I KNOW HOW to get out of this—angle my hips, drive in my heel, flip, straddle, push off, run. But the blood pounding in my ears is breaking my concentration and his weight is anchoring my hips and the sweat running down my arms is making his padding slippery. And I don’t want to run. That’s the problem. Even after I flip my supposed attacker off of me, using the momentum to pull myself on top of him, and sense the break—go, now, run, escape—I stop, pull my arm back, get ready to drive my elbow in with my body. But the instructor, Josh, yanks the back of my shirt and throws me off of the guy.
He turns to the group. “That right there? That’s a good way to get yourself killed.”
Rage is metallic in my mouth; I would lash back at him if the jolt hadn’t knocked the adrenaline from my veins. I begin to feel the footprint on my sternum from the original blow that dropped me, my neck stiffening from the whiplash, my eyes fuzzy from the force of my head against the thin mat.
He looks back at me. “This is a self-defense class, not fight training.” Then he turns to the group. “Next.”
I sit for a moment, breathing hard, focusing in on each individual ache. There is a perverse pride in the bruises, the strained muscles, the possible concussion. It dulls the sting of truth in Josh’s comment—that I could get myself killed. That I probably would get myself killed acting like this with a real attacker. But at the moment I don’t care. Watching the line of girls and women go through the motions fuels the anger churning my blood. That we even have to be here, that we feel the need to be trained to walk the sidewalks alone, is an injustice I am sure, in this moment, I would kill for.
Salt coats my tongue, just as real as the crust of Captain Morgan Tattoo and vomit, though the saline is dripping into my arm, not my mouth. I try to rinse out the taste, but there’s radio silence from my salivary glands.
“Sweetheart, do you understand what I’m saying?”
I try to shake my head and end up nodding. Dana is sitting in the requisite plastic chair in the corner. She’s crying. The nurse seems to understand the dilemma. She steps up to the cot, rests her hand at the foot, softens out her voice.
“We need your consent to do a drug test. You weren’t able to give consent last night, but we’d still like to do one.” She hesitates, lets the words marinate before continuing. “I don’t think we’re going to come up with anything, but it’s best to have documentation. In case you need it later.”
I do and do not want her to explain. I compromise. “Why?”
She speaks; I mentally translate. Ketamine. GHB. Roofies. Date-rape drugs. I look over at Dana; she looks back. Her eyes are a mixture of shame and sorrow and regret and something I don’t yet recognize as fear. I can see the shine of salt trails.
Tracking my eyes from Dana’s face back to the nurse’s is tiring. That the nurse’s eyes are now mimicking Dana’s doesn’t help.
“That’s not the only test we want to perform.”
An idea is forming. A comprehension of Dana’s fear. I shake my head. It swims.
“It’s very quick. And I’ll be with you the whole time.”
The nurse’s eyes are kind. They’re concerned. They’re tired, almost as tired as I am. I wonder how often she has to go through this routine. I wonder how often patients do what I’m about to do.
She squats down, leveling herself out to me. “I know it’s scary right now. But I think you’re going to want to know. Most people end up wanting to know.”
I want to say that I’m not most people. Which is true. Right now I’m only straddling the line of being a fifth of a half of people.
“How about I let you think on it?” she asks. “I’ll come back and check in on you in another fifteen minutes.”
She leaves. Dana gets up, walks over. She’s carrying a plastic bag. Tears are forming more leisurely now, taking their time to fall. Her hands are shaking. She reaches into the bag and pulls out a small box, hands it to me.
“I figured you wouldn’t want to get this yourself.”
One step, the box promises, and all your worries are gone. The soothing lavender and grass-green design reiterates that promise: one step, and your problem is fixed. I open the box, pry the foil off, swallow the pill down like vomit. It sticks in my throat.
She stands away from me, about a foot, like she’s afraid of contamination. I shift my weight against the starchy cot. My body aches. My head aches. My throat has been acid-washed; words sting.
Dana shakes her head. “I don’t know. You were there with everyone, then you weren’t. We just figured you’d gone off somewhere else, mixed in with the crowd. Then we found you outside, just lying there, in all these woodchips.”
