He lived in the house behind us.
We lived in a duplex on Second Street in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania—a small town. I always thought it was the hugest, coolest house ever. No, not a house, a mansion. Our half-a-duplex was black and white, across the street from a park. There was a small, concrete porch on the front where I learned to tie my shoes and a big, concrete porch on the back where, if you were careful, you could manage two cartwheels. The back porch was always infested with slugs. They’d slime halfway across the cement and Dad would trap them in a paper towel. He’d then chase Kara—my sister—and me around the house and down into a corner of the basement with them. Those nights, the fear gave us the feeling of a carnival haunted house—anxious and scary but never dangerous.
Mum had impeccable decorating skills. The living and dining rooms were all brass and glass. The couch was emerald green, velvety—but not cheesy like an Elvis painting. The shiny tubes of off-gold metal and sheens of fabric were classy. The dining room chairs had ruby-colored, plush seats over those same brass frames. Matchy-matchy.
Brass decorations everywhere. No wood, just glass—brass and glass. The rooms sparkled. Apparently, there had been some hideous, young-marriage furniture in there first. But I don’t remember that. I remember a palace. Decadence inside a plain-Jane duplex on the corner of nowhere and nothing.
The kitchen was less ornate, an afterthought. White counters, wood cabinets, a small table and chairs, a two-legged coatrack. The room wasn’t small, though—Kara and I could spin and spin and spin right in the middle of it. We wouldn’t bump a thing until I inevitably shoved her into the coat rack.
The sink in there was one of those heavy, white, double-sided jobs. I have pictures of Kara and me in either side of it, being bathed, with bath paints decorating our glistening, slippery little pudgy bodies. Canvases of skin. I can still remember the smell of those paints, the feel of the rollers skimming our wet flesh.
I was five. Kara was six or seven, depending on the month. When we were young, everyone thought we were twins, always dressed alike with matching ponytails and freckles and always the same outfits. Tom and Jerry overalls, Strawberry Shortcake sweaters my aunt knitted, striped and belted dresses.
Kara and I shared a bedroom. Everything matched. Our twin beds were white with gold-painted swirlies on the headboards, and they had those half-posts—a post at each corner that went up halfway. The beds were always pushed up against each other, too. We could make one giant tent with the eight posters and our fuzzy bedspreads.
We had white matching desks and bookshelves with the gold swirlies, too. A tall white chest of drawers and a white dresser were the only pieces we shared, technically. But we didn’t know that at the time. I had two desks; Kara had two desks. We both had two beds, two sets of bookshelves, and two collections of Cabbage Patch Kids and crocheted dolls. Nothing was hers, and nothing was mine. Everything was ours.
There were rainbow decorations everywhere. Not the tacky, arched Rainbow Bright kind. Ours were refined, celestial. Pastel blends of color on the curtains and all the decor. My favorite sheets were brown with tiny little cubes on them. The brown clashed with the rainbows, but our beds were always made, so no one would know about that under-the-bedspread style faux pas. Kara’s sheets were black and white, so they didn’t match either. But when I would sneak in and cuddle with her at night, I’d trace the black and white figures—like another language’s characters—with my finger by the light of the streetlamp, running over the thick calligraphic lines again and again until I couldn’t feel my fingertip.
A squat, friendly man—aptly nicknamed “Shorty”—lived in the other half of our duplex. He always wore a shower cap over his Jheri curl and offered Dad a drink when he was cooking out. Across the street, a gay man and his partner owned a flower shop that reeked of dirt. Their golden retriever wandered around, dragging leaves and soil in her long belly hair. The park, at which I spent countless days of my childhood, was home to equal numbers of drug dealers and kids. The neighborhood was an interesting mix.
Our backyard was long and skinny. We didn’t have a front yard—only a small, concrete porch covered in green AstroTurf and guarded with a tin, black rail before the narrow sidewalk and busy street.
The back, though, felt like half a mile to the very end. A rusty, dilapidated shed sat at the back, and behind that was a jungle. I never went into its tangled, dirty mess of weeds and vines. That space could’ve only been about a foot or two through to the next yard.
Somewhere in that two-foot jungle was a chain-link fence separating us from a shorter, boring yard. There was nothing in that yard that called to us, nothing to ride to or swing from, no curbs or clothesline poles for impromptu gymnastics competitions, no kids for jump rope. Just a square, stubby yard in front of a hard, concrete porch that seemed as if it were 30 feet up in the air with no railing or fence. That’s where the babysitter and her family lived.
I hated that house. It was white with country blue shutters, dark and simple, no style. The outside, though boring, gave the appearance that there might be nice, homey things inside. But there was nothing good in there.
We spent summer evenings hanging out with the family on their porch. They introduced us to salting cantaloupe and watermelon. Kara and I would entertain ourselves with curb gymnastics while the adults bored themselves with grown-up chatter. All that togetherness built a nice sense of safety for my parents, but not me.
Once September came around, Kara and I suffered afternoons apart. She was in second grade, and I was in half-day kindergarten. My Dad was a civilian at the Army Depot, and Mum worked at the laundromat. Someone had to get me off the bus and watch me until Kara, and then a parent, got home.
Afternoons in that house started in its dank living room, where the babysitter’s mom sat watching her soaps. Sometimes, the babysitter’s brother would be asleep on the couch. When he was ready, the babysitter’s dad would yell at me from upstairs to come to his bedroom. Robotically, I would stand and walk without anyone reacting.
The babysitter’s parents’ bedroom was yet more darkness, dampness. It was big, with three windows, but mini-blinds only allowed in slits of sun that spotlighted the dust motes dancing in the air. They had a huge, perpetually unmade bed with yellowing sheets. There were two dark wood dressers. The room was impossibly still.
