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
Before my father killed her, my mother spent her evenings telling me the story of how she came to America. Every night, the way she started was with something new. The ocean was like a blue sky beneath us, she said. Just like the eyes of the immigration agent. He was so handsome, she giggled, bringing her palm up to her cheek as if to squeeze the blush out of it. He had a mouth that looked like the skin of a peach.
Once, she described her journey as similar to the mountainous trek from her home to Beijing, a journey that required twelve hours of on-foot climbing through a jungle that buzzed with the thick hum of mosquitos. It reminded me of the boy who used to come stand in front of my father’s house every morning in order to court me.
My mother flourished her wrist, on which dangled a silver bangle, so thick it looked like a cuff. Her wrist was thin and angled in a way that reminded me of a knife, each movement clattering metal to bone with a sound reminiscent of pain. The bangle was a present from my father, who was sitting in the living room, smoking cigarettes as if he wanted to rot from the inside out faster than he already was.
I did not believe everything my mother told me, but I did believe her when she said that marrying my father was the worst decision she ever made. He guarded her like the wet tongue of a dog, his eyes rattling in his skull as they followed her every move.
Once, she came into my bedroom with a hand cupped over her eye.
The seats of the plane were so small and cramped, she began, bent over the edge of the bed. She reached over the blanket and clutched my hand, her voice uncharacteristically low. The air felt like it was two-thirds smoke and one-thirds ash.
I turned to look at her, and she looked back, her face solemn in the siltiness of the nightlight, a bruise seeping through her fingers until it blotched her cheek purple and ivy-green. Were there any handsome passengers? I asked.
No, she said, ruefully. We lapsed into silence, the air between the two of us severed by each tick of the clock.
Don’t marry a man like your father, my mother said finally, when she thought I was about to fall asleep. Marry a man who will buy you a jade bracelet, instead of a silver one, even though he can afford both.
Don’t make my mistake, A-jiao, she said. So you don’t have to tell your daughter these stories, like I am telling you.
A week after my mother died, I locked myself in the bathroom to see if I could dig deep enough into my stomach to get all the bad stuff out. I’d brought a spoon in with me as if I could scrape to the back of my ribcage for all the evil that was holding me down to earth and leave it gunked together under the showerhead, next to the rivering clumps of dark hair, most of which still smelled like her shampoo. In my fist, the cold metal rang as it shivered against the white-blue skin of my stomach, cleaving it into something open-mouthed and red. Shouldn’t the skin of my midriff have stung more with intensity? Shouldn’t my body have offered up more resistance? In the mirror, I watched my spine stipple like a bowstring, each bone knock-kneed as I twisted in the shadow of the sink, mesmerized by the way my skin parted itself beneath the craft scissors I’d found in the medicine cabinet.
On the other side of the door, my big brother practiced obscenities, words he had learned from my uncle when the two of them were sitting in the backyard, pitching stones at the pigeons because there was nothing else to do. Damn-fuck I heard. Fuck-shit-holy-damn.
It was my small aunt who found me, splayed across shower tiles like the wet underbelly of a fish. Aiyah, she told me afterward, when I was awake again and the cut across my belly had been taped shut with a lady’s pad. You were so pale I thought you’d used up all my whitening cream. By the bed, my big brother frowned and snorted at me, his head shaking like an angry dog. What did you do that for? He asked me, and I said nothing, because all I could think about was my mother’s wrist, how small it had looked when she cradled it to her chest and told me my father had broken it.
My father, alerted by the hullabaloo, came running into the room, his shirt still unbuttoned from an afternoon nap. What the hell is going on? he asked, the room’s window fan sending flurries of white dust into the air like pieces of lint. In the haze of my pain, I could hear our next-door neighbor’s dog barking. It was loud, like it was right next to my ear, and it cut through my father’s voice, through my aunt’s tear-choked explanation, through the sobbing of my brother who was now crying so hard I realized he probably thought I was trying to kill myself in the way my mother had.
I opened my eyes. The curtains in the room were a burnt shade of red but they hadn’t been that way before, had they? Outside, the barking of the dog was still rolling in the air and it matched my heartbeat perfectly. All I could think of was a vivid image of my mother’s face, her eyes closed against the sunlight, against the life that she’d lived, her face empty of pain as she lay with her head in a place very similar to this one, this room with its bathtub and its stained glass shower curtain and its tiles that still smelled of bleach. Was it painful, in the end? I imagine it must have been. Or maybe it didn’t hurt at all. Maybe my father had broken the part of her that still flinched in the face of that creeping darkness.
There had been no one to hold her, then. No one to ask her why she was perpetually in pain, why she was always looking over her shoulder for my father’s face. Maybe that was why she had succumbed.
Dimly, I hear her voice.
Don’t make my mistake, A-jiao, she says. Don’t marry a man like your father.
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 who engage 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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