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.
Rape stories are like weddings—everyone thinks theirs is remarkable, but they are usually disarmingly, eye-glazingly indistinguishable. People spend thousands of dollars crafting the perfect party and agonizing over every detail but at the end of the day, weddings are a typically homogenous experience with interchangeable elements: two people commit themselves legally, there is a meal, and maybe some dancing. They were two, and now they are one.
Rape is the same idea only one person says no, the other person says yes, and terror ensues. One person was whole, and now they are not. The details vary, but the damage is eerily similar. One is a matter of moments, but the aftermath lives forever.
I’ve gotten my own rape story down to a two-sentence elevator pitch: I accompanied a friend to the home of a man she met when we were out dancing, and the man’s roommate put GHB in the beer he offered me. I woke up mid-rape and begged him to stop but he didn’t.
Occasionally, I’ll add a third line: It was a long time ago and I’m okay now. It’s a lie, but it’s easier than the truth.
I keep a mental inventory of my own details:
His hand gripping my neck and crushing my windpipe, the bruise that lasted for days, the way I can’t wear turtlenecks anymore because with every breath, they make me remember. The sensations hold me captive against my will. The memories have that in common with him.
My stop at the grocery store with my blood and a stranger’s semen running down my legs, the mixture filling my shoe because I ran in heels that I will have to throw away. The way I filled a cart without thinking: Vodka, Diet Coke, frozen pizza, ice cream, razors I tell myself are for shaving my legs but that I considered repurposing for a more permanent solution.
The faceless bodies I can’t remember in the store, and the simultaneous knowledge that people were watching me, worried and confused.
The nausea from choking down food in an attempt to soothe myself swirling with the heat from the bathwater mixing with the deafening silence alone in my tiny apartment.
My skin, red and angry, after I scrubbed it raw while trying to forget what had happened to me.
And the most perniciously heartbreaking item: the innocence of thinking I could forget and that scouring or gorging or wishing could wash it away. The time before I was a person who was raped.
SCHEDULE B.R. (Before Rape):
5:13 AM: Leave apartment and walk to car without a second thought and drive to yoga
8:03 AM: Take shower without checking to see if the front door is locked
9:00 AM: Start work
5:00 PM: End work
6:40 PM: Meet friends for drinks and leave drink unattended, go to the bathroom alone in bar
9:17 PM: Walk through dark parking lot alone to car, get in, drive home, walk to front door, unlock it
11:50 PM: Dreamless sleep
Nearly 13 years after my rape, I am sitting outside with my family at a barbecue, smoke and laughter hanging in the air. The Kavanaugh hearings hummed in the background of every conversation that summer—Christine Blasey Ford’s face and words indelible on our hippocampi.
I’d been having panic attacks. They felt like tiny aftershocks from the way my world was uprooted and permanently changed by what happened in a shitty apartment when I was 22. It made it real again.
I’ve never told my parents what happened to me. I couldn’t bear it. I spent years trying to convince myself that they would believe me, that I shouldn’t have worried. And yet, I couldn’t find the words or the will to sit across from them and say it: I was raped. It was horrible. I am so scared all the time.
My mom made me potato salad without sweet pickles, the way I like it, a final tenderness that haunts my heart. I remember standing barefoot in the kitchen I grew up in, slicing fresh strawberries for a fruit salad. This dinner was another kind of Before.
As we sat down to eat, our paper plates piled high with food, my dad, a man I love and trust and adore, made a passing comment about how he found the Kavanaugh hearings ridiculous.
“Ridiculous?” I said, my teeth on edge. Everything suddenly felt very loud. My ears were ringing.
“It’s been years…who knows what happened?” he said. “Why bring it up now? Who knows if it even happened?”
“Christine Blasey Ford knows what happened,” I replied, my face red, tears pricking my eyes, my wife clasping my hand under the table.
“But do we know for sure?” my dad said.
We know for sure. We know it in our bodies. We know it in our brains. We know it forever, stitched through every breath.
I watched him chew a bite of brisket and inhaled slowly.
“We have to believe women,” I said.
“No, we don’t,” he said with a snort.
They don’t believe us.
“But most women are telling the truth,” I said, blood pounding in my ears.
I was telling the truth.
“No they’re not,” he said. “Women make this shit up all the time.”
I DID NOT MAKE THIS UP. I WISH I WAS MAKING THIS UP.
“How do you know?” I asked, my voice caustic and edgy. “How the fuck do you know?”
