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.
I am sitting at the bar by myself, half paying attention to the video poker machine I am playing. We are at the border of California and Nevada (obviously on the Nevada side), staying just outside Death Valley National Park. I’ve never been, and couldn’t wait to see this wild and desolate, astoundingly beautiful place.
I am at the bar because I am waiting for our laundry, which is taking forever to dry because every goddamn piece of clothing the four of us own is dirty (which still isn’t very many since we live in an RV), and we had to cram the clothes into two small dryers.
Shortly after I sit down, a man sits down two seats to the right of me, leans over and asks, “Do you live here or just visiting?”
I feel sinking dread and a spike of anxiety. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I am actually very much enjoying sitting here, alone, waiting for my laundry. Plus, is he hitting on me? Am I safe? But I am overly worried about hurting another human’s feelings or being stuck in an awkward social situation, so I smile and respond, “Just visiting.” I try to return my attention to the video screen, hoping so hard that he will take the hint.
“Where you from?” he asks, and I tell him I’m from Seattle and that I’m traveling around the country living in an RV for a year. His eyes get big, like everyone’s do.
“That’s amazing… Are you traveling by yourself?” I know he is trying to establish my relationship status, but I take a breath and assume the best. He is genuinely interested. Just wants to have a friendly conversation.
“No, with my family,” I say.
“Oh, that’s cool, so it’s a family thing. That’s so great…”
I start to feel safe. I’ve shared that I am traveling with my family, and although I didn’t mention a partner, I am wearing a ring in the usual place. As is he. I decide this man is safe, that he understands the situation, and I feel my body and mind relax. I can enjoy this now, knowing we are on the same page.
Here’s a fact about me: I am genuinely interested in people and their stories. I absolutely love listening to people talk about their families and the real shit going on in their lives. And this man was sharing so much real shit. He talked about his family members and how he grew up. It was rough. He had been in the penitentiary three times. Shot three times. Stabbed four times. He had several children.
Here was a person whose life experience was so vastly different from mine, and I was fascinated, humbled, and full of compassion for him. For a while, I am genuinely enjoying the conversation, but there are some red flags along the way. I try to ignore them, but eventually I come back around to feeling nervous, uncertain about his motivations.
I am certain I’m not putting out a sexual vibe, but I am interested in the conversation, and I am passionate and animated when I’m interested.
Then, I bum a cigarette from him, because sometimes a cigarette sounds good. I hold it in my mouth and he lights it, and I smile at him. I see now that this could have come across as flirtatious. I mean, everyone knows that if a woman smiles at a man it means she wants to have sex with him. I know this is the rule. I should have known better than to smile. Stupid woman.
This is the point when everything changes.
“You’re beautiful as fuck,” he said, “you need to come back.” He meant come back to the bar, after retrieving my laundry.
It’s strange, because I had been feeling a lot of anxiety about my age and my supposedly dwindling attractiveness. I had been wanting someone to find me attractive (aside from my partner, who lets me know all the time that he’s into me). There was a brief ego stroke that felt good. No one had called me beautiful in a while. What I felt, though, was gross—and afraid. Everything had suddenly shifted. It was as if I was supposed to know this was the game the entire time.
My mind is flooded with: How am I going to get out of this?
“Let me ask you something,” he says, and I wish I could disappear. I know what the gist of his question will be, and I’m right. He asks me if I want to sleep with him. Just like that, suddenly that’s where we are.
“I can’t. I’m married.”
“So am I!”
“Where’s your wife?”
“Asleep across the way, just like your husband. You gotta live and have adventures, right? We could explore.”
This makes me feel ill, and livid.
“No,” I say again, but still keeping my vibe friendly, and hating myself for it. Why don’t I just say, I said no, fuck off? Why don’t I just kick him in the balls and walk out with my head held high?
Partly, because I don’t know what his response would be to being shut down. I don’t want to be called a whore or a bitch, or have him grab my arm and threaten me. Men don’t like being shut down, and women know it’s foolish to tell them to fuck off and expect to just walk away.
But the part that really troubles me is that even as I am feeling angry and scared and just want to get the fuck out of there, there is this part of me that still wants to be desired. That part that tells me that I am only valuable if I am attractive to men. That’s what I’ve been trained to believe, and as much as I reject it logically, it’s there and it’s powerful. How fucking stupid does that sound? Am I really just a pawn of the patriarchy? I am angry at myself that night, and all day the next day, in spite of being in Death Valley National Park and seeing some of the most incredible landscapes I’ve ever seen.