“I drank a lot.”
“I’ve seen you drink a lot. I’ve never seen anything like this.” She takes a breath. “You could barely move; it was like you lost control of your muscles. It was scary.” Another breath. “It was really fucking scary.”
“Why does the nurse—I mean, why does she think. . . . What’s with the tests?”
I want Dana to stop crying. I want her to shrug. Who knows. Who cares. It’s probably nothing. You were probably being an idiot. Wouldn’t be the first time. But she says, “Your clothes were all messed up. Like they’d been taken off and put back on really quick.”
“Okay,” I say. “But you know me. You know how I am.”
The nurse comes back in. She begins to speak, but I cut her off. “No, I’m sorry, but I don’t want the test.”
She opens her mouth again, but I close my eyes, shake my head. Conversation over. Discussion closed. She sighs but offers a weary smile. A disappointed, supportive parent. My resentment is tinged with the relief. Because maybe this way I get to decide. If the imagined salt on my tongue can be real, why does this have to be?
This is how I make myself train harder.
I imagine a van pulling up next to me, men jumping out, and I use what’s around—quick look, note tree branches—to fight back. Stabbing in the eye—simple. Stabbing through the windpipe—satisfying. Look for the tiny beat under the skin on the neck to locate the carotid. Applying pressure to the outside of the knee will ensure a dislocation, a clean break if you try hard enough. Only two pounds of force necessary to shove the nasal bone into the brain.
I imagine running through an alley, being confronted by a man with a knife, struggling, getting a slight advantage. Just the right pressure at just the right angle will snap a wrist like a pretzel. His hand drops the knife, mine picks it up, holds it against his throat, makes him smell fear. I could make the incision—it’d be so simple—but I don’t. Not in the throat anyway. I stab him in the shoulder and carve a heart on his wrist. This does not symbolize love.
I imagine being chained in a warehouse, one main male antagonist, a volley of unseen henchmen. There is a moment when I can goad my captor into getting close enough that I can wrap the chains connecting my wrists around his throat, when I can feel every ragged, desperate, pleading breath. When I can deny these pleas, pulling tighter until he loses consciousness. There are two guns. One I unload into him completely, barely noticing when the chamber clicks empty; one I use to navigate my way out.
It’s not about killing someone. It’s about knowing what it would be like to be in a position where I could.
“You’re not treated any differently here because you’re a girl.”
These words from my boss—delivered a couple weeks ago, the last time I had to have a meeting for being a distraction to my male coworkers—are what run through my mind as the one coworker I consider a friend paces, fuming, explaining the situation.
“So they think we’re having an affair,” I say.
“Yeah, they fucking do.” This is a big deal. He epitomizes conservative—married young, doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t swear.
He’s worked here for five years, he considers these people his friends. They consider him weak enough to chase a hot piece of ass he’s known for six months. Saying “it sucks” doesn’t really begin to cover it for him.
“No kidding,” he says. “I can’t imagine how much it sucks for you, though. To know that’s all anyone here cares about.”
It’s not his sex life the men of the office—my boss included—go out for drinks after work to discuss. It’s mine. The only reason he even appears is because the thought of him fucking me is much more tantalizing than the thought of him simply befriending me. This has been going on for weeks. I imagine that the stories they all come up with are much more provocative than the actual intimacies of my current relationship.
I wonder if my boss considers me a girl when he imagines me in bed. I wonder what it would take to be elevated to the status of a woman.
“Yeah,” I say. “It’s whatever.”
But later—every day that I’m there, every day that I’m not there, still for two years afterwards—all I can think about is how simple it would be for me to fire a round into that boss’s kneecap. How I would smile as he writhed on the ground beside me.
