-shaven and friendly.

“You’re first trip down South, darling?”

He had the slightest drawl, and seeing his face in the rear-view mirror I noted a full-faced smile, interested in what I had to say.

“Yes! And first trip on an airplane! First time I’m away from home. I’m auditioning for theater schools. I’m an actress.”

“No kiddin’!”

“I’m not, really.”

He laughed. Light poured into the cab as shreds of clouds surrendered to the sun.

This cab ride ended well—nothing sinister in the least. It merely establishes my brief history of safety regarding cabs. We arrived, I paid the fare, I gave him a tip. I admit to some nervousness being in a cab with a strange man. I sat close to the door with one hand on the handle in case I needed to jump out.


Four years later, I packed my MFA in acting and moved to Los Angeles from Louisville, KY, and once upon that time, I took another cab. A yellow cab. A cab that had been ordered for me by the manager of a restaurant in Westwood. The manager, someone I loved, loved someone else. I drank too many Manhattans, ate too many rosy Maraschino cherries. The restaurant was called Alice’s. I fell down a hole.

The manager and I had been having an affair. Many years ago, in the time of Hamburger Hamlets and the dream of California Livin’ and when Westwood Village really was a village of easy walking and movie theaters, there lived a young woman who didn’t know how to drive. Once a week I left my BH-adjacent home, climbed into the Wilshire Boulevard bus, and journeyed to Westwood for a matinee. That’s how I met Jake. I strolled into Alice’s after a movie and ordered a salad. Bustling business pushed me to the bar. A muscular guy with a struggling mullet and a puckish manner, Jake offered me a drink on the house. I said no, I don’t drink in the daytime, and that made him laugh.


Fairy tales contain a sense of wonder. This tale only contains I wonder ifs.


This is a tale that can fit in a paragraph, a degraded paragraph with a few dirty facts and sodden regrets, a regular cocktail napkin of a story. It’s a lowball glass filled with spirits and rocks. I’ll have a paragraph on the rocks. This is not the story of the hero’s return, or of following one’s bliss. It’s more of a footnote adjacent to the main story of my life which nevertheless squats on my chest like the incubus from Fuseli’s painting, The Nightmare.

This painting is often used to describe sleep paralysis, which I have experienced. Perhaps I have awakened in the night with an urgent need to pee. I use the bathroom; I return to bed. Just as I am closing my eyes, I feel the presence of malevolence. Something is holding me down. My arms are useless. I struggle to speak, I am sure I must be making sound, but no. I cannot move, weighed down by terror, and an entity. A struggle of wills ensues. I can hear sound, a buzzing in my ears. I pass out. The morning comes.

I am afraid of the dark. I am afraid of remembering. I am trying to navigate my mind where there is an area under a stratus cloud. I don’t remember the date, or the year. It happened sometime between 1979 and 1984. The stratus cloud is the type that hangs low in the sky. Layers of gray, it makes a fog, a degraded cloud on degraded property. Behind the cloud is a bridge, beyond the bridge is a meadow filled with bright daisies. A troll lives under the bridge, always hungry. He grabs at my feet, mouth open, exposing yellow fangs.


Once upon a time, between 1979 and 1984, on a balmy evening, no cloud in the sky, I strolled into Alice’s to see if my sometime-lover wanted to come over after he got off work. He didn’t. One expects a scene here so I will oblige. But first, a recipe:

How to Build the Perfect Manhattan
2 ¾ ounces of rye whiskey or bourbon
½ ounce of dry vermouth
½ ounce of sweet vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Maraschino cherry for garnish (or a lemon twist)
Special equipment: cocktail shaker
Add ice to shaker, add liquids, STIR do not shake
Strain into a martini glass or a coupe


A girl goes up to the bar of a busy, hip restaurant in Westwood Village. She catches the eye of the manager bartender.

“Hey there, Jake. Would you like to come over after work?”

[Stage direction: this character speaks with a pleasant, modulated voice.]

“Poppet! Great to see ya. Sorry no can do. [Deftly mixes a drink as he talks.] But here, have a Manhattan on the house. Maker’s Mark, in honor of your old Kentucky Home.”

“Oh, okay, Jake. Thanks.”

[This character finishes her drink and goes up the stairs to use the restroom. She returns to find a fresh drink at her place.]

“Um, pet, you put on a few pounds?”

[The smallest exhalation of air escapes the young woman’s mouth. The smallest prick of pain anchors in her abdomen.]

“Oh, yeah. I think so.”

