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 to Buy Plan B
When your alarm wakes you up at 6:45 a.m. in the quiet, cold darkness of your dorm room, be unsure of what exactly happened the night before. You know only that he is there in your bed, only that you don’t want to touch him and you don’t want him to touch you and you do want him out of that room as quickly as possible. As he rustles, rat-like, out of your sheets, pull on jeans, a lemon-yellow work t-shirt, black slip-resistant sneakers. Wipe your face with one of those pre-moistened makeup wipes that burn your skin and don’t remove much. Wait uncomfortably for him to get dressed, clutching your elbows to your stomach as though this might stop your guts from spilling up and out of your throat.
Leave together, the way people who are in love do, the aching feeling that something is deeply wrong growing stronger in the pit of your stomach. When he leans in to kiss you, shudder. Wait for the feeling of safety to return as he walks down the street, the gray sky swallowing him up. It doesn’t. It won’t. Feel messy and wrong, last night’s drugstore eyeliner and lipstick still smeary on your face.
The walk to work takes you past the bars you visited the night before. Restaurant owners are already scrubbing the vomit off the sidewalks, pouring buckets full of sudsy water onto the street, scraping chunks of street meat and vodka sours with long-handled brooms. The smell makes your eyes water.
When you get to work, be resolved. You will act as if nothing at all has happened. Serve fluffy buttermilk biscuits laid thick with pimento cheese and slabs of bacon, pour carafes of greasy coffee and orange juice for two hours before surrendering to the deep ache that has crept into your groin and thighs. In the tiny staff bathroom that doubles as a storage closet, surrounded by creamy reams of fluttering napkins and receipt paper and rolls of plastic wrap, pull down your jeans. The robin’s-egg-blue underwear your mom bought for you the summer before you went to college sticks painfully to your pubic hair. It is stained and crusted over, not with the rusty brown of your period, but bright red; the kind of red you’ve seen in horror movies, birth scenes. A visceral kind of red. Your thighs are peppered with thumb-shaped bruises—alien freckles, veiny and wrong. Begin to remember.
Try to stop remembering.
Your coworker sees in your face as soon as you leave the bathroom that something is wrong. She is older, soft, and kind enough not to ask you if everything is okay. Instead, standing together over the bubbling crock-pot of maple-pecan syrup, she asks gently if you had a fun night “out on the town.” She uses those exact words, too, the way your mom asks you if you’re “going out dancing” with your friends. Your throat swells almost shut. But you are resolved not to cry at work, not to be that girl. You say instead, “I think I made a mistake.”
She will place a soft hand on your back. She won’t say anything else.
Build breakfast sandwiches with shaking hands on lacy china plates until your shift ends, then wrap yourself in your denim jacket, purchased on that same pre-college trip to Target with your mom. Shiver for a moment outside the restaurant. Wish you were the kind of person who smoked cigarettes; there will never be a moment more perfect than this to stand, shell-shocked, in the metallic gray of a February afternoon, not knowing what to do or where to go, smoking a cigarette.
Call your mom. Tell her you need textbook money. Call your best friend. Tell her you need a ride. Drive to the Walgreens on the edge of campus, the one no one at school goes to because it’s so far out of the way. The drugstore is clean in the grimy way that suburban drugstores often are, the carpet thick with the germs of children and their tired parents making their way to the orange-flavored baby aspirin and inky-blue bottles of cough syrup. There, past the discounted boxes of bright red Valentine’s Day chocolates, past the bright pink cardboard boxes splashed with flowers and stuffed with tubes of cotton: two boxes on the top row, beside the condoms. Plan B. Pick them both up and try, ridiculously, to compare the active ingredients, before selecting the more expensive of the two, just in case. Pay at the register. Swallow the tiny blue pill in the rain-misted drugstore parking lot. Wonder idly if you should go to the gynecologist, if the visit would show up on your parent’s insurance invoice, if it would raise questions. Wonder which is worse: telling your dad you were raped, or having chlamydia.
When you finally return to your dorm room that afternoon, find your black skirt, torn, on the ground; a flower of blood staining your sheets, even, somehow, your pillowcase; something whitish dried crustily onto your headboard and comforter. Continue to remember. Shower, three times, until the hot water runs out and your roommate emerges to ask if you’re okay. You don’t know how to answer. You won’t for a long time. Lie in that bed, sheets stripped, wrapped in a towel. Stare at the ceiling, remembering.
