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.


All in Good Fun

When my husband gets home from work, he shakes. It’s usually from the four-mile bike ride and the trek up three flights of stairs—he’s a tiny thing, takes weight gainer shakes in the morning and at night to try to bulk up.

Tonight it was different. Tonight, he says, they taped me up to the wall.

It’s for a charity event. Last week, they paid to pie the managers. My husband chose the one who we joke has a crush on him. I saw the picture: cream pie all over, a crowd of people in green smocks and farmer’s tans laughing into the lens. This week, customers got in on it: one buck for one strip of tape. The more money, the more an employee gets stuck to the wall. All in good fun.

I’d heard this being done before. In high school, my physics teacher bet us that he could fly. He was one of those whiz-bang kinds of teachers, wearing safety goggles twice the size of his eyes, and always with the sneaky half-grin that meant he knew something elemental that we didn’t, but would. True to form, at the pep rally that Friday, there he was, duct taped just above eye level onto the gymnasium wall. When a cheerleader put the mike in his face, he said this was for his AP Physics class who’d said he couldn’t do it. That you could do anything if you just knew what the rules were. The cheerleader took away the mike as we cheered. And then they pied him.

My husband explained it like a business exchange: he’d pied the manager last week, so this week his manager was looking for any opportunity to get back at him. They needed to put someone up there and my husband was the lightest one. Blink twice and he’s a girl. The unspoken rule: if the manager asks if you want to volunteer, there’s no choice but to say yes.

The rules were simple: my husband got up on a stool and stood against the wall. They had made signs on poster board like cheerleaders advertising a car wash: $1, 1 STRIP OF TAPE—HELP US NAIL CANCER TO THE WALL! Once they had enough tape to keep him suspended, they’d take away the stool and leave him hanging. It was only a few feet off the ground. Nothing big. All in good fun.

There was supposed to be someone there at all times, making sure the customers played by the rule they couldn’t fit on the signs: no taping down his skin. I would think this would go without saying. If a band-aid hurts to take off, imagine how duct tape feels.

I had seen this before: I had seen him shaking, his eyes shiny. Some critter hearing a predator. He went out for country night at the only gay club in town. After an hour, he got bored and called me to pick him up and take him to the bar all my writer friends swore by. Some even d-jayed dance parties. I’d seen the pictures: bearded boys in plaid and skirted girls in polka dots, all seeming to sway together to some fine song.

I waited around the block with a book, but he was back in five minutes. He couldn’t get the car door open. I had to come around to him. They took my ID, he said. They took it and said this can’t be real. It’s too bendy, they said. They came right up to him and put their hands down his crotch and they said maybe if you ask real nice we’ll let you in. Maybe if you come behind the bar for a few and give us some cream pie. You know what that is, right boy? Take off that cowboy hat and blue jeans and maybe we’ll let you in. Those are the rules when there’s nobody looking.

Tonight, one lady tried to put the tape on his mouth. He told her no. She tried again. He yelled it. She tried again. Nobody else tried to stop her. Nobody was looking in that way that everybody was looking. He wriggled a barely free foot. That threat of violence made her put it on his sleeve instead.

When I told my writer friends what had happened, they said we must have been mistaken. Who was working at the door that night? What did he look like? That couldn’t have been our bouncer, they said. That must’ve been just some guy. He probably didn’t mean it. All in good fun.

Another guy ran his hand over my husband’s crotch three times before finally putting the tape over his stomach. My husband said the guy was trying to look enticing.

When we discussed rape culture in class a week after, they said women shouldn’t be treated like it’s an inquisition. They swore up and down about how terrible that was. I couldn’t say anything to them. The unspoken rule: when it’s a man, it’s not as important. Rape is always man on woman. It’s never any other way, and if it is, nobody’s looking.

I could’ve said something. I could’ve seen in his eyes that night the same look he had when the priest took him into the bedroom, when the stepfather leered over him; the same look he had tonight. I could’ve marched in there and screamed bloody murder. I could’ve done anything. I could’ve I could’ve I could’ve. But this isn’t about me.

When we go to bed tonight, exhausted with ourselves, his rule is always that I hold him. Tonight, I will reach for his hand first. He will find it and draw it over his skin and hold it there like a salve and I will let him do whatever he wants with me. Whatever he wants.