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.
The first thing you should know about rural Midwestern towns: no one listens to sixteen-year-old girls. They will listen, instead, to the boss, the forty-year-old man who says he walked her to her car to keep her safe. His brother, a police officer, listens to him, too. The general manager, his friend, also listens to him.
I am sixteen, and I do not bother to tell anyone else.
I do not bother to speak for months.
Until the day he finds me at my new job and asks: how is your little sister?
It’s a question. It’s a threat.
I become steel and I become storm and I tell him that he will not touch her.
I strip the last layer of my dignity from myself. I walk into a martial arts gym in my town, and I stand there trembling in a room full of men, and I say make me strong.
The teacher is head and shoulders taller than me, but I do not fear him.
I have nothing left that can be taken, except for her. A man holds a target for me to kick, and I do.
Again and again.
I train every night, as often as they let me—from wrist grabs, from throat grabs, from a grab from behind. I train to elbow and knee, to strike throats and groins, to pop knees and twist arms, to avoid knives and dodge a bat.
I am afraid.
Every day I enter the gym, I am afraid.
I am afraid, because every time a man puts his hands upon me it is him, again, in the parking lot.
And every time I open my mouth, it is him, again, being believed.
I am afraid, because I cannot protect her.
But every night, I tell fear not today. Every night, I stare it down.
It is bigger than me, this fear.
But there is something else, something he did not take. It is small, and it is quiet, but every night, it carries me into a gym where I let men put their hands on me—and I let them teach me how to escape.
In all this, I am looking for something: the absence of fear. I am looking for a breakthrough moment, when a training partner puts his hands upon me and I do not feel a jolt through my whole body that says run, that says fuck fuck fuck it’s happening again, that says die this time die this time die this time. Fear is slippery and intangible, and every time I grasp it in my shaking hands it slips through, coils in my belly, slicks my hands with sweat.
Are you okay?
My training partners ask me this often, and I nod because I cannot breathe enough to form words.
But I am not, and they know it and I know it, and still they let me be the keeper of my own silence.
I think I may have found it—that benchmark, that milestone, when I hear the word trigger and realize that’s what it is. That moment when hands touch my neck, when the smell of cigarette smoke fills my nostrils, when hands come near my hair: it is a trigger and nothing more.
You will not choke me.
You will not stand near me and smell of him.
You will not drag me by the hair.
It is what my body is saying, screaming, begging.
So, I decide fear can be made to disappear.
I face these fears myself.
I cannot afford therapy.
I’ve told no one—not parents, not siblings, not friends—so who could help me? This fear and shame are mine mine mine when they should be his.
I find the corner of town where there are men with their cigarettes and their talk, and I sit down. I breathe. I make myself stay, but I tell myself you can break their hands if they touch you. I tell myself fear is lying and you are safe.
I shave my head. The hair someone grabbed and used to drag me—it is gone. It is cut from my body. It is on the ground. It is not mine. The hair that grows back—that hair I can defend. It grows longer again, and I let it, and I tell myself you can snap an elbow if they try to drag you.
In class, over and over and over again, I tell my partners: can we work on choke escapes tonight? Before and during and afterwards, I want to take off the layer of my skin where I am touched. I want to shave it off and leave it behind me on the ground, but this I cannot do because this skin that I do not want to be mine belongs to me. I let them touch me, and I practice my techniques, and I tell myself no one can ever do this without your consent.
There is no epiphany.
There is no moment of chain-breaking, no kicking in a door in my mind, no finding a bridge that leads me to another side. There is no going back to the child who left work and didn’t know not to trust the boss who was twenty years older than her to escort her to her car. There is no finding the girl on the other side of that parking lot.
There is only me, with a shorn head and tight fists. But there is this, too: the tiny, quiet thing, curled inside my chest, waiting.
The thing that carries me to class every night.
The thing that did not let me die after what was done to me.
The thing that tells fear, every night, every night where its place is.
It is not a victory. The hair and the throat and the smell of cigarette smoke still constrict my chest and force air out. They do not cease to be.
Fear does not leave.
I do not vanquish it.
But my body has grown muscle that belongs only to me. I can kick and strike and lock and escape and throw and fall and stand.
I have a gym full of people—many men, some women—who know when to ask questions and when to remind me to breathe and when to teach me a technique that makes that tiny thing inside me expand.
There is no victory here.
He never goes to jail.
I do not have my justice.
But I do have this: five years of training later, I meet him in a local grocery store, as one does in small towns, and I see him first. Fear curls around my body, but it does not stand alone.
Beside it stands that other quiet thing, the one that is maybe courage that is maybe endurance that is maybe survivor.
I walk to him.
My spine is straight.
My hands are open, but the fist is there, waiting.
My chin is high.
I am fear and I am fury.
I say his name, and I see it in his eyes: his own terror.
Darker than my own, weighing him down, consuming him. He is afraid of me.
I’ve been training, I tell him casually, as if this is nothing and he is nothing, and he is surprised, I see it there in his eyes. I see his shock that I would speak to him, that I would not show him my fear, that I would dare to stand this close to him. But when you stare your own fear in the face for almost five years, what is it to stare down one small, meaningless man?
He does not answer, because he is afraid.
I reach out. I touch him. I put my hand on his shoulder, my small thumb finding a pressure point that makes his eyes light with pain.
I wanted to tell you that, I say, and my fear is a speck on the floor and the courage and the endurance and the survivor stares him in the eyes. And I wanted to invite you to my black belt test.
And then I walk away.
I leave him behind, trembling in pain and terror, and he says nothing—his voice, finally, silenced.
I leave the store and go to my gym. I tell them let’s practice choke escapes. My hair has grown back, my own, something that belongs to me and no one else. One of my training partners—friends first, family now—comments that they like the way I’ve braided it today. Outside the gym, the faint scent of cigarette smoke lingers.
Fear whispers in my gut.
I reach and tonight I hold it in my hands, my strong, unshaking hands, and I say not today.
And then I let it go.
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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