I felt the beginnings of the rash I get when I’m anxious, tiny bumps exploding onto my skin, a visual representation of what I’m unable to say. I pinched the skin between my thumb and index finger until my fingernails left a half-moon reminder, a desperate attempt to channel my internal pain into purpose. I didn’t want to have to explain why I was crying.
I stood up and cleared the table. I put the yellow and blue sunflower-covered paper plates into the garbage can and excused myself. I went to the bathroom and dabbed at my neck with a pruney Kleenex wet with cold water. I sat on the toilet and breathed.
I tell myself what I will do next: I will paste a smile on my face, say yes to the Oreo ice cream cake my mom has made, laugh at the jokes, hug everyone goodbye. I will go home. I will be okay.
I sobbed silently as I drove home, and turned up the radio. My wife tried to comfort me: her hand on my thigh, her embrace when we got home, her gentle words about how he didn’t know and if he did, he’d believe me.
Neither of us said it but we both knew she might be wrong.
The thought dismantled any shred of hope I’d felt. My own father, the man I love and trust more than anyone, thinks these stories are bullshit. Logically, I know that he loves me and that if he knew what happened he would hunt this man down himself and rip him limb from limb.
Still, I feel shattered.
This is another thing taken from me. There was already before the rape and after the rape. Now there is when I feared I might not be believed and after, when my fears are confirmed.
Each time my world is divided, it gets smaller and smaller.
“You sure like true crime a lot,” an acquaintance at work says when she sees that I’m listening to yet another podcast about the brutal murder of a woman as I make copies.
I laugh awkwardly.
“I’m too scared to listen to that stuff,” she continues. “I don’t like to think about all the things that could happen to me.”
I don’t like to think about it either, I think. But I can’t help it.
“I like to be prepared,” I say. “It helps me think about how to stay safe.”
“But you know nothing that bad will ever happen to you,” she says.
“You never know!” I say.
I once heard someone make a joke (I use this term loosely) that every gay woman is a straight woman who was molested or raped by a man. They’re not actually gay, just traumatized.
“Is that what happened to you, Amy?” an acquaintance asked, smirking.
“Nah,” I replied. “I’ve always known I was gay…I was just scared to come out because I was raised so religiously.”
“So you weren’t raped?” he asked again, pushing the issue, looking for the punchline.
“No, I was,” I said.
The air shifted uncomfortably. I looked him in the eye, unafraid and daring.
“It’s just that knew I was gay before then,” I said. “But don’t worry, I’m still plenty fucking traumatized.”
I flashed a smile and finished my drink in one gulp before walking out.
When I got home, I was shaking. I told myself it was ridiculous, but ever since, I’ve wondered: was the story I’d been telling myself about knowing I was queer since the moment my best friend and I kissed at a middle school sleepover actually true? Or had I bent the narrative to make it true after I was raped?
Which came first: my queerness or my trauma?
Does it matter?
This is something else that was taken from me. I don’t trust myself, I don’t trust my own queerness, I don’t trust what I know is true in my own body.
Do I even believe myself?
Months later, when my wife reaches for me, I will curl up like a shrimp, unable to breathe, utterly disconnected from the person I once was who liked sex and felt “normal.” I love her. I am attracted to her. I tell her this, over and over, and yet, I can’t bear the thought of being touched.
Because of the pandemic, I see my therapist on video. As we begin, she asks me to check in with my body, encourages me to take deep breaths, holds the space as we process things I think I should be done with and the unending reminders that I am nowhere close to done.
I sob as I tell her over and over: I don’t know what’s wrong with me, it was a long time ago, I’m fine now, I should be fine now, I want to be fine now, please let me be fine now. She tells me nothing is wrong with me, that our bodies don’t always deal with trauma right away, that being at home for so many months has kicked up so many people’s “dust” and that healing is an onion, layer by layer, that I’m doing the work.
I love my therapist, how gentle she is, how compassionate, how kind. I am flooded with gratitude that she is there to listen.
I want to believe her.
As I cry, I am gripped by the desire to be in her office, to make eye contact, to let her hug me, to hold my hands as I talk about these things. Zoom feels inadequate. I feel so alone and so sad and so helpless. Can you even hug your therapist? Is that weird? Am I broken?
I worry all the time that I’m wrong, that something is bad, that I need too much or the wrong things, that I’m abnormal or weird, that this thing that happened to me 15 years ago has knocked me off-kilter permanently. I think about the way I felt as a little girl—safe in the world and secure in myself, and like nothing I want or need could ever be bad.
I know that I will never feel that way again.
After my session ends, I ask my wife if she will leave me if I don’t figure this out (no). I tell her that I’m figuring it out (she knows). I say it to myself: I’m figuring this out.
