The classroom had a basket filled with peanut butter crackers and oatmeal cream pies. A coffeemaker held luke-cold coffee. The water basin was bright orange and only had water sometimes. The square room could have had desks for a standard classroom or, like that summer evening, be cleared out to create a giant space for the blue exercise mats laid all over the floor. I was there with my mother; a woman at her work had taken the self-defense class with her daughter and my mom, always looking for a way to spend time with me, suggested we do it.
There were four classes total and each one was taught by officers of the local police department. Each class was three hours long, once a week. The first class was strictly instructional; we watched cheesy and dated safety videos complete with women in teased bangs and shoulder pads screaming “No!” as any man approached them. I also got to see first-hand just how much my fellow Alabama residents love their guns. I mean, I already knew they did but I had no idea just how much. When the officer asked who in the room owned a gun, only 4 of the 20 participants didn’t raise their hands. Many of them had the guns in their purses. At the end of the course, there was an option for a gun range, but I skipped that day because my goal was to learn practical self-defense moves if I were ever to be attacked by a predator.
The class progressed slowly, beginning with standing moves—kicks and punches. The last two class periods, though they don’t say it explicitly, are clearly intended to help defend against sexual assault or rape. The moves on those days were optional, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to try them. I watched woman after woman go to the mat, lay on their back while a stranger (a male cop) straddled them and taught them how to get out of certain situations. I am not a modest person, or shy, but even I had to admit that the straddling would feel uncomfortable. Once I saw my mother take the mat to practice the moves, I decided I might as well make the most of it and give it a shot.
Having lain on my back, flat against the plastic-y, cushioned mat, I stared up at the ceiling. I listened to the instructions without looking at anyone. I agreed to learn a particular move when suddenly, a man with strong arms and dark hair tightened his thighs around my head. I looked right at him as he stared down at my face and gently put his hands around my neck.
What I saw then, instead of the fluorescent lights of the regional airport where the self-defense classes were taking place, was Steve’s room from over three years ago. It was dark, but there was a dull glow from a lamp on the bedside table that gave the room a maroon, seedy nightclub ambiance. Steve was above me; his hands were wrapped around my neck.
I had been sleeping and his violent grip jolted me awake. I went from scared to confused to scared again as he alternated between choking me and pushing my underwear down my legs. Once he was successful, he again put both hands around my neck, just tight enough so I couldn’t resist but not too tight that he risked cutting off my airway. He tried to force himself inside me. Without lube or my desire to have sex with him, his penis wasn’t going in, no matter how many times he tried.
He stared right into my eyes. It didn’t look like there were feelings in his. They looked dead. I tried to see myself in them. I wanted to know what I looked like, but I also tried to focus on anything other than what was happening. I felt pathetic. After the initial shock wore off, I had let it happen. I mean, I’d gone to bed with him earlier and had sex with him then. I guess he thought he had constant permission, so I just let him do what he wanted to do.
After only a few minutes, he gave up. It wasn’t working. He huffed and violently ripped himself off of me, grumbled some kind of comment my way to imply blame and then went to sleep.
I pulled my panties up and turned over on my side to face the wall. One tear streamed out of the corner of my eye to the bridge of my nose and just puddled there like the penultimate dramatic scene of a goddam, bad movie. Even though I thought about leaving, I didn’t. I was as still as I possibly could be but inadvertently let out a small sniffle a few minutes later.
He asked what the fuck was wrong with me, and I said nothing. The parameters of my relationship with Steve had been made clear by him from the beginning—nothing but sex.
Still, I pined for him. I envisioned a future with him. I’d faced a number of rejections and hated my body most of the time. All I had was hope that someone, even someone like him, would love me. He once asked if I liked it rough; he told me he had rape fantasies. One night we had sex on the floor and he balled up his fist and punched me in the vagina. He called me a whore once because I was wearing mascara.
He was the one that ended the relationship. When I remember that time, I feel more anger at myself than him, but I rarely let it enter my mind. I didn’t do everything I could to stop him, so I made myself forget that night.
It wasn’t until that police officer in the self-defense class had his legs closed in around my face and his hands circled my neck that I was back in Steve’s room, in that moment, with that tremendous feeling of disgust and failure. Not a victim, but also not a willing participant in a scumbag’s fantasy.
I whispered no, used my hips to thrust the officer off me and hurried off the mat. A lesson learned.