The hangover doesn’t hit until the afternoon, but I’ve felt like shit all day. Remembering how I threw it out there to the group of people I was with—“I was raped in college”—like it’s some sort of challenge, like it gives me some special status, when I don’t even know if it’s true, is so much more sickening than the remnants of last night still poisoning me. That I tried to fight a group of strangers later in the night doesn’t help. I’m not generally violent when I drink, but this isn’t the first time it’s happened. I know the aggression is there—sometimes it bubbles up, molten, acidic, into my brain, tingeing everything I see—but I refuse to piece together cause and effect. If I label myself the aggressor, the instigator, at least I get to maintain control.
“Can I ask you a personal question without you getting mad?”
“When’s the last time you had a boyfriend?”
“A month ago.”
“Oh. Shit. I’m sorry. Guess I look like an asshole now, huh.”
Yes. “No, it’s fine.”
“You want to ask me something personal?”
No. “Sure. Let me think about it.”
“You could come outside with me while I smoke and ask.”
“No. Let me think.” A beat. “Okay, I got it. If you had no ties to friend or family, could be completely selfish about your life, how do you picture yourself being happy?”
He takes the bait, tells me about his girlfriend, how she’s rich and he’s poor and he’s only with her for the kids. The personal deflects the sexual. Things are fine. Manageable. This is the point when I should just pay my tab and leave the bar, but I don’t. I have every right to be here alone, to watch a football game in peace. It’s the closest bar to my apartment, I don’t have cable, and I care about this game. Why should I have to leave? Guys watch games at bars by themselves all the time.
He keeps drinking. The bartender asks if I want another beer.
“No, I’m good.”
“Yeah, she wants one, put it on my tab.”
The bartender looks at me. Another man sitting next to us, pointedly disregarding the situation until now, looks at me. It feels like the whole bar is looking at me. I just want everyone to look away.
“You want one, miss?” the bartender asks.
No. “Yeah, why not.”
He keeps drinking.
“So why are you here all alone on Halloween?”
“Such a pretty girl like you, I bet lots of people want you around.”
My best guy friend responds to the quick text I’d sent him. I’d asked if he was free to come to the bar, he’d said no, and I’d said it was fine. Are you sure you’re okay? This guy sounds fucking psycho.
“You’re beautiful.” He touches my face. His hand is on my leg. “And the way you’re sitting like that, with your knee up to your chest. You look very flexible.”
The bar is right between my apartment and my best guy friend’s; I know if I say No, I’m not okay, please come sit here so this guy leaves me alone, he’ll find a way out of whatever he’s doing and show up. He’ll ditch out on his plans to come rescue me.
I respond: Yeah, I’m fine.
“You’re going to kiss me tonight.”
No, I’m not. “Yeah? Why’s that.”
“Because we may never see each other, so what’s there to lose?”
“I’m afraid it doesn’t quite work that way.”
I’m sitting on the furthest away edge of my seat. He’s moved forward so his legs are still touching mine.
“You will. You’ll kiss me.”
My phone vibrates: I’m actually worried.
I go to the bathroom. A few minutes later I hear the door open.
His words are slurring. “You okay in there?”
Not anymore. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Okay. I got your coat for you.”
In the bathroom mirror, the tougher version of myself is scowling back at me. Her fists are balled; she remembers how to fight.
What the fuck is wrong with you? she asks.
I respond: Seriously, don’t worry. I’m fine.
I leave the bathroom. He’s standing, holding my coat out to me.
“Can I walk you home?”
“Can I kiss you goodbye?”
“You going to at least give me your number?”
He pulls me to him and kisses my forehead.
I walk out the door when he goes out back to smoke, acutely aware that the alley he’s standing in runs behind my apartment building. I hold my keys between my fingers until I unlock the front door of my building. I jog up the stairs, go inside, forget to kick off my shoes, sit on my couch. I get up and go to bed when I realize I’m crying.
My parents’ anniversary isn’t only the date of their wedding; it’s the date their daughter calls them from her freshman dorm room after being driven home from the hospital.
“Do you want me to stay?” Dana asks.
“No. Thanks, though.”
“Do you want me to get Mike?”
My boyfriend. “No.”
Dana nods, leaves the room. I call, half hoping my parents won’t answer. Hoping that if I don’t tell them they’ll never know and none of it will be real.