A bunch of oddly shaped perfume bottles were scattered over the top of one dresser—a cowboy boot, a rose, a gun. The gun perfume bottle was thick, brown glass and lay down on its side, a small revolver. The cologne inside wobbled back and forth when you walked by, from the chamber to the handle to the tip of the barrel. The room would stink—a mix of colognes with a faint cigarette rot and something underneath that I couldn’t name.
The babysitter’s dad would tell me to lie down and be naked. I don’t remember undressing, just being naked. I don’t remember what exactly happened. Throughout my life I’ve made versions of it up in my head.
Sometimes, he’s violent. There are ropes and gags. I writhe and struggle on clammy sheets. I’m pinned down, slapped, my nose pinched and mouth forced open into a crowded unwilling tunnel for his wrath.
Often, it’s gentle and sweet. He caresses my chubby thighs with sandpaper hands. A thick leather belt with a heavy buckle dangle on his old, pale hips. He fingercombs my waist-length brown hair while slowly pushing and pulling against his groin.
Usually, my fantasy is dirty and gritty. He wraps my braided pigtails around his fists and thrusts his crotch into my small, freckled face until I’m smothered by his dense pubic forest. He leans his full weight onto my small frame, digging in with the heels of his palms, his penis jabbing until it finds the perfect home for its release.
Regardless, he would do something. He would do his thing.
Then, he would tell me to go to the bathroom and clean up. There would be white, creamy stuff all over my belly, sometimes running down the nape of my neck. I would have no idea what that was, but I would be terrified that my Dad would smell it. I don’t know how I knew my Dad shouldn’t smell it.
Those were the only times I cleaned myself. My Mum and Dad gave me baths, so how would I know how to wash that stuff off? But I made sure to do my best. I would have made them proud. I would sit on the toilet in the bathroom, staring at that giant tub, wishing it would swallow me. I would wipe the drips and runs all up with what must’ve been a whole roll of toilet paper. I would wipe the cream off my squishy tummy, my flat chest, my thin neck. I would triple-check my belly button for any hidden drops. I’d wonder if there were globs hanging in my hair. I’d be relieved on the days my Mum had braided it back out of the way. I wouldn’t think to use water or soap or a towel, just toilet paper. It would puddle at my feet and fill the toilet bowl. It wasn’t enough. I couldn’t get clean. I couldn’t get dry.
I would get dressed, grateful that he got me naked so my clothes were always clean. My day-of-the-week or flowered underpants were never sticky or stained. I just had to be careful about the smell. I never wanted the sticky smell on my clothes, in my hair, following me.
I would gather myself up to go. I vividly remember the act of getting it together. Even at the age of five, I would have a talk with myself and make sure I was presentable to go down those stairs, like when my Dad would use his cheap plastic comb to check under Kara’s and my fingernails for dirt before we left the house.
The babysitter’s dad would be waiting with his hand out to me when I reached the bottom of the stairs. It was always the same: a green gummy bear from that jar on the kitchen counter. They weren’t those little gummy bears. They were fat, individually wrapped ones with a thick, sticky center. I hate those bears. When you bite into them, the middle is shiny and the outside is opaque, matte. How did they do that? Why wasn’t it all shiny—inside and out? I don’t know how he knew I liked green the best.
Each time, I wondered if it was over or just over for now.
My Dad would honk the horn. I would run to his blue Chevy Malibu and clamor into the back seat. Kara and I would sit there in a big heap of bags and papers and little girls and jackets. One day in that back seat, I whispered to my sister, “Something bad happened.” She knew to cry. I stared in awe at her tears. She begged me to tell Dad. Why? I wondered, thinking about the musky smell on my stomach. I didn’t tell.
A little over a year went by before I accidentally told my parents. The way I remember it, the news just slipped out. But maybe it didn’t. Maybe I had calculated the reveal in my young head while climbing down the stairs in the babysitter’s house toward my final green gummy bear. Maybe I had figured out that little girls weren’t supposed to watch the cologne wobble back and forth in a gun-shaped bottle while men gave them something to clean up all by themselves. But I don’t think I had. I don’t remember ever being told that the slits of light from mini-blinds aren’t supposed to show along nakedness on moist, faded sheets.
There was a TV show on, and two adults were kissing. As Kara and I sat cross-legged on the floor in matching dresses, watching the make-out session, I said to my Mum, “That’s like what Johnny does.”
The police came. At the station, the detective gave me a piece of paper with a black and white diagram of a man with all the parts labeled, but I didn’t know those words. I was supposed to circle the part of the man that the babysitter’s dad used on me. But I wanted a picture of a girl for me to draw on the sticky stuff. I wanted to color and color all over her belly and neck with rolls and rolls of toilet paper crumbled by her feet. I wanted a green crayon to draw her gummy bears.
During the babysitter’s dad’s trial, my parents told me there was no Santa Claus, in case his lawyers asked me that in court. Had there ever been a Santa Claus?
I didn’t have to testify.
When the babysitter’s dad was interrogated, he talked about baseball and blowjobs. He didn’t deny anything. They sentenced him to two years with a possibility of parole after a plea deal. He was let out early on probation.
No one ever told me what the white sticky stuff was.
In my memory, Kara was never at his house, never with the police, and never in court. But in every other moment of childhood, we were glued together; she was my magnet. On those days at the babysitter’s house, though, she didn’t have to be there. She couldn’t be. She disappeared into the wood paneling and showed back up in the Malibu when I needed her.
If she had been there—in that living room when I was called up or waiting in the kitchen when I got my bear, I wouldn’t have been able to win the gold medals in our private gymnastics competitions or torment her on our banana-seat bikes. I wouldn’t have been able to be the little spoon and trace her sheets by the light of the streetlamp.
If she had seen my stickiness, smelled the musk, I would have ruined her.
But she stayed shiny on the outside.
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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