I can’t sleep that night. I lay in bed and think that now, I’m broken because I was worried about wanting a hug, like some sort of idiotic robot, as if wanting a hug during a difficult conversation isn’t a sign of humanity. I wake up hot and restless, I dream about the rape, I watch it happen to me. I worry that I will never sleep again. The next morning, my glands are swollen, my eyes are puffy, I’m running a fever.
I wonder if the ability to feel good has been taken from me.
SCHEDULE A.R. (After Rape)
3:37 AM: Wake, gasping after a dream I can’t and don’t want to remember
5:01 AM: Leave house for spin class after checking under the car and in my backseat while clutching my keys between my fingers like a weapon and praying that if someone is there, my wife and dogs will hear them or my screams.
6:50 AM: Arrive at the school where I teach and wave good morning to the two male custodians, the only other two people on campus. Realize that if they decide to hurt me, no one would hear me scream. Lock my classroom door before remembering that they have a master key.
11:43 AM: Listen in horror as one of my students yells “Man, you were fucking raped!” while discussing an intramural basketball game that took place at lunch. Whirl around and ask him what he means by that. “I didn’t mean nothing, Ms. Estes. He was going up for a shot and a kid blocked him and he got robbed!” I swallow and take a breath. “You shouldn’t say that,” I say. “Rape is a serious thing.”
5:15 PM: Finish a meeting and despite having grading to do, rush to leave because it’s getting dark. Look under my car, in my backseat, clutch my keys between my fingers like a weapon.
5:27 PM: Get my house key out before I get out of the car. Scan my street. See my neighbors having a conversation across the street and clock the time it would take for them to run over. Wonder if they’d hurt or help. Check near my front door before approaching to make sure no one is crouched behind the trash cans or the bushes. Insert my key, open my door, slam and lock it. Greet my dogs and my wife, relieved to be safe another day.
6:30 PM: Walk to dinner with my wife, doing what my dad calls “keeping my head on a swivel.” Wonder if someone is watching our house, if they’ve hurt my dogs, if they’re hiding and waiting for me right now. When she asks me what I’m thinking about, I say work.
6:41 PM: Ask our server where the bathroom is. When he explains that it’s outside and down a long hallway into an area that’s shared with several businesses, I smile, say thank you, and decide to hold it.
7:50 PM: As we walk home, I use a trick I learned from watching every episode of Law and Order: SVU and look every single man we pass up and down and stare into their eyes, letting them know that if they try something, I’d be able to identify them.
8:10: Come inside, lock the doors, check that they’re locked, lock them again.
8:13: Startle as my dogs bark, worried that someone is outside my house even though I can hear my neighbor whistling as he takes out his trash.
9:12 PM: Check my closet for anyone hiding, check the locks again, check the windows, check, check, check, check.
10:30 PM: Lay awake, listening to Dateline, making note of all the ways it happened. Making sure it doesn’t happen again.
I make a broad mention of surviving sexual assault in a caption under a photo on my Instagram page, causing my mom to text me frantically.
Sexual assault? By who? When? How old were you? Why don’t I know this?
My eyes stung and my chest seized in panic. Why had I carelessly mentioned this on my page? Why was I still talking about this?
I’ll tell you in person sometime I reply. Too much to text.
Months after the post and a year after the potato salad and 15 years after the rape, I sit with my parents at brunch at a Mexican restaurant, the sound of mariachi playing loudly and the late summer sunbathing our table in light and heat. My wife is out of town, so it’s just the three of us.
I push eggs around on my plate, hoping and not hoping that they will ask me.
Finally, I get the courage to blurt it all out:
I’ll never forget my mom’s face, the instant tears, the apologies for not being there, the crumpled sadness. My dad looked stony, pale, and angry. My mom took my hand as we both cried. My dad looked into the ether and said, “You know Aim, with so many people who love you, why don’t you lean on people when this stuff happens?”
We haven’t discussed it since.
Another way rape stories are like weddings: we emphasize the big event, when the real change is everything after. I married my wife under a tree in our backyard, and it was a beautiful day; however, what we were truly preparing for was the rest of our lives. I’ve heard from so many couples that they wish they’d spent less time picking out flowers and favors, and more time thinking about the life to come.
I feel the same about my rape: people are interested in the big event, the night it happened, the dehumanizing details of the act. What no one tells you is that it’s only the beginning of the things you lose long after the blood is washed away and you emerge from the stupor. When the hellish honeymoon ends, you’re still wedded to fear. It’s a commitment to pain I was forced into, and one I desperately wish I could divorce.
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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