Enough: Incandescent

By

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.

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“I want to tell her that darkness is not bad. It is only the place we can’t see yet.”

― Melissa Febos, Abandon Me

The playback always starts with the same scene. The glow of the television lights the deep, midsummer shadows of my mom’s house in the woods. We sit, broken up but side by side, these two opposite truths wrapped around us on the aging brown couch. We are the only ones home, watching The Lost Boys, saturated with color and turned up too loud. The bright screen stirs my belly with a homesickness for my younger years, a nostalgia that can only belong to those unaware of how young they still are. Twenty-two and longing for eighth grade, Lisa W., and crushes on the Coreys. Teen Beat fantasies and made-up lives, back when the complicated choices of real relationships were still so far away.

I am wearing the old-timey, thrift store onesie you love. The one I love too, so much that I’d fought my best friend for custody of it when we found it in the men’s section of Goodwill. We abandon the movie and climb the stairs to sit on my bed. Everyone sees what’s coming next. The audience knows. But I don’t. You reach to touch me, drawing me into a kiss. I fall into the scent of your skin, the pull of your heat like an invisible primal magnet. Then I pull away.

Stop. We can’t.

I’ve been fighting the addiction to the chaos of your touch since we met six months ago. I recognize the danger of sliding back into this pattern. But this doesn’t erase or make sense of the fact that you are my ex-boyfriend, alone in my house with me. A vampire invited in.

Here’s where the footage of hindsight gets patchy, scenes sewn together in sudden, bright flashes, the paparazzi of memory capturing only what sells. All these years later, the tissue that connects each moment to the next has disintegrated, leaving an uneven scene of what happened that day.

You are on top of me, my mind swimming in slow motion toward what is about to happen.
I tell you to stop.
I wait for you to stop, certain you will catch yourself reckless, and repent.
You pull the crotch of the onesie aside.

When I watch the scene in my mind, there’s so much distance between us. You are floating above me, our skin not even touching. Up by the ceiling you move, a blind helium beast. I am on the sheetless mattress, alone below you.

But despite this strange stage blocking, the facts play out the same. I do not throw my fists into your chest.

I do not use my legs to push you away as I had when I wrestled my sisters as a child.
I do not shout.
I do not make a sound or move.

I lay frozen like prey, immobilized by disbelief, too shocked to escape. Below you, bathed in a warm swath of late afternoon light falling across the bed, I wonder why the sun can’t read the room. Why does she shine on me now? Maybe she’s reaching for me, a bright ladder up past you. But I just lay there, soundless tears leaking down the corner of my eyes, trickling into my ears.

What does this mean?

I’m not raping you. I’m not raping you. You say it, again and again, as if answering the question blaring on high through my mind. A bad cop drama written by hacks.

When you finish, I scamper away from you, climbing across the mattress and into a ball. At the farthest corner of the bed, I sit sobbing and rocking. You start crying too. Sucking your thumb and howling with self-pity. It’s a beautiful performance, one I’ve seen before. A first for this circumstance, but a rerun, nonetheless. I’ve watched this program—a broken man-child-sex-animal calling for help from inside his own habits.

Pity me, as my fists snap your head back hard enough to leave a mark on your face that you’ll hide with your hair for two weeks, like some goddamned cliché. Pity me, kicking you as you lay crying on the ground, where I shoved you. You shouldn’t have made me mad. Haven’t you learned that by now?

I sit curled into myself, watching it all from far away, an audience member viewing it from the back row. Your performance, my fear, the way the scene left me a naked creature shaking in a spotlight I want to escape. I hear myself crying as I wonder how I feel about what just happened, my mind separate from the earthquake moving through my muscles.

Maybe I would have just sat there shivering and watching you turn the story inside out one more time, as you had so many times before. I might have convinced myself that I was being dramatic until I finally gave in to your fiction. Listing the reasons that I had no right to my feelings: You’d stayed the night at my house since we broke up. We’d had sex during previous breakups. I kissed you back. Who was I to draw a line later? Maybe I did want it. Not the sex but the proof, that you were a monster, that your cruelty and violence could dismantle and erase me.

I will spend several months taking this scene apart, doubting my body’s interpretation. I’ll interrogate my perception and motives, wondering if I’d secretly craved something to hold in my hands, evidence that could protect me from your gaslighting. But these thoughts hadn’t fully formed yet. They were just a whirling cyclone in my mind. Uninterrupted, they might have made me halt my tears and wipe yours, as I had for months.

Then, as part of your dramatic display of self-pity dressed as regret, you break the lightbulb from the shadeless lamp by the side of the bed. You crush it in your hand as if this were the pinnacle of your performance, the part where the audience leaps to their feet, rushing to comfort or congratulate you.

You wail in pain, showing me your blood as proof you’d paid what you owed me. Without a thought, you wipe your hand on my pale, shaking leg, smearing your blood across my skin, a dirty rag to be used. And in that one second, everything changes. Something cracks open inside me, a rage unreachable just moments before, set loose by one careless gesture that defined us both.