“Hey, babe.” My mom’s nickname for me.
I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to speak, but I deliver the news far more clinically than my nurse.
“You have to know.”
“Babe, you have to. I’m sure you can still go back and have it done.”
“No, Mom, I’m serious, I can’t.” The lie comes easily. “I already showered.”
I want to believe that what I’m hearing from my dad is static, but I know it’s not. And how can I ask him not to cry?
The tape came out a month ago; women started coming forward almost immediately.
He can never win the presidency, that’s what we thought. There’s no way. The racism, sexism, xenophobia, overall bigotry—that was bad enough. This—a blatant sponsorship of sexual assault, of seeing women as a means to an end, discarding the concept of consent completely—can’t stand. He has to have lost support. He has to. We simply can’t live in a world where such a mindset, where such actions, can still be seen as acceptable.
I know this idealism airs on the fantastical side of optimism, but in this moment, I am so buoyed by the potential of this night, of finally electing a female president, that my mind can’t process the reality that the men I, we, deal with at college, at work, in bars—on the sidewalk, for fuck’s sake—might win out.
As the night goes on, as more and more votes are collected and states are colored red, this buoyancy is collapsed.
I drink the champagne I brought for celebrating to try and wash down the curdled mass I can only tepidly call injustice. It feels much more personal than injustice, much sharper to me, and at the moment it’s hard to allot my pain to an umbrella term, even though I know there’s another 20 percent of American women whom I imagine can only be feeling the same way.
I can’t voice this nausea. The seven other people in the room would listen, support, come together, but I can’t put myself there, can’t make my own wreckage a national issue, even though all it ever did was add to the national issue that came to exist long before America even became a nation. I wrap my foot against my best friend’s leg for the density of human contact, but I dig my fingernails into my skin because that contact is what I don’t want to admit that I need, no matter how precious he is to me. Contact is an oxidizing agent, tarnishing the pretense of control I give myself. The pretense of control half of us need to give ourselves if we plan on walking down the sidewalk without training.
She loses Pennsylvania.
“Holy shit,” someone says. “This is happening.”
The training is supposed to bring tranquility. It doesn’t. I take one-on-one lessons with Josh, and though I know his methodology is to push us to the edge, to push against that sliver of safety that prevents us from truly reacting but not so far that we can’t properly learn, I constantly try to go further.
I’m leaning against the wall, bent over just enough to cradle my ribs, trying not to show how badly his hit winded me. I should sit, take a moment, regroup.
Instead I say, “That’s really all you’ve got?”
I’m usually quicker—he has seventy pounds on me, and muscle or no, they slow him down—but I can barely breathe. He charges me and easily flips me over his shoulder then back onto the mat. For a moment, I’m completely dazed. He straddles my chest and boxes around my head, preventing me from using my arms if I don’t want a black eye. Every time I try to anchor my heel to flip him, he lazily kicks it away. His weight begins to crush my diaphragm, and panic creeps into my throat. And this is what I’m constantly seeking—the panic. The fear that mutates into anger, that excuses how badly I want to hurt him.
“Come on, focus. Where am I weak? Where do you have leverage?”
I don’t want this to help. I don’t want him to help. I want to strike out at random, crack a rib, draw blood; there is so much heat sweeping through my tensed muscles that it’s threatening to overwhelm me—and part of me wants it to. But the other part knows I have to stay in control to gain control. I pull my leg up, wrap it around his neck, jerk him down to the ground beside me. I have a clear path out. I don’t take it. I get in one solid shot to his ribs before he grabs my wrist and yanks me down beside him.
“Why?” He’s not as angry as he gets when I do this in front of a class, but it’s close. “Why won’t you just take the out?”
I don’t break eye contact, but I don’t respond either.
“Why do you always have to keep fighting?”
SAVANNAH BROOKS is a graduate student pursuing her MFA at Hamline University. When not editing, reading, or writing, she can be found at a dive bar, on her bike, or lounging at one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. She lives in the most beautiful literary capital: Saint Paul.