People observing the situation might say I led him on, because being a woman engaging in conversation with a man who wants to fuck you is always going to be seen that way. It is BULLSHIT. It is UNFAIR. And yet this nags at me so hard: Why didn’t I just shut him down? I mean, I did. I said “No” probably fifteen times in different ways and he just kept pushing.
“I can’t.” “I’m married.” “No.” “It’s not happening.”
But I never got firm enough. I never accessed the real badass inside me because I didn’t feel strong enough. All I wanted was to avoid confrontation and escape. It made me feel weak, like I couldn’t stand up for myself and like I was somehow letting other victims of harassment and abuse down, too.
You know what I think I resent the most, other than someone causing me to feel unsafe in my own fucking body? The fact that this asshole only talked to me because he wanted to get in my pants. I understand talking to someone you’re attracted to with that goal in mind at first, but once they let you know you’re not getting there, can we not just fucking talk to each other? I feel robbed of the connection I’d felt with him when he shared details about his life. I feel robbed of the moments of realness I thought I was seeing. None of it was real, because he only saw me as one thing.
I finally finish my beer and state as matter-of-factly as I can, “I have to go. It was nice talking to you. Have a good night.”
At this point he starts begging me to come back.
“Please,” he says, followed by, “I don’t use that word often.” Oh, so now I have an additional obligation because you said please? FUCK. OFF. I now hate this man I’d felt so much compassion for a few minutes earlier.
I say no again, and then again, and again, and finally break away with my laundry bag. I walk down the hall to the laundry room and am filling up the bag when I see him in the window in my peripheral vision. It’s like a fucking horror movie. He has followed me to the laundry room. He is standing in the doorway. There is no one else around. I don’t know how to express how scary it is to be followed by a man who keeps pushing me to sleep with him. In fact, I am almost beyond fear now; I’ve entered the acceptance stage. I’m about to be sexually assaulted, I think. That’s what is happening. I’m preparing myself, trying to tell myself I’ll be okay no matter what happens. That I would survive whatever was coming my way.
I am cold when he approaches me this time. I do not smile at him. He continues begging me to come back. To “explore” with him. By some stroke of grace, this man does not put his hands on me, and I am able to walk by him. He follows me back down the hall, the entire time saying “please,” as I keep saying NO.
I feel so ashamed of what happened next. So ashamed at my lack of strength.
He says, “Well, let me give you my phone number at least.”
And do you know what I did? I PUT HIS FUCKING PHONE NUMBER IN MY PHONE. He asks me to text him, so I do. I do it. Because I am certain he will follow me if I don’t. I picture the trial that would be held if he assaults me and I press charges. How the defense attorney will point out the fact that I took his phone number. That I texted him. Smiled at him. Talked to him.
When I am able to get out the fucking door, I immediately block his number. I do my best to hold my head up but I feel like a piece of shit. I feel awful. There was no excitement or flattery after that first “beautiful.”
It is a very dark night. I have about one hundred yards to walk in the dark to get to our trailer. I walk, checking behind me as I go to see if I am being followed.
I’m not. I exhale. I feel burning hot anger in my chest.
This could have turned into something terrible. It didn’t. But I was friendly, even slightly flirtatious at one point. I was drinking. I never should have talked to him in the first place. I knew better. I put myself in danger. This was my fault.
This is what it is to be a woman. Or, anyone who is not a cis het man. I speak to being a woman because that is my lived experience, but I don’t ever forget that gender is not binary and people whose gender identities do not fall within the binary are frequent targets of harassment and violence and always need to be included in any conversation about gender.
We learn we should never let a man down because if we do, we deserve to be hurt. We are so used to being blamed for our own harassment that we begin to believe we deserve the blame. This begins in kindergarten when we teach children that harassment is okay because “they just like you.” When we force them to hug someone. When we constantly tell them they’re so pretty. It continues with school dress codes and administrators who still believe boys will be, and worse, should be, boys.
We always check our surroundings for men who might hurt us. Most of us have experienced some version of this. For many of us, it has turned into something terrible. It all felt so familiar to me. It has happened too many times for me to remember any of them specifically. But this one, I’ll remember. I feel traumatized and then feel silly for feeling traumatized because “nothing happened.”
That night, I walked back to our trailer in the darkness, dreading having to face my partner. Should I tell him? Should I not? How is he going to respond? He’s going to be angry at me.
He was not angry at me. He assured me that it was not my fault but the fault of the man who harassed me, and only the man who harassed me. In my mind I know that’s true. If only I felt it, too.
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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