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.
I sucked on a purple penis straw at the bachelorette party I’d organized for my friend Amy. Like most bachelorettes, she was drunk, so perhaps that’s why she uninhibitedly announced over our cocktails and french fries that her brother, John, had sexually abused her.
“That’s why he’s not invited to my wedding,” she said.
I’d known Amy for eighteen years. How did I not know this?
The room spun as I fought to clear my vision of an image of Amy on her knees, a familiar, heavy hand on her shoulder.
Amy’s brother is my ex-husband.
I met John when I was twenty-three while backpacking in Australia. When we visited his hometown of Seattle, Amy and I both saw in each other the sister we never had.
“I do wonder,” she said to me as we sat at Ivar’s on Pier 54 and I had my first taste of clam chowder, “what it was that attracted you to him?”
For the first six months of our relationship, John lied about nearly every aspect of his life. He invented two older brothers to match my two younger brothers, a knowledge of flavored vodka (my favorite drink), a book collection that he could never quite recall.
When I caught him in too many inconsistencies, he said through tears, “I don’t have two brothers, I don’t have a swimming pool . . . ”
Shock felt like relief at first, because at least he wasn’t breaking up with me.
“I’m so sorry, Becky,” he said. “I only did it because you’re so amazing and I’m such a loser.”
Over 9,000 miles from home in a remote agricultural town in Australia, I was utterly isolated. He was sorry. His flattery soothed my insecurities. He made his lies seem like my fault.
He doted on me for about a month. Then, gradually, the lies returned, and with them, verbal abuse, and violence, not directed toward me at first, but at inanimate objects, so I could still tell myself he never hurt me.
I’m a Brit, so when our travels were over, our different citizenships meant that John and I had a choice. Get married, or split up.
We were married in the UK and Amy was a bridesmaid. After the wedding, John returned to the US while I stayed in England to wait for my visa.
“I’ve got a surprise,” he said one evening, long distance. “I bought us a house. The price is great and we can fix it up. Be grateful.”
The house was in Carnation, Washington, which meant nothing to me. It was only after I moved to the US that I discovered it was a small dairy farming town with a population of less than 2,000 people, forty-five minutes outside of Seattle and twenty minutes away from his family, the only other people I knew.
One night in that country rambler, John chased me down the hallway from our bedroom to the kitchen screaming, “You don’t run away from me!”
In spite of our half-acre lot, I wondered if this might be the night our neighbors call the police.
Shoved against the kitchen table, John’s hands wrapped around my neck as he shook me. Pushing one arm up and out, I got one of his hands free, twisted away, and ran back to the bedroom, locking myself in our master bath with the blue and white accent tile I picked out from Home Depot. Cowering between the toilet and the shower stall, splinters from the door hit me as John kicked it in.
Seeing his arm go through a hole in the door and fumble with the lock, I sprang up and opened the door hard out. With his arm still stuck in the door, I ran into the bedroom and grabbed my cell phone from the nightstand.
I called Amy. She pulled into our driveway thirty minutes later. Amy still lived with her parents. In her brother’s old bedroom, now redecorated in neutral tones to be the family guest room, she sat up with me till 4 AM as I sobbed out the evening’s violent events. She listened. She got angry. She said she was sorry that she hadn’t guessed what was going on.
“I’m always here for you,” she said the next day after she dropped me home. “This is who he is and you deserve better.”
John hit Amy at least once. Not a childish fight of slaps, but a fist in the face, which happened, I realize now, around the same time as the sexual abuse. I learned this when she was at my house one day looking at the bedroom door off its hinges, the result of one of John’s rages.
“He should know better,” she said to me quietly, while John was in the next room with his parents, telling them that the door hadn’t been closing properly. Amy told me that when her dad got home that night after John hit her, he smashed down the door to John’s bedroom. To show him what punching something in anger really was.
Red Robin was a favorite hangout for me and Amy.
“Why do you always order a salad at a burger joint?” I asked. Her choice surprised me given the five foot, five, slim-boned young woman who sat across from me.
“I used to be chubby when I was a kid . . . ” she trailed off, pushing her Caesar salad with her fork. “John always took food off my plate and held it against my thigh, saying, ‘Why don’t you just put that right here, ‘cause that’s where it’s gonna go.’”
Naturally slim myself, that didn’t stop John commenting on my weight. He told me one night over my second helping of dinner, “Watch it, I don’t want to be married to a fat chick.”
“Hey, Asswipe,” John would say to Amy in greeting. When Amy’s parents were around, they would chide him like he was still a boy making a childish joke, “She’s not Asswipe anymore, honey, she’s your grown sister.”
“Hey, grease monkey,” John called to get my attention. A reference to my oily and acne-prone skin that he knew I was self-conscious about.