The evening wears on, and the overweight princess loses track of how many drinks she has. But the cherries are making her feel sick. Jake moves over to her and gives her a quick, public sort of hug.

“Pet, you’ve had too much to drink. I called you a cab. It’ll be here in a minute and I’ll pay for it up front.”

The cabdriver arrives. A short man, jeans, Members Only jacket, maybe some beard, comes into the bar area and Jake nods him over. The driver is solicitous. He takes the woman’s arm and guides her out of the restaurant and into his cab. [End of scene.]


Wikipedia tells us that a troll comes from the Norse/Scandinavian folk tale tradition. They don’t like humans. The word can mean variously “conjurer,” “fiend,” “demon.”

Once, I had too much to drink. A cab was called. When we reached my door, down a long white hallway, I rested my head against his shoulder and handed him my key. He placed it into the old brass doorknob without effort. The door swung open. The cabdriver helped me cross the threshold. The cabdriver morphed into a troll. He pushed me down on my couch. He pulled off my jeans, tugging and tugging with grunts. I may have put on a few pounds.


I don’t want to open this door. I don’t want to open this door. I don’t want to open this door.


How to Build the Perfect Maraschino Girl
Rouge her pale cheeks
Outline her mouth with a bright red liner
Fill in the lips with cherry stain
Add a dash of bitters


Flat on my back, body starting to slide down the couch. Head filled with swirling clouds. I began to lie to the troll.

“Bro…thur coming back soon…whu time whu time! Brothur coming h-home”

He laughed, not believing me. He stared at my naked pelvis, sex exposed.

My arms stopped working. I felt pinned down. I couldn’t remember any prayers. My head felt shaken. There was a buzzing in my ears. And something horrible stirred in my body. I felt the flush of arousal move in me, and I hated myself.

The demon squatted before my opened legs, one leg still encased in denim.

“On my period… stop. On my…”

I felt something move in my sex. He pulled on the little white string of the tampon. He pulled hard, and he pulled it out and flung it across the room. The cunning demon twisted his tongue inside me. Before I passed out I watched him, face obscured by the swell of my belly, until he looked up, laughing, blood on his mouth.


Before I passed out, I felt my body orgasm.


I woke up groggy and sick to my stomach. I groped my way to the bathroom and vomited up flecks of cherries. The bathroom, too bright, the mirror filled with a stranger’s face. Who was this girl, blackened eyes where make-up smeared, long hair tangled, mouth swollen, and tongue dyed an intense pink? She looked like a deflated creature from another world, features dulled, her bright bloom gone.

Circling the room, trapped by shame, I found the tampon, a bloodied rabbit’s foot, in the green shag carpet. Wrapping it in long folds of toilet paper, over and over again, to cover the stain, I threw it in the trash.

The phone rang. A big black phone rang hard, the ringing a screech through the room. Removing the phone from its cradle, I heard my lover’s voice.

“Hullo! Boy, you were on a bender last night!”

This was the day I almost didn’t leave my apartment, my tiny degraded piece of real estate.


I have wondered over the years what else was pulled from my body that night. A tampon, an orgasm, identity. What else? I used to fear my soul, my many petalled soul, had been tugged out, discarded as useless. I used to fear that my soul had no use for me. I wandered in a fog for a long time, a sketch of a human being, smiling, pleasant, and filled with dread.


How to Build the Perfect Fragmented Woman
Separate her soul from her body
Pull out the innards and toss
Blow into what remains
Invade her language with a serpent’s tongue
Whistle in her dreams
Step on her shadow, laugh.


This little story has sat on my chest for forty years. I felt marked, betrayed by lover, driver, and my own body. Oh, the shame of the orgasm! For years I wept when I climaxed, as if the terrible pleasure had been pulled from me against my will. I know now that my physical response in no way signified consent or desire. Relaxing into that truth prepared me for this realization: the man pulled something out, but what did he put in?

Did he put a little monster in my mind, my blood? Is my spine a little crooked from his weight on my body; are my sudden bursts of venom the remnants of his bloodied tongue? Is my fatigue the heaviness of secrets?


There is no conclusion, only a blurry sadness that tugs at my lower belly.


Novalis said, “Everything at a distance turns into poetry,” and it’s true. I have attempted to find a beautiful, lyrical way to describe the ugliness, looked for details and metaphors to paint a picture of a nightmare. Even Fuseli’s painting of the incubus is mesmerizing in its sordid loveliness. I know if I don’t daily reach for something beautiful, I will die a little, again. I know beneath the field of daisies, toads roam.


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.