I hear a screaming, a loud, shrill shrieking. A siren. A banshee. A woman undone.

“Get out!” I shout. “Get out!”

I can see your mouth moving, a monologue of mock misery meant to quiet me, accelerating your tears for your finishing act. But all I hear is the roar of my own voice, the unholy screech, the gravel of my throat grinding against itself, finding its traction. I welcome that rawness, unafraid of that pain or its power. Even as you threaten suicide, this woman, this stranger inside my lungs will not stop. Maybe she’s this woman I’ve become, borrowed from the future with more miles on her soul, no time to take your shit. Reaching back through time to save me, screaming her throat hoarse, reversing the silence.

“Get out! Get out!” No breath in between. Louder and louder until you leave.

After you slam the downstairs door, I sit shaking, whispering to myself as if comforting a child.

“You’re okay. You’re okay.”

Talking myself out of the truth. Listing logistics, which I’d repeat like a punishment in my head for months. I’d let you kiss me on my bed. I hadn’t fought you. I’d invited you in, like the vampires in The Lost Boys, a movie I wouldn’t be able to watch for years without my gut twisting into sick knots.

My mind races to convince my body not to believe the panic pulsing through every network of exposed nerves stretching through me, vibrating between my pinched fingers as I scrub streaks of your blood from my leg with wet toilet paper. The flimsy white tissue pills and crumbles in my shaking hands, useless. I force deep breaths into my chest to slow my crying.

I don’t know how many minutes pass before I hear the living room door open downstairs. Not enough? Too many? My mom calls up in her sing-song way, bright and clueless.

“Do you want to get Chinese?”

What I want is for everything to be normal in a way that it hasn’t been since I met you. A faraway life I can barely remember. So I push harder, using more water and willpower to erase the dried brown stains you left. I take off the old-timey, thrift store onesie. (Why had I worn it? Another tired cliché I’ll turn into a weapon of regret.) I ball it up, this white cotton reminder, and pitch it as hard as I can into the back of my closet. Then I do the thing I’ve learned to do, trained long before this violence by a lifetime of hiding my anxious mind, and its invisible rituals. I walk down the stairs. I smile. I act. I breathe and I bury the truth like the onesie we both decided to hide.

But this won’t be goodbye. Because I have not learned that the truth that lives memorized in each muscle doesn’t need proving, it only needs trust. I’m two years from glimpsing trust that July afternoon. Two more years of tucking the lies you feed me into my body, making them mine. It will take several more to untangle them from my beliefs once you’re gone. The Lost Boys, and the onesie. The lightbulb, and the blood. These are the reasons I will start therapy, spending sessions discussing your violence. But I won’t tell this story for 25 years, even in therapy. Never answer my own questions: Which story is true, the one written across my mind in the language of logic or the one that lives, not secret but silent, beneath my skin? Is memory itself a muscle that can be trained over time?

Two summers later, I will keep my back to you as you call my name. I will force my feet to push me forward, one after the other, dusty Converse hitting the pavement away from the Greyhound station. Looking down to keep from looking back, I’ll see my shoes, dirty and worn. I’ll remember the month before I met you. How they were so embarrassingly new that I stood on my mother’s marble coffee table, my brother and I using pencils to dull the brightness that might give me away.

You’ll keep screaming my name and I’ll keep forcing my feet forward. I’d left you before—the first time you hit me, an escalation of bullying, shoving, and reframing reality so gradual that I don’t even remember the first thwap of your hand against my shocked face. The time you gave me a black eye and I took a picture with a disposable camera I’d never develop. It was evidence, meant to remind me that the same arms that held me like no one before had the power to punish me for the pull in my belly that would not let you go. (One more reason to silence the unreliable voice of my body, I’d think, having not yet learned that an animal can learn to confuse chaos with love.)

These miles I walk will only be the first step. But I will keep walking.

My mind tells me that I’m not that girl anymore, shaken and scared. It almost feels wrong to tell this story. I don’t want sympathy for pain I no longer feel. The fear and hatred have faded, like the photos we visit to remember who we were. I’ve been both strengthened and gutted by other losses that sing so deep in my cells that these ancient wounds seem superficial. So much distance has been lived between the woman of was and is that I’m not sure how much weight this memory holds. With time, my mind assures me, the past releases its grip. And I agree.

But the body remembers, flashbulbs of fear etched deep in muscles that still flinch without thinking. The warm touch of a new lover releasing echoes of was, the ghost of a girl, uncertain, questioning her worth, and wanting to please.

The body has her own voice. And this is the story she wanted to tell, saturated with color and turned up too loud.

You were just the opening act for the birth of two women, learning to share the same skin.

 

 

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Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler

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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.

Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.

Visit the archives here.


Maegan Gwaltney is a Chicago writer and storyteller. Her essays have appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books and The Manifest-Station. She has told stories at live lit venues all around Chicago, including The Moth and 2nd Story. She's currently working on a memoir about grieving, not only the people we lose, but the people we thought we'd become. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @MaeG765. More from this author →