“Please don’t call me that,” I begged. “Call me honey, or sweetheart.”
“That’s not what I do,” he said. At least that answer was honest, and it was better than the whistle he often used to get my attention, like I was a dog.
Around four years into my marriage, a poster in the window of a local real estate office caught my eye. It was for a domestic violence nonprofit. There was a helpline number. Amy’s voice in my head said, You deserve better.
I called. The woman who answered the phone listened patiently and asked me if it would be safe for me to come to their office and meet with an advocate.
“Can he change?” I asked.
“It’s possible, but unlikely,” she said. I clung to the first part and ignored the second.
It’s possible dragged me through four more years of marriage before I finally made an appointment. On the threadbare brown couch at the nonprofit office, I stared at the photocopies about domestic abuse that my advocate handed me. My marriage was detailed on the paper in black and white.
Within a month, with the help of the nonprofit, I found an apartment and planned my escape in secret.
Amy helped me move. “You’re doing the right thing,” she said.
The day after I moved, John called: “I’m driving by your place.” His tone light, false, like he was checking in with a friend. “You think you’re so clever, but you forgot about the garbage. I found the apartment brochure.”
Fear and relief chilled me. I threw out the information for the apartment I didn’t take, but kept the brochure for the one I did. He thinks I’m living somewhere else. I told Amy. She helped to reinforce the lie with her brother to keep me safe from him.
When I began to tell my family the truth about my marriage, I found the distance and my own desire to project a happy facade had hidden it too well.
“Is this really what you want?” said my brother on the other end of the line in the UK. “I mean, I know he was difficult, but were things really that bad?”
“It’s not as though he ever gave you a black eye,” said my mum.
I stopped calling family in the UK. for support. Instead, I turned to Amy. The only other person who truly understood.
Even after I filed for divorce, John tried to alternately threaten or woo me back.
Voicemails of “I love you so much, no one will ever love you like I do” were interspersed with “You’re nothing without me. Everyone else will see you for the worthless slut you are. If you don’t come back, one way or another, I’ll make you pay.”
In the end, the only way he was able to make me pay was financially. But giving him more than 50% of our marital assets became a small price to pay to be safe and free of him.
“Oh, we’re taking a shower?” John said, too lightheartedly. He was in the kitchen eating breakfast, already dressed for work, but he heard me turn on the water and arrived in the bathroom with his pants already around his ankles.
“I’ll be late,” I said weakly, hurrying to rinse my hair.
“You should be glad that I want to shower with you,” he said. Always a version of this narrative. I should be grateful for his attentions, that he wanted to have sex with me, his wife, and not someone else. A barely veiled threat of infidelity if I didn’t do my duty.
I focused on the feel of the hot water on my face, as his slippery hand soaped me up grabbing my breasts and between my legs.
“No,” I said.
“You’re not my platonic buddy, you’re my wife.”
“How about a thigh wank?” I offered. His term for him masturbating himself between my thighs. A wet hump, if you like. Rushed sex in the shower left me sore and needing to urgently urinate for most of the day. The thigh wank was a compromise I used carefully.
I squeezed conditioner into my hand and slapped it between my thighs. A waft of rose petal steam filled the stall as I braced my hands on the travertine tile. I watched the frothy water spiral down the drain as he heaved behind me.
I started to avoid taking showers while he was home. I tried not to undress in front of him. I wore baggy clothes. I bought lubricant and got prescription pills to help with the UTIs.
The day after her bachelorette party, Amy and I drank black tea and ate water crackers to help with our hangovers.
Amy and I maintained our relationship in part because she cut off contact with John shortly after he and I divorced. It made it easier for me, but it caused a rift between her and her parents.
“Mom thought I should just let the sexual abuse go. ‘It’s in the past,’ she said, but it wasn’t for me . . . Every time I saw him . . . ” She trailed off, looking away, out of the window. “What he did to us . . . He was never going to change.”
I recognized that final clarity. The moment that it’s possible becomes impossible.
For a second, the part of me that was sad, even hurt, that she never told me about her abuse, wanted to ask her why she didn’t tell me, when she’d told me about the violence and the bullying.
But I already knew.
I refilled Amy’s cup and said, “He sexually abused me too.”
It was the first time I’d said it out loud.
The specific stinging shame of sexual abuse meant that, despite everything Amy and I had been through together, it took one too many drinks nearly twenty years after we’d first met for us to finally reveal this part of our shared story.
“We both survived him,” I said. Amy smiled, the same reassuring smile that got me through and away from my marriage. The pain of her past, a visible strain on her face now recognizable to me, but with it, the strength of self-knowledge, of survival.
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.
Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.
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