He will want to see you the next day, when the sun has come out again and the sky is a deep and perfect cornflower blue and it feels as though yesterday can’t have possibly happened. Agree to see him. Meet in the library. He will apologize.
He will say, “I’ve never done anything like that before.” He will say, “I threw up the next day at work.” He will say, “Please don’t tell anyone.”
Want to say: You have ruined me. Want to say: Because of you, I want to die. Want to say: You will walk away from this, and I might not.
Say instead, “It’s okay.” Say instead, “It’s not a big deal.” Say instead, “I won’t.”
For years after, wonder why this was your response; wonder why, in a moment of him confessing everything to you so publicly, you decided it was better, safer, and overall the only option to make him feel better. Never really find an answer, even when it is used against you as proof that you are a liar, a life-ruiner. Chalk it up to the fact that Before, you really had liked him; Before, he really was a good person; and After, it was difficult, for a while, to reconcile those two things. It will be for a long time. Maybe forever.
Hope that on some level you can erase the facts by wanting them to be different badly enough. Hope that you can go back to the way that things were.
He will never talk to you again. This is both the best and worst possible outcome.
Feel thoroughly used.
Tell no one.
The cutting board no longer lies flat on the marble counter: the wood has begun to split at one end, probably from leaving it out on the wet counter, covered in droplets of splashed sink water and washed apples she no longer bothers to dry. When she crushes the peeled cloves with a knife, the board rocks against the surface. Alliinase escapes from the garlic, catalyzing sulfuric molecules into existence. She rubs her hands against stainless steel under the faucet and the scent disappears.
She gathers the minced garlic onto the knife blade and dumps it into the pot, using her finger to push off any pieces sticking to the metal. Her fingers smell pungent and sharp. She licks off a stray slice of garlic. As her molars crush the tiny particle, her mouth fills with spiciness, a heat that forbids her from mindless chewing while sweeping the floor or reading pie recipes she’ll never make, a heat that demands attention even as her fingers stray to the coin-sized bruise above her elbow.
The spice holder has two compartments: one for salt, and one for chili powder. It is a cheap, plastic box with a clear divider and one small teaspoon for each section. The lid snaps on and off easily, although the lid is meant to be lifted open via the lever attached near the handle, not pulled off completely. A man from her graveyard of failed relationships had purchased the container from an Asian grocery store. The cheapest one, he had told her proudly, knowing her distaste for needless expenses like the Tiffany cardholder sitting unused on the kitchen counter, second to her glue-on, button-shut wallet pocket stuck permanently to the back of her phone case. Good job, she had said as she filled one side with Morton salt. He filled the other with his newly purchased Szechuan-style chili powder, the perfect dipping spice for everything she cooked. Makes even the bland taste good, he said. In a tastebud-destroying way, she thought. She thinks.
For all his complaints about the homeless people and loiterers and smell of weed in the city, the lack of lighting along the highways at night, the restaurants and food delivery that closed before 10 p.m., and the unnerving, self-threatening heterogeneity that the country prided itself on—a melting pot, a stew comprised of ingredients like carrots and celery and bitter melon gourd and duck gizzard—he is gone now. Now, she counts furniture in pairs: mugs in the dishwasher, bedside tables, office chairs. She alternates her usage of them: one day on, one day off.
There is only one compartment for chili powder, though. A frightening red spice she once avoided, although now, she sees it as a foreign, experimental spice to enhance her cooking.
She scoops out one heaping teaspoon—more like two teaspoons—of chili powder, admires its shade of deep brown-red, and pours it into a bowl and stirs it with water. The fiery and lemony scent of Szechuan peppercorns wafts into her nose and she holds in a sneeze.
The pericarps come in stars, eight-pointed horns to crack off like sesame brittle. One star is enough to add the odd licorice-like sweetness, barely noticeable unless she crushes the edge of a seed and holds it to her nose. The seeds create a subtle stew flavor, but on the rare occasion she bites into one, anethole erupting over her tongue in mind-numbing sharpness, she spits it out into a napkin and downs a mug of water.
Her first marriage proposal was planned well in advance. He’d told her about his slim chance of acquiring an H1-B visa, especially since luck chose not to select him in the first lottery. He made it clear what he thought was the easiest, lowest-risk, surefire solution. Her expected answer to this proposal: of course we should get married. But she’d been cooking at the time, snapping off the points to the star anise and tossing them along with chopped onions into a pan of hot oil. The last time she’d stir-fried, she set off the smoke alarm and burned her pinky finger. Cooking anything in hot oil required her undivided attention, especially since she tried to minimize the grease and expected a half-teaspoon of oil to be enough to prevent onions from burning black.
Her actual response: that was out of nowhere. Seconds later: it’s just so early; most people don’t get married in their early twenties. The onions were turning dark so she poured water into the pan, and upon contact, steam burst upward, an on-demand cloud should she splash in more water, but instead, she flicked on the switch to the oven vent which rumbled to life. Her back faced him, her head tilted downwards to the pan, her eyes and nose and lips covered by a barrier of hair she let fall forward.
She saw his grip on her upper arm before she felt it. Each finger dug marks into her soft biceps, deeper and deeper like sinking through quicksand until finally, she registered something akin to pain. If we don’t get married, I’d have to leave the country—it’s just if we were already going to get married; there’s no problem in doing it earlier, and it’d guarantee my stay, he told her. I have so much more to lose than you do, she heard. She knew he earned more for the same job here than in nearly any country on this planet.
She knew. She mixed the onions, trying to salvage the unburnt pieces.
She is not stir-frying anything now so she can afford to be distracted by the thumping footsteps from the apartment above her, the random passersby she spots from the back window, the laundry machines’ screeches. She sets the pressure cooker to twenty minutes and dumps the pieces of star anise into a pot of leftover groceries and minced garlic for an all-in-one stew-meal. The water-spice mixture comes next, integral to the soup base she knows will gain flavor as the carrots, chicken, cabbage, kabocha squash, russet potatoes, and whatever else she throws in cooks.
Now, she waits—maybe an hour, to give the cooker plenty of time to naturally release pressure and then cool down to room temperature. Her stomach growls, but there’s no one else to feed, so she can wait for the star anise to lose its bitterness, the meat to tenderize, the carrots to sweeten under extended heat. No rush, not with so much to savor.
How to Stop Being a Survivor
1. First, you have to be a victim. You have to let what happened to you happen to you. There will be many moments where you flashback to that room, or wherever it happened. You have to remember to breathe, and remember that it’s over, remember that you survived him. Panic takes you back there, and memory will help you leave.
2. It will take years. Bless you for working so long and so hard.
3. Out of nowhere a smell can hijack you. It could be a certain brand of soap, or cigarettes. For a long time you might not know this is happening. You could be beside yourself for hours, realizing it only after you bolted from class or ran from the store—seemingly for no reason.
4. You might never be able to—
5. Being out of your body will be your new normal. Careful, because this makes you clumsy. Your fingers will be dotted with random scabs. Your legs will be starred with bruises. You’ll take extremely hot baths that leave you dizzy.
6. You try to disappear. You:
a) Chop off your hair.
b) Let your bangs grow down past your mouth.
c) Stop going to class or showing up at work or hanging out with friends.
d) Wear clothes three sizes too big for you.
e) All of the above.
7. You’re jumpy as hell now. Everything startles you. You never sit with your back to the door. You never get into elevators that are empty or have just one man in there waiting. If you get stuck walking alone, the keys are ready in your fist.
8. Because women don’t really talk about this, you’ll think you’re the only one who feels this way, who takes this long.
9. You’ll walk quickly down the street, aware that there is a target on your back, on the top of your head. God watched it happen and did nothing, so you know you’re on your own.
10. Stillness will start to really freak you out, so you leave the television on all the time. You can’t read more than four pages without hopping up to mop the floor. You’ve never felt so dirty and kept things so clean.
11. You might start to punish your body for some sense of control. You might run five miles a day, or eat nothing but five Wheat Thins for lunch, or eat an entire large pizza by yourself and then throw it up.
12. Avoid anything that reminds you of him. For me, it was blue eyes, cheese sandwiches, parkas with hoods, and parties. For years I avoided these things.
13. You drink a lot, or smoke a lot, while you play the same album over and over, not even listening. You avoid mirrors and changing your clothes with the lights on.
14. You might have tried to go to the authorities. Whether it was campus police or city police, that probably ended in a shitshow of blame, shame, confusion, and why bother. Go back to #2 and begin again.
15. When you’re not jumpy, you’re pissed. You scream into pillows, start kickboxing, rip books in half, pick fights with your friends until they leave you one by one.
16. You won’t sleep very much. You’ll have nightmares, sure, but mostly you’ll just sleep terribly—surfing the edges of rest, skimming the top and never relaxing. You’ll clench your jaw and grind your teeth and wake up with headaches.
17. You watch the old you slip away—no, you look up and she’s just gone.
18. The only thing that makes you laugh anymore is watching how stupid someone is to get hopeful about something good that they think might happen.
19. To avoid a panic attack, you now steer clear of basements, conference rooms, frat houses, parks, closets, couches, trains, classrooms, cars, summer houses, wooded areas, storerooms, alleys, and groups of two or more men.
20. You learn to prepare to be unprepared so you’re always prepared.
21. You might do things that you know are bad ideas, but that make you feel less dead: make small cuts that no one can see, drink until you pass out, have a lot of sex with strangers. You wonder if doing this stuff ever stops, ever works.
22. You watch all men in a new way. At the bus stop, in class, at the bar, on the soccer field. You’ll know immediately about those who’ve done this before, or would have. You wonder about the rest.
23. You go through the motions, hide out in plain sight, pretending to be the person people think is still there. You’ve receded so deeply into your body that you’re sometimes surprised other people can see you at all.
24. There is a wide chasm between then and now, there and here, that girl and who you ended up being. You feel incredibly old.
25. You’ll achieve a kind of fame on campus. No boy will approach you now, but girls will flock to you, carrying their broken wings under XL sweatshirts.
26. You can believe sometimes that it wasn’t your fault. You start to blame him more than you. These glimpses balance your rage with glints of promise.
27. For years, decades maybe, you’ll be a survivor. You’ll go to meetings and rallies; you’ll get through therapy sessions without sobbing the entire time; you might volunteer at a local women’s shelter.
28. There may be entire weeks when you don’t find yourself suddenly crying, sweating, or in a panic. You know this is progress, but you don’t tell anyone that because it sounds so sad, that a day that’s normal and boring lands like a fucking miracle.
29. You’ll gain a few superpowers. You’ll be able to spot other survivors from thirty yards away. You’ll suddenly remember something and see it in a new light. You’ll be able to identify people in your past that this has happened to. You’ll feel less alone.
30. Still, you’ll blame your body for leaving while it happened, for letting it happen. You stop exercising/you work out for hours.
31. One day it will occur to you: Time stopped in that place where it happened. No wonder you’re a ghost. No wonder you think of it so often.
32. These new habits you’re developing could become marketable if you transfer them to the workplace: zealous troubleshooter, over-anxious project manager, dogged perfectionist.
33. You’ll be an inspiration to some, a bad omen to others. Either way, they’ll see you as something to be avoided.
34. You might cut the whole thing out of your memory and plaster a permanent smile grimace on your face. Your perkiness will exhaust others but you’ll power through. You’ll pretend nothing happened and start running marathons or become a triple major or marry an evangelical. You are the one I really worry about.
35. You’re skeptical of happiness and trust, but you’re not unhappy. It could be worse. You repeat this until it’s a comfort. So you hate your body; what woman doesn’t?
36. You don’t think about that younger self much anymore, but when you do it seems like a movie—how happy she was, how naïve. You put all your old photos in a box marked BEFORE. You hate her and want her back in equal measure.
37. You will grow tired of the meetings, and the marches, of always writing about it, of seeing your past and yourself through a lens of what he did so long ago.
38. You lose track of how many movies and television shows are full of rape scenes, rape jokes, near-rapes, women being kidnapped, women being dismembered, women being chased, women being beaten, women being blamed. There is an entire laugh track just for harassment, offensive jokes, and butt-slapping. The sheer weight of it all—what you’re up against—fucking hell.
39. Eventually, if you work through the layers of rage, fear, sadness, and anger, and if you concentrate very, very hard, you’ll be able to go to bed with someone and not panic or disappear halfway through.
40. It occurs to you that it all gets filtered through that one night. What if you could be neither victim nor survivor to that hour?
41. Suddenly, you know what to do. You won’t give him any more of you. You’ll go back to that room, like a fucking warrior, pissed off and finally feeling more like yourself. You’ll go get that girl. You will cry and promise to take her out of there. You will take her out of there. You take you